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Exuberant play or keeping you at bay?

IMG_0782Recently, I had a client email me this question:

How do I handle Ralphie “biting” our hands when we pet him? If I pull my hand away isn’t that what he wants? But if I keep petting him, then am I encouraging that behavior also?

In order to provide the best solution to this concern, I needed to gather some more information:

When you go to pet him, is he soliciting attention from you or are you approaching him? Does he back away, move his head away from your hand or otherwise try to avoid contact with you when you reach over to pet him? How he reacts to your approach and petting will determine what I suggest you do.

IMG_0653   Many puppies, for instance, become mouthy with their owners when playing and may bite as part of the IMG_0651play. These dogs are learning what is and is not appropriate use of their mouths with people when they get excited. In this case, since the dog is not trying to avoid the person’s touch, but is exuberantly playing. I recommend that as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with skin in what is considered to be inappropriate or excessive, then all attention to the dog stops. Stand up, turn your back on the dog and even exit the room for 5-10 seconds so that the dog learns that when he gets too rough, he loses his people. Adding a high-pitched yelp when the teeth hit the skin can tell the dog, “Ouch, dude! That hurt!” much like the puppy’s littermates would do if things got out of hand (Puppies will yelp and stop playing with the miscreant sibling, who generally will stop what he is doing and will come back to play more gently).
     If, however, Ralphie is actively trying to avoid his person’s hand, and Mom keeps coming at him, he is likely feeling panicky and needs to clarify that he does not want to be petted. If she continues to pet Ralphie when he (at least in his view) has warned her how uncomfortable this is for him, then she might be encouraging him to escalate the biting so that it is abundantly clear that he does not want anyone to pet him. Instead of continuing her frontal approach, I recommend that she turn her profile towards Ralphie, move her hand down to her side, be quiet, and don’t look at him directly. When Ralphie feels less threatened, he may decide to approach her. If he does, she should allow him to make the first move to sniff her hand, and she should not move it up and over his head. This will likely scare him as dogs see a frontal approach as rude and/or threatening.
     I would also recommend counter conditioning to help Ralphie understand that his person’s approach and petting is a good, enjoyable thing to have happen. This entails pairing food with petting (and using something really wonderful, such as chicken) to help Ralphie change his emotional response from one of fear/dislike to anticipation and comfort. Because you do not want to overwhelm Ralphie in the process, counter-conditioning is best done with the help of an experienced trainer or behaviorist who can guide you successfully through the technique.
     Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that behavior is seldom simple and is always a combination of emotion, genetics, and learned responses. Therefore, the solution to any dog’s biting depends on the nature of the biting, why he is doing it, and is never made better by using force. Bullying causes fear in people, it does the same in dogs. Dominating, alpha rolling, or other forms of physical punishment will only serve to exacerbate the problem (See: for more information on what happens with punishment based training methods). I recommend that if your dog has a mouthing issue, find yourself a positive reinforcement trainer with experience in counter-conditioning who can advise you on the best course of action.

71C_dog_park not vet-01

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy0 comments

Updates and other things of utmost importance…

Bingley contemplates tick removal devices.

Bingley contemplates tick removal devices.

I promised in my May 19th post Fleas, ticks, and pests, oh my!  that as soon as I had the opportunity to use my new flea removal instruments I would let you all know how they worked. Well yesterday I had the opportunity to remove a large tick from the base of Bingley’s tail using the Tick Lasso, and it worked just as promised! It was easy, painless for Bingley, quick, and removed the entire tick (head and all). I heartily recommend it! Since he only had one tick, I was not able to use the tick Key, but I will let you know how that goes when the time comes.

On other fronts, Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services (if you haven’t “liked” them on Facebook, take a minute, click on the link above, and do so now!) posted this Tuesday’s Pearl:

Tuesday’s Pearl: Socialization is often pushed too hard onto worried dogs.

If you live with a worried dog, taking her to public places to ‘socialize’ her is not necessarily a positive experience – for either of you. This is most often a problem with newly adopted young adult dogs whose backgrounds are unknown, but applies to anxious puppies as well.

The post goes onto list several drawbacks to socializing timid dogs without giving due diligence to their special needs. Here is a summary of those drawbacks: (check out the complete post here)

Quiet dogs need time and space to get use to new things.

