Category Archives: Behavior Modification

Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

Imagine, if you would, that I handed you a great big slice of cake. Let’s pretend that it’s your favorite kind of cake, and it’s homemade with a big scoop of ice cream on the side. You smell the sweet scent of the gooey dessert, and eagerly pick up your fork to take a great big bite. Just as you’re lifting your fork to your mouth, taste buds tingling in anticipation, I grab your fork from you and take that bite myself.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re a kinder, more patient person than I am. Assuming that, I’m going to guess that while you’re annoyed with me for grabbing your fork, you’re not going to knock me out over a single bite of cake (even though it is your favorite kind). I’ll hand your fork back, and you’ll go to take another bite. As you do so, I’m going to stick my hand onto your plate and start smearing your cake around. How would you react? Are you getting more annoyed? How much would you put up with before you physically removed me from your plate before you tried to eat?

Photo by Esteban

Photo by Esteban

It’s understandable that you would be annoyed with me if I kept messing with your food. Putting my hand in your dish and taking your food away from you as you tried to eat would be an indescribably rude behavior on my part. In fact, it’s so rude as to be nearly unimaginable in our society. So why do we do this to our dogs?

There’s a myth out there that we should play with our dogs’ food to teach them tolerance while they’re eating. Like most myths, it’s got a kernel of truth at its center. Guarding is a normal, natural behavior in most dogs, and if they’re not taught to share while they’re young they may become aggressive over resources like food, toys, or bones when they hit adulthood.

It’s easier to prevent guarding than to treat it. But messing about in your dog’s dish while he’s eating is not the way to go about it. In fact, it could make things worse. After all, it’s generally a bad idea to expect your dog to be more tolerant and peaceable about intrusions into his personal space than you would be. Dogs are pretty cool, but they’re still animals, and we don’t live in a Disney movie.

So, how can you prevent guarding in your dog if messing with his food bowl is off-limits? Simple. Just convince him that it’s worth his while for you to muck about with his stuff.

Doing so is so simple that it takes mere seconds at every meal. Just feed your dog as usual. Wait for him to begin eating. Then approach his bowl and toss something better than his dog food in. I use small cubes of cheese or chicken, but you could use anything your dog especially likes. It just has to be something that your dog prefers to his regular food.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, and repeat on a regular basis, and your dog will be absolutely thrilled to have you approach his food bowl. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to do, your dog will begin anticipating your arrival, since it always predicts something good. You’ll see this shift in his attitude reflected in his body language. Instead of eyeing you out of the corner of his eye, stiffening up, or gulping his food down more quickly, your dog will start to wiggle as soon as he sees you approach. He’ll back away from his dish eagerly, excited to see what wonderful gift you’ve brought this time. He’ll be so busy feeling happy that you’re approaching his food that guarding will never even cross his mind.

Of course, if your dog already guards his food, use your own judgment about the safety of this exercise. Generally it’s best to work with a skilled professional if your dog has ever stiffened up, growled, snapped, or bit when he was guarding something.

However, if your dog has not yet started guarding, now is the time to begin these exercises. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a few moments a week of food-bowl exercises such as this can prevent a great deal of problems later on. Do this exercise with new puppies as soon as they can eat solid food. Do it with your adult dog. Do it with foster dogs and shelter dogs. Do it with any dog who doesn’t yet guard, and you can prevent a lot of dogs from ever guarding at all.

Once your dog’s a rock star at this exercise with his food bowl, consider other situations in which you could do the same thing. Practice approaching your dog while he’s playing with his toys, chewing on his Nylabone, or eating a rawhide or bully stick. Each time, make sure that your approach heralds the arrival of a treat that’s much more delicious than what he had to start with. Soon your dog will be happy about you approaching him no matter what’s in his mouth.

Messing about with your dog’s food bowl is every bit as rude as sticking your hand in your spouse’s plate while you’re both eating supper. Let’s get rid of this harmful myth once and for all, and focus instead on teaching our dogs that we are trustworthy, kind, and respectful housemates. Next time your dog is eating, leave him to it in privacy unless you have positive intentions. Next time you’re eating cake, I promise I’ll do the same. It’s only polite.

When Jumping isn’t Friendly

In our last blog, we discussed how to deal with dogs who jump up in a friendly manner. Most dogs who jump up on people do so out of excitement or greeting. However, there are also other reasons why dogs may jump, and it’s helpful to be able to discriminate between friendly jumping and these other reasons. Let’s discuss some less common reasons that dogs may jump up on people.

While jumping is generally friendly, some dogs will also jump on people as a way to communicate. The character of this behavior is very different. Communication can have a couple different goals. Sometimes, dogs will jump as a way to communicate their discomfort with your proximity. Other times, dogs will jump up to ask you for help. So, how can you tell the difference between friendly jumping and jumping as communication? It’s all about context.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away. Photo by Brian Thompson.

