Behavior or “What the heck?”
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
When 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 that. 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 http://apdt.com/petowners/ts/)
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, freakonomics.com, “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)
Earlier this year (Sept. 23rd to be precise: http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1756) I published “Fido’s Guide to a Stress-free Holiday, early edition!” hoping to motivate people to start preparing sooner rather than later for the Holiday season. Now I have no way of knowing if anyone, or everyone took this advice, but I have to assume that some took it, and some did not. So, I decided that perhaps reiterating some of the advice (and adding in some new items, yay!) might be handy for those of you who perhaps had good intentions, but somewhat less than perfect execution.
1) When it is dinner time for people, prevent canine catastrophes at the table by feeding your dogs stuffed Kongs. Kongs come in a variety of sizes and are readily available at most pet stores. Recipes for stuffing a Kong can be found at: http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/. And, be sure to check out my September 2nd blog, “Whoever said breakfast had to come in a bowl?” (http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1687) for more recommendations on intelligence toys you can use instead of Kongs.
2) Give Fido a happy place. I insist that each of my dogs have a place in the house that is his “Do Not Disturb” zone. Give your buddy a comfy place to curl up, a special treat to chew on, and perhaps some lavender oil on its blanket, in a quiet place in the house. If you need Fido to leave Nirvana, call him to you, and offer a tasty treat for his co-operation. Don’t drag Fido out of his comfort zone as it might lose its specialness and he will no longer have that safe place to re-group. If Fido seems too excited or restless during the festivities, consider giving him that tasty Kong in his special spot or crate as a way to decompress and get himself re-oriented and ready to join the fun.
3) Careful of small toys! Your dog may decide that the replica of the Starship Enterprise, or Diagon Alley in Legos are chew toys. If your dog does swallow plastic do not immediately induce vomiting as sharp edges on chewed plastic can cause serious problems on the way back up. They can also cause gastrointestinal blockages, which can become quite serious quite quickly. (We lost a beloved dog to a blockage due to eating chicken bones he heisted from the trash. In 24 hours he was gone.) Please call the Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435, and be prepared for an emergency vet visit.
4) Rich foods can cause tummy problems! I have posted a lot about toxic materials during the holidays (See Sept 23 http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1756 and Dec. http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2079), but many things that aren’t toxic, should be monitored so Fido does not get an upset tummy or diarrhea. Christmas Cookies, eggnog, candy canes, holiday breads, candy, turkey skins, or anything that he does not normally eat and is high in fat and/or calories can cause tummy upsets. I had a Shih Tzu once who LOVED chocolate. My sister-in-law failed to tell me one of the presents she sent was a two pound bag of M&M’s. Bilbo found it under the tree, ate the entire thing, and promptly threw up all of it on my white rug on Christmas Eve. Luckily he did not poison himself, and my neighbor loaned me her steam-vac, so it all ended well enough, but I certainly don’t wish that on any of you!
What I do wish is that you and your pets have a wonderful, safe Christmas and a very Happy New Year. I also hope that you all know how very grateful we at A Positive Connection for all of you and your delightful dogs. We look forward to serving you in 2014.
Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services is located in Pennsylvania and is headed up by Illana Reisner, a board certified Veterinary Animal Behaviorist. There are only 50 (or so) of this highly trained professionals in the nation and we are lucky to have one of them Dr. Meghan Herron at OSU. Dr. Herron studied under Illana Reisner for her post-graduate work. Dr. Reisner also spoke at the Midwestern Veterinary Conference in 2012 and her knowledge, compassion, and dedication to the health and well being of dogs (and cats) is deep, broad, and inspiring. I highly recommend that if you are on Facebook and interested in animal welfare and behavior (and want some great tips for successfully managing your pets), like Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services and look for their Tuesday’a Pearl posts as well as their Saturday’s Pet Peeve. You will become a better owner! Here is a recent example:
Tuesday’s Pearl: If you don’t know your dog well – if he was recently rescued, for example — don’t push his limits with uncomfortable (to him) interactions. Many behavior clients call about recently rescued adult dogs showing unexpected aggression towards them, and are surprised because the dog behaved appropriately when they first met.This is usually because a stressed and unattached dog in a noisy environment will act differently from one who’s lived in your home for a few months. It may take the dog a while to settle into the social rhythms of his new home and relationships. For a newly adopted adult dog, kissing, hugging and snuggling (especially while they are lying down) is confusing at best, and certainly not automatically positive.In fact, the dog probably wonders why his owner isn’t getting the message to stop – after all, he is looking away, licking lips, yawning, even rolling on his back. When owners persist and rub that belly or hazard kissing it, the dog may bite – this is a common scenario with adult rescues who are bewildered by all of it. It is safest and least stressful for both dog and human to avoid “in-your-face” interactions with an adult rescue, and instead focus on walking, training and just hanging out near each other.
