Training our Scaled, Finned, and Feathered Friends

I typically focus on the behavior and training of cats and dogs. Cats and dogs are popular, common pets and more likely to display behavior problems or training deficits in need of professional attention. However, our littler pets of various species also learn and can be trained using many of the same principles one might use with a dog or cat. Let’s consider some things we might teach our scaled, finned, or feathered friends and how we would go about training them. I will use for example those critters who live in my own home.

In addition to our three dogs, my family has a Siamese fighting fish, an electric blue crayfish, three platies, a yellow-collar miniature macaw, and a bearded dragon. Each of these critters is able to learn and respond to positive reinforcement. For the fish and the crayfish, food is the reinforcer we use. Our crayfish prefers to spend much of his time in his underwater cave but we like to watch him move about the tank, so my children and I have taught him that in order to earn his pelleted food, he must come out of his cave. About twice a day, Blueclaw thus comes marching out, claws extended, waiting to be rewarded for showing himself. We’ve taken it a step further with our Siamese fighting fish, Zoomer, and have taught him to jump out of the water to nibble food from our fingertips. We started by dropping his food into the top of his tank from our fingertips, then used a moistened finger tip to hold the food to it until Zoomer came to the top of the water, and eventually until he jumped clear out of the water to reach the food. Now our Zoomer is also a colorful and enthusiastic jumper and his nibbling kisses to our fingertips are a delight to my young children.

As we move along to more complicated critters, such as our bearded dragon and our parrot, both the rewards that can be used in training and the responses that can be taught become more complicated as well. Our parrot, Sappho, has learned to say “Hello!” as a request for social interaction and “Step up!” as a request to get out of the water after her bath or when she wants to be picked up in general. She has learned to play chase and catch with balled up pieces of paper or small toys. In fact, she sits here now at my desk as I type, chatting and trying to entice me into another round of play. Of course, parrot owners more creative than me have taught their feathered friends a variety of vastly more complex and clever responses, and parrots are in fact considered some of the most intelligent creatures of the animal kingdom.

We are teaching our young bearded dragon, Metalmouth, to tolerate and even enjoy handling and being carried around on a shoulder or chest. At this stage, we are working first on teaching Metalmouth that human touch is associated with food, so we feed him his mealworms, kale, and cilantro treats by hand and pet and talk to him as he eats.

In each of these cases, we utilize four strategies that I often recommend to cat and dog owners as well. First, we rely on consistency – for example, presenting the same hand cues repeatedly so that the animal comes to learn that certain movements by us predict certain options for him. Second, we rely on positive reinforcement in the form of food, play time, or snuggling provided when certain desirable responses occur. Third, to teach more complex responses, we utilize shaping, which involves beginning with easy and simple responses and rewarding those repeatedly before gradually moving toward more complicated or challenging responses. Fourth, we use systematic desensitization, which allows animals to get used to human handling and interaction in small stages while their fearful behavior is gradually replaced with more confident and relaxed behavior around us.

Whether it’s a hamster, an iguana, a ferret or a fish, pets in various shapes and levels of complexity can learn all sorts of fun tricks and useful responses. They can be taught to look forward to their interactions with their human handlers as a highlight of their day. In many cases, the responses one can teach their small pet are limited not by the pet’s intelligence or ability to learn but instead only by our own creativity and perseverance.   

 

My Dog Dug up the Daisies and my Cat Chewed all the Calla Lilies! A Pet Owner's Gardening Woes

How refreshing it is to feel the warm breeze and see the pops of color appearing around town as we (finally!) move into spring. For those of us who like to fancy ourselves green-thumbed, one of the brightest aspects of spring is the chance to get back into the garden. For those of us who also are pet owners, however, we are quickly reminded of the twists pets can lead us down in our path toward the perfect garden! Today I will review some common ways in which pets cause trouble for the garden and how we can best address them.

We’ve all seen the classic image of the naughty dog in the garden, with his rear end in the air and his head burrowed into a hole of dirt, with soil flying all around him. Of course, digging is a natural behavior for dogs as a whole, and some breeds or individual dogs are especially driven to perform this natural response. Like their wolfish ancestors, some dogs dig in order to find a cool or more comfortable place to rest. Like their fox kin, some dogs dig in their hunt for a critter they’ve smelled or heard moving beneath the earth. Many dogs dig because a buried bone, tree root or rock just beneath the surface has caught their attention. Other dogs seem to dig for the sheer joy of the act.

