Your new dog or puppy
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:
This week Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services had a Facebook post about choosing a dog trainer, which links to an article in Companion Animal Psychology titled, How to Choose a Dog Trainer. It is a great article, clearly written, with good advice as to what to look for in a trainer, and what questions you should ask the trainer. Remember, this is your dog and you get to decide how it will be treated and to require that your trainer be committed to humane, dog-friendly training techniques.
When choosing a dog trainer, the most important thing is to find a trainer who uses reward-based dog training methods, which they might call positive reinforcement, force-free, or humane training methods.
You want to look for someone who uses a reward based method of training, meaning that the trainer uses rewards (primarily food) to make a behavior more likely to reoccur, and withholding a reward to lessen a behavior. For example, when your dog’s bottom hits the ground after you say “Sit,” reward with a tasty treat. If your dog jumps, turn your back on him (withholding the attention he seeks) and wait for his bottom to touch the ground. When it does, reward with affection and food!
In practice, the reward that works best is food. It is possible to use other types of reward, such as play, but food is more efficient because it’s faster to deliver; it’s better for most dog training scenarios (for example, if you’re teaching a dog to sit-stay, play will encourage your dog to jump out of the sit); and all dogs love food.
So in other words, you want a dog trainer who will use food to train your dog.
Many people fear that if they use food to train their dog, the dog will only listen when the food is present. A good trainer will also teach you how to: 1) use your dog’s food (so you are not always dependent on treats); 2) reduce the amount of food as training progresses and; 3) add in other rewards for desired behaviors.
The article goes on to talk about certification for trainers, professional memberships, and continuing education. Most professional organizations require continuing education, so check and see if the trainer you are considering pursues further education, and with whom!
There are certain names that are a very good sign. For example, if someone has attended training with the likes of Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Chirag Patel, Ken Ramirez, Ian Dunbar, or Bob Bailey, that’s very promising, because these are all important names in science-based dog training.
Check out the trainer’s website and Facebook page to get an idea of what they do when they train and the methods they employ. Do they blog or podcast? Looking at their writings or listening to them talk about dogs will give you a clearer idea of how they approach training. Also, look for customer reviews (not only on their websites, but other forums such as Angie’s list or Thumbtack), and ask for references. And, to really get a good idea of what training will look like with a particular trainer, ask the following three questions:
What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?
What, exactly, will happen to her if she gets it wrong?
Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
If you are uncomfortable with the answers to any of these questions, keep looking.
The article also discusses the advantage of group versus private lessons, what to do if there isn’t a trainer in your area, and who to call if your dog has a behavior problem. This comprehensive article is well worth reading and will help you to make the right decision concerning the training and well being of your dog. Remember, you are your dog’s best and only advocate, do not settle for less than the best for your best friend.
I have written about socialization and the need for your puppy to experience a wide range of people, places and things before the age of 16 weeks. While you need to be careful about exposing your young dog to the larger dog population (in order to prevent unnecessary exposure to disease), a good puppy class is a terrific place to start your pup on the road to being a well adjusted adult dog for the following reasons:
2) Puppy class gives owners the support and instruction they need for successful house training, supervision, and management of a young dog.
In my puppy classes we start with teaching the puppy to look to the owner for instructions. If your dog doesn’t look at you, it is pretty darn hard to get it to do anything else you want it to. So, focused attention is a biggie. We also learn: sit, down, touch (teaching the dog to touch her nose to your hand), exchanges, name game, and we begin building the foundations for come, loose lead walking, impulse control, and stay.
“There are lots of different places you can go to get a dog. Some are better than others and there are some you should never patronize.” (From: Pick a Winner, by Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, April 2009). In my last blog, I wrote about choosing an ethical breeder and many of the same qualities that I look for in a breeder apply to a shelter or rescue as well. They are:
1) Have a contract that clearly states the terms of your contract with them.
2) The shelter/rescue should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to them.
3) Make sure your pup has his appropriate shots before you pick him up.
4) They should ask for references from you, and it is fair for you to ask if you can talk to some of their past clients. If they can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss.