Distance-increasing jumping, also sometimes referred to as height seeking, is displayed when a dog is uncomfortable with you and wants you to give her space. This may initially appear friendly or may seem frantic, but ultimately it’s important to respect the dog’s discomfort and move away (or move the dog away from the other person if you’re her owner). Dogs who jump in this way may be more forceful in the way they bounce off your body than a dog who simply wants to be stroked or greeted. They will have a closed mouth and tight face. If you attempt to pet a dog who is jumping up in a distance-increasing manner, she may jump even more forcefully, perhaps even punching you with her muzzle, or may skitter away so that you can’t touch her.

Distance-increasing jumping is usually a sign of a dog who feels anxious or conflicted about your presence. Layla is a great example of a dog who jumps in this manner. While she enjoys meeting people, she does not like to be touched, and is often very anxious that new people will try to pet her. When she meets someone new, she will stress up, bouncing around with a high, quickly wagging tail. Her pupils dilate, and if the person attempts to pet her she will bounce off their belly forcefully (we jokingly call this the “double-ovary punch,” but it’s no joke to the person who’s on the receiving end of her punches).

If your dog jumps in a distance-increasing manner, it’s a clear plea for help. Jumping in this way means that your dog isn’t comfortable in the social situation she’s found herself in and needs your help getting out of that situation. In Layla’s case, I keep her on a leash or behind a gate when first introducing her to new people. Once she’s calmed down I allow her more freedom, but not until after instructing the new person not to pet her unless she requests that attention by sitting or lying down next to them and leaning in. Layla usually prefers to sniff new people with a low, softly wagging tail while they ignore her or verbally acknowledge her without trying to touch her in any way. After meeting them, she will relax and lie near them. Knowing that I will not let strangers touch her has gone a long way towards relieving Layla’s social anxiety and preventing her from bouncing off new people.

Other than distance-increasing jumping, some dogs will also jump up to ask their owner or another person they trust for help. This is most frequently seen at the dog park, vet clinic, or other unfamiliar social situations. If your dog jumps up on you in these situations and either paws at you, tries to climb your body to get in your arms, or stretches upwards and keeps their paws on your body while looking at your face, they are probably asking for help.

If your dog jumps on you to ask for help in a situation that makes him uncomfortable, it’s important to respond proactively to him. Ignoring his pleas for help will teach him that you are unreliable in those situations and that he has to take matters into his own paws, which often results in a dog who lunges, growls, snaps, or bites in situations that make him uncomfortable. Remember, dogs don’t just “get over” issues, and exposure alone is not the same as socialization. If you teach your dog that you will help him get out of uncomfortable situations he will be more likely to look to you for guidance in the future. Be a trustworthy presence in your dog’s life.

While less common than friendly jumping, height-seeking and pleas for help are both legitimate reasons for dogs to jump on people. Understanding your dog’s attempt at communication is one of the best ways to get control of this jumping, as training alone likely won’t resolve these kinds of jumping unless the underlying emotional insecurity is addressed at the same time.

Why does your dog jump up? Please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.

“Needs Training”

The phrase is everywhere. It’s in adoptable pet bios on Petfinder: “Great with kids but doesn’t like to share his food, so he needs an owner who will take him to training classes.” It’s in newspaper ads: “10-month-old purebred needs new home with room to run. I don’t have the time to train him.” It’s in my email inbox: “What training class should we take to make our dog stop growling at our toddler?”

We see the phrase “needs training” everywhere, and you may be surprised to learn that it makes my skin crawl. There seems to be a widely-held belief that with a little obedience training, most behavioral issues will cease to exist. Sadly, this is not the case.

This dog doesn't need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

This dog doesn’t need training. He needs quality management and behavior modification ASAP. Photo by claradon on flickr.

Trying to solve behavioral concerns with basic training misses a very important point: behavior modification and obedience training are not the same thing. While it’s true that basic manners training can help to manage and control some behavioral problems, it often doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Basic obedience training is important for all dogs, including those with behavior problems, but it’s not a magic cure-all, and treating it as such does a disservice to the dogs and people who are left dealing with a larger issue that hasn’t been addressed.

So, what’s the difference? Training teaches behaviors. Training will solve problems that result from a lack of understanding. If your friendly dog jumps up on people in greeting, teaching her to sit when people approach will solve that problem. In that case, your dog just didn’t understand that putting her butt on the ground was the best way to meet people. In the same vein, if your dog pulls on the leash, teaching him to walk nicely by your side will solve your leash pulling issues. Your dog just needs to learn that walking next to you is the fastest way of getting where he wants to go. In both cases, training solves the problem by explaining to your dog which behaviors are the most effective at getting what he or she wants.

Sometimes, however, problem behaviors are not simply caused by a lack of understanding. If your dog’s behavior problem is driven by emotions, then behavior modification is needed. Behavior modification changes the emotional response your dog has to a trigger. If, for example, your dog jumps up on people in a forceful way, then squirrels to the side when they try to pet her, simple training will not fix her jumping problem. Because the jumping is driven by an underlying discomfort with people in her space, the jumping is simply a symptom of her anxiety. Until the anxiety is addressed, the jumping (which in this case is a distance-increasing behavior) will continue, because your dog is very worried about the people. Similarly, if your dog lunges and barks at other dogs on leash due to fear, aggression, or overarousal, focusing on teaching loose-leash walking is putting the cart before the horse. Until your dog’s reactivity is addressed, he may be unable to walk nicely on leash in the presence of other dogs – not due to a lack of understanding, but simply because he’s too worked up to function.