Understandable as it may be from the dog’s perspective, when digging wreaks havoc in the lawn or garden, many owners find the behavior problematic. It is also exceedingly difficult to correct because most dogs learn not to dig in front of their owners, but will instead dig when left alone in the yard. Dogs cannot be punished for behavior that happened in the past, so owners must find ways to prevent digging when the dog is unsupervised and to interrupt all digging that occurs while they are there to see it. As with so many behaviors, digging is easier to stop when it’s curbed early on; lifelong diggers can be more persistent in their habits. Keep your dog engaged in other activities while you are outside with her – throw the ball or Frisbee, set up scent work games, or invite a friend’s dog over to play. If your dog starts digging, interrupt with a short “Ah Ah” or “No” and then call the dog over for another activity to replace digging. If you can’t play with the dog, give her an activity feeder or soup bone so that she can work on removing the food or chewing on the item over a long period of time, holding her attention in a way that can compete with the excitement of digging. If your dog only digs when you are not outside with him, block off the area he prefers to dig in. Some owners have found that providing one area where digging is encouraged (a wooded or non-lawn area of the property or even a sandbox) can help for those dogs whose interest in digging is stronger than most other forms of play or enrichment.

Cats also dig in the garden, although their digging is more likely to be associated primarily with urinating or defecating. This toileting issue is not only unappealing to us, but also can be dangerous to our health if a cat is relieving herself in the vegetable garden, for example. If a cat is toileting in your garden, you can put down various substrates that might make the surface less comfortable for walking. For example, some gardeners have had success putting short stakes or toothpicks around the garden in areas used as a latrine. Cats will avoid areas that are less convenient or comfortable for them to maneuver around in. You also might consider bringing your cat indoors, as there are many advantages to having an indoor-only cat in addition to a cleaner garden (e.g., the cat’s long-term safety is enhanced along with the well-being of wild birds and animals who might otherwise turn into a pet cat’s play toy or meal.)

In addition to playing in and toileting on our gardens, our pets might have the habit of dining there as well! Of course, if your dog or cat has eaten anything from the garden – flower or vegetable, annual or perennial – your very first job is to research the plant eaten to ensure it’s not toxic. There are all sorts of potentially toxic plants in the garden from azaleas to tulips, so contact your veterinarian or a pet poison control center if you worry the plant consumed could be toxic. After determining your pet is safe, you will need to find ways to prevent your pet’s access to a garden with items he or she is determined to eat. When plants are perceived as edible by our pets, the risk of ingestion will remain if they are allowed unsupervised access to those plants. A fence can be helpful. When this is not possible, some gardeners have found use in a motion-activated sprinkler system. Especially for cats, but for some dogs as well, being suddenly rained upon when in the garden is enough to keep them out altogether!

If your dog or cat is less of a gardening assistant and more of a garden assassin, then you may find that physically separating the pet and the garden when you cannot intervene directly are the safest and most reliable means to have your garden and eat it too!

Basic Obedience and Beyond, Part 2

Last month, I talked about dogs who excelled in obedience class but wound up developing behavior problems later. There are plenty of families whose dogs were attentive, happy, and motivated in puppy kindergarten and beginner obedience class, but if training is not generalized to the home and community or if the dog experiences inconsistent, frightening or aversive events in its home life, then often obedience skills are lost or problematic behavior replaces good behavior over time.      

Some families, on the other hand, aren’t even able to complete puppy kindergarten or beginner obedience because their dogs already show signs of excessive barking, fearful behavior, aggression, or hypervigilance and lack of attention in class. These families often reach out to in-home dog trainers or animal behaviorists for private instruction that can be tailored to their dog’s needs and behavior.

Several factors determine how a dog will respond to a group obedience environment. Of course, the dog’s genetic tendencies will play an important role in determining his or her behavior. At birth, dogs  vary in their likelihood to explore new situations, respond fearfully to stimuli, display defensive or aggressive behavior toward people or dogs, and many other behavioral characteristics. It is ideal if owners can meet the dog’s parents and littermates before selecting a dog so as to determine what behavioral characteristics are “in the family.” This is often not an option, however. Whether because the puppy’s littermates or parents were not onsite or because the dog was adopted from a shelter, we often have pitiably little information about a dog’s family history or inherited traits.

Thus, we must work with the environment we have for the dog to mold and structure his or her behavior as best as possible. Group obedience classes can be an important part of doing this, as was discussed last month. What happens, however, if you find yourself with the dog who is the wildest one in the bunch, barking, lunging, hiding, growling, or creating a stressful environment for you and the people and dogs around him? In this case, you and your dog would likely benefit from individualized instruction instead. You might start with private lessons with a qualified dog trainer who can teach you how to teach your dog some of the basics – Sit, Stay, Come, Drop It, and walking on leash are common introductory skills. You should work with a trainer who makes you feel comfortable and who uses positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, and play for your dog and praise and encouragement for you too! You may find that this option is available in your own home or in a training facility at quiet times or away from other dog-owner pairs. Either option has advantages. If you are working in the home, you can tailor your exercises to the dog’s primary environment, and if you train at a training facility, you can allow for ongoing practice in a calmer but still public environment.

