Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breed Specific Behaviors

Cesar Millan says that dogs should be regarded as species dog first, then breed, then individual. As it is often the case when it comes to Millan, I disagree. Sure, dogs have common species-specific behaviors, but because they live in a complex human society and are exposed to a diverse environment, they have almost as many different individual personalities as their owners, sometimes with strange quirks and extreme behaviors.
I also disagree with Millan that the dog’s name doesn’t matter. It does. Not because the dog intellectually knows that a certain arrangement of letters is his identity, but because a name reflects expectations and intentions the owner has, and that influences behavior.

Having said all that, there is no denying that dogs specifically bred for generations for one or the other purpose have breed specific, hardwired tendencies to live out what they were bred to do. There is a reason why shepherds and ranchers don’t own English bulldogs to round up the sheep or drive the cattle. A golden retriever is not the first choice for Schutzhund training, and Greyhounds are rarely involved in water rescue.
There is one category of dogs whose breed specific behaviors are not as obvious as such. The group I am talking about are lap dogs, bred to be very close to people to take over their fleas and lice, or to warm the bed. Nowadays most of us live in a warm house and don’t have nasty bugs on us, but the desire of lap dogs to Velcro themselves to the owner is still there. Being spatially above, on the pillow in bed or claiming higher space on the sofa, is a no-no for trainers who follow the alpha doctrine. The top dog is the dog on top in their opinion, which also goes for lap dogs.
Is the pooch being dominant? Or just displaying an instinctive behavior? It can be very confusing for layowners, especially since the revival of all that “dominance” babble.

One might think that if the person researches purebred dogs and purposes, chooses a breed that complements his own interests and a puppy that matches his personality, they’ll have a wonderful life together. Although it indeed increases the chances of a great interspecies' relationship, even the smartest owner is sometimes overwhelmed by his or her dog’s intensity, which can lead to friction, conflict and sometimes confrontation, and that creates even more problems.
Genetic drives such herding in shepherd dogs; the nose permanently to the ground in scent hounds; soliciting to be picked up and on the lap, or the protective drive in dogs bred to guard house and home is not easy to undo, and if undone forcefully, it always comes at the expense of the relationship. An unfulfilled dog is as unhappy as an unfulfilled human, and we all know that if the dog’s not happy, nobody is. The good news is that “the nature of the beast” doesn’t mean that the dog has to be unruly, obnoxious or dangerous. All ingrained behaviors can be channeled into acceptable ones. Herding the children is not the problem; nipping them is. Scenting is fine; blowing the owner off isn’t. Cuddling is why many people choose lap dogs, claiming space rudely or guarding it, is not okay. Any driven dog can use his talents to do things people like, but the onus is on the person to teach it, and that can take some effort and know-how.

There is no problem with a dog in the bed or on the pillow, or one who gets more affection than discipline. There is a problem if the dog is rude, demanding and impolite, and if that is reinforced he becomes bratty and entitled and very frustrated when ignored.
For all lap dog owners my advice is to ensure that they don’t allow the pooch to get close and personal unless he/she asked permission. A dog’s way to say please is to lower the body and tail, offer soft eye contact, doesn’t bark or whine or scratches legs trying to climb up, and waits for the invitation command, like "close" or "snuggle-up". Humans communicate clearly to other humans that a hug is wanted - or not, and we expect our conspecific members to respect that. I request no less from the dog, even if she has a hardwired desire to be on top of me. Like everything else, that is also up to the owner to teach.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Social Aspects of Fear Reactivity

Social mammals are very sensitive to fear signals of the same species. It is a necessary for survival thing, because it makes others in the group aware of potential danger and allows time to flee or fight.
Imagine how it would affect you if you’d hear someone’s scream. It right away raises the level of tension and alertness, hormonal changes take place, the heart is racing and fear sets in. You’d likely be more receptive to the scream than the calm energy of a companion you might be walking with. And that is intensified if you don't have any information what is happening; why the person screams.
Dogs are no exception. Many hear fear and stress signals of their own kind all the time – in a shelter, from neighborhood dogs, in a multi dog household or from punished dogs in a punitive training facility. In addition to being sensitive to same species' fear signals, dogs, because their lives are so intertwined with humans’ since thousands of years, are also receptive to our tensions, fears and stresses.
A dog might not be fearful genetically, but when surrounded and exposed to dogs and people that are, becomes stressed as well and, at that point, is less likely to pick up safety signals that are given by more grounded members. One has to have a very strong sense of safety and confidence to overcome that.

