Fearful and reactive dogs

I’ve noticed that there seem to be more reactive dogs in our neighborhood than I’ve seen before–dogs who lunge and bark at everything, or dogs who are very timid and scared of the world at large. Anxious dogs have always been around, but during the pandemic, without the ability of owners to socialize their dogs to a variety of people, dogs, cats, vehicles etc. when they were puppies, the current wave of adolescent dogs are at a disadvantage. There has also been a huge increase in the number of adoptions during the past year, and with limited access to dog classes, and since many dogs were initially relinquished for their behavior issues, this has placed this group of dogs at an even greater disadvantage.

Dogs need to be socialized to a wide variety of stimuli when they are puppies (by 12-16 weeks) if they are going to feel comfortable as adults. That means that they must be gently and safely exposed to whatever they might need to cope with as adults before the age of sixteen weeks. If they’re isolated, limited in their exposure to dogs of different ages and sizes, humans (male and female) at a variety of ages, not to mention cats, horses, goats, traffic, etc. they will react with fear when they encounter these stimuli later in life. At best, the fearful dog will do what we would expect (shake, whine, tuck his tail, hide between our legs); at worst, he will “react” (bark and lunge) in an effort to keep the scary thing away. Both these behaviors (and everything in between) tend to be worse when the dog is on leash, as they are trapped and can’t increase the distance between the scary thing and themselves. Both behaviors are fear based.

Reactivity can be a devastating problem that requires a huge amount of training and desensitization to resolve–or at least, to improve. Our reactive German Shepherd, Vera, was chained up and abused as a pup, so although she was a sweet, affectionate dog in our home, taking her for a walk was almost as scary for us as it was for her because she was so powerful, and her barks were loud, angry, and terrifying for the person or dog at whom they were directed. Having visitors to our home was an ordeal too, because in order for Vera to feel safe, everyone’s behavior had to be predictable, and safe distances had to be maintained until she was ready to venture closer to them. Our lives changed significantly for twelve years.

If I have a fearful dog, What should I do?

  • Learn as much about fear, reactivity, and aggression as you can so that you understand them. Dogwise has several good books on these topics. Also, I wrote the novel, Finding Vera, and attempted to understand what was going on in her mind from her perspective to show what it might be like to be a reactive, fearful, and potentially aggressive dog. Many people with reactive dogs have found Finding Vera helpful in increasing their understanding of their companion.
  • Have your dog checked out by a vet. Pain and illness can cause irritability and a reduction in the ability to cope with stress thus increasing anxiety and reactivity.
  • Find a positive-rewards trainer who has experience with reactivity. Your dog will need to learn attention skills, impulse control, to walk beside you on a loose leash (a tight leash adds to a dog’s anxiety), and skills that will help you and your dog to escape tricky situations safely. A good trainer will also use desensitization exercises and Behavior Adjustment Training to help your dog become more comfortable with his trigger(s).
  • Be as calm and confident as possible when out with your dog. Take deep breaths, sing a silly song, keep the leash loose, praise your dog for good behaviors.
  • Don’t take your reactive or fearful dog off leash until you have had them assessed by an experienced trainer. A fearful dog who responds to scary things with “flight” may well run off and get injured or lost, while the dog who responds with “fight” could injure another dog or person, or get injured themselves.
  • Learn to understand canine body language. You can find many in-depth books on canine body language at Dogwise.com.
  • Don’t use corrective techniques with your dog e.g. shouting, hitting, kicking, intimidation, jerking on the leash or collar, wolf-rolling, shock collars etc.
    • Using corrective techniques will aggravate the fear that drives the behavior, making it worse. Think about it. How would you feel as a child if a bear approached you, and your parents hit and yelled at you, shocked your neck, and jerked you by a multi pronged metal collar when you screamed for help? (Keep in mind that a dog’s skin is actually thinner than ours.) As primates, we are hard-wired to yell and hit when we are frustrated or angry, so it’s very gratifying for us to respond to behavior we don’t like (lunging and barking) in this way. I cringe when I hear a dog who is already very frightened scream and run in response to the shock from a shock collar. Unfortunately, this is something I have witnessed many times in the past year.
  • Choose times to walk when there will likely be fewer encounters with the thing that triggers your dog. I used to run with Vera at 5:00 a.m. year-round, rain or shine. Ugh! But she got the exercise she needed, and the additional serotonin released in her brain from the exercise helped her to cope with the world. Midnight is also a good time to walk. Please wear a headlamp when you walk in the dark so a) other people can see you coming and b) so you can see potential threats and respond to them before your dog reacts.
  • Keep a safe distance from the thing that is making your dog react–make a U-turn and go the other way before your dog tenses or starts staring hard at the trigger.
  • If you must pass the dreaded trigger, place your body between your dog and the scary thing. If you can, go up a driveway, into the bushes or woods, or make a wide arc away from the trigger, herding your dog’s shoulder away from the scary thing with your leg.
  • Carry high-value treats such as cooked chicken or steak cut into small cubes, salmon treats, or something very special that your dog LOVES. The instant you see the trigger, start feeding your dog rapidly, one treat at a time and move away from it if you are too close. The treats help to have your dog make a positive association with the scary thing, and increasing distance will help him feel safe.
  • Some dogs have a strong prey drive and will lunge and bark at anything that moves, such as squirrels, runners, cars, deer, cats, bunnies etc. This reaction is not caused by fear necessarily, but is hardwired as part of the chase-bite-kill sequence of hunting. Having your dog sit, “leave it” (you need to teach your dog what “leave it” means) and watch you, and then feed high value treats for leaving the prey alone, will help to dampen this drive for that particular object or animal. It is a very difficult compulsion to modify and finding a trainer to help with this will be worth your while.
  • Make your dog’s life as routine as possible. When his world is predictable, he will feel less fearful. If there is construction going on within earshot, if you mix up your routine, if you move your household, etc., your dog’s anxious behaviors and reactive displays will most likely worsen.
  • If you get a puppy, be sure to socialize him carefully and consistently for the first two years of his life. Although the first sixteen weeks are the most critical, maintaining his socialization is essential.
  • Be aware that fear is the most genetically transmitted emotion, so if a puppy’s parents are very anxious and fearful, the puppies stand a good chance of being fearful too.

