Saturday, July 31, 2010

Synchronized Group Behavior and Other Stuff

The upcoming communication seminar called for me to finally organize all my dog photos – mine, and many friends and clients sent me over the years.
I was surprised how often they show dogs in the same picture doing the same thing.
Animals in a social group orient their actions to one another – one yawns, eats, stretches, lays down, barks, focuses in a certain direction, and the other(s) follow suit. It happens with dogs that cohabitate, but also ones that are just on a task together.
Real bonded group members also synchronize subconsciously, not one after the other, but at the exact same time lift a paw, speed or slow the pace, pee, open or close the mouth, change directions, tail wag or are still.
We want our dogs to have a strong sense of social belonging, so that they orient and synchronize their actions to us, and that’s why they should:
Sleep where we sleep;
Eat where and when we eat;
Be quietly in close proximity when we work on the computer or watch TV;
Be active when we initiate activity or a walk;
Be part of family outings.
The less the dog experiences those group activities, the less she will coordinate her actions to ours, and the less she will respond to us voluntarily, especially in conflict situations. Group orientation and synchronicity cannot be forced and commanded, but comes naturally when members are truly bonded and/or on task together. Next time you are out and about with your pooch, check if she follows your actions without you giving her any verbal cues.

While I was at it, and because I had a summer lull in the tide, I sorted through notes and scribbles I take whenever I read, see or hear something interesting, or when a thought or idea takes shape in my mind.
This is something I wrote down in 05, right after a herding workshop.
Things I learned:
Dogs learn by observation – even older ones.
Follow through when you say something – or don’t say it.
Find what really floats your dog’s boat and get the best responses and performances.
Sheep are smart – but not as smart as a rookie Australian shepherd.
She who controls space is in charge.

And that is from November 09. Whenever I drive to and from clients I listen to CBC Radio one. One of my favorite programs is Quirks and Quarks, and last November they had a segment on what the brain does when an organism is in fight/flight mode. We already know what the rest of the body does: stress hormones are released, the heart rate goes up, glucose is pumped into muscles, digestion and rational thinking seizes temporarily, pupils dilate and whatnot.
What scientists discovered was that in the brain, when the body is in fight/flight mode, the centers for habit are activated, which means that whatever behaviors happen at that moment can quickly become compulsive. Evolutionary that makes total sense. An animal who subconsciously “remembers” how it got itself out of a tough spot has a greater chance of survival.
What does that mean regarding dogs? Well, maybe that every time a dog feels threatened and behaves in a way humans don’t like, but gets a response that decreases his fear and anxiety, his brain memorizes what actions took the pressure off. And each time that happens, the habit of behaving “badly” is strengthened in the brain.
Another reason to manage an emotional dog’s environment in a way that keeps her below threshold, below fight/flight mode, or at least teach and ensure that the behavior she exhibits at that moment is an acceptable one, for example controlled retreat.

Last but not least, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Blockbuster, the DVD rental place, permits dogs inside. I don’t have time to watch movies very often, but this weekend I do. I like independent stuff, so I got two German ones: The White Ribbon and North Face, and a horror/thriller in English called: The Children.
Today, when we walked in, we saw a sign at the door that said not to leave dogs in the car, but to bring them inside instead, provided they are well behaved, of course. I wondered if it was just for the summer so people wouldn’t leave their pooch in the hot vehicle. But no. New policy. Blockbuster is now pet friendly. At least the one in Truro, Nova Scotia, is.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Complex Dog Communication

Communication is part of every interaction and always a continuous feedback between all parties. One organism sends out a message with the intent to get a response, which, when it comes, it will act on or answer back to, which elicits another response, and so on. Effective communication depends both on the receiver understanding the signals and then corresponding accurately.
Pretty straightforward concept to understand, isn’t it? Indeed it is, and yet many humans seem to have difficulties. There are communication gaps between neighbors and nations, genders and generations – and species, like humans and dogs. Miscommunication is common and happens easily, often unintentionally, but the consequences are profound: passing conflict situations and permanent problem behaviors. A dog who is misunderstood is tense and anxious. If your responses to his signals don’t make sense, he’ll check out; ignore you and act on his own terms. Those are typically the dogs labeled stubborn or dumb.
Methinks that the reason why humans have communication problems is because we love telling others what to do much more than listening to what they’re trying to say.
But even if someone takes an interest in learning canine communication signals, and the dog speaks clearly because he was bred conscientiously and given opportunities to learn his own language, it can still be "Greek" to the average dog owner. That is because our companion dogs live in a complex world that requires complex communication. Signals that look the same can mean different things, depending on the situation. Communication is context specific and dynamic.
Let me illustrate: Our Davie is an exclusive to her social group kinda dog. More often then not, when she averts her head, which would be interpreted by most as an appeasing, submissive signal, what she really says is that she is not granting audience and wishes to be left alone. Turning her head is a very polite, but confident, “get lost” message.
Our Newf Baywolf’s rolling on his back was also not submission, but an active and confident attempt to solicit a tummy rub.
One behavior often misinterpreted is the play bow; the front half of the dog lowered with the butt up in the air. As the term implies, it is an invitation for a romp, but can also signal the opposite: a dog wishing a pause during play if things get a little heated.
A play bow can be just a long stretch, or used by the dog to buy time to assess a novel or uncertain situation he feels conflicted about.
Marking is communication. For scent-oriented dogs, leaving small amounts of smelly body fluid at many strategically important places is imperative. Both males and females do it; neutered or not, and some girls even lift a leg. Urine marking claims real estate, but also adds familiarity to an unfamiliar place or situation and thereby relieves anxiety. A dog might pee to entice another to mark on top, so that more information about the newcomer can be gained without having to get to close to him physically - like the canine version of a phone call or Facebook message. A wolf mating couple announces their union by marking together, and bonded dogs often pee simultaneously. Not one after the other, but at the exact same time. Bonded social group members synchronize their actions.