Studies showed that problem children do best when integrated into a group with socially apt and non-aggressive children. Not only do they learn from them, but they are also forced to change their own behavior in order to be accepted and fit in, and social acceptance is a profound need for all social animals. There is no reason to believe that this would be any different with dogs. Of course, and understandably so, neither parents of good kids, nor owners of non-aggressive dogs want the “bad” ones in their midst, and that makes integration and behavior modification more difficult.
What one can do is to expose the problem dog where relaxed dogs are, but in a distance far enough that allows him to observe without getting stressed. That instills safety and trust and then the distance can be decreased bit by bit.
What happens in reality though is often the opposite. The owner signs the dog up for a growl class where all dogs have issues and most humans are tense also, or brings him to the dog park hoping that “socializing”, or maybe even an older and meaner dog teaching him a lesson, will do the job. That leads to even more arousal, aggression, distrust, fear, stress, resistance and suspicion.
If dogs are too reactive to handle a normal class, they should also not be in any other group class or group setting. If we muzzle the dog, he is only physically safe for others, not emotionally safe within himself.
Most reactive behaviors are rooted in fear and distrust in human leadership. With second-hand dogs that could be based on life experience, and not necessarily on mistakes the present owner makes. When we drag such a dog to the dog park, into a class or aggressive seminar, with an aggressive, corrective and intimidating instructor or other reactive dogs, we hand our dog over and send following messages:
I don’t hear your fears. I don’t care that you are stressed. I can force you to do things you don’t want or can't do. I can force you to look at me and I expect you trust me even though I just completely disregarded your fear and forced you.

If you are tense and grip the leash you convey that you are also stressed. If you have the dog on a nose harness, you take away his ability to communicate and with it the last bit of control that could decrease stress.
It is important to, as our dog's leader, to lead by example – in the home and outside. When our dog reacts out of fear, it is crucial to remain calm, confident and centered. That does not mean to trivialize the problem, but it is up to the human(s) to set the stage for a different behavior, instead of letting the dog take the lead and return aggression with aggression, become tense when he does, make fast and loud noises and erratic hand movements. The dog can’t be in control if the human in charge is out if control.

Temple Grandin, in her book “Animals in Translation”, describes a study that showed that once monkeys had fears, it lingered and was contagious. Dogs that have strong and specific fears might need a long time before they feel safe. Because is lingers, and especially with rescue dogs that are newly adopted and don't have a trusted relationship with their people yet, it is important that the dog is not exposed to those triggers before it exists, he feels safe with them and has learned some coping skills. If he is exposed too soon, the fear resurfaces or intensifies.

Counter conditioning changes the association to the trigger and can work, but not always does. A dog who has a strong fear to something could have formed associations to all environmental details involved with it – the place, sounds, people, dogs, even the feel of the surface he was standing on. It doesn’t matter if a detail had something to do with the negative or traumatic experience or not. Any associated detail can trigger the fear reaction in a different context. With Will, it was any indoor training facility that shut her down.
The opposite is also true. Once an environment becomes a good and safe experience, all perceived details instill safety in different contexts. That is why it is so important that a dog feels safe with his owners.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Off-Leash Etiquette

Yesterday, I took Davie and Will for the first time to Truro's new off-leash park. A group of dog lovers advocated for off leash space for quite some time and the town finally caved, and the park opened a couple of weeks ago.

I am a huge off-leash enthusiast. Since 1995 there is rarely a day that my dogs are not off-leash. My favorites are trails in multi-use parks, beaches, mountain trails in the Rockies where we used to hike, and the wood roads where we live now. My least favorite are all-fenced-in, for dogs only spaces, which the one in Truro is.