Quiet dogs need time and space to get use to new things.

1. Anytime the social or physical environment is unpredictable, you’re taking a risk that your dog will be startled or frightened…

2. As an extension of #1, it’s not possible to control what other people do in public spaces. Those unfamiliar people may come too close, too quickly or touch and interact with your dog inappropriately…

3. An anxious dog needs to move towards confidence at her own pace… (check out my blog about forced novelty: Beware of Cement Pigs)

4. A worried dog is always at risk of biting the person/animal who worries them – and those triggers of fear-related aggression can be very subtle. Don’t set your dog up for failure by forcing interactions…(check out my blog: Stand Back Earthing! for more suggestions on helping your shy dog).

In other words, don’t force your sensitive dog to be a social butterfly and put him into a situation that will overwhelm, rather than encourage him. Rather, accommodating your dog’s limits will do more to build his confidence, then will forcing an uncomfortable or scary (for him) encounter upon your dog.

One last thought: remember that all obedience training is about impulse control!  We are striving to help our puppies learn that calm, controlled behavior is the best choice they can make. So, if you want Sit! to be your dog’s go-to behavior when he doesn’t know what else to do,  practice it in a variety of places, times, situations, and with diverse distractions so that controlling his impulse to surge ahead or jump on guests is second nature.


SIt is good!

SIt is good!

Behavior or "What the heck?" Dog products, training aids, recipes, instructions, etc. General Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy0 comments

Beauty is only fur deep.

30_dog_heartsAstute reader Laura Sommers recently sent this link to me about an app that will search “for adoptable pets that look just like your old ones.” Petmatch, as the app is called, uses modern technology to help you create a search image of the perfect pet as well as locate one close to you. While in theory I have no problem with this (Who doesn’t want an adorable pet?), there are much more important factors to consider when adopting a dog.!Sku2P

A few years back a client asked me to evaluate a litter of puppies as he was interested in adopting one for his children. My daughter Emma and I, always delighted to play with puppies, readily agreed, and off we went. There were 2 puppies available from the litter, a boy and a girl. The boy was adorable with lovely tawny-brown, soft, curly hair, and a sweet face. The girl was more of a dirty grey, her coat an interesting mix of curls and tuffs, and her face was a bit longer, not as uniform in color, and her ears were not as perky. She was cute, he was adorable. But, upon evaluation, Emma and I fell hard for the little girl because she had all the characteristics we look for in puppy, especially one destined for a household of children. She sought out the children, curled up in their laps and gently licked their hands. When presented with a stuffed toy, she ran over to one of the children to solicit a game of fetch and tug. When petted, she curled in for more, did not mind when I lifted her lips or hugged her. In fact, when I hugged her she quickly settled into being with me and when I set her down, she leaned into my legs.

The male was was a nice little dog, but lacked the social drive that I like to see from a family dog. He was far more interested in the environment (though this was his house and not a new environment), did not stick around to be petted, was not interested in engaging with the people (i.e.: he did not seek out attention from anyone in the room, but did not object if someone petted him), he resisted being hugged and immediately walked away from me when I set him down. When offered a toy, he ran into another room and was not interested in playing with me or the kids.

The female was everything we would have wanted for this family and we were sorely tempted to bring her home ourselves! The client, however, loved the look of the male, and as much as we tried to encourage him to take the female, he decided to pass on both dogs. He understood that the male was not temperamentally suitable for his family, but could not get pass the scruffy look of the female. (Nota bena: He did take to heart what we told him to look for in a dog and ended up getting a very nice little dog a few weeks later.)

Petmatch and the story of my client illustrate a very common scenario:  people choose their pets based on looks, not temperament. 24_dog_zombie run awayAnd that’s fine, until the “most adorable” bichon/lab/jack russell/poodle/collie/cocker/newfoundland shows unsociable behavior such as growling, barking, or snapping at children, other dogs, or grandma. I am fully aware that many cute dogs are temperamentally fine, but many wonderful “ugly” dogs get passed over because they aren’t the right color, or their nose is too long, or “I wanted perky ears.” When looking for a dog, I ask clients to bear in mind that even the ugliest dog will become beautiful in your eyes when you see how gently it interacts with your children, licks away their tears, and sighs contently at their feet. My mantra: Temperament trumps looks every time. Every, single, time.

