Socialization Strategies for your Dog

Anyone who has acquired a puppy is likely to have heard that they must socialize extensively during the first year of life. “Bring your puppy with you on outings,” owners are told, “to the park, on city streets, through neighborhoods. Introduce your puppy to cars and bikes and kids and cats and skateboards and wheelchairs and cows and…” Whew! Sounds like these first-year pups have an awfully busy schedule ahead of them! While it is absolutely important for puppies to be exposed to a variety of stimuli while they are young, proper socialization involves more than simply putting puppies into situations where they encounter these things. Owners should utilize a few strategies to ensure that socialization accomplishes its goals, which are to teach a developing dog to be calm, relaxed, and well-behaved in public situations and to reduce the likelihood of fearful or aggressive responses to common stimuli that the dog may encounter throughout its life.

The first key strategy is to watch and know your own dog. You must be attuned to how your puppy is responding to the social situations into which you are placing him or her. By disposition or due to prior learning experiences, some pups are much more timid, fearful, or shy than others. We often imagine puppies as we see them in dog food commercials: tongue-flapping, hip-wiggling furballs falling all over themselves to say hello to every person, dog, and butterfly on their horizon. Indeed, many puppies are exactly like this. Others, however, hide behind their owner’s leg when they see a person, freeze or urinate submissively when they are greeted by a dog, and would nearly jump out of their own skin should a butterfly come along! To arrange socialization experiences that proceed at the best pace for your puppy as described next, you must first be observant and sensitive to his or her disposition and responses from the outset. 

You should set up social experiences in graded steps that reflect your puppy’s personality and behavior. If you notice that your puppy seems timid or fearful in new situations, you should move more slowly and deliberately in terms of the intensity of exposure than you would if your puppy is always jolly and exuberant. Pay attention to your puppy’s approach versus retreat behavior and other body language indicators. When he sees a new person, for example, does your pup pull mightily on the leash, tail wagging wide enough that it shakes his whole rear end, perhaps with some excited whimpering and attempts to jump up as the person approaches? Or does she lower her body a bit, stiffening or tucking her tail, looking away from the other person or retreating behind you as the person approaches? If yours is the full-speed-ahead pup, you should get those treats out to practice the Sit/Stay you might be learning in puppy class for appropriate greetings. Or you might work on teaching your puppy to Sit in a fenced area so that a Sit can be rewarded by you taking off the leash and letting the pup run merrily to greet a friend who is there to help you train. If your puppy is of the shyer sort, you should instead work at a distance from new people at first, playing ball with her or working on her basic obedience exercises (always with positive reinforcement – the use of punishment in the form of electronic collar or chain collar corrections during puppy training is not recommended by certified animal behaviorists or veterinary behaviorists) without requiring social introductions just yet. You might also have a friend sit down and look away casually, so that your shyer puppy can be encouraged by the stranger’s less threatening position and greeting style.

If you have noticed that your pup is on the shyer side, you also should begin to associate the appearance and approach of people (or whatever makes your dog shy) with the delivery of your dog’s most valued items or activities. If your puppy loves treats, deliver a treat with a happy call of your dog’s name each time you see a person approaching. If your dog loves her tennis ball, bring it with you on outings so that she learns the ball is available when strangers are milling about. If she prefers just getting belly rubs and ear scratches, sit down with her beside the walking trail and give a luxurious 2-minute massage each time a jogger goes by. Your goal here is to teach her to be happy and excited about the thing that now makes her nervous because that thing predicts wonderful stuff for her. If you instead push this pup too far with lots of mere exposure (without systematic use of positive reinforcement and graded exposure), you risk increasing her fear levels over time.

It is important to remember that any puppy can develop fearful responding to new situations if those situations are unpredictable or overly frightening to begin with. Dogs exposed to generally stressful or overwhelming situations before they are ready, sometimes with owners’ best intentions at socialization, develop increasing fear or aggressive responding over time because the level of exposure was too much and thus did not have a calming effect. I have heard many a tale of socialization gone wrong because well-intentioned owners took their puppies to socialize at an overcrowded market, an overbearing dog park, or an overstimulating playground. In other cases, the environment might be one the pup would respond well to with repeated exposure but the owner only introduces the dog to the situation once or twice and thus does not allow the calming effect to occur over time (in behavioral language, this process is called habituation).

In sum, it’s essential to watch your dog, look for signs of relaxation and contained joy at every turn, and adjust your level of exposure in new situations to accommodate your pup. In so doing, you are well on your way to teaching him or her that the world is a blooming, bustling, beautiful place!  




