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Good Dog: Studies & Research
Hormonal Influences on Canine Aggression
Vasopressin and Oxytocin Affect this Behavior

Many hormones influence canine aggression, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Arizona titled, “Endogenous Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Aggression in Domestic Dogs”. This is no surprise given that the hormones testosterone and serotonin have a huge influence on aggressive behavior, but this study provides evidence that high vasopressin levels are associated with aggression, and that high levels of oxytocin are associated with the absence of aggression in dogs. Previous work has shown that oxytocin levels in dogs are elevated by positive interactions with people. (In humans, oxytocin is important in both childbirth and in breastfeeding, and is also known to facilitate social bonding. Vasopressin is also influential in people, with previous research indicating that people with long standing aggression problems have high levels of this hormone.)

Dogs with a history of behaving aggressively to other dogs were recruited for this study, and for every dog recruited, a non-aggressive dog of the same age, sex and breed was also recruited. In one experiment, dogs were on leash and exposed to a recorded sound of a barking dog behind a curtain. then the curtain was pulled back, revealing a realistic dog model with a person. Dogs were also tested with videos showing dogs exhibiting various non-aggressive behaviors. (In control trials, they were also exposed to random sound effects everyday objects such as a box or a yoga ball. No dogs reacted with aggression to these objects.)

In all trials, the dogs’ hormone levels were recorded before and after the exposure to what was behind the curtain. Many of the aggressive dogs did react to the model dog with barking, lunging and growling, but there were almost no reactions to the controls or the videos. The dogs who reacted aggressively had higher levels of vasopressin than dogs who did not react, but no differences in their oxytocin levels were found.

Another experiment in this study compared hormone levels of dogs in an assistance guide dog training program  to those of the pet dogs in the study. Researchers found that these assistance dogs had higher levels of oxytocin than pet dogs, but did not find differences in vasopressin levels between these two groups of dogs.

The assistance dogs are from a population of dogs who have been bred for over 40 years for traits such as friendliness, calm temperaments and the lack of aggressive behavior. At the physiological level, they showed a difference in oxytocin levels when compared to pet dogs, suggesting that the selective breeding of these dogs may have been acting on oxytocin levels, and that changes in the levels of that hormone may also influence the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

There is a never ending quest for ways to help dogs overcome aggressive behavior. This study indicates that there may be value in pursuing treatments based on targeting both vasopressin and oxytocin.

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog: Sherman

Dog's name and age: Sherman, 18 years old

Adoption Story: Sherman came into our lives as a "therapy" puppy; I had recently lost my younger sister and he provided an enornmous amount of unconditional love. He was our first pet as a newly married couple and gave us so much love for 18 years. As a young pug, Sherman loved to play with toys and was always the perfect companion. He went everywhere with us and truly was our "kid"!

This picture was taken last year (2016), one week before he peacefully passed away at home. Sherman was truly a gift and holds a big part of our hearts. As he grew older, he was definitely a Southern gentlemen who loved everyone and everyone loved him!

News: Editors
Art or Abuse?
Art works cited as cruel pulled from Guggenheim Museum show

The recent controversy involving the Guggenheim Museum’s decision to pull three art works from an upcoming exhibition has the art world and animal rights advocates abuzz. The art pieces in question were scheduled to appear as part of a much anticipated exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” slated to open October 6. The three works are intended to symbolize oppression in China. One 7-minute video titled “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, shows four pairs of Pitbull dogs on non-motorized treadmills, struggling to make contact and seemingly fight. Another video, “A Case Study of Transference,” shows two pigs mating in front of an audience. The third work removed is an installation, “Theater of the World,” which features hundreds of live lizards, snakes, crickets and other insects and reptiles on display under an overhead lamp. Protesters in favor of removing the works ranged from the ASPCA to PETA and the AKC, plus a host of vocal animal rights activists. An online petition demanding the museum remove the works garnered more than 600,000 signatures over five days, contending that the three works depict animal cruelty.

An initial response to the protests drew this comment from the museum: “Reflecting the artistic and political context of its time and place, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control,” the Guggenheim said in a statement. “We recognize that the work may be upsetting. The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.”

This week the museum relented to pressure and withdrew the controversial works, citing “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists.” They now face criticism from the art community for bowing to public pressure in dictating what is acceptable art and what is not. This dilemma challenges those, like myself, who are both staunch supporters of artistic expression and advocates for animal rights. I have not seen the video featuring the dogs but the written description is sufficient to sicken me at the act of subjecting the animals to unnecessary violence, stress and harm. There is no intellectual argument for allowing this that I can accept. For now, knowing that it is wrong will have to suffice.

