Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dog Play

Throughout this summer, to give back a little to the community that accepted and supported me for the last 4 years, I’m offering free of charge dog communication events. I live on Canada’s East Coast, so it’ll be like “whale watching with Angus”, only “dog watching with Silvia”.
The three sessions will take place at two popular off-leash parks, because unrestrained dogs, for better or worse, do what dogs do, which we will observe and I will interpret. We’ll probably see a lot play soliciting and play pausing signals, meant to prevent that the interaction escalates into something different. We’ll be watching bold, exuberant dogs and cautious ones; dogs wanting to play with everyone, others who are selective, and some who aren’t interested at all in connecting with their own species.
Not wanting to play with other dogs? Aren’t they all developmentally stunted wolves? At the core juveniles, whose highlight of the day should be a trip to the off-leash park? Simple answer: No. Dogs, like every other organism, go through all physical and mental growth stages, from puppy hood to old age, and everything in between.
True is that most canids are social by nature, and observations with feral and stray dogs suggest that they seek same-species companionship, but is that by choice, or necessity in lieu of a human friend? The question is: is a canine pal essential for a dog's welfare, or can a person adequately take its place? In my opinion, it depends.
There are dogs who never really graduate out of the sandbox, thrive being with other dogs and love playing till a ripe old age. On the opposite end are ones who exclusively want to hang out with humans. Often at a very young age they snub other dogs, consider them nuisance, not pal. I see that periodically with people friendly golden retrievers, velcro-type toys, and workaholic herding dogs - like the 6 months old Border collie I watched the other day, who was on the job with his human and the Frisbee and completely blocked out the juvenile Lab cross who tried every play soliciting behavior in his repertoire to buddy up.
But most dogs fall somewhere in the middle and benefit from having at least one canine friend. Typically, they gravitate to ones belonging to the same breed or group, because they share similar play styles and understand each other best. Like seeks like and meshes together.
Such was the case with two adult mastiffs I was hired to observe because the owner, who had just acquired the second one, wanted to be certain that their open-mouth wrestling, body checking and neck biting were friendly, not antagonistic, displays. Their interactions indeed appeared raucous, with fully exposed teeth and some vociferous growling, but it was play. How can I be so sure that it was? Because what looked and sounded intense was in fact very inhibited. Nobody got injured, and as soon as one yelped because her sensitive ear was caught, the other let off without leaving a scrap. He also let go when she rolled on her back and stopped wagging her tail. Without needing human interference, he understood that she needed a break and called it off and both, paws touching, settled beside one another, seeking closeness in play and rest.
True, proper play should be loose and fluid, and ideally excludes neck biting and collar grabbing. It should be a back and forth interaction, with one dog winning, then the other. But because of selective breeding and human manipulation, what kinda fun dogs enjoy can vary greatly, and stiff-bodies, jerked movements, and rougher contacts can fall in the normal category as long as all are willing participants. One of my friends, Adina MacRae, said it brilliantly: “Play behaviors are normal when all parties involved agree that they are”.
So, it’s okay if one dog is always the chaser and the other the chasee, as long as dog rules of play are followed: bows or toy teasing to initiate, pauses for a brief time out before things become too heated, and listening to back off signals. Nobody getting hurt even when the romping is fast and furious is an important indicator, because a playing dog has self-control. Arguably the single best sign that play isn’t turning serious is if the dog is still aware of her surroundings, including, in fact especially, the owner.
That was always the rule for my dogs. Regardless how much fun everyone had, if they were too pumped to pay attention when I called them, I cut in reminding them that I still exist, and then released back into play with a specific command - provided that everyone wanted to continue. If one dog avoided and turned away with a low tail, or anxiously had her hackles up, or tried to hump, I redirected mine into doing something else pleasurable.

Super social and goofy dogs, ones a tad more reserved and selective in the companionship they keep, and still others who tell every pooch who comes near them to get lost, I am sure me and my dog watching group will observe plenty. Perhaps we luck out and see wise, confident dogs with a lot of presence who keep an eye on the ongoings and gently split about to get out-of-control interactions, and maybe we’ll meet dogs born with a badge on their chest who impatiently order others around, even if there is no need.
What I am not so keen on, but we’ll likely see anyway, are owners grouped together yapping away, completely clueless what their dogs are up to.
Hopefully we won’t encounter disturbing stuff: a real fight, or a dog wanting nothing more than to get out-o’-there, like the young Leonberger we saw on our last excursion to the park. She was so afraid that she, ad infinitum, ran to the exit gate, just to be forced, with choke chain and leash, back in the group. Of course, flooding and not giving a rat’s tail how the dog feels is demonstrated on TV all the time, and my hunch is that’s where her owner learned how to deal with a dog's fears.
But even though coming across stupid owners is a possibility, I am really looking forward to the events. Offering them as a little thank you is only half the truth; the other is that I love watching dogs in their natural environment, which in our society are people’s homes, trails, and parks. I am doing myself a favor as much as anybody who will join me. If you live in my ‘hood, I hope to see you there. If you don’t, equip yourself with pen and paper and venture to an off-leash area near you, without your dog unless she's off leash ready and comes when called, and watch and learn. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Top Dog is the Dog on Top – Of Furniture?