Frightening Fireworks and Terrifying T-storms

“Crash! Whistle! Boom!” Every year on July 4th, people across the country gather to observe magnificent fireworks displays. They dazzle and excite us, causing our heart to race and our chest to pound as each boom echoes across the valley. Lucky for us, we understand that we are safe, that these displays are for our entertainment, and that their explosive power is being contained and managed.

Unfortunately, our canine companions don’t have this comforting information available to them. To many dogs, fireworks and other loud noises such as thunder are terribly frightening events. With the first distant bang or faint roll of thunder, many dogs begin to quiver, drool, pant, or whine. They may begin searching frantically for a hiding spot in a closet corner or under a bed. In extreme cases, dogs will dig through floorboards, jump from windows, and break toenails or teeth trying to break out of crates or other enclosures.

Noise phobias in dogs have some biological basis to the extent that loud, sudden noises are startling to many critters across the animal kingdom. Loud noises in nature can signal danger, such as an approaching predator. What may begin in a young dog as a mild startle response or nervous behavior can develop into full-blown distress and phobic responding over time. Noises such as thunder, fireworks, and gun shots are unpredictable to a dog, and this can create ever-escalating levels of fear, just as the inevitable but unpredictable monster jumping out in a horror movie can cause us to become increasingly anxious as we watch.       

Treating noise phobias in dogs often requires the assistance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. In cases like this, a program of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning will be arranged for your dog. Systematic desensitization is a treatment procedure used with humans and nonhumans to treat phobias. A fear hierarchy is first developed, in which all your dog’s triggers for fear are listed in order of increasing fear provocation. For example, noise-phobic dogs may be sensitive not only to fireworks but also to household noises like popping toasters or clicking clocks. These may trigger lower levels of fear than fireworks, but would be included as the first steps of a fear hierarchy.

At each level of the fear hierarchy, the dog is presented with low levels of the triggering noise while calm behavior is rewarded with food, massage, or toy play. The dog is not presented with increasingly anxiety-provoking noises until she has been made calm at the previous stage of treatment. For example, once a noise-phobic dog has been desensitized to household noises, she might be presented with a fireworks CD playing at the lowest volume possible. The owner and CAAB work together to keep her relaxed and/or playful while the CD plays. Once she has achieved calm behavior for a period of time, the volume on the CD is gradually increased. Eventually, the noises are presented at full volume while the dog happily chases after a ball, eats bits of chicken, or rolls over for belly rubs.

Treatment for noise phobias typically requires a minimum of 6-8 weeks of treatment, and may require many months to achieve calm behavior at full noise intensity. The work required of owners is not insignificant, and regular conditioning exercises must be arranged. With this sort of commitment by pet owners, however, treatment often is successful. Although most dogs will never enjoy a 4th of July fireworks display quite like we humans do, we can work to ensure that they are happy to find a place to lay down with a bone and lick their way through Independence Day.      


Bringing a Second Dog into the Home

Dear Dr. Maxwell,

 I was wondering if you could give me some insight on adding a second dog to our family. In addition to our two older cats, we have a female 18-month-old rescue that we got in August. She is 50 pounds and very active (although she does seem to be settling down a bit lately.) She is also very jealous of our attention with our cats. She does things like jumping up from a nap to stand between the cats and us if we speak to them, even waking up to do this! We do want to get another female dog (not a puppy), so I have two questions: 1. What is the best way to introduce this new dog to minimize her jealousy? 2. Since she is quite active, would another active dog who could match her be best or would a more sedate dog who might calm her down some be better? Any thoughts that you have on this would be most appreciated!!

 Rene H., Lexington, VA

Dear Rene,

How wonderful of you to rescue one dog and to consider taking in a second! With so many dogs in need of homes, there is always reason for a bit of kudos to those who adopt. In terms of the match between your own dog and the potential addition, there are several things to consider. As you smartly mention, examining overall activity levels is of primary importance. Many folks decide to bring in a second dog as a friend for their first, only to discover that the two don’t get along, if not because of outright aggression then simply because one is more active, plays more roughly, has different standards in terms of personal body space, or other related issues. In fact, I have worked with many families whose first dog would most certainly have preferred to remain the only dog, so it’s smart to be asking these questions before adoption occurs.   

