Behavior or “What the heck?”
My husband and I have a good friend from college, Dr. Michael Morales, who has a Doctorate in Biochemistry and teaches at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. He was a recent guest on Your Family Dog to talk about the immune and endocrine systems in dogs. (See: The Inside of Your Dog). We had a wide ranging discussion and touched on two topics that I asked him to write a bit more about. This week I am tackling the subject of stress and whether or not there is such a thing as optimal stress.
First of all, Mike gave a terrific definition of stress:
Stress is any stimuli that disrupts normal physiologic equilibria. Stresses can be divided into two broad categories. Neurogenic stresses are those perceived by the nervous system, like the mailman coming to your door every single day. Systemic stresses include injuries, excessive thirst, or starvation.
He goes on to add that despite the variability of the types of stress we (or our dogs) encounter, the body has “just one integrated stress response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands.” The adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which is always present in the blood stream, lasts a long time, and there is much more of it during times of stress. It is often thought of as the stress hormone but, “in reality, it is an anti-stress hormone” whose function is to help one cope with stress. Epinephrine is the other major adrenal hormone. Non-epinephrine from the sympathetic nervous systems pairs with epinephrine and,
These are the famous “fight or flight” hormones. They cause your puppy’s arousal when that mail man appears. Epinephrine doesn’t last long in the blood stream, just a minute or two compared to hours for cortisol. Interestingly, one of the functions of cortisol is to increase the amount of epinephrine. It doesn’t cause its release, but it allows more to be released at an increased frequency.
The important take away here is that there are both short response and long response hormones that are released to help us manage stress. So, if we have the internal mechanism to manage stress, why do we all instinctively know that chronically high stress is not good and can have some serious consequences? As Mike explains:
Exposure to high levels of cortisol in a puppy or even prenatally in the womb can cause psychological damage that can last long into adulthood. Cortisol influences genome function in a way that can be permanent and can potentially be transmitted across generations. Added to this is the revolution in our understanding of brain development, and one could conclude that the responsible puppy owner avoids stress at all costs, right? Of course, it’s not so simple. Remember, cortisol is always present, and in fact, we can’t live without it. So it turns out that there is a correct amount of stress.
Who knew? Well, many of us knew that a bit of arousal enhances learning, but we didn’t know how the hormones worked to enhance that learning. Mike continues:
The effects of cortisol can be thought of something like a bell curve. At the top of the curve is where you are likely to find a happy well-adjusted dog. Too much cortisol is associated with aggression and overly defensive behavior. Too little cortisol will leave your precious little bundle unable to cope with the normal stresses that invade the life of all living creatures.
So now it’s not your puppy’s stress you’re worried about, but you own, trying to figure out how to properly raise the little guy. Neurobiology has provided some good news as well. Throughout life, neurons are born and die, synapses are formed and disappear, axons and dendrites grow and are pruned. This suggests that there is considerable potential for reversing the effects of a stressful puppyhood than had been previously imagined. But it is important to understand that the longer intervention is delayed, the harder it will be to undo the consequences of excessive stress early in life. So do the best you can, and trust that a supportive environment will undo any of your inevitable mistakes.
So, when you are headed out the door with your puppy, keep in mind that some stress is necessary for your dog to grow into the well-adjusted adult dog that you can trust to handle the ups and downs of a dog’s life. Be sure to have a lot of wonderful treats on hand while you are exposing your puppy to the world, and use positive reinforcement training to build a happy, trusting dog, eager to learn new things. Be smart about where you take him before his puppy shots are finished, and don’t try to do too much at one time. A happy half hour walk to the play ground to meet a few children will likely do more for your pup than a 2 hour forced march through town!*
A final thought from Mike:
We’ve all heard of or know dogs who overcome the cruelest of circumstances to become a well-behaved and cherished family dog. The flip side is the dog raised in a loving secure home who ends up nasty and aggressive. Researchers have noticed this individual variation as well, and have seen it even in strains of mice in-bred to be genetically nearly identical. It used to be chalked up to the dreaded “experimental variation.” It is now understood that this extraordinary variability of outcome in the face of chronic stress is not some experimental artifact but a feature of complex organisms. Considerable effort continues to be expended to understand this effect.