About ten years ago I attended an aggression seminar offered through Calgary’s continued education program. Our instructor was an ex-cop, and obedience trainer with a couple of decades experience. Not particularly harsh or unreasonable, he was traditional, Koehler-style, and like many others also accepted the dominance-hierarchy theory as truth. “The top dog is the dog on top”, he said and pointed out that height seeking - a dog who wants to be above or on the same level as his human, indicates dominance. Hence, he advised that ideally no dog should have bed and sofa access, and especially not the one who shows dominance in other ways, like being reactive or “generally disobedient”.
Not much has changed since. There are numerous articles and books, written by renowned dog experts and behaviorists, that explain why dominance is rarely the root of behavioral problems, but despite that many layowners and trainers still believe that a dog’s place is on the floor, spatially below the person. But here is the problem: in real life the mental “where the dog should be” often doesn’t transfer into according and consistently enforced rules, and that is because snuggling up with the beloved hairy sidekick is very pleasing for the human.
In the olden days, while the master found pleasure in the arms of his mistress, the dog kept the lady of the palace warm at night, and attracted her fleas and lice during the day. Not only was he tolerated on the lap and in bed, but wanted there. Nowadays, we can buy blankets to keep us warm, and most of us aren’t pest infested, and perhaps the whole flea and lice thingy is a myth anyway, but the fact is that people’s longing to cozy up with someone alive is innate. Today, our homes are warmer, but our society colder. The modern human lives in a fast-paced and anonymous world, but is still touchy-feely needy and seeks an outlet, and that’s where the dog comes in; he slipped into the role of preferred soul companion, confidant, lean-on, and receiver of all those velvety emotions. And because we have so many different breeds these days, not just the traditional lap toy poochini can be found sprawled on the sofa and hogging the pillow, but dogs of all sizes.
Concurrently, resurrected “discipline over affection” and “dogs are inherently status seeking” assertions are hard to miss, and that causes conflict in many owners. On one hand, they wanna cuddle; on the other, they worry that by doing so they’re bringing out the alpha wolf in the contemporary canine.
Indeed, that is the sentiment I often hear from my clients. When I ask during a consultation where the dog sleeps, intended to find out what degree of social inclusion he enjoys, I regularly get a sheepish, apologetic or defying confession that he’s on the bed. And equally regularly my clients are surprised and relieved when I tell them that it’s okay.
Yes, some dogs can be space possessive, but most want to be on furniture because it’s soft and comfy, and smells more than any other place like their beloved person, which offers security to an insecure dog, especially when he’s home alone. Truth is that most dogs aren’t dominating us, but are needy for our help and support, much like a human dependant.
Our Will sleeps beside me on her own bed at night, and chills out in different rooms throughout the house during the day, but when we visit friends, when she is away from the safety of her home, she glues herself next to me on the couch.
Neediness was also the motivation of our recent German shepherd house guest. Responsive and obedient on and off the leash, moving out of the way when asked, not confrontational over anything, sleeping on top of hubby Mike during a thunderstorm and hiding behind me when he heard rustling in the bushes and didn’t know what it was, he is a big baby, not a dominant alpha. We had him for about two weeks, and during the first there wasn’t a moment he was physically away from us. By week two, when he felt more confident with his new surroundings and routine, he often settled with Will in another room – and on the floor.

A dog on furniture is not a problem; one who guards and defends space, is.
If our 40-pound Aussie Davie, who had a personality that covered Mike’s mattress completely, would not have moved her toenail when he climbed into bed, but snarled at him instead, then we would have had a problem warranting action.
Prohibiting access is intuitive and what most trainers recommend with a space guarder, but it is a superficial solution and rarely successful, because it doesn’t take into account that a dog confident enough to contest one resource typically does so with anything that’s important to him: the yard, entrance to your home, where his food dish is, or the space around you or himself. The aggressive behaviors aren’t expressed on bed and sofa anymore only because the dog isn’t there, but continued in different contexts.
My way, counterintuitive but effective, is to provide social inclusion and resources freely, but to make them contingent on the dog’s relaxed, attentive and polite behavior. Resource control, not prohibition, changes a dog's attitude, even with the rare social ladder climber, and then you can snuggle all you want, like we do, and never have an alpha problem.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't Punish the Growl

