Saturday, May 21, 2011

Displacement Behaviors

In “Dog Language”, Danish evolutionary biologist and ethologist Roger Abrantes writes that dogs only share 50-80% of wolf-communication in true or modified form. I read that years ago, and was happy that a scientist of international caliber pointed out that dogs’, because they live in different conditions, aren’t like wolves’. Every time that happens it counters the popular perception that our common house-canis is in its essence but a status seeking competitor we better be wary of.
To clarify, dogs’ communication is not inferior to wolves’; it is not that they lack language skills, only dropped some signals and developed others because the environment they live in demanded it. Trust me, dog-speak is not mumbled because they live in the midst of humans, like some dog-pros suggest. To the contrary, they talk very clearly with us, and because they have learned that our hands can provide and attack, bring pleasure and hurt, their lingo includes a variety of signals intended to pacify. Expressions of active and passive submission, appeasement and displacement I see a whole lot more than assertive growls and snarls. Dogs, by nature, defer to us. In relation to humans they are prey, not predator.
Most everyone has, at least rudimentarily, an idea what a dog who pleads for kindness looks like. Even non-dog-owning people understand groveling and rolling on the back, tail up the belly, whining and dribbling urine.
A different story when it comes to displacement behaviors, which, by the way, can be observed in all animals. Simplified, they are species-normal actions expressed out of context to temporarily reduce anxiety, unease, uncertainty. The pooch feels confused or pressured, needs more time or information, or simply is bored. Not necessarily proof that he was trained with corrections and fears to make a mistake, it could also be that.
Two very common signals are sniffing and scratching. Of course, dogs sniff because they’re trailing a scent or reading the “Taily News”, but if I see mine put her nose into the bush the moment neighbor’s Brutus struts down his driveway, I know that she is a bit worried and hopes that old Brut won’t, la-la-la-la-la, perceive her as someone worth paying attention to.
Certainly, a dog also scratches an itch, but when I see one during an obedience trial eagerly run for the dumbbell, but stop on the way back to scratch himself, my hunch is that he’s concerned about an, at least at times, irritable handler and my advice for him is to be less overpowering and more inviting.
A play bow, the front down, butt up mega signal that friendly interaction is sought, can also be a displacement one. Not long ago I worked with two rescues who both exhibited it in different contexts: one in front of a treat she was leash-prevented to access. Without receiving any information from me, she had no clue what to do to get the loot and bowed, an action that might have, in the past and other situations, resulted in favorable outcomes - from her point of view. It became a habit. But maybe it was her launching position; her trying to gain momentum.
The other dog, a powerful male I assessed, bowed outside a run that contained a litter of puppies, and we knew it wasn’t play because he tried to attack (the puppies weren’t harmed in any way) a few hours prior. When he saw them the second time, unlike before, they were sleeping and that detail change, from animation to stillness, threw him enough of a curveball to trigger a different behavior: bowing instead of lunging.
Described in “The Domestic Dog”, biologist Ray Coppinger observed a group of Border collies who were presented with chickens sedated just enough that they stood still when the herders stared at them. Border collies give eye in anticipation of movement, and when what they expected, the birds scattering, didn’t manifest they had a problem they didn’t know how to solve. They stopped holding eye and, in frustration, resorted to a variety of displacement behaviors, including the play bow. At first suggestion that the chickens were about to move they locked on again, resumed giving eye, like the male dog lunged for the pups again the moment one awoke and became animated.

Which displacement signals a dog gives varies and depends on circumstance, personality, and what led to desired results in the past, but it can be anything that is part of his behavioral repertoire, including digging, self-grooming and rolling over.
When insecure of all novel situations husky Chinook went belly up as soon as I tried to teach her something new, it wasn’t an attempt to appease me, but to create a pause in our interaction. I ignored the behavior and her, and she popped up a few seconds later and did exactly what I had asked for. Sadly, Chinook’s owner interpreted her action as willfulness, but fortunately I could convince her that her mild, lovely pooch did want to please me, just needed a little more time to figure out how; concerned that I might not be safe if she’d get it wrong, and that is likely based on traditional training methods she once experienced.
Such misinterpretations humans make are common, because the average dog’s bilingual skills are much better than his person’s. One of the most misunderstood behaviors is mounting. Labeled as a dominant or sexual behavior it is typically neither, but exhibited by a dog in conflict; one presented with a person, dog or situation that makes him nervous but he feels powerless to do anything about. Mounting is a not so subtle effort by the dog to control or change a situation that’s not working for him - at the moment or generally, and it can be directed at the perceived “problem”, or redirected like a redirected bite – meant for one but directed at the other.