Others, such as Sarah Cohen, an art historian at the University at Albany whose research examines the artistic representations of animals, have wisely articulated the reasoning behind the emotions. She cited a perceived failing by the museum curators thus:

The curators themselves do not appear to have considered very deeply the problem of humans forcing certain behaviors in animals,” she said in an email. “Nor did they apparently stop to consider that using pigs as performers to ‘inform’ human spectators about their cultural hangups is a shopworn strategy—as old as dancing bears and the circus.”

“In my opinion,” she added, “the exploitation of animals to make artistic points is, well, bad art.”

News: Guest Posts
Adopt-A-Pet Helps Owners Rehome Pets

When I ran a German Shepherd rescue more than 15 years ago, one of the biggest challenges was emotional blackmail. A dog owner would call me out of desperation or exasperation or they were just done. If I didn’t take the dog right now, he’d end up in the shelter or worse.

Social media didn’t yet exist and online pet adoption websites were brand new. Early on, I felt my only option was to take the dog. The longer I did rescue, I was less inclined to do so. I finally had the experience to know the rescue didn’t have the money or the foster home for it. Squeezing in another dog would affect our ability to care for and advertise the dogs we already had. But it was a horrible feeling, knowing that the owner had come to us as a last resort and we couldn’t offer another option other than the shelter.

Finally, there is a humane alternative: Adopt-A-Pet.com, a nonprofit pet adoption website, just introduced a new, free service for owners who need to rehome their pets. The owner creates an online pet profile that will be viewed by the public. Adopt-A-Pet then guides the owner through a screening process that includes adoption applications, meet and greets, and an adoption contract. The adoption fee can be submitted online and go to the rescue or shelter of the owner’s choice. 

This idea is so brilliant it’s a wonder no one thought of it sooner. Perhaps the only negative is that pet owners who don’t care who gets their pet – they just want him out of the house as soon as possible – will not take the time to create an online profile. It was always heartbreaking when an owner would call me and when I asked for a photo, they said they didn’t have any. Clearly, the dog was going to be better off without them.

My hope is that services such as Adopt-A-Pet’s new rehome program will help pet owners take steps well before desperation sets in.

For more info, go to: rehome.adoptapet.com

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Pays for Treats
She was taught to trade money for food

Dogs want food treats so much that they will generally do whatever it takes to get us to hand them over. Different dogs learn different strategies to accomplish this same goal. Some dogs learn to sit, other dogs figure out that making their cutest wide-eyed face works best and there are dogs who have been taught that begging at the table is effective.

One dog named Holly learned that the best way to get treats is to pay for them. As a puppy, she loved to take things from bags or purses in the house, and that included dollar bills. Rather than chase her around or try to wrestle her new treasures away from her, her guardians wisely opted to make trades. Holly would surrender the money to receive a treat. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out that if she had money, she could use it to “buy” treats. In dog training parlance, she had been reinforced (with treats) for having money in her mouth and letting her guardians take it away, so she began to do it more often.

In fact, she learned to search for money so that she could trade it for treats. Her guardians can tell her to go get a dollar if she wants a treat, and Holly will go find one. This family finds it amusing and allows her to have a stash of cash that she can use to “buy” treats. When she runs out, they replenish her supply. (She will often bring a dollar without being asked and put it on one of their laps to let them know she wants to exchange it for a treat.)

When it comes to getting treats, dogs do what works for them. As trainers and guardians, we can use that to our advantage by making a behavior that we like be one that works for them. So, if you want your dog to drop things, make that a strategy that will result in treats for them.

It is possible for this to go awry if what your dog learns to drop for treats is something you don’t want him to have in the first place such as your phone or your glasses case. It’s more fun (and less irksome) if you can teach your dog to drop things you want him to bring to you, such as the newspaper or your slippers. If there is something your dog is always taking that you would prefer not be in his mouth, make it inaccessible while you encourage him to take something else instead. Once he has established a new habit of bringing you the “right” objects, he will be more likely to leave those other things alone.