There are many other displacement or stress signals that your dog may be exhibiting. If you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, then contact a positive reinforcement trainer who can help you to better read your dog’s body language and to interact with him in a healthy and positive way.
Stranger Danger, or “I want my dog to be like Rin Tin Tin, and protect me!”
Imagine, if you would, a moment in your life that you were anxious, upset, fearful or just leary of what was happening around you. What did you do? Did you bite your lip, lick your lips, or press them together? Perhaps you avoided eye contact with the person who made you uncomfortable, clenched your jaw, wrinkled your brow, or stiffened as the moment became increasingly distressing. Maybe you backed up, turned away, or started sweating. All these are natural responses to stress, fear, anxiety and all of them have corresponding behaviors in our dogs.
When faced with the unknown or the uncomfortable, our dogs will tell us in no uncertain terms that they are stressed. We just need to recognize the signals, both subtle and un, that our dogs display. For example, the puppy at the upper left is telling me that he is uncertain about something. I know this because his mouth is closed, his head is turned away, and I can see the whites of his eyes. The labrador to the right, does not like the camera and tells me this by looking away with wide eyes, ears tucked, a closed mouth, and a veins on the side of his face are enlarged.
Another sign that your dog may be excited, stressed, or aroused (higher energy and awareness of his surroundings) is lip licking when no food is around, or yawning when he isn’t tired. (Left two pictures).
Interestingly, even as our dogs smile (as I mentioned last week) so do they also frown! Patricia McConnell, PhD, describes it in For the Love of A Dog,
When humans frown, we move the centers of our eyebrows down and toward each other. Dogs frown, too, and it’s another relatively easy signal to read once you learn to look for it. It’s clear that these are important signals in social communication – in both species the muscles above the eyes are accented, by hair (in our case) and coloration changes (in the case of most dogs).
In the case of Roxy (black dog to the right), this was one of the first times that her owners were away and she was getting to know me, as well as trying to figure out what I was doing! Her wrinkled brow tells me that she is not altogether certain that what I am doing, right then, is “okay”. (As an aside, I took her picture and then let her sniff my phone. A few treats also helped to assuage her!)
There are many signals that our dog use to communicate to us that they are uncomfortable, and I have illustrated just a few of the more common ones. Some others include stiffening, sweaty paw pads, and leaning back or backing away from something. (We humans do these things as well when nervous or leary, though we generally do not sweat through the bottoms of our feet!) You can begin to recognize the way your dog communicates his or her feelings by watching what they do, and what their bodies and faces look like when you know they are experiencing particular emotions such as excitement, uncertainty, or fear. Knowing how to read your dog’s body language will also help you to know when your dog is asking for your help to better manage the unexpected.
This picture is in response to the comment by Laura below and is Roxy (the dog immediately above) doing her round head look. In this instance she had not done anything wrong, but I think I might have shouted to one of the other dogs to come and she was right next to me when I raised my voice so the other dogs could hear me across the fenced-in area. She looks guilty (or pitiable) but I really think it was in response to me raising my voice, not anything she had done. It is, however, very cute and is sure to illicit a treat from me every time!
Dogs are experts at reading human body language. The question of the day is: do dogs’ facial expressions mean the same thing as ours? Do they smile when they are happy? Do they show concern, worry, or fear in the same way we do? Surprisingly, the answer to all of these is yes, with some considerations.
Patricia B. McConnell, PhD is a an adjunct associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. She is a dog trainer, author, and national speaker on dogs and dog behavior. In her book, For the Love of a Dog, Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, Dr. McConnell talks about smiling, “[r]etracting the corners of the mouth and raising them is what makes a smile a smile.” Smiles, unlike other facial expressions, are most common when we are with other people and facing them. That is to say, we direct smiles at others.
Dr. McConnell continues: “Paying attention to the corners of another’s mouth isn’t unique to our species…[D]ogs move the corners of their mouths too, and just as in humans, the direction of the movement tells you a lot about how the dog is feeling inside.” A dog will move its commissures (corners of the mouth) back and up in “something that looks to some like a human smile, and to others like an aggressive baring of the teeth. Smiling dogs raise their upper lips, usually so much that the skin over the top of their muzzle becomes wrinkled.” This exposes their shiny white teeth and can be alarming if you don’t take into consideration the overall demeanor of the dog. If a “smiling” dog approaches me with a thumping tail, wiggley body, goofy demeanor, and squinty eyes, then I am pretty confident that this dog harbors no ill will towards me, despite the fact that I can see his pearly whites. On the other hand, a smiley dog with a rigid body, cold or hard eyes, a forward lean to his stance, and a tail raised high and barely moving will cause me to pause and carefully assess the situation before I move closer or attempt to make physical contact with the dog.