However, with shelters or rescues, there are other things to consider and to expect. Pat Miller sums it up:
In the good shelters, staff will have conducted behaviors assessments of the adoption dogs, which will provide you with useful information and help you determine if the dog might be a good match…A really good shelter will give you a thorough and human-friendly vetting before they’ll agree to adopt one of their dogs to you.
Unfortunately, there are many shelters which are not top-notch* and adopting from them may require “conducting your own impromptu assessment** and risking diseases such as kennel cough and parvo that lurk in the corners of substandard facilities.” (Miller, WDJ, April 2009) Be sure to ask if they have had any outbreak of parvovirus or kennel cough in the last 6 months to a year, and if they did, what did they do to prevent a reinfection.***
1) How quickly do they put their dogs up for adoption? It may seem like a great thing that a dog arrives in the morning and is on the floor for adoption by noon, but is that really the best way to insure that owners and dogs are correctly matched? I am of the opinion that dogs should be thoroughly vetted for health issues and behavioral problems and this takes time. I do not think it is inappropriate for a dog to be held for 3-7 days before being put on the adoption floor as this will help to insure that you get a healthy dog whose temperament is better aligned with your needs.
2) What information do they have about the dog? Some things to ask:
How long have they had the dog?
How did it come to be at that shelter/rescue?
Has it been adopted out before and returned? If yes, how many times was it adopted and why was it returned? If the dog has been adopted out and returned several times, find out as much information as you can. There are probably legitimate reasons that the dog was returned and you may need to ask some probing questions to get straight answers. In general, if a dog is returned several times to a shelter or rescue, there is probably a serious issue with the dog that is not being addressed.
Is there a bite history?
Does it like children? Other dogs? Cats?
The organization may not have answers to all of these questions and that is understandable, but they should be asked nevertheless because the staff may have the answers to them and not think about passing that information along until prompted to do so.
The May 2015 issue of Whole Dog Journal had an article, How to Prevent a Bad Adoption, also by Pat Miller (which is in their subscriber’s only section online). In it she discusses how bad adoptions can be traumatic for all involved and gives three examples of difficult adoptions and the problems the adopters faced. She then lists “five things you can do to maximize your chances of adopting a dog who will turn out to be all you want him to be.”
In order, they are:
1) Be willing to wait. Just because you go to the shelter or rescue, does not mean you have to adopt a dog that day. Resist any pressure from staff or volunteers to adopt a dog that doesn’t make your heart sing. You can keep coming back until you find the right dog.
2) Meet the dog before you adopt. Don’t adopt over the internet. You do not know the quality of the shelter or rescue who is offering him and moreover, no matter what the online story says, in reality you simply don’t know who you will be getting unless you meet him. If you absolutely have to have a dog from across the country, fly out and meet him. If you adore him, rent a car and drive back home together.
3) Let your head rule your heart. It is so easy to feel sorry for the scared dog hiding in the back of his kennel, and to think that you have to rescue him. Ask if you can take him to another room that is away from the noise of the kennel or outside where you can spend some quiet time one on one. “If he morphs into a friendly, happy, normal dog when you get him away from the kennels, then you’re on more solid ground; you probably have a reasonably normal dog who is on the sensitive side…Even so, keep in mind that he may also be fearful of other busy or chaotic environments.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015)
On the other hand, if he continues to be fearful away from the noisy environment, “he may be a pathologically fearful dog who will take tons of work and still may never be even close to normal.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015) Is this really the companion you are seeking? If not, walk away.
4) Ask for a behavior assessment. Behavior assessments or temperament tests cannot tell you everything about a dog, but they can give you more information than you gain by simply looking at the dog. If the dog has been in a foster home, ask for details on his behavior in her home. And, do your observations match what they are telling you? For example, if they say the dog is quiet and well-behaved, but he is overly excited, barking, lunging, and tearing around when you meet him, something is off.
5) Engage a professional to help you find a dog. If you are having a hard time finding the right dog, don’t hesitate to contact a dog trainer or behavior professional to see if they can help you find your new best friend. Be sure to let her know not only what you want in a dog, but what you don’t want, and what you can be flexible about. I have a client who unfortunately had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put a dog down due to aggression towards other dogs and children. They knew they wanted another dog and I told them I would help them locate one. It took 3 years and a lot of looking (and saying no) but at the end of June, I was able to steer them to a wonderful little dog who has made their family complete.