Has your dog learned that certain objects can be traded for treats?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Another Reason for Gratitude to Dogs
It’s easier to give medicine to them than to cats

I’m quite fond of cats, though dogs top my list of true loves. I recently had a reminder about one quality I prefer about dogs: It is so much easier to give them their medicine. The typical dog doesn’t care for the taste, but there are plenty of workarounds. Cheese, peanut butter, steak, chicken and just about any other tasty food can be wrapped around the pill.

The result, for a large number of dogs, is that you can easily pop a pill in a dog’s mouth. Due to canine enthusiasm for the delicious smell of the tasty wrapping, it is likely to be swallowed. In fact, it seems that a typical dog’s thought process goes something like this:

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, that smells so yummy! I hope I get to eat it, I hope, I hope, I hope! Yay, it’s coming towards me, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. [chomp] Hmm, that was mostly good, but it tasted a little funny at the end.” Then, the next day, with the same delicious presentation, the same internal dialogue may as well happen again, because most dogs will once again become excited about the cheese, steak or chicken wrapped around a pill, eat it again, perhaps notice a funny taste, and basically not care at all after that moment.

A few dogs will be hesitant about that particular food in the future or even reject it outright, but it’s not that common. To minimize the chances of having a problem, it is wise to give dogs these special foods without the pill sometimes so that they do not develop a distrust of them. Many dogs never have such issues anyway, but pill-free treats provide some extra insurance.

A large percentage of cats, on the other hand, tend to take more of a, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” approach to being fed a pill wrapped in tuna, chicken or in another delicious food treat. Sure, you may be able to trick a cat into downing the pill one time, but good luck ever doing it again with any treat even remotely similarly to what you used.

During a recent cat-sitting stint for my neighbor, I needed to give each of her two cats medicine every day. The instructions said to put their medication, which was powdered, into their food. To be certain that each cat received a full does of the medicine and did not get any of the other cat’s share, I needed to stay and watch them eat. That usually took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. One day, neither cat would touch the food at all, possibly because they did not enjoy the previous night’s dinner. At breakfast, they were even hesitant to eat the medicine-free food unless it was different in flavor than what had been served at any meal with the medicine. Salmon cat food as well as tuna fish (high quality feline cuisine!) were happily eaten until they had been used to serve up the medication, after which point they were avoided. Pill pockets, which are so useful with dogs who object to taking their medicine, were not successful, although they do work for some cats.

Meanwhile, in the hour or so I spent each evening with these sweet cats, I could probably have dosed dozens of dogs with whatever medication they required just by wrapping the medicine in anything I happened to have on hand. The point of reporting this is not to pick on the marvelous creatures we call cats. My purpose is simply to add to the never ending list of reasons to be grateful for dogs.

What has made you grateful to your dog lately?

News: Guest Posts
Rant Related to Elderly Off-Leash Dog
It’s hard to understand why anyone objected

We have leash laws, and I understand the value of them. Leashes control some of life’s chaos and protect people (and other dogs!) from out-of-control dogs. For those who fear dogs, having them leashed eases many anxieties, and leashes have certainly saved many dogs from injuries. So, please understand that I support leash laws and wish more people complied with them. I also wish that many communities had more places where dogs could be off leash, but that’s a rant for another time.

Today’s rant is about someone screaming at a person in my neighborhood for having his dog off leash. I thought it was an odd battle to choose because this dog is so geriatric and moves so slowly that as you drive by, you can barely tell that the dog is out for a walk. You could just as easily mistake him for a dog waiting at a bus stop. Really.

I see this dog out fairly regularly, because his guardian takes him out daily for a walk, and their schedule often coincides with my drive to school to drop off my kids. The dog travels, on his own four paws, down the block and then returns home, but he is barely moving. The walk is so slow that I sometimes see the dog soon after I leave my house and again 20 minutes later when I return, though the dog’s journey could be covered by a younger dog in two minutes. The guardian shuffles along with him, continuing their 16-year tradition of enjoying the great outdoors together.

Yes, this dog did not have a leash, and yes, I realize that is technically a violation of our local ordinance. Still, I cannot imagine why anyone would be so upset that it would be worth making a fuss about this dog. He is in the latter stages of his golden years and shuffling along the sidewalk, bothering nobody at all and posing no threat to anyone. Yet, someone did make a fuss. A man came up to the guardian, yelling about our leash laws and threatening to call the police. He demanded that the guardian put his dog on leash immediately or that “he would be very sorry.”