How do you know if your puppy or adult dog would benefit from a group class versus private instruction? If your dog barks a lot at other dogs or people in public situations, even when you are providing opportunities for toy play and treat deliveries, he may be a challenge in a group setting. If your dog is not interested in taking treats in public situations, even when you know she is hungry and you are using extra-yummy edibles, then she might be better able to learn in a private setting. And certainly, if your dog is already showing signs of fear or aggression in public situations, then some private instruction with a board-certified animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or qualified dog trainer is recommended before moving to the group class setting. Even when group settings are just the thing your dog ultimately needs to become adjusted to, he will likely proceed more successfully when he can be provided with an individually tailored behavior plan that works him toward group settings in smaller steps, rather than trying to muddle through the group class right from the outset. A group class could be overstimulating for him, and the instructor will be unable to provide as much individual feedback while instructing multiple dog-owner pairs.

It is important to reiterate again that board-certified animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists, along with a majority of dog trainers, will not recommend the use of painful or aversive stimuli in the form of electronic, prong, or chain collars, harsh reprimands, muzzle grabs, or pinning the dog down during basic obedience training. Such strategies are stressful for the dog and often for the owner as well, and many risk creating aggression or fearful behavior as side effects. Animal behaviorists recommend instead the use of positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, toy play, and natural rewards for good behavior in and outside of training classes.

Basic Obedience and Beyond

For many dog owners, puppy kindergarten or basic obedience classes are an important part of their first year or more with their dog. When these owners find themselves in need of an animal behaviorist later, they often feel perplexed or especially disappointed, having imagined that the basic obedience classes were a way to prevent the development of behavior problems. These owners sometimes even describe to me how their dog was the “star” of the class. They wonder how it is that their puppy class valedictorian could now be acting like such a doggie delinquent!

Basic obedience classes have many strong benefits for dogs and their owners. In fact, when there are options for classes using positive reinforcement (praise, play, and treats as rewards for good behavior) and with knowledgeable and capable instructors in the area, animal behaviorists often recommend that owners utilize this resource fully. A good dog trainer teaches his or her students in the class how to effectively use cues with their dogs to bring about important responses such as Sit, Stay, Come, and Drop It, for example. A good dog trainer will employ positive reinforcement for owners’ behavior as well as their dogs’, keeping both members of each pair actively engaged and having fun while learning how to communicate with each other in positive ways. Owners learn how to talk to their dogs, and how to reward the right responses. Dogs learn how to listen to their owners, while practicing these important skills in the presence of other dogs and people in an environment outside of the home. Each of these aspects of group obedience classes is important and beneficial.

As any good dog trainer will also tell you, however, your dog’s long-term behavior and responding will be determined by variables outside of the 6- or 8-week obedience course. You must practice your skill acquisition in the home, in the community, in the car, at friends’ houses, etc. If you hope for your dog to be well-behaved with visitors, you must practice when you have visitors. If you hope she will behave at the pet store, you must practice at the pet store. This aspect of training, called generalization across context, is one area where owners sometimes fall short. Because the dog did so well in class, or does so well when in the kitchen at home, we might mistakenly presume that he “just knows” what to do and we might just expect him to do so all over the place. This doesn’t happen automatically in most cases.

A good dog trainer will also be sure to describe to you how to use intermittent reward schedules as needed. That is, he or she must teach you when you will need to rely on meaty treats and when you might get away with a “Good girl” or an ear scratch reward instead. These determinations are made based on your dog’s current performance and competing rewards in the environment. For example, you might not treat any more when your dog sits when asked while you are watching TV. In this case, a warm cuddle would likely do the trick. However, if you’d like your dog to Sit while on a busy walk, you might need to utilize that bit of hot dog or string cheese if you hope to compete with the joy your dog might experience by pulling toward that gaggle of school children running by her. All of our dogs are faced with competing rewards in life, and our job as leaders, trainers, and owners is to work to ensure that we can control and deliver highly positive consequences for those dog behaviors we most want to see. 

It is in these two areas described above that I most frequently hear complaints from owners whose dogs excelled in obedience class but continued to be challenging outside of or after class ended. In most cases, if these owners had been able to train more consistently in all environments or for a longer period of time after graduation, or if these owners had been able to effectively reduce reliance on food reinforcement while continuing to reward the dog’s behavior in other ways, some behavior problems may have been avoided. Of course, if the obedience class instructor was misguided, utilized outdated training techniques, or was ineffective in his or her teaching, this too likely would have contributed to a dog’s poor long-term performance.

If you are considering group or private obedience lessons for your dog, you should find out as much as you can about the instructor’s background and credentials. You might prefer someone who is affiliated with a national training organization, such as the Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). You will want to ask whether punishment in the form of electronic collars, chain collars, or prong collars is recommended in the class. Most animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists do not recommend these tools in any basic obedience training. You should ask how many owner-dog dyads are allowed in the class, with the understanding that smaller classes allow for more individualized attention and instruction, but that larger classes present more challenging distractions and various dog personalities, which may be better for more advanced learners. You might ask whether socialization between dogs is allowed or encouraged, if one of your goals is to allow your dog to free play with other dogs at some point. Finally, be sure that you get a good feeling from talking with the instructor – you should get the sense that you will be able to ask questions and share concerns freely as you move through the training process.

