Category Archives: Senses

What To Do If Your Dog Digs

Perched precariously on the edge of the pot, Pan was in his element. Paws pumping, dirt flying, tail waving wildly, he quickly and professionally excavated the area, messily transferring potting soil from inside the heavy clay pot to a wide swath immediately surrounding it.

Pan and Trout dug under our shed to access a nest of baby rabbits. Dogs often dig for a purpose.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” I exclaimed as I turned around, dumbstruck at the amount of chaos a determined terrier cross could cause in only moments when my back was turned. In answer, Pan snorted up at me happily, eyes dancing in delight, before returning to his energetic digging. Gathering my wits, I asked him to “leave it,” which he did with a grin and a play-bow before zooming off in ecstatic circles around the yard. What a delightful time he was having!

Less delightful for me, of course. Only minutes before, I had carefully planted some [dog-safe] bulbs in that very same pot, placing them the proper distance apart before covering them with the correct depth of soil. I looked at them lying on our cement patio. I looked at my dog, bounding around in pure joy. It was time to do some training.

Digging is a common behavior for all dogs, and especially for certain breeds such as terriers and dogs with more primitive roots. There are many reasons why your dog might dig, and one of the first things that you need to do is figure out what’s motivating your pup to let their paws fly.

Most commonly, dogs dig for fun. It just plain feels good! There’s something especially satisfying about the feel of loose dirt or sand between their paws.

Pan just cached a special chewy in this hole. Photo by Matt Helgemoe.

However, dogs will also dig for more practical reasons. Many dogs will dig holes to cache special treasures such as treats or toys, covering their prize carefully after depositing it in the hole by scooping dirt or sand back over it with their nose. You may also see this behavior indoors, when your dog pushes blankets over his food bowl or perhaps even makes the motions of scooping with his nose in the air above a special prize. Dogs also dig due to social facilitation. This is why your dog might start digging next to you in the garden every spring – your digging prompts his interest, and he joins in on the activity. Dogs will dig with one another, too. Some dogs will dig burrows, especially if they are hot. Digging into the cool earth provides them with a more comfortable place to rest away the heat of the day. Some pregnant dogs are determined to dig a “den.” Dogs will also dig to achieve a goal, such as escaping from under their fence to go on a grand adventure, or digging under your shed to get to that compelling nest of baby bunnies.

If your dog is digging for a specific reason, addressing that reason completely resolves the digging. For example, our older dog Trout dug out of our yard multiple times shortly after we moved. Every time we thought we had Trout-proofed the yard, she showed us a new weakness in our fortifications! Luckily, Trout is always supervised, so we were able to quickly retrieve her before she wandered onto the nearby busy road.

Trout’s digging issues were fairly easily resolved through management. We prevented her from digging by burying cement blocks in all of her favorite digging locations. We also used ex-pens to shore up any weak areas where she could squeeze under the fence until we were able to build a better barrier to keep her in the yard. We didn’t just take away her digging options, though. Digging out of the yard told us that Trout was bored, and the world outside her backyard looked much more green than the ground she’d already explored inside her highly-reinforced “AlcaTroutz.” So, we needed to make things more interesting.

Increasing the excitement of the backyard wasn’t difficult, but it did require some minor maintenance. Sprinkling interesting scents in random areas of the yard kept things interesting for Trout. A small handful of used hamster bedding, a few feathers from a friend’s chicken, or the dust from the bottom of a bag of beef liver dog treats were all big hits. Trout also thought that the trail of juice dribbled from a can of tuna was fascinating, and she loved it when we threw a small handful of treats out in the grass for her to find. Of equal enrichment value was our brush pile. After we removed two arborvitae from alongside our house, the brush became a frequent playground for her. She climbed, burrowed, and sniffed amongst the branches for hours. We made sure to position this brush pile well away from the fence so as not to provide a convenient staircase into the world outside her yard, and Trout soon stopped attempting to dig out at all as her backyard became the paradise that she’d always assumed the rest of the neighborhood to be.

Providing enrichment such as novel scents, sights, sounds, obstacles, and toys in the yard is one great way to reduce your dog’s digging, especially if he or she is digging out of boredom. However, I recommend against doing away with digging altogether for the vast majority of dogs. Digging is great enrichment, a great stress-reliever, and wonderful exercise! Instead of forbidding your dog from digging, I recommend that you instead channel his or her digging skills into appropriate outlets.

Trout and Pan dig apart their straw bale.

How you do this depends on your available space and how much your dog likes to dig. Those with less space can use a single straw bale sprinkled liberally with treats to create a fabulous digging surface (let your dog tear the bale apart, don’t bother spreading it out yourself). A wide, shallow rubbermaid tub can also be filled with shredded paper, strips of fleece, or even playground sand, and provided for your dog once a week (or more) in an easily-cleaned room of your home (bonus: it’s quite satisfying to vacuum up all of the spilled sand afterwards). Or, you can go to the gold standard in doggy delight: create your very own digging pit.

