Category Archives: Senses

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!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by colemama on flickr.

Photo by colemama on flickr.

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

-Mary Oliver

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.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Laura Johnson

Photo by Laura Johnson

Dogs respond really well to human laughter.

- Denise Fenzi

Petting Dogs: why consent is important

“Come give Sara a hug goodbye,” my friend tells her 3-year-old son. His eyes get big, and he stands behind his mother, hugging her legs. It’s an uncomfortable moment. My friend is embarrassed that her son clearly doesn’t want to hug me. She wants to teach him manners, and worries how his reaction reflects on her parenting. It’s been so long since we last saw each other that her son barely remembers me, and he’s very uncomfortable with the idea of such an intimate goodbye. I’m also not a fan of the idea, since I don’t want to touch anyone, no matter the age, without his or her express consent, even for something as minor as a brief embrace.

“Do you want to wave goodbye instead?” I ask my friend’s son. He nods and smiles shyly, waving bye-bye. The tension in the room relaxes, and I hug my friend goodbye while her son stands in the background, relief palpable in his demeanor as he waves. I hope that I’ve given both him and his mother the tools to deal with similar situations gracefully in the future. It’s okay if he doesn’t want someone to touch him, and he can always offer an alternate suggestion that he feels more comfortable with.

It’s not okay to touch others without their consent. As grabby primates, this can be a hard rule for us to follow. It’s not okay to rub a stranger’s pregnant belly, or to ruffle a child’s curly hair without her permission. If someone doesn’t want to shake hands or hug, waving or giving a fist bump may be more appropriate. We learn as young children to keep our hands to ourselves, and it’s something that we need to remember our entire lives. It’s also something we need to remember when we interact with dogs.

mona2

Not every dog likes to be touched. Sure, most dogs enjoy petting and scratching, especially in those hard-to-reach areas such as under their collar and along their spine. However, just like us, every dog has a different level of tolerance for physical affection. Some dogs, just like some people, can’t get enough of touch. They’re happiest when they can lean against you, skin-on-skin, and feel your hand caressing them. Other dogs, just like other people, prefer not to be touched except by a handful of those they know and trust, and even then, only at certain times and in certain places.

You wouldn’t run up and hug a stranger who was walking in the park just because you liked the color of his or her eyes, and it’s just as inappropriate to hug or pick up a dog you don’t know just because you think it’s cute. If a stranger approaches your dog and wants to pet him or her, and your dog doesn’t seem comfortable with the idea, it’s absolutely alright to tell that person no. Just as you would stand up for a child or a vulnerable adult who was unable to tell the stranger no, it’s okay to stand up for your dog. Dogs are not public property, and no one has the right to pet your dog unless you and your dog are both okay with them doing so.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t teach your dog to accept petting and to greet people appropriately. Dogs have to live in a world where people will reach out for them without asking first, so give your dog the tools to cope with this gracefully by socializing him appropriately.

If you want to pet a dog, whether it’s your own pet or a dog you just met, make sure that you ask first. Asking the owner is important, but even more importantly, I want you to ask the dog. Ask the dog if he or she wants to be touched, and then respect the answer you’re given.

How do you ask a dog whether she wants to be petted? Dogs aren’t verbal, so they can’t verbally express what they want. However, they do have a complex and nuanced language of their own, and we can watch their body language to determine whether they want to be touched or not.

Start by crouching down a few feet away from the dog you’d like to pet, talking to him or her softly. If the dog approaches, that’s a good sign that she’s interested in interacting with you. If she maintains her distance, that’s an equally good sign that she’s not currently comfortable interacting and that you should give her some space.

Once the dog approaches you, gently pet her under her chin, on her chest, or along her side for 1-2 seconds. Pause and see what she does. If she moves closer to you, leans in, nudges at your hand, or otherwise interacts further with you in a social way, she is telling you that she enjoyed being touched and would like to be petted more. Go ahead and oblige. If she stiffens up, moves away, or does not show any social body language, stop touching her. You do not have her consent to continue putting your hands on her body. This should go without saying, but if the dog shows warning signs such as whale eye, growling, snarling, snapping, or biting at you, stop what you’re doing immediately and give her some space.