Of course, obedience training is an important part of any good behavior modification plan. It’s easier to work with a reactive dog who had good leash manners in the absence of triggers than to work with one who pulls like a freight train 100% of the time. It’s easier to work with an anxious greeter who has a good sit-stay when there are no strangers present than to work with one who doesn’t know what sit means. But focusing purely on training basic manners when your dog needs behavior modification will be inadequate at best. At worst, it may make the problem behavior worse if your dog is forced to cope with scary or upsetting situations (such as the close proximity of new people or dogs for a dog who has social anxiety) in a training class.

If your dog’s problem behavior is driven by emotions, we need to address those emotions in order to permanently change the behavior. Failing to do so is likely to cause other behavior problems to develop. If we teach the anxious greeter to hold a sit-stay so that people can pet her but do not address her anxiety about strangers, for example, that anxiety will still manifest somehow. She may show conflicted body language such as lip licks and whale eyes. She may tap out and urinate on herself. She may growl or bite. All of these behaviors are symptoms of the underlying problem, just as the original jumping and squirrelly behavior were.

If, however, we address her anxiety from the start, teaching her that she does not need to interact with people who worry her and that her owner will protect her, we will likely see the jumping and squirreling around disappear over time. In this case, jumping and acting silly were simply symptoms of a bigger issue, and when the bigger issue is addressed the symptoms disappear on their own. Once the dog understands that her owner won’t let people touch her if she’s not comfortable, we can then switch to obedience training in order to show her ways to interact with strangers that don’t cause her discomfort, such as targeting their hands or shoes, or perhaps playing the “look at that” game.

For a leash-reactive dog, the same sort of emotion-driven approach works. The lunging and barking is a symptom that tells us that the dog is experiencing strong emotions of some sort. Reactive dogs may act this way due to a variety of emotions (frustration, excitement, fear, etc.). That’s okay – we don’t necessarily need to know exactly why the dog is acting this way, as long as we can acknowledge that the presence of other dogs causes a problem. Knowing that, we can play the Watch the World game. Over time, this game will change the dog’s emotional response to other dogs to one of happy anticipation, which will result in him turning towards his owner when he spies another dog. The lunging and barking will go away on their own as the emotions that used to drive them are replaced.

If your dog is experiencing a behavior problem, it’s important to understand that obedience training alone may not be enough. Training your dog in basic manners is important, but it’s even more important to address the root cause of any behavior problem: the emotions that drive it. A skilled trainer can help you figure out why your dog is acting the way that he is. Even more importantly, we can help you put together a plan to change the core emotions that are driving your dog’s behavior. When we change the way your dog feels about things, he will change the way he behaves accordingly.

Some (many!) dogs legitimately need obedience training. However, many more dogs also need something more. They need behavior modification to help them deal with the very real emotions of fear, insecurity, excitement, frustration, or anger. Giving these dogs the help they need to cope with the world they find themselves in is the kindest and most effective thing we can do as their guardians and caretakers.

How do you think we can address the common misperception that obedience training can solve all behavioral problems? Please help me brainstorm… I’d love to hear your ideas!

“Get to” or “Have to”?

As a culture, we tend to view tasks that need to be done in two different ways. There are “get to” tasks, those that we enjoy and that we look forward to, and there are “have to” tasks, which we do because they need to be done but which we don’t look forward to in the least.

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

This mental dichotomy starts early, and only gets more pronounced as we age. Much of adulthood is made up of “have to” tasks. We “have to” go to work, pay taxes, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, and go to bed at a decent hour so that we can get enough sleep. Those of us who are lucky also have lots and lots of “get to” tasks, but ultimately we are meant to see adulthood as quite a bit of “have to.”

The difference between “get to” and “have to” tasks all has to do with motivation. “Get to” tasks are reinforcing in and of themselves. They’re enjoyable, which is why we look forward to them. “Have to” tasks, on the other hand, are reinforcing only in the sense of relief we feel when they’re done. Finishing a “have to” task feels good, because there’s a sense of completeness. Until the “have to” task has been finished, it looms over our head.

Sadly, our society often views “get to” tasks as somehow less important than “have to” tasks. Our culture places great significance on doing the Responsible Thing, which is equated with something unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m a bit of an outlier in that my day-to-day work is made up of “get tos” rather than “have tos.” The very fact that I’m excited to start my day with blog writing, email responses, book keeping, and client appointments makes me a freak.

