Monthly Archives: November 2013

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday


“A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things-a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.”

-John Grogan, Marley and Me

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dave Fayram

Photo by Dave Fayram

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

– Colleen Pelar

Like a Handshake, but with Noses and Butts

In our society, a handshake is the standard greeting for meeting new people. We have a whole ritual that goes with it. First we verbally introduce ourselves, making eye contact and smiling, then we step towards the other person and grasp hands (usually right hands) for about two seconds with even pressure before disengaging and stepping back.

Dogs also have a standard greeting ritual, but as scent-oriented creatures their ritual varies slightly from ours. In a typical canine greeting the dogs will approach one another in an arc with loose bodies and a slight C-shaped curve to their spine. They will sniff each other’s noses, then sniff rear ends, and finally sniff noses again.

Photo by John Sibley

Photo by John Sibley

Greeting rituals are an important part of a functional society for both dogs and people. In both societies, our young need to be taught how to greet others appropriately. This is done through a combination of appropriate modeling by the adults who raise the pup or child, teachable moments where the youngsters are given the chance to try the greeting ritual for themselves with feedback from the adults, and natural maturity. Appropriate greetings are not an intrinsic skill for either dogs or people – we learn them.

Problems arise for our dogs when we don’t provide them with appropriate opportunities to engage in polite greetings with other dogs. These problems take three common forms for most pet dogs: lack of understanding from their owners of species-appropriate behavior, lack of appropriate teachers, and forcing dogs into socially uncomfortable situations.

Imagine how you’d feel if you were reprimanded or punished every time you made eye contact with another person or smiled at someone as a child. How would your greeting behavior differ today as an adult? You’d probably be much more anxious greeting new people and may have difficulty making eye contact. You may scowl or appear to be bored as you wouldn’t want to smile.

The same thing can happen to our dogs when we prevent them from engaging in appropriate greetings. If you yank your dog away or scold your dog every time he sniffs another dog’s rear, it’s no different from a parent scolding their child for smiling at the kindergarten teacher the first time they meet. While anogenital investigation may not be our idea of an appropriate greeting, as long as your dog isn’t performing a full colonoscopy with his nose he’s probably being quite appropriate. It’s perfectly acceptable (and advisable!) to teach your dog not to greet people in the same manner, of course, but when he’s greeting other pups let him stick to the cultural norms for his species.

Of course, some dogs never learn the cultural norms, and this can lead to rude or frantic greetings. If your dog rarely or never interacts with other dogs or if he tends to only meet adolescent dogs (as many dog park patrons do), he may not pick up the finer points of doggy etiquette. And just like us, some dogs are more socially awkward than others.

If your dog tends to rush straight up to other dogs, make physical contact with them while sniffing, skip sniffing altogether, grovel frantically in greeting, or if she shows any other signs that she’s struggling with greetings, it’s up to you to help her out. Oftentimes other dogs are the best teachers, and as long as it’s safe to do so, it can be very instructive to introduce your awkward dog to some older, wiser, bombproof teacher dogs off-leash and let them show her how it’s done. If that’s not possible, work with an experienced trainer to teach your dog some basic impulse control or build up her confidence, depending on the reason for her awkwardness.

Finally, we need to be aware when we’re forcing our dogs into socially uncomfortable or downright frightening situations and help them leave these unpleasant situations gracefully.

We’ve all had an experience where someone held our hand just a little too long in greeting. It’s downright creepy if a stranger you were just introduced to won’t let go of your hand, especially if they continue looking into your eyes and smiling. What started off as a pleasant greeting can quickly begin to feel awkward or even frightening.

Unfortunately for our dogs, we put them in this situation all the time. I’m speaking of course about on-leash greetings. Dogs use their bodies to communicate, and the leash puts limits on their ability to speak properly to one another.

Off-leash dogs rarely sniff one another for longer than it takes two people to introduce themselves through a pleasant handshake. The one exception to this is familiar dogs (such as those who live together) who’ve been apart for some time. Just as you may hold the hand of a loved one for longer in greeting than you would the hand of a stranger, housemate dogs who have been separated for awhile will often investigate one another quite thoroughly upon coming back together, “catching up” with one another, as it were.

Unfamiliar dogs don’t do this, though. After a quick (2-5 second) greeting, they move on. They may begin playing together. They may wander alongside one another, sniffing and investigating their surroundings. They may go their separate ways. They may greet other nearby dogs. They may even begin fighting. What they won’t usually do is just stand side by side, and this is where the problem lies.

On-leash greetings often force our dogs to stand close to each other without moving onto the next step of the social process. They greet one another, but then don’t have enough leash to do much more. They can’t wander apart, and while they can play, their ability to communicate with one another is impeded by the leashes. They’re forced into that awkward handshake, and neither of them can let go.

This is why many dogs “explode” after an on-leash greeting that appears fine at first. The tension builds up, and they just can’t figure out how to gracefully get out of an increasingly uncomfortable social situation. Finally one dog or the other snarks, and it’s quite effective at getting their owner to move them further away and thus end the tense encounter.

Of course, all of this is avoidable. If we allow dogs the freedom to learn from one another, engage in their culturally normal greetings based on scent, and keep on-leash greetings as brief as handshakes, we can help our dogs succeed in their society. Just think of it as their version of a smile and a handshake… but with noses and butts.

Is your dog a suave, confident greeter, or a bit of social nerd? Let us know in the comments section!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Woody HIbbard

Photo by Woody HIbbard

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

– The Lion and the Mouse, Aesop’s Fables

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!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us, especially each other.” ~ Jane Goodall

Dominant Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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