In general, dogs are best matched when they both display appropriate and similar canine communication signals and play styles. For example, during play, dogs should take turns being the chaser and being chased, should back off when things get too rough or vocal, and should occasionally break out of wrestling with a play bow or to sniff the ground as a calming signal to each other that they are not taking things too seriously. Ideally, each dog might occasionally be the one to roll on its back during play while the other is standing over and playfully mouthing at him or her. These play styles can be hard to teach a dog so matching based on existing play styles, especially when introducing two adult dogs, can be beneficial. One great way to assess a match for your dog is to volunteer to foster a dog through a local animal rescue or shelter. When you foster, you typically have the option to adopt the dog at any point. If it’s a match made in dog heaven as you observe them together over several weeks, then adopt! If it’s not, then you are still doing a great service by temporarily providing a homeless dog with a home environment and, ideally, some training, stability, and socialization before it moves on to its forever home.

In terms of your dog’s “jealous” tendencies, it may be that she has learned that when she interrupts the attention you are giving to the cats, you turn your attention to her instead. If she is taught that she will not receive attention when she does this, and instead receives attention when she stays in position, you should be able to turn around this policing behavior of hers. It would be helpful to see whether she has a tendency to do the same thing with a visiting dog or foster dog as well, or whether this pattern is specific to the interactions between you and your cats. Either way, this is certainly a behavior that I work with families frequently to address and one that responds well to behavioral intervention and training.

Of more concern might be whether your dog is prone to resource guarding with other animals. Does she stiffen, growl, snarl, or snap when the cats or visiting dogs approach her while she is eating, drinking, chewing a toy or bone? How about when the cats approach while she is being petted by or snuggling by you? Or when they approach her while she is resting in her favorite place? It is important to assess whether she is likely to become aggressive in order to protect her access to things she loves, like food, toys, attention, her people, or her resting places, because this sort of aggression frequently causes more serious problems in multidog homes.

If you find that your dog is high energy but friendly with other dogs, and seems to make friends with other dogs without being an annoyance to them, then your chances of finding a friend for her in a second dog are high. If you find that she tends to trigger aggression in other dogs, or becomes aggressive herself, then you may want to work with a pet behavior professional who can guide you in making a selection of a second dog or counsel you on whether she instead might do best as the only dog in your home.

What's in a Name? Teaching Name Recognition

Teaching your dog to respond to his or her name is an essential part of establishing clear lines of communication between the two of you. Whether you have a new puppy, or have just adopted an adult dog and would like to use a name of your choosing, you can begin at the same place in training and your dog can come to respond reliably to anything you would like to call her. Your goal in teaching name recognition is to have a dog who looks to you when she hears her name and waits for the next cue, or command, that you might give (for example, “Come!”) Here are some steps for teaching name recognition. 

First, choose a name! Be creative and have fun – choosing a name is one of the perks of new dog ownership! In the first weeks of your dog’s arrival, say her name in a clear, upbeat voice. As soon as she glances in your direction, for even a moment, praise with a short happy “Yes!” or “Good!” and toss her a treat. If your dog does not glance in your direction, try saying her name and crouching down at the same time. As soon as she glances in your direction, praise and treat. Practice this several times a day inside the house and in different rooms. When she is reliably looking at you in response to her name inside the house (e.g., 9 out of 10 times), practice outside in a fenced-in area or on leash. Over time, practice calling her name in more distracting and diverse situations (e.g., when visitors are over, in the presence of other dogs, while you are sitting down). Always praise happily as soon as she looks at you and extend your hand so that she knows you have a treat for her for this behavior over the first few months.

Once your dog reliably looks at you when you say her name, feel free to add the Come command (e.g., “Fluffy, Come!”) In this case, she should look at you when she hears “Fluffy!” and begin moving toward you as soon as she hears “Come!” Have a treat in your outstretched hand to prompt her in your direction, praise with “Good!” or “Yes!” as soon as she starts to move toward you, and deliver the treat when she gets to you. After your dog is reliably looking to you in response to her name, you can begin to reduce your treat schedule of reinforcement. To do this, you should continue to praise each time she looks to you (or call her to you and praise as soon as she gets to you), but begin offering a treat only about 80% of the time. After a couple of weeks of daily practice and when she continues to reliably respond to her name, reduce the treat schedule to 60% of the time, then 40%, etc. Always provide other positive consequences when she responds to her name, even if you are no longer treating it each time. Provide a game, some petting or praise, or an invitation to a walk, for example, whenever you call your dog’s name thereafter.

You should not call your dog’s name to yell at her or to do something she does not like. If you call her name and she looks at you, and then you reprimand her for having gotten into the garbage, for example, you are actually punishing her for looking at you when you say her name. This is the last behavior that occurs before your reprimand, and thus looking at you (instead of garbage stealing) gets punished. Similarly, you should not use her name when you say “No”. Although this comes very naturally for most owners, it is important to use “No” as a reprimand or a “cease and desist” command without pairing it with her name. Remember that to maintain reliable attention to you when you call her, your dog’s name should always mean to her, “When I hear my owner call my name, I should look at my owner to see what wonderful thing he or she has in store for me!”