The article on Petmatch ends with, “there’s more to the relationship between humans and pets than appearance; maybe the next step is an app that intuitively pairs us based on personality and habits.” I couldn’t agree more. So, when you go looking for your next best friend, remember that beauty is only fur deep. And hopefully, you will find the perfect companion, even if he is a bit scruffy around the edges.

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Behavior or "What the heck?" General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?"3 comments

Puppy Wiggle

Bingley as a puppy wiggles his way into a twister game.

Bingley as a puppy wiggles his way into a twister game.

Last December we hosted a “Client Appreciation Open House” and one of our owners arrived with Sparky, an adorable new puppy, who wiggled profusely and curled in on himself so much that he looked like a donut! Emma and I were enchanted and delighted by this squirming bundle and gushed that Sparky had the perfect “puppy wiggle.” The owner asked me what I meant by puppy wiggle and why do I want to see it in young dogs? Perhaps more than anything else, it is a squirmy looseness to a dog’s movements and a softness in its approach and interaction with people that shows me that this is a dog with a high (and appropriate) social drive to people. Dogs with straight spines, stiffness to their movements, or hard interactions with people cause me to pause as their body language is not saying, “Come thither,” but rather “Stay where you are and no one gets hurt.”

Cashewing Flatties greet Emma.

Cashewing Flatties greet Emma.

So, when meeting a new dog, or assessing him for social drive I will count the number of friendly interactions that I have with the dog in the first minute of meeting him. A friendly interaction is when the dog approaches and engages with me for 2 or more seconds, in a soft way such as sitting to be petted; leaning, wiggling or curling into me (looks like a cashew nut, curled in on himself); or if he jumps, it is with a soft look and he will stay there to lick or nuzzle me. If his tail is wagging it incorporates his entire being and may be rotating like a helicopter blade (which I love to see). This sort of gentle interaction shows me that he is truly friendly, not just aroused or excited.
This puppy was stiff, had hard eye contact, and no wiggle.

This puppy was stiff, had hard eye contact, and no wiggle.

On the contrary, a dog who is more interested in the environment (especially if the dog is in his home environment which is not new) than meeting people, who stands stiffly (may or may not have a wagging tail, but if wagging, the tail is not helicoptering), will not make eye contact or gives hard eye contact, and/or moves away from me, rather than into me, when I pet it, is not a dog with a high social drive to people. One thing that really makes me suspicious of a dog is when it does the “pounce off”. This is where an aroused dog  rushes up to you, jumps up, and uses its two front paws to literally bounce off of you. This interaction takes a second or less and is not friendly, but a sign of arousal (high energy for whatever reason). It reminds me of charging in basketball. I imaging the player who is bowled over by his opponent feels much the same way I do when a dog ricochets off me.

I find a common mistake is confusing excitement or arousal with friendliness. Think of it this way, if someone is loud, boisterous, looks all around the room but not at you even when talking to you, moves quickly to greet everyone, but never stays to talk with anyone, and seems more interested in the surroundings than the people, then you might be amazed at his energy, but you are not likely to think of him as a particularly friendly or engaged person. Dogs who pounce off, move away from petting, and puppies who do not wiggle at the sight of humans, are indicating to me me that they may be energetic, but they most likely do not have a high social drive to people.
The most important thing I look for in a puppy is his social drive to people as it is the single best indicator of the potential for a successful future with his new family. If you are meeting a puppy for the first time, either as a prospective adopter, or as a friend, pay close attention to this body language as it will let you know if he wants to meet you as much as you want to meet him.

Behavior or "What the heck?" General Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy2 comments

Spontaneous Recovery, or “What the heck? I thought we were over this!”