Adopting a dog should not be a traumatic experience. Take the time to do it right and you’ll significantly increase your chances for a successful adoption and the start of a 10-15 year love affair and adventure with your canine buddy.
*I do understand that there are many reasons why some shelters or rescues are not poster children for perfect adoptions. The purpose of this blog is not to discuss why that is, only to give you guidelines as to how to determine the quality of the shelter/rescue and what you can do to better insure a good adoption, from any organization.
**When it comes to evaluating the temperament of a given dog, the primary quality I want in any dog is a high social drive towards people. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. There are other things that I want to see in any candidate for adoption, and I discuss them in detail in my blog: Choosing Your New Best Friend. Also check out my webpage on temperament tests.
***Parvo is a particularly difficult virus to get rid of as it is ubiquitous and can last in an environment for several months. Cleaning the area with a bleach solution is the best and most effective means of killing parvo.
Buy a puppy from someone who brings her up in such a way that you wish every puppy could be raised that way.
- “The breeder does something with her dogs…Their dogs are seen and assessed by other experts, and there are thresholds – a working title or certificate, a conformation championship…that dogs achieve before being bred.” For example, the flat-coated retriever breeder where I got Bingley and Tex, does a variety of activities with her dogs. She shows some, hunts with others, and does agility with some more. And, her dogs all have titles of some kind.
- “The breeder has as many, or more, questions for you than you do for her.” When I first called about getting a puppy from Victory retrievers, we spent over an hour on the phone talking about dogs, why I wanted a flat-coat, what I intended to do with my dog, etc. Any breeder worth their weight in puppy chow has for a goal “that every puppy goes to a lifetime excellent home, not getting every puppy paid for and out the door the moment he is weaned.”
- “Ethical breeders work to support their dogs; their dogs do not support them.” In other words, this is not a money making affair. Ethical breeders spend a lot of money to raise good dogs and are most interested in producing the best examples of their chosen breed, not the greatest number of puppies. Therefore, expect to hear a lot about their adult dogs and their accomplishments as this will tell you the most about the quality of their puppies.
- And as Pat Miller says, “No responsible breeder on the earth sells puppies to pet stores. Not one.” Do not buy from a pet store as you will be getting a dog from an irresponsible breeder or a puppy mill, guaranteed.
And here is my list of things that I insist on in a breeder. If they won’t do these things, I walk away:
1. Have a contract with the breeder that clearly states the terms of your contract with them. The contract should respect and protect the welfare of you, the puppy, and the breeder. Is there a health guarantee? Does it include behavior issues as well as physical problems? For example, what happens if the puppy starts guarding food or toys within the first month you have it? Will the breeder take him back?
2. The breeder should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to the breeder. For example, my grand-dog Tex developed seizures and his owner decided that she could not keep him. The breeder took him back and kept him for 9 months to be sure his condition was stabilized. Before she gave him to me, we once again spent over an hour on the phone discussing him and deciding if Tex was a good choice for us. We ended up agreeing that Tex would be the perfect dog for my daughter and her new husband and arrangements were made to pick him up.
3. Ideally, do not pick up the dog before 8 weeks of age. The best age to get the puppy is between 8-10 weeks of age. If the breeder is trying to get the dogs out the door at 6 weeks of age or younger, ask why. Puppies learn a lot about life from their litter mates, so don’t be too eager to get them before they have had the chance to learn about how to get along with other dogs!
4. Find out the vaccination record, the pedigree of the parents, if there has been any problems with legs, hips, eyes, thyroid, in her dogs and get details about any problems. Ask about specific problems relating to that breed. Flat-coats, for example, have a history of cancer and as a result their average life span is only 7.5 years. The breeder should want you to be aware of the breed’s shortcomings as well as their strengths and they should also let you know what is being done to improve the quality of the breed. Does she require you to have the appropriate health tests done? Both Bingley and Buckley (our Bernese Mt. Dog) were required to have thyroid tests, eye exams, and orthopedic x-rays done at the appropriate ages. The results were sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals** national data base.