A displacement behavior always reflects a dog’s emotional state; signals that he is indecisive, needs more information, is buying time to contemplate his next move, would rather not deal with the dilemma altogether, is overwhelmed or utterly bored. If your dog intersperses an action with a behavior that is only normal in a different context, ask yourself why. Your best response is as multifaceted as the dog’s reason. If he is just confused, it is worthwhile to wait 20-30 seconds to see if he comes up with his own perfect solution, like husky Chinook and the rescue dog who bowed in front of a food treat. Problem solving builds brainpower and confidence and we want to foster both. If he is truly concerned, help him, and if he worries a lot, proactively avoid situations that create unease, for example change training facilities and build confidence in an environment he feels less overwhelmed in. If he is chronically mounting, chances are his living arrangement, or part of it, isn’t working for him and changes might have to be made there.
Setting the pooch up for success prevents that the displacement behavior turns into a problem behavior. If it is regularly reinforced, it can become an obsession; if reinforced by the person, a habitual but annoying attention getter that is, like all addictions, difficult to undo.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's in a Name

For me, one of the highlights of acquiring, adopting, or fostering a dog is naming him, or her. A name is not meaningless, as some trainers state, but mirrors the owner’s personality and often reflects his purpose for having a dog; his expectations and the relationship he is aiming for.
The dog’s name gives me a hint if the owner might be needy or overprotective, soft and mellow, ego-driven and on a power trip, demands mindless obedience or has a sense of humor. Typically I am right on the mark: Rottweilers Ruger and Dillinger had somewhat shady owners; Angel, the sweet pit bull blossomed under the gentle care of her loving foster mother; Romeo, a standard poodle belonged to a perfectly done up and cosmetically enhanced single female; the intact German shepherd Butler to a type A law enforcement officer, and beagle Wontlisten’s tousled person couldn’t care less about obedience, just wanted the food resource guarding to stop.
To make it unequivocally clear, taking mental name notes doesn’t mean that I compromise how I treat someone, or the methods I apply. I never judge a person before I meet him, or afterwards for that matter, cause I neither walk in their shoes nor can I help a dog if I’m disparaging with her human. I treat the name as an important piece of information that helps me to angle the consultation a certain way, so that I am the best communicator I can be, so that the dog’s person is more likely than not following my advice. That’s all.

For the dog, a name isn’t meaningless either. True, the combination of letters is, but the sound should have relevance: it ought to be her cue to pay attention. It’s her instant on-switch. You say your dog’s name and she should flip around and look at you inquisitively, like the canine version of: “Heard ya! What do want me to do?”
Attention is the foundation for anything else you want to do with your dog. When you have it, behaviors can be learned in a flash, if you don’t, obedience training is lagging and a drag. In addition, while your dog is connected to you she can’t focus on another stimulus at the same time, and that can keep her out of trouble.
Instant name attention is crucial in day-to-day life. It serves both as a cue for your dog that what you are about to do involves her somehow, and as a signal to reconnect with you. In both cases, action always follows, and it has to be rewarding quality time.
If the dog associates her name with discomfort, she is less likely to respond consistently and readily. That doesn’t change even if you sometimes reward. Ambiguity creates apprehensive, not eager, performances.
Fun interaction as the consequence for instant response guarantees that the name is not just a conditioned default attention getter, but that your dog stays connected instead of checking out after a quick glimpse in your direction.
Action always follows for another reason: a dog whose name is called, but is then left in limbo because nothing happens, learns to ignore it – and by extension you.
There is nothing more annoying than someone saying your name again and again, interrupting you at whatever you are doing, just to ignore you as soon as you look up. Even if that person were to hand over a piece of chocolate each time, but without giving you further information, you’d likely be infuriated despite the treat. You can test that with your favorite person if you like. Trust me, your dog feels similarly and will tune you out if you are nothing more than irritating white noise.
If you have a young puppy, teaching name attention is easy. A pup, although not entirely a clean slate because behaviors are partly genetic, and partly imprinted by the environment she lived in before you got her, is needy and therefore naturally attaching herself to the mighty one who owns all assets. She also feels neutral about the name you have chosen for her; not yet ambiguous, worried or uninterested. To switch it from neutral to rewarding, say it often and reinforce with fun interaction. You’re on a roll if your dog, during a game of puppy piƱata, stops searching for the handful of treats you tossed out and instantly pays attention to you as soon as you call her by name.
If you are someone who rather gives an older dog a second chance, test how she feels about the name she came with. If she doesn’t respond to it, or if she averts her eyes or head, change it. For that matter, also test her with other common commands, for example the recall one “come”. If she does anything else but enthusiastically run to you, change that also.
Paying attention to her name should be the first thing you teach your puppy, or older new family member. Every considerably intelligent dog, regardless of age, can learn a new name in no time. Our Will was nameless for her first ten weeks or so of life, became Trisha after she was humanely trapped, then Sadie a couple of weeks later in her foster home, and was renamed Willkommen by us. Three different names in five months and she responded to the one we gave her within ½ hour.
You’d teach it the same way you teach the pup: make yourself interesting, possibly having the dog leashed when you practice so that she can’t walk away, say her new name and entice her to look at you, and the moment she does exaggerate your happiness and follow up with a big deal interaction, which you can name as well. Putting a word to the action will become commands you use to communicate to your dog what will happen next.