Dog training also tends to be divided into a “get to” VS. “have to” mentality. We want our dogs to understand that they absolutely must come when we call them, walk nicely on leash, urinate outside, and greet others appropriately. They may get to learn agility, perform tricks, or participate in other “softer” things, but basic manners training is often approached in much the same way we approach education for our children. In both cases, any use of force or coercion is justified as a necessity so that the learner understands that life is made up out of “have to” moments and that disobedience or thinking outside the box is out of the question.

But is this really the best way?

Research has shown that we can achieve our end results either way. Both the use of remote (electronic shock) collars and the use of reward-based training using treats and toys were equally effective in curing dogs of livestock chasing. Dogs trained using clicker methods are equally as reliable in performing complex service and guide tasks as those trained using traditional choke collar corrections. Children who are given a chance to follow their passion, explore their interests, and learn in a collaborative classroom environment are every bit as successful in their academic endeavors (and their careers throughout their lives) as children who are given a traditional compulsory education.

As a culture, I think it feels uncomfortable for us to explore these facts because there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance present. Growing up, responsibility was often equated with “have to” moments for most of us, and the fact that we can achieve our goals without compulsion therefore flies in the face of everything we were told. I’m here to tell you that it is possible, and it is okay if that idea makes you feel uncomfortable. Isn’t a little mental discomfort an acceptable price to pay for not having to hurt, intimidate, or compel those we love?

Reward-based training – the kind of training and behavior modification Paws Abilities employs in all of our classes and private consultations – is all about providing your dog with “get to” opportunities. It’s about building a common language between you and your dog so that the two of you can collaborate as partners to tackle any problem or challenge. It’s about joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Done well, it’s also not only as effective as any “have to” method, but more effective.

Reward-based training is the difference between a reliable recall and a reliable and joyful recall. Any training method out there, followed religiously, will result in a dog who will come when you call them away from any distraction. Training methods wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t work, so whether you use rewards such as treats, toys, and Premack moments or use a more traditional method such as a remote collar, long line attached to a metal (choke or prong) collar, or walking your dog down, regular practice and consistency will give you results.

The difference between the methods is how your dog feels at the moment you call. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement respond instantly with great joy, excited that they get to perform a recall. Dogs trained with methods based on punishment or negative reinforcement respond instantly because they understand that they have to come to prevent unpleasant consequences from occurring. The end result is the same – a dog who spins on a dime and races to his owner – but the emotional baggage is very, very different.

I want to emphasize that last point, the end result. I often hear from people who say that reward-based training didn’t work for their dog because they rewarded a few recalls with treats or toys and their dog still didn’t develop a reliable recall until they employed the use of aversives. Because “get to” moments were so rare (or even nonexistent) in many of our educations, we seem to deeply distrust them as a culture, and that shows in responses such as these. Reward-based training, done properly, absolutely works as well as compulsive training: study after scientific study has proven this. Throwing a few treats at a behavior without proofing it and building up to high-level distractions isn’t good training, and it’s therefore every bit as likely to fail as improper use of a remote collar or long line method.  The problem lies not in the method itself, but in your application of that method.

The take-home message here is pretty cool, in that it opens up a whole new world of possibility. We can teach those who rely on us without resorting to force or intimidation. We can help to shape their world into one of exploration and wonder. We can transform every day into a stream of delightful “get to” moments in which they can feel fulfilled by using the skills we’ve helped them develop. We can, in fact, even do the same thing for ourselves. Adulthood doesn’t have to be about “have to” moments. Your dog’s obedience, your child’s education, and your own life can be based on “get to” opportunities without sacrificing the end results. All it takes is a little perspective, a little knowledge, and an understanding of motivation.

How to Break up a Dog Fight

I witnessed my first dog fight in an agility class. I was 17 years old, and was taking my parent’s obnoxious adolescent Labrador to classes, which I earned through apprentice work with the trainer. One of the other dogs in class disliked my dog’s bouncy, oblivious body language, so she pulled the leash out of her owner’s hands and jumped him as he exited the tunnel. He fought back loudly, and I stood in shock for what seemed like forever (but was really only a few seconds) before the trainer pulled the attacking dog away from my dog by her back legs. There were no injuries other than a tiny scratch on my dog’s flank, but I was horrified.

Since that incident, I’ve broken up my share of dog fights. Between shelter playgroups, loose dogs on neighborhood walks, and a revolving door of foster dogs, I’ve unfortunately had plenty of experience breaking up fights safely and effectively (and even more experience in preventing fights in the first place).

b rosen

Educating yourself about how to safely and effectively end a dog fight is incredibly important. Trying to break up a dog fight without the knowledge of how to do so safely can get you bitten, or could even cause the dogs to redirect and attack you. While most fights will end fairly quickly on their own, more serious fights that are not stopped could end in serious injury or even death to the participants. While rare, I’ve seen a handful of cases in which two unsupervised dogs fought badly with no one around to break them up, resulting in gruesome injuries or the death of one or both dogs.