Sometimes when owners decide to fix bad behaviors, the behaviors seems to take a while to disappear, or the bad behaviors still keep cropping up. In fact, sometimes owners get frustrated because at first the behavior may even get worse. – Dr. Sophia Yin, How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves

43_dog_it was an alienWhen a bad behavior gets worse rather than better while an owner is trying to correct it, the owner may feel that positive reinforcement training is not working, and it’s now time to “get serious” about training. But, generally, I have found that what is really needed is a better understanding of behavior. We all try harder to get what we want when what use to work isn’t working any more. For example, when you put your $2.00 into a pop machine and press the button for the cold drink of your choice, you expect the machine to burp and grind and shove an overpriced sugary drink at you within seconds of inhaling your hard earned cash. If, after pushing the button, the machine does not perform correctly, you do not shrug your shoulders and say “Oh well, I didn’t need it anyway,” and walk away. No, if you are like 100% of the population, you will push the button again. When that doesn’t work, you push it again, harder, and maybe call the machine names it doesn’t understand. You might even hit the button, shove the machine, stick your hand up it’s throat, etc.* In other words, you try the same behavior repeatedly, or more intensely, because in the past it has worked and it ought to work this time!

Similarly, if you are trying to correct a bad behavior in your dog, such as barking at you at 4:49 am because it just might be breakfast time, you need to understand that when you ignore this behavior in your dog, he will try harder (ie: bark more or louder) to get what he wants because the behavior worked in the past. “How hard he tries depends on how much he’s had to bark to get his way in the past.” (Dr. Yin). Understandably, many people give into the dog at the peak of his bad behavior, just to get him to stop. Unfortunately, having rewarded the bad behavior at its worst, they have now succeeded  in making the behavior stronger and more obnoxious. What is actually needed here is to stay the course. Do not reward him for the undesired behavior by reacting to it. Instead, wait for the desired behavior and reward Kitchen Buckleythat. Thus, in the case of the early rising Bernese Mountain Dog, what I did was ignore his huffing and puffing until he was quiet for about 10 seconds, then I invited him onto the bed. He snuggled in and slept until I got up at 6:00.

Another misunderstanding that owners sometimes have is the idea that when a dog learns an incompatible behavior (such as sitting to be petted rather than jumping on guests) the bad behavior (jumping) is somehow eradicated from memory. The reality is: behaviors are not un-learned. Moreover, given a strong enough motivation, or if the new behavior is not reinforced adequately, the undesired behavior will rear its ugly head. As Dr. Yin puts it,

information is never erased from an animal’s brain. Instead it lurks there, and when inexperienced trainers least expect it, the behavior bursts out…If the desirable behaviors are reinforced frequently in a short period of time and the undesirable behaviors are not reinforced at all, then the new behavior may become a habit. But if training is inconsistent and the dog’s motivation for the undesirable behavior is extremely high, then the training may need to be lifelong. (emphasis mine)

So, what’s an owner to do? First of all, remember that most of Fifi’s bad habits are annoyances, not truly dangerous or destructive behaviors, so keeping  your sense of humor and perspective will aid you in staying the course and getting through the extinction burst and the spontaneous recovery of a bad behavior. (Nota bena: If your dog’s behaviors are dangerous or destructive, talk to a positive reinforcement trainer for help on how to handle these problems. To find a trainer in your area, go to

2) Work to consistently prevent reinforcement of the undesired behavior in order to extinguish it, and

3) Reward the desired behavior in a way that is meaningful to your dog. For example, our early rising Berner is motivated by snuggling with us and by food. So, when he barks to get up on the bed, I do not let him on the bed, but when he is quiet, then he is invited. Thus, the next time he wants up at 4:49, I expect the huffing and puffing to be shorter in duration, and the quiet to come sooner and longer. Now, he will have to be quiet for 15 seconds before being allowed on the bed. My goal is to get his signal down to one little “woof”. With that he can join us. Mr. Bingley my flat-coated retriever, on the other hand, is motivated by balls and I have used this motivation to successfully get him to sit, stay, lie down, or sit at side, instead of jumping or barking to get me to play with him. When he is very excited however, he may resort to jumping or barking. Nothing fun happens when he does that. Instead, I wait until he offers me a behavior such as sit. Then, when he does what Mom wants, he gets what he wants: to chase his beloved tennis ball.


*Interestingly, vending machines kill about 2-3 people per year. According to the website,, “how do people die from a vending machine? Vending machines are not known carcinogens. I imagine that the machine takes someone’s money and malfunctions. The customer then shakes it to free the snack, whereupon the machine tips over and crushes the hot-tempered purchaser.” (emphasis mine)

Behavior or "What the heck?" Blogs with book recommendations General Informational or Doggie Demographics4 comments