Stress: signals, management, & warning signs
Reisner Veterinary Services posted this article from Silent Conversations, a website dedicated to “Insights into Canine Communication,” about sniffing the ground and what it might indicate about doggie discourse.
Although I have paid attention to sniffing in dogs, I have been watching it more closely lately as I recently read The Education of Will, by Dr Patricia McConnell. At one point she talks about noticing the constancy and intensity of Will’s sniffing and how it concerned her in such a young dog. So, I was delighted to see the article from Silent Conversations which explained and reinforced my own observations about something that all dogs do, but may do differently at different times. Knowing when your dog is just checking the pee-mail and when he is sniffing as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation can help you keep Fido relaxed and manageable.
Martha Knowes, the author of the blog says this by way of introduction:
Sniffing can be used as a calming signal when an interaction is too intense. One dog may start to walk away, slowly sniffing the ground; the other dog may mirror him by also sniffing the ground. This is a good way to defuse an interaction.
Sniffing can be used as negotiation as two dogs approach each other; a deliberate slower approach is polite when greeting. Sniffing the ground is commonly used as part of the body language signals offered at the beginning stages of an approach.
In other contexts, sniffing could also be interpreted as displacement behaviour or a stress response. A dog may feel conflicted about something he sees ahead of him; he may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. Sniffing may help displace the anxiety, and it gives the opportunity to assess things further from a safe distance by stalling the approach.
She continues by giving several examples of where you might see unusual sniffing and clearly describes not only the situation, but the body language that might accompany the sniffing. I really appreciated the use of common scenarios as well as the straight-forward, precise language used to describe canine body language. Even without accompanying pictures, I could clearly envision the dog she was describing.**
Ms. Knowles also adds a good section on what she means by stress. The paragraph is worth repeating in its entirety:
When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.
The last part of the article is a good reminder that when you are looking at body language it is important to describe what you see the animal doing, the immediate surroundings, and if there is anything that has changed in the environment (did something make a noise, is there a stranger dog approaching, or a person jogging?), rather than immediately interpreting the meaning of the behavior. For example, if you see a dog stop, close his mouth, look away, lower his tail, and squint his eyes, it could be that he saw a dog that he didn’t know, or a car backfired, or there was a strange smell. He might be slowing his approach to a strange dog, startled by a sound, or repelled by the smell. These are descriptions of the behavior and not emotional interpretations of the dog’s inner workings.
In Ms Knowles words:
To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.
The more you know about your dog and her individual signals, including the more subtle ones such as sniffing, the better you will be able to protect and serve your best dog friend.
**Note: she does include links to other articles which describe the dog’s perspective on things, or elucidate a particular aspect of canine body language, such as the head turn. All of her links are worth reading.
Reisner Veterinary Services posted a link on their Facebook page on November 19, showing a video of three different dogs, two of which are being hugged by small children. For those of us who work with dogs this is a very scary video as the first two dogs are clearly stressed by what is happening and the third dog is being put into a situation that can quickly escalate into a bite to the child’s face. Here is a link to the page they reference (the post is dated 11/10/16 and titled, “Do you have a child who likes to hug the dog”):
And here are Reisner’s thoughts on the videos:
1. Hugging is NOT a positive interaction for many, many dogs. If an individual dog does seem to enjoy it, it is usually a learned behavior, and may be tolerated from only certain people. Generally speaking, children are less tolerated than adults. If you look closely at a dog’s face while being hugged, you’re more likely to see stress than pleasure.
2. It’s clear from videos like this that knowledge about dog safety is lacking. It’s doubtful that this is a deliberate attempt to put toddlers at risk. We need to press on and educate the public. I also need to remind myself that the great majority of parents are not connected to progressive dog groups and pages on Facebook, and have absolutely no idea of the risk.
3. Most dog bite injuries that end up in emergency rooms are to young children, in the head, face and neck. It’s very easy to see why.
Just because a dog IS tolerant and patient doesn’t mean the dog needs to be confronted with such aversive interactions (including the infant tapping a toy on the dog’s head). The dogs here are just being set up to fail. Why tempt fate?