We don’t know exactly what emotion a “smiling” dog is expressing, but it doesn’t seem to be associated with anger or fear-related aggression. One good guess, my favorite at the moment, is that it’s an expression of a dog in an ambivalent state, with the primary emotion being one of submission or docility. I think of it as the kind of goofy, nervous grin you’d see on the face of a shy adolescent guy when he picks up his date for the first time.
Next week: Worried and fearful dogs and how similar their expressions are to ours!
Do you want this year’s Holidays to be more fun than stressful for you and your favorite canine?
- 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.
- Give Fido a happy place. I insist that each of my dogs have a place in the house that is his “Do Not Disturb” zone. Give your buddy a comfy place to curl up, a special treat to chew on, and perhaps some lavender oil on its blanket, in a quiet place in the house. If you need Fido to leave Nirvana, call him to you, and offer a tasty treat for his co-operation. Don’t drag Fido out of his comfort zone as it might lose its specialness and he will no longer have that safe place to re-group. Call me if you need help or other suggestions on setting up Fido’s happy place. 740-587-0429
- When it is dinner time for people, prevent canine catastrophes at the table by feeding your dogs stuffed Kongs in their happy places. Kongs come in a variety of sizes and are readily available at most pet stores. Recipes for stuffing a Kong can be found at: http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/. Or, give me a call! I have a recipe book as well as lots of tasty Kong ideas! 740-587-0429. (And, be sure to check out my September 2nd blog, “Whoever said breakfast had to come in a bowl?” for more recommendations on intelligence toys.)
- Certain foods can cause serious problems in dogs, and if injested can require immediate veterinary care. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center number is: 888-426-4435 (Note: there is a charge for their services). Some of the foods you need to keep away from your dog:
- Xylitol: an artificial sweetener, 5 sticks of sugar free gum can sicken a 44 lb dog
- Grapes and raisins: can cause kidney failure, even in small amounts
- Macadamia nuts: can cause paralysis
- Chocolate, coffee, and caffeine (dark chocolate more toxic than milk chocolate)
- Cooked bones: can perforate the esophagus, stomach, or intestines, or cause impactions.
- Safe only in small amounts: nutmeg, sage, onions and garlic.
When my dog Mr. Bingley was about 6 months old we walked past a neighbor’s house where a cement pig resides in the front yard. We’d passed this house many times, but for some reason, on this particular day, Bingley noticed the pig and froze, staring at it and puffing up like a bottle brush. He didn’t know what to make of this strange and apparently dangerous object! To help Bingley overcome his seemingly irrational fear of concrete porkers, I kept his leash loose and gave him a treat as he looked at the pig. I stepped toward the pig and waited, offering him another tasty morsel if he took a step closer. He did. I repeated this procedure until he was able to sniff the offending swine and easily take a treat from the top of its head. This whole procedure took less than 10 minutes and from that day on Bingley has ignored the cement beast. Because he was able to approach and explore the object at his pace and he got rewarded for doing so, Bingley learned that there was nothing to fear.
In working with dogs, cats, and horses, I have noticed that they are most comfortable with new things when given the opportunity to explore novel items at their own pace. Temple Grandin describes this phenomenon nicely in her book Animals Make Us Human, “[N]ovelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. They don’t want new things shoved into their faces, and people don’t either.” Bingley and his encounter with the cement pig, is a classic example of this.
If you need to introduce your cat, goat, dog, guinea pig, horse, or bird to something novel, especially something that is going to be in the animal’s life for awhile, remember that forced novelty is frightening. Give your pet the time and space it needs to explore the item, reward it for its efforts to engage the object and you will likely have a happy and non-traumatic encounter.
Alarm barking, lunging, putting “hackles” up in response to people or animals. This is another indication of fear that could mean serious problems as an adult dog if not addressed while the dog is young.
Reluctance to “sit” or “down” during training. Pain, especially in the hips or elbows, can cause non-compliance to basic commands. Have the puppy examined to determine if there is an organic cause to his non-compliance. Anxiety is another cause of dogs not “obeying” commands (and is often labeled as stubbornness), and needs to be addressed appropriately.