It is small, as they typically are, and when we arrived we found a pile of poop in the parking lot and an out-of-control dog greeting us by the gate, which is also not unusual because parks like that are considered a free-for-all by some people who take a dog there who really needs a bit more work before he/she should be let off the leash.
This particular dog was held back by his collar when we entered, but released as soon as we closed the gate behind us, and charged right into my girls' face, tense and tiptoed. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, ignoring him, but he followed us, didn't recall and continued to body block and lean stiffly over my dogs' shoulder, who by then gave fearful signals. All the while his owner tried to convince me that his dog is not aggressive, and only got control back after I got cranky and told him (the dog) to get lost.
Whenever someone offers the information that his dog is NOT aggressive you can be pretty sure that he has knowledge that the dog actually is. People who have friendly dogs say that their dog is friendly, not NOT aggressive.
But I give the owner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe his dog is not aggressive because there isn't a blood bath.

So that was the not so good stuff that happens in every dog park. After that it got better. We met a lady who put her dog on the leash when she saw us cause her pooch is afraid of other dogs and runs, thereby eliciting a chase that frightens him even more.
Then there was a nice elderly couple whose adopted hound mix was in an off leash park for the first time. This dog was also scared when she saw us, so the female owner called her to come, and the dog did and was rewarded with a treat for it. She then also put her on leash and kept her on until they found a perfect little playmate she wasn't scared of - a young cockerpoo, who tried to play with Will also, but Will, still a bit stressed from the first encounter with the pushy, tense dog, barked him away, which got her leashed as a result.
Off-leash means that dogs can be off leash, not that they have to be, and it was really great to see that so many people understood that and alternated between having their dogs on and off, depending on the situation.

I wish that everybody would have a clue about behavior before they let their dogs run free; especially understand their own dog.
I recently witnessed an encounter between a young German shepherd and, what looked like, a Lab mix. They sniff-danced and began to play, but their interaction quickly turned into an intense chase and grab.
Often dog-to-dog rough play quickly changes into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand; the stronger one is no longer considered a peer, but an opponent. We see the same in sports. As soon as one team is better, the other often initiates aggression, or cheats, to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other usually loses interest and stops playing to avoid injuries. The problem is that by then the aggressor might be too aroused to stop, especially the young male dog. That is likely what happened with the shep/Lab encounter. The shep's owner was right there, quickly got control over her dog and leashed him to create distance, except the Lab mix, still off the leash, followed for more interaction. Yet, it was the Lab owner, who had no control over his dog, who blamed the shepherd, labeled him aggressive and gave the owner a dirty look.
Scenarios like the above usually play out with dogs that are of similar personality, and there is rarely just one dog at fault. It takes two to tango and not always is the one who expresses emotions overtly the instigator.

Good off-leash etiquette is to recognize when the dog is obnoxious and to step in. Off leash simply means that dogs are allowed to enjoy themselves without leash restraint. It does not mean that they can enjoy themselves at other dogs' expense. Some dogs love to play, and some to sniff and others want to play with their owners. If you see a dog on a leash in the off-leash park, it is a good idea to leash yours also, unless you have a solid "leave" command.
Play is play when it can easily be interrupted by distractions, which means that as long as the dog truly plays, she should be responsive to the owner. If she isn’t, she is too wound up and needs a time out.

Davie and Will did a lot of sniffing and marking yesterday at the new park. There is an open section where we played ball and also practiced down stays, which I realized during the tracking workshop needs practicing. So, all in all we had a good time and will be back periodically.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More About Fear

The consensus, even with many positive trainers, is to ignore the dog when she is fearful to avoid that we reinforce the emotion. That never made sense to me. Most people I know have a fear, or several, and know that when confronted with it the emotion won't disappear just because the person next to them ignores it. Quite the contrary, they feel left alone and lose trust and become resentful. But if they find understanding and help, they might be able to work through a fear and eventually lose it. It's not any different with dogs - in fact, dogs rely even more on our help, because they are not cognitive enough to talk themselves out of a fearful emotion. Humans have an intellect that theoretically can overrule emotion and we know how good that works. And dogs don’t even have that.