5. Make sure your pup has his appropriate first shots before you pick him up.
6. This should not be a bargain. Good, reliable breeders do not make money on their litters. But, their pups are not cheap either because it costs a lot to produce a quality puppy. Expect to pay between $1000-$2000 or more for a dog. If the puppy costs only $400-500, it probably has some issues.
7. Ask questions about how the puppies are raised. Are they inside the house? (and I mean in the house, not the basement) When are they weaned? How many people have they met before they are adopted? A puppy’s socialization window closes at 16 weeks of age, so it is important that he meets people, experiences different substrates, and generally has a positive introduction to the world before you take him home.
8. What are the parents like? Do they get along with other dogs? Do they like people? Children? Cats? How old is the mother and how many litters has she had? You should meet the mother and, if possible, the father. If the breeder refuses to let you meet her adult dogs, you should not adopt from her.
9. Get references! Ask if you can talk to some of her past clients. If she can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss. Moreover, she should insist on references from you as well. Don’t be offended, be glad she cares so deeply about placing her dogs in a good home.
If this feels a bit overwhelming, know that getting the right dog from the right source requires some effort on your part. As Ms Houlahan puts it:
This is the acquisition that most demands a restrained, educated, skeptical approach that serves your own self-interest as well as supporting practices that are good for dogs. For no other purchase does intelligent self-interest mesh so closely with good social ethics.
I get this type of question primarily from people who have not had a dog as an adult, but have fond memories of their childhood canine companion, and they want their children to have the same experience. I want this too. My wish for every family is that they have the dog who curls up next to the rocking chair as mom nurses her newborn; sleeps beside the bed of his 6 year old boy every night; plunks himself in the middle of family movie night because being with his family is his idea of Heaven; and who gently licks away the tears from his teenage girl suffering through her first break-up. Every family deserves a dog whose gentle personality and canine goofiness defines the growing up years.
While there are no guarantees with any dog, no matter where you get him or how old he is, there are some things you can do to improve the chances that you get the dog you really want. In general, I do not recommend any particular breed, but as Pat Miller wrote in an article titled Family Planning, in the August 2009 issue of The Whole Dog Journal:
While the individual dog’s personality is more important than the general breed standard, there are certain breed characteristics that make some dogs more likely to be good candidates for the job of providing companionship to kids. These include a high tolerance for pain and discomfort; a resistance to becoming easily aroused; a resistance to being highly reinforce by chasing children who are running (or moving on bikes or skates, as just a few examples); and a predisposition to being quiet (as opposed to excessively vocal).
She lists Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Pyrenees, Irish Wolfhounds, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Australian and English Shepherds and Rough Collies as breeds that when properly socialized to children can do well with children. She recommends that parents think carefully about getting toy breeds as they are “tiny, fragile, and sensitive” – not necessarily ideal for families with active children. High energy dogs such as Weimaraners, Boxers, and Dalmatians, may be hard for families to provide the level of mental stimulation and physical exercise these dogs need, especially when there are babies in the house.
It bears repeating, however, that the most important thing you can do is evaluate a particular dog, rather than rely on breed standards, or hope that the adorable mixed breed dog you are considering has the best characteristics of the breeds who contributed to his particular DNA.
When I evaluate dogs, the very first, and most important thing I look for is social drive, especially towards children. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. In essence, You do not want a dog who tolerates children, you want a dog who lives for children. The ideal family dog should be such a wiggling fool at the sight of little people, that you are sure he is going to split right out of his skin. “If a dog displays anything less than full enthusiasm for kids you’re asking for trouble.” (Miller, WDJ, August 2009).
1) When you enter the room where the dog is, stand quietly and watch him. Do not immediately call him to you, but wait to see what he does in the presence of strangers. Does the dog happily approach you and your children? Resist taking home the shy or fearful dog, no matter how cute he is. “A fearful dog is probably not well-socialized, and it will take a lot of work (behavior modification) to help him become ‘normal.’ Love is not enough!” (Miller, WDJ April 2009).* Also, see my blog on fearful puppies.
