Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dogs and their Teeth

Bite inhibition refers to the degree of pressure a dog applies when she wraps her teeth around someone. Evidently that is ├╝ber-important, because having mouth control, or lacking it, makes the difference between no teeth marks, a slight bruise, or injury.
The common belief is that bite inhibition is set in young puppy hood, and although it is true that littermates stop playing, and elders reprimand when the little brute is rough with her teeth, it doesn’t mean that from then on, for her whole life, in every situation, the level with which she bites is invariable.
I argue that bite inhibition isn’t a constant, and only partly determined by early experiences. The other two factors are inherent disposition and intent.
By disposition I mean that cautious born dogs are naturally more careful what they do with their teeth than confident ones hardwired to taking risks.
By intent I mean that mouth pressure is very much under the dog’s deliberate control. For instance, a bite directed at someone - person, dog or cat - the dog has no social bond with, or is not dependent on, can be less inhibited because there is no need to keep that someone around, or alive. Let me give you an example.
Not long ago a client called me because her 95-pound pooch injured a person quite seriously. The victim was the owner’s business associate and not a complete stranger to the dog, but also not someone who appeared to be of any relevance. The owner purposely tried to instill a neutral association to people in general, and had asked everyone but close friends and family to follow the Dog Whisperer’s advice: no touch, no talk, no eye contact. The expectation was that the pooch would learn to perceive humans at large as irrelevant encounters and leave them alone. That approach was only somewhat successful because he remained alert, and occasionally barked and growled at one person or another, but never bit until the aforementioned business partner raised his arm; inadvertently, talking with his hands to add clarity to something he verbally explained. In a flash, the dog lunged up and inflicting a wound that required a good number of stitches.
I confess that, unlike some trainers, I do mind when a dog bites me. I feel just like the next person: it’s not pleasant and can put me out of working order for a while, and because I am tad obsessed with my work that is a big deal. Knowing the level of damage that dog had caused, I requested that he be leash-managed (not leash-corrected) and muzzled when I arrived for our appointment in the client’s home. When I entered, he seemed under physical control, but was hyperacutely aware of my presence and growled at my every move. “Seemed under physical control” might give you a hint what happened next. The owner, annoyed with his dog's behavior, yanked on the leash, which riled him up more and he lunged forward, and the person lost control. At the same time the ill-fitted muzzle came off. I spare you the details how I felt when the dog charged in my direction, but thankfully I wasn’t emotionally unstable for long cause he was more interested in sniffing my backpack on the floor than getting rid of me.
The panicked, and at the same time angered by his dog’s resistance and disobedience, owner caught up quickly and, before I had a chance to tell him to let his pooch sniff, grabbed him by his collar to pull him away, and he, objecting to that interruption, swung around and seized his arm - but didn’t clamp down. Not even a tooth mark. He didn’t injure on purpose, because the owner is a social group member and important for his survival. He means something, and the business partner didn’t and could, from the dog’s point of view, be harmed. Inhibition with one, but not the other, is intent rather than something born with or acquired as a pup.
Deliberate reserve was also the case with an owner-surrendered German shepherd I once assessed at a humane society. Calm and relaxed when I entered his run, his mood shifted instantly when I reached for his collar to clip the leash on. He jumped, took hold of my leash arm and tensely held a position of: paws on my chest, arm in his mouth, while directly staring at me. Although there was very little pressure, it was unmistakably a warning for me to stop what I was doing, and he did not release until I lured him back to the ground with a treat in my other hand. Why he didn’t bite harder still mystifies me, but perhaps he never had to make a stronger, clearer point because people heeded to his subtlety. Despite the lack of injury he was, in my opinion, a dangerous dog.
The argument that it is the degree of damage that distinguishes a safe dog from one who isn’t doesn’t fly with me. A dog who warns a lot is a risk. Of course, one who only bites once but sends his target to the hospital or vet clinic is more hazardous, but in a society that finds growling unacceptable, a dog who only intimidates or gets into minor scraps, but all the time, isn’t tolerated. There is more. Dogs that attack often typically have a heightened sensitivity, a strong startle reflex, and an overreaction to a wide variety of stimuli. Easily set off, they can be a challenge for the layowner. When pressured, the arousal level goes up, bite inhibition down, and a more serious bite incident might be just around the corner. The realistic outcome for a biting dog, regardless of inhibition, often is euthanasia - or worse a lonely life in a run somewhere, being physically abused, or being passed on from place to place to place.
I haven’t met a dog yet who hasn’t got any control over his mouth to a certain degree. A naturally hard dog can be gentle when it matters, and a soft biter can clamp down hard when overwhelmed with a situation. Anytime a dog’s teeth connect with a human or inflict injury to another dog, the owner should seek professional help, but not with the goal to learn how to punish harder than the dog can bite, but how to create the kind of environment that makes her feel like she doesn’t have to.
Aggression is never the cause, but always the symptom. The symptom that something in the dog’s life isn’t working for her. To investigate what it is that isn’t working, and to find solutions how it works better, is my idea of professional help. The dog trainer’s role should be to coach owners how to create an environment that is harmonious and rewarding for every member in the social group. Yup, that takes effort. It is much easier to hand the pooch over to someone who “fixes” the symptoms, like we might bring the car to the mechanic or laptop to the computer geek, than to address and change the cause(s) for aggression. Fortunately for dogs more people than you might think are up for the task. Sometimes we hold owners to a low standard – and we shouldn’t. I expect a lot from my clients, and am rarely disappointed. When they have the “tools” - in quotation marks because I am talking about a philosophy and lifestyle choice rather than certain kinds of collars, they apply and implement them.
Although every dog has the potential to bite, and will in a perfect storm situation, a safe (in the dog’s mind) environment, combined with specific training that teaches her alternate to biting behaviors when she’s charged up, communication between dog and owner that works, and savvy management, are the best insurance that she won’t become a liability.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Totally Wound Up

