Category Archives: Science and Geekery

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!

5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs

In recent weeks, we’ve discussed fearful and brittle dogs. Some dogs can have the best start in life and still grow up with behavioral concerns. Other dogs missed out on critical socialization experiences as puppies, which impacted their development. But what about dogs who have had it even worse? How does trauma impact dogs?

Some of the dogs we take into our homes don’t just come from neglectful pasts but have lived with outright abuse. Sometimes this abuse has been due to mistreatment at the hands of a past owner, and sometimes it has happened in the current home despite to the owner’s very best intentions. Trauma has a lifelong impact on many dogs.

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Training is still an unregulated field, which means that there are still many so-called trainers who use aversive training techniques to address behavioral problems. There’s a reason why the AVSAB, the organization for the premier experts in animal behavior, has a position statement regarding the use of punishment in training. Manufacturing fear or avoidance in an already panicked animal does not create an environment where critical learning can take place. I’ve heard of trainers shocking dogs who suffer from separation anxiety for barking in their crates, hanging dog-aggressive dogs by their neck when they lunged at others, and strapping electronic collars to dogs’ genitals in the name of behavior modification.

Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it is up to you to put your foot down and protect your dog. Even something as seemingly mild as squirting a reactive dog with a water bottle or gently placing a frightened dog into a fear-inducing situation (such as setting a dog who is afraid of slippery floors onto the middle of the kitchen floor) and preventing that dog from leaving can have long-lasting consequences. While you may have had the best intentions when you followed the advice of the trainer on TV or tried a technique that your coworker swears by, if your dog responded by panicking or shutting down and if you’ve noticed that your dog’s behavior has deteriorated since that time, it’s possible that your dog could be experiencing a canine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

PTSD is most well-known as a disorder frequently experienced by veterans, but any survivor of trauma may experience the symptoms. Little is known about why some individuals experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating while others who were present in the same event can emerge unscathed.

Extreme fear oftentimes results in altered perceptions of the event. Triggers associated with the fearful event do not engage the hippocampus, which is usually responsible for memory, but rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. Strong flashbacks to the original panic state can be instantaneous, and are not under the dog’s conscious control. Just as you’re unable to control the contraction or dilation of your pupils when you feel strong emotions, a dog experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms such as this is absolutely unable to stop feeling the way he does in the moment.

The triggers for this flashback state may not make logical sense. Scents, textures, certain movements, and even the time of day can all trigger this instant fear reaction. While some triggers are easily explained, such as Layla flinching and dropping to the floor the first time I carried a rolled up newspaper into the house or a previous foster dog slinking away if he smelled alcohol on a visitor’s breath, others are less easy to tease apart and may never be completely identified. A foster dog several years ago would occasionally yelp when he was touched, even after soliciting attention, but the vet could find nothing physically wrong and his quick fear reaction never manifested twice when the same area of his body was touched. Another dog that I’m working with right now will begin trembling for no apparent reason several times a week, hiding under the bed and occasionally voiding her bladder in terror. While her owners are keeping diligent notes, they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of these episodes.

If your dog has a history of trauma, whether suspected or confirmed, here are some guidelines to remember.

1. The dog determines what’s traumatizing, not you. While you may not have thought that holding your dog down for a simple nail trim was that big a deal, your dog may have a different opinion. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress such as lip licking, yawning, slower or faster movement, freezing, and turning away so that you can intervene if a situation starts to go south. Pushing through such situations can almost guarantee that they’ll create new fear triggers in many dogs.

2. Create safe places. One of the reasons that mat work is so very helpful for so many dogs is due to its clear structure of safety. By making the mat a positive place where treats, relaxation, and massage take place, we can create a positive conditioned emotional response to the mere presence of this training tool. Once the mat becomes a safe place, make sure to keep it that way. Don’t let anything bad happen to your dog on the mat. You can create other safe spaces as well – places in your dog’s environment where good things happen and where there is no pressure placed on the dog.

3. Give your dog choices. One of the fastest ways to traumatize any mammal is to take away all of his or her choices. Manufacture opportunities for your dog to make choices about his or her environment, schedule, and care as much as possible. Whether you let your dog decide which way to turn at the end of the block, wait for your dog to offer a foot for nail trimming, play with nose work, or give your dog several different beds to choose to sleep on, choice is hugely important. Set your dog up to make good choices, then reward those choices to build the dog’s confidence.

4. Always try to end on a good note. Research has shown that people who experienced identically unpleasant procedures created very different memories of those procedures depending on how traumatic the final moments of the procedure were. While we don’t know whether dogs have the same cognitive recall abilities, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to make the last few seconds of any unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible. For example, Layla is very concerned about having her feet handled. I file her nails instead of clipping them because this is more comfortable for her, and she is in control of how fast or slow nail trimming sessions go. She is also free to leave at any time if she gets too scared. At the end of every nail-trimming session, I practice simply touching the nail file to her toenails for less than a second, followed by a food reward. Because each session ends with these quick successes, she’s more comfortable allowing me to handle her feet when it comes time for the next session.

5. Your dog is not his story. If your dog has a history of trauma, it’s important to be aware of that past, but equally important to help your dog succeed in the present. Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects. See your dog for who he is in the moment, rather than who you expect him to be. He may surprise you.