2) Is the environment more interesting to him than you are? You should be infinitely more interesting to the pup than his surroundings, especially if you are meeting him in his home where the environment is not novel. In my blog, Beauty is only Fur Deep, I compare two puppies from the same litter and discuss why I preferred one to the other. In the case of the male pup:
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.
He wasn’t a bad dog, he just wasn’t an ideal family dog, especially compared to the female who we felt was everything we would have wanted for a family.
3) How does the dog react to handling? Can you lift his lips by placing your hand on his snout, and using your thumb and forefinger gently pull up the sides of the dog’s mouth? Can you handle his paws, does he lean in for petting? If you are scared or uncertain about touching the dog’s head or feet ask yourself if this is a safe dog to be around your children. A good example of what you should look for when handling a dog is the female puppy mentioned above:
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.
3) Is the dog easily aroused? I look for playfulness in a dog and I don’t mind if a puppy uses his mouth to explore the world, but a dog that goes from calm to over-the-top arousal and bites hard, growls, snaps, or is difficult to calm down is probably a dog you want to pass on. If movement and noise overly excite him, then imagine how difficult it would be to manage him with a group of six year old boys playing Transformers in the backyard.
4) Be sure to ask the current owner if the dog protects or guards toys, treats, food bowls, water bowls, blankets, beds, people, etc. If a dog tenses, growls, or snaps around things it values, this can be a dangerous situation in a home with children. As cute as Fifi may be, do not bring her home if she doesn’t know how to share.
5) Familiarize yourself with the warning signs that a puppy may be headed for behavioral trouble, and do not adopt him if, in addition to the items listed above, he shows these tendencies:
Avoiding or hiding from people, places, or objects. This may indicate fear that could escalate into aggression as an adult.
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.Excessive mouthing specifically during physical handling. Puppies should use their mouths to explore the world, but hard biting, especially if accompanied by stiffening, growling, or snarling could indicate underlying fear or pain and should be evaluated.
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.Confinement problems. If the puppy will not eat while confined, has excessive vocalizations in his crate, and/or will not settle in his crate, he may be showing early signs of separation or confinement anxiety.
6) If you are new to dogs, or feel as if choosing one for your family is a monumental task, find a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with temperament tests and ask her to help you. A dog is a 10 year (or more) commitment, so asking a professional to help you make the right choice will increase the likelihood you will find the canine companion who enhances and defines your family’s formative years.
* The Whole Dog Journal does not make all of its articles available to the public online. Some require that you buy an online subscription to view content. This is one of those articles. I have had a subscription for about 10 years and I think it is well worth the money, but I will leave that decision up to you. You can also view the article at Highbeam Research, but that too requires a subscription. Sorry about that! Call me if you want to discuss the article further.
I have referenced Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services in past posts as they have a terrific way of succinctly stating canine problems, their causes, and their solutions. On Facebook they have a “Tuesday’s Pearl” that is always worth checking out and this last week was no exception. The topic at hand is fearful puppies who graduate to become fear biters, an all too common story:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Nervous, fearful puppies often grow into adults who bite.
It is notoriously difficult to predict a puppy’s future temperament. This is the case even when the temperament of both parents is known – though, then, the odds are much better that predictions will come true. There is one pattern that emerges again and again, however. When a puppy exhibits fear (even without aggression), she is more likely to show fear-related biting as an adult.*
Unfortunately, owners often guess that the opposite is true. Puppies, they assume, just have to learn to navigate the world through socialization. The sensitive period for socialization is approximately from the time puppies can see and hear (about 2-3 weeks) until the age of 3 months, and exposure to both social (mother, littermates, human hands, children) and environmental (temperatures, surfaces, noises, crates) stimuli is necessary. But, like humans, puppies come into the world with inherited predispositions as well. It’s the combination of genes (traits) and environment (learning) that create the sum of adult behavior. Ignoring the fear will not help.*
Fearfulness and worry have a common trajectory in dogs. A nervous puppy may show reluctance or active avoidance when she’s exposed to new stimuli. This may appear ‘cute’ as the puppy hides behind her owner’s legs in Petsmart, but should very quickly change to curiosity and engagement with friendly dogs and people. If it does not, by four to six months, fear can be manifested through arousal – the puppy’s hackles may be up, her body language defensive, and she might start to show mild aggression through growling. By nine months her fear may become more preemptive as she stands her ground. Barking, pulling towards the stimulus and even lunging are common; in fact, the sensation of being held back (and trapped) by a leash can contribute to classically conditioned reactivity. Young dogs who act this way with unfamiliar people or dogs are at high risk of biting when they become behaviorally mature at 1-3 years of age.