It’s important to understand that any dog can fight. Dogs don’t have lawyers or letters to the editor, so they solve their problems with ritualized body language that can escalate to using their teeth. Some breeds (such as terriers, who were specifically selected for aggression towards other animals) may be more prone to fighting, but all dogs will fight if they are pushed far enough by another dog. Much like people, each dog’s individual temperament will contribute to their likelihood of getting in fights with others. Some of us are quite patient, with long fuses, while others are more hot-blooded and likely to spark up at the slightest insult. Know your dog, and keep him or her out of situations that could provoke a fight.

In addition to knowing what to do to prevent a fight, it’s helpful to know how your dog is likely to fight. Some dogs will fight by biting and releasing multiple times, while other dogs tend to bite and hang on. If you have a dog who will bite and hold, you’ll want to invest in something called a bite stick, which can be used to open a dog’s mouth enough that he can be pulled off his victim with minimal injury. Learn how to use the bite stick and keep it with you when your dog will be around others.

If you witness a dog fight, the first step is to take a moment to take stock of safety factors. If there are children or other vulnerable people nearby, remove them first. Other dogs who may join in the fight or who could be redirected on should also be removed. You will then need to decide whether you want to try to break up the fight, understanding that attempting to break up a fight could cause one or both of the dogs to bite or attack you. While scary, noisy fights tend to be less intense than silent fights. If one or both dogs is fighting silently, they are likely intent on doing serious damage or are fighting for their lives.

If you decide to break up the fight, it’s helpful to start with interventions that don’t require you to approach or touch the fighting dogs. Try making a loud noise by yelling, smacking the wall, or hitting a metal pan with a spoon – anything noisy will do. We have an air horn in our fight kit at my training center, which is loud and startling enough that it breaks up most fights at least long enough for the dogs to be separated.

If making a loud noise doesn’t work, startling the dogs using water or spray can sometimes stop a fight. Spray Shield is a citronella spray that can safely be used on dogs. If you don’t have any on hand, you can try upending a water bowl over the dogs or using a hose (or the hose attachment from your sink if you’re indoors).

For dogs who need to be physically separated, there are several options. If possible, try inserting something in between the dogs, such as a chair, board, or even a couch cushion. The goal is to physically separate them without putting yourself at risk. If the dogs are near a door, you can push them towards the door using the nearest solid object, then close the door between them.

If you absolutely must physically separate the dogs, keep your hands away from their mouths. Don’t grab for their collars or scruffs. Instead, grab one of the dogs where his back legs meet his torso and lift his back end off the ground, pulling him back away from the other dog. Pull him in a circle, continuing to lift his back end, until he calms down enough to realize what’s going on so that he’s unable to reach you with his mouth.

Once you’ve got the fighting dogs separated, give everyone some time to calm down before checking them over for injuries.

Have you ever had to break up a dog fight? What did you do? Share your stories, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below!

Leadership 101

We hear a lot about leadership with dogs. But what does that mean, and how important is it to our dogs? Like any social creature, dogs use a variety of signals to navigate day-to-day life, and they look to those they live with to do the same.

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Traditional advice urges owners to eat first, go through doorways first, alpha roll their dogs, force dogs to walk behind them, and engage in similar behaviors designed to artificially increase their rank in their dogs’ eyes. The message drips with fear (not to mention a healthy dose of paranoia): if you don’t work hard to keep your dog down, he’ll stage a household coup. Dogs are social climbers, we’re told, and if we don’t view every interaction as a contest that we must win, our dogs will take advantage of some perceived weakness and take over.

So here’s the thing: leadership is important to dogs. The vast majority of dogs do best when they feel like someone confident and in control is making responsible decisions for them. But using force doesn’t make you a good leader. It only labels you as weak.

You see, dogs with high status don’t do a lot of jockeying for position. They’re secure in their place, and they just don’t feel the need to butt heads with others.

We do the same thing. The president doesn’t feel the need to make jokes at his assistant’s expense to solidify his political position. The top CEO of your company doesn’t go around reminding middle management that she could fire them at any moment. The principal doesn’t steal the kindergartners’ lunch money to teach them their place. So why do we feel the need to do this with dogs?

Any time we shove in front of our dog at the door, stick our hands in his food bowl just to make sure we can, or haul him behind us on the leash, we’re certainly sending a message. But it’s not the message of calm, confident control a true leader would send. Instead, we’re telling our dog in every way possible that we’re concerned about our status. We’re telling him that we don’t have what it takes to be a great leader, and you can bet that he’s getting that message loud and clear.

The most fighting happens in middle management, whether you’re a person or a dog. If you’re “fighting” your dog for leadership, you’re in essence telling him that you’re middle management rather than the CEO. Is that really the message you want your dog to receive?

So, we know that force certainly isn’t the best way to gain your dog’s compliance and admiration. Your dog isn’t staying up at night plotting to overthrow you. Here’s how you can be the best leader possible.

Frankly, you already have all the tools you need to become a wonderful leader at your disposal. All you have to do is make use of them.