Featured photo courtesy of Motoko Lewis and Cedric Meerkat Lewis

Dog Parks Revisited…

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

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Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality can be much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

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Annie (my collie) studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
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Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
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Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights can erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights. Humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites (sometimes inflicted by their own dog) when attempting to break up a fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

Shortly after we adopted Vera (our poorly socialized German shepherd), she and Lola (our well-socialized golden retriever) were having a play session. Vera’s play style quickly escalated and became too rough for Lola, who told Vera to settle down by sniffing the ground, turning away, and refusing to further engage in play. In spite of Lola’s efforts, Vera didn’t slow down and kept pummeling her sister (jumping on her, mouthing her, body slamming her). Next, Lola tried to out-run Vera, but Vera caught up to her and took her down. Lola’s last choice was to correct Vera with a lunge and a snarl, which should have clearly communicated to Vera to back off. However, even though these dogs were very bonded, Vera felt threatened enough by Lola’s correction that she attacked Lola and a bad fight broke out. Lola sustained multiple puncture wounds and their relationship was damaged for several weeks. If both dogs had been unsocialized, a fight would have broken out much faster.

In a dog park situation, if the aggressing dog happened to be your dog, you would have to deal with the risk of breaking up the fight, the guilt that your dog harmed another dog, potentially large vet bills to pay for the injured dog, and lots of decisions to make about how to handle, train, and exercise your dog in the future. (You can read about how we managed Vera’s life in my novel, Finding Vera.)

Dogs can also have healthy “scuffles” where a dog who is feeling overwhelmed clearly states “I’ve had enough”. There will be lots of noise, saliva will fly, and the dogs might look like they’re killing each other, but at the end of the argument no harm is done. The problem is, if one of the dogs is poorly socialized and truly feels threatened, he might respond with a full-fledged attack, and if he hasn’t learned bite-inhibition as a puppy, the well-socialized dog could get badly injured. With the large number of dogs adopted during the pandemic, it will be extra important to be careful at dog parks since there will probably be a larger number of unsocialized dogs present than one has encountered in the past.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

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Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group. Her mouth is closed, she’s licking her lips, her ears are back, and she’s evaluating her options.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure (or be injured by) another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you want to socialize your under-socialized dog, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed reactivity or aggression. Once aggression has worked for him (it gets other dogs to back off), he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
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Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics. 

If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

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The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target. 

Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself. 

Leashing your dog at a dog park is not a good idea. It will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you have your well-socialized dog at the dog park, avoid any dog who is on leash.

If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

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  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give-and-take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. Owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play and squabbles.
  • I follow these guidelines when I take Annie to the dog park and so far, all has been well.

Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past year, many of us have been staying at home with our dogs, and if we’re lucky, taking our wonderful companions for walks, playing enrichment games throughout the day, training, and generally bonding in a way we didn’t think possible.

Now, as COVID-19 cases and deaths start to decline, and with COVID vaccine distribution ramping up, there are plans to slowly open up the economy. Even if you don’t think your job will restart any time soon, there are several things you can do to prepare your dog for your absence.

If you think about it, when you were working in the past, your dog probably had an adjustment period following your days off. He might have been more excited than usual when you got home from work. He might have emptied the garbage while you were gone, or shown more interest in his toys, or heaven forbid, shown more interest in your toys (the remote control, the couch, a book from the bookshelf, a pair of sunglasses you left on the coffee table). He might have even peed on the floor. These are all signs of separation anxiety, which means that your dog missed you a lot when you were gone.

After having us at home 24/7, being alone for 8-10 hrs at a time will be a shock.

His reaction to your absence could be greatly enhanced after spending 24/7 together for months. Dogs are social animals and very bonded to their families. Even dogs who have not had separation issues in the past will miss their people more than usual after spending so much time together.

For those of you who have adopted new dogs in the last year, your dog’s reaction to being home alone might be even more acute. If your dog has never been away from you and is suddenly stranded for eight to ten hours a day, think how scary, lonely, and boring it could be for him. Some dogs will adjust without any difficulty no matter what, but anxious or scared dogs will most likely have a harder time.

Things you can do to prepare your dog

  • Don’t spend every minute of every day with your dog(s). Having a second dog may not alleviate their reaction to your absence.
    • Start gradually. Close the door when you go into another room such as the bedroom or bathroom, and don’t allow him access. When your dog is quiet, walk nonchalantly back into the room and go about your business, ignoring your dog until he settles. Once he has settled, greet him calmly.
      • This way, you’ll be leaving your dog for seconds to minutes several times a day and he will learn that your comings and goings occur as a regular part of his routine.
      • He’ll learn that you always come back.
Annie waits inside while we work in the garden.
  • Don’t interact with your dog constantly during the day, but make sure he has toys that he can use to entertain himself.
    • Get used to doing things that don’t involve your dog such as reading, working on the computer, or using your phone.
    • If he demands your attention, ignore him, and if he doesn’t stop bothering you, walk into another room and close the door.
    • When he is quiet, calmly return to where you were before he interrupted you, and continue as if nothing has happened.
    • When he settles, you can give him calm, verbal praise and continue what you were doing.
    • This does not mean that you should ignore him for the entire day. Take regular breaks to take him out for walks or play with him, but gradually spread breaks further apart than what you’ve been doing.

