The Cumulative Effect

June 25, 2013

Imagine that you’re having a bad day. You woke up late for work, skipped breakfast, rushed out the door, and got stuck in traffic. A stressful hour later you arrive at the office to find that not only has a work deadline been moved up, but you’re expected to take on another project as well. Eight long hours later you finally return home, where your spouse reminds you that you had promised to fix a clogged sink. You snap at your spouse and storm out of the room.

Now imagine that your day went differently. You woke up on time, had a leisurely breakfast, avoided traffic, and had a good day at work. Now you return home to the request to fix the sink. You might not have the time or inclination to comply then and there, but at the least, you’re not likely to have snapped. What does this have to do with dogs? Everything.

Dogs experience cumulative stress, too. Take a dog who is not inclined to snap or bite under normal circumstances. The dog is feeling unwell. Because a vet appointment is scheduled at 10 a.m., he misses his usual morning two-mile run. The vet has requested that the dog not be fed before the appointment, so the usual 9 a.m. feeding is skipped. The dog has always been nervous when being examined, and today is no different. Blood must be drawn so the dog is muzzled, which adds to his stress. Afterwards, at home, a workman shows up to give an estimate. The dog, who is afraid of men, barks nervously and paces throughout the visit. Later in the day, a friend brings their dog over to play. The dogs have played together many times. The visiting dog has a tendency to be rough and pushy, but the dogs read each other’s signals well. Today, however, when the visiting dog makes a rude move, the other dog bites and a fight breaks out. This is the Cumulative Effect in action.

Sometimes it’s not an accumulation of stress that leads to an eruption, but a buildup of triggers. Let’s say a dog has a mild resource guarding issue. She doesn’t normally bite, but if approached when in possession of a valuable resource, her head will lower over the object, and she’ll growl. She won’t, however, bite if her owner reaches to remove the object. The dog also has a possessive feeling about the family’s bed. She’ll sometimes jump on the bed and growl at the other dog to keep him away, and she’s even growled at the husband from her lofty vantage point; but again, she will not bite. The dog is generally nervous around men wearing hats, and tries to stay away from them. One day, friends are coming to visit. The dog is given a bone to keep her busy. She takes the bone to the bedroom and jumps up on the bed to enjoy it. The visitor, a man wearing a hat, needs to use the phone. Because the hall phone is not working, he is instructed to use the one in the bedroom. He walks in and decides to get the dog off the bed. He reaches to move the dog’s bone, thinking he’ll toss it on the floor and the dog will follow. The dog bites his hand.

In this example, the dog would not have bitten in any of the individual circumstances, had they occurred separately. But stack them all together, and the dog’s buffer of calmness was eaten away bit by bit, until finally the raw nerve that was exposed pushed the dog over threshold and into biting.

So what can we do about the Cumulative Effect? Practice awareness. If your dog has specific triggers that cause aggressive behavior, take care that they do not end up combined. Pay attention when the day becomes stressful, not just for you, but for your dog. Has your dog’s physical needs been met? Is he “crankier” than usual, for lack of a better word? If so, it might not be the best day to take him to an event around a lot of people, or have a play date. Be especially aware of things like skipped exercise, skipped meals, vet visits, and fear issues around strangers, other dogs, new environments, or whatever makes your dog nervous. Staying aware of cumulative stress, not only in ourselves but in our dogs, can prevent problems before they begin.

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Hey, Old School Dominance Theory: School’s Out!

June 18, 2013

Nic Phantom posingA pediatrician is attempting to examine an infant. He holds the stethescope to the tiny chest but the baby won’t stop squirming. It’s difficult to get an accurate listen. The doctor informs the mother that the baby can’t be allowed to run the show; he needs to show her who’s boss. He slams the baby on her back, places a hand around her neck, and nearly chokes her until she lies still. Does this sound absolutely crazy? Of course it does, because it is. Now replace the words pediatrician with veterinarian and baby with dog. Although the species is different, the dynamic is the same. The difference is that treating dogs this way is all too common.