One of our primary advantages over dogs is our ability to use our opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs are like magic to dogs: they can cause door handles to turn, refrigerators to open, and dog treats to appear from sealed packages. They can snap leashes on and off, find just the right spot under the collar to scratch, and operate faucets to refill water bowls. These tasks, and many more, are your ticket to becoming the Grand High Poobah of your household.

You see, great leaders provide for their followers, and dogs intrinsically get this. You’re probably already giving your dog all sorts of wonderful things: fresh water, food, walks, access to the great outdoors, ear rubs, toys, and everything else he needs. To become a great leader, all you have to do is leverage these interactions by asking your dog to say “please” first by performing a simple task (such as sit). Just like with children, “please” will become a magic word for your dog. When he wants anything, simply ask him to sit calmly and look at you first. Voila! Instant leader.

I think Patty Ruzzo said it best. “I don’t know if my dogs respect me or not, but they’re greedy and I have their stuff.” So leverage your dog’s stuff. Stop fighting him. You’ll be amazed at the difference such simple things can make in your relationship.

How do you help your dog to look to you for guidance and leadership? Share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below!

Why Dogs Hump (Spoiler Alert: it’s not all about dominance)

Last summer, I house-sat for my parents while they went on vacation. Neither of their pets, a 14-year-old cat and an 11-year-old dog, do well being boarded, and it was much less stressful for me to stay with them than it would have been to send them somewhere.

I brought my dogs with me, so it was a very full household. Their elderly Lab cross, Duke, already knew Layla quite well. However, he wasn’t as familiar with my youngest pup, Mischief. This posed a bit of a problem.

Duke

Duke

You see, like many dogs, Duke tends to default to humping when he’s stressed or unsure. Any time my dogs would start to play, Duke’s lips would stretch back towards his ears, his brow would furrow, and he would grab Mischief with his front paws, attempting to mount her. With the forty-pound size difference between the two dogs, this did not make Mischief happy. Being a fairly socially savvy dog, she would spin around to face him when he did this, the doggy version of “knock that off,” and if that didn’t work she would escalate to snapping at him, saying, “no really, I mean it.”

Of course, knowing that Duke was likely to hump Mischief when he became anxious or excited, my boyfriend and I were able to prevent this behavior most of the time. When Duke started to circle towards Mischief, we would say his name, redirecting him to move towards us for praise and petting. When we had visitors over and Duke hit his limit of the amount of excitement he could stand before he could no longer make good choices, I put him on leash. If we couldn’t supervise the dogs, one or the other of them was crated.

Humping is a common behavior in dogs and is seen in both males and females, whether they are fixed or not. While it is most often attributed to “dominance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Dominance refers to priority access to a resource, and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access to food, toys, space, or anything else tangible. So, why do dogs hump? Here are the most common motivations behind humping in dogs:

Arousal: Once a dog hits a certain level of excitement, that energy has to go somewhere. Some dogs express their joy by doing “zoomies,” where they tuck their butt and sprint as fast as they can in circles. Some bark. Some hump.

Anxiety: Like Duke, most humpers whose owners seek my help are quite anxious. Anxiety leads to arousal, and as we saw above that leads to humping. Technically, canine behavior experts call this a “displacement” behavior. When the dog becomes anxious, he or she may scratch, sniff, dig, or hump. People display displacement behaviors too (although luckily humping is not usually one of them!): we check our phones, play with our hair, or look at our watch when we’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

Play: Play is interesting. When dogs or other mammals play, they mix up a bunch of behaviors in new sequences. These behaviors have very useful roots: chasing, stalking, and pouncing are useful hunting behaviors; mouthing and wrestling are useful fighting behaviors; and humping is a useful sexual behavior. Some biologists believe that play is practice for the real world. By mixing all of these useful behaviors up with some other signals that mean “just kidding, I’m still playing and not really planning to eat you for dinner,” dogs get a chance
to practice moving their bodies in ways that could increase their chances of surviving a situation where the behaviors were needed for real.

Status: While this is a common attribution for humping, dogs almost never use humping as a form of status seeking or as a display of status. In fact, in over ten years of training, I’ve only met one dog who appeared to use humping as a means of status seeking. (And even in that case, the dog was also pretty insecure, so the humping was more likely caused by her anxiety than by her desire to climb the social ladder.)

It just feels good: Frankly, dogs just like to hump sometimes. All mammals masturbate, and some dogs will hump a favorite toy or pillow. From a behavioral standpoint, there’s no reason not to let Fido or Fifi have a little “me time” on occasion behind closed doors as long as it’s not causing problems. Before Dobby’s seizure disorder took over his life, he and Mischief would often hump each other when they were playing. As long as both dogs seemed okay with it I wouldn’t interrupt them (although I would ask them to take it outside). That doesn’t mean it’s always okay, though: I draw the line at humping people, and if my dogs do this I redirect them and teach them more appropriate ways to interact with humans.

So there you have it. Humping is a normal doggy behavior, albeit a somewhat embarrassing one for those of us on the other end of the leash. As for Duke, he’s long since stopped his anxious and inappropriate response to Mischief. Now that he’s gotten to know her better, he can play appropriately with her without resorting to humping. In fact, he just spent the past five days with her, and didn’t need to be redirected a single time… a relief for everyone involved.