I couldn’t agree more with Reisner’s comments. I would add that there are plenty of good sites online that educate parents about appropriate interactions between kids and dogs. Here are some of my blogs as well as my favorite online sites:
And here are some great websites with terrific advice and resources for parents:
Kids and dogs can live harmoniously, but it requires supervision of small people, an understanding of stress signals in dogs, and respect for the needs of both children and canines.
It’s time, once again, for a hodgepodge of items that I have recently encountered. These tidbits are related by four components: 1) I like them, 2) they are all about positive approaches to training and interacting with your dog, 3) Reisner Vet likes them and, 4) I was not smart enough to write them first.
The first is the Freedom Harness Exchange Program.
The Harness Exchange Program is an advocacy program of Biggies Bullies that promotes the use of force-free pet equipment. We are asking pet guardians o swap out their choke, prong, and shock collars for a free harness! We want all pets and their parents to experience the huge advantages and long-lasting effectiveness of force-free training and pet care. When you mail us your choke, prong, or shock collar we will send you a free Freedom No Pull Harness. -Biggies Bullies Website.
The page is filled with pictures of adorable “bully” breed dogs happily ensconced in their bright colored freedom harnesses. The beauty of any no-pull harness is that it works with your dog to stop pulling, rather than punish or hurt your dog for pulling. Choke chain collars can damage your dog’s thyroid, increase the pressure in his eyes (putting him at greater risk for glaucoma), and can cause damage to the trachea or esophagus. “Dogs walked on prongs are also constantly subjected to pain and discomfort, which creates fear, anxiety and aggression on walks.” (Biggies Bullies Website). Dogs corrected with shock collars may associate the pain and fear they experience with their owners and may respond by avoiding their owners, shutting down, or acting out aggressively.*
I have used the Freedom harness as well as other front buckling no pull harnesses and I highly recommend them. They are the most effective, however, when used in conjunction with positive reinforcement training to teach a dog loose leash walking. I think this is a great program and if you want to support it, click here to donate.
Another article that I came across came from my old standard Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services is dated June 6th and has a wonderful graphic by Lili Chin, titled Calm and Relaxed? or Shut Down? What I love about this is that it points out how important it is to understand dog body language so you know what your dog is actually telling you! Dogs who are subdued when meeting new people, places, things, or other dogs, may not be calm and relaxed, but rather shut down and scared. Understanding how your dog is interpreting the situation will give you the information you need to best help him.**
While scrolling through Lili Chin’s website I found some graphics that she produced for the Vet Behavior Team about stress signals in dogs. Going to their website, I found several handouts that clearly and precisely illustrate the signals that dogs use to communicate to us that they are upset, stressed, hyper-vigilante, or just plain scared. Even if you know your dog’s stress signals, I recommend that you take a look at these handouts as they will help you recognize stress signals in other dogs. Knowing what other dogs are “feeling” will help you to keep your dog safe. I plan on using these handouts with all my clients!
I have written about dogs and kids before, but recently I came across this website: Family Paws Family Education which I really like. It has a lot of useful information for parents, parents-to-be, trainers, and veterinarians to help kids and dogs live together in harmony. The resource page has plenty of links to other valuable resources (such as Living with Kids and Dogs , Colleen Pelar’s website) as well as some terrific handouts with nice graphics about Dog and Baby safety, Dog and Toddler safety, what is supervision (and isn’t! This is a particularly eye-opening handout). I recommend to parents that they post the relevant ones on the frig so they are a ready reminder of how to have your expanding household live together positively and safely.
**The article to which this graphic is attached is a detailed look at Cesar Milan and his television program concerning a Boston Terrier who attacked and killed pigs, and Mr. Milan’s approach to changing this behavior. I am no fan of Mr. Milan and the methods he employed here just about made me pass out and/or vomit. His outdated approach caused egregious harm to the health and mental well being of the dog as well as the pigs he employed. I cannot emphasize loud or long enough that bullying, hurting, or punishing your dog is not the humane, responsible way to change behavior, no matter how abhorrant that behavior may be. Every animal deserves to be cared for and handled with compassion and dignity. Period.
Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services, has once again provided the basis for a blog post. Their Facebook post from January 11, 2016 is a terrific summary of why dogs have bad training days and what you can do about it. Here it is, with my notes or comments in italics or with asterisks:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Dogs can be overwhelmed by training.
