Category Archives: Canine Body Language

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.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Ronan

Photo by Ronan

It is a violation of etiquette to enter an animal’s personal space without that animal’s permission.

- Ken McCort

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.

Why does my dog jump on people?

Jumping is one of the most common dog behavior problems we address in our classes and private lessons. A dog who jumps up on people is rarely welcome at human social functions. Not only is it considered impolite, but jumping can be scary for people who are not comfortable with dogs.

There are many reasons why dogs jump up, and it’s helpful to know that this is a normal canine behavior. Dogs who are not actively taught not to jump will put their paws on people, not because they’re bad dogs, but simply because they don’t understand that there are other ways to greet people they are meeting.

Photo by Grace (FlyNutAA on flickr)

Photo by Grace (FlyNutAA on flickr)

For most dogs, jumping begins early in life. Tiny puppies jump up to lick and sniff at adult dogs’ faces. Jumping up on other dogs is a normal greeting ritual for puppies, and as the puppies mature they no longer need to jump to sniff noses and breath, and thus naturally stop doing this. Puppies who are well-socialized to adult dogs tend to grow out of this behavior quickly, and no longer jump on other dogs except in play by the time they’re 4-6 months old.

Of course, puppies don’t just jump on other dogs. They also jump on people. Unfortunately, most people then proceed to pet, talk to, or play with the puppy, thus reinforcing the jumping. It’s always a good rule not to encourage your puppy to do anything you don’t wish him to do as an adult.

If your dog jumps on people in a friendly way to greet them, there are three simple things that you can do to address this.

The first thing that you can do to address your dog’s jumping is to make sure that it doesn’t get rewarded. If you greet your dog happily when he jumps on you while you’re wearing jeans but get upset when he does the same thing while you’re wearing your dry-clean-only work clothes, that’s not fair. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to get repeated, so if you don’t want your dog to jump up sometimes make sure that you don’t ever encourage him to do so.

Sometimes we also unintentionally reward jumping. For many dogs, negative attention is still preferable to no attention at all, and these dogs will frequently learn that jumping up is a great way to earn the attention they seek. In this case, the more you yell at your dog and push him down, the more likely he is to jump up on you, because it’s earning him the attention he desires.

Once you’ve made sure that jumping isn’t being rewarded, it’s important to prevent your dog from practicing. Remember that practice makes perfect, so the more chances your dog gets to jump on people, the better he’s going to get at it.

Preventing your dog from jumping can take several forms. A leash can be one easy way to prevent your dog from jumping on visitors. Hang a spare leash right next to the door so that you can easily leash your dog up before opening the door for visitors. Then simply stand on the leash, allowing your dog enough slack to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not to jump. You could also consider using a baby gate to keep your dog away from visitors until he calms down.

If your dog jumps on you, it’s helpful to prevent this as well. One easy way to do this is to use some of your dog’s daily food or some small training treats to give him something better to do than jumping. When you are about to greet your dog after an absence or when he’s very excited and likely to jump, arm yourself with the food or treats before you see your dog. This may mean that you need to keep some food or training treats outside your door or in your pocket. As soon as you enter the area where your dog is kept, toss the food or treats on the ground. Timing is important here – you want to have the first thing your dog notices be the fact that you’re tossing goodies on the ground, so that you catch him before he even begins jumping. As your dog vacuums up the treats, you can pet him and greet him, thereby reinforcing his four-on-the-floor behavior.

Once your dog is no longer getting rewarded for jumping or getting the chance to practice jumping, you can teach him what you’d like him to do instead. This is an important step, because dogs do best if we can tell them what to do rather than just what not to do. Many people teach their dogs to sit before greeting others, and this can be one great option. Active dogs may also do well if they’re taught to go fetch a toy or to perform some other behavior that allows them to release some of their excited energy.

Next week we’ll discuss some of the other, less common reasons why dogs jump on people. In the meantime, please share your training stories, successes, and woes 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!

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!