The beginning of gardening season tends to draw people out of their homes and we realized, once again, that the houses around ours are indeed occupied. Thus, I had a pleasant chat with our neighbor’s daughter recently who is parent to an 18-month-old daughter of her own, and a senior rescue mutt named Hannah. Always interested in other people’s dogs I casually inquired how Hannah was doing, and my neighbor stated that she is great, but occasionally growls at the now more mobile baby. She right away followed that statement by saying that she isn’t too concerned and feels that Hannah doesn’t want to injure the toddler, only communicates to the adults that she has had enough of small, uncoordinated hands reaching for her. How is it, I wondered, that some people understand that a dog’s growl means that she needs help, while others envision a looming blood bath?
Many people, possibly the majority, are certain that a growl is a sure-tell sign that the dog is dominant and dangerous, and without a doubt will harm someone. And out of that fear we humans, at the core prey not predator, quell the growl and expect our dog, for an entire lifetime, no matter what circumstance, only speak pleasantly. How realistic is that, eh? It’s not – not possible for any animal.
Steve White and Suzanne Clothier, two of my favorite dog gurus, argue that a growl is communication like any other one, and always coveys that distance is sought. And they are not the only ones. Many high profile, world-renowned behaviorists agree that with a growl the still self-controlled dog is sending information that the present situation isn’t working for her, and that she needs help. The dog’s intent with a growl is to prevent a bite. It’s a good thing, cause it gives you an opening to get the queasy feeling pooch out of the situation before she becomes undone.
I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t do anything about your dog’s growling, snarling, tensing or snapping, just that subduing her is barking up the wrong tree. Labeling a dog bad and dominant, without further investigation what drives the behavior, what the root cause for the tension is, creates more problems in the long run because your dog’s mind about the worrisome stimulus isn’t changed, just the expressions suppressed.
When your dog acts out, you need to deal with the pressing moment and get her out of the situation that elicited the warning, but after that you gotta focus on what really needs your attention: the underlying issues that prompted the growls. Likely, that requires the help of an experienced, positive behavior expert, because the reasons could be many and the solutions as well. So, don’t leave the matter alone, but address in a way that is productive, and responding with an assertive correction, despite its popularity, isn’t it.
That is also true for dogs that are indeed confident and aggressive. In fact, I opine that a growl is never a submissive signal. The dog could, instead of growling, surrender and walk away. In all fairness, humans often prevent that; restrain and corner the dog, not giving her the option to depart. Even then, even if growling is the dog’s plan B, it reflects a certain willingness to be confrontational. When we adopted our feral born Will she panicked about everything that had to do with humans, yet never growled. She involuntary voided, drooled excessively, stress-panted and expressed her anal sacs, but didn’t growl, never warned us to back off.
It is understandable that you’re upset when your canine sidekick, who ought to follow and obey, challenges the hand that feeds her, but forcefully crushing that part of natural, albeit undesired by us, communication backfires in a big way.
I always wonder why intelligent people believe that adding their own aggression to an already tense situation somehow diffuses it and makes it all better for the future? Believe me, it doesn’t. It creates more resistance that, provided the handler is able to physically impress the dog, might not be overtly expressed anymore, but will boil under the surface instead. Steve White calls it “removing the ticker from the time bomb”. Now you have a dog who still feels the same about you, your kids, your guests, strangers or other dogs, but doesn’t warn you anymore that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whenever I hear: “Suddenly she lost it” and “Bit out of the blue”, I have an idea what happened in that dog’s past. And make no mistake. A dog confident enough will explode eventually and bite you or someone else, someone weaker.
I know: dogs that warn are scary. It all sounds the same for untrained human ears, but the fact is that dogs growl for different reasons in various degrees. The one constant is that it is always a sign that she is confronted with a situation she can’t handle and that forces her to act according to what worked in the past and her abilities as a species. A dog can’t use human words, can’t say: “You (it, that) makes me nervous”, “Food is scarce and I’m hungry”, or “Boy, did you startle me”, so she growls.
Remember that you want that warning, but recognize that there is an underlying problem that needs your attention. Investigate what it is and then deal with it constructively. And don’t worry that, if you miss to respond with a punitive action of your own, you will be rewarding the dog for a behavior you don’t desire. Don’t think in terms of operant conditioning, of what you’d be reinforcing, but what your dog needs from you that eliminates tension and anxiety, and with it the need to growl.