Training your dog to perform a new task can be gratifying, especially when your dog really seems to ‘get it’. Doing it well requires knowledge of operant conditioning*, finding the right positive reinforcer** for the individual dog in front of you, and keeping expectations in check as you approximate the task being trained. But dogs are only human; like us, they can have bad training days for a number of reasons.
Overwhelmed or confused dogs may begin to exhibit conflict signals such as yawning, turning away or lowering their bodies.*** Others may show displacement behaviors such as barking, jumping up or mouthing, mounting, stretching or simply walking away. To the untrained trainer’s eye, this might look like “stubborn” or even “dominant” behavior, but it is more simple than that (and it is never an issue of dominance). She doesn’t know what you want, and is frustrated or no longer willing to cooperate in this futile activity. (Emphasis mine.).
In most cases, the dog is being asked to perform/offer a behavior beyond his understanding. This is often the case in training, of course, but if you’re working on a complex behavior and skipping the smaller steps, the dog may simply stop working. A few tips to help him get back on track:
• Go back a few steps in training and move forward more slowly. (Also consider training in smaller increments of time, say 5-10 minutes at a time. This will help both of you to avoid frustration).
• Break the training down into smaller steps. (Think in terms of parts of a behavior. For example, if you want your dog to sit when greeting guests, start with teaching your dog to sit, then sit at your side. Then teach him to stay while at your side. Then stay while you move away, stay while you move to the door, stay while the door opens, etc., until you have built a complete behavior).
• Take a day or two to review and reinforce what the dog already knows well.
• Give your dog time to think – your own impatience may be undermining his ability to learn. A little breather between steps can give your dog the chance to offer something he’s figured out for himself. (I remind my students that after you ask your dog to do something, count to 5 while you wait for his response. This allows the dog to process what you have asked him to do and respond. Also, when your dog does something exactly as requested, reward him well and end your training session on that perfect note. Practice this behavior for a few sessions before you move onto the next step).
• Swallow your human pride and consider abandoning an exercise that repeatedly frustrates your dog (and you). Try something else.
Like us, dogs are better at learning when they enjoy the process, and they’ll enjoy it much more if they have the opportunity to succeed (i.e.: are positively reinforced).** If our dogs seem overwhelmed or apathetic, the responsibility is entirely ours to find a solution – and there almost always is one.”
If you find yourself uncertain as to how to proceed with your training, give me a call! I offer group and private lessons which can help you and your pooch get back into your training groove.
*Operant conditioning:operant conditioning is a fancy way of saying learning things through consequences, both good and bad. (Think Skinner). For example, a dog sits and gets a treat, he learns to sit more. If he is punished for leaving the yard by an electric shock, he learns to stay away from the edge of the yard.
**Positive reinforcer: Treats. The biscuit you give to Fido for sitting is a positive reinforcer. (See Set you and your dog up for success for ideas of how to use rewards and NILIF for more information on reinforcers). Also, know what your dog loves and use it as reward. This may include food, play, petting, access to other dogs, a car ride, etc. Make a list of 5 things your dog loves and post it on your refrigerator as a reminder of what you can use to creatively reinforce desired behaviors.
*** I have written a lot about body language and stress signals. See Stress: signals, management & warning signs for more information.
I have mentioned the Whole Dog Journal (WDJ)* in several posts, and I have also written a fair amount about stress signals and learning to understand when your dog is asking for your help to manage a situation. I get the WDJ’s “Tip of the Week” and this week’s was an excerpt from the book, Decoding Your Dog from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Edited by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM, DACVB, with Steve Dale.** The excerpt suggests six steps to better understand and communicate with your dog.
Here is the excerpt. The parts that I wish to emphasize are in italics. I have also added photos of mine to better illustrate the body language listed.
These six steps and the following guide will help you to “speak dog” and understand your dog’s body language.
1. Learn their language.
2. Listen with our eyes.
3. Use cues that work for dogs.
4. Avoid miscommunication traps.
5. Teach a common language.
6. Have realistic expectations.
The goal is not to learn our dogs’ language so that we can “speak dog” back to them; that just won’t work. But we can use a knowledge of canine language to better understand our dogs’ emotional states and predict what they might do next.
• Remember to look at the entire dog, not just one body part or a single vocalization, and to also look at the situation to get an accurate read of the dog’s emotional state.