Every so often as you’re petting the dog, stop and ask whether she’d like you to continue by watching her body language. Whenever you pet her in a new place on her body or in a new way (for example, ruffling up the fur above her tail instead of softly stroking her shoulder), stop after a few seconds and evaluate whether she enjoyed that. Many dogs have definite preferences about where they enjoy being touched the most, so ask for the dog’s feedback and watch her respond ecstatically as you scritch just the right spot.

If someone else is petting your dog, ask them to follow these same instructions. Watch your dog’s body language, and be ready to redirect the person if your dog becomes uncomfortable.

It’s a sad reflection of our society that I’m often accused of not liking my clients’ dogs upon first meeting them because I don’t immediately try to pet them. People seem hurt and confused that I don’t instantly reach out for their dogs, especially since I clearly love dogs so much. When I explain that I don’t pet dogs without the dog’s consent, it’s often very eye-opening for my clients, who were taught that anyone should be allowed to touch a dog whether the dog wants it or not. These same clients are often amazed that their dogs don’t show the same aggressive behavior towards me that they do towards most visitors to the home, or that their fearful dog warms up to me so quickly. This isn’t magic. It’s just respect. I respect each dog’s right to choose how closely he or she wants to interact with me, and dogs respond to this respect enthusiastically.

Where does your dog most like to be petted? Does he or she like physical affection from strangers or do they prefer to keep their distance? Do you make sure to get new dogs’ consent before you try to pet them? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Opting In

We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).

It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.

Photo by Jesse Moore

Photo by Jesse Moore

We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.

We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.

Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.

One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?

Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.

There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.

If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.

As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?

It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.

Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.

Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.

“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970’s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.

naturevsnurture

A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.

naturevsnurture_bold

On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.

naturevsnurture_fearful

These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

The Myth of the “Normal” Dog

Layla has always hated to be touched. Even as a tiny puppy, she would wiggle and jump around in social situations, moving so much that people couldn’t get their hands on her. If she was restrained, she would snarl ferociously and throw her body about, biting repeatedly in a panic until she was let go. This made veterinary exams and procedures grueling. Petting was out of the question, and anyone stupid enough to try hugging or kissing her was likely to get their face bitten.

With repeated conditioning (pairing touch with rewards), Layla has learned to tolerate handling of all kinds. I can pet her, hug her, and even kiss her without worrying about being bitten. She no longer needs to be sedated for basic procedures like toenail trimming or ear cleaning, and even allows me to give her shots or express her anal glands when necessary. She stands perfectly still at the vet clinic for blood draws, resting her chin in my hands while I gently grasp her collar.

Layla tolerates touch, but she does not enjoy it. Like many people with autism or other sensory processing disorders, she appears to be highly sensitive to touches that most dogs would not even notice. Light pressure and casual touches always prompt stress signals, even though she no longer reacts violently to them.

Layla. Photo by SC Studios.

Deep pressure, on the other hand, appears to be very enjoyable to her. Even as a tiny puppy, Layla would crawl under the covers. In fact, this seemed to be the only way that she could truly relax. She can often be found burrowed underneath a blanket, dog bed, or couch cushion. She enjoys wearing coats and her Thundershirt. She also appears to love it when I slide my hand underneath her side as she’s lying down and gently press upward or scratch her, as she will lean into the pressure. Just as weighted vests and blankets appear to help children with autism “dial down” their nervous systems, Layla appears to benefit from any sort of even, steady pressure.

Owning a dog like Layla can be frustrating. Imagine having a pet who never wants to be petted! It can feel like a personal insult when your beloved dog moves away from you every time you stroke or touch her. When I decided to bring another dog into my life, I told all of my friends and family that this time around, I wanted a “normal” dog.

The idea of the “normal” dog is an appealing one to anyone who deals with behavior problems. It’s also unrealistic and unfair. There is no such thing as “normal.” Normalcy is a lie that we tell ourselves, and it causes so much harm. Think of all of your friends and family. Who’s the most “normal” of all of them? Who’s the most “abnormal?”

Normalcy is a mental construct that we build in our minds based on our culture and our individual past history, but it’s also an unachievable standard. There is no such thing as a “normal” dog, just as there’s no such thing as a “normal” person.