I did not witness this firsthand, but heard about it when I commented to a neighbor that I was surprised to see this man was suddenly walking his dog on leash. It seemed so unnecessary after seeing him walk his dog without one for the last year or so. It makes me sad to know that this man was criticized so harshly. Luckily, I don’t think the dog minds the leash, and I’m pleased to see that the guardian has chosen to use the thinnest, lightest leash I have ever seen used on a 50-ish pound dog, and that the leash has a super light clip. I suspect it’s actually a cat leash.

I see plenty of loose dogs who should really be on leash because it adds to the comfort and safety of everyone around the dog. This dog just isn’t one of them. Being on a leash makes absolutely zero difference in his behavior. He is just as old and slow and harmless as ever. In my opinion, all that has changed is that the guardian has been made to feel rotten for no useful reason.

It’s easy to object to my distress on the grounds that the guardian of the dog was violating the law. It’s still hard to imagine what motivates someone to complain about such an extremely old and hobbled dog going on a walk without a leash.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Joy of New Lessons
Some dogs prefer recently acquired skills

“The new action is always her favorite!” one of my clients told me. And it’s true—whenever Stella is taught something new, she’s so excited about it.

Stella knows a lot of skills already—sit, down, stay, wait, come, heel, touch, take it, leave it. She needs those skills because she is a service-dog-in-training. Most of these skills she knows really well and can do even in hectic situations. That’s important, because at times, she has lived in a house with up to nine people ranging in age from 6 months old to upwards of 90 years, two other dogs and four cats. Not every dog can hold a stay when a three-year old is running around, cats are zipping by her, and a few adults are talking at the same time in order to work out the day’s complicated logistics, but Stella can!

During the course of her training, Stella has also learned some tricks such as bow, crawl and sit pretty—and it’s about the cutest sit pretty you will ever see. She modified it on her own to grasp her handler’s hand. It always looks to me like she is praying reverently.

One of the reasons Stella has learned these tricks is that she loves to learn new things, so we’ve introduced them along the way. In some training visits to her home, we work on something new just because it makes her happy. She likes to work and enjoys all of her training exercises, but whatever she has learned most recently provides her with a little extra joy.

It’s not clear why that is, but there are a number of possibilities. Some dogs enjoy the puzzle of figuring out what they are supposed to do. Some dogs become bored of any routine and get very excited when something unexpected is happening. Others seem to relish learning something new because of the satisfaction of getting it right. Other dogs love the new trick because many trainers use the best food or especially high rates of reinforcement with new skills to help dogs learn them faster.

Does your dog get excited about learning a new trick or other skill?

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog: Peanut

Dog's name and age: Peanut, 14 years old

About Peanut:

Peanut now well into her senior years has degenerative myelopathy, so her back legs don't work so well anymore. The vet initially thought she might not be the type of dog to take to a doggie wheel chair, but I had faith in Peanut and decided to try. After a few false starts, she got rolling and began taking short walks around the neighborhood.

People driving by often slow their cars down to watch and cheer her on! Peanut is quite happy to take in all of the sniffs and smells through the walk. Sometimes we still visit Peanut's favorite park in the East Bay hills, where this photo was taken. Peanut enjoys a double happy bonus, because she always gets a treat once she's out of her wheels and back indoors. I've learned old dogs really can learn new tricks, and am grateful and inspired by each walk and every day we get to spend together.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An Elderly Man and His Dog
My favorite sight in Mérida, Spain

Mérida, Spain is famous for its World Heritage Site—an extensive set of archaeological ruins that include a well-preserved 2000-year old Roman theater. One might expect that it is these ancient treasures that my memory would lock onto most fiercely, but that is not the case. The lasting mental image I took away from my visit to this beautiful city was that of an elderly man sitting on a park bench with his dog lying next to him. Happily, I thought to take a photograph so that I also have a permanent digital image to go along with my memory.

There is simply nothing more endearing than the companionship of a person and a dog, and I find that especially true of the elderly of either species. When I see an old dog accompanied by an unhurried and endlessly patient person, my heart swells. I have the same response when a kind and gentle dog shares a peaceful moment with an older human.

It is especially inspiring to see people and dogs spending time together when they take a leisurely approach to enjoying life that allows a full appreciation of each moment. This man and his dog seem completely content to sit outside together taking in their surroundings. I do not know this man’s story, but I like to imagine that he, like many people, considers all to be right with the world as long as he has his dog for company.

There is no doubt that I will remember this man and his dog long after my memories of the extraordinary Roman relics in Mérida have faded away.

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