Finally, there are many dogs who come to me, not as past obedience class superstars but as doggie dropouts. There are those dogs who have been asked to leave obedience class because of their unruly, loud, or aggressive behavior or those owners who felt compelled to quit because the experience was aversive or stressful for them. We will talk more about these families in next month’s post.

Help! My Dog Eats His Own Waste!

Molly and Polly were two Pugs I worked with several years ago. Among other problems, I was called in to address an issue the owners found especially distasteful – the dogs ate their own feces. When crated, the dogs would defecate and then eat whatever they had deposited. Outside, they would circle around in the middle of the act itself, eating their feces before they even hit the grass. The owners were, of course, repulsed by this behavior and worried that their dogs would get sick from their bizarre eating habits.

The ingestion of feces has a technical name – coprophagia. Coprophagia in dogs is not uncommon. When a litter of puppies is born, the mother dog must lick the pups’ anogenital region to stimulate urination and defecation and she also ingests these waste materials from her pups to keep the den clean. In some dogs, even those who aren’t mothers to pups, the behavior may pop up here and there because it’s genetically predisposed – that is, it’s a part of the normal behavior of the species as a whole, at least in the context of the mother and her pups.

Before any behavioral interventions are developed for coprophagia, the dog must be examined by his or her veterinarian with a full description of the behavior provided by owners. There are a variety of medical and nutritional conditions that can cause coprophagia, so a veterinarian is the first professional whose advice you should seek when you notice your pup eating his or her poo. If your veterinarian confirms that your dog is in good health, and that there are no medical conditions underlying this behavior, then you should develop a behavior plan to address it.

There are multiple environmental conditions that can lead to coprophagia in dogs. For some, the behavior stems from early excessive confinement (in a crate or larger enclosure, or even in an outdoor penned area) combined with lack of enrichment, where eating feces developed due to hunger, boredom, anxiety, or instincts toward maintaining a clean den. Many dogs who are purchased from puppy mills (or from disreputable breeders) can develop coprophagia early on under these conditions. I also have seen cases where dogs have become interested in their own waste as they follow their owners around the yard while owners clean it up. In these cases, the owner is “interested” in the poo, so the dog becomes interested as well and may take a sample nibble here or there. I have seen cases of dogs who live enriched lives but whose yards were often left a bit too cluttered with feces, and eventually curiosity alone led to a taste for the stuff. Owners can even unintentionally reward the behavior because they see the dog sniffing feces and rush over to interrupt the dog with play or scoop her up into their arms for a cuddle.

Our first goal is to minimize or prevent access to the dirty delicacy. Owners must be vigilant in cleaning the yard or other space where the dog is accessing feces. For those dogs who prefer feline feces (which is common), the litterboxes must be moved or positioned such that the cat can easily access them but the dog cannot. Owners may need to provide increased supervision in the yard or when the behavior is likely to occur – staying present long enough to scoop up any waste that is deposited before the dog has the chance to go for it.

Owners should also consider their dog’s enrichment and exercise levels – dogs should be provided with daily exercise (30 minutes of aerobic activity per day at a minimum) and social opportunities (play with owners, walks, or car rides to dog-friendly places.) The dog should be especially encouraged to play in the context in which the coprophagia occurs – teaching the dog that the back yard is a cue for lots of ball play with the owner, for example, so that this can compete with her other “habits.”

In some cases, a change or addition to the dog’s diet can help. Sometimes an improvement in dog food quality leads to reduced interest in feces from the outset because it provides a better alternative food source or it changes the palatability of the feces which leads to reduced interest. Although their effectiveness has not been systematically tested, soft chews are available for purchase that are designed to reduce the palatability (or change the smell) of the feces in order to reduce coprophagia. Owners also have reported that adding pineapple to the diet has reduced their dog’s interest in his or her feces, again likely by changing either its taste or smell.

When the owner is outside with his or her dog, the owner should also teach the dog to Come or to catch a ball as an immediate post-pottying activity. In this way, the dog is taught to leave his or her poop and to instead do something fun with the owner. Then the owner can remove the feces while the dog is otherwise occupied chasing a ball or eating a treat. For dogs who follow their owner around trying to beat them to the waste, a Leave It or Stay command should be taught.

Some dogs engage in coprophagia while crated, and thus owners are not present for the act and can’t clean it up but instead find only remnants when they return. In these cases, we rearrange the dog’s home-alone conditions, working through possibilities of other places of confinement or other schedules of being left alone, so as to improve the dog’s toileting habits first.

Grrr... This Lap Belongs to Me!