• Dogs understand some words, but they can’t understand a full conversation. Gestures and body language are clearer ways to communicate with dogs. Clear communication takes attention and effort, but is well worth it!
• Not every dog can succeed in every situation. Watch your dog for signs of anxiety or aggression and change the circumstances so that the dog doesn’t get overwhelmed.
• If something seems like it’s about to happen, step in. Either remove the dog from the situation or change what’s happening.
Canine Body Language
-Unwavering, fixed stare: challenge, threat, confident
-Casual gaze: calm
-Averted gaze: deference
-Pupils dilated (big, wide): fear
-Wide-eyed (whites of the eyes are visible): fear
-Quick, darting eyes: fear
-Relaxed, neutral position: calm
-Forward, pricked: alert, attentive, or aggressive
-Ears pinned back: fear, defensive
-Panting: Hot, anxious or excited
-Lip Licking, tongue flicking: anxious
-Yawn: tired or anxious
-Snarl (lip curled, showing teeth): aggressive
-Growl: aggressive, or playful
-Bark: reactive, excited, playful, aggressive, or anxious
-Up, still: alert
-Up with fast wag: excited
-Neutral, relaxed position: calm
-Down, tucked: fear, anxious, or submissive
-Stiff-wagging or still and high: agitated, excited, and perhaps unfriendly
-Soft, relaxed: calm
-Tense, stiff: alert or aggressive
-Hackles up: alert or aggressive
-Rolling over: submissive
Decoding Your Dog can be purchased at Whole Dog Journal, Dogwise, or Amazon (where it is also available in Kindle format). Learning to better communicate with your dog will not only improve the training and management of your pup, but will dramatically enhance the relationship with your canine best friend.
*To see the posts that I mention the WDJ go to: http://apositiveconnection.com/?s=whole+dog+journal
**Dr. Meghan Herron, veterinary animal behaviorist at OSU has a chapter in the book. I mention Dr. Herron in several of my blogs. To find these posts go to: http://apositiveconnection.com/?s=Herron
With the opening bell of Halloween behind us, the holiday season is underway! Thanksgiving is looming around the corner and our dogs may or may not be ready for the onslaught of activity that is the end of the year. I have written several columns about preparing your dog to have a jolly holiday, but here are some reminders (as well as links to those columns) of what you can do to make this merry for everyone.
- Make sure your dog knows sit! “A dog that is sitting is not jumping on Grandma, chasing the grandkids, or running joyfully through the house announcing the visitors. Practice sit everywhere and at all times of the day or night. (50+ sits a day is not over doing it, really.) The more times and places your dog sits, the more it becomes his default behavior and one that he is likely to do when in doubt about the busyness around him.
- Know your dog’s stress signals! “One common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots…Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.”
Exercise your dog! Getting Fido out for a good romp before the guests arrive (or before you leave to go to Grandma’s house) will help him to be the well-mannered dog you know is in there somewhere. And by exercise, I mean taking him to run in a field, chase balls till he drops, and generally be active for at least 45 minutes. Then, when he gets back to the house, a stuffed Kong and long nap are not only in order, but welcomed!” (See also “Fun”nel of Activity! for a detailed strategy for taking Fido from crazed to calm.)
- Food Management: human and canine. One food strategy to keep in mind is: “Have dog appropriate treats handy in every room so that you can reward Fido when he is well behaved and to distract him from temptation. For instance, if our pups are lying around providing doggie ambiance, I will drop a treat or two at their noses to let them know that I appreciate their calm demeanors. I will also use a well timed canine cookie to get Bingley to move away from a grandchild’s toy.”
If you are looking for things to keep your pup occupied and out of trouble, or Christmas presents for your favorite canine, here are some things you might consider that will give him mental challenges and/or more fun at mealtime:
- Intelligence toys: There are many food related interactive toys on the market and finding the right one for your dog can be challenging. Bingley is not as interested in the food as he is in the challenge so I look for food toys that require him to puzzle things out a bit, such as the Tug-a-jug, Buster Cube, and Kibble nibble. Buckley loves his Twist and Treat because it rolls and quickly distributes the object of his desire.