In other words, do your best to help your puppy his best. And, remember, that we cannot control every situation, genetics are complex, environmental factors influence behavior, and unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen that will have long term effects.
But, on the other hand, sometimes we win the lottery.
*For more information on socializing your puppy please see:
Does your elderly dog walk into a corner and just stand there? Does she just stare into space? Does she pace in circles? Go to the hinge of the door to be let out? Not respond to her name? She might have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), commonly referred to as doggie Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Eileen Anderson is an award winning blogger (eileenanddogs) and dog owner. She knows all about CCD as her beloved rat terrier, Cricket, had it and she was able to manage Cricket for two years with CCD. Ms. Anderson has written a book, Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which has garnered praise from experts such as Dr. E’Lise Christensen, board certified veterinary behaviorist, and Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash. One of her goals, with the book and website, is to help owners diagnosis CCD early because “there is medical help for cognitive dysfunction in dogs.” She also wants to provide owners with information that will make their lives and that of their dogs more manageable. I have not read the book, yet, but her website dedicated to canine dementia is filled with valuable information about CCD, including photos, videos, a printable symptoms checklist, treatment options, suggestions on caring for a senior dog, and more.*
One of the pages I found to be the most helpful was on symptoms. Ms. Anderson lists types of symptoms as well as specific ones. (She includes pictures and a couple of videos to illustrate the symptoms.) Here is her list of types of symptoms:
Changes in social interactions
Loss of house training
Changes in activity level
Inability to learn
She goes on to list 29 specific symptoms of canine dementia, and at the bottom of the page is a link for a printable checklist of symptoms that you can take to your vet. In addition to the four listed at the beginning, here are some others to look for:
- Failing to get out of the way when someone opens a door.
- Failing to remember routines, or starting them and getting only partway through.
- Performing repetitive behaviors.
- Having trouble with eating or drinking (finding the bowls, aiming the mouth, keeping food in mouth).
- Losing appetite.
- Trembling for seemingly no reason.
- Falling off things.
- Getting trapped under or behind furniture.
- Sleeping more during the day and less at night.
Under Treatment she lists prescription drugs as well as supplements that may be helpful. Food and enrichment are discussed on the treatment page as well as on the Enrichment page. The resources page has tips from other owners as well as links to books and articles that can help you manage your dog. And, she also has a kind and sensitive page devoted to how to decide when the time has come that “you need to help your dog with dementia leave this world.”*
Watching our dogs age is never easy, but having a dog develop dementia can be especially painful. But, by diagnosing early and effectively managing it, we can provide our senior buddies with a good life for however long they have with us.
* On Your Family Dog, Colleen Pelar and I have a two part series with Dr. Alicia Karas, of Tufts Veterinary School, on elderly dogs. Part 1 is Giving Older Dogs the Good Life, and part 2 is Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye.
Also, just after publishing this blog, this link about a potential new drug to treat CCD came through my email. Let’s hope the trial goes well and we have another tool for helping our elderly dogs.
There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!
These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!
Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018
So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:
I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all.
With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive. According to the Wolf Park website:
Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.
This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “with forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines.”
On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it. This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.
I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself.
** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction? Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.
A friend suggested that I write some tweets from a dog’s perspective. I thought that was an intriguing idea and found myself wondering what my dog would say to me in 120 characters or less.
The first one that came to mind was “In my defense, I was left unsupervised” which I originally saw on a T-shirt. I could see my dog sending this as an after thought to such puppy inpulses as: shredding my current book, chewing the thumbs off my favorite gloves, or ingesting an entire loaf of bread I irresponsibly left on the counter. Careful and consistent management (of dog and environment) is an important part of training and may help to prevent humans tweeting: “In his defense, he was left unsupervised.”