When I met Lucy for the first time, she rushed to greet me at the front door, happily jumping and whining as she tried frantically to lick my face. She was a 9-pound Chihuahua mix, totally adorable and totally adored by her owners, Jan and Dave. Lucy was a joy in so many ways – she rode well in the car, loved every dog and human she met, came when called, and snuggled lovingly with anyone who would have her. She ate well and played well, was quiet and happy inside the home or yard, and was just the sort of “fur baby” that Jan and Dave had wanted. As I sat down with Jan and Dave in our first session, Lucy quickly relaxed and settled into Jan’s lap, curling up to sleep. After conducting the behavioral history interview, I asked Jan and Dave to demonstrate for me where they were having a problem with Lucy. “No problem,” said Dave, “All I have to do is try to walk over to Jan to say good-bye.” He got up from his easy chair and said to Jan, “Alright, then, I am heading to work, honey!” as he walked toward Jan and Lucy on the couch. As he said this, Lucy uncurled from her cozy ball and immediately lowered her head, her whole body stiffening as she stared at Dave’s approach. When he reached them and gently reached toward Jan to hug her, Lucy sprang from the lap like a cannon ball, snarling and snapping at Dave. Jan held her back and Dave said “No, Lucy, stop it”, but was unable to hug his wife without risking a Chihuahua-sized bite to his arms or hands. They looked at me with gentle smiles, confused and a bit embarrassed by their dog’s behavior. “You see? She is like Jekyll and Hyde!” Jan commented. (This is a description I hear over and over again from owners describing their pet’s seemingly mysterious or unpredictable aggression.)

Far from being mysterious or unpredictable in my eyes, Lucy’s aggression was in fact reliably triggered under certain circumstances. In addition to the aggression she showed in Jan’s lap, she often responded similarly if she was in Dave’s lap when Jan approached. They had even once seen the aggression directed toward them when Lucy was snuggling with a visitor and they went to remove her from the visitor’s lap. Lucy’s aggression was also fairly specific to laps – she was not aggressive around food or toys, with other dogs or people, or when she was petted while sleeping in her dog bed. This behavior that Lucy exhibited – aggression when approached while in a person’s lap – is common among dogs, and is characterized as a form of resource guarding. In this case, rather than the valued resource being dog food or a chew bone, it’s a person’s warm and cozy lap that the dog feels compelled to protect.

Many people who see this behavior in their dog first assume that the dog is protecting them. Some owners feel a bit honored or flattered even, assuming that their dog is serving a valiant role by protecting them because they love them so. But often the motivation is more selfish – the dog may not be responding to any perceived threat to their person but instead a perceived threat to their own comfort! Dogs learn that they are sometimes displaced when a second person comes to sit down. They may be put on the floor, their position may be readjusted, or they may lose the ongoing petting or affection they are receiving. To prevent this from happening, they may try out a growl or snarl and, seeing that it often causes the approaching person to hesitate or back away, they learn to use aggression again to hold on to their comfortable position on the lap.

To address this problem, we must first teach the dog to hop down from a lap on cue, and to do so happily and without tension or aggression. We first evaluated all of the things Lucy loved other than lap time, and discovered her two other favorite things were steamed carrots and going for walks. So I had Dave and Jan each practice calling Lucy to them with a happy “Lucy, Come!” any time they saw Lucy sitting with the other spouse. If Lucy did not hop down, they said “Oh well” and walked away, and the person on whose lap Lucy was sitting removed Lucy to the floor and also walked away. If Lucy did hop down and go to the person calling her, she received either a yummy carrot or the presentation of her leash and a fun jaunt around the block. Soon Lucy was coming when called nearly 100% of the time, even when she had been snoozing away on a warm lap. We then taught Lucy to come to the approaching owner as he or she walked right up to her, stopping just short of the lap and calling her from up close. She quickly continued her success streak here. Soon we saw that when Lucy was approached by either Jan or Dave while in the other’s lap, she looked up with happy anticipation of a reward instead of with tense dread over a perceived conflict. We taught Lucy that she had to give up that space when we needed her to, and by using positive reinforcement we did so without Lucy ever realizing we were inconveniencing her in the meantime! Now when Lucy sees an owner approach, she knows that sometimes she gets a carrot treat, sometimes she gets to go for a walk, and sometimes she just gets a rub under the chin. In any case, she remains relaxed and happy about these approaches, and Jan and Dave get to keep snuggling with their lucky little lap dog!

 

Puppies as Presents

Are you thinking about bringing home a puppy as a present for the family this holiday season? Before we jump in, I will throw out a big cautionary flag to warn you that this is NOT the ideal time for most families to take in a puppy so you should consider this decision very carefully indeed. We’ve all seen the images of yellow Labrador Retriever puppies in festively wrapped boxes under the tree or Beagle noses poking out of red and green stockings. But the reality, as with most things in life when compared to these Rockwellian images, is quite different. So let’s consider carefully what’s involved with giving a puppy as a present, in the hopes that each family can ultimately make the best decision for their lifestyle and get off on the right foot with their new addition.