A digging pit is a clearly defined area where you not only allow, but encourage your dog to dig. You can mark this out with wooden planks, cement blocks, flags, or other landscaping materials. I decided to go with a large box made of treated cedar planks, which was situated on a gravel bed in my backyard. In my last several homes, our digging pits have been made up of a children’s plastic sandbox (with a lid to keep out brave but suicidal neighborhood cats, whom my terriers may not have greeted kindly on their turf), a bed of straw under a deck, and a sand/clay area where nothing but a couple of determined hostas grew, which I marked out with fist-sized rocks in a large square. Look at your available space, and determine what you can provide.

Add interesting items, like toys or treats, to your dog’s digging area to keep them coming back.

Now comes the fun part! Most dogs are delighted to discover that there’s an area where they can get their legal digs out. Make the area extra enticing by burying prizes for your dog to find. Hard biscuits, dental chews, bones, toys, and bully sticks are all good candidates. Start by making it really easy for your dog to “win” in their digging pit lottery by sprinkling some small treats on top of the dirt or sand in that area. As your dog starts to show some interest in the magic treat spot, let him or her watch you as you theatrically bury a larger biscuit under a very shallow layer of substrate. Then, encourage your dog to get it. Help him dig, if he seems hesitant! Remember, social facilitation is huge for dogs, so when he sees you digging and hears you encouraging him to join in, he’s much more likely to get into the game. Really make a big deal over him when he digs up the treat, regardless of whether he used his nose or paws to extract it.

As your dog gets better at the digging game, you can make the challenges you provide for him harder. Bury prizes more deeply, or do so when he’s not looking so that he has to use his nose to find them. Planting “surprises” in the box once or twice a week will keep him heading back to the same spot over and over to see what fun he can [quite literally] dig up each day. It’s okay – even good! – if your dog doesn’t find anything most of the time when he digs. As long as he keeps getting rewarded for digging in your designated area on occasion, he’s going to keep playing the digging lottery in that special spot that sometimes pays off.

Providing your dog with a designated digging pit isn’t enough to stop him from digging in other areas, however. As Pan proved with his potted planter excavation, dogs need some additional training to learn where they are and are not allowed to do their yardwork.

This is easily accomplished with supervision, redirection, and most of all, consistency. After his joyful hole creation, I watched Pan carefully. Anytime he started to dig in off-limits areas of our yard, I interrupted him with a cheerful “leave it!” or “oops!” and an invitation to run to the sandbox. Anytime he went to the sandbox on his own, I praised him profusely. Sometimes, I ran over and planted a prize for him to dig up. Sometimes, I ran over and dug with him, using my hands or a small trowel to dig alongside him (a reward even better than food for Pan, who relished the chance to do something fun together). Sometimes, I’ll be honest… I lay in my hammock and simply praised from afar, too comfortable to get up. Hey, dog training doesn’t always have to be a lot of hard work!

Pan’s nose is still sandy from caching his deer antler.

Our first “aha!” moment actually happened late at night. I was finishing up some bookkeeping indoors when Pan asked to go outside. He’d been given a new deer antler chewy earlier that day, and when I opened the back door he ran to retrieve this prize from where he’d buried it under his dog bed in his crate. I waited patiently while he found a spot to pee in the yard, antler in mouth. He then ran over to his sandbox, where he spent almost fifteen minutes under the light of the moon carefully excavating a hole, depositing his treasure, and covering it with layers and layers of sand. He came back in with his head covered in sand, a big smile on his face. Mission accomplished! He could sleep easily, prize cached in a safe location. The next morning, my husband reported that Pan dug his antler up first thing before once again conscientiously caching it under the sand.

Over the course of a month, Pan’s digging attempts in other areas of the yard became both less common and less intense. However, his digging in the sandbox continued on, strong as the day we’d built it. He cached treasures, dug up treasures, and oftentimes dug just for the delight of the sand beneath his speedy paws. I replanted the flower bulbs, which grew quickly in spite of their early and abrupt departure from their home. Pan left my pots of plants alone. He left the soft earth where a tree stump had been removed alone. He joined Trout in digging under our shed to devour a nest of bunnies, and we added gravel, landscape boulders, and an ex-pen around the back of the shed to keep our suicidal long-eared guests safe. He gave up on the shed and went back to his sandbox. I stopped having to issue “leave it” reminders.

Too often in our dogs’ lives, we forget to let them be dogs. We forget that they’re intelligent, autonomous beings with their own likes and dislikes.

Layla chomps on a crab apple that she’d cached in her straw digging area.