Amos the Anxious Airedale

In last month’s blog post, I defined canine separation anxiety and discussed some of its characteristics. This month, I review some intervention strategies that can be used to address it.

Amos was a handsome and well-behaved 2-year-old Airedale. His owners lived in a large home with a big fenced-in yard and Amos enjoyed days full of chasing squirrels and spending time with his devoted owner Susan. Susan had taken Amos through puppy obedience classes, where he had done very well, and she tended to take him with her wherever she went for most of his first year. Because he was so calm in the car and well-behaved in public, Susan saw little reason to leave him home alone. When he was occasionally left home alone for short periods, Susan left him in the fenced-in yard and there had been no problem.

Soon after Amos’s first birthday, Susan got a full-time job. In all her focus on this new venture, she didn’t suspect that the transition would be much trouble for Amos. Amos still slept in the crate that Susan had used to help with housetraining, so she decided she would crate him while she was at work, just to be sure he wouldn’t get into any trouble. When she got home that evening, she heard Amos whining and was shocked to find him standing in his crate, soaked in drool and panting wildly. The bars on his crate door, never touched before, were now bent and chipped, and his blanket had been shredded. She let him out right away and he jumped on her, then ran in circles as she let him outside. As she cleaned up his crate area, she wondered if she had crated him for too long and decided she would try leaving him out of the crate the next day. Returning home from work the next day, she worried she had made the wrong choice when she saw only slobbery nose and paw prints all over the bay window where her Venetian blinds had been hanging that morning…

Our first task was to determine how to manage Amos in the short-term while Susan had to continue with her 40-hour work week. We knew we were looking at some weeks of behavior therapy ahead, and we needed a placement for Amos while we worked to change his behavior. We located a dog sitter who was able to keep Amos in her home while Susan was at work over the coming weeks. We then had to identify those rewarding items and activities that could be used in a behavioral intervention plan. Susan noted that Amos most loved peanut butter, dog treats, going for walks, and being by her side. We decided to utilize all of these as positive consequences for calm, independent behavior. I taught Susan to be mindful of those times when Amos was off on his own, sleeping in another room or in his open crate, and to go to him at these times and do one of the following: announce it was time for a walk and take him out, lay down with him for a 5-minute belly rub, or bring his toy and initiate a 5-minute game of chase or tug. In this way, we used Amos’s favorite activities to reward and strengthen calm, relaxed, independent behavior that occurred at a distance from Susan.

We also began daily crate desensitization sessions that involved Susan closing Amos in his crate with a toy stuffed with peanut butter and dog treats and leaving him in there while she milled about the house – out of the room but not out of the house at first. She returned within 10 or 15 minutes, before he had finished the food, and let him out of the crate, removing the food toy at the same time. When we saw that he was consistently calm and focused on his food toy while crated, she began leaving the house to walk around the yard before returning to let him out of the crate and to remove his food toy. From here, we gradually increased the duration of time he was crated with his food toy and also the distance she went from the house, having Susan first walk around the yard, then walk around the block, then sit in her car with the engine on, then take the car around the block. At each stage, our initial goal was to keep Amos excited about his food toy and to return before he lost interest in it so that he might actually be a little disappointed his mom had returned because he lost his delectable peanut butter toy!

We set up Susan’s laptop on a video chat facing Amos’s crate so that we could monitor Amos’s behavior in our absence. Soon we began extending our departures just beyond the time it took for Amos to lose interest in or finish his food. Once he finished the food, we observed that he would circle in his crate a bit and look around as if waiting for us, but he did not immediately start to whine or paw at the crate. So we returned home in time to reward this calm behavior by greeting him and letting him out of the crate before anxious behavior began.

Within 6 weeks, Susan was able to leave Amos inside the crate for up to 2 hours on evenings or weekends and saw no signs of anxiety. We then had Susan practice short outings on weekend mornings that simulated all of her workday morning routines but instead of loading Amos into the car to take him to the sitter, Susan loaded him into his crate with his food toy and left to go around the block. Success! Amos went to his food toy with excitement and was still working on it when she returned. Once we saw this successful response was sustained across sessions, we had Susan leave him for half-days during the week, coming home for lunch at first, and then for full days. All of Susan’s hard work paid off, and Amos was finally taught what pups typically learn when they are much younger – that being home alone is nothing to worry about!