No matter the time of year, the first important question you must ask is whether the intended recipient is ready to take on the responsibilities of a new puppy. If this recipient is a child, keep in mind that children under a certain age often do not persist in reliable caretaking of pets, as much as they might love them, so adults in that child’s life will have to be ready to take on pet care as well. When the puppy arrives over the winter, remember that an important part of this responsibility involves taking the puppy outside to urinate and defecate as often as every hour initially, including in the middle of the night. Even several months in, many pups need to be let outside every few hours, so consider whether the owner will be ready and able to stand outside in snow, sleet, and freezing rain during that house training process!

Another responsibility in new puppy ownership is financial. Many costs accrue over the first year of a puppy’s life, and families must be ready and able to purchase food, toys (which need to be replaced as often as puppies chew through them – which can be at break neck speed!), a crate, chew bones, and other supplies. Visits to the veterinarian early in life can be expensive, especially with the costs of flea, tick, and heartworm preventative. It must also be considered that household items may fall victim to the curious puppy’s chewing tendencies or the developing puppy’s toileting habits, and families must acknowledge that they may lose a possession or two during the course of puppy rearing.  

If you are sure that the family is ready and excited to take on a puppy, you also must consider the breed of dog and its source. It is not recommended that you purchase a puppy from a pet store, many of which source their puppies from puppy mills where breeding conditions are poor. In a pet store as well, a puppy rarely receives appropriate early learning opportunities and puppies without proper learning and socialization experiences during their first months are at greater risk of behavior problems later in life. You should consider purchasing a puppy from a reputable breeder or rescuing a puppy from a shelter or rescue group. In the former case, you may be given information about the needs and general tendencies of the breed. In the latter case, where many dogs are mixed breeds, you may be guessing in terms of the puppy’s adult size, coat length, or behavioral predispositions. In either case, however, no available puppy temperament test can reliably predict that dog’s adult personality so you will need to ensure that the puppy’s family is equipped and inclined to train, socialize, and raise this puppy in the best ways available (see more on this in other columns of this Teacher’s Pets series).

One potential advantage to taking in a puppy over the holidays applies to those families who have extended winter vacations. In this case, the extra time that family members have at home to help their pup adjust, begin socialization, and work on housetraining can be helpful. If families have extended time off at another time of year, however, the advantages of warmer weather and increased socialization opportunities outdoors are important benefits to consider. Of course, if families have travel plans over the winter holidays or busy households with extended-stay visitors, this would not be a good time to start off life with a new pup.

Ideally, a puppy should be brought into the home when a) the family is fully committed to taking in a puppy and has discussed various roles and responsibilities each family member will have in puppy raising, 2) the household is relatively stable and family members are available to focus on the puppy’s initial needs, and 3) the family has done lots of reading and preparation to learn about how to train and raise a puppy before bringing this one in. While each photo of that adorable puppy under the Christmas tree captures a charming flash in time, dog ownership is a commitment of 10-18 years and our first responsibility to these wonderful animals is to ensure that we are ready and able to raise them well!

 

 

 

 

 

How to Teach "Leave It"

In nature, animals often use aggressive threats to prevent others from stealing their possessions. With our pet dogs, however, aggression toward owners is often deemed inappropriate and even dangerous. This resource guarding can be exhibited along a continuum of intensity. A dog may freeze, for example, holding her head low over the food when the owner approaches. She may eat faster with wider gulping motions, growl or give a “hard stare”. At increasing levels of intensity, she may snarl, snap, or bite the owner. Dogs may become possessive over things other than food, such as stolen household items, bones, toys, or sticks.

To prevent resource guarding, your dog should be taught the Leave It command. This command is used to tell your dog that she may earn something even better from you for leaving something she might be tempted to steal and/or guard. To teach the Leave It, begin with a piece of kibble or other relatively boring edible item. Arm yourself with a bowl or treat pouch full of more highly-valued food items, such as tiny pieces of hot dog or chicken. Sit down on the floor with your dog and place the boring food item (the “forbidden” item) on the floor in front of you. As you do so, say “Leave It” in a firm but kind voice and cover the item with your hand. If your dog tries to nose or paw at your hand to get at the food item, hold your hand tight over the item until she quits trying. One second after she quits trying and instead pulls her head away from your hand, praise happily and deliver a treat from your pouch and simultaneously pick up the forbidden food.

Your dog will soon learn not to even try to nose at the food item on the ground. As soon as you place the item down and say “Leave It”, she will look up at you or toward your other hand. Praise and treat when she does. Next, remove your hand a bit from the boring food item on the floor. If she goes toward it, repeat the “Leave It” command and cover the food item. When she looks at you instead, praise and treat from your other hand.

When you can put the forbidden food item on the ground and move your hand away without your dog trying to go after it, begin to move your body away as well. Always say “Leave It” when you place the item on the ground, then move slowly away, praising and treating after gradually increasing periods of time during which your dog is not looking at the item and is instead looking in your direction. Move slowly with this – you always want to be sure you get to the item before she can steal it if she tries!