- Interactive Food bowls: Our dogs love their puzzle food bowls. Not only does it slow eating (thus helping to prevent bloat in big dogs), but it makes dinnertime challenging and entertaining. I rotate the bowls between all the dogs so that no one knows which bowl is going to appear next, all part of the fun!
- If your dog is a chewer and loves to hunker down with something to gnaw, consider investing in an elk antler for him, or one of Nylabone’s interesting chews (such as a Galileo bone). Check out the Village Pet Market or Bath and Biscuits (both here in Granville) for other interesting toys and treats designed to keep your dog entertained and out of mischief.
Paying attention to the signals your dog is giving you, and providing him with appropriate physical and mental outlets for his energy will help all of you to have the merriest holiday season ever.
This is the lament I often hear from new clients whose dog “refuses” to sit or lie down in class. I do not think they are lying to me. I’m sure that their dog’s behavior is close to perfection at home. But, we are not at home in their kitchen, we are in a new building, with new scents, sights, sounds, flooring, dogs, treats, etc. It’s novel, it’s different, it might just be wonderful, but it is, without a doubt, stressful. And, behavior deteriorates under stress.
For example, imagine that you love singing and have practiced your favorite song throughout the day as you move through your routine. You might have hummed it in the grocery store, sang it loud during your morning commute, or cooed it while you made dinner. As many times as you have “rehearsed” it, you have not sung it out loud, in a new place in front of several people you do not know.
Now, imagine you walk into the gym for step class and your teacher asks you to sing in front of everyone, right now! She might even give you a free class if you sing immediately. Can you do it? If you can, is it as smooth and flawless as it is in your car? Probably not. You may be able to sing it, but I would bet you feel a certain amount of pressure or stress. So does your dog when you demand he Sit! Down! Come! in class, or anywhere that is foreign to him or he is uncomfortable, uncertain, or even excited.
Does this mean that you can never ask (and therefore expect) your dog to sit/down/stay etc., anywhere but in front of you by the refrigerator? No, it does not. But it does mean that you need to:
Recognize when it might be stressful or difficult for Rex to perform. New places, new dogs, new people, a walk, a new or crowded sidewalk, a fire truck, rain, high winds, spilled ice cream, all kinds of things can be exciting, distracting, or stressful for your dog. If you ask him to sit and he doesn’t, it might not be “stubbornness.” It could be that he really, truly can’t do it because it is just too hard right now. You can get him to be more responsive under a wider variety of circumstances by doing the following:
Practice desired behaviors in a variety of places, with various distractions so that, for instance, Rex learns that “Sit!” means he puts his bottom on the ground. I encourage my students to practice new behaviors (such as sit or down) in places with few distractions (such as the kitchen) and then practice in all the rooms in the house where your dog is allowed. When Rex is reliably sitting in low distraction areas, add some challenges. Go outside to the least distracting place near your house (e.g. the driveway, back patio, front porch) and practice sitting there. Don’t expect Rex to plunk down his bottom as quickly as he does inside. Ask him to sit and then wait (count to 5) and let him process the request. Do not repeat the command! Give him a chance to figure out what is expected of him. When he does sit, say “Good dog!” and give him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times (moving a bit if needed to get his bottom back off the ground).
Lower your expectations of Rex in new environments. If he doesn’t sit the first time you ask him to do so in a new environment, even after a count of 5, then make it easier for him. Put a treat right at his nose and slowly move your hand over his head to lure him into a sit. When his bottom hits the ground, give him the treat. Do this 1-3 more times, then try asking him to sit without putting the treat at his nose. Have him sit 5-10 more times in this spot before moving to a more distracting place such as the yard or sidewalk. Ask him to sit in this new spot, and once again, wait for him to respond. Do not expect him to sit as quickly as he just did on the driveway. This is a new spot and that makes it harder to perform on cue. Be patient and reward him when he does respond correctly. Once again, if he cannot comply with your request, then make it easier for him to respond, so that he builds confidence in difficult situations.
Understanding that behavior deteriorates under stress, lowering your expectations in a new or distracting situation, and being patient as he tries to comply, will help your dog succeed, boost his confidence and, perform this behavior in the future. It’s also what friends do for each other.
