Misreading Dogs

November 30, 2011

Have you ever been in a situation where you took something someone said the wrong way? What about misreading the expression on someone’s face, or their body language? Of course you have; it happens all the time. Although we intuitively understand the facial expressions and body language of others, the simple fact is, now and then we make mistakes. Fortunately, a straightforward conversation can usually clear up the confusion.

But what about reading dogs? Sure, we understand basic canine body language, and we know for the most part what a dog’s expressions and behaviors indicate. But it’s possible for everyone from the greenest dog owner to the most experienced trainer or behavior expert to make mistakes. Dogs are, after all, living creatures; it’s not like reading a temperature gauge or taking a pulse, where the answer is measurable and finite.

I remember once being at the computer when Bodhi came over, sat down, and gave me a meaningful look—you know, the one that can bore holes into your skull. Busy with my work, and assuming he was just bored and pestering me for attention, I told him repeatedly, “Not now.” Imagine how badly I felt when I finally left my office to find that his water dish was empty and probably had been for some time, especially after the bully stick I’d given him 30 minutes before had made him oh so thirsty.

Things can get dicier when we misread our dogs in situations that involve other dogs or people, especially if our dogs aren’t comfortable in those situations. Missing a subtle stress signal or a split-second flash of a mannerism can mean we don’t remove the dog from a situation quickly enough and, as a result, a more serious interaction occurs. This point was driven home recently, as I’ve been preparing a new seminar that includes half a day on dog-dog play. It’s extremely video-intensive, and the process of assessing all that video has been very educational. There is no way our eyes and brains can process all the nuances of play and communication between dogs; it just happens too fast. It really did blow my mind to see, during the slow motion playback, just how much I had missed. I bet that slow motion playback will open a lot of attendees’ eyes during the seminar as well.

Fortunately, completely misreading our own dogs doesn’t happen very often if we are tuned in to them. What I see more often is strangers misreading my dogs. “Oh, look, your dog wants to play.” No, my dog is stalking your dog, who apparently looks like lunch. Or the infamous, “All dogs love me” as the person approaches, even as you step in front of your dog to block any further interaction. It’s obvious to most that your dog does not love everybody, but some folks just seem to waft along in a cloud of blissful ignorance.

When others misread our dogs, we can step up and be our dogs’ advocates, their protectors. When we misread them…well, we can always do better the next time, and that means staying open to the possibility that our dogs’ intentions or behaviors may not always be what we perceive them to be. It means we continue our own ongoing education by being in the moment and practicing close observation of the amazing, nuanced signals and communication that is the language of dogs.


Separation Anxiety: Could it be in the genes?

November 21, 2011

I read a very interesting article this morning. It wasn’t actually about canine separation, but about separation anxiety in children. It seems that the gene GTF21, located on human chromosome 7, can have quite the effect on personality. People who are missing part of it have a condition called Williams syndrome and are “generally extra social.” (I love that there’s a “syndrome” attached to being extra social; is there one attached to being extra perky? My husband would pay big money to be able to medicate me for that one in the mornings.) Those with extra copies of a certain part of the gene can go in the other direction, having social and other types of anxiety. According to the article, roughly 26% of kids having an extra copy of the region containing GTF21 have been diagnosed by a doctor as having separation anxiety.

In mice that were genetically engineered to have a duplicate copy or two of GTF21 squeaked out ultrasonic distress calls to their mothers nearly twice as much as those with normal amounts of GTF21. And mice who had been engineered to be missing a copy of the gene were less vocal. As the article states, “This is the first study to show that some forms of anxiety may be linked to added or subtracted genes.”

When I was writing Don’t Leave Me: Step by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety, I thought about the possible genetic link quite a bit. I did list genetics as a possible cause, although finding research studies on the topic was nearly impossible. Author James Serpell states that “selectively breeding increasingly affectionate, socially dependent, and infantilized dogs may concomitantly select for excessive attachment to owners and intolerance to being alone.” This makes sense. And perhaps it’s even possible that in selecting for those traits, those GTF21 areas are being duplicated. We see the results of genetic selection in the temperament of the puppies we produce, but the truth is that we don’t know enough about the actual mechanism.