Dominant Dogs

Dominance has become a dirty word in the dog training world – so much so that it’s often referred to as “the D word” by professional trainers when speaking to one another, as if even the mention of it will cause others to gasp in horror and back slowly away. Many normal canine behaviors are thought by the public and by mis- or uninformed canine professionals to be caused by dominance. Certain television celebrities have attributed everything from appeasement gestures such as licking to obsessive light chasing to normal dog behaviors such as excitement on leash or at doorways to dominance. But what does this phrase really mean, and how can we best apply the concept to our interactions with dogs?

Who's dominant here? Neither dog!  Photo by Eileen McFall.

Who’s dominant here? Neither dog!
Photo by Eileen McFall.

Scientifically, “dominance” refers to the outcome of a behavioral interaction between two individuals. The dominant individual is the one who gains priority access to the resource (food, location, female in estrus, etc.) that he or she wants. It is not a personality trait.

This is an important point. Referring to a dog as “dominant” is like saying someone has an “in love” personality. A dog may be dominant over another dog in a specific interaction (such as when they both want the same bone), but may be submissive in the same interaction with a different individual (perhaps with you or with an older dog). You may be in love with a specific person, but hate another. The important point in either case is the context and the individuals involved. While some individuals may be more likely to fall in love easily or to gain access to reinforcers more frequently, each situation needs to be viewed as a distinct event. Social relationships are too complex to make such broad generalizations.

This makes more sense if we think of a human example. Take your family, for instance. When you were younger, your mother or father was probably dominant in most interactions. They (hopefully!) had higher status than you, and could therefore decide how resources (food, attention, sleeping spaces, etc.) were distributed amongst you and the other family members living in the household. But while your father may have had fairly high status in your family group, he may not have held the same status in other interactions, such as at work or in his poker group. In those situations, he may have been submissive in the majority of interactions, with his boss or the host of the poker club getting to decide how resources were allocated. Just because your father was generally dominant in his interactions with you didn’t mean that he had a dominant personality any more than it meant you had a submissive personality as a 5-year-old.

In a group of dogs the hierarchy is likely to shift, just as it does with people. You may generally defer to your boss, but if she comes to dinner at your home she’s likely to defer to you in many social interactions, such as where she sits as the dinner table and what she eats. Dogs are the same way. A dog may generally be the dominant animal when he or she wants something, but that doesn’t mean that this will be true in every single situation.

Dominance as it’s described by most laypeople refers to a set hierarchy, and the more quickly we can drop this notion the better our interactions with our dogs will become. While status is definitely important to dogs, the myth that dogs form rigid social hierarchies is blatantly false. Just like people, dogs tend to have more fluid hierarchies that shift depending on context.

Equally important to understand is how status is achieved. The point of a dominance hierarchy in any species is to avoid conflict. Imagine if you and your boss had to slug it out each time you sat down at a meeting together in order to determine who got to sit behind the big desk. Physical aggression takes a lot of energy and can be dangerous. Whether it’s two dogs biting each other over ownership of a bone or two geese pecking each other over a prime nesting site, actual physical confrontations have a very real risk of injury or death… and no one wants that.

“Dominance” as an excuse to use aggressive behaviors towards our companion dogs, then, is a very inappropriate undertaking, not mention a blatant misunderstanding of the science. When dogs have a conflict, they follow a very ritualized series of signals designed to minimize or avoid physical altercations. These may include staring, stillness, whale eyes, lip lifts, tail wags, and more before the dog even begins to growl, much less to come in physical contact with his or her opponent.

Using dominance as an excuse to touch your dog in any way, including jabs with the hand, kicks, jerking on a collar, forcing your dog onto his or her back, or remotely making contact through an electronic collar is absolutely inappropriate. Status in a stable group (whether human, dog, or elephant) is not about who can be the most aggressive or cause the most damage, but rather about who has the most confidence and experience and can therefore be best trusted.

If you have concerns about your dog’s status, the take-home message here is simple: physical aggression is not the answer. Over the next month, we’ll discuss some of the most common misconceptions about dominance hierarchies, including alpha rollovers and how you can be a great leader to your dog. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think. Have you been using dominance theory incorrectly with your dog? How do you make sure that your dog looks to you as a leader? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!