Behavior is plastic and responds well to gentle handling, encouragement and training (learning), but it’s important to recognize that biting as young adults is a very common outcome for nervous puppies. Common does not mean inevitable – however, recognizing the course of behavioral development can make a big difference in helping an anxious puppy to feel safe and to navigate the world.
Should you have concerns about your puppy’s shyness or other behavioral issue please do not wait for the problem to resolve on its own. If you are uncertain as to whether or not there is an issue, check out my blog “This is not the dog I wanted…” for The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative list of red flags in puppies. Or, call me (740-587-0429) and together we can decide on the next best step for your pup.
*Text emphasis mine.
When my daughter got her Golden Retriever, Hudson, in January of 2005, she was determined that he would be well socialized. Her previous dog, Molly, was adopted when she was about 1 year of age and was most likely grossly under-socialized to people, places, pets, and the rhythms of life in general. She was quite leary of people and aggressive towards dogs. Try as we might, we were never able to get her past her behavior issues.
Emma kept a detailed log of everyone that Hudson met by 4 months of age. At that time we lived in Spotsylvania county Virginia, a fairly rural area surrounded by the Chancellorsville battlefield. Getting him out to meet people required some planning and creativity on our part. Nonetheless, by 16 weeks of age he’d met 750 people. As a result of this intense effort to socialize him, Huddy adored people and could work a room better than most seasoned politicians.
In general, you should aim to have your puppy meet at least 100 people by four months of age. Consider keeping a log of the type of people your dog meets: babies, boys, girls, tall and short people, men with beards, people with hats, sunglasses, and/or both, etc. All these people look different to your pup and the greater the variety of people he meets the more comfortable he will be as an adult dog. Colleen Pelar has a wonderful Scavenger Hunt for Puppy Socialization on her website Living with Kids and Dogs that gives you a checklist of people, places, and things your puppy should encounter.
Any behaviorist or trainer worth their weight in dog biscuits will tell you: the very best way to have a socially sound, well mannered, and stable adult dog is to socialize him, in a positive way, during this critical period. Once the socialization window closes at 16 weeks, it does not reopen, and you are no longer socializing, but counter conditioning. So, when you get your new puppy, commit to introducing him to a variety of people, places, substrates, and objects, when he’s open to it, so you won’t have to hire someone to try and fix him later.
Some veterinarians will tell you that you should not get your dog out until his puppy shots are complete. I understand their desire to reduce your baby’s exposure to diseases such as parvovirus, I do not want your dog to get sick either. However, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization, “[b]ehavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” (Emphasis mine.)
While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem. Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized…In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.
In addition to a good puppy class, your dog can be introduced safely to a variety of things, if some guidelines are followed:
A common problem with puppies is general mouthiness, but when an owner is trying to clip the puppy’s leash onto its collar it can go beyond annoying to infuriating . The typical response seems to be to tell the puppy “NO!” and try to get it to settle by sheer force of will and a stern voice. I have not found that this is the most successful method and it generally results in a frustrated owner and a non-compliant dog.
So, what’s an owner to do? The answer is surprisingly simple actually! Use treats to get the the dog to look at you, then lure him into a down and place the treats between his paws as you clip the leash either on or off. If the dog will not do a down, then simply put the treats between his front paws and as he leans down to eat them, snap on the leash. You can use a small handful of kibble as the treats, but I find that adding in a few really yummy treats helps to motivate the pup to be still. Here is a wonderful little video illustrating this technique:
One last hint for leash mouthiness, if your dog is toy motivated, give him a stuffed toy or ball to hold while you snap on the leash. It is really, really hard to hang onto Mr. Bear and bite your leash at the same time.