When you can leave that item on the floor and walk away from it, begin to vary the forbidden item. Try different items from your fridge (e.g., bread, a potato), a dog toy or ball, always being sure to have something more desirable in your treat pouch. Once she is successfully leaving alone a variety of items on the floor, begin to casually drop items from your standing position as you say “Leave It”. Be ready to step on the item if she goes for it. If she does not, praise and treat as usual. Your dog should be learning to walk away from any item as soon as you say “Leave It” while keeping her eyes on you and following you around in expectation of something better. Then try leaving the room with the forbidden item left out. Your dog should be following you out of the room at this point.

When she can do this, begin carrying food treats in your pocket throughout the day to find naturalistic moments to ask her to Leave It. Approach her while she is chewing a bone or toy. Say Leave It when you get to her and offer her a treat from one hand as you remove the item with your other hand. Praise and return the item to her if it’s hers and if she’s allowed to continue chewing it. You can use this when she has stolen something that is not hers, although you want to be sure you are trading her for treats more often each day for her own items than you are trading her for stolen items, lest she learn that the best way to earn treats is to steal something that’s not hers!

As she becomes more reliable with this, continue to issue the Leave It command in various situations throughout the day and praise every time she does so. Over the next month or so, instead of providing a treat every time, try providing a treat only about 75% of the time. For a month after that, provide the treat only about half the time (while still praising every time). In the third month, provide a treat only 25% of the time. After that, provide a treat in exchange for her item just every once in a while, but continue to praise enthusiastically every time. Your dog should by then be happily looking up at you when you approach her as she is chewing a bone or toy, or eating from her food bowl. Her tail might even be wagging as she readily looks away from her valued resource, always hoping you’ve got something even better to bestow upon her!

 

How Dogs Use Facial Expressions and Body Posture to Communicate with Us

I wrote last month about how we can interpret dogs’ tail wags to best determine whether they are happy, comfortable, nervous, or potentially aggressive. Because the tail is only one piece of a dog’s communication system, we must also consider facial expressions and overall body positioning to get the clearest sense of a dog’s intentions. This month, I turn to these other body language signals that dogs use to communicate with each other and with us.

We are rarely confused when we encounter a dog whose lips are curled back exposing a set of menacing white teeth. The dog’s snarl is a frightening scene, as it is designed to be, and most humans and other dogs know to back off in this situation. Similarly, most of us are immediately sympathetic to a dog who is hunkered down and trembling, as we recognize these as signs of fear. Other facial expressions and body postures are less obvious however. For example, when a dog is guarding a valued resource like a bone and trying to let you know that she doesn’t want to share, you might see just a subtle lowering of the head and what’s sometimes called a “whale eye”, when the dog stares into the middle distance between her bone and you, with eyes angled such that you can see the whites of the eye. She might even turn her head away altogether, but hold her neck low over the bone, waiting to snap when you reach for it or touch her.

When dogs are happy and relaxed, we often see an almond-shape or squinted eye, often associated with an open mouth, tongue hanging out, and ears forward or casually out to the sides. As dogs become more nervous or defensive, the mouth will close, the ears may pin back or move sharply forward (depending on the circumstances), and the eyes will become rounder. In some cases, owners can detect the difference between a “hard stare” and a soft gaze, the former being the face they might see before aggression occurs, and the latter they might see when, for example, doing Sit/Stay training, playing, or snuggling with their dog. For owners whose dogs sometimes show aggression, being able to distinguish between a hard and soft stare is very important for being able to manage and treat aggressive behavior.

I wrote last month about how dogs use their tails in some cases to make themselves look bigger (when feeling threatened or when advertising potential for aggression). They can use the rest of their bodies for similar purposes. In particular, if your dog is prone to aggression toward other dogs, you might notice that he immediately expands his neck and chest, rising up and forward a bit, as soon as he sees a dog at a distance. Often this stiffening body posture is associated with the stiffening facial expression and hard stare described above. Once this dog reaches another dog for a nose to nose encounter, body language plays a big role in determining how that interaction will go. If he and the other dog engage in mutual rear-end sniffing and curious circling without much eye contact and without stiff posturing, many will soon break into wiggly greeting behavior characterized by open mouth, softened body tone, and swishy tail. If one or the other, however, jumps around nervously, refusing to allow his rear end to be sniffed, or jumps on the other, snaps, or shows teeth early in the greeting, then a fight is more likely to erupt during that encounter. In some cases, a dog may remain very stiff while another dog conveys loose and wiggly body language. The dog who is holding his body stiff and still is more likely to snap, growl, or bite if the other dog remains overly interested in sniffing, circling, or trying to play with him.

