Category Archives: Stress

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!

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.

When Jumping isn’t Friendly

In our last blog, we discussed how to deal with dogs who jump up in a friendly manner. Most dogs who jump up on people do so out of excitement or greeting. However, there are also other reasons why dogs may jump, and it’s helpful to be able to discriminate between friendly jumping and these other reasons. Let’s discuss some less common reasons that dogs may jump up on people.

While jumping is generally friendly, some dogs will also jump on people as a way to communicate. The character of this behavior is very different. Communication can have a couple different goals. Sometimes, dogs will jump as a way to communicate their discomfort with your proximity. Other times, dogs will jump up to ask you for help. So, how can you tell the difference between friendly jumping and jumping as communication? It’s all about context.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away. Photo by Brian Thompson.

Distance-increasing jumping, also sometimes referred to as height seeking, is displayed when a dog is uncomfortable with you and wants you to give her space. This may initially appear friendly or may seem frantic, but ultimately it’s important to respect the dog’s discomfort and move away (or move the dog away from the other person if you’re her owner). Dogs who jump in this way may be more forceful in the way they bounce off your body than a dog who simply wants to be stroked or greeted. They will have a closed mouth and tight face. If you attempt to pet a dog who is jumping up in a distance-increasing manner, she may jump even more forcefully, perhaps even punching you with her muzzle, or may skitter away so that you can’t touch her.

Distance-increasing jumping is usually a sign of a dog who feels anxious or conflicted about your presence. Layla is a great example of a dog who jumps in this manner. While she enjoys meeting people, she does not like to be touched, and is often very anxious that new people will try to pet her. When she meets someone new, she will stress up, bouncing around with a high, quickly wagging tail. Her pupils dilate, and if the person attempts to pet her she will bounce off their belly forcefully (we jokingly call this the “double-ovary punch,” but it’s no joke to the person who’s on the receiving end of her punches).

If your dog jumps in a distance-increasing manner, it’s a clear plea for help. Jumping in this way means that your dog isn’t comfortable in the social situation she’s found herself in and needs your help getting out of that situation. In Layla’s case, I keep her on a leash or behind a gate when first introducing her to new people. Once she’s calmed down I allow her more freedom, but not until after instructing the new person not to pet her unless she requests that attention by sitting or lying down next to them and leaning in. Layla usually prefers to sniff new people with a low, softly wagging tail while they ignore her or verbally acknowledge her without trying to touch her in any way. After meeting them, she will relax and lie near them. Knowing that I will not let strangers touch her has gone a long way towards relieving Layla’s social anxiety and preventing her from bouncing off new people.

Other than distance-increasing jumping, some dogs will also jump up to ask their owner or another person they trust for help. This is most frequently seen at the dog park, vet clinic, or other unfamiliar social situations. If your dog jumps up on you in these situations and either paws at you, tries to climb your body to get in your arms, or stretches upwards and keeps their paws on your body while looking at your face, they are probably asking for help.

If your dog jumps on you to ask for help in a situation that makes him uncomfortable, it’s important to respond proactively to him. Ignoring his pleas for help will teach him that you are unreliable in those situations and that he has to take matters into his own paws, which often results in a dog who lunges, growls, snaps, or bites in situations that make him uncomfortable. Remember, dogs don’t just “get over” issues, and exposure alone is not the same as socialization. If you teach your dog that you will help him get out of uncomfortable situations he will be more likely to look to you for guidance in the future. Be a trustworthy presence in your dog’s life.

While less common than friendly jumping, height-seeking and pleas for help are both legitimate reasons for dogs to jump on people. Understanding your dog’s attempt at communication is one of the best ways to get control of this jumping, as training alone likely won’t resolve these kinds of jumping unless the underlying emotional insecurity is addressed at the same time.

Why does your dog jump up? Please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.

“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!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Sea Turtle on flickr

Photo by Sea Turtle on flickr

There’s nothing like a good social network to minimize stress.

-Simon Gadbois

Why Dogs Hump (Spoiler Alert: it’s not all about dominance)

Last summer, I house-sat for my parents while they went on vacation. Neither of their pets, a 14-year-old cat and an 11-year-old dog, do well being boarded, and it was much less stressful for me to stay with them than it would have been to send them somewhere.

I brought my dogs with me, so it was a very full household. Their elderly Lab cross, Duke, already knew Layla quite well. However, he wasn’t as familiar with my youngest pup, Mischief. This posed a bit of a problem.