  • Be honest with your dog. Don’t pretend you’re not going out, but rather build a positive association with your departure.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase before leaving our girls has always been: “We’re going out and you get to stay here.”
      • When Annie hears this, she lies down in front of the door and waits for the scattering of treats we toss on the floor before we leave.
      • Vera, who had separation anxiety, would not eat treats, but would lie down on the carpet, serious and concerned, and watch us go. I still prepared her a kong which she ate as soon as we returned. We used an Adaptil calming collar for Vera and that helped, but I would also talk to your vet about other options for separation anxiety.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • Another thing you can do is to hide stuffed bones and kongs around the house. Confine your dog(s) while you hide the treats, and release them when you walk out the door. Your dogs will spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. I don’t recommend this for multi-dog households unless you know and trust them not to be food aggressive.
      • Have a positive routine so your dogs know exactly what is going to happen and approximately when you’ll return home. One theory is that dogs have an internal clock, such as we do, to keep track of the time; another is that they can read how long we’ve been gone by our fading scent.
  • Start playing soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz when your dog is relaxing. (Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety.) You want your dog to associate music with a sense of calm and well-being. Once he has that association, you can leave it playing for him when you are out to help calm him.
  • Practice leaving him at home when you go grocery shopping, go outside to garden, or go for a short walk. If you have a new dog, these outings should be very short at first and gradually increase in five-minute increments.
    • Before you leave the house, be calm and quiet. You want your dog’s emotions to be settled and balanced when you leave, not over-stimulated and anxious. You also want your dog to notice little variation in household energy between when you are present and when you are gone. For example, don’t have a rousing game of fetch or chase, or an intense training session right before you walk out the door. Have at least a ten minute quiet-time of not interacting with your dog before you leave, so that the transition is smoother for him.
    • When you return home, the same principle applies. Greet your dog quietly, then go about your business of removing your mask, washing your hands, putting away your groceries, your coat etc. Once your dog settles down, give him a proper greeting. Again, you want to minimize the contrast between the hours when you were gone and the minutes after you return.
  • If you have a new dog in the house, consider separating the dogs with a baby gate or ex-pen when you are gone to make sure they are safe from each other, especially if there is any tension between them. With the increased anxiety caused by your absence, scuffles, or worse, can erupt.
  • If you have just one dog who is new to your household, I would recommend confining him to an area where he is most comfortable so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the emptiness of the house. Be sure he has water, toys, his bed, and a crate if he is crate trained.
Annie relaxing upside down in her ex-pen when we had Vera. We kept them separated when we were out.
  • Other things you can do: observe your dog’s behavior patterns after you leave by hooking up indoor security cameras. This can be reassuring since most dogs sleep most of the time you are gone.
  • Invest in interactive toys (click on link to see Whole Dog Journal’s picks) such as kongs, kibble-dispensing toys, electronic kibble-dispensing toys, and snuffle mats that will keep your dog entertained for the first few minutes you are gone (or longer) and smooth out that critical transition time. Every dog is different, however, and you need to choose toys carefully to be sure they are safe to leave with your dog(s).
  • Start to research daycares where your dog could spend one day a week if he likes the company of other dogs. Or start looking for a dog walk walker who will walk him regularly during your absences.
  • Thinking of solutions for potential problems now will save you worry, time, and money when you return to work.

Feature image courtesy of Motoko Lewis (photo of Master Cedric Meerkat and Mischa).

My dog would never bite anyone… would she?

Dogs are intelligent creatures. They vary as much as we do in personality and temperament, they have complex emotional lives, and they have limits to what they can tolerate. Both humans and dogs are hardwired for aggression and will demonstrate this potential when put in the right situation or exposed to the right triggers. However, there are some differences between species. When humans react aggressively due to anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety, we will often attempt to de-escalate the situation through talking and body language, and only when those techniques fail will we either leave the situation, or escalate our reaction to yelling and hitting–or, in some cases, shooting, if a gun is available and we are scared or angry enough.

Dogs will also try to de-escalate conflict through posturing and body language (lip licks, yawns, sniffing the ground, shaking off, head turns, turning away etc.), but if pushed hard enough, rather than hitting and yelling (which are not options for dogs–although they might bark), they will escalate to their final warnings of growl and snap, and eventually bite. If we can’t read their signals, if we push on in spite of their communications of fear, frustration or anger, or if their signals of growling and snapping have been harshly corrected and erased in the past, a bite will ensue. This is true for all dogs, as even the sweetest and mellowest of dogs will bite when they are placed in bad situations and there’s no way out.

Here are three different examples:

  1. Our golden retriever, Lola, was a very sweet girl. She was eight years old, smart, compassionate, gentle, and had never shown an ounce of aggression to anyone. She did, however, love to eat rotting clumps of grass in the summer. She recognized these clumps from a distance, and for her, “leave it” meant “eat faster!” All eighty pounds of her would launch toward the clumps, and she would drag me over, grab a mouthful, and try to swallow it before I could take it away (which, in retrospect, is a sign of resource guarding). When she was about five years old, she had become very ill from eating cut grass, and since then, I had removed the clumps from her mouth whenever possible. And then one day, instead of passively letting me remove it, she repositioned her teeth while my fingers were inside her mouth, and her molars clamped down on my thumb. She slowly tightened her grip, and she had very powerful jaws. I tried to stay calm and asked her to “give” and to “drop it.” I tried to exchange my thumb for the handful of cookies I had in my pocket. By this time, I was in severe pain, and I was sure she was going to crush my thumb beyond repair. Finally, she released it before she crushed the bone. My nail was punctured and the end of my thumb was bruised and painful for a couple of weeks, but she let go before it was too late. I’m sure she knew what she was doing. She’d simply a had enough of me removing her valuable resource and told me, firmly, to stop. I never removed anything from her mouth again.
  2. I had a friend who had raised her dog, Sandy, from puppyhood. Sandy was a sweet, friendly dog, who had helped to raise two children without any sign of aggression. One Thanksgiving, in an outpouring of affection, my friend straddled Sandy while he was eating dinner, wrapped her arms around his chest, and lifted him off the ground. When my friend tried to plant a kiss on his head, Sandy whipped his head around and bit my friend on the face. She required several stitches. If my friend had tried to get her dog to bite her, she couldn’t have done a better job. What did she do wrong?
    • She interfered with Sandy while he was eating.
    • She straddled and stood over him (an intimidating position for her dog).
    • She wrapped her arms around Sandy–dogs often don’t like to be hugged. Hugging is a primate behavior, and feels confining to the dog.
    • She lifted him off the ground making Sandy feel vulnerable and trapped.
    • Dogs are natural resource guarders, some much more so than others. Sandy was reacting to all of the factors mentioned above, but having his dinner interfered with was most likely the defining trigger.
  3. Another friend, Jane, related a different Thanksgiving story to me. She and her husband had invited friends over for dinner and the friends brought along their toddler. Jane had a very lovely, gentle black lab called Ginger, and the toddler went to play with her–without supervision. The child’s idea of playing was to poke at Ginger’s eyes, and the dog, unable to escape, and in a final effort to protect herself, bit the child on the head, requiring several stitches. The child ended up in the ER and Ginger had to go into quarantine for two weeks at the local shelter. What went wrong?
    • Dogs who are not socialized with children as puppies should be carefully protected from children.
    • Dogs who have not been socialized with children are often scared of kids because of their voices, their movement, their smell, and their unpredictability.
    • Even if dogs have been well socialized with children as I believe Ginger had, children can mistreat dogs without meaning to, and dogs have no reason to trust children they don’t know.
    • Children under the age of five should never be left unsupervised with dogs whether the dogs have been socialized to children in puppyhood or not. Young children have no concept of canine body language nor compassion for the dog, and can inadvertently frighten or provoke the dog.