Of course separation anxiety can have many causes. Some are attributable to humans, such as bringing a dog home, spending tons of time with him, then leaving to go back to a regular work schedule. But what if separation anxiety is also found to have a definite genetic link? Is there a way to selectively turn off those extra areas of GTF21 so that separation issues could be lessened? Could we eliminate the excess GTF21 from breeding lines? Or will there be some sort of medication that could help by targeting that specific gene? Or, as Hilary Lane, who was kind enough to alert me to this article, says, “What if it backfires? If these dogs have the known genetics, will some euthanize them, thinking there is no way to solve the issue?” I certainly hope that wouldn’t be the case. After all, there are genetic components to fear issues, and to aggression issues as well. But even when we encounter dogs whose blueprint includes them, we can still make progress behaviorally. At this point there is no way of determining with certainty what caused a dog’s separation issues. But just as with other possibly genetic-based problems, we can still offer help and make life for that dog and owner a lot less stressful.

A Morning at the Dog Park

November 14, 2011

I spent two hours at the local dog park yesterday. No, I didn’t have my dogs with me—I’m not a fan of allowing them to run around like little fur-covered maniacs with unfamiliar dogs—I was filming some video for an upcoming seminar.

I’ve learned the hard way that when the camcorder is engaged, my mouth shouldn’t be, lest my videos end up containing unintentional commentary. And yet it was a definite challenge to keep my mouth shut. There was the woman who commented that she had to leave the park because the batteries in her dog’s shock collar had died. Strangely, it seems to be a common belief among certain owners that dogs shouldn’t bark while at the dog park. I’ve encountered it a number of times, including yet another time yesterday morning when, during the very same park visit, a woman stood on the large dog side (our park has separate enclosures for small dogs and larger ones, joined by a common chain link fence) holding her small dog in her arms. The little dog kept barking. The woman kept telling the dog to shush. Bark. Shush. Bark. Shush. Whether the dog was barking out of excitement, frustration, or fear, I don’t know. What I do know is that expecting a dog not to bark at the dog park is like expecting a child to remain perfectly silent while running around playing with other kids.

While I was on the small dog side, a man walked in with a Shiba Inu, and a baby—no, not a puppy, a baby. In a stroller. Sure, it’s the small dog side, and it’s not like a 90-pound Lab was going to take the kid out—but do I really have to elaborate on what a pack of out-of-control Chihuahuas and other little dogs could do to an infant? The man did remove the kid from the stroller and hold him in his arms, but still. Really?

Next, I overheard a woman complaining that when at the park, her dog totally ignored her and wouldn’t come when called. Her friend said her trainer told her when that happens, to put the dog on leash and walk him around inside the park. This comment came during a break in filming and I couldn’t stay out of it. I asked if maybe the trainer had meant she should walk the dog outside the dog park on leash, effectively giving the dog a time out. The woman said no, not only had the trainer said it, but she’d showed her by putting the dog on leash and walking him around the perimeter of the playing dogs. I explained about the fight or flight reflex and how, if another dog were to jump on the leashed dog (a given, really), that with the dog’s choices limited by the leash, there might be a fight. To her credit, the woman considered the information and seemed to reconsider the wisdom of the trainer’s advice.

Last came the comment that upset me the most. A woman and her husband stood on the large dog side with their four dogs. One was a South African Boerbel (a mastiff breed), and the others were large mixed breeds. A minor scuffle broke out that did not involve her dogs, but which did prompt her to turn to me and say, “We never let our dogs fight. We taught them to lay down and stay there. Even if they’re being attacked, we don’t let them fight back.” I have to admit that my first instinct was to want to blurt, “Great! Let’s bind your hands behind your back and put you on a New York subway. Don’t worry if someone tries to grope or mug you…you’re not allowed to retaliate.” Yeesh!

I don’t expect the average dog owner to understand body language or behavior the way trainers do. But the amount of misinformation and just plain garbage that’s out there boggles the mind. It’s really a credit to dogs, considering all the myths and nonsense people believe, that they behave as well as they do. We expect them to squelch their natural instincts, be able to focus and respond to our requests in super-high-distraction environments, and understand what we’re trying to tell them, even when our communication skills are sorely lacking. Oh, and we’d also like for them to never get angry, regardless of what another dog does to them, and to love every person and dog they meet. Not very realistic, is it?