On a post on Care.com titled 26 Hilarious Hypothetical Dog Tweets I found this one: “Just got back from taking my person for a drag around the neighborhood. Remember: keep your human on a leash. It’s the law.” Dogs are not naturally inclined to walk sweetly at their humans’ sides, so teaching leash manners can be challenging to say the least, and may lead to the unfortunate use of prong or choke collars. I have many posts on loose leash walking, but if you are having difficulties getting Rover to resist the lure of squirrels and the base of every tree, contact a positive reinforcement trainer to help.* It just might help to prevent you tweeting: “Just got back from being dragged around the neighborhood. Keeping him on a leash may be the law, but I’m headed to the doctor. #shouldersurgeryhereIcome”
“Dogs, just warning you, do not read “Old Yeller.” #prayforoldyeller.” (Care.com) I clearly remember reading Old Yeller in 4th grade and exactly where I was sitting when I read the end of the book. I was heartbroken, but also amazed at the power of good literature to move you to the core of your being. I think that was the moment I became a bibliophile. For a guide to some great books on dogs, where at least some dogs do not die, listen to our podcast: Literary Dogs. If there is a child in your life who loves to read and would like to read a story to your dog, check out Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog.
“Where are you? When will you be home? You coming home soon? #10minutesisforever.” Dogs are social creatures and do not revel in your absence. I don’t believe that Zuzu is hoping I will go away for several hours so that she can work on the great American canine novel. If you do need to leave your dog alone for several hours, be sure they are not going to get into mischief (#carpetsarenotjustforpee) while you are out. Making sure your dog has had some exercise, some mental stimulation, and something appropriate to do while you are gone** will help to make sure his next tweet isn’t, “Who doesn’t like Italian leather chew toys? #gottachewshoes.”
And of course who wouldn’t want their dog to tweet, “(insert your name) is the bestest friend ever. #lovemyhuman”
“Love you too buddy. #bestdogever”
*The Association of Professional Dog TrainersIf you need a trainer in your area, you can do a search by zip code at . Requiring that the trainer be certified helps (but does not guarantee) to locate a positive reinforcement trainer. If you are uncertain about how to choose a trainer, see: How to Choose a Dog Trainer (blog) and Choosing a Dog Trainer (podcast).
Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another, to one degree or another. Perhaps when you had to give an oral book report in front of your 6th grade class, or your first presentation to a new boss, or when you were waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery. Often times, others don’t even know you are anxious as you devote every resource to making yourself appear fine (at least outwardly), while praying that no one asks you to something as unreasonable as multiply 6 times 8.
You may have tells, such as biting your lip, twirling your hair, pacing, or tapping your foot, that people may or may not recognize as symptoms of stress or anxiety. When I was a kid, my mother, assuming I was bored rather than anxious, would tell me to “Stop figeting!” My sister on the other hand, would get quiet and withdrawn, earning her the title of the “Good Kid.”
I have written (and podcasted*) about stress signals and the importance of recognizing your dog’s particular behaviors that indicate he is not comfortable. Learning to read your dog and understanding the way in which he communicates his discomfort is the first step in helping him with his anxieties or fears. But, that is just the beginning. What do you do when you see Rover is uncomfortable with the situation?
The first thing I recommend is physical distance. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with large dogs and you see a great hulking beast headed your way, don’t insist that your dog meet his fears head on. Instead, add enough distance so that your dog can watch Sasquatch go by without overreacting. Give him lots of tasty treats as the dog goes by so that he is focused on you, rather than his fears.** This teaches him that the presence of dogs means I should look to my person for assistance. Moreover, because good things now happen to him when scary dogs come by, he will begin to look forward with anticipation (rather than fear) to big dogs.
I am frequently asked if I am rewarding the dog’s fear by giving him treats when he is scared. My question in return is: When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? With our dogs, we are trying to change their emotional responses from fear to anticipation. When we offer them treats, the chewing and eating helps to not only distract them from the menace, but it also makes them happy. And, it is very very hard to be both happy and afraid at the same time.
So, what do you do when a big dog appears out of nowhere, and you have no room to move away? This is where you need to give your dog mental distance from the situation. Take a fistful of treats (yes, an actual fistful, this is no time to skimp!), and put your hand right at your dog’s nose! (Your hand needs to be touching his nose, not 6 inches in front of it.) This should get your dog’s attention and now you pick up the pace and move as quickly as possible away from the situation, all the while keeping the treats right at your dog’s nose. When you get a reasonable distance from the distraction, give your dog 3-4 of the treats in your hand, tell him he’s good boy, and resume your walk.