Activities like barking, chewing, chasing, and digging aren’t intrinsically bad. The problem comes not from the activities themselves, but from when and where your dog engages in them. Rather than punishing normal and natural canine behavior out of your best friend, consider instead whether you can direct it into a more appropriate channel. Consider how very good that activity feels to your dog. Consider how that activity benefits your dog: in the feeling of fulfillment from carrying out a centuries-old instinct, in the discharge of pent-up energy or anxiety, or perhaps in the cascade of dopamine that enjoyable activities releases. Why take that away from your best friend?

What opportunities do you provide for your dog to dig? Please share your stories in the comments section below!

Sniff Before You Drip: Essential Oils and Your Dog

Have you ever been stuck in an elevator when someone wearing way too much perfume walks on (or worse yet, stuck sitting next to that person on a plane or bus)? Not only does it bother you initially, but it can actually be physically uncomfortable. You quickly develop a headache, and may feel nauseated. Often you will go “nose blind” after twenty minutes of smelling the perfume or cologne, no longer registering its presence at all (but also not able to smell anything else in your immediate environment). Even after you’ve long since stopped being aware of the scent, the physical effects on your body linger on.

We all know how unpleasant strong odors can be. However, I think we frequently forget to look at (or rather, sniff) the world from our dog’s perspective.


Consider this: the canine olfactory system is so specialized, so amazingly designed, that we literally cannot match it. Even the most brilliant scientists in the world are unable to build a robot that can track or differentiate odors as well as your pet dog. Dogs are unmatchable.

Let’s look at the dog’s olfactory system in relation to our own favorite sense, vision. Dogs so far outperform our own limited noses that we must seem to them to be, for all intents and purposes, anosmic. If scent were vision, what you could easily see 1/3 of a mile away, your dog would be able to see three thousand miles away, just as clearly.  Dogs have somewhere between 200,000,000-300,000,000 scent receptors in their noses. They’re rock star sniffers.

Why does this matter? I want you to think about your perfume-drenched elevator companion for a moment. What if you had to live with that person 24/7? What if you could never escape that tiny elevator? This is the reality for many dogs. They’re stuck in physically overpowering and even painful scent environments for their entire lives.

That diffuser plugged into the outlet in your living room might smell heavenly to you. But, do you think it would still smell as good if it were 10,000 or even 100,000 times more pungent? Does your dog enjoy it?

Worse yet, do you use essential oils on your pet or in your home?

Essential oils may have some health or mood-altering benefits. I have no problem with dog owners using these as an ancillary treatment alongside training or behavior modification. In fact, conditioning a relaxing and “safe” scent can sometimes make a huge difference for anxious dogs! However, I often see oils used way too irresponsibly with animals. Good practitioners will tell you which oils are safe or unsafe to use with your pet. However, your responsibility doesn’t end there. You also need to make sure that you’re using the oil in the correct concentration.

Considering how keen our dogs’ noses are, we need to be highly cautious about using oils at full strength. I instead prefer to use a small bit of the essential oil diluted in a less pungent carrier oil. A single drop of essential oil can be mixed into a small glass jar of olive or coconut oil, for example. You can then further dilute the oil by repeating the process, placing a single drop of the diluted mixture into a second jar of carrier oil. While this may not smell as strongly to you, it will still be plenty powerful for your dog’s superior sniffer.

If you wish to use essential oils with your dog, I also recommend that you ask your dog which oils are best. You can do this by simply placing a single drop of your diluted mixture on a small washcloth or towel. Place the scented cloth near where your dog likes to hang out, and observe your dog’s reaction for twenty-four hours. Does your dog investigate, lie on, or seem drawn to the scented cloth? Great! That’s a green light to use the diluted oil for your dog. Does your dog ignore the cloth? Go slowly, and be cautious about its use. Does your dog avoid the cloth, or perhaps even the whole room that the cloth is in? Stop right there. Your dog finds the oil aversive, and you should not use it.

Whether you plan to use an oil diffuser or rub the essential oil directly on your pet, I encourage you to always ask your dog whether they find the scent acceptable before you proceed. The same goes for other scents in your home. Scented laundry soap, fabric softener, room sprays, candles, perfumes, cologne, and diffusers can be highly aversive to many dogs. In fact, I believe that excessive use of these products often contributes to many of the common behavioral issues we see in our pets by adding an unnecessary stressor to their lives, and perhaps even making them feel less well.

Please, be sensitive to your dog’s sniffer next time you wish to use scent in your household. You may be surprised how very many opinions they have about the topic!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by thegiantvermin on flickr

Photo by thegiantvermin on flickr

“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”

– Charles Darwin

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

Enrichment

Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

Photo by colorblindPICASSO on flickr.

We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.

The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.

As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.

The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.

So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

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

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!