Tips to keep your dog from biting

  • Never assume that your dog will “never” bite. In the right situation, it is possible.
  • If you have a fearful or easily aroused/reactive dog, the chances are higher that your dog won’t require as much of a trigger to bite. Remember, biting is a normal reaction (though a last resort) to frustration, anger, or a perceived threat. We always considered Vera, our reactive German shepherd, to be a bite risk, so we never gave her an opportunity and carefully planned every interaction she had with people. She was never allowed near children.
  • If you have a puppy, socialize him well with people of all ages, dogs of all types, cats, horses, and anything else you think he might be exposed to in his life. See my blog on “Puppies during the Pandemic
  • Learn to understand canine body language so that you’ll be able to pick up on the subtle signs of stress in your dog. Here is a link to a downloadable poster on basic body language in dogs.
  • Always treat your dog with respect.
  • Don’t do things to intentionally provoke your dog, such as encouraging him to get so excited that he nips, growls excessively, bites at clothes, or body slams.
  • Protect him from children.
    • If you have children, have strict rules for their behavior around your dog–no poking, hitting, yelling, pulling fur, ears or tail, getting near him when he’s eating, surprising him when he’s sleeping, teasing him with food or toys, or taking toys away from him. If your child plays ball with your dog, have him use two balls–throw one, and when your dog brings the first ball back, toss the second ball and pick up the first ball ready to throw again so the child never needs to take the ball away from the dog.
    • Children sometimes get a thrill out of bossing the dog around, which is unfair to the dog, and dangerous for the child.
    • Always have a safe, quiet place for your dog to escape to, and have that area off-limits to the kids.
  • Do not mess with your dog’s food bowl.
    • If your dog freezes, flattens his ears on his head, growls, or eats faster when anyone is near his food bowl, hire a trainer to help you with this problem.
    • If you have a dog who has no problem with people being near his food, add a delicious treat to his bowl from time to time to maintain his trust–that your presence near his bowl means good things will happen.
    • Don’t stick your hands in his food or take his food away. Wait until he is finished eating to remove his bowl. It’s only being fair–and polite.
    • Raising a puppy to eat in a social part of the household such as the kitchen is a good thing. It normalizes activity around food, and will desensitize the dog to having people in close proximity to people.
  • Don’t take things away from your dog without trading a high value treat for his toy.
    • You can practice this with a toy of low value. Give him a high-value treat in exchange for his toy. When he finishes his treat, give him back his toy. Repeat a few times and leave him with the toy. This will build his trust of you taking things away from him in case of an emergency.
    • If your dog isn’t willing to give up a toy for a treat–if he stops chewing when you approach, shows the whites of his eyes (whale eye), growls, flattens his ears on his head, eats faster, or moves away from you, hire a professional trainer to work on resource guarding.
  • Don’t break up a dog fight by grabbing your dog’s collar–you run a good chance of being severely bitten by your dog or the other dog. Here are some things you can try:
    • If your dog has a leash on, you can try to pull your dog away by the leash.
    • Make a loud noise such as clashing two pans together (though who has two pans on a walk?) or blasting an air horn (we always carried one of these when we had Vera, our reactive dog, to keep loose dogs away–one quick blast will stop a dog 50-100 ft away. You do need to make sure it’s pointed away from your dog, and desensitize your dog to the sound before using it in an emergency),
    • Grab both dogs by the hips and pull them a good distance away from each other–though you need two people to do this. Be careful the dogs don’t break away and attack each other again.

Do I want a dog? Or a robot?

It occurred to me after watching Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, perform several complex and independent tasks, that many people want a robot, not a sensitive, independent-minded, opinionated, sometimes naughty and obnoxious canine companion. I must admit, when I’m trying to train Annie a new, multi-step trick, there is something very seductive about the thought of clicking a button or moving a joystick, or even better–to preprogram her to do what I want, when I want. Also, a robot does not need to go out in the rain and wind to do its business, need daily training and mental stimulation (though it might need programming), or go for daily hikes (though as long as the hikes were less than the four-hour battery limit, Spot might be able to go for hikes, too). I could also turn off a robot when I wanted to read or write or watch the tube.

So why have a real dog? I think each of us has to answer that for ourselves. There is no doubt that dogs are a lot of work and a big responsibility when we invite them into our lives. But what we get is the opportunity to share our lives with another species we have, as humans, shared a bond with for thousands of years. One who is willing to learn our language, live in our culture, and spend years with us as individuals being our partners and companions. They read our emotions, learn our language, laugh with us, dream with us, and do our bidding because they choose to. They give us insights into their world of scent, expressing intense emotional responses to things we might not have noticed. They also love us, and scientists believe they are genetically bonded to us through thousands of years of evolution. And not only that, Dr. Stanley Coren, in an article in Psychology today, discusses a study that shows that dogs are not only able to empathize with us, but also to sympathize.

enjoy your dog being a dog:

  • Take time to watch your dog being a dog–playing, sleeping, problem solving, and learning.
  • Consider how remarkable it is that our dogs will do even one of the inane things we ask of them. We can’t explain to them why we ask them to “sit” or “down” or “come” like we can with a child. Dogs do our bidding either because we reward them or threaten them. They certainly don’t do things for us because there’s any logic to our demands. If the tables were turned, what would we think if they took us for a walk, thrust our heads to the ground and demanded “sniff”? I know I would be confused and irate. Our dogs are very tolerant!
  • Realize that the intelligence of dogs cannot be compared to ours or to a robot’s. Dogs have many abilities that we do not, all of which are classified as a type of intelligence: their sense of smell, their sense of hearing, their ability to herd, to track, to run and balance their bodies in activities such as playing Frisbee (kinesthetic intelligence), to hunt, to communicate, and to socialize.
  • Unlike us and the robots we have created, dogs are born with a complex body language which they use to communicate with the world around them in an ongoing flow of phrases.
  • Many dogs have remarkable speed and endurance compared to their size.
  • They can navigate their complex and intricate social structures and have fascinating social interactions with their own species as well as with others (humans, cats, and sheep for a start). In my novel, Finding Vera, I describe many subtle social interactions I observed between Vera and her golden retriever and collie sisters. Take time to observe similar interactions between your own dogs, their friends, and acquaintances.
  • Dogs perceive much of their environment through their sense of smell and can glean detailed information as they pass through their world. By observing your dog carefully, you can sometimes determine whether the odor she’s studying stems from a new dog in the neighborhood, a cat, deer, raccoon, coyote or cougar based on her reaction to the scent. Your dog can also determine which direction an animal is moving by assessing the intensity of its scent. To me, the dogs’ interpretation of this invisible world is nothing short of miraculous.
  • Consider the remarkable ability of your dog to anticipate your return home. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist from Barnard College in New York City, believes that dogs cannot only tell the time of day based on their circadian rhythms, but can tell how long their people have been gone and when they are due back through interpreting the strength of human scent in the house. This is discussed by Dr. Stanley Coren in an article in Psychology Today.
  • Instead of being frustrated by your dog barking at every little thing, try to imagine the world through the sensitive ears of your dog, and how your complex, computerized home resonates with sound. Find a trainer to help you desensitize your dog to the multitude of sounds he might hear if noise makes your dog anxious. Also consider using simple, calm, music to help her to relax.
  • Although dogs can see better in the dark than we can, they can sometimes be alarmed by objects they don’t recognize and will bark in response. Dogs’ vision is not as acute as ours in daylight, and therefore things might appear unexpectedly scary, even to the well-socialized, savvy dog. Reassurance and a treat can go a long way to easing their minds when this happens.
  • Dogs are emotional creatures just like us, and thrive on social interactions and relationships with humans and often (though not always) with other dogs. They can experience the basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not the more complex emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride. Watch for these emotions in your dog as you share your days with her, and don’t expect more of her than she is able to give. Don’t misinterpret fear and submission in anticipation of anger, as guilt.
  • Dogs love to share time with us, delight in our touch, our voices, and our attention. We revel in their warmth, their beautiful, expressive eyes, and their luscious fur. Both humans and dogs find joy and purpose in play and in working as a team.
  • If you find yourself getting frustrated with your dog, try to remember what a remarkable thing it is to share your life with another species. Take a deep breath, and revel in the wonderful individuality of your companion, so unlike the predictability of a robot.

Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

Even during a pandemic, Christmas might be a time of small get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, and to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in our celebrations.

Close family members you haven’t seen for some time might descend on you over the holidays and think they are God’s gift to dogdom. Others might be terrified of dogs. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making once he arrives.

Canine Christmas costumes are available in stores and online and are encouraged by friends and family, even trainers. An endless array of treats and all manner of toys are advertised for dogs. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and forbidden children’s toys for your dog to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for everyone.

Annie and her presents.

a few things to think about:

  • Take a deep breath and realize that Christmas is for us, not for our dogs. In fact, holiday time can be very stressful for dogs, particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has had an uptick in her anxiety level with the rare visitor we’ve had since COVID started. If visitor dogs are added to the scenario, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
  • Plan what your dog will do and where he’ll spend time during get-togethers. When we had Vera, our human and dog-reactive German Shepherd, we chose not to have more than one or two visitors to the house at a time, and we always introduced her to them in a consistent manner. We also monitored her closely for the duration of the visit. In many ways, COVID has been kind to our reactive dogs.
  • Even if your dog loves people, he may enjoy socializing for 15 minutes, then will need some time away from the noise and bustle to decompress. He may love to be around adults, but be somewhat uncomfortable around children. (Being “OK” with children is not the same as loving kids.)
  • Think carefully about whether to invite canine visitors into your home. Even if he does enjoy doggie friends, in a high-stimulus environment, it’s not unusual for dogs to get over-aroused and erupt into squabbles.
  • Even well-behaved dogs can get over-stimulated and eat, spill, or break things they usually wouldn’t.
A quiet, peaceful room for Tessie away from the chaos.
  • Set up a safe, quiet, comfortable area for your dog to spend time away from the chaos. Supply his space with some of his favorite, indestructible toys, his bed, and a bowl of fresh water. Visit him several times during the day or evening, take him outside and play with him frequently, and allow him to visit with company only as much as you think he enjoys.
  • Try to keep this season as routine as possible for your dog, and maintain his daily exercise and playtime routines. Feed him his regular diet, and keep new treats and chews to a minimum.
  • Be careful to choose gifts for your dog that are safe. A toy that is safe for one dog might not be safe for another depending on the strength of his jaws and his behavior. Some dogs like to destroy or dissect toys, some just like to spend time with them.
  • When dispensing gifts in multi-dog households, put your dogs in different parts of the room–or even separate rooms–to avoid resource guarding of the treasured items. Even if your dogs don’t fight, one dog will often be forced to give up a valuable toy by the dog who has greater access to coveted resources in the canine relationship.
  • Know where to call and who to contact if your dog ingests something unauthorized.
  • Review a list of potential poisons for your dog at Christmas.
Annie works hard to resist the forbidden cookies…but if I wasn’t there, who knows?
  • Be careful not to leave human food lying around–desserts, candies, turkey bones (potentially fatal), bread, cheese, chips, etc. Even well-behaved dogs can lose their manners when things are left at nose level, and a poor decision could put him in the hospital. Placing your dog in his safe place might be a good idea during times when humans are eating. Also, inform guests not to feed your dog since they could inadvertently give your pet something toxic.
  • Marijuana baked goods and artificial sweeteners can be very toxic to your dog and result in hospitalization. Some dogs like alcohol, which is also extremely toxic to dogs–they can lap it directly from a glass or from the floor if a drink spills. Even alcohol-infused desserts can be dangerous.
  • Before you purchase or dig out your dog costumes for Christmas, think for a minute. As Suzanne Clothier points out in her book “Bones Would Rain From the Sky“, it is wise to ask your dog, “how is this for you?” If your dog shows signs of stress such as shaking off, licking his lips, yawning, putting back his ears, tucking his tail, or if he tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely reindeer costume, put it back in the box. On the whole, dogs don’t like to be dressed up, and even new harnesses and head collars need a desensitization period.
Annie refused to let this Santa hat near her unless she was allowed to play tug with it, so I asked
Bruno, our faux dog, to help out.
  • Because the Christmas season is a stressful time for our dogs, it is important to understand that your dog is more likely to be reactive, anxious, and prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house or snapping at/biting humans–like the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging Fido while he’s eating dinner.
  • It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors due to high stress and arousal levels.
  • If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost or miss loved ones at this time of year and the season might trigger a grief reaction) take time to play with and walk your dog. It will not only be reassuring for your dog, but will make you feel better too.
  • Be vigilant and careful. By looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for everyone.

Getting a new canine companion? Things to consider.

There is nothing more exciting than planning to adopt a new dog or puppy. Every time my husband and I have anticipated bringing a new dog into our lives, we’ve planned, dreamed, shopped, and dreamed some more. This excitement is largely due to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brains that makes us desire things. The book The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman M.D. and Michael Long points out that desiring something and actually having it are two entirely different things. In terms of dogs, this means that the urge to get a puppy or a dog might be very different from the way we feel once the puppy is home unleashing his needle-sharp baby teeth on our skin when all we we want to do is play or snuggle. Or the distress we feel when he messes in the house or shreds our favorite shoes. It is also hard to deal with a newly acquired adult dog who barks incessantly at every new noise he hears, cowers at the sound of a garbage truck, or acts like every person or dog he passes is his arch enemy. We might want to love our new dogs, but the very act of caring for them before we’ve developed a strong relationship can be crushing. This was the case with Vera, our beloved German shepherd in the featured photo above. My novel, Finding Vera, is a fictionalized account of our life with her.