Puppies bite — and thank goodness they do. Puppy biting is a normal, natural, and necessary puppy behavior. Puppy play-biting is the means by which dogs develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth. The more your puppy bites and receives appropriate feedback, the safer his jaws will be in adulthood. It is the puppy that does not mouth and bite as a youngster whose adult bites are more likely to cause serious damage. (Ian Dunbar, DogStarDaily.com)
Here’s Dr. Dunbar talking about the importance of bite inhibition and allowing your puppy to use his mouth:
I do understand that excessive biting can be frustrating, so if you cannot get your puppy to inhibit his biting or if your puppy seems to be biting out of fear, seek out the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or a certified animal behaviorist so that you can nip that problem in the bud.
About a week ago my daughter, son-in-law, and I picked up the newest addition to our clan of canines. Tex, a liver-colored flat-coated retriever was available from Bingley’s breeder and after careful consideration of all his attributes (including some health issues that we agreed were very manageable), he seemed like the perfect dog for their little family. He is a 2 1/2 year old, intact male who is highly social with people, has had a fair amount of training, and is a typically active flattie. We loved him from the instant we learned about him. The breeder was in Dresden for some field dog training and brought Tex with her, so off we went to get Emma and Thomas’s new best friend.
In the past, we have introduced puppies to our current canine companions, and though we have had boarders, we have not added an adult dog to the clan since 2002. Personally, I have found that adding puppies (~8-10 weeks) is easier than adding an adult dog when you have other dogs in your home, as there is a certain puppy license that adult dogs will grant to youngsters under 4 months of age. Adding an adult dog requires that you appreciate the personal space that each dog has and allow them to move freely around one another. However, no matter the age of the newcomer, adding any dog to any household requires a certain amount of preparation, tact, patience, and, if you have other dogs, a high level of canine diplomacy for peace to reign supreme. I have some basic rules that I like to follow when introducing dogs, and in searching my archives I found an article from The Whole Dog Journal called “New Dog Do’s and Don’ts“* that has some suggestions as well for introducing a new dog to your home whether or not you have other pets. Some of her best ideas are about pre-planning for your pet, and what you need to be aware of when deciding to get a dog:
Often, new-dog ventures fail most frequently when people don’t take enough time – time to research what sort of dog is really best for them, time to prepare for the dog’s arrival, and time to spend with the dog. In fact, the first thing I ask when I hear someone is thinking about getting a dog is, “How much time do you have?”
I couldn’t agree with her more! I do not recommend bringing a new dog into your home if you do not have ample time to make it work both short and long term. We got Tex on a Thursday when Emma and Thomas were on fall break (until Sunday evening) and I did not schedule anything on my calendar until the following Monday. We wanted to be sure that we had ample, relaxed time to make Tex and the rest of the pack comfortable.
In addition to allotting a surfeit of time, we did the following to introduce Tex to our household:
- We picked up Tex without the other dogs. This allowed us to meet him and spend some time getting to know him before we added the challenge of a new home and two new dogs. Moreover, I did not want to put two (or more) dogs who do not know one another in a small area for any extended period of time. With no ability to move out of each other’s personal space, I would be setting them up to be very uncomfortable around each other, potentially dislike one another, and possibly fight with each other. Not the way I want to get this relationship started.
- When we got home, Emma and Thomas put Tex on a leash and walked him down the block. I then brought out our dogs, one at a time and we introduced the dogs to one another on neutral territory making sure the leashes were slack at all times. Keeping your dog’s leash nice and loose when he is meeting another dog is critical to making the encounter successful. Think of it this way: if your dog’s options for stressful moments are fight or flight and the leash is taut, thereby preventing him from moving easily around the other dog, what option does he have left to get the other dog to back off?
- We also did not have them meet coming at each other head on, but allowed them enough room to pass by one another, move to one side, or turn away completely. It is very rude in the dog world to come at another dog head on, so we allowed them some room to move around each other comfortably and to turn away or arc away from the other dog if needed.
- We kept the encounter short and sweet. They met, greeted one another and when one moved away we took that as a signal to part and I put my dog in the back yard, then brought out contestant number 2 to meet Tex, repeating steps 1-4.
