The Pressure Gauge

April 18, 2013

Have you ever slacked off on diet or exercise for a week or two? Well, you know what happens. It’s the same with behavior modification practice with dogs. After teaching a weekend seminar in southern CA and then attending a 4-day seminar in Houston, I’d been off morning park duty for at least a week. My husband had taken the dogs out once while I was gone, which was nice, but it wasn’t the type of walk where anyone with four legs got any feedback on how to act around other dogs.

This morning, after Sierra and I made our usual loop around the short hiking trail at the park, we came down the final hill, which runs alongside a house with a yard. This yard is often inhabited by a German Shepherd who takes his job seriously. Sierra anticipates the possible encounter and becomes hyper-alert, so I’ve taught her that on that final descent (yeesh, can you tell I’ve been flying too much?), her job is to walk by my side and ignore anything that’s black and tan and raising hell. She’s been doing well, but this morning when I went to reward her with a treat for sticking by my side, I got an unpleasant surprise. It was a sharp, intense pain on one of my fingernails. She’d taken the treat, allright, but clamped down very hard when she took it. Her aim was a bit off, too.

Fortunately, I understood that taking treats with that sort of forceful gusto can actually be a sign of stress. Here Sierra was, trying to keep it together and do what I’d taught her, but her arousal level was so high that she literally couldn’t help herself. Of course, her arousal level wouldn’t have gotten that high had she been thinking about what she was supposed to do, rather than spiraling out of control emotionally.

The force with which a dog takes treats can be a good indicator of their stress levels. Not only will a dog grab a treat out of over-arousal as in Sierra’s case, but it can happen when a dog is afraid of the person holding the yummy treats. Many people try to lure a fearful dog to them, assuming that treats will create a good association. But if the dog’s desire for the treat outweighs the fear, at least temporarily, the result is often a dog who stretches forward with the muzzle and front of the body (the back legs are waaay back), snatches the treat roughly, and retreats.

Even when doing targeting (having the dog touch their nose to your hand), the force with which the dog jabs the nose at the hand is a good indicator of stress levels. Every dog comes with a built-in pressure gauge in the form of their mouth. Smart humans notice and make use of it.


Are You Always YOU?

April 3, 2013

world's longest tongue edit small“You just don’t seem like yourself today.” Has anyone ever told you that? Or maybe a friend did something that caused you to think, “Wow, that’s so not like her!” It happens to most of us. It stands to reason that those who know us best form an idea of our personality based on our normal, everyday behavior. But sometimes—inevitably, because we’re human—we act in ways that are incongruous with that persona. That’s when others become surprised.

Now think about your dog. What characteristics describe him or her? Is Dodger a very serious dog? Is Roxy silly and light-hearted? Maybe Lili is a love bug, or Ace is aloof. Most owners can describe their dog’s basic temperament, and also have a concept of how their dog acts in response to them or to other dogs, people, and situations. An attentive owner might note that Dancer tends to shy away when other dogs greet her, or that Banjo will only come when called when there are no distractions around. But just as you don’t always seem like yourself, doesn’t it stand to reason that dogs, being living beings as opposed to kitchen sinks, would also have times when they’re just not them?

I’ve worked long and hard with Bodhi on his recall. We started in safe, enclosed areas, then worked out and about on a long line and, finally, in safe but not so enclosed areas. This past week as we hiked along a trail at the local park, Bodhi spotted a rabbit in the bushes. He took off after it. While he was in mid-chase, I called his name. He paused for a fraction of a second. I called, “Come!” in the same tone of voice I’d used during our practice sessions. Know what? He came flying back to me. From chasing a rabbit! Wow! I was thrilled. But did that make me think that from now on, under all circumstances, Bodhi would recall off something he was chasing? Oh, no. Not by a long shot. Even if that became the norm, I wouldn’t expect that he’d do it each and every time. Okay, this skirts around the edges of what I’m getting at, but maybe it’s not the perfect example. It did, though, give me a chance to brag on Bodhi! But let me try again.

Let’s say your dog is fairly aloof around other dogs. You take him to the dog park regularly, where he mostly keeps to himself, walks around the perimeter, sniffs, and raises his legs on places others have left p-mail. When other dogs approach, he allows them to sniff, now and then sniffing in return, and then walks away. He doesn’t fight but he’s not interested in playing. Then one day, an adolescent male approaches him. The dog clearly wants to play. Your dog, as usual, isn’t interested. But when the dog persists, instead of walking away, your dog growls a stern warning. He advances a few steps and the other dog, looking confused, retreats. Wow, you think, what was that? That’s just not like him!

Maybe the incongruity isn’t a behavior around other dogs. Maybe it’s the way your dog responds to a command, or whether she allows you to brush her without complaint. There’s the “normal” way things go, but this time, something is different. It’s important to rule out medical issues whenever a dog seems “off” in certain ways, of course. But it’s also important to not to jump to conclusions when behavior doesn’t conform to the norm. At the dog park, it could be that the adolescent was pushier than most, and simply pushed your dog to his limit. Or, maybe your dog wasn’t feeling that well that day. But it could also be that your dog was just having an “off” day.

Do you believe that dogs have off days, too? I do. I haven’t seen any research on the subject, and I can’t imagine how it would be possible to construct a study. But life is a study, and if we’re paying attention, we notice these things. So maybe your dog, who normally responds beautifully during training, isn’t doing what you’d like. What do you do? Punish her? No! You should try to figure out the reason for the lack of compliance, of course. Is there a distraction you didn’t notice but she did? Is she coming into heat? Is he more tired out than usual because of the impromptu play session with the neighbor’s dog that morning? But again, it might be none of those things.

When your dog acts unlike his or her usual self, if it’s a serious change like sudden aggression, schedule a vet exam and an appointment with a behavior specialist. But if it’s less serious, when none of the factors causing the change are apparent and you’re becoming frustrated, consider whether your dog just might not being herself that day, and try again the next. Let’s cut our dogs some slack. They’re not trying to blow us off, and they haven’t suddenly morphed into some other dog entirely. So be patient. Just as our friends are happy when we’re back to our normal selves, you’ll soon be relieved to find that your dog is, too.

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