It turns out that unwanted behaviors are not uncommon in puppies or newly adopted dogs, and while time and patience and help from a good trainer will get you through this initial period and allow you to develop a deep, lasting love for your well-behaved, adoring dog, the first months or even the first year of living with them can be challenging. So, whether you’re getting a puppy or dog for yourself or someone else, there are many things you can do to prepare for the initial phase with your new companion.

Puppies, although absolutely adorable, require exponentially more time, attention, and training than you could imagine. It’s well worth the effort, but before you bring a puppy into your life, you need to be prepared for an immediate change in your lifestyle. I would also recommend downloading the two books Before You Get Your Puppy, and After You Get Your Puppy by Dr. Ian Dunbar for some good advice on how to get off on the right foot with your puppy.

That said, the deep emotional bond we build with our dogs is worth every minute of work we put into them. We need to understand that just like us, they are intelligent, emotional creatures who crave companionship, communication, love, and stability in their lives.

Things to Consider

  • Before you start to plan, consider if you really, truly want a dog. Dogs are expensive (they have allergies, illnesses, and injuries that require vet visits; both you and your dog require education and training; many breeds require regular grooming. Dogs can be very annoying and demanding of your time, they can be destructive, they can bark much more than we feel they need to, and they can have behavior issues that could change your life. You can’t take them to National Parks (other than to drive through and explore a few brief designated walks). They get wet in the rain and require their paws and coats dried whenever they come inside (and dogs do need to live inside with us). Many breeds require regular grooming–at the very least, all dogs need their nails trimmed and teeth brushed on a regular basis to avoid problems in the future.
  • If you still want to get a dog, think about what kind of dog will suit your lifestyle. Are you someone who hikes a lot? Runs? Mountain bikes? Do you want a companion to accompany you? If so, you would want to look at dogs who are athletic rather than dogs who have less endurance. For instance, large breeds such as German shepherds (who can be plagued with joint problems) and giant breeds might not be the best choice for you if you are a runner or mountain biker, whereas medium-sized hunting or herding breeds, or mixes might do better. For example, our golden retrievers have always had much more endurance than our collies. Pushing dogs to do more than what they are capable of can cause injuries and exhaustion.
    • If you have a calmer lifestyle and don’t get out as much, choose a breed that doesn’t require as much exercise, realizing that the stimulation and exercise of a thirty minute daily walk is important for all dogs. Terriers are often high-energy dogs who require training, mental stimulation, and daily exercise, so though they are smaller, they might not be a good choice for someone with a more sedentary lifestyle.
    • Consider the age of the main caretaker. If you are getting a dog for a child, realize that if you adopt a puppy, he’ll be with you for 12-14 years, and will most likely be your responsibility (not your child’s) for most of his life. If you are an older adult (or getting the dog for an older adult), realize that you won’t be able to handle a large, strong dog like you once did. I met an older woman once who had adopted a Great Dane puppy because she’d always had Danes. Within the first year she had fractured her shoulder and had many other injuries from being pulled down by her dog.
  • If you are adopting a dog from a shelter, realize that once you get him home, your new companion will likely be very different from the dog you met at the shelter or foster home. Although I knew and worked with Vera at the shelter for six months before we adopted her (we didn’t want another dog, but I couldn’t bear to lose her to euthanasia), her behavior changed significantly a short time after we got her home.
    • If you can, meet your dog at least a few times before taking him home so you get to know each other.
    • If you have other animals, plan how and when you will make introductions.
    • Get your supplies ready, and prepare an area where he will feel safe when he’s alone. Sometimes the entire house is just too much space, and a small room such as a mudroom with his bed, toys, crate, and water (with all non-dog articles, such as shoes, removed) in a location separate from your other animals, will help to keep your house safe and keep your new dog feeling secure. Sturdy baby gates can help with this and are versatile enough to allow you to separate your new dog from your other animals until they are comfortable together. Barriers will come in handy throughout your dog’s life. Assume your new dog will not be house trained when you first bring him home, and his safe area can be used to help house train him.
    • Decide who in your family will walk your dog, train him, and feed him before you bring him home. Consistency in handling and routine will help him to adapt more easily. Decide what things you’ll allow your dog to do in your home such as: will he be allowed to get on the furniture, or sleep in bed with you etc. It’s always best to start off with stricter rules until you get to know your dog well. Some dogs are pushy, others are not.
  • Find a positive rewards trainer in your area. Even if you’ve trained a dog in the past, your new dog could have challenges you might never have known existed. A trainer can help you work through these issues. We’ve lived with several dogs during our lives, and they’ve all had different problems. We’ve loved them all deeply, but all have had some at least one challenging behavior we’ve had to learn to work through.
  • Dogs are most often relinquished (1.5 million dogs per year) or euthanized (670,000 dogs per year per ASPCA statistics) because of behavior issues, so by getting help with training and behavior issues early on, you greatly increase the chance that you and your dog will have a successful, life-long relationship. Preventing unwanted behaviors is the best way to help your dog, and whether you are adopting a puppy or an adult dog, a new start with clear boundaries is a great way to help him be a responsible member of society.

Protect your dog from the cold!

Colder temperatures are descending upon us, and even if winter hasn’t yet arrived where you live, it’s important to plan ahead. Dogs can suffer from cold just as we do. Those with double coats (an outer layer of longer water-repellent fur with a deeper layer of dense undercoat) might be more comfortable in the cold depending on the the breed, but even they should be monitored closely. Single-coated dogs, smaller dogs, and older dogs are at particularly high risk for problems associated with cold temperatures.

