Monthly Archives: June 2012

“….but his tail was wagging!”

As a dog behavior consultant, I oftentimes work with families whose dogs have bitten people or other dogs. These families often feel hurt and betrayed by their dog’s actions. One of the most common bite scenarios I’m asked to interpret for confused and frightened families is one in which their beloved pet bit somebody unexpectedly, usually shortly after a family member witnessed him or her wagging their tail.

Photo by Sini Merikallio

A wagging tail is a universally recognized symbol of the friendly dog, so the fact that a dog could wag his tail and then bite somebody greatly concerns the dog’s owners. Is their dog unstable? How could his actions be so conflicted? Is there any hope for him now that he’s shown what an unbalanced dog he is?

This is one situation where a knowledge of canine body language becomes indispensible. I’ll let you in on a secret: wagging tails aren’t always friendly.

Think of a wagging tail as the doggy equivalent of a human smile, and you may start to see why dogs could wag their tails and still resort to using their teeth.

Human smiles are frequently meant to be signals of our friendly intent, but everybody can picture a scenario in which they may have smiled when they weren’t feeling relaxed and happy. Smiles are social signals, but they aren’t universally friendly. Sometimes people may smile because they’re nervous or uncomfortable. A very angry person may smile, but the smile won’t reach their eyes. Somebody may smile because they’re pleased about what’s happening, but you may not feel similarly happy about the state of events.

In the same way that smiles can convey many different emotions, so too can a dog’s wagging tail be related to a variety of moods. Dogs wag their tails in social contexts, but we need to look at the rest of their body language to evaluate why that tail is wagging. The worst bites I’ve ever received came from dogs whose bodies were stiff, with high, quickly wagging tails. Many nervous dogs will lower their tails and wag the tips quickly, but may bite when the person who frightens them turns away, as they finally develop the courage to let that person know how they feel when that person is no longer directly facing them. Dogs who stress up will wag their tails as they bounce around, but are not doing so because they feel happy.

In truth, the only thing that a wagging tail tells us is that a dog plans to interact with us in some way. That interaction may or may not be pleasant and affiliative, and only the rest of the dog’s body language can tell us what’s really going on. If a dog is wagging his tail in a big helicopter motion and shows relaxed body language with soft, squinty eyes, the chances that he wants to greet you and be petted are quite high. On the other hand, a dog who stares directly into your eyes with a lowered head, stiff body posture, and upright, quickly wagging tail is a dog who does not want to be approached, and is telling you as clearly as he can to keep your distance.

When it comes right down to it, it’s important to remember that dogs don’t speak English. They don’t have lawyers and can’t write letters to the editor when they feel upset. Dogs have a rich and complex language, with many subtleties and nuances that are lost on us. When a dog bites, he’s often told us in every way he could how upset he was, and been ignored. Sometimes a bite is the only way he has of letting us know what’s wrong. The more we can learn to listen to our dogs by watching their body language, the better we can live in harmony together.

Does your dog’s tail wag change based on how he’s feeling? What does it tell you about his emotional state? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“Calm submissive,” or stressed?

Photo by Sara Reusche

This dog may look like she’s calm at first since she’s holding very still, but a closer look shows us that Honey is very uncomfortable being handled by a stranger. Her ears are back, her body and face are tense, her tail is down, her whiskers are flared, and she’s whale eyed.

How would you handle a dog like this?

Evaluating Your Dog’s Stress Level

Earlier we wrote about stress in dogs and what sort of stressors may be present in a dog’s life. Today, let’s discuss how to evaluate your dog’s stress level.

Every dog is an individual, and as such will display signs of stress differently. Just as with people, some dogs will become quiet and withdrawn while stressed, while others become more active. These broad categories are known as stressing up or stressing down.

Photo by Allison Nichols

Dogs who stress down can sometimes be mistaken for well-behaved or relaxed dogs by owners who miss the warning signals of stress. These dogs will become quieter and more still as their stress level increases. Some may hide or tremble, but many simply stop moving. These dogs oftentimes show signs of their discomfort in their ear and tail set. They may push their ears down or back, and their tails may be low or tucked. They will oftentimes also show other signs of discomfort such as avoiding eye contact, sniffing the ground, turning away, licking their lips, or yawning.