The Secret Life of Pets

The 2016 animated hit The Secret Life of Pets opens with an entertaining montage of scenes depicting how pets behave when their owners leave for the day. As owners say good-bye and head to work, closing the doors behind them, we see the Chihuahua who promptly urinates in the houseplants, the Pug who rearranges the furniture for a day of barking at squirrels, and the stately Poodle who secretly head-bangs to heavy metal music. And we meet the main character, Max the Jack Russell, who spends his day just sitting hopefully by the door, waiting with great anticipation for the return of his beloved owner.

Comedic though it is, there are elements of truth to many of these scenarios (except perhaps the head-banging Poodle.) In fact, dogs can get themselves into all sorts of trouble when they are home alone. For some dogs, being home alone signals a “safe” time for chewing furniture, getting into the trash, or sleeping on the bed they’re not allowed on when their owners are home. Extra energy, incomplete training, and/or boredom can lead them to explore these naturally enticing activities. From the dog’s perspective, chewing that wooden chair leg, eating those yummy thrown-away pork rinds, or curling up on the softest spot in the house make perfect sense and there is no “intent” on misbehavior. These dogs should be provided with increased enrichment and exercise. They should be crated when home alone to encourage them to be relaxed and to prevent them from getting into trouble. In the same way that parents restrict the freedom given to toddlers, while allowing older children gradually more independence when outside of their supervision, dog owners can gradually begin to leave dogs home alone in larger spaces in stages as they mature.

Before we attribute any of these home-alone canine capers to extra energy, curiosity, or boredom, however, we must consider that much of the problem behavior we see when dogs are home alone is indicative of something else altogether – separation anxiety. Behavioral indicators of separation anxiety including destruction, house soiling, and barking at windows, for example, when dogs are home alone. These can often be mistaken for mere nuisance behavior, yet they stem from different sources and must be treated differently.

Like The Secret Life’s Max, many dogs’ lives revolve entirely around their humans. When their humans are with them, the world is rich with food, belly rubs, walks in the park, and snuggles on the sofa. When their humans are gone, well, things can get pretty lonely. Dogs are a highly social species. In the wild, feral dogs often live in close proximity to each other with very little fighting and will spend time curled up near each other and share common food sources (typically village trash dumps). Pups from a very young age will reflexively whimper if separated from their mother, and these cries bring the mother to them so that she can carry them back to the safety of the nesting site. In the home environment, dogs seek out physical contact and affection from us throughout their adulthood - this is one of the reasons we love them so. Because dogs bond with humans as easily as they do with their own kind, we are in a sort of substitute parenting role and separation from us can be quite upsetting.

As pups, dogs must be taught to tolerate short periods of independence at first, with those times increasing in length as they get older. For many families, this is best arranged by using the crate, which is a great help for housetraining already and can serve as a “play pen” of sorts to allow for short bouts of independence while ensuring the dog’s safety. Dogs thus can learn that being alone is safe, occurs in manageable doses, and is always followed by the owner’s return. As they mature, their owners can allow them to “graduate” to increased freedom in the house without risk of separation anxiety.

Unfortunately, for those dogs who are rarely or never left alone early in life, or who are left alone for inordinately long periods without proper arrangements to make them feel safe, being left alone can be highly distressing.  In extreme cases, these dogs can bark themselves hoarse, tear down blinds, vomit, urinate, or defecate inside the house, chew through walls, break out of locked crates, even breaking their own nails and teeth in the process. I’ve had countless clients over the years who have come home to find their dogs in puddles of their own saliva (excessive drooling is a sign of anxiety), shaking and panting profusely, or even running to greet them in the driveway, having broken through a window to escape. There is no need to exaggerate the seriousness of canine separation anxiety, as any owner who battles it can attest. 

Thankfully, there are sound, effective, and evidence-based strategies for addressing separation anxiety. Thanks to the work of applied animal behaviorists, veterinary behaviorists, and dog trainers, a series of recommendations have been coalesced that, when used in combination, often serve to reduce or eliminate separation anxiety over time. In next month’s column, I will elucidate intervention tactics for separation anxiety while discussing the case of anxious Amos the Airedale.


Wintertime Activities for our Furry Family Members

As we settle in for the typically more sedentary wintry months ahead, it’s important to assess the exercise and enrichment needs of our dogs. For many dogs, warmer weather promises opportunities for long walks, exciting Frisbee and ball play, or hours just basking under the sun with their humans in the back yard. But these colder months indoors can be a real drag for our canine friends as they are for many of us. So what can you do this winter to keep your dog active and occupied?