Tips to protect your dog

  • If your dog hasn’t had a wellness exam within the past year, now might be a good time, since certain conditions such as arthritis can be aggravated by cold temperatures.
  • Consider the age of your pet. Both very young and senior dogs will have a more difficult time regulating their temperatures, and senior dogs are also more likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, Cushings disease and arthritis that will put them at risk for cold intolerance.
  • Dogs with single layer, short coats and those with less body fat will be very susceptible to cold temperatures. Smaller dogs will also have a more difficult time staying warm, and therefore a small, thin, short-haired dog such as a chihuahua will be particularly at risk.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia: shivering, lethargy, grey or pale gums, stiff muscles, and lack of coordination such as stumbling.
  • Walk your dog during the warmest part of the day.
  • Bring your pets inside in below-freezing temperatures–even cold-tolerant northern breeds. Dogs can get frostbite and hypothermia just like people. If your dog LOVES being outside as did Vera (our special-needs German shepherd in the featured photo above), check on your dog frequently when temperatures dip below freezing. We would set the alarm and make Vera come inside every ten minutes to warm up.
  • Offer raised beds off the floor for single coated, thin, and older pets. The temperature on the floor is always a few degrees colder than at couch level. Also, offer these dogs blankets when the temperature in the house dips below 60-65 degrees.
  • Clip the fur between your dogs’ pads to prevent snow and ice buildup between their toes. Wiping your dog’s paws after walks will help to remove chemicals from his paws. Using a product such as Musher’s Secret can prevent snowballs from forming between his toes, and also protect his pads from deicers used on streets and sidewalks. Another option is to put boots on your dog when you take him for walks. Ruffwear and Chewy have several options.
    • Your dog is unlikely to enjoy his boots the first time you put them on. To get him used to them: Let him sniff one of the boots and put a treat on it. Praise him for his interest in it. Next, put one boot on one of his paws, encourage him to walk a few paces, praise and treat him, then remove it. Repeat. Over the next several days, increase the number of boots you put on him and the length of time you keep them on. Make sessions fun. Take him for short walks or play his favorite games. Always be upbeat and positive.
  • Check your dog’s pads regularly for fissuring and splitting.
  • Consider getting a warm coat for your dog, particularly short-coated, small, and older dogs. Again, Chewy and Ruffwear have some good options.
  • Keep your dog away from ice on rivers, lakes, and ponds. In Bellingham, we had a disaster a couple of years ago where one of two dogs and their owner drowned in a pond when playing fetch. The ice was thinner than the owner anticipated, and the dogs broke through. The owner drowned trying to save them.
  • Your dog might need more food in the winter to maintain a healthy weight. Weighing your dog regularly will help you monitor the amount of food he needs.
  • Remember, always keep your dog safe.

Listen to your dog!

There are so many different ways to listen to your dog: barking, vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions. Yet how good are we at understanding what they are saying? We think we can tell when our dogs are happy because they wag their tails–but this is only partially true. The position, rate, and pattern of tail wagging changes depending on what they are trying to communicate. We label them quickly when we think they are being naughty or stubborn because they don’t do what they’re told. Yet dogs always have a good reason for not doing what we ask of them and try to communicate that to us–though we might not understand or agree. When they tremble and whine, we might think they are scared. Maybe, but these signals could also indicate excitement or pain.

For example, in the Featured Image above, Vera is telling me she is not enjoying the hug I’m giving her. Her mouth is closed, her face tense, and she is looking as far away from me as as she possibly can. I’m enjoying it, but she is NOT!

Dogs are much more complex than we give them credit for. They have an entire language with which they can communicate excitement, arousal, contentment, affection, stress, fear, anger, joy, disgust, shyness, and suspicion according to Dr. Stanley Coren. (They do not feel the more complex emotions of guilt, shame, pride and contempt.) They also have opinions, preferences, and motivations. They are thinking, emotional creatures with brains similar to ours, and they communicate with us all the time. Since we have invited them into our homes, it is not only polite and respectful to learn their language, but we owe it to them to do so. After all, we expect them to know ours–whether we teach it to them or not!

I recently watched a webinar by Julie Shaw VTS-Behavior, addressing the question of stubbornness in dogs. She reflected my own experience with dogs: if dogs don’t want to do something, there’s a good reason for it. Either they don’t have a clue what you want them to do (they haven’t been adequately trained and don’t understand the words or signals being used to direct them), they know something you don’t (as with Annie when she refused to go down a path–we found coyote tracks in the snow twenty feet further down the trail), they are in pain (as in a friend’s dog who refused to get into the car), they’re scared (a shelter dog refusing to go through a doorway into the unknown), or they know they will dislike what will happen to them if they do what’s being asked (a dog who is expected walk politely over to the tap for a bath). Dogs don’t tend to do things randomly any more than we do. There is always a reason, and if we stop to think about what they’re telling us, we can often figure it out and modify our expectations. But we need to have the patience to do this.

How to listen to your dog

  • Watch your dog more closely than you have in the past. Even those of us who have studied canine body language for years can benefit from doing this. We become complacent over time and start to miss cues.
  • Purchase a good book on canine body language if you don’t have one. I recommend Brenda Aloff’s book, Canine Body Language, a photographic guide, but there are many other books out there. My novel, Finding Vera, is full of canine body language used by the dogs in the story to navigate their lives. In part, I wrote it as a way to educate readers on canine behavior and the language of dogs, while enjoying a good read.
  • Download a free poster on The Body Language of Fear by Sophia Yin.
  • Watch some canine body language videos, or look at photos of dogs’ facial expressions on the Eileen and dogs website to get a better understanding of your dog’s emotional state in different situations.
  • Watch your dog closely when you take her on walks. It’s always interesting to see where dogs sniff. Unfortunately, we tend to discredit their sniffing behavior because we don’t smell or see what they are sniffing. It is thought that they can smell in layers–a complex tapestry of input to them, like us looking at a multilayered sunset or view. By seeing how they react to certain scents, we can learn a lot from them. For instance, I’m now able to determine from Annie, our three-year-old collie, whether the dog who just passed by is new to the neighborhood (increased excitement and persistence in sniffing the air flow behind the dog), whether a neighbor just got a new dog (she’ll stop and air sniff while pointing directly at the dog’s house until I respond), or a coyote (she’ll sniff every inch of the ground and vegetation deliberately, then curtail her walk). If it’s a dog she’s familiar with, she’ll sniff, then move on.
  • Observe if there are places your dog likes to go, and places she doesn’t.
    • For instance, some surfaces might be harsh on a dog’s paws, for instance gravel paths, or sand–especially on a long walk. Your dog might hang back, ask to go on a different trail by pointing her body in that direction, or turn around and ask to go back to the car. It’s hard to know how sensitive dog’s paws are on rough surfaces. Some don’t seem to mind, others do.
    • Wild animals such as coyotes or cougars might frequent the area and your dog might make the very smart decision to return to the parking lot, even though you are oblivious to the danger.
    • Your dog might be fearful of a dog who barks at her from behind a fence and hang back, shake off, scratch, or try to turn back the way she came. Her communication shouldn’t be ignored. You could turn back and go a different way, arc around the barking dog, or put your dog on the side of you away from the scary dog, feeding her treats as you pass.
    • Your dog might be hesitant to go to the dog park because even though she’s well socialized, she doesn’t like interacting with a group of wild adolescent strangers. Don’t force her to do this. She knows better than you how well she can handle the situation.
  • See if there are places she likes to be touched and places she doesn’t.
    • Often the first indications of emotional or physical discomfort will be licking her lips, turning her head away, or yawning. If you don’t listen to these signals, she might escalate her communication to moving away from you, staring at your hand, or even mouthing your hand.
    • Her sensitivity could be due to an injury, a sore muscle, or past association, but a visit to the vet might be in order if this is a new behavior.
    • She might not enjoy being touched as much as you think. Many dogs love our companionship, but only enjoy being touched in certain ways at certain times. Even Annie, our well-socialized, happy collie only likes to be touched when she asks for it by coming over to us, weaving between our legs, or barking and stretching and acting silly on the couch. We make a point of stopping our snuggles before she moves away.
  • When you’re training your dog, watch closely to see if you’re communicating well with her. If you are, she should be paying attention and engaged in learning. If she starts to become confused or overwhelmed, you might see her licking her lips, turning her head away, scratching, yawning, or trying other behaviors. Our golden, Lola, used to lie down and refuse to move when she was confused. Tess would nip at me and bark. Annie will try different behaviors, and eventually get silly. The other day in her Treiball class, she ran around the room visiting the other dogs and their people when my expectations were too high.
  • Listen to your dog’s bark. Dogs have different barks and vocalizations for different things. Remember, barking is an excellent form of communication as is growling (an important warning that they’ve been pushed far enough.) A dog should NEVER be punished for a growl since the signs of low and moderate stress levels could escalate directly to a snap or bite if the growl has been suppressed. Turid Rugaas’s book, Barking, the Sound of a Language, is an excellent resource on barking.