I read a lot. If you could peek into our home you’d see books everywhere, in every room of the house, including bathroom one, two and three. Plus I have a book in the car’s glove compartment just in case I arrive at my destination a few minutes early. If you’d call my behavior obsessive, you would be correct cause one identifying aspect of obsession is that the more you do it, the more you need to do it, and that certainly is true for me and reading.
Dogs can be obsessive too. A veterinarian friend and I discussed that once, and he said that dogs can’t be OCD, compulsive obsessive, because they miss the compulsive preoccupation of thinking impeding thoughts, but they can be obsessed with a certain action they repeat over and over again, to the point of exhaustion or self-mutilation.
Some dogs are neurotic because they have very poor welfare and endlessly spin, lick, or chew their own leg or tail. Humans drive dogs to insanity when they use them as breeding machines or completely neglect them, treat them erratically or cruelly punish.
Some dogs are wound up because they live with incompatible, albeit well-meaning people. They are task specialists with an intense drive to act on what they were selectively bred for. The Border collie comes to mind, who, in the wrong home and in lieu of sheep, fixates on a replacement activity, for example a ball, light flickers or shadows, and gets stuck in a behavior, like chasing or zoning in.
There is nothing wrong with a dog that’s super motivated, but the difference is that he is able to relax once his needs are fulfilled, compared to the obsessed one who remains zoned in, strung out and is chronically overwrought and antsy.
Dogs that are out-of-control wingy are a reality in my world. Not in my home thankfully, but many of my clients’ dogs are wound tight and spring loaded, and typically because they are anxious, overly stimulated, or not at all. The expressions are many: incessant barking, whining, destructiveness, excessive water consumption, restless pacing and panting, and pushy attention seeking. Another sign that a dog is too pumped is a hard mouth. With increased arousal level, the inhibition decreases, including bite inhibition.
Such a dog can be very taxing on people’s nerves - and irritating for other dogs as well, who either become anxious themselves, or attempt to control and correct the “crazy” one to change the situation.