Duke

Duke

You see, like many dogs, Duke tends to default to humping when he’s stressed or unsure. Any time my dogs would start to play, Duke’s lips would stretch back towards his ears, his brow would furrow, and he would grab Mischief with his front paws, attempting to mount her. With the forty-pound size difference between the two dogs, this did not make Mischief happy. Being a fairly socially savvy dog, she would spin around to face him when he did this, the doggy version of “knock that off,” and if that didn’t work she would escalate to snapping at him, saying, “no really, I mean it.”

Of course, knowing that Duke was likely to hump Mischief when he became anxious or excited, my boyfriend and I were able to prevent this behavior most of the time. When Duke started to circle towards Mischief, we would say his name, redirecting him to move towards us for praise and petting. When we had visitors over and Duke hit his limit of the amount of excitement he could stand before he could no longer make good choices, I put him on leash. If we couldn’t supervise the dogs, one or the other of them was crated.

Humping is a common behavior in dogs and is seen in both males and females, whether they are fixed or not. While it is most often attributed to “dominance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Dominance refers to priority access to a resource, and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access to food, toys, space, or anything else tangible. So, why do dogs hump? Here are the most common motivations behind humping in dogs:

Arousal: Once a dog hits a certain level of excitement, that energy has to go somewhere. Some dogs express their joy by doing “zoomies,” where they tuck their butt and sprint as fast as they can in circles. Some bark. Some hump.

Anxiety: Like Duke, most humpers whose owners seek my help are quite anxious. Anxiety leads to arousal, and as we saw above that leads to humping. Technically, canine behavior experts call this a “displacement” behavior. When the dog becomes anxious, he or she may scratch, sniff, dig, or hump. People display displacement behaviors too (although luckily humping is not usually one of them!): we check our phones, play with our hair, or look at our watch when we’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

Play: Play is interesting. When dogs or other mammals play, they mix up a bunch of behaviors in new sequences. These behaviors have very useful roots: chasing, stalking, and pouncing are useful hunting behaviors; mouthing and wrestling are useful fighting behaviors; and humping is a useful sexual behavior. Some biologists believe that play is practice for the real world. By mixing all of these useful behaviors up with some other signals that mean “just kidding, I’m still playing and not really planning to eat you for dinner,” dogs get a chance
to practice moving their bodies in ways that could increase their chances of surviving a situation where the behaviors were needed for real.

Status: While this is a common attribution for humping, dogs almost never use humping as a form of status seeking or as a display of status. In fact, in over ten years of training, I’ve only met one dog who appeared to use humping as a means of status seeking. (And even in that case, the dog was also pretty insecure, so the humping was more likely caused by her anxiety than by her desire to climb the social ladder.)

It just feels good: Frankly, dogs just like to hump sometimes. All mammals masturbate, and some dogs will hump a favorite toy or pillow. From a behavioral standpoint, there’s no reason not to let Fido or Fifi have a little “me time” on occasion behind closed doors as long as it’s not causing problems. Before Dobby’s seizure disorder took over his life, he and Mischief would often hump each other when they were playing. As long as both dogs seemed okay with it I wouldn’t interrupt them (although I would ask them to take it outside). That doesn’t mean it’s always okay, though: I draw the line at humping people, and if my dogs do this I redirect them and teach them more appropriate ways to interact with humans.

So there you have it. Humping is a normal doggy behavior, albeit a somewhat embarrassing one for those of us on the other end of the leash. As for Duke, he’s long since stopped his anxious and inappropriate response to Mischief. Now that he’s gotten to know her better, he can play appropriately with her without resorting to humping. In fact, he just spent the past five days with her, and didn’t need to be redirected a single time… a relief for everyone involved.

Does your dog ever hump? Why do you think this happens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dave Fayram

Photo by Dave Fayram

The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.

- Colleen Pelar

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!

Socializing your Dog: an Illustrated Guide

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

SocializingYourDog17x22

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

Myth: Anxiety Medication Should Only be used as a Last Resort

I’ve written about medicating anxious dogs before, and it’s such an important topic that I want to touch on it again. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this subject.The idea that anxiety medication should only be used after everything else has been tried is so sad and harmful, and is a myth I encounter on a regular basis. Let’s clear up some of the fog surrounding this common misconception.

Photo by Heather

Photo by Heather

Before we get any further, please remember that I am not a veterinarian and I don’t play one on the internet. The information contained in this blog is not meant to diagnose or prescribe, and is only provided for your information. I’m drawing from my experience as a certified veterinary technician, canine behavior consultant, and the owner of an anxious dog to educate you, but your best resource is always going to be a licensed veterinarian.