Mounting is rarely sexual and usually also not status seeking, but the attempt to control and change a situation the dog is annoyed or concerned about. It implies anxiety about a situation without a plan to solve it. Mounting can be either be directed against the perceived problem dog, or redirected against the one who happens to be closest, much like a redirected bite.

Next time your dog yawns, try to determine the motivation. Is he a tad worried and tries to pacify you or another, or submissively seeks acceptance? A yawn after a nap likely has dual purpose; taking in more oxygen to get ready for action, and signaling the other group members to join in. But maybe your pooch is just tired, and the yawn is nothing more than an involuntary body function.

Knowing the fine nuances of your dog’s body language allows you to respond accurately, and that has a powerful effect. Your dog will feel understood and almost immediately feel less anxious and be more attentive.

If you are keen to learn more, and are in Nova Scotia, mark September 18 and 19 on your calendar. Adina MacRae and I will be talking about body language and dog play. It is an one-day, people-only event. In the morning we will be at Happy Hounds on Barrington to analyze a bunch of photos and video footage - all our own material, which means we know the context. In the afternoon we’re all heading to Seaview Park for guided field observation. Because of the field trip, we want a small group and space is very limited to 20 people each day.
For more info and to register, email:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What to Say to Keep Strangers at Bay

Summer was my Newfoundland dog Baywolf’s favorite time of the year. Not for the reason that we took him swimming more often, but because we’d encounter many more humans on the trails and beaches. Baywolf loved summer cause, as a good Newf is supposed to, he loved people, especially young ones. He was the big, hairy, muddy-pawed embodiment of the word gregarious.
In my line of work, dogs who happily socialize with just anybody are the exception. Many of my clients’ dogs are a tad xenophobic; cautious of strangers and timid at best, reactively lunging at worst. What was a pleasurable season for us, creates real problems for the owner of an unsure of people pooch. When school’s out for the summer, and tourists are flocking streets and parks, it can be a real struggle to keep the shy dog at a safe distance away from touchy-feely humans eager to pat, hug or kiss him. It is this time of year, every year, when dog owners ask me what to say to keep people at bay.
Most have already figured out that the terms “aggressive” and “biting” are not part of an ideal explanation. Firstly, some people are not deterred and do approach closer, often assuringly stating that they “know dogs” and don’t mind to get nipped, and secondly, one very quickly gets a reputation of owning a dangerous dog – a label nobody needs who simply enjoys her canine’s companionship on a walk or hike.
Equally ineffective is saying the pooch is shy and fearful. Those are magnet words for folks to close in, maybe with a cookie in an outstretched hand, to “prove” to the pooch that they are a friendly primate. Typically the scaredy dog goes all limbic at that point, barking and bucking on the leash, at which point the “nice” person walks away shaking her head in disbelief why anybody would own a dog that out of control.
I think it was Sue Sternberg, the rescue queen, who recommended telling overzealous greeters that the dog has ringworm. I have never tried it, but am sure it works. People fear nothing more than catching something, and I can visualize how quickly they’d pull their hand and child away from a dog who’s a pesty critter carrier. Even though it probably is very successful, I find it a bit offensive.
My goal is to not only convey to my dogs that I protect them, so that they don’t have take matters into their own paws, but also to use every opportunity to kindly educate the public, especially children, about respecting space and proper socializing.
Unlike our affable Baywolf, the dogs I own now, Davie and Will, don’t care for anyone else but us, and a few selected friends.
When someone asks if she can pet, I praise her for asking first, and follow with a “no” and the explanation that the dogs are being trained to walk politely and attentively on a loose leash. And I demonstrate that with pacing back and forth a bit, the girls happily performing a heel. I never encountered anybody who disrespects a dog in training. Adults usually move on, and children often ask if they can help. The answer to that is yes – by keeping a, comfortable for my dogs, distance while observing us. That way, the kids are on my dogs' radar but they don’t feel threatened and will acclimatize to them, and the children feel good when I compliment them how great of a trainer helper they are. Plus they learn that there is more to do with a dog than hands-on touching and stroking.
A variation of that is asking if they want to see a trick. Teach your dog a bunch of cute behaviors you generously reward him for. Once he loves to perform to elicit your attention and interaction, or a food reward or toy, cue the tricks in the presence of strangers. People he meets on walks, even if they stop, are put in a really positive context. They become part of a game, an associated cue that precedes a known, fun activity. Often, to be able to observe the tricks better, the person backs up a little, and that is doubly reinforcing for the insecure dog. Not only does he get to perform and is rewarded, but the maybe worrisome stranger increases the distance, and that is extra payoff for his calm, non-reactive behavior.

