Can Dogs Really Change?

October 25, 2011

I received a query this morning from a student of canine behavior. Based in the UK, she’s writing a paper on whether temperament can be altered by learning. This is a fascinating subject and one I’ve often pondered, particularly because of life with Bodhi.

Just as physical traits like coat or eye color are part of a dog’s genetic blueprint, so are personality traits such as a tendency to be shy or outgoing, anxious or calm, easily aroused or having a high frustration tolerance, to name a few. This is what allows breeders to select dogs who have appropriate temperaments for their breeding lines.

The nature-nurture question makes me think of a good friend who is also an excellent trainer. Almost two years ago, she got a German Shepherd puppy. Naturally, she went way above and beyond what the average dog owner would do as far as training and socialization, especially as she noticed early on that the pup was a bit suspicious of strangers and could be reactive. By all accounts the dog is doing well, but knowing that an insecure, reactive dog’s behavior can become much worse if left unchecked, she continues to work with him through his adolescence. They meet new people, attend classes, work on impulse control, and practice behaviors that help the dog to behave appropriately in various situations. There are more good days than bad, but every now and then the dog has a reaction to an unfamiliar person—usually a man—that is worrisome. This is a perfect example of how temperament has a continuous influence on a dog regardless of how much behavior modification is done.

Fear issues are another area where the effects of temperament are often apparent. Soko, our German Shepherd who lived to be thirteen, was an anxious dog. We did all the proper early and continued socialization and training, and yet she had certain fears, the most troublesome of which were sound phobias. A high-pitched sound on the television would send her careening out of the room, and the microwave beep terrified her. We did desensitization exercises for specific triggers (I used the microwave a lot at the time), and it helped some. But sadly, there weren’t enough desensitization exercises in the world to keep up with her constantly evolving fears.

We adopted Bodhi in his adolescence, so I have no idea what his puppyhood was like. What I do know is that he has a fairly constant, low-level anxiety, insecurity that manifests as reactivity toward other dogs, a sensitive startle reflex, and a low frustration tolerance. Though I can’t prove it, I believe these are part of his genetic makeup. When a friend talks about how her husky calmed down a lot once he reached age four or five, I wonder whether that will happen with Bodhi. I’d like to think so, but I don’t see his behavior as a product of his youth. Another friend’s dog, a Catahoula, is still wild and crazy at 13, with the same underlying, genetically influenced traits he had from the time he was a pup still going strong.

Of course we can and should do all of the management, behavior modification, and training possible, but to think it will change who a dog basically is, is unrealistic. And maybe that’s a relief, in a way. We can stop thinking, If I only work hard enough, eventually he’ll be able to play off-leash with other dogs or In a couple of years, he’ll settle down and be much calmer. It’s nice to think so, and hey, it could happen. But accepting who a dog is deep down, just as with a person, can often lead better understanding and less frustration. We can teach dogs how to behave, but not who to be.


Bodhi’s Big Day

October 6, 2011

Last week, my husband reminded me that Bodhi’s been with us just over a year now. While we love him, of course, there have certainly been plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. These include him having eaten the couch and disemboweled a mini-fridge, anxiety issues, urine leakage, and fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. The latter is something we’ve been working on for many months.

As some of you already know, my husband and I have an arrangement with the dogs. He takes one with him on weekday mornings before work, while I take the other to a different location. That allows him to run one dog through the arroyos or hike in the mountains, while whoever is with me gets a somewhat more sedate walking workout, but with more training and focus exercises. Since we’re at the park very early in the morning, I normally let whichever dog is with me run in the empty dog park area before we walk. If another owner shows up and wants to enter, especially if Bodhi is with me, we leave. It’s just not worth chancing Bodhi becoming reactive and undoing all of the progress we’ve made. And, I never know whether the other dog might be aggressive.

That’s what was going through my mind a few mornings ago when Bodhi and I were in the empty dog park. I spied an owner approaching with her smallish, mixed-breed dog. As she approached the gated entry, I asked her to wait, and explained that I wasn’t sure whether Bodhi would be reactive with her dog. He’s always been better with smaller dogs than large ones, and chances were that at this point he’d be fine. Still, I prefer to err on the side of caution, even if it causes other owners to think I’m being overly careful.

I had asked the woman to move her dog away from the entry gate so I could walk Bodhi out, and as we continued our amiable discussion, instead of moving back, she moved toward the chain link fence and allowed her dog to approach. Bodhi and the cute little dog, who looked like an American Eskimo/Pomeranian mix, had a getting-to-know-you sniff through the fence. Neither dog seemed reactive. Although she said the dog was a male and, as it turned out, just about Bodhi’s age, I had one of those intuitive feelings that all would be well. Just to be sure, though, I walked Bodhi out of the park and, with loose leashes, we allowed the two to meet. After a few seconds of curious but relaxed sniffing, the woman walked her dog, who turned out to be named Copper, into the park.

Bodhi and I soon followed. Copper was in the middle of the park sniffing what little grass there was. Bodhi walked in quickly, but without making a beeline for Copper. Soon enough, Copper began to solicit play by jumping at Bodhi and then darting a short distance away. Bodhi stood there looking interested but a bit perplexed. Copper continued, play bowing, spinning, and attempting to entice Bodhi to chase or wrestle with whatever maneuvers came into his fluffy little head. Soon Bodhi began to run, allowing Copper to chase him around the park. Of course, a dog running away does not necessarily denote play, but Bodhi looked like he was enjoying himself, and as the two rounded the perimeter and ended up back where Copper’s owner and I stood, they began to wrestle. Bodhi! Wrestling with a dog who wasn’t Sierra—and enjoying it! My heart swelled and I broke out in a big grin. This must be how parents of socially awkward children feel when their child makes a friend! I wasn’t so lost in my joy that I forgot to get video footage, though…I whipped out my iphone and captured some of the fun. Here’s a very short clip.

When we first got Bodhi I had taken him into the dog park when a few dogs were there, ones I knew to be friendly. Still, he’d been very stiff and had chosen to avoid them rather than engaging in play. I could have been like many owners and thought, Ah, he’ll come around and just let him get habituated to it. And he might have. But it could have just as easily gone the other way, with dogs pouncing at Bodhi and him becoming more and more reactive. And so I had made the decision to stick with on-leash walks around the park’s perimeter instead, working on his reactivity a bit at a time. Progress can be painfully slow at times, and there are setbacks, but we have made progress. There are certain dogs we encounter regularly, namely the group of dogs who are walked off-leash early in the mornings, that Bodhi actually ignores in favor of rushing their humans, who have taught him that if he approaches and sits, a treat will be forthcoming. Okay, not great manners with the humans, but I’m thrilled that he’s not at all concerned about the dogs. Strangely, a few weeks ago he did the same thing to a man we pass now and then with his Golden retriever. This man has never given Bodhi treats, but perhaps he reminded Bodhi of the others. Bodhi began to pull toward the dog and I let him, since his normal response is to whine, get himself under control, and then look at me for a treat—plus I knew the young Golden was friendly. When he reached them he looked at the man expectantly, and I laughed and explained why he was doing it. I let the very curious dog and Bodhi sniff each other for a few seconds, and then led Bodhi calmly away.

I know we’ve still got a way to go. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve been working on this behavior issue a long time, but I have to remind myself that Bodhi came to us from the shelter with this issue, and he’d already had a year or more to practice the unwanted behavior. Besides, a year in, things are looking promising.

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