Thanks to a popular TV show, under-stimulation is often blamed as the reason for unruliness, and thus many a frustrated owner cranks the physical exercise regime up in hopes it tuckers the pooch out. It’s true that if no purposeful activity is provided; if the working dog isn’t given a job, he is forever bored and stimulation seeking - and a nuisance, but just as frequently, in fact more often, the opposite is the root for obnoxious behaviors, including the inappropriate use of mouth and teeth.
Both “Stress in Dogs” by Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, and “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt, state that overly stimulated dogs are more reactive than under-stimulated ones, and based on my own experiences, I concur.
Unceasing exposure to sounds, sights or smells, always being patted, hugged or stroked, or constantly doing something, including fun stuff, is not natural. In “Shadow Syndromes”, John J. Ratey, M.D., explains that almost any excess – physical, mental or social, can overwhelm the cerebral cortex and drive an animal into the limbic, the emotional and reactive realm. And a survey conducted in Germany found that the less a dog rests, the lower his stress threshold. In other words, the more active, the more trigger reactive.
Over-stimulation often happens in a shelter environment, but also in the dog’s home or daycare, the off-leash park or training facility. The contemporary canine reflects our society in many ways, including that like us some rarely have a moment of silence, and that creates trouble especially with the ones that are by nature sensory sensitive to sound, motion and touch. Many dogs belonging to the herding group fall into that category, but also ones that arouse with hands-on-body, often young Labradors and boxers. They can wind up real fast, and if stimulation is perpetual never completely relax, startle easily and overreact with barking, charging and nipping to any unexpected trigger - even just a plastic bag dancing in the wind. For some dogs, life in an urban or suburban setting in itself can be too overwhelming.
Exercising an already overly stimulated dog more is circling the toilet bowl. Chances are that restlessness worsens, and on top, like with a human athlete, the dog builds more physical stamina. That means that unless he is pushed to exhaustion, every day, which can require a considerable amount of time and effort for some dogs and is therefore unrealistic for many owners, he will become physically more capable, not more tired.
If your dog only behaves cause he’s exhausted, his manners won’t last long and vanish altogether if time constraints or physical limitations prevent you from running him till his tongue hangs to the ground. Your well-intended efforts might backfire and the pooch will endlessly demand more of the same, and if he gets it, become more addicted and more demanding. Plus, there is a risk that he develops a chronically heightened state of sensory awareness and reactivity to environmental stimuli.
The Catch 22 is that if you’d eliminate the activity your dog is obsessed with cold turkey, without replacing it with something else, he’ll go bonkers, and likely you with him.
So what is the solution? Incrementally swapping mindless exercise with mental stimulation is one. Fun and positive obedience training - and I emphasize force-free cause pressure drives frustration and that's counterproductive to relaxation - learning tricks, interactive toys that compels the pooch to use his noggin to get his food, and yes, prolonged walks interspersed with calming nose games, obedience and, like walks with a friend, quiet time to commute with nature and enjoy each others company in stillness.

Annoying behaviors aren’t always obsessions, and not all obsessions are bad. My reading one enhances my life. It’s an asset because I learn a lot and don’t drive anybody batty. A dog’s can be an asset too, like a Border collie’s herding addiction that helps the human shepherd. But in an average pet home high drive and sensory sensitivity can be problematic. It has nothing to do with a dog being bad or dominant, but causes owners to lose their cool nevertheless. And a very driven dog’s needs are typically not solved with a meaningful walk, tricks or a few obedience commands alone. Dog sports, like Disc, Agility, Freestyle Dance, or the new sport from Germany called Treibball (here's a link for a great youtube clip + you can google Treibball to find more) can be very satisfying, structured activities. Structure is crucial, because not only will your dog have a sense that he is working, but he also knows that he is working for you, that you control the drive. For example: throw a ball or Frisbee, but not a stick, because sticks can be found everywhere and allow nonstop pestering by pushing it against a person’s leg.
Provide a variety of activities so that the pooch isn’t fixated on just one and, also crucial, teach an off-switch command that conveys that the interaction is over for now.

