Boo! What, Where, Why, When? Putting Canine Fear in Context

September 26, 2012

I just got back from teaching a seminar in Seattle. The trip was one of those rare occasions when I got to spend an extra day in town, and so a friend and I visited Pike’s Place Market. It reminds me of Venice Beach (sans the sand), with the plentiful crafts stalls, food stands, musicians, and other sidewalk entertainers. As we passed a small gathering where a woman was holding two large snakes, she turned to me and asked, “Would you like to hold them?” I smiled and replied, “Sure!” Despite a moment of curiosity about whether it was normal snake behavior to immediately turn and begin slithering toward my face, I felt quite comfortable. In a lovely kind of role reversal, I was quite charmed by the snakes.

Contrast that with the way I feel when walking out my front door and seeing a snake. Even when it’s not a rattlesnake (which, unfortunately, it usually is), those unexpected encounters always give me a start. I never feel completely at ease, even with the non-harmful varieties. The garter snakes that live around our property aren’t likely to hurt me, and are much smaller than the snakes I held in Seattle. What’s different is the context. In one I feel safe; in the other, not.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and their fears. Imagine Blondie, a Golden Retriever who loves to be hugged and cuddled by her family. (Although many dogs don’t like being hugged, some actually do.) Even the six-year-old can throw her arms around Blondie and, instead of a flurry of lip-licking, head-turning, and other stress signals, Blondie’s mouth remains open, and her eyes bright. She clearly enjoys the affection. But the next day in the vet’s office, a tech goes to restrain Blondie, and her body goes stiff, her eyes wide. She is clearly afraid. Isn’t she just being hugged? Yes, in a way she is. But this is completely different. The “hugging” is now being done by someone she doesn’t know, in a place where she’s not quite comfortable. It’s all about context.

I’ve heard owners say things like, “Oh, that’s so strange! Normally he likes men,” when the man trying to greet their barking dog is wearing a hat and sunglasses. Again, the context has changed from what the dog is accustomed to; hats make our silhouettes look weird, and dark glasses make us look like space aliens with four-inch pupils! I’m sure if you think about it, you can come up with some contexts in which your dog is perfectly fine with something, and in others where he’s not okay with that very same thing. When modifying canine fear issues, it’s not enough to describe the trigger in a general way. We’ve got to get as detailed as possible, and an important part of that process is to consider context.


Pushed Too Far

September 16, 2012

A man places a dish of food down before an adult Labrador Retriever, and then crouches down and stares at the dog. The dog blinks, turns her head, and looks nervous. Seconds later, with the man still crouched there in a tense, stiff stance, the dog begins to eat. The man reaches toward the dish. The dog snarls, and turns her head toward the man. There is a moment of opportunity for the man to back away. Instead, he forms his hand into a shape that resembles a claw, and jabs at the dog’s neck. The dog snarls and retracts her upper lip to show her teeth. She does not bite the man, but instead moves her upper body away from the man. When this happens, the man advances in a threatening manner, and the dog takes two steps backward.

As the man continues to move toward her in a hovering crouch, the dog turns sideways and takes a few steps away. When the man keeps approaching in a threatening manner, the dog retracts the sides of her mouth in a fear grimace. The man keeps coming. The dog snarls and shows teeth again, but her entire body weight is away from the man. The man is claiming the space between them, and is clearly threatening. The dog takes a step toward him and snarls. The man backs off for a split second, then immediately advances again in a threatening pose. The dog’s muzzle wrinkles and releases and her tongue repeatedly darts out from between her teeth as she finally sits and faces the man. The man stands still and stares at the dog. The dog looks up at the man, blinks with squinted eyes, licks her lips a few more times, and looks away. She lies down.

There is a period of approximately 15 seconds where the dog remains lying with the man crouched nearby, as the man talks to the dog’s owner. The man then turns back toward the dog and reaches his hand toward her, bringing it palm down over her muzzle. Her lips retract again and her tongue flicks. She air snaps, and the man quickly pulls his hand away. He stands up quickly, then immediately crouches back down facing the dog, with one hand raised. The dog lunges toward the man and bites his hand. It is not a bite and release, but a bite and hold. The man kicks at the dog, and she releases her grip.

