The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.
- Colleen Pelar
The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.
- Colleen Pelar
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.”
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!
Last week we discussed the different reasons a dog may offer his belly. While some dogs really do want belly rubs, other dogs will offer their belly as a distance increasing signal. In those cases, their belly-up posture is a polite way to ask you to leave them alone.
So, how did you do on our quiz? Below are the same group of dogs as last week, with more information on their body language.
Remember, dogs who truly want their bellies rubbed will be loose and floppy, with soft eyes and wiggly bodies. If your dog appears tense, looks away from you, has wide eyes (or whale eyes), licks her lips, or shows other signs of stress, she’s probably asking you to back off. This body language is known as a “tap out” or “inguinal exposure,” and should be respected by giving the dog space to feel more comfortable.
So, how did you do? Are you a belly rub expert? Let us know in the comments section!
Does your dog like belly rubs?
Many dogs really enjoy having their tummies scratched. However, if your dog routinely offers their belly up when approached, it could also have a very different meaning.
Which of the dogs below would welcome a belly rub, and which ones are asking you to leave them alone? Can you tell the difference?
Dogs who truly want their bellies rubbed will be loose and floppy, with soft eyes and wiggly bodies. If your dog appears tense, looks away from you, has wide eyes (or whale eyes), licks her lips, or shows other signs of stress, she’s probably asking you to back off. This body language is known as a “tap out” or “inguinal exposure,” and should be respected by giving the dog space to feel more comfortable.
How well do you speak dog? Let us know which dogs you would give belly rubs to and which you would leave alone in the comments section below!
I’ve written about medicating anxious dogs before, and it’s such an important topic that I want to touch on it again. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this subject.The idea that anxiety medication should only be used after everything else has been tried is so sad and harmful, and is a myth I encounter on a regular basis. Let’s clear up some of the fog surrounding this common misconception.
Before we get any further, please remember that I am not a veterinarian and I don’t play one on the internet. The information contained in this blog is not meant to diagnose or prescribe, and is only provided for your information. I’m drawing from my experience as a certified veterinary technician, canine behavior consultant, and the owner of an anxious dog to educate you, but your best resource is always going to be a licensed veterinarian.
So, let’s start with what we know. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology have shown us that anxious or depressed people and animals often display significant physical changes to certain areas of their brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and executing activities) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). We know that fear and anxiety are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and that emotional pain actually shares some of the same neural pathways with physical pain. That’s why we talk about profound grief or panic “hurting” – it physically impacts our bodies.
This is huge. We know that panic and worry “hurt.” Why the hell would you not treat this pain? If your dog were bleeding every day, wouldn’t you treat the wound? Would you wait to splint a broken bone because you wanted to “try everything else first”? Would you wait to give a dog pain meds after surgery until you saw that he “really needed it”? The truth is that these medications can provide very real relief for dogs who need them, and doing so can be the greatest kindness you can offer to a dog who’s hurting in a very real way.
Q: But aren’t anxiety medications dangerous?
A: Yes, sometimes. Any meds can have dangerous side effects. However, I think we need to be very honest about the risk here. Anxiety medications can have negative effects, but so can pain medication, herbal supplements, heartworm preventative, flea and tick medications, and the diet you choose to feed your dog. Furthermore, if you are considering anxiety medication for your dog, you have to take into consideration the impact of prolonged, excessive levels of stress hormones on your dog’s body. I can guarantee that if your dog’s issues are such that you’re considering anxiety medication for your dog, your dog is already experiencing physical problems from their anxiety. In many cases, elevated stress hormones could be more harmful to your dog long-term than anxiety medication. This is a case where doing nothing is not necessarily any safer than trying medication for your dog.
Q: I’d prefer to stick to natural remedies…
A: Let’s settle this once and for all: natural does not mean safe. I see a lot of dogs who are on multiple herbs, oils, and other “natural” remedies with no concern for their safety ramifications. We have very little knowledge about toxicity, possible drug interactions (either additive or counteractive), side effects, or species-appropriateness for most of these remedies, and frankly, there is very little oversight regarding their safety for us, much less for non-human animals. Most modern medications have roots in herbal or other natural remedies. While the digitalis from a foxglove plant may be very helpful when used therapeutically for a patient with congestive heart failure, it can be deadly to a small child or dog. Arsenic and cyanide are “natural” compounds as well – that doesn’t make them safe. While melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root may help some dogs, the truth is that we don’t know that they’re any safer than a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor or Tri-Cyclic Antidepressant, and any compound can cause issues.
Q: But, can’t training solve this problem?
A: Probably. I want to be very clear: medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues. However, repeated studies have shown that combining medication and training results in the fastest progress, and I would argue that this fact in and of itself is a good reason to consider medication for fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs. There’s an underlying humane issue here. Medication can improve your dog’s quality of life while training is taking place and can make that training work more quickly and effectively. Just as using appropriate pain medication can decrease the amount of time it takes animals to heal after surgery, anxiety medication promotes emotional healing. This is a pretty big deal.