Of course, the best option for many families is simply to bundle up and head outside anyway – go walking in a winter wonderland! Many dogs love snowy weather and find it exhilarating to leap and then dive their noses into the snow, fox-style, or to chase snowballs, launching into the air to catch them and seeming to delight as the balls break into powdery pieces all around their faces. If your dog seems to shiver continuously in the cold or tries to go back indoors as soon as you let him out, try a well-fitted dog coat to provide the extra warmth that might allow him to enjoy the brisk weather. Some dogs also can collect uncomfortable icy balls between the pads of their feet or have paw pads that become irritated by cold earth or salty gravel used to melt snow near roads, so keep an eye on those tootsies too!

Luckily, there are plenty of exciting games and enrichment options you can provide indoors during inclement weather as well. For many dogs, interactive toy play with their owner will beat solitary play any time of year, so ramp up your tug of war and toy chase games inside the house this winter. Many owners ask whether tug of war can make dogs aggressive. Luckily, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. In fact, one study demonstrated no increase in aggression after tug of war, even when dogs were allowed to “win” (that is, get the toy) every time! Unless your dog is already possessive of toys and will stiffen, show teeth, growl, snap, or bite when approached with a toy, you should be able to safely play tug of war to your heart’s content all winter long. (If your dog already is a toy guarder, you should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board-certified veterinary behaviorist for assistance.) Of course, it’s always a great idea to keep a treat in your pocket and surprise your pup every once in a while by asking her to Drop the toy during tug of war and providing a surprise treat trade when she does so.

Many dogs also can become quite good at Hide and Seek for treats in the house, and this is a game that is great for teaching self-control and waiting. Teach your dog first to Sit and Stay, and then build the Stay to the point where you can lay a treat down on the floor while she remains in position until you release her with an “OK!” or “Get it!” cue. When she can do this reliably, start laying down a few treats in a row before you release her with your “OK!” cue. You can ultimately build to the point at which your dog can Stay as you hide treats all over the living room then release her to locate them using her nose! You have now turned an obedience exercise into an exciting scent-based search and find game, and your dog will thank you for it. You can conduct this exercise identically using a stuffed animal or tennis ball for those dogs who love their toys as well as treats. In fact, you can even play Hide and Seek with yourself, teaching your dog to come find YOU when you call her from across the house after teaching her to Stay as you move out of sight.

For those times when you cannot interact with your dog to keep him occupied, consider increasing the number and type of chew toys, bones, and activity feeders or puzzle toys in the house. There are a seemingly endless variety of these available online and in pet stores and many owners find themselves perpetually on the look-out for those that are the most durable, fun, and engaging for their dogs. Although these items can put a strain on the wallet over time, especially for dogs who love to seek and destroy toys, it may be the best option for families with limited time for interactive play or exercise in the winter months. 




Home for the Holidays

Dear Dr. Maxwell,

My aunt is coming to stay with me for a week at Christmas and she wants to bring her two Yorkies. They are generally good dogs but they’re skittish and they’ve never been around children. We had a baby boy this year and he is now crawling and learning to walk. I’m concerned that the dogs will be fearful or aggressive with him. When I asked my aunt about this, she said she’d keep an eye on them and that they’d probably be fine with a slow introduction to my son, but I’m not convinced. She loves these dogs like her own children and I worry she’ll take it personally if we ask her not to bring them. How can we make sure this visit goes safely and smoothly for everybody?

Christina O.

Blacksburg, VA

The holiday season can be full of joy as well as stress for many families, especially when family members come in from out of town to stay. The concerns you have, Christina, are valid ones. Many dogs who are not introduced to children in a positive way throughout their puppyhood can develop fearful, avoidant, or even aggressive responses to children later in life. Without your aunt having carefully observed her dogs’ reaction to children in the past, she cannot say with certainty how her dogs will respond. And holiday visits are neither the time to test this out nor the time to teach the dogs how to respond positively to children should their behavior be less than ideal.

Dogs don’t necessarily view children as simply younger versions of adults. Children look, sound, and smell different than adults do. Children move differently, act less predictably, and respond more variably to dogs than do adults. Many children may be overly excited about meeting new dogs, while others may squeal and run away in fear or play. Still others may pull tails or ears or startle dogs with sudden pats or hugs. Any of these variables can spell trouble when kids and dogs mix. When you add to this the hustle and bustle of holiday festivities, your best bet is definitely to avoid the situation altogether. Perhaps your aunt has a friend in her hometown who enjoys the dogs, and whom they enjoy visiting. Or perhaps she has a doggie daycare she has used in the past. Alternatively, perhaps there are other accommodations for your aunt and her dogs here in Blacksburg, where they could stay without having to worry about children in the mix. Any of these options are preferable when her dogs’ responses to children are as yet unknown.