Unfortunately there isn’t a one-fits-all guideline, and finding the golden balance between mental and physical stimulation, orchestrated tasks and opportunities to rest, can take some dabbling. But it is worth it, cause in the end you can have a dog who is busy but still focused and centered, and best of all, able to chill out – alone and with you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sensible Refeering

Follow that thought process with me, will you? Imagine one of your relatives adopted an uncoordinated human toddler three times your size. I know, hard to imagine, but go with it anyway. The giant darling, cause he’s young and hasn’t learned manners yet, bounces on you nonstop, and gets a kick out of pulling your hair and ears. Furthermore, the proud new parents didn’t ask you if it was okay to visit, and don’t interfere when their new addition uses you as a trampoline, cause he’s just so adorable. How would you feel? And what would you do?
That was the position a client’s small terrier found himself in recently when he was presented with his person brother’s eight-week-old, and very exuberant, Labrador retriever. The adult pooch, cause he is the adult, was expected to accept and be nice to his lively new canine cousin, but naturally felt overwhelmed and besieged, and growled in hopes the youngster would keep a polite distance and tone down a bit. Didn’t work, so he growled more intensely, and barked and air snapped, and when that didn’t work, he offensively lunged forward from an increasingly greater distance, was subsequently labeled aggressive and that’s when I was called to help.

That dogs sort their quarrels out for themselves is a common believe the owners of the terrier and Lab shared, but I don't. I mean, I am all for allowing an older dog to correct a puppy or rude juvenile. In fact, in my opinion ideally every puppy socialization class should include a couple of savvy canine overseers that mingle during free play, and split too over-the-top interactions or lecture a pup that’s out of line, but only, in fairness to the adult, if he is not overwhelmed with the task. And a big job it is, because the puppies in our society come in all shapes, sizes and with various breed specific behaviors and backgrounds. Not too long ago I met a brawny pup whose tail was accidentally stepped on. The person moved as soon as he realized why the babe was squealing, but it took a few seconds. It really must have hurt, yet the moment the foot was off the tail he was right back to his obnoxious little self. It’d be difficult for a dog, or human for that matter, to successfully correct a pup with such a high pain threshold.
Our puppies are selectively bred and manipulated by people and have a wide range of personalities. Not all stayed with their mothers and littermates long enough and hence missed early, but crucial, lessons. Some dogs, even young ones, are hard to impress. All of that makes dogs raising dogs more complicated than it would be in nature, where size, temperament and environment is fairly homogeneous.
A reprimand is warranted when the pup or adolescent is too boisterous or too determined, and successful when he settles some and approaches in a more polite, self-restrained fashion - immediately and in the future. When that doesn't happen, humans need to step up.
It is time to referee when the older dog gives back off signals to no avail; if he is tense, growls, darts a hard-eyed warning stare, exposes his pearly whites or air snaps, and the juvenile isn’t getting it but relentlessly continues to test boundaries, doesn’t tone it down and continues to space-pushily demand interaction. You should also intervene when you get a pleading look for help, when one dog physically tries to get away, or mentally shuts down.
Just to clarify, we are not talking about aggression here, but incompatibilities in energy or size that makes it impossible for the teacher to reign in the student. Don’t wait for a bloodbath and keep an astute eye on dog-dog interactions until you know for certain that everyone is comfortable and appropriate with one another.
Refereeing doesn't mean correcting or punishing, but ensuring that fair play rules are followed. Keep that in mind when you take charge. It is important that the person doesn’t take sides, but acts in a way that is in all dogs’ interest. Simplified, it is creating distance. Applied, that can mean leashing the obnoxious one; temporarily removing one dog or the other, or redirecting both into doing something else, for example chewing a stuffed Kong or going for a walk together, which is one of my favorite activities to settle things and form a bond.
Expecting our dogs to always harmonize with one another, or settle their disputes peacefully, is expecting something we intelligent humans often have trouble with. Dogs do to, especially the ones that live in our midst. Sometimes they will work things out, and sometimes they won’t, or at least not in a way that is acceptable for people, and then they need help.
The responsibility to create a stress-free environment and raise a well-behaved pooch always lies with the people. The right dog can be a great helper, but it is false to assume that dogs, just because they are dogs, wish to interfere. When one is bullied and becomes anxious and reactive, or retreats from where the action is, and the humans are but useless bystanders, one dog becomes increasingly more frustrated and the other increasingly more intrepid. So don’t be an onlooker, but a leader and set the rules for appropriate interactions for all dogs, and then enforce them. Not by punishing, but by creating space and refuge zones for one, and by managing and redirecting the other.