If you really cannot move your dog away from the problem, try to position yourself in front of your dog, blocking (or at least partially blocking) his view of the dog. Stay calm and keep the treats close to his head, feeding him one at a time as the other dog moves away. As soon as you can add physical distance, do so, treating him as needed to keep his focus on you.
Keep in mind that it is far better to get your dog away from a situation that will cause him anxiety, fear, or to overreact, than it is to try and force him to deal with his fears in an unexpected and distressing situation. By adding physical distance before he reacts, or using food to lure him or encourage him to focus on you and forgetting the scary thing over there, you will be teaching him skills that will make his life (and yours) easier.
If, however, your dog is consistently overreactive to a particular thing, such as other dogs or people, or he seems to be getting worse, then consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs. Using a controlled setting that allows him to learn, without being overwhelmed by his anxieties will help Fido get over his fears, as well as boost his confidence. When your dog can negotiate difficulties without fear, stress, or anxiety, then he will see that the world is a happy and safe place to be.
*In pretty much every podcast Colleen Pelar and I discuss stress signals in dogs, so it is hard to make a specific recommendation for which one to listen to. Thus, I heartily recommend that you start at the beginning, listen to every one, subscribe, and write a wonderful review on iTunes. But, that’s just a suggestion…
**If your dog will not take any treats, then you are probably too close to the thing which scares him and you need to add some more distance.
And, alternatively, if your dog is toy rather than food motivated, have a tug toy or squeaky toy in your pocket to use as a distraction when the scary thing comes by. There’s nothing like a good game of tug to keep your mind off that which scares you.
Christmas is coming and you want to give your best buddy a special gift and make his Christmas fun and stress free. Over the years I have written and podcasted about great products as well as simple ways of helping your pet have the best Christmas holiday ever.
First, here are somethings you can do to make sure your dog’s holidays are as stress free as possible.
Making Happy Dogs Happier (Low cost ways to improve your dog’s life.)
Helping Your Dog on Halloween Night (Yes, Halloween is long gone, but in this episode we discuss how to tell if your dog is enjoying, tolerating, or trying to end an interaction, and strategies for making holidays more enjoyable for your dog.)
And secondly, here are some things that might brighten up your dog’s life:
It’s been a great year for A Positive Connection as well as Your Family Dog and I am looking forward to continuing to serve you and your dogs next year. Have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
So this week I decided that I’d seen some great animal videos lately and wanted to share them. Since it’s October, I’m starting with the cats in the pumpkin hats:
Let me say that not only do these cats and their earnestness delight me, but the training here is all positive reinforcement. There is no way you could shock or choke an animal into this, nor would the animal be willing to try another bell or ring it multiple times if the consequence for trying something would hurt.
I love this next one because it is just a dog being a dog, and how wonderful is that?
And for the winner in Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun category:
This Bernese Mountain Dog is so wonderfully patient and really shows off the gentle nature of this breed:
I love invertebrates, and I am a sucker (pun intended) for Octupuses. Here’s a lovely summary of how amazing (and intelligent) they are (tool using, planning, walking wonders):
And last, here is one of my favorite videos of Homo sapiens doing one of the things they do best, dance!
I hope you enjoy these, let me know some of your favorites!
Pinch or prong collars, choke chains, and shock collars are not tools that I use or advocate to train your dog.* But, what about electronic fences to keep your dog in the yard? Aren’t those humane, easy to use, and give your dog the freedom he desires to romp and play safely in the yard? Maybe, maybe not…
Let me say at the onset that I do understand why owners put in electronic containment systems. They are less expensive than regular fencing, promise to keep your dog in the yard and safe, and some neighborhoods will not allow regular fencing. If you live on a busy road, you may feel an even stronger need to keep your dog in the yard. I get it. But, the problem with electric fences is that there are unintended consequences that can affect the health and well being of your best friend.
Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer and author. She has a blog called eileenanddogs, where she has written extensively about electronic collars and fences, including this one: Electronic Pet Fences: What you need to know. In this particular blog, she details some of the risks and consequences owners should be aware of when considering this form of containment.**
The first thing she discusses is the “warm and fuzzy language” that manufacturers tend to use to describe the system and how it works. She quotes this from one of the manuals:
[The] wireless fence pet containment system is a revolutionary concept that provides the safest, simplest form of pet containment ever. Plug in the transmitter somewhere inconspicuous in your home. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal around your home. Your pet wears a lightweight receiver collar that “listens” for the signal. While the collar is receiving the signal your dog is free to run and play in your yard. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return he receives a static correction which is startling but not harmful. With a little simple training your dog will quickly learn his boundaries.
Hey, you might say, this sounds great and how harmful can a small “static” correction be? Well, here is the same passage without the euphemisms and “using complete descriptions of the processes involved” :
[The] electronic fence system uses a shock collar connected to a radio transmitter with the goal of keeping your dog inside a chosen area. Electric shock has been used in laboratory experiments for decades for behavioral studies to put animals in a state of stress or fear and is also linked to increased aggression. Plug in the transmitter in your house. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal. Your pet wears a shock collar that will be triggered by a change in the signal. The collar must be fastened tightly on the dog’s neck so that the probes will poke through the dog’s fur and press firmly into his skin. Even when not generating a shock, the collar is likely to be quite uncomfortable. While the collar is receiving the standard signal your dog is safe from shock. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return, or goes through the boundary, he receives a shock to his neck that can range from a tingle to very painful, depending on the setting you choose.
That is not quite as innocuous as the manufacturer wants you to believe. Moreover, it is important to understand exactly what a shock is and how it is likely perceived by your dog. Shocks are sudden, painful, likely scary, and probably unlike anything your dog has ever experienced. They have been the industry standard in psychology studies as the means to produce fear and pain in an animal and put it under stress. The shocks received from an electronic fence collar may also be a factor in increasing aggression in dogs. (See: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? by Richard Polsky.) In the conclusion to this article in which he looks closely at 5 individual cases of aggression towards humans from dogs being contained by electronic systems, Mr. Polsky states:
…manufacturers need to acknowledge the ricks involved and make consumers aware that the systems are not foolproof and that some dogs could attack a person as a result of receiving electric shock.
Even if your dog does not become aggressive towards people, there is no guarantee that your dog is learning what you think he is! He may be learning that the shock is associated, not with the boundary of the yard, but with whatever was holding his attention when he was shocked. For example, if your dog was trying to greet another dog when he received a shock, he might well associate the presence of dogs with shocks. As a result Fido is now leary of dogs, barks more when they approach, and/or becomes fearful or aggressive towards them as they now signify pain and discomfort. Or alternatively, if you have multiple dogs on the system, they might associate their yard mate with the shock and become aggressive towards one another. Or your children, the mailman, UPS person, meter reader, etc., may be the object of your dog’s aversion if he has paired their presence with pain and distress.
Another concern is that the system may keep your dog on your property, but it does nothing to protect your dog from anything coming into the yard, including other dogs, kids, balls, or coyotes. As Ms. Anderson states, “The electronic fence offers your dog zero protection over being teased, harassed, or stolen by humans, attacked by other animals, or ingesting or interacting with anything inappropriate that someone tosses into your yard.”
Once more, what happens if a distraction (think squirrel) is so great that your dog blasts through the electronic fence? It is unlikely that he will go back through the fence, or that he will sit quietly by the side of it, waiting patiently for your return. What if he panics and keeps running? What if someone wants to help and tries to drag your dog back through the shock? Your dog has no way to come home and may well protest being exposed to another shock. What if your dog is hit by a car when he bolts or panics?
Ms. Anderson describes other equally disquieting, but not uncommon, scenarios associated with electronic fences, such as malfunctioning collars, your liability, and will your dog really have the freedom of movement as promised, or will he be too afraid of being shocked to even move around the yard? Her article is well worth a read, especially if you are considering this sort of containment system. Be aware not only of the promises, but the risks and unintended consequences of using force and pain to keep your dog “safely” at home.