Does your dog ever hump? Why do you think this happens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dave Fayram

Photo by Dave Fayram

The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.

- Colleen Pelar

Like a Handshake, but with Noses and Butts

In our society, a handshake is the standard greeting for meeting new people. We have a whole ritual that goes with it. First we verbally introduce ourselves, making eye contact and smiling, then we step towards the other person and grasp hands (usually right hands) for about two seconds with even pressure before disengaging and stepping back.

Dogs also have a standard greeting ritual, but as scent-oriented creatures their ritual varies slightly from ours. In a typical canine greeting the dogs will approach one another in an arc with loose bodies and a slight C-shaped curve to their spine. They will sniff each other’s noses, then sniff rear ends, and finally sniff noses again.

Photo by John Sibley

Photo by John Sibley

Greeting rituals are an important part of a functional society for both dogs and people. In both societies, our young need to be taught how to greet others appropriately. This is done through a combination of appropriate modeling by the adults who raise the pup or child, teachable moments where the youngsters are given the chance to try the greeting ritual for themselves with feedback from the adults, and natural maturity. Appropriate greetings are not an intrinsic skill for either dogs or people – we learn them.

Problems arise for our dogs when we don’t provide them with appropriate opportunities to engage in polite greetings with other dogs. These problems take three common forms for most pet dogs: lack of understanding from their owners of species-appropriate behavior, lack of appropriate teachers, and forcing dogs into socially uncomfortable situations.

Imagine how you’d feel if you were reprimanded or punished every time you made eye contact with another person or smiled at someone as a child. How would your greeting behavior differ today as an adult? You’d probably be much more anxious greeting new people and may have difficulty making eye contact. You may scowl or appear to be bored as you wouldn’t want to smile.

The same thing can happen to our dogs when we prevent them from engaging in appropriate greetings. If you yank your dog away or scold your dog every time he sniffs another dog’s rear, it’s no different from a parent scolding their child for smiling at the kindergarten teacher the first time they meet. While anogenital investigation may not be our idea of an appropriate greeting, as long as your dog isn’t performing a full colonoscopy with his nose he’s probably being quite appropriate. It’s perfectly acceptable (and advisable!) to teach your dog not to greet people in the same manner, of course, but when he’s greeting other pups let him stick to the cultural norms for his species.

Of course, some dogs never learn the cultural norms, and this can lead to rude or frantic greetings. If your dog rarely or never interacts with other dogs or if he tends to only meet adolescent dogs (as many dog park patrons do), he may not pick up the finer points of doggy etiquette. And just like us, some dogs are more socially awkward than others.

If your dog tends to rush straight up to other dogs, make physical contact with them while sniffing, skip sniffing altogether, grovel frantically in greeting, or if she shows any other signs that she’s struggling with greetings, it’s up to you to help her out. Oftentimes other dogs are the best teachers, and as long as it’s safe to do so, it can be very instructive to introduce your awkward dog to some older, wiser, bombproof teacher dogs off-leash and let them show her how it’s done. If that’s not possible, work with an experienced trainer to teach your dog some basic impulse control or build up her confidence, depending on the reason for her awkwardness.

Finally, we need to be aware when we’re forcing our dogs into socially uncomfortable or downright frightening situations and help them leave these unpleasant situations gracefully.

We’ve all had an experience where someone held our hand just a little too long in greeting. It’s downright creepy if a stranger you were just introduced to won’t let go of your hand, especially if they continue looking into your eyes and smiling. What started off as a pleasant greeting can quickly begin to feel awkward or even frightening.

Unfortunately for our dogs, we put them in this situation all the time. I’m speaking of course about on-leash greetings. Dogs use their bodies to communicate, and the leash puts limits on their ability to speak properly to one another.

Off-leash dogs rarely sniff one another for longer than it takes two people to introduce themselves through a pleasant handshake. The one exception to this is familiar dogs (such as those who live together) who’ve been apart for some time. Just as you may hold the hand of a loved one for longer in greeting than you would the hand of a stranger, housemate dogs who have been separated for awhile will often investigate one another quite thoroughly upon coming back together, “catching up” with one another, as it were.

Unfamiliar dogs don’t do this, though. After a quick (2-5 second) greeting, they move on. They may begin playing together. They may wander alongside one another, sniffing and investigating their surroundings. They may go their separate ways. They may greet other nearby dogs. They may even begin fighting. What they won’t usually do is just stand side by side, and this is where the problem lies.

On-leash greetings often force our dogs to stand close to each other without moving onto the next step of the social process. They greet one another, but then don’t have enough leash to do much more. They can’t wander apart, and while they can play, their ability to communicate with one another is impeded by the leashes. They’re forced into that awkward handshake, and neither of them can let go.