When people ask appropriately if they can approach my dogs, I invest time and effort to create a positive situation even when the answer is no. If someone has the audacity to touch them without asking, and in my experience adults do that more than children, my good manners fly in the ditch. In no uncertain terms, with a stern voice and face, I tell them to back off. And I do not see the need to offer any explanation. I mean, would they give me details why I couldn’t hug their child I never met before?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pinning and Alpha Rolling

The belief that forcing a dog on his side or back, and holding him down till he stops struggling, is how a person must communicate dominance is as persistent as the view that nose halters, such as the Gentle Leader, is a humane walking tool.
I can understand why the layowner would think that. After all, it is on TV every week. And even though there is a disclaimer warning NOT to repeat pinning at home, it is portrait as the natural way dogs correct each other; something a dog might even desire cause it relaxes him.
What I don’t get is that professionals still apply and advise this. Trainers and rescue people teaching dog owners how to physically overpower someone weaker are my big peeve. I recently had two consultations where a trainer, and a shelter staff, had demonstrated and recommended alpha rolling to their clients; in one case it was part of the puppy class curriculum, in the other the dog was mislabeled dominant. In both cases the attempts backfired and the pooches’ behaviors worsened.

Proponents justify that aggressive treatment with the explanation that it is the way mother dog corrects her pups. Steve White (, who was a keynote speaker at the recent CAPPDT conference in Calgary, disputes that. He said that he’d give $100.00, probably US$, not that it matters much, to the first person who forwards video footage of exactly that: a mother dog pinning her puppy. Steve White said the challenge went out years ago and he still has his 100 bucks. Maybe not that much longer, cause a trainer from Ontario, John Wade (, claims to have such footage, although I couldn’t find it on his website.
I agree with Steve White, and many other trainers, behaviorists and ethologists, that pinning is not the natural way dogs correct dogs who belong to their social group and/or they like and have an affable relationship with. A decent mother dog walks away when her offspring is annoying, or gives them a dirty look, or might give a warning growl and flash her pearly whites, or muzzle corrects. The same, minus the walking away, is true for seasoned dogs who remind rookies to toe the line and cool it a bit.
People that look into nature to find a behavioral model to emulate often forget to also look at the intention “nature” has when it acts one way or another - and the consequences it elicits.
In my opinion, pinning is always antagonistic. The pinner is either stressed, or socially abnormal, or doesn’t give a rat’s tail about a future relationship. Doesn’t care about the dog he pins. A dog pinning another does not intend to be friends with that dog, but wants him to stay out of his face for good.
If we pin and force a dog on his back, and hold him down till he stops struggling, that is the message we are conveying; that our relationship is a competitive and confrontational one, and that he better be aware of that and wary of us. That is the stage we are setting, not the dog.
Let’s not forget that in most cases mother dogs and her pups are together for about 8 weeks or so, feral dogs a bit longer, but rarely for life. We share ours with the dog for some 10-14 years. A companionable bond is much more important for us than mother dog.
So what if someone has footage that shows a mother dog pinning her pup. Without investigating what happens next and what the long-term consequences are, it is meaningless as a template how we should act.
We should understand the effectiveness of a method before we embrace it, shouldn’t we?
Did the pinner successfully change unwanted behaviors, or did she just get the pup out of her face for the moment? Was the pup more polite towards other dogs, or just her? How did he turn out as an adolescent and adult? Again, towards her and other dogs. Did the pinning result in a polite and well-mannered adult? Or an anxious, or offensively aggressive one?
Our Newf Baywolf was the most amiable of dogs, but pinned one dog in his 9 years of almost daily off-leash outings. For a period of 4 months or so, Bay nailed my friend’s pup Rudy every time we met, preemptively and leaving him alone for the remainder of the walk. When Rudy was 18 months, he attacked Baywolf over a sniffing spot.
And that brings up another aspect where dogs and humans differ. A dog who pins has no recourse when the pinnee retaliates. Neither mom dog, nor the one in the park, has the option to boot the dog who resisted to the nearest shelter, back to the breeder, or the veterinarian’s euthanasia table. But that’s exactly what people do when the alpha rolled dog returns aggression and bites. And that is also what many trainers advise when what they taught ended up in the ditch.

Most socially normal dogs don’t pin another. And if they do, the purpose is mostly self-preservation. The dog in the park who pins aims to stop the other from doing what he is doing to HIM. Rarely does it matter to the pinner if the unruly pooch pesters any other dog. We expect our dog to be well-mannered with everybody.
So, keep all that in mind when you have the urge to alpha roll your pup or newly adopted dog. And if you pin to punish your dog cause he acted badly against another, it’s like slapping the 10-year-old cause he slapped the 8-year-old to teach him that it’s wrong to slap weaker people.