If your aunt would like to begin introducing her dogs to children in general, so as to assure they respond positively, she might start by bringing them to a local park this spring, observing their reactions to children at a distance, and rewarding relaxed or playful behavior while children are playing nearby at first. From there, she might seek out the assistance of someone she knows who has an older child first and allow some introductions and treat deliveries from the child, as long as her dogs have shown lots of prosocial, friendly body language and interest up to that point. (If she is at all uncertain about how her dogs are responding to children at any distance, she should contact a board certified applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for an assessment before proceeding on her own.) This is a process that might unfold very smoothly and successfully for her and her dogs, thus allowing for them all to stay at your house next year. But without further information on her dogs’ behavior at this point, you might be better able to focus on the holiday merriment this time around without having to worry about it.

Because of your aunt’s understandable attachment to her dogs, you might frame your request in terms of your concern not just for your son but also for her dogs. If her dogs are already prone to skittishness as you describe, and were found to be especially nervous around your son upon arrival, they may be unlikely to enjoy their travel experience very much either. Some dogs who are somewhat timid or jumpy in new situations are better off staying in a familiar place or with familiar people, even if their owners would prefer to share the holiday with them.

So, Christina, while this year’s holiday might be easiest if it’s dogless, you and your aunt can definitely work on developing a socialization plan for her dogs in 2017 that might allow next year’s visit to be a Yorkie-filled Yuletide after all! 

Factors that Predict Success in Dog Behavior Therapy and Training

For some dog owners, the question of how much their dog can learn is a challenging but exciting one. They envision fun possibilities in agility, advanced obedience, therapy dog work, or just the ever-expanding repertoire of fun “parlor tricks”. For these owners, it’s a question of how best to motivate their dog, to set up new and achievable learning challenges, and to put their dog into situations where he or she can earn positive reinforcement for acquiring new skills.

For many of the dog owners who contact board-certified animal or veterinary behaviorists for help, however, the question is posed with less enthusiasm. For those owners whose dog has bitten someone, is fighting with other dogs, destroying property, or driving himself frantic with anxiety, that same question of how much their dog can learn, or how much his or her behavior can be changed, has quite different implications. If no change can be made, some of these owners fear that they are facing dire outcomes, including rehoming or even euthanizing their dog. 

Fortunately, improvements often can be made in even the most severe behavior problem cases. And these troubled owners in fact face the same set of challenges as those training their dogs for fun. Specifically, to ameliorate behavior problems is also a matter of figuring out how best to motivate their dog, how to set up new and achievable learning challenges, and how to put their dog into situations where he or she can earn positive reinforcement for acquiring new skills. The difference is that, rather than teaching a pole weave or a cute roll-over response, we are teaching these troubled dogs how to be calm, confident, and attentive in situations that have provoked problem behavior in the past.

Owners whose dogs have serious behavior problems often have already spent much more money, time, and heartbreak on their dogs than they had expected, so it’s a perfectly reasonable question for them to ask of a pet behavior professional: “Can you fix this?”, “What are my dog’s chances of full recovery?”, or “Can you guarantee improvement in my dog?” Of course, there can never be any guarantee of sustained behavior change in any animal (or human for that matter). Behavior is controlled by many things and is sensitive to ongoing changes in the environment, so guarantees of permanent change should be taken with caution. Instead, to best answer the question of “prognosis”, it’s important to point out those variables that are associated with more or less successful outcomes. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, I will describe some of these factors here:

1) How long has the behavior problem been occurring? Behavior patterns that have been in place over long periods can be more difficult to address than those that have popped up recently, primarily because longer-lasting behavior problems tend to have a more complicated history of producing various consequences and becoming more “entrenched” or habitual over time.

2) How much is the behavior problem related to the dog’s breed or his or her individual genetic or dispositional tendencies? For example, dogs who are genetically prone to fearful or timid responding can take longer to respond to behavioral interventions designed to reduce fear. Or, dogs who are highly visually oriented by breed (e.g., herding breeds) may be inclined to track stimuli in their domestic environment and develop misplaced herding, circling, or repetitive tendencies.

3) How flexible can the family be in changing the way that they train, teach, or interact with their pet? For many families, the owners’ behavior is intimately related to the behavior problem of concern and their behavior must change if the pet’s behavior problem is to be resolved.

4) How much can environmental triggers be managed or controlled? For example, if the dog is barking wildly at the bay window all day and the behavior problem is resolved by closing the curtains, then voila! If the dog, however, is tearing down those curtains to get to the bay windows, then we have a more challenging situation to address.