This is why many dogs “explode” after an on-leash greeting that appears fine at first. The tension builds up, and they just can’t figure out how to gracefully get out of an increasingly uncomfortable social situation. Finally one dog or the other snarks, and it’s quite effective at getting their owner to move them further away and thus end the tense encounter.

Of course, all of this is avoidable. If we allow dogs the freedom to learn from one another, engage in their culturally normal greetings based on scent, and keep on-leash greetings as brief as handshakes, we can help our dogs succeed in their society. Just think of it as their version of a smile and a handshake… but with noses and butts.

Is your dog a suave, confident greeter, or a bit of social nerd? Let us know in the comments section!

Alpha Rollovers: Helpful or Harmful?

I could see the bite coming before it happened, but was too far away to do anything. The German Shepherd puppy was adorable – fluffy and uncoordinated, with ears that couldn’t quite decide whether to stick up or flop over. He was also incredibly terrified. His eyes were wide and his tail was tucked so tightly to his belly that it touched his belly button. His body posture was low and he slunk rather than walked as his owner browsed the pet store aisles.

Nothing that cute can go unremarked for long, and the puppy was quickly set upon by an excited employee of the store. As she reached out to pet him, the shepherd puppy became very still, closing his mouth and turning away. His owner shortened his leash so that the puppy couldn’t run away, and when the employee grabbed the puppy to pick him up and hug him he yelped in fear and bit at her hand.

The next few moments seemed to slow for me as the puppy’s owner barked out a gruff “no” and grabbed her pup’s scruff. Picking him up, she forced him onto the ground on his back, holding him in place by his neck. The puppy’s little body became absolutely still, then he slowly looked away and licked his lips with wide eyes. The owner looked equally miserable as she held her tiny puppy down, apologizing to the pet store employee. “They have to learn, though. It’s the only way.”

Photo by Robert Neff

Photo by Robert Neff

Whether used in response to unwanted behavior or simply to prevent aggression, alpha rollovers are still commonly practiced with many dogs. This technique was originally recommended by the Monks of New Skete as a “natural” way for people to teach their dogs who was in control, although the monks later stopped recommending it as too many people were bitten when they attempted to replicate the technique with their own dogs. Simply put, the goal is to roll a dog over on his back with his belly facing the sky and to hold him there until he stops fighting to get up. This technique is supposed to teach dogs that people are in charge and that the dog should always submit to people in times of conflict.

Alpha rolls first gained popularity when researchers noticed that lower-ranking wolves would go belly-up for higher-ranking animals. Dog people quickly latched onto the idea that the belly-up posture was a concrete way to ensure or prove their pup’s submissiveness. The practice of rolling pups (and misbehaving adults) over and holding them down spread like wildfire.

The problem with this idea is twofold. First of all, wolves don’t actually force one another down. And secondly, dogs are not wolves.

Let’s start with the first issue. The original theory was that higher-status wolves would physically force their less important pack-mates down and hold them there.  This was quickly proven to be false, as video after video and interaction after interaction showed the lower-status animal willingly offering this behavior as a cut-off signal to avoid aggression. In nearly every case, the higher-status wolf never even touched the wolf who was offering their tummy.

In fact, neither wolves nor dogs physically force one another into this position, except with one exception. If a Canid is about to kill another, he may physically flip the victim over before disemboweling them.

Think about this for a second. Most of these behaviors are quite instinctive. As far as your puppy is concerned, you mean to kill him when you flip him on his back and hold him down. No wonder so many puppies panic! Whether your pup’s panic manifests as freezing in place, screaming, flailing, or biting at your hands, this is quite literally a terrifying situation for dogs to be placed in. Your dog has no way of knowing that you don’t intend to do her serious harm when you flip her on her back, and thousands of years of evolution telling her that she’s in mortal danger. It hurts my heart to think about.

Even if this weren’t the case, it’s important to remember that dogs are not wolves. While dogs and wolves share common ancestors, their behavior and physiology is still distinct. Wolves have shorter critical socialization periods and display more ritualized behavior than the neotenized dogs we live with. There’s a reason why wolves make horrible pets, and it’s the same reason why dogs don’t respond the same to body language as wolves. They’re not identical.

Furthermore, making conclusions about wolf behavior from observing captive animals is in and of itself a problem. Just as trying to judge human behavior based on the actions of people living in a concentration camp would give us very false interpretations of normal behavior for people, captivity does not allow us to see the normal expressions of wolves’ behavior either.

In the case of the shepherd puppy, I quietly approached the owner after she’d let her puppy up and handed her my card. I hope for both her and her puppy’s sake that she considers training class and private lessons sooner rather than later, so that we can help them both be successful together. Living with a fearful puppy isn’t easy, and living with a fearful dog is even worse. Alpha rollovers will not fix most behavior issues, but they can cause quite a few.

Whether your dog is fearful like the shepherd puppy or has other behavioral issues, we can certainly help. But alpha rolling your dog is not the answer.

What do you think: were you taught to roll your dog on their back? What happened? What alternatives would you suggest if you met the shepherd’s owner in the pet store? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!