Q: Does my dog need to stay on meds forever?
A: Maybe, and maybe not. By far the majority of the dogs I work with are on anxiety medication for a short period of time. The medication helps to cut through the static of anxiety so that the dog is in a better place to learn. Once the dog is no longer fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the formerly triggering context, they are weaned off the medication and go on with their lives, happier and more balanced. That said, some dogs have a true neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated. Just as a dog with hypothyroidism needs to be given thyroid supplementation, these dogs oftentimes need chemical help to regulate and maintain the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or other neurochemicals in their brain. For these dogs, anxiety medication may be a lifelong need.
Look, I’m not saying that every anxious dog needs medication. I’m not even saying that it should always be the first thing that we reach for or consider. However, it also shouldn’t be the last. After we’ve looked at environment and put together a training plan, we owe it to our best friends to be very honest about their current quality of life. If your dog is suffering, medication could give him some very real and very quick relief. Personally, I don’t want my dogs to be in pain, and I think we need to be aware that it is okay to consider medication as part of a balanced plan right from the start. It should not be the only thing that changes – medication is not a magic potion that will fix all of your dog’s ills. But it can be one important ingredient in your dog’s customized plan, right alongside management and training.
How do you feel about the use of anxiety medication as part of a behavioral plan to improve a dog’s quality of life? Have you ever used medication for a dog, or are you considering it for your current dog? Please share your questions, stories, and experiences in the comments section below!
Dobby’s eyes widen when he sees the new tennis ball, and he runs joyfully towards me. When I hand it to him, he arches his neck and puffs his chest out, tail held jauntily over his back as he prances around like the world’s smallest Hackney pony. His pride and joy bubble over. They infect me as he flaunts his new prize. He squeaks the ball loudly and repeatedly as his perfect little white feet rise and fall to its beat, a tiny soldier on parade with the lightning bolts on his legs flashing. I croon to him, repeating his name like a mantra. When I hold my hand down, he prances past it, rubbing his sides along my fingers with each ecstatic circle he marks out on the floor. He is electrically alive. I am holding onto this moment with everything I have, trying to live in the now like him.
I hold onto these moments, these bright sunbeams of hope, because I need something to hold onto when life with Dobby is hard. And life with Dobby is frequently hard.
Dobby was picked up as a stray by the Rochester City Animal Control. He was somewhere between six to twelve months old, unfixed and dirty. No one claimed him, and when his stray hold was up he was moved to the general holding area of the shelter. He clung to the back of his kennel, trembling visibly and averting his gaze when people passed by. When I slipped a leash over his neck to walk him, he pancaked to the floor and urinated.
It was obvious that he was way too frightened to assess, so those of us at the shelter that day sat with him and talked to him, coaxing him to eat treats which he mostly ignored. He froze in fear when he was touched, and kept his body low to the floor, tail touching his belly button. When we took him outside, he lit up a bit and explored, but kept a wary distance. Becca, a skilled foster volunteer, decided to bring him home.
Under the expert care of Becca and her husband, Dobby began to blossom. He played with her dogs, and after several weeks moved in with me. Dobby began to figure out doorways, which were initially a source of great terror to him. He gained 9 pounds and 2 inches, growing into a sleek, muscular little dog. He started to seek out affection, pressing his neck and chin into the hands of those people he trusted. He learned to offer behaviors to earn rewards. He loved toys, and pranced around when given a new ball or chew toy.
There were problems to be worked through. People in hats were terrifying, and he would lunge and snap at hands that moved too quickly around him. He became aroused very quickly but was unable to settle back down, a quivering, mouthy beast with buggy eyes ready to grab anything that moved. Quick movements and loud voices would cause him to hit the ground and pee. Housetraining took a few months, and he could not be lured with treats or toys because of his fear of hands. Reaching towards his collar terrified him.
In spite of all of this, Dobby persevered. He tried his hardest and celebrated even tiny successes with his characteristic Dobby prance. Never has a dog been so full of try. He passed nine out of ten of the Canine Good Citizen test items and earned his first Rally Obedience title with comments from the judge on his joyful, prancy heel. He lit up when he was praised.
The seizures started when Dobby was somewhere between 18 to 24 months. Dobby’s eyes would glaze over and he’d stare at the ceiling with his back arched, for all the world like a dog intent on stalking a fly. A few times, he attacked whatever he saw moving as he came out of this state – me, another dog, even his own tail. After a seizure he would be tired and scared, wanting to curl up in the back of his crate and nap. They tended to come in clusters, piling on several days in a row before leaving him seizure-free for a few weeks or months.
All of Dobby’s progress vanished with the seizures, as if each seizure erased another of his newly forged neural pathways. He became fearful again, and worse yet, stress was one of his biggest seizure triggers.