5) How well does the dog respond to positive reinforcement that can be delivered by the owner? If a dog is highly motivated by consequences we can dole out to him or her, such as toys, treats, or physical affection, we are much better able to guide his or her learning and compete with environmental distractions and triggers.

There are many other, more complicated factors that determine how an individual dog will respond to behavioral intervention. These complex critters bring their own individual learning history to every situation and pet behavior professionals must take into account this individuality in developing a behavior plan that is suitable to the pet and the family. Luckily, there is an impressive arsenal of strategies, supported by a vast scientific literature in animal learning and behavior, that can be applied to help these families and their dogs make positive, sustainable behavior change.



Perfect Pooches in Public Places

My husband and I were out for dinner recently when we noticed a couple next to us on the restaurant patio with their perfectly behaved dog laying at their feet under the table. I commented to my husband that I wished we could bring our dogs out with us like that. He laughed and replied, "Only in your dreams – Finn and Kiwi will never be well-enough behaved for restaurant dining!" I think he’s right, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only dog owner who can’t enjoy her dogs publicly because of their behavior. Am I alone?

Annie W.

Knoxville, TN

Ah, the inevitable comparisons we make when we see wonderfully behaved dogs in public and think of our own dogs at home. We see these “perfect” dogs bounding off-leash around the park with their families, trotting through street fairs by their owner’s side, or, as you observed, in gentle repose at their owners’ feet at an eatery. Our minds flash to our own dogs and bad memories of that time they knocked down the bicyclist, ran into the side of a moving car while chasing a squirrel, barked at that small child, picked a fight with an innocent Pug, or myriad other embarrassing or even dangerous experiences we’ve had. This comparison is natural and common, but I hasten to assure you that you are far from alone, Annie! For every well-behaved dog in public, I would guess there are many more left at home because their behavior would make them unsuitable, disruptive, or just a nuisance to their owners.

Broadly speaking, a dog’s behavior is determined by a combination of his or her genetics, early socialization experiences, lifelong learning, and current environment. Only some of these variables are under our control. In a perfect world, breeders could emphasize and select for desirable behavioral traits. Those interested in purchasing a puppy could research breed characteristics and carefully select the breed or breed mix most likely to match their own lifestyle, and they could ensure that they meet the pups’ parents and find their behavior appealing. Puppy owners could carry out flawless socialization programs over the first 12 months of a pup’s life and continue to implement sound strategies for dog training and behavioral wellness for all the years thereafter. Alas, like your own dogs, Annie, the world is not perfect and these elements rarely come together as described. In fact, many of us own rescued dogs of unknown backgrounds altogether!

Now that we have established you are in good company, Annie, let’s address some strategies for you moving forward. First, you can always teach an old dog new tricks. That is to say, dogs who are neurologically sound are capable of learning and behavior change at any age and after any set of past experiences. However, this is not to say that you can turn your dog into anything you want her to be through training or behavior modification. This is one reason I am always skeptical when a dog trainer or pet behavior professional claims to “guarantee” behavior change results. Because behavior is, by definition, determined by many variables as described above, and because each owner brings his or her own experiences, skills, and expectations to the table, there are no training or behavior modification strategies that can meet every owner’s expectations in every case.

Your best bet is to delineate both short- and long-term goals for your dogs and to begin with some goals that are easily achievable. Beginning with easy tasks allows both you and your dog to be successful and thus reinforces your behavior and hers as you move forward with more challenging exercises. For example, if your long-term goal is to have Finn and Kiwi behaving politely at a dog-friendly restaurant, begin by taking stock of where they already can be polite. For example, are they polite in other public situations? Are they manageable and attentive to you on walks when greeting new people and encountering new things? Or are you in the position many are of walking them at odd hours or not at all to avoid social situations due to their behavior? We must start where Finn and Kiwi show strengths and develop pinpointed goals for moving forward from there. Signing on to a behavior modification or dog training program is like joining a gym – the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. And let there be no doubt that it will take time, repetition, persistence, and patience, and often the guidance and coaching of a qualified trainer or pet behavior professional.  

Assuming you agree to begin a behavior plan for your dogs, how will you know how far you can get with them or how much work it will take? Certainly, some of these “perfect pooches” you see behave as they do through extensive training by their owners while others were just naturally easy, attentive, relaxed, and social from the outset. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of one-time assessment tools that can predict with precision a dog’s response to behavior therapy or training over extended periods of time. In next month’s column, I will review some of the factors correlated with a successful outcome for dogs in behavior therapy and those associated with failures to progress. For now, Annie, enjoy Finn and Kiwi for everything they bring to your home, consider signing up for work with a qualified pet behavior professional, and enjoy those dog-free date nights with your husband!