Alternatively, some dogs will stress up, becoming more frenetic as a coping mechanism. These dogs are often mistaken for happy dogs as they are frequently quite bouncy, with high, quickly wagging tails. They may get the zoomies and run around at top speed, or may bounce off people or furniture. Some dogs will redirect their excess energy on “killing” their toys, pestering other dogs, or barking. Some may pace. While these dogs may appear happy at first glance, there is a frantic element to their movement that joyful dogs simply do not show. They oftentimes have dilated pupils and may shed excessively. They may also show other signs of stress such as scratching, shake offs, or lip licks.

Some dogs may stress both up and down, depending on the situation. These dogs may switch back and forth between these two states quickly, going from bouncing around to lying under a chair quite quickly.

Whether a dog stresses up or down, if he reaches a certain level of stress he may be likely to shut down. A shut down dog is a dog in a state of emergency. Dogs shut down when they can no longer cope, becoming quiet and still, with glazed eyes. They may seem disconnected and may not be able to respond to well-known commands. They will oftentimes refuse to eat even their favorite treats or play with favorite toys. When a dog shuts down he is no longer mentally present, but has rather withdrawn into himself. This is a very sad state to witness.

As your dog’s trainer and advocate, it’s important to learn how your dog expresses mild discomfort so that you can prevent him from reaching a more severe state of stress. Observational skills are critical here, as your dog’s body language will tell you how he’s feeling.

In future posts, we’ll discuss how to help your dog cope with stress and how to lower a chronically stressed dog’s anxiety levels. Does your dog stress up or down? What are some common signals that your dog gives you which allow you to evaluate his overall stress level? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

What Stresses Your Dog?

Earlier this week, we wrote about stress in dogs. Let’s discuss some of the most common stressors for dogs.

Photo by Marie Carter

First of all, remember that stress can be either good or bad. Our society tends to view stress as something to be avoided, however some stress is necessary for personal growth. Furthermore, stressors can provoke positive emotional reactions, even while causing strain on the limbic system. Stress in and of itself is not bad. It’s the amount of stress, and how our dogs cope with it, that we need to focus on.

Positive stressors are things that our dogs enjoy that nonetheless cause them to become overly aroused. We’ve written about the problems with overexcitement in exercise (and the myth that “crazy” dogs need more physical exercise) before, and this is one example of a time in which positive stressors can have a serious impact on your dog’s wellbeing.

Excessive, prolonged, chronic excitement (even if it’s happy excitement) is hard on your dog’s body. Winning the lottery, riding a rollercoaster, and attending your favorite rock band’s concert are all stressful events, albeit ones that provoke positive emotions. Just as our bodies aren’t designed to deal with these heightened levels of excitement on a daily basis, neither are our dogs designed to deal with things that get them overly aroused every day.

Negative stressors are things that cause a physical reaction while provoking negative emotions, such as fear, defensiveness, or anxiety. These vary for every dog, but may include thunderstorms, separation from you, vet visits, small children, sirens, the use of punishment in training, or life with a grumpy housemate (of any species).

These events can stack up to create a heightened stress state in some dogs. While your dog may only be mildly worried by fireworks, large crowds, strangers, having his feet touched, and guarding his bone, he may show a severe reaction if a strange person touches his feet during your party while he’s chewing on a bone and fireworks are going off. Our systems can only handle so much.

So, what stresses your dog? How can you tell when your dog is starting to feel stressed, and what do you do to help him or her feel better? Next week we’ll talk about how to help a stressed dog and how to lower your dog’s overall stress level. We look forward to hearing from you!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Sparktography

Many attention problems that people bring their dogs to me to fix are about the handler putting too much pressure on the dog to learn things according to an arbitrary training agenda

- Leslie McDevitt

Stress in Dogs: a Basic Introduction

Stress is a major topic in dog training, but one that is often highly misunderstood. Extreme stress can make learning difficult or even impossible, and can have seriously detrimental effects on the body. Alternatively, without some stress, growth and personal improvement is impossible. A wise trainer pays attention to his or her dog’s stress level and adjusts the environment, demands on the dog, and expectations appropriately.

Photo by Neal Fowler

For the purpose of our discussion, let’s start by defining what stress is. Stress refers to any internal or external factor that disrupts homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of balance or equilibrium that all organisms (including dogs and people) strive to maintain. Stress causes physical changes to the heart rate, respiration, and blood levels of certain hormones. It also causes emotional reactions.

Stress can be good or bad. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on produce two very different emotional states, but actually cause the same physiological reaction. When a stressful event such as these happens, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. Your heart rate and respiration increase. Your pituitary and adrenal glands kick in, releasing a bath of hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine into your bloodstream.

