Internal Injuries

February 26, 2013

I recently received a training inquiry from a woman with a four-month-old toy poodle. During our chat, she mentioned that she was expecting some friends to visit the following week. Although they wouldn’t be staying with her, they would be spending a lot of time at her home—them and their four adult teacup Yorkies, that is. When I asked whether she knew whether the Yorkies were friendly toward unfamiliar dogs, she seemed surprised. Her response was along the lines of, “Why would I worry? She’s much bigger than they are.” A conversation about size, aggression, management, and introducing dogs ensued.

That woman is far from being alone in her beliefs. There are many people who assume that if their dog is larger, damage couldn’t possibly be suffered. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Yorkies scenario, four on one is not good odds; but even in a one on one situation, depending on the breed and temperament of the dogs, a smaller dog could certainly physically injure a larger one.

The bigger issue, though, is that injury doesn’t just happen to the physical body. As anyone who has been attacked physically can attest, the emotional scars linger long after the physical ones disappear. It’s the same with dogs. A dog who starts out with a stable, trusting temperament can easily become fear-reactive toward other dogs. Whether that shift takes one encounter or five, and how intense of an encounter, depends on the particular dog. Some puppies can have one unfortunate incident and their attitude is forever changed. There is a desperate need for owners to be made aware of this fact. So many take very young puppies to dog parks, unaware of how much harm can be caused on both physical and emotional levels. I would even argue that dogs who are taken to the dog park when they clearly don’t want to be there, who are forced to be in a contained area with beings who scare them, are suffering some level of emotional damage each and every time.

When we expose dogs to others as play partners or even just hanging out buddies, we must consider temperament as well as size, and monitor stress signals closely. If the worst happens, even if the larger dog doesn’t suffer much physical trauma, emotional trauma can sometimes do more, and more lasting, harm.

By the way, on the topic of body language, I’ll be premiering a brand new seminar “Talk to the Paw! Understanding What Dogs are Really Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” in Burbank on April 7. Earlybird reg. ends March 6. Check it out here.


Studying Fear–and Dog Owners

February 20, 2013

A new study has come out about dogs’ fear responses to noise; well, that’s what the headline says, but as it turns out, the study is more about owner’s recognition of their dog’s fears of certain sounds. The study was conducted through surveys and interviews. Almost half of the interviewees said their dog displayed at least one typical sign of fear when exposed to fireworks, thunder, or gunshots. But only a quarter of those same people reported their dogs as being “fearful” of noises. So where’s the disconnect?

Owners recognized the more obvious signs of vocalization, trembling, hiding, and seeking out people. It’s suggested that these signals are more easily recognized because they are also seen in frightened humans. The more subtle signs of decreased activity and salivation were seemingly not as easily recognized. And urination or destruction were likely to be seen as nuisance behaviors rather than signs of fear.

I doubt it surprises any professional trainer that owners can be ignorant of their dogs’ emotional states. Some owners don’t even seem to pay attention to what their dog is doing, never mind feeling. It always shocks me to see the extent to which some owners ignore their dogs in public. I’ve been at crowded events where there’s plenty of foot traffic from people and dogs, and owners are checking out merchandise or chatting with each other as their dogs, on Flexi-style leads, roam around and all but get trampled by passersby, or attacked by other dogs. I’ve been at dog parks where owners stand around chatting and drinking their lattes, oblivious to the fact that Fluffy is being bullied by three other dogs, or that Ranger is on the verge of getting into a fight. And we expect them to notice subtle signs of stress?

I truly and deeply wish that the topic of canine body language, including fearful displays, was part of our school system’s early education curriculum. With so many homes having dogs, how is it possible that there is so little early education on understanding them? If we learn to recognize when a dog is afraid, we will not mistake it for being a “bad” dog, or in the case of fear-based reactivity, an aggressive dog. If we know when a dog is scared, we can help them to overcome those fears. And early education on when a dog is afraid would certainly lower the number of dog bites to children.

The reporting article says that “…less than a third of owners currently seek professional advice about treatment for their pet’s fear.” I’m sure more seek help when that fear turns into fear-based reactivity, more frequently reported as aggression. The article concludes by saying, “there is a need for veterinary surgeons to increase awareness among the general dog owning public that treatment is both available and effective in dealing with fears of loud noises, and to direct them toward appropriate sources of help.” Having received feedback from many owners who were helped by my Help for Your Fearful Dog book and Working with Fearful Dogs Seminar DVD, I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to those of us in the profession of dog training and behavior to educate owners about fearful behavior in their dogs, and to give them the tools and techniques to help. Suffering from fear is a terrible and debilitating thing. Whether we are professional trainers or simply dog enthusiasts who are awake and aware, we should all try to educate owners about what fear looks like in their dogs, and to spread the word that help is available.


Limitations

February 12, 2013

Bodhi park recall field closer edit small

Yesterday morning I took Bodhi to the park. Frost covered the ground, and we only encountered two other diehard walkers the entire hour we were there. I took the opportunity to practice off-leash work in various locations, and Bodhi did wonderfully well. In fact, it was difficult at times to get him to leave my side. “Okay!” I’d give the release word, along with the gesture that lets him know he’s free to go and romp. He’d just look at me. “Frolic!” I demanded. Nothing. Oh well. If that’s the worst problem, it’s fine with me!

This morning, on the other hand, I took Sierra with me. There were two differences: no frost on the ground (although it was still damned cold), and she was on a long line. Why? Because whatever she’s got going genetically predisposes her to have a super high prey drive, and when that’s in full-on mode, she’s also got selective hearing. Sure, we’ve practiced off-leash recalls in safe, enclosed areas, and we’ve done them with her on the long-line as well. We’ve practiced when there are distractions around, and for the most part she does incredibly well in all of those situations. So why not go the next step and allow her off-leash freedom? Because I know who she is. And I don’t have such a massive ego that I feel I can change a dog’s genetics, bend any dog’s temperament to my will, or solve every problem out there.

Unfortunately, there are trainers who promise to fix any problem, guaranteed. That crossed my mind the other day when I received a call from a woman in a very difficult situation. The family has four dogs, and two are fighting. The fighting dogs are each seven years old and had grown up together. One was a doxie and the other, a German Shepherd. The fights began a few months ago and became progressively worse. A few days ago, the woman came home to find the doxie covered in blood from a badly torn ear. There had never been issues between the two before, there was no valuable resource being guarded as far as she could tell (including them), and nothing had changed in the home. I suggested she get the dogs to a vet for a full blood workup, including a full thyroid panel, before beginning training. If a thyroid imbalance, liver problem, or other medical issue is causing the sudden aggression, there’s no reason to spend money on a trainer. If it isn’t physiologically-based, then yes, I told her, we would certainly be happy to come out and assess the situation.

I’m glad the woman found us instead of a trainer who would promise to “fix” the situation no matter what, because the fact is, there are some situations that are not fixable to the point that everyone can remain safe (especially if there are children in a home). Can you imagine a psychologist promising to make you like anyone, even someone you’ve taken a serious dislike to? Why do we think we can do that for dogs? Would any trainer make Sierra 100% reliable off-leash, ever? I think not, regardless of what tools and training methods were used. As a trainer, I can get her to a high degree of reliability, but as a dog-mom, I’m sure as hell not taking any chances; why would I?

It’s nice to believe that each and every dog-related situation can be solved, and that every behavior can be modified in every case. But this is the real world. Trainers can be an incredible amount of help in most cases, but there are some limitations. Being able to recognize and accept those limitations and advise owners on a realistic, appropriate course of action is part of the difference between a good trainer and an excellent one.


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