Category Archives: Dog-Dog Issues

Brittle Dogs

Raven is a petite little mix of a dog. Dainty and precise, her movements are as graceful as a dance and she never seems to put a paw out of place. Her long legs and tail, sleek, short coat, and sharp muzzle remind me a bit of a canine supermodel. She learns new tricks at the drop of a hat (or a clicker, as the case may be), and is highly obedient.

Raven is beautiful and intelligent. She’s also alarmingly unstable.

Photo by Chris Suderman

Photo by Chris Suderman

The problem doesn’t lie in Raven’s owners. They’re lovely people, experienced in dog care and training. When they brought Raven home at 10 weeks of age, they started her in puppy classes right away and socialized her diligently. She became very friendly, playful, and polite with unfamiliar people and dogs, and enjoyed going to new places.

Then Raven had a scary thing happen to her. Late at night while her owners were walking her, a neighbor set off a firework. Just as the firework boomed, Raven noticed another neighbor walking past in the dark. She panicked, fighting and pulling to get home. Her owners were unable to calm her, and in her frenzy she was like a wild animal. By the time they got home, all three were exhausted, and Raven’s owners were very confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

After that scary night, Raven became highly reactive towards strangers after dark. She would lunge and bark at them, eyes huge. She was constantly on alert. Her owners started working on basic counterconditioning exercises with her and tried to get her walk in before dark each night. They were relieved that Raven was still friendly towards everyone she met during the day, and continued her socialization.

Then something else happened – this time, a painful procedure at the vet. Suddenly, Raven became afraid of new indoor environments. Taking her to new buildings became nearly impossible because she would refuse to go through the doors. She was on alert all the time in new places. She wouldn’t take treats or toys.

This pattern continued. Every time something even a little bit scary or uncomfortable happened, Raven’s behavior would shift dramatically. Her owners had never encountered fear reactions as intense as Raven’s before, and were at a loss about what to do. They had used the same socialization and training program successfully with multiple previous dogs. Nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to Raven. Yet within a year of the first incident, Raven’s owners found themselves living in a bubble.

Everything frightened their previously social and charming dog. Her owners no longer had company in their house because she barked at visitors. They no longer went on walks or took her with them to eat at outdoor restaurants. They brought a trainer into their home, but fired her after Raven’s behavior vastly deteriorated with the use of an electronic collar and some “hard love.” They talked to their vet about anxiety medication, and Raven started on Prozac.

So, what was going wrong?

Dogs are an amazingly adaptive species. They’ve evolved and been selected by us to live in every climate, every living situation, and with every species. Dogs guard vast herds of sheep in mountainous regions, trot down the busy Manhattan sidewalk amidst throngs of people, and work as a team to pull sleds in the frozen north. Dogs are kept as companions to adolescent Cheetahs in zoos. They guide the blind, sniff out explosives, and provide companionship.

Most dogs are every bit as adaptive as the history of their species would lead us to expect. With appropriate socialization, they can handle new problems with aplomb. Yet occasionally, I encounter a dog like Raven. These dogs do great as long as nothing bad ever happens, but fall apart at the seams when they encounter something frightening or uncomfortable. Once something has caused this general breakdown once, they seem to spiral even further down the rabbit hole, never recovering to their previous level of confidence. These are what I call “brittle” dogs, and if you’ve never lived with one, you can count yourself lucky.

Think of most dogs like a rubber band. If you pull on them a bit by exposing them to a situation that they were not socialized to as little pups, they may stretch out slightly, but will eventually return to their usual shape once the situation has returned to normal. They get stressed, but they have the coping skills to recover. They’re stretchy and flexible.

Other dogs, like Raven or like my dog Trout, are more like old rubber bands that have dried out. They look just like other dogs from the outside, but their core strength and elasticity is missing. If these dogs get stretched too far, they break. They shatter like glass, and no matter how hard their owners work to put the pieces back together, they’ll never be able to be used like a regular rubber band. They can only handle a little bit of stretch, and then they snap apart instead of snapping back together.

If you have a brittle dog and you know that your dog’s puppyhood and socialization were solid, there’s very likely to be a genetic component. These dogs are just wired differently. Nature provides lots of variety in the way it mixes the genetic cocktail of each dog who’s born. Variety is the stuff of survival, and desirable traits help their host live on to pass on the superior genetic advantage, while undesirable traits cause the host to die out. Except that our undesirable dogs are lucky enough to live in an environment where very little to no natural culling takes place. They don’t die out. They come to live with exceptional people like Raven’s owners, people who do their very best to help their dog become a normal rubber band.

Raven was four years old when I met her, but the truth is that she could have been any age. Had she not been startled by the stranger at the exact moment fireworks went off, or had she not had to have a painful veterinary procedure shortly after that, or had any of the other perfect storm of bad experiences not happened to her, she would probably be a happy, outgoing dog to this day. Bad luck and bad genetics ganged up on her and her owners in a very unpleasant way, and so instead of a bright and charming dog I met a stressed and fearful one who was absolutely not equipped to deal with my presence in her home.

So, what can you do if you suspect that you have a brittle dog?