I wish the foregoing had never happened. I also wish the man in question had been a complete unknown, an average dog owner—anyone but Cesar Millan, because it would have been much easier to discuss the event without the emotional charge that accompanies any discussion of this man. But this was a trailer for the dramatic season finale of the television show The Dog Whisperer. (If the trailer is still available by the time you read this, you’ll find it here. )

It appears that Cesar had been called in because the Lab guarded his food and had threatened the male owner, and the couple had a baby. They were right to be concerned. It’s also clear, though, that the dog’s behavior throughout the rest of the clip was a textbook case of defensive aggression. You might have noticed that I reported the action as succinctly as possible without adding any subjective comments. For those who hadn’t previously seen or heard about the clip, I wanted the interactions to be judged on their own merits, rather than having pre-existing opinions of Cesar Millan cloud anyone’s judgment either way.

It’s easy for the average dog owner to see things this way: Cesar put a dish of food down in front of the dog. When he reached for the food, the dog snarled at him and snapped. There were a few moments where the dog was lying down, and then Cesar reached for her and got bitten. The takeaway, especially after seeing the blood running down Cesar’s hand, would be that this is obviously a very dangerous dog. But while it’s true that there is no way the dog should be in a home with a small child, let’s look at what really happened. The dog did not bite over her food, despite being jabbed at in the neck area. She did not bite when she was repeatedly advanced upon. Time after time, she gave signals that she was frightened and defensive. She tried to end the conflict repeatedly by moving away. The bite itself shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, because that’s what dogs do when they feel frightened and pushed too far—they bite.

I read an online comment in defense of Cesar’s actions, saying that he needed to push the dog that far to see what she’d do, how far she’d go, so that the parents could see it and know the dog wouldn’t be safe around their child. That fact was obvious during the first ten seconds, when the dog snarled over her food. But was this truly a dangerous dog? In this situation for this family, yes, she certainly could have been. Would she have bitten during this filmed exchange, had she not been pushed too far? It appears not. Her body language and signaling were intended to back the man off without further conflict. Finally, given no choice, she bit.

Television and celebrity trainers aside, this begs a larger question: how far should we push dogs in order to assess their behavior? I’ve spent many years working with dogs who showed severe aggression toward people; dogs who multiply puncture wounded multiple people, and even one extra-large German Shepherd who put a hole clear through the hand of his six-foot-two, large male owner. I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs who were clearly willing to bite over food or other possessions, and for a multitude of other reasons. You might assume that my hands are covered in scars, but they’re not. Is it because I’m not “brave” enough to “dominate” these dogs, to show them who’s boss? No. I’ve never been bitten in those situations because there is no reason to push a dog over threshold to the point that he feels he has to bite, in order to assess behavior. Any dog will bite if pushed too far, and eliciting a bite does not necessarily mean that the dog is dangerous in general. Think about it: you’re a perfectly nice, friendly person. A man comes toward you in a threatening manner. You move away, but that doesn’t work; he keeps coming. You try threatening him right back in an attempt to back him off. That doesn’t work, either. Finally, you attack. Does that make you a dangerous person? No. You acted in a way that could be interpreted as dangerous, had the observer not clearly understood the context and sequence of events that led to your actions. It’s the same with dogs.

I’m not suggesting that trainers should take owners at their word about a dog’s behavior, because owner information is subjective and non-professional. But an experienced, knowledgeable trainer should be able to observe and test behavior without allowing (or worse, causing) it to escalate to the point that the dog feels he has to defend himself by biting. It’s sad that eliciting this drama and violence, while clearly a boon for television ratings, might have cost this dog her life. In the real world, helping dogs is not about dominating them or having a showdown. It’s about accurately assessing and respecting their body language and behavior, and modifying that behavior in a way that’s effective but still keeps everybody safe. It might not make for good television, but it saves lives.

“Just a Little Nip”

September 11, 2012

“It was just a little nip.”

This phrase was uttered by a woman at the park the other day, as she explained to me that a dog on leash had nipped one of the men in her morning walking group. The dog in question was a small terrier mix who was afraid of dogs and people, and the man had reached toward her to pet her. I wonder what the turn of phrase would had been, had the dog been a 150-pound Rottweiler.

It always strikes me as both fascinating and frustrating that so many people downplay or even excuse the behavior of smaller dogs. It’s true that the bite of a small dog is not going to do as much damage as one by a dog with larger, stronger jaws, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant or important to address.