- The next part was to allow the dogs to engage off lead in the back yard where they had plenty of room to move around. We did not leave the dogs to their own devices but instead, monitored and supervised all canine encounters to ensure they were appropriate. We had lots of tennis balls to throw for the retrievers and found it handy to have them parallel playing. Bingley played ball with me, Tex ran around, played some ball, talked to the people, etc. Buckley watched the silly retrievers expend exorbitant amounts of energy.
- Bingley does not like other dogs to go over his shoulders and when Tex put his paws on Bingley’s back we watched to see what would happen. Bingley stiffened and let out a low growl. It took a few warnings, but Tex got the message that Bingley did not like that. Allowing dogs to work out their disagreements is fine, as long as it does not escalate into a fight. We were careful to make sure that it did not get to that point by diffusing the situation by calling Tex off of Bing and re-directing both dogs to other activities or parts of the yard.
- We also managed the time in the yard together by adding in breaks from one another, not just by using parallel play, but by taking one dog inside for a drink and a chance to unwind.
- When it was time for the dogs to meet inside, we brought each dog in separately and did not allow the other dogs to hang around the doorway as tight spaces can cause problems. We were very conscious about making sure all dogs had room to move and to get away from the other dogs so that no one ended up feeling cornered or trapped. Bingley and Tex did some posturing towards one another and when they seemed tense, we would separate them, give everyone a treat and allow them to reunite. My objective here (as it is with play groups) was to keep everything as low key as possible, so I prefered to err on the side of more rather than less interventions. Thus, we interrupted their behavior/interactions, sometimes every minute, sometimes every 5-10 minutes.
- One thing we found extremely handy was a series of baby gates. The baby gates allowed Tex and Bing to be close to one another, they would sniff through the gate, even lie down next to it, but they could not invade each other’s personal space. It encouraged them to be together without constantly interacting, and it allowed us to have all the dogs in the same room and not have to constantly monitor those interactions. For example, Bingley was developing a small hot spot at the base of his tail and for some reason Tex decided it was his responsibility to lick it. Bingley was very tolerant for the most part, but the licking made the hot spot worse and it eventually annoyed Bing. The gate prevented Tex from licking Bing and allowed them both to settle down while we watched a movie.
- In addition to parallel play, we found it very handy to walk them together so that they were moving parallel and close to one another. They were doing something together and with their people, but they didn’t have to be paying complete attention to one another either, thus teaching them to be more comfortable with each other in close proximity. It’s sort of like a moving gate! The dogs are together and active, they have space to move, and can interact but it also gives us a way to quickly and efficiently separate and re-direct the dogs.
- Reward desirable behavior. We were all outfitted with bait bags loaded with tasty morsels so that we could reward good behavior the moment it happened. When the dogs all sat next to one another and focused on a person, everyone got a treat. When one dog turned away from another to avoid a kerfuffle, he got a treat. When all dogs settled down, bones rained from the sky. A basic tenet of behavior is that it is consequence driven. As I said in an earlier blog: In other words, rewards matter. Rewarding desirable behavior will do more to change and improve your dog’s behavior than anything else you do, including playing at being alpha dog. Thus, use praise, petting, food, toys, anything your dog loves, to your advantage to get better results sooner. Your dog will quickly learn that getting along with the new dog on the block brings good things.
It will take some time for everyone (you included) to be comfortable with the new arrangements so be patient with all involved and remember that time and space are your best friends here! Monitor your dogs’ interactions and give them time together and apart. Make sure that all the dogs have a safe place to go to re-group that will not be invaded by others. Bingley spent time with me in my office with the gate closed while Tex and Emma hung out in the other office with a baby gate across the doorway. Buckley slept in our bedroom in his spot by the bed. We found that time together and time apart made for a an easier transition for everyone as no one was forced to make small talk when they didn’t feel like it.
Tex has gone to Michigan with Emma and Thomas, but will be back for holidays and vacations and we will start the introductions all over again from step 1 so that no one gets overwhelmed. We will still use gates as necessary, but I know that the need for them will diminish over time as everyone becomes not only accustomed to the changes, but happy to have Tex aboard.
Another Whole Dog Journal resource is: Managing a Multi-dog Household