Once again Reisner VeterinaryBehavior and Consulting Services has a great post that explains what is actually going on with a common canine behavior. I am referring to when a dog covers something (in this case a child) with a blanket (or other object) in what appears to be putting the baby to bed.*
As Reisner so aptly points out:
Just for the sake of clarification and, more important, for the sake of *safety*, dogs do not exhibit this behavior with newborn puppies. They exhibit it when they are burying, caching or hoarding FOOD. In our companion dogs, this might be observed especially by worried individuals. Far from maternal behavior, the “cute” behavior of covering a baby implies that the dog is associating the newborn with food. As awful as that is, it’s important to remember that newborn babies can be at risk of predatory behavior or fear-based aggression and confusion by dogs.
I have posted before, for many dogs the addition of a tiny human to the house is not necessarily a joyous event for them and, it can make them very nervous if they have not had regular exposure to children. I have some suggestions that will help:
- Do not ever leave your baby or toddler alone with your dog, no matter how much you trust your canine best friend. When my grandkids started arriving, I had three lovely dogs who I trusted completely, yet I never left them alone with the children. Accidents and injuries can happen in an instant! To reiterate Reisner: “it’s important to remember that newborn babies can be at risk of predatory behavior or fear-based aggression and confusion by dogs.” Therefore, don’t put your dog in a situation where he may make a serious mistake. Take the baby (or the dog) with you if you have to leave the room for any reason.
- Give your dog a break! Have a place to which your dog can retreat to give himself a break from the chaos of children. Make sure older children understand that when Fido is in his crate, on his bed, in Mom’s room, wherever this safe haven is, they are not allowed to bother him. This means that they cannot get on the bed with the dog, pull him off, run around him, throw things to him, etc. If they (or you) want to move the dog, call him to you and reward him for coming. If he chooses to stay in his safe haven, respect the fact that he is telling you that he has had enough for now and will rejoin the family when he’s ready.
- In my blog Make your holidays merrier! I give this tip (which is directly related to #2) about managing the chaos of Christmas, but which is appropriate for managing dogs around babies as well:
*Reisner has also put together a series of videos of other canines showing the same behavior as they cache food. Here are a couple of them (to see more, go to Reisner):
Fox (at about 50 seconds):
Dogs are many things, but spiteful is not one of them. They do not plan ahead to get back at you for leaving to go to work, nor do they artfully wait until you are out the door to exact revenge upon your carpet or door molding. Dogs, as Jean Donaldson puts it in Culture Clash, think in terms of safe vs dangerous rather than good vs evil or moral vs immoral. Since they are motivated to keep themselves safe and out of danger, it is very important to help them understand what safe is and to feel as comfortable as possible, especially when first introducing them to your family.*
With this in mind, I try to help clients understand what their dog needs to be successful in their home, by helping them see the world from their dog’s point of view. Not only is the canine perspective on the world a lot lower to the ground, it is from a different species with a less convoluted brain and no language skills (think in terms of Frat boys and you get the picture…).
I found a wonderful article** by Irith Bloom, the Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles about understanding the canine perspective. In one section, she does a superb job of describing what it must be like for a newly adopted dog who is anxious and worried about being left, and how we humans mis-interpret the actions of the dog. What we perceive of as acting guilty for wrongdoing, the dog sees as appeasement gestures to try and get his people to stop being angry. Sadly, this cycle of misunderstanding behavior inevitably sets up both humans and canines for failure:
One classic example of how canine instincts and poor communication can have devastating results is the all too common story of the rescue dog who has been placed in a new home and has a touch of separation anxiety due to several recent transitions. When the dog finds himself left alone in the house, he panics, urinates, and scratches at the door. While it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize, it’s reasonable to assume the dog is stressed at being isolated from his new-found family, and he may even “think”—in some canine way—that the family will never return now that they have left.
The family comes back at the end of the day to find their home a mess. They yell at the dog, who throws all his best calming signals at the family in an effort to placate them, and becomes even more anxious about the situation in his new home. At some point, the family leaves again, and the anxious dog engages in more destructive behavior. Day after day, this pattern continues. The family is sure that the dog knows he’s being bad while they are out, since he “acts so guilty” when they come home. This makes them yell at him even more.