I’ve encountered many families over the years whose small dogs have bitten (or “nipped” as they put it) multiple family members, and even visitors. The issue had been going on for some time, but the bites to strangers were never reported. People are much less likely to report a bite by a Min-Pin, for example, than they are one by a Doberman. And so the issue doesn’t get taken seriously until the dog bites a child or someone who does make an issue of it.

The excusing of behavior issues of smaller dogs seems to extend to other problems as well. I’ve met many families whose Bichons or Chihuahuas are pottying all over the house—never mind that the dog is two years old and they’ve had him from a young pup. How quickly do you think Buddy would have been potty trained had he been a Great Dane?

Leash pulling is another area where size seems to matter. After all, being pulled down the street by an adolescent mini-poodle is not quite the same experience as being dragged by an adolescent Lab.

It’s easy to understand how the behavior problems of smaller dogs don’t get taken quite as seriously as those of larger ones. But the dynamics of the relationship between dog and owner are exactly the same regardless of the size of the dog. And for all of the same reasons that large dogs should be trained and their behavior issues taken seriously, so should those of our smaller canine friends.

The Dominance Filter

September 5, 2012

Anyone who’s been involved in photography understands the concept of filters: apply one to a camera lens, and it changes the picture. You can give a village scene an old west feel by using a sepia filter; change a less-than-perfect model into the model of perfection with soft focus; and even change night into day. Just as photographic filters change what the eye sees, our emotional filters change the way we perceive the world and each other. Remember that thrill of first love? Like a lovely star filter, that emotional lens softened any rough edges and bathed your beloved in a magical glow. On the flip side, after an argument with an acquaintance, you might begin to perceive even benign things that person says or does through a filter that seems distorted.

We all develop filters based on our experiences and beliefs. These subjective screens affect not only the way we view other people, but the way we see dogs. Some people seem to have rose-tinted filters that make all dogs appear friendly. (That filter is, unfortunately, sometimes shattered in a most sudden and definitive way.) Other filters can be more troublesome. A particularly disturbing one is the Dominance Filter. Slap that old, traditional filter in place, and all you’ll see is a dog who wants to take over. That Labrador Retriever who’s jumping on visitors? He’s leaping for higher status. The beagle who dares to walk ahead of his owner is clearly relaying that he’s the boss. And that innocent-looking Bichon who piddles on the carpet is obviously planning to overthrow the kingdom, one puddle at a time. If all of that sounds ridiculous, well…that’s because it is.

Dominance and submission do exist in the animal world, and can be easily observed in social interactions between dogs. Just ask Sierra, who’s hovering over a bone and gives Bodhi the Elvis lip curl the moment he takes a step toward her. Bodhi’s quick deference means that Sierra maintains sole access to a prized resource—and that Bodhi maintains access to the air he breathes. But a dog acting in a dominant manner toward another dog has nothing to do with his behavior towards humans. There’s a saying by Abraham Maslow that goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” And that’s the problem with what popular culture has done to our concept of dominance. If we view every unwanted canine interaction or behavior through the Dominance Filter, we are very likely to respond inappropriately.

There are dogs who display dominant behaviors toward their owners, but more often, potentially dominant-appearing behaviors stem from another source. Dogs may walk ahead of us or pull on leash because of lack of training, the opposition reflex, excitement, or because walking side by side is simply not a natural canine behavior. Your dog may jump on you because he’s happy to see you, because he’s anxious, or for a host of other reasons. And, by the way, if he was anxious, punishing him for being “dominant” would only exacerbate the problem by making him more anxious!

Of course, maintaining rules and guidelines for our dogs, just as we do for our children, is important. And dogs are smart; they’re quite capable of learning what’s expected, what’s allowed, and what’s forbidden. Besides, it’s in their best interests to cooperate with us, as we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs that grant access to all sorts of good things. The next time your dog performs a behavior that might be viewed as “dominant,” instead of reacting by putting him in his place, take a moment to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. Once you do, you’ll know exactly how to respond and, if necessary, how to work on the underlying problem that’s causing the behavior.

If we understand canine body language and take the time to tune into our dog’s emotional states, our responses will be appropriate and won’t cause stress to either party. Perhaps as more and more of us learn to clear those dusty old notions off the lenses of our perception, we can eventually do away with distorted filters altogether.

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