If your dog has a history of trauma, make sure to read the posts on fearful and brittle dogs for more tips on helping him recover, and please share your stories in the comments below!

Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

“Needs Training”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get to” or “Have to”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is this really the best way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Does Breed Matter?

Last week I revealed the results of Trout’s Wisdom Panel DNA analysis. So, what good does it do us to know the breed or breed mix that makes up our dogs?

I personally think it can be quite helpful to know the breed mix of a dog I’m working with. But I also know from extensive experience that focusing on a dog’s breed can get people in a lot of trouble. Let’s discuss why it might be helpful to know your dog’s genetic background… and why it doesn’t always matter as much as you think.

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Firstly, the benefits: Knowing a bit more about what your dog’s ancestors were bred for can give you special insight into what makes your dog tick. Quite a lot of behavior is driven (at least in part) by genetics. If you want a dog to move your flock of sheep, you’re going to have a higher likelihood of success using a Border Collie than a Bloodhound. If you want a dog to catch and kill rats in your barn, starting with a Patterdale Terrier will give you a greater likelihood of success than if you brought home a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

While Trout is usually quite biddable, she becomes very independent and more likely to ignore me when she’s chasing critters off leash. That makes sense with her breed background: both working hounds and terriers were originally bred to have greater-than-average focus on prey animals of various types. Trout also bays loudly when she’s chasing another animal, a trait that her hound ancestors would have been selected for.

So, knowing what to expect can be an important facet that your dog’s breed brings to the way you care for and train that dog. Knowing which motor patterns a dog is likely to display may change the way I initially work with that dog. I’m much more likely to offer a chase game to a sighthound, a tug game to a terrier, and a piece of food to a Labrador in the beginning stages of training. That hound may really enjoy tugging and the terrier may love to chase, but it helps to stack the deck in my favor if I start with the knowledge of that breed’s typical tendencies (such as most Labs’ desire to eat anything remotely resembling food). Once I’ve gotten to know the dog as an individual I will adjust each training program to perfectly suit that dog, but in the beginning stages it’s a good idea to start with offering rewards the dog is likely to find appealing based on his ancestry.

Knowing a dog’s breed background can also give us important insights about areas where we should exercise caution. If Trout’s results had come back with strong herding breed heritage, my vet and I may have used that information in formulating her heartworm preventative program because we know that some collie-type dogs are sensitive to Ivermectin (a common ingredient in heartworm meds). Had she come back as a Flatcoated Retriever, I would be very aware of the risk of cancer. If she had a long back I would be more cautious about activities that could result in a herniated disc. Since she has the floppy ears of a hound, I’ll be careful to clean her ears after she swims or gets bathed since I know that floppy-eared dogs are more prone to ear infections than those with erect ears.

Behaviorally, we can also use general breed knowledge to avoid issues. My dogs are both terrier mixes, a breed type that tends to be more aggressive towards other animals than, say, retrievers or toy breeds. Knowing this, I choose not to leave the two girls unsupervised together. Even though they generally get along beautifully, the risk of a dog fight happening when I’m not home to do something about it is higher than if they were both Maltese. Owners of German Shepherds, Cane Corsos, and other guardian breeds should not be surprised if their dog begins to display suspicion of strangers between 6-18 months of age, any more than the owner of an Australian Shepherd or Corgi should be surprised if their dog nips at their children’s heels when they run or the owner of a Husky or Jindo should be taken aback when their dog repeatedly escapes their fenced-in yard to run about the neighborhood.

So, knowing your dog’s breed can be helpful. However, focusing on your dog’s breed without first looking at your dog as an individual can do an enormous amount of damage.

I’m frequently educated about breeds by my students. Having fostered over 100 dogs of various breeds and worked with everything from Dogo Argentinos to Coton de Tular, I’m very familiar with most breed traits. And I can tell you that while breed is important, it is much less important than many people think.

It can be helpful to think of your dog’s breed in the same way that you think of your human family. Genetics influences behavior, but so does environment. Furthermore, individuals within a breed will each receive slightly different genetic packages, even if certain genetic markers remain constant within that breed. Think of it this way: you and your siblings are not carbon copies, and neither are dogs. Your family probably has a few commonalities, but judging your new dog based on your previous dog is every bit as unfair as your kindergarten teacher judging you based on your older brother’s behavior in her class last year.

Dogs are individuals, and we need to look at them first as individuals. Making excuses based on your dog’s breed is every bit as misguided a generalization as saying that children from bad homes can never amount to anything.  If your Golden Retriever hates the water or your Malinois is totally uninterested in toys there’s nothing wrong with them, just as there’s nothing wrong with me for not liking spicy food even though my mother and brother both love it. While hounds and terriers are both high-energy dogs, Trout is much calmer than her ancestry would suggest – a trait that’s quite individual to her own unique personality.

In the end, dogs’ breeds can give us helpful insights into what behaviors and health issues to expect. However, these are just generalities which may or may not apply to your individual dog. The best service you can do your dog is to view him or her as an individual. Spend time getting to know your dog and enjoy those unique quirks that make your dog who they are.