So, that’s where we’re at today. Dobby is on two seizure meds and an anxiety medication to try to control these seizures. We’re experimenting with a situational anxiety drug on top of his other medication. He’s receiving the top veterinary care at the University of Minnesota. Diet changes and changes to his routine have made no difference in his seizure activity. Even happy stress triggers seizures, so we no longer practice heelwork or play with the spring pole. He no longer attends any classes. We stopped playing tug. Dobby’s world has shrunk to a couple houses, a few walking routes, and some very careful play and training. His personality changes with each cluster of seizures, and he has become touch sensitive and cranky, likely to snap if another dog bumps him. He is introduced to new people carefully and is no longer introduced to new dogs so as not to trigger more seizures.
Dobby’s three to four years old at this point, and I hold on to the good days because I don’t know how many more he’ll have. I look at this gorgeous, funny, willing, sweet dog, and I think about euthanasia. I calculate percentages constantly: how many good moments is he having every day? How many bad? At what point is it no longer fair to make him keep trying in a world that is too scary and overwhelming? At what point does it become kinder to let him go, to take away the weight of living in a body which turns on itself over even minor stress? At what point is it no longer fair to my other dogs to live with an unpredictable housemate who is as likely to snap at them as to play? At what point do we stop?
I agonize and cry over this decision. I worry that compassion fatigue, a common problem with people in care-giving positions like this, is clouding my judgment. If I’m honest, living with Dobby is hard. It’s rewarding too, but it’s a constant drain to manage his environment, to set him up for success, to work with him between clusters of seizures in an effort to regain lost behavioral progress. For every step forward, there are steps back, and new challenges appear all the time. The side effects from his medication make him sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. People pile on with well-intentioned advice, clamoring for me to switch him to a raw diet, teach a new relaxation method, use Reiki, talk to an animal communicator, and try a plethora of herbal and homeopathic supplements.
All of this information flashes through my mind as I hand Dobby another squeaky tennis ball, one of the few things I can do to make him happy. I worry about the cost of his medication, blood work, and ever-present vet bills. I run probabilities as he burrows under the blanket when I crawl into bed at night, curling up in my arms and nestling his head under my chin to sigh deeply before drifting off to sleep. He’s warm and alive, he’s a great little dog, and I think about the finality of death.
I don’t know what I will do going forward. There are more drugs to try, more ideas to help him cope, and I want to explore them. During good moments, I delight in my little Dobby. In bad moments, when he’s scared and confused and hiding in his crate after a seizure, I feel guilty and sad. I wonder whether I’m doing more harm than good by putting him through a continuous cycle of new medication and the stress of day-to-day life. I wonder whether he wants the pain to stop. He seems so overwhelmed and scared sometimes. And through it all, he keeps trying as hard as he can to survive in a world where the deck sometimes seems stacked against him.
There’s no real conclusion to this blog post. I can’t tell you what will happen next for Dobby. I can only tell you that I want very much to do the right thing and that there’s no clear “right” thing to do.
I’m not the only one who wrestles with this awful choice. Many of my behavioral clients have been here before with their fearful, anxious, or aggressive dogs. Some euthanize their dog, realizing that they cannot continue to ask their beloved pet to live in a world where they will never find peace. Some euthanize their dog because they cannot honestly be sure that they can keep others or themselves safe if their dog continues to live. Some resolve to manage and work with their dog for the next five or ten or fifteen years. Some dogs do not have the brain chemistry or physiology to cope with our world, and some just need training and behavior modification to successfully rewire their brain.
Regardless of the choice each of us makes, it’s a deeply personal one that’s not made lightly. It’s a heart-wrenching, gut-turning decision, whether the decision is to euthanize or to keep trying with the dog. Neither path is easy.
We live in a society where there’s still a prevalent myth that every dog can be saved and that behavior issues are solely a result of environment rather than the complex stew of brain chemistry, development, and past history that really creates the perfect storm of an anxious, fearful, or aggressive dog. Dobby has seizures, but he also has behavioral concerns. Whether these issues are a result of his seizures or not (and I truly believe that they are, at least in part), my decision to keep working with him or euthanize is focused on his quality of life, the quality of my other dogs’ lives with him, and on the risk of keeping an unpredictable and fearful dog. The ultimate decision will be made with careful, empathetic consideration of Dobby’s happiness and the happiness of those of us (human and animal) who live with him every day.
So I walk the tightrope of Dobby’s life with him, helping him succeed and drinking his joy in. He watches me earnestly, my sincere, awkward, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I don’t have any answers, so for today a new squeaky tennis ball will have to do.
“Emotional pain isn’t just a metaphor: In terms of brain activation, it partially overlaps with physical pain.” The Compass of Pleasure, David Linden
I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.
A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.
How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?
Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.
Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.
I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.
So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:
If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.
Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?
[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn't, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you're still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]