Body stillness in general is a commonly overlooked characteristic of canine communication. I often find myself cringing in public situations when I see a dog on leash with its owners, being introduced to new people, especially children. Specifically, I am alarmed when I see a dog standing still, sometimes looking or leaning away, eyebrows furrowed nervously, or standing stiff and straight, eyes focused in a direct stare, while children or well-meaning adults loom around the dog, petting and patting him with abandon. Neither the greeters nor the pet owner seem to notice that the dog is doing everything she can to convey that she is uncomfortable with that interaction. In some cases, a dog might remain uncomfortable time and again without going any further; in other cases, such a dog might turn to growling, snapping, or biting to communicate its desire to move away from these situations.

We live closely with dogs – our own and those in the community around us. Thus, it behooves all of us to educate ourselves on dogs’ body language and facial expressions so as to reduce the prevalence of dog bites and to enhance the well-being of our dogs as well.

Interpreting Dogs' Tails and the Tales they Tell

“But I don’t understand why she bit me, Doc! She was wagging her tail the whole time…” If I had a dog biscuit for every time I’ve heard this lament from a client, I could open up my own doggie bakery!

From the time we were small, most of us have been taught that a wagging tail means a friendly dog, and some of us have unfortunately learned the hard way that this is not always the case. A dog’s tail is a very important part of his or her communication system, serving sometimes as a beacon (“Come see me!” or “Keep petting!”) and sometimes as a warning (“Proceed with caution!” or “Back away!”) Dogs use their tails to communicate with each other and also with us and an understanding of what a tail can tell can sometimes prevent a dog bite. After all, if we all learned to read dogs’ body language expertly, dogs wouldn’t need to rely on ever more dramatic forms of communication for us to get the picture!

From a distance, a dog’s tail can convey its size, and size matters an awful lot in the animal kingdom! Whether in communications between predator and potential prey or between members of the same species, a bigger animal is often a safer animal. Thus, when dogs see each other from a distance, many of them raise their tail high above the line of their back, into an arc shape and wagging stiffly. In fact, it’s been suggested that many mixed-breed dogs have evolved markings that include a different colored tip to their tail precisely because this salient flash of color serves as a marker of a dog’s size from a distance.

As dogs approach one another or us and interact more closely, other signs become important in communicating the dogs’ intentions. Let’s review two telling tail features that we should be tuned in to.

Tail height. We should pay attention to how high the dog is carrying his tail. As mentioned above, dogs often carry their tail high when trying to convey size. This reflexive attempt to look bigger is likely to arise in situations where a dog is unsure about what’s to come (e.g., when approaching an unknown dog/person or when unsure how another dog/person is going to respond in a greeting situation.) If a dog continues to hold her tail high and stiff during a greeting, it may convey a general unease with the interaction or a readiness to become aggressive.

When the tail is held low or tucked between the legs, most of us recognize that a dog is timid or frightened. This might be seen in a puppy when first meeting new adult dogs or in dogs with a limited socialization history when meeting new people. It also can be seen in otherwise relaxed dogs who suddenly become frightened. The low tail is designed to communicate that the dog is no threat but is at least mildly uncomfortable. If a person continues to interact with an overly fearful dog, the dog may feel the need to move to other defensive responses, which can include snapping or biting.

A tail that is carried somewhere in the middle, especially when swishing side to side with a wiggle to the hip signals friendly intentions and an interest in greeting. Because the swish of that tail is so important to an understanding of intention, let’s move right into the second telling tail sign.

Tail movement. When a tail is stiff and held high, in what is called the flagpole position, we should proceed with caution, as this may indicate the possibility of aggression. In fact, this is the tail position most commonly associated with the misunderstanding I started with above. Specifically, a person may pass a dog on its property who is standing with flagpole tail and the tail might even be “wagging” stiffly side to side. If the person continues to approach or tries to pet the dog, the dog may move to growling, barking, snapping, or biting. From the dog’s perspective, the stiff and high tail was meant to communicate something like, “Stay where you are or continue on your way – I am uncomfortable with your presence!” If the person sees a stiff wag in that tail and assumes the dog wants to say hello, the dog may feel compelled to use other (sometimes more aggressive) ways to communicate.

The ideal tail wag we should be looking for if our intention is to pet a dog, or that we hope to see when dogs are greeting each other, is the swishy wag that is either soft and relaxed with the tail in a flattened “S” shape behind the back or so wiggly that the whole back end is moving side to side along with it. This latter tail wag is the one we’re most likely to see when our own dogs greet us or when most puppies greet, well, anyone they meet! As dogs mature into adulthood, some become more selective in their full wiggle presentation, saving it for those they are closest to, while other dogs spend a lifetime wiggling for anyone who might even consider reaching down to pet them.

We must also consider that, through breeding or tail docking, some dogs have tails whose shape makes it more difficult to read (e.g., a Pug’s corkscrew or a Husky’s sickle-shaped tail) while other dogs have no tail at all! In these cases, we must look to other body language indicators to understand a dog’s intention. We will turn to some of these indicators in next month’s column.

In the meantime, keep in mind - a tail has a tale to tell and our dogs sure hope we are paying attention!