*See: Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars Can Irreversibly Damage Your Dog, by Dr. Peter Tobias, DVM
**Other articles detailing the problems with shock collars and electronic containment systems:
The Problem with Shock, by Angelica Skeinker, Dog Sport Magazine
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, Green Acres Kennel
Electronic training collars present welfare risk to pet dogs, University of Lincoln, Science Daily
Here is my blog on the effects of trauma and punishment on your dog: Trauma, trust, and your dog.
And on a more positive note: Here is an article about boundary training that may be of interest to those who do not want to use an electronic system but need to keep the dog in the yard: How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard.
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.
This year has been a challenge for me and my family as we lost 2 dogs to cancer and one dog to a seizure disorder. I wasn’t sure my heart could take any more sorrow and I was a bit hesitant to risk it on another dog, as Bingley was my canine soulmate. But, if I have learned anything, it’s that loving a dog with everything you have makes it nearly impossible to live without one, and it is that love of a great dog which propels you forward into another canine experiment.
So meet Zuzu, my newest pooch. She, like Bingley, is a flat-coated retriever, and true to her breed, is one of the happiest dogs on the planet. At 16 months she is a teenager who is unlikely to grow out of her teenage enthusiasm anytime soon. Channeling her inexhaustible energy into constructive activities and teaching her to focus on the task at hand are my immediate goals for her. To do this, I have decided to enlist the aid of a book I recently discovered: Fun & Games for a Smarter Dog, 50 Great Brain Games to Engage your Dog, by Sophie Collins.
This book is great on so many levels beginning with the introduction and a part on playing safely with your dog which includes a very important section on playing with children.* Take the time to read the section on play and training before you plunge into the individual games, as it will set you up to better use the games to your particular dog’s advantage and is a wonderful reminder that training and play can happily overlap. After all, “there’s no reason you can’t teach your dog by playing with him.” She also has sections on dog personalities, toys, and clicker training.** And, be sure to read the “About You, What You Need To Do” as it reminds us that we can be part of the problem when our dogs are not “getting it.” Subsequent chapters divide the games into categories: Basic Games, Bonding Games, Brain Games, Fitness Games, Figuring it out, and Getting Along.
She starts with the basics of Sit, Down, Wait, and Let’s Go (which you have likely taught your dog already, but perhaps used different names for these behaviors). She makes the point that, “It is better to make sure that your pet stays responsible and reacts promptly to key commands instead of moving on to other exercises at the expense of the basics.” So, she goes over these core behaviors in detail so that you can be sure that you are clearly communicating to your dog, and he clearly understands what is expected of him. This section is a good place to begin as it really does help you to pay attention to your words and your body language so you can more effectively communicate with your dog. Moreover, the rest of the games will be easier for you and your dog if you have figured out how to work with one another.
As you work through the various exercises in the book (and you can easily pick and choose those that are most appealing to you and your dog) she continues to provide clear instructions as well as explaining what he is learning and why this behavior is useful. Almost every game has a note that will enhance the learning experience or give you an extra challenge. When playing Hide-and-Seek with your dog she suggests that you, “Try hiding at different levels: going up a level, for example, perching on a bunk bed because dogs don’t automatically look above eye level when they’re searching for something but instead rely on their noses.”
In addition to Clicker Training, she also has sections explaining positive reinforcement training and the Dominance myth. Her easy to read and understand instructions, coupled with her explanations of the science of learning and play, will broaden and enhance your understanding of how dogs think and learn. But mostly, this wonderfully accessible book will convince you that playing with your dog is a great way to live, learn, and love together for a lifetime.
Above: Zuzu and I practice some fetch, sit, and give, 3 days after picking her up. Playing games is a great way to establish a strong bond with your new dog.
*Having kids play with dogs is great, but should never be done without the direct supervision of an adult. Colleen Pelar and I talk about Simple Games for Kids and Dogs in our podcast airing 12/20/16, and see my other blogs on kids and dogs: Forced Friendship and And Baby Makes Four.
** See also our podcast, Why Be Positive?