Learning to understand and communicate with your dog is extremely rewarding. As you become familiar with her language over time, more and more subtleties will become apparent to you, and the bonding you experience over the years will be worth the effort.

Say YES! instead of NO!: thoughts on positive-reinforcement dog training.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for 34 years, and dogs have been my passion for even longer. When I started training, we followed the corrective methods forged in the military: put a chain or prong collar on a dog and jerk to get the behavior we wanted. Sometimes, if our dogs did it right, we’d give them a cookie. Though our hearts often broke for our dogs, we trusted our teachers.

Using positive training methods allows dogs to be happy, creative, and eager to learn.

Thankfully, research has since shown that harsh training methods (angry, raised voices, often shouting “NO”, jerking and popping, using a prong or chain collar, hitting your dog, or using spray bottles–to name just a few) can not only injure your dog emotionally, but damage your relationship with your dog in much the same way that abusive behavior can damage human family relationships. Dogs can also be injured physically from some of these methods. For example, throughout her life, Vera, our German shepherd, had difficulty breathing when she drank due to a damaged trachea from a choke chain which was used on her in her first home. Even expert military trainers are now using positive methods. Why? Because dog and handler must trust each other implicitly and their partnership must be absolute.

Clearly this puppy is experiencing joy! His mouth is open and relaxed, tongue showing, eyes soft, and no wrinkles of anxiety around his mouth or on his forehead.

It is thought that dogs have emotions equivalent to a two and a half-year-old child. They can experience joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not guilt. When they experience fear–and they do experience fear from punishment-style training (see Sophie Yin’s poster on “the body language of fear in dogs,” and then observe your dog’s reaction to corrections closely), they might respond in a number of ways such as: “shutting down” (emotionally withdrawing from the situation), handler-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, or aggression toward strangers. They might also develop anxiety and ongoing anxiety-based behaviors such as self-inflicted sores or hot-spots, in-home destruction, relieving themselves inside the home, separation anxiety, or learning difficulties.

The trouble with punishment-style training is that it often works in the moment. It’s therefore very reinforcing to the handler because the dog will often stop what he’s doing out of fear and to avoid further punishment. This gives the handler a sense of gratification. Unfortunately, the dog doesn’t learn how to change his behavior. He just becomes more anxious, often increasing the unwanted behavior. A dog’s ability to learn diminishes as stress increases, just as it does in humans.

The other thing that makes punishment so rewarding to us is that as primates, we are hardwired to shout and use our hands to hit when we are frustrated or angry, so the very act of punishing our dogs can feel like the right thing to do and make us feel better about training our dogs.

What to do instead…

Transitioning to positive methods can be hard. I know, because I’ve done it. Positive methods feel permissive, like they don’t have “teeth.” However, by not reinforcing “bad” behaviors, and by rewarding the behaviors you are looking for with praise and/or treats, your dog will become enthusiastic about learning and working with you. Being consistent 100% of the time, and preventing unwanted behaviors by planning what you want him to do in advance, actually works!

Say, for example, you want your dog to stay off the couch. Rather than yelling at him to get off, you could block his access to it with baby gates, or put something such as books on the cushions to dissuade him from getting up in the first place. By NEVER allowing him to get on the couch, and by planning short training sessions where he’s rewarded for NOT getting onto the couch (you could toss treats on the floor next to the couch, or give him a special chew toy on his bed in the same room), he will learn to stay off the furniture without fear of being punished for making a mistake. Before long, he’ll stay on the floor and won’t attempt to get onto the couch.

This is a clicker from the Karen Pryor website.

Using a clicker or a marker word such as “YES” followed immediately by a treat, is a fun, positive, and very effective way to teach your dog skills without fear or intimidation. Due to the release of chemical mediators in the brain, anticipation of the treat is just as powerful a reward as the treat itself. The click or word “yes” actually marks the precise behavior you want to reinforce in your dog, and the treat follows within two seconds. Watch this short video of Vera (from Finding Vera) introducing clicker training.

A “reward” can be anything your dog likes. It can be food, praise, a toy, doing a favorite trick, or getting a chest scratch. The reward is given to your dog as payment AFTER he completes the behavior you request, or when he makes a good behavioral choice. Guiding one’s dog to make the correct choice is part of our job as trainers and dog parents, and it’s your dog’s right to be paid for a job done well.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement training methods, contact a professional trainer through CPDT or KPA to help you make the transition. If you haven’t already tried positive reinforcement training, I’d recommend that you do so. Using positive methods is not only immensely rewarding to both you and your dog, but will strengthen your relationship in ways you might not have thought possible.