Fear is the expectation of danger or pain based on past experiences and associations. The reasons why dogs have fears are plenty: genetic propensity to be overly sensitive, lack of or improper imprinting, mistakes made during the early learning phase, correction training, being attacked and so on. A dog can be fearful of many things that seem irrational to us. A quick reminder: most phobias people have are also irrational to the ones that don’t have them. You know that the nice neighbor with the cookie won't hurt your dog, but in her mind the fear is very real.
When a dog is presented with a fear trigger she has to do something. Doing nothing is biologically impossible. Naturally, she has following options: fight or flee. Which one it is depends on the dog's disposition and what got results in the past. So, it's partly inherent and partly learned.
In my opinion, to avoid and escape a worrisome situation is the preferred choice for most dogs, but because of training, owner control and leash restraints, a dog who might want to flee is often denied that and learns to offensively bark and lunge instead; fight, because flight was prevented by the human.
In addition, people who don’t comprehend the dog’s fear, or don’t care, make the mistake to force their dog closer to the trigger, or allow the trigger to approach closer. That increases fear and reactivity and decreases trust, and next time the same or similar trigger shows up, she reacts from an even greater distance.

To accomplish the opposite, decrease fear and increase trust, acknowledge when your dog gives fear signals like lip licking, lowered body and tail, folded back ears and eye contact. If you ignore your dog when she looks to you, and at you, for help, she is forced to take matters into her own paws. As a mindful leader, it is your job to help your dog out. If she can't rely on you, what is she suppose to do but to react the way dogs do and humans rarely like.
So, reciprocate eye contact and then take action. Signaling discomfort with eye contact should be a default behavior your dog uses as an alternative to freaking out, and she will choose that if she learns that you do something that is in her best interest. One way is to increase the distance to whatever worries her. Curving, or backing up a few steps is often enough. It is not an erratic flight, but a controlled retreat.

Bruce Fogle, DMV, in his book "The Dogs’ Mind", states that some control over a situation is the single best way to decrease stress - for all mammals. Interestingly Cesar Millan refers to Fogle and his book as one of the sources he has learned from. Obviously he either skipped that part or didn't comprehend it, cause he doesn't not allow a fearful and stressed dog any control.
Responding to eye contact and guidance into safety gives the dog a coping skill and through it, some control.
Dogs should also be allowed to look at whatever worries them, instead of being coerced to only “watch” the owner. It takes a lot of trust in someone before I could surrender myself and look away from something or someone I fear. That kind of trust can never be earned with coercion and punishment.
And a dog should always have control over his head movements; speak freely so to say. Dogs communicate mostly with their head and facial expressions. That is why any type of halter that goes around the dog’s nose is a counterproductive walking tool for fearful dogs.

There are a variety of behaviors a dog can learn and be guided into that will decrease fear and instill safety again. For example: retreating into a crate or safe place in the house, sniffing for a tossed treat, touch and target – sometimes even the trigger. Any cooperative interaction where dog and owner do something together in a task-oriented and positive way increases the bond. And any time the dog is successful in signaling fear and getting a response that helps her deal with it, she'll gain confidence, which further decreases fear. The owner, and by association the space owner and dog occupy and interact in, becomes safe. The owner is a leader the dog can rely on, not an erratic (from the dog’s point of view) punisher, or a stressed and helpless bystander.

Another way to help is to proactively informing the dog with known cue words what is going on in the environment. Will is afraid of buses, and if Mike or I hear one approaching, we say “bus”, and Will has time to move behind us. When I hear a jogger or dog come from behind, I’ll inform my girls of that also. That increases their trust in me cause they have learned that I am aware of things and they can let their guard down.

Acknowledging fear and guiding the dog calmly and confidently has nothing to do with being emotional. I am not suggesting fawning over and pitying a dog. There is nothing worse than an emotional dog teamed with an emotional owner; one who is fearful herself, or tenses up or becomes frustrated or angry whenever there is a potential conflict. Then the owner becomes a classical conditioned stress trigger for the dog, and command words, such as sit, the cue that signals that there is trouble. And the dog will react.