I heard years ago about a trainer holding free informational sessions periodically at her local dog park. I don’t know how the attendance was, particularly because the sessions are free, and people tend not to value what they get for nothing. But who knows, maybe it helped. The truth is, most people love their dogs and just don’t know any better. For myself, whenever possible, I’ll continue to try to approach people with friendliness and a respectful attitude, and get the information out there. And when I can’t, there’s always the outlet of venting in a blog that reaches people who I know feel the same as I do.

Letting Dogs Be Who They Are

November 2, 2011

Sierra hears a mouse

I was recently chatting with Judy Fridono, the founder of Puppy Prodigies. The organization employs a neo-natal and early learning program to prepare puppies to become assistance dogs. They specialize in working with the pups from birth through 7-12 weeks, and the training they do at such a young age is impressive! If all pups were raised this way, there would be fewer canine behavior problems out there.

One of the dogs who was slated to be an assistance dog was Ricochet. But at nine months she showed an interest in chasing critters, and although the issue was worked through, she was not considered a good match for the program. Ricochet had shown such good balance and coordination during her training, though, that Judy introduced her to balancing on a boogie board in a kiddie pool. Ricochet enjoyed it, and Judy worked with her using clicker training on proper position, ignoring distractions, and other skills that eventually led to teaching her to surf in the ocean. You might have seen the video that went viral on the internet a while back, but if not, you can click here to see it as well as others featuring this pooch’s mad skills. (Warning: you might want to have a Kleenex handy when watching Ricochet’s story!) Ricochet now raises money for various charities, which is wonderful. But to me, the most impressive thing is that Judy, instead of simply seeing a puppy with a behavior problem, also saw the potential to tune into what Ricochet really enjoyed and was good at, and allowed the pup’s natural instincts and abilities to be engaged in a safe, fun, productive way.

I’ve thought about this issue often, particularly when I see owners trying to get their dogs to participate in activities the dogs clearly aren’t into, or aren’t well suited for. I’ve seen people doing Schutzhund with their dogs, where the dogs don’t have the necessary drive for it; or, agility dogs who don’t seem to be enjoying navigating the obstacles and show stress signals throughout their runs. Even at the dog park—or maybe especially at the dog park—I often see dogs who would clearly prefer to be elsewhere. These dogs keep to themselves, don’t engage in play, and don’t appreciate it when other dogs approach. Socializing with other dogs is just not their thing and yet, because their owners use the dog park as their own socialization opportunity, the dogs mill around unhappily, when they’d most likely prefer to be walking along with their owner outside the park, sniffing and exploring.

Sierra has that same urge to chase critters that Ricochet has. I’m sure that in Sierra’s mind, dog heaven is a vast plain filled with endless running bunnies, leaping lizards, and squirrely squirrels. Of course, we can’t allow her to run around killing unsuspecting critters, but at the same time, we want her to enjoy herself and be who she is. And a hunter/predator is who she is, in a big way. I’ve thought of taking her to K9 Nosework classes, since it’s a fabulous sport that engages a dog’s sense of smell and their tracking skills. Sierra would excel at it. But to be honest with myself, I have to admit that although I think I would enjoy it, if I could ask Sierra, she’d say it’s a much less exciting prospect than the other option we’ve chosen.

As some of you know, my husband C.C. and I each take one of the dogs out in the mornings before he heads to work. Whichever dog I have gets to walk around the park, do some training, and perhaps run in the dog park (if there are no other dogs around, or one we know). The dog who goes with C.C. gets a run through the arroyo, which is filled with jackrabbits, lizards, and other critters. (In the winter when the rattlesnakes are gone, the scenario takes place in the mountains behind our house instead.) He puts Sierra (or Bodhi) on a long line and keeps up with them, so as to allow them to actually chase their “prey.” He does not, however, let them catch anything. Still, Sierra loves it. Her eyes gleam, she pants in excitement, and you can just tell she’s exactly where she wants to be in the world at that moment, doing what she most loves to do.

Wouldn’t it be a sad world if you were never allowed to do the things you most love to do? We all have ideas about activities we’d like to do with our dogs. But if we really stop to consider what they like to do, we can enrich their lives in new and meaningful ways. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

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