Mild stressors, both positive and negative, can be incredibly helpful in training. In fact, the act of training itself is mildly stressful for dogs. Reward-based training methods promote positive stress (also known as “eustress”), which encourages betterment of oneself. Without stress, there can be no growth or learning.

That said, chronic or severe stressors are a major concern with our dogs.

We know that chronic stress takes a significant toll on our bodies. Study after study in both dogs and people has shown just how dangerous this is to our wellbeing. Anxious or reactive dogs in our behavior practice are more than twice as likely to have chronic health issues such as allergies or gastrointestinal issues than those in our obedience or sport training programs. Chronic stress can hasten the aging process, delay wound healing, contribute to depression or anxiety, decrease cognitive function, and increase the risk of illness from bacteria or viruses.

While less dangerous than prolonged chronic stress, severe stressors, also known as acute stressors, are also a concern. Highly stressful events cause observable changes within our dogs’ bodies in moments. While some resolve quickly, many of these changes last about 3 days, and may last longer for some individuals. This is because stress hormones don’t just disappear once the stressful event is over. After a stressful event, a dog may become more quiet and subdued or may be more agitated and restless.

Later on, we’ll discuss the various reactions dogs may have to stress, ways to recognize and reduce chronic stress, and how to teach your dog coping strategies. In the meantime, what questions would you like answered about stress in dogs? How do you recognize and modulate your own dog’s stress levels? Please comment below!

K9 Nose Work

K9 Nose Work is a sport that was designed by Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt, and Jill Marie O’Brien. With over 50 years of detection work between the three, their focus was on designing a fun, inclusive activity that allowed a wide variety of dogs to use their instinctive abilities. This sport borrows from the activities of explosive, drug, or cadaver detection, allowing the dogs to experience the enjoyable sniffing part of these activities without the liability or risk of real detection or SAR (search and rescue) work.

Photo by bermudi on flickr

A wide variety of dogs attended our Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar, and watching the different dogs work was the highlight of my weekend. K9 Nose Work is open to all dogs: shy dogs, old dogs, three-legged dogs, reactive dogs, high-drive dogs, deaf or blind dogs, hyper dogs, distractible dogs, anxious dogs, and regular everyday dogs. Any dog who is crate trained can participate, and every dog who participated in our workshop loved it! Timid dogs gained confidence throughout the day, and distractible dogs became more focused as they learned the game.

It was amazing to see how tired and happy the dogs were at the end of the day. Even though the dogs didn’t work for very long at once, they were exhausted! The combination of physical and mental exercise contributed to satisfy the dogs’ exercise needs, but I think that this alone doesn’t explain how very tired many of the dogs were. Rather, fulfilling their instinctive need to use their noses scratched a much deeper itch and wore them out in the same way that a long day of working tricky behavior consults wears me out. The dogs weren’t merely tired: they were fulfilled. They had successfully done something they enjoyed, and this promoted satisfaction at a deeper level than a mere game of fetch or walk around the block.

K9 Nose Work introduces dogs to the search game by having them search for a favorite toy or treat. This reward is hidden in a box in the search area, and the dog must find the target box among a variety of other boxes or items to get their reward. As the dogs gain proficiency at searching, more challenging puzzles are presented to them. The owner takes a very passive role at this time, allowing the dog to use their natural problem-solving abilities and gain in confidence and independence.

That’s not to say that the handler is unimportant, though. Rather, the dog learns to work as a team with his handler. Once he finds his target object, he communicates to the handler where it is in order to receive his reward. Handlers also learn to work as a team with their dog. Each dog has a distinct search behavior, and learning to read your individual dog’s changes in breathing, tail set, speed, or ear orientation is incredibly important if you are to be a good team mate to your dog.

Dogs eventually learn to search for their target scent in a variety of contexts. Competition involve four separate search elements, with a different target odor (100% essential oil placed on half a cotton swab) introduced at each level. The container search requires the dog to find the target odor in one of twenty identical containers (cardboard boxes, clean/empty paint cans, suitcases, etc). The interior building search requires the dog to work in an indoor area (such as a science classroom or office building), and the exterior search presents the target odor somewhere in an outdoor location. Finally, the car search requires the dog to find the target odor somewhere on the exterior of a vehicle (multiple vehicles are included, and only one has the target odor). Dogs solve complex problems, such as scents placed underneath or on top of objects or hidden inside novel containers.

Want to learn more about K9 Nose Work? Check out the NACSW website! We are also looking forward to holding nose game classes in the Rochester, MN area based on the information we learned this weekend. The dogs approve!