Many of the behaviors that we consider abnormal are in truth entirely sane responses to the artificial and unnatural environment that we expect our dogs (and ourselves!) to cope with on a daily basis. Layla’s aversion to touch is an entirely normal response for her unique nervous system. Another one of my dogs, Dobby, seeks out touch and relaxes the most when he can snuggle up with me or with another dog. The way that he desires and is reassured by touch is entirely normal for his nervous system.

In this same vein, separation anxiety is an entirely normal response for a social animal that is kept in isolation for long hours without being taught coping skills. Leash reactivity is an entirely normal response for a dog who desires more distance from people or animals that concern her. When we look at each dog’s genetic make-up, past history, and current environment, we can begin understanding why that dog behaves in the way that he or she does. We can move past the idea of normal or abnormal behavior.

Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice. She is an individual, and comparing her to some ideal dog prevents you from celebrating her as an individual. Just as each of your friends and family members is special and unique, so too is your dog. What charms or delights you about your dog? What makes you laugh? What makes you proud? Is it worth it to shove a square peg into a round hole if doing so will damage the peg?

Words have power, and I think we need to be incredibly careful how we use them. Saying that you want a “normal” dog implies that your current dog is somehow less than ideal, and primes your brain to accept nothing less than your idea of perfection: a standard that no real dog will ever be able to meet.

Layla does not fit into our society’s concept of a “normal” pet dog. She doesn’t want to be touched, she opens gates and refrigerator doors, and she kills and eats any small critter she finds. That’s okay! She’s a fascinating individual, and I feel incredibly honored to know her. The relationship that we’ve built based on her uniqueness is special, and will never be replicated with any other dog. The more I listen to what she “tells” me, the more I learn about that wonderful spark that makes her who she is.

Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

At Paws Abilities, we use clickers in our training program. Whether working with a new puppy, an experienced competitive obedience dog, or a dog-aggressive and anxious pooch, we find that the clicker serves to clarify and speed up our training program. The trainers at Shedd and other zoos and aquariums worldwide agree.

A trainer at Shedd holds his whistle in his mouth, ready to mark this Beluga whale for performing the “elevator” behavior on cue. Photo by John Kroll.

Clickers and other marker signals are referred to as bridges in the animal training community. This is because the click sound “bridges” the time between when the animal performs a correct behavior and when the trainer is able to deliver the reward.

Any signal can be used as a bridge. We use clickers in dog training because they are cheap, easy to use, and distinct. Many marine mammal and pinniped trainers use whistles, as the sound carries through the water and leaves their hands free to handle training tools or deliver fish. Advanced animals can be transitioned to a verbal bridge such as “yes” or “good” for known behaviors. Verbal markers aren’t recommended for novice trainers or animals as they are less distinct and precise than a mechanical signal, but can be helpful for more advanced teams in certain situations.

Bridges do not have to be auditory. I use a “thumbs up” signal for my dogs, and we oftentimes use this same signal for deaf dogs in our program. A flash of light or the vibration of a collar could also serve the same purpose. Many of the animals at Shedd were conditioned to a tactile bridge, where the trainer would pat the sea lion or dolphin on their side in a specific way to mark the behavior they liked.

Whatever bridging stimulus you decide to use, Ken emphasized that it’s important for it to be distinct and easy to replicate. It should serve no other purpose in the animal’s environment.

So, why use a marker signal at all? What makes the clicker or whistle so powerful?

Marker signals allow trainers to be accurate and precise. By clicking or whistling at the exact moment your animal performs the correct behavior, you can help him to learn more quickly exactly what it is you like. It’s often difficult or even impossible to deliver a food reward or secondary reinforcer to the animal at the precise instant he does what you want, but by using a marker we can still communicate to him exactly what earned that reward.

Furthermore, the bridge can be transferred from trainer to trainer easily, allowing a wider variety of trainers to work with one animal. When an animal understands to listen, watch, or feel for the bridging stimulus, he concentrates more fully on the task at hand instead of focusing on the food or other reward.

Novice trainers often worry that they will need to carry a clicker with them for the rest of their dog’s life. Nonsense! The clicker allows us to teach your dog more quickly and easily. It’s simply another teaching tool. Once your dog understands the behavior, it’s easy to fade the clicker.

What bridging signals do you use to train your dog? Do you use different signals in different environments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!