Unfortunately, they don’t understand that the dog does not associate the family’s current anger with actions he took hours earlier, and that his behavior has nothing to do with guilt. The dog has learned that when the family comes home, scolding ensues, so he throws calming signals at the family in an effort to avert it. He doesn’t understand why his calming signals aren’t working, or what exactly is causing his family to be so angry. This makes him more and more anxious, so he becomes increasingly destructive. In the end, the dog’s fear of permanent separation from his family is realized, when the family, at their wits’ end, drops the dog off at the local shelter.
So what’s an owner to do? If your dog is having behavioral issues*** such as: destructiveness, barking, whining, house training problems, lunging or snarling at other dogs or people, or trembles at the sight of anything new then, first, understand that your dog is not doing this to hurt or spite you. He is likely fearful and needs some help to overcome his difficulties. Please contact a positive reinforcement trainer**** who can help you to better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and how you can better communicate to him that life is good and safe.
*This is why it is so important to properly socialize your puppy, so that he understands that kids, bikes, lawn mowers, vacuums, sidewalks, men with beards, wagons, snow blowers, teenage boys with iPods, golden retrievers, scooters, steps, etc are all safe things! See my blog: Why your puppy should be a social butterfly and Bringing home your new best friend.
**This essay was a contribution to the Dogwise John Fisher Essay Scholarship (sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
*** I have written several blogs on behavioral issues. See Behavior or “What the heck?” for a variety of blogs on behavior. For specific puppy issues see: This is not the dog I wanted, and Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unhappy alliance.
**** The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) offers a trainer search by zipcode, and I do behavior consults as well as training. Please call if you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, 740-587-0429
“Dogs don’t bite when a growl will do.” (4Paws University)
When it comes to dealing with canine aggression, truer words have never been spoken. I came across this poster and it’s associated article when it was shared by Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services on Facebook. I loved the graphic and the message and after I read the article, well, I now love 4Paws University too!
I tell people with dogs that growl, “I love that your dog does that.” Think of it as an early warning system, a way for your dog to tell you that the situation is becoming very uncomfortable, and could you please help! Immediate aid often takes the form of increasing the dog’s distance from whatever is causing him discomfort. This will help him to calm down and reduce the chance he will escalate his behavior to make his point. If you punish your dog for growling, he may decide that grumbling is not an effective means of communicating with you and he should move up the ladder of aggression to nipping or biting. Nor does punishment address the underlying cause of your dogs distress. As 4Paws puts it,
“Punishment will stop a dog from growling and other aggressive displays. But it won’t address the reason the dog is growling to begin with. It doesn’t change the dog’s discomfort when being pet, groomed, or handled by the vet. The dog still feels threatened.”
The American Veterinary Society of Veterinary Animal Behavior says this about punishment as a means to correct undesirable behavior:
“Punishment also fails to tell the animal what it should be performing instead. Without an alternative appropriate behavior the animal may have no option but to perform the undesired behavior.”
So what do you do when your dog growls? You don’t want to punish it, but you don’t want to ignore it either.
This is the advice that 4Paws gives if your dog growls:
STOP. If your dog growled at you, stop what you’re doing. If your dog growled at someone else, remove him or her from that situation immediately.
EVALUATE. What was happening right before your dog growled? What indications of avoidance did your dog show before growling?
CALL a qualified professional to teach you how to change your dog’s behavior using reward-based methods.
In general, long term help involves working with a trainer or behaviorist who is experienced with aggressive dogs to:
- recognize what makes your dog upset,
- learn to spot other early warning signals that may precede growling,
- address the underlying problem, and
- teach him do something else instead.
Don’t punish, don’t ignore, but don’t despair! Helping your dog to overcome his fear or discomfort may take some time, patience, and professional help, but you can help your dog to become more comfortable and happy in his world. And remember:
A dog who growls is a good communicator. Punishment takes away their ability to communicate. A dog who can’t communicate is a dangerous dog. (4Paws University).
7/24/15: Nota bena: A really great article on developing bite inhibition in both your puppy and your adult dog is Teaching Bite Inhibition, by Pat Miller and can be found here: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/13_6/features/Bite-Inhibition_16232-1.html. In this article there is a link to another Pat Miller article, The “Gift” of Growling, featured in the October 2005 Whole Dog Journal. If you want to access this article, you will need a paid subscription to WDJ.