Saying a dog’s name is the best, kindest and most natural way to get her attention. We are humans with human habits. We don’t poke or electrically stimulate someone we want to connect with, but use his or her name, and that is what we should teach and apply with our dogs as well.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Traditional training teaches five commands at the beginner level. Sit is one. Almost every dog I meet sits when told, or offers it for a reward cause it is, universally, possibly the most practiced behavior.
Come is another, although many dogs I meet don’t always return to their person when called, even when it’s been trained. The others are: heel for not pulling, down and stand. On their own, some owners teach “off”, intended to eliminate jumping, counter surfing and hogging the furniture, and just about everyone uses the unspecific exclamation “no” to tell the pooch he’d better knock whatever it is he’s doing off.
Abovementioned are the behaviors the general dog-owning public considers must haves, and they believe and expect that they can be mastered in an 8-week course and then guaranty a mannerly dog for life. Newsflash: it’s a delusion.
I have must-have behaviors too, but except for the recall “come”, and one position, either sit or down, mine are different ones. In my opinion, what a pup or newly adopted dog should learn first are: offer eye contact attention, respond to his name, entertain himself when given the “all-done” command, shift his focus from an environmental stimulus to his person when told to “leave” it, and release whatever he’s got between his teeth when told to “give”.
The benefits of those foundation behaviors are obvious: you get your dog’s attention when you need it; he stops pestering you when you’ve had enough; you have off-leash control if your dog reliably leaves this or that on command, checks in with you and comes on recall.
Why give is so important is also obvious. A dog who releases on command, voluntarily, whatever he has in his mouth won’t eat or destroy it, and won’t aggress over it. It keeps him from getting sick, your possessions intact, and makes a game of fetch or tug much more pleasurable.
As with any behavior, voluntarily only happens if taught without force, cause force fosters resentment and competition, and with that comes confrontation, suspicion and guarding. Now, some say that you never get reliable obedience unless you convince your dog that you can make him – in fact just today I read guidelines from another trainer who uses leather gloves as part of her tools when she teaches “give”, but I argue that you get more reliable obedience from a dog when it is more rewarding for him to listen to you than not.
Teaching Rover to release voluntarily is easy. The exercise most people are probably familiar with is the trade-up game. Prerequisite is that you know what your dog likes. What, and how passionately, because for the exercise you need to have a number of material resources handy, staggered from low-valued to higher-valued. The leather-glove trainer starts with the highest valued bone, and that’s why she needs to protect her hands cause the dog might bite when she forces it out of his mouth.
My advice is the opposite: to begin with something the pooch is interested in, but that’s not all too important. Let him have it for a bit, and then wave an item in front of his nose he cares a little more about. Chances are Fangs drops what’s in his jaws to grab the better thing, and that is a good time to combine the give command with the behavior. Repeat that several times, always trading up, and end the game with giving him something of high value he can keep. In other words, hand him the last resource, then tell him “all-done”, check out and leave him in peace with his booty. Repeat often, daily, several times a day, whenever you have a minute or two. You are instilling resource security, and once your dog has that he won’t object if you have to take something away from him without trading it in for something else.
If toys float his boat, a variation is to pretend that you have an incredibly good time with one his other toys. Let’s say your dog has a ball or Frisbee he doesn’t want to give up. Have an identical one ready, or a squeakier one, or a new one, and seemingly mesmerized toss it in the air, talk to it if you must, or sniff it, all the while ignoring the pooch. I bet he’ll join you in a flash to get in on your game, and will drop whatever he has to make room in his mouth for your, at that time much more desired, toy.
Another way to teach "give" without force, especially if you eventually want to tug with your dog, is chase‘n’catch. Many dogs resist releasing the tug toy, something prey-like they have in their mouth, and if the human insists and pulls back, or tries to pry the mouth open, the interaction becomes competitive. Depending on personality, the dog either finds that super rewarding or, if he feels powerful enough, seriously challenges you. Tug getting out of control doesn’t happen if the dog learns that catch’n’give leads to more chase’n’catch.
The game begins with you dragging a long toy, or a toy attached to a light rope, behind you. Almost every dog’s interest is instantly keened when something is in motion, and he’ll be highly motivated to catch it. As soon as he is about to lay his teeth on it, say take it, stop moving and toss a treat out. In all likelihood, especially if you have something super yummy, your dog will let go of the toy to snatch the bait. When he does, you again combine behavior with a “give” command, then run away again dragging the toy behind you. Releasing the toy becomes doubly rewarding for your dog because he gets a piece of delectable food and a continuation of a prey-chase game, and that’ll motivate him to release again when asked. Grabbing and giving happens in fast, repetitive successions until your dog understands and obeys the take and give commands. You can test that by dangling the toy in front of his face - he should not grab it until told so. If he does, don’t jerk the toy up, because it increases arousal and entices him to jump. Let him have it, but disconnect from the action and ignore him completely. The fun with you stops abruptly and entirely, and life becomes boring for your dog if he doesn’t play by your rules. As soon as he drops the toy, reward, pick it up and start playing again.
Once giving on command is a habit, you don’t need the treat distraction any longer. Continuation of the game is the sole reinforcement.

Releasing a treasure into the boss’s hands requires a certain amount of trust. That has to be established by you, and fun, rewarding training is the way to do it. Once your dog is convinced that whatever he possesses is safe with you, he’ll bring and give it up instead of running away from you, including something he finds or catches on his own.