1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Remember that socialization refers to giving your dog positive experiences. Use treats, toys, and play to make new experiences fun and rewarding. Since brittle dogs put so much more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, you need to make sure that the vast weight of your dog’s positive experiences can override the potential fear of one bad experience. Consider a dog who’s had thousands of good experiences with other dogs, meeting polite dogs and having a blast playing with them. This dog is much more likely to recover from being attacked by an unfamiliar dog than one who has only had five, ten, or even one hundred positive experiences with members of her own species.

2. On that same note, classically condition everything. Anytime your dog hears thunder or fireworks, meets a new person, goes to the vet, or encounters something new, turn the experience into a fun game using treats, toys, and play. Brittle dogs need extra feedback to know that novelty is not something to be feared, but rather an occasion to engage their curiousity. Since we know that brittle dogs develop fears and phobias more easily than most members of their species, the best thing we can do is to change their emotional response to new situations to one of joy and excitement.

3. Protect your dog. Brittle dogs are more fragile than most, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Since one bad experience could cause a dramatic shift in your dog’s ability to cope, take extra care to only expose your brittle dog to situations that you know he or she can handle. Understand that I’m not telling you to wrap your dog in bubble wrap – it’s still important to let him be a dog and to encourage him to explore new opportunities. But do be sure that you’re not setting him up to fail. Brittle dogs, for example, should not be dog park dogs, because you don’t know whether the other dogs at the park are always going to be friendly. A stable dog would be able to deal with the occasional snarky or possessive dog encounter at the dog park, but your brittle dog can’t. Instead, set up safer doggy play sessions by walking and enjoying off-leash time with known stable and friendly dogs.

4. Proactively teach your dog coping skills. Don’t just assume that your brittle dog can handle new situations. Instead, prepare him for each situation he’ll need to handle ahead of time. Teach him general relaxation skills using the Protocol for Relaxation, for example, or do some pretend blood draws while feeding peanut butter by gently restraining him, splashing cool water or alcohol on his leg, and poking his vein with a capped pen to prepare him for an upcoming vet visit. If you wait to work with your dog until he shows you where the problem areas in his socialization lie, it may be too late. Instead, assume that everything requires some proactive involvement on your part and avoid those issues altogether. Remember, an ounce of prevention will save you from a pound of cure!

5. Consider medications. Like Raven’s owners, you may find that your dog has a true chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected by medical intervention. Just as some dogs need insulin or thyroid supplementation, some brittle dogs need daily medication to increase the available serotonin in their system. Medications can also assist your brittle dog in overcoming new fears. A veterinary behaviorist is the best person to work with as you figure out which meds will be the most helpful.

So, do you have a dog who was given all of the proper socialization and early training but who just can’t cope with stress, or is your dog flexible and stable? And what about those “brittle” dogs who didn’t get the right socialization – how are they different? We’ll explore that topic next week! In the meantime, 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!

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!

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!

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!

Socializing your Dog: an Illustrated Guide

Thanks to Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for collaborating with me on this socialization poster! You can click on the picture below to view the full sized version. Lili and I have previously worked together to create the illustrated guide to playing with your dog.

SocializingYourDog17x22

Do you have any socialization tips or tricks? Please share them in the comments below!

Should I get an Invisible Fence?

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.

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

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:

  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards visitors on the property. This is by far the most common problem owners of invisibly fenced dogs encounter. This is also absolutely predictable from a behavioral standpoint. In our human example at the start of this article, you saw how this problem could develop over time.Even dogs who have a very clear understanding of how these collars work and who know the boundaries of their yard will make mistakes from time to time. Remember that dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-4 year old child. Would you expect a young child to always remember exactly how far they were allowed to venture?Dogs are most likely to make mistakes when they are excited, such as when people or other dogs walk past. At this point, classical conditioning (the Pavlov stuff) takes hold: the dog experiences a sting from the collar when he happens to be looking at that dog or person, and associates the unpleasant sensation with that dog or person. If this happens multiple times, dogs will naturally begin to react negatively when they are in their yard and they see a person or another dog. They do this not because they’re a bad dog, but because they have made negative associations with similar situations in the past. Some dogs will become fearful and tremble, hide, or shut down, but most respond aggressively in these situations, warning the person or dog away by barking. If that doesn’t work, they may escalate to lunging, snapping, or biting in their attempts to drive away the thing that they believe to be responsible for their pain.
  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards people or animals off the property. Closely following the problem of unwanted behaviors on the home turf is the likelihood of these behaviors bleeding into all social interactions. The connection between a dog’s sudden behavioral change towards people on walks and his owner’s use of an electronic containment system isn’t always readily apparent, but some detailed history taking will usually reveal the relationship between the two. In fact, one of the questions on my intake questionnaire for every behavioral case includes which tools an owner has used for their dog. It’s so common for fear or aggression issues to develop 4-8 months after the installation of one of these systems that I find it necessary to screen for it.
  • Noise phobias. Just as a dog may associate the approach of people with being shocked, many dogs will become sensitive to the beeping sound that predicts this sensation. This becomes a problem when dogs generalize this connection to similar sounds. Think of all the beeping noises in your everyday environment: your microwave, your computer, your phone, your alarm… we live in a world of beeps. Now imagine that you expected to get stung every time you heard one of these noises. What a terrifying existence! This fear can cause dogs to become generally anxious, where they are always on edge, or can cause less obvious problems. If the dog associates a beeping sound with a certain behavior, he will often become reluctant to do that behavior again out of fear. If he associates it with a person, he may act nervous around that person in the future. Likewise, he may begin avoiding areas of the house in which he frequently hears beeping sounds because he doesn’t know where the boundaries in that area are, or he may freeze in fear upon hearing a beep, afraid to move lest he cross a boundary and receive a shock.
  • Fence darting. Some dogs may not ever display fearful or aggressive behaviors as a result of their confinement with an underground fencing system, but will push the boundaries of that confinement. Many predatory or excitable dogs are quite willing to take the shock in order to chase a bunny or squirrel or to rush a dog being walked past. Unfortunately, they’re usually not as willing to take a second shock in order to come back into their yard. Other tricksy dogs will test the fence, waiting until the collar no longer beeps. Once the battery dies (and there is no more beep at the edge of the property), the dog is free to roam at will. Speaking from experience (I worked at an open admission shelter that took in stray dogs picked up by animal control), electronic fences aren’t a reliable way to keep a determined dog in one place. Shelters and impound facilities are full of dogs wearing invisible fence collars.
  • Generalized fear issues. Young or sensitive dogs may react very badly to the introduction of an underground fence system. These dogs sometimes become fearful of their yard and are unwilling to go outside. Many of these fearful dogs will lose or backslide on their housetraining as they would rather soil the house than risk going outside, which they have associated with pain.
  • Safety concerns. Even if your dog doesn’t ever leave the yard and never experiences any unwanted behavioral fallout, it’s important to remember that the use of an electronic containment system doesn’t protect him from outside dangers.  Aggressive dogs, coyotes, or other dangerous wildlife can still enter your yard and attack your dog, whose ability to maneuver and avoid them is limited when he’s wearing his collar. People can also enter your property, either to willfully molest your dog (which is rare, but does happen, especially with groups of children) or not knowing that your dog is there. If your dog injures someone who has come onto your property, you could be liable. Unattended dogs may be stolen from their properties by people who remove the dog’s collar, then resell the stolen dog or use them as “bait” dogs.

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.]

Helping People Enjoy Their Dogs

It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.

And they were failing miserably.

Photo by Rosa Money

Photo by Rosa Money

They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.

The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.

When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.

The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.

This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.

Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.

It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.

The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.

This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then.  Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.

So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.

Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.

I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made.  And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.

This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.

Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.

Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

What is reactivity?

As a young dog, Layla would frequently erupt in frenzied barking on walks. The target of her barking varied: other dogs, children, creepy gnome statues in yards, or an unexpected noise could all trigger her noisy reaction. Once she started barking, it was difficult to calm her. She had a hard time focusing and responded reluctantly to redirection. Sometimes I would just have to drag her away, still barking for all she was worth and lunging at the end of her leash.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

While it comes in many different forms, reactivity is a common behavior problem that many people encounter at some point in their dogs’ lives. Simply put, reactivity can be defined as an overreaction to external stimuli. Dogs may be reactive to people, dogs, other animals, noises, motion, or any combination of the above. Some dogs are very specifically reactive, only responding to certain things (men with baseball caps; large, black dogs; skateboards) while some seem to react to anything. This overreaction can manifest as hyperexcitability, barking, whining, lunging, mouthing, pacing, panting, difficulty responding to well-known cues, difficulty calming down, hypervigilance, or any combination of the above.

Many of the behaviors that mark reactivity are also normal canine behaviors in certain contexts. The defining factor is whether the dog’s behavior is warranted in that situation or whether the dog is overreacting. It’s normal behavior for a dog to bark once or twice if they are startled by a loud and unusual noise. It’s abnormal for that same dog to bark frantically for ten minutes at a stretch every time the wind causes a tree branch to brush up against the house. It’s normal for your adolescent dog to get a little wiggly and excited when he spies a new dog while out walking. It’s abnormal for him to scream and lunge at the end of his leash every time he sees a new dog.

If you’re not sure whether your dog’s behavior is reactive or not, it’s worthwhile to consult with a professional. Reactivity can be motivated by overexcitement, frustration, anxiety, fear, protectiveness, defensiveness, or neurochemical imbalances. Regardless of its motivation, reactive behavior is treated with similar methods (barring a neurochemical imbalance, which requires medication alongside training). It’s important not to punish your dog for reactivity, as this will only increase your dog’s emotional arousal and ultimately may make the problem worse. Instead, work with your dog to teach him new ways to communicate his excitement, frustration, or anxiety, and help him learn how to control himself in the face of triggers.

Next week we will discuss how to work with most reactive dogs. In the meantime, please share your dog’s story in the comments below. Is your dog reactive? When did this behavior develop, and why do you think it happened? What have you found the most helpful to resolve your dog’s reactivity?