So, let’s start with what we know. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology have shown us that anxious or depressed people and animals often display significant physical changes to certain areas of their brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and executing activities) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). We know that fear and anxiety are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and that emotional pain actually shares some of the same neural pathways with physical pain. That’s why we talk about profound grief or panic “hurting” – it physically impacts our bodies.

This is huge. We know that panic and worry “hurt.” Why the hell would you not treat this pain? If your dog were bleeding every day, wouldn’t you treat the wound? Would you wait to splint a broken bone because you wanted to “try everything else first”? Would you wait to give a dog pain meds after surgery until you saw that he “really needed it”? The truth is that these medications can provide very real relief for dogs who need them, and doing so can be the greatest kindness you can offer to a dog who’s hurting in a very real way.

Q: But aren’t anxiety medications dangerous?

A: Yes, sometimes. Any meds can have dangerous side effects. However, I think we need to be very honest about the risk here. Anxiety medications can have negative effects, but so can pain medication, herbal supplements, heartworm preventative, flea and tick medications, and the diet you choose to feed your dog. Furthermore, if you are considering anxiety medication for your dog, you have to take into consideration the impact of prolonged, excessive levels of stress hormones on your dog’s body. I can guarantee that if your dog’s issues are such that you’re considering anxiety medication for your dog, your dog is already experiencing physical problems from their anxiety. In many cases, elevated stress hormones could be more harmful to your dog long-term than anxiety medication. This is a case where doing nothing is not necessarily any safer than trying medication for your dog.

Q: I’d prefer to stick to natural remedies…

A: Let’s settle this once and for all: natural does not mean safe. I see a lot of dogs who are on multiple herbs, oils, and other “natural” remedies with no concern for their safety ramifications. We have very little knowledge about toxicity, possible drug interactions (either additive or counteractive), side effects, or species-appropriateness for most of these remedies, and frankly, there is very little oversight regarding their safety for us, much less for non-human animals. Most modern medications have roots in herbal or other natural remedies. While the digitalis from a foxglove plant may be very helpful when used therapeutically for a patient with congestive heart failure, it can be deadly to a small child or dog. Arsenic and cyanide are “natural” compounds as well – that doesn’t make them safe. While melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root may help some dogs, the truth is that we don’t know that they’re any safer than a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor or Tri-Cyclic Antidepressant, and any compound can cause issues.

Q: But, can’t training solve this problem?

A: Probably. I want to be very clear: medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues. However, repeated studies have shown that combining medication and training results in the fastest progress, and I would argue that this fact in and of itself is a good reason to consider medication for fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs. There’s an underlying humane issue here. Medication can improve your dog’s quality of life while training is taking place and can make that training work more quickly and effectively. Just as using appropriate pain medication can decrease the amount of time it takes animals to heal after surgery, anxiety medication promotes emotional healing. This is a pretty big deal.

Q: Does my dog need to stay on meds forever?

A: Maybe, and maybe not. By far the majority of the dogs I work with are on anxiety medication for a short period of time. The medication helps to cut through the static of anxiety so that the dog is in a better place to learn. Once the dog is no longer fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the formerly triggering context, they are weaned off the medication and go on with their lives, happier and more balanced. That said, some dogs have a true neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated. Just as a dog with hypothyroidism needs to be given thyroid supplementation, these dogs oftentimes need chemical help to regulate and maintain the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or other neurochemicals in their brain. For these dogs, anxiety medication may be a lifelong need.

Look, I’m not saying that every anxious dog needs medication. I’m not even saying that it should always be the first thing that we reach for or consider. However, it also shouldn’t be the last. After we’ve looked at environment and put together a training plan, we owe it to our best friends to be very honest about their current quality of life. If your dog is suffering, medication could give him some very real and very quick relief. Personally, I don’t want my dogs to be in pain, and I think we need to be aware that it is okay to consider medication as part of a balanced plan right from the start. It should not be the only thing that changes – medication is not a magic potion that will fix all of your dog’s ills. But it can be one important ingredient in your dog’s customized plan, right alongside management and training.

How do you feel about the use of anxiety medication as part of a behavioral plan to improve a dog’s quality of life? Have you ever used medication for a dog, or are you considering it for your current dog? Please share your questions, stories, and experiences in the comments section below!