The story that was partially responsible for inspiring this blog involved a nine-week-old puppy who had been nearly choked by the family vet. Unfortunately, there seens to be an endless supply of similar stories. Just last week, I had a conversation with a woman who’d adopted a large German Shepherd mix. She’d hired a trainer to address a few minor issues including jumping on people and grabbing things around the house. The trainer had told her the dog was clearly trying to dominate her, and that she needed to growl in his face and stare him down. Fortunately, the woman didn’t feel the plan of action was wise, and never saw the trainer again.

Others, however, simply do as their trainers advise. I know a woman whose trainer informed her in no uncertain terms that the only way to cure her bull terrier of his “dominance issues” (which, by the way, were actually minor behavior problems such as mouthing and jumping) was to force him on his back and sit on top of him, staring into his eyes, until he submitted by looking away or, even better, urinating. Eager to help her dog, she tried it. Guess what? The dog bit her in the face. The woman was shocked. The dog was euthanised.

Every time I hear this type of story—and believe me, it’s on an almost daily basis—my heart sinks. My head hurts. My teeth hurt, probably from being gritted so hard. With all the progress we’ve made culturally, how is it possible that so many people are still stuck in the old school mentality where everything from jumping up to pulling on leash is seen as a canine bid to overthrow the kingdom? We don’t believe that a child who pulls at his mother’s arm repeatedly for attention or destroys something of value is trying to be dominant, nor do we advise those parents to use physical force or scare the pants off the kid to prove who’s boss. So why do we continue to do this with dogs? Dogs are not children (though they are like children to many of us), but the psychology is the same. Just like kids, in most cases rude canine behavior stems not from a desire to be in charge, but from an emotional state such as anxiety or overexcitement, a lack of knowing what’s expected, or not having been appropriately trained.

It’s true that there are some very pushy, ill-mannered dogs out there. And there are some who truly do have what would be described as a dominant type of temperament. But trainers who make the effort to learn about canine psychology and body language, and who understand how to apply training and feedback fairly and appropriately, can easily work with even those dogs without causing harm to either party. And lest you think this only applies to “easy” dogs or puppies, I’ve worked effectively with severely people-aggressive dogs (including dogs who multiply puncture wounded multiple people) for many years without using harsh physical corrections. Show me a trainer who stares a dog down, rolls him on his back, or uses any type of physical force to show a dog who’s in charge, and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t know a better way. Besides, while the trainer might be able to get away with that sort of physical coercion, owners are often not.

Not all of the fallout from the use of physical force to dominate dogs is immediately obvious. Seeing your dog as an adversary and acting accordingly causes damage to the dog-owner relationship, and can cause lingering and sometimes chronic stress in the dog. That stress and frustration is very likely to surface in other ways. I’ve seen one particular scenario more times than I can count: The husband (sorry, guys, but it is usually the man) uses physical force to intimidate the dog. The dog submits and the problem ends—at least when the husband’s around. The dog then begins to behave even more poorly around the wife, or the kids. Perhaps there’s even an increase in aggressive behavior.

I can’t argue that strong-arming a dog won’t stop the undesirable behavior right then and there. If you hit me with a two-by-four to get me to stop biting my nails, I’d stop immediately. But how would I feel about you after that? And would your correction stop the underlying reason I bit my nails in the first place? Maybe I was nervous or anxious, and the nail biting was simply a symptom. Now I’m even more anxious, thank you very much!

I remember all too well Bodhi’s behavior when we first adopted him. A whirlwhind of manic adolescence, he’d been surrendered to the shelter by a college kid who “could no longer afford his upkeep.” (One disembowled couch and one mangled, dismantled mini-fridge later, I understood what the kid meant, but that’s another story.) We couldn’t so much as take a few steps without Bodhi jumping up and grabbing our arms and legs and biting down fairly hard. It wasn’t aggressive but it was frantic, and more than a little disturbing. It would have been all too easy to see this behavior as an attempt at dominance. Fortunately, I realized Bodhi was anxious and insecure. Of course his actions weren’t acceptable, and I used my own body language and voice to administer non-violent but effective consequences. I shudder to think how Bodhi, who has a strong startle reflex and a problem trusting people (along with a suspected history of abuse) would have done with someone forcefully “putting him in his place.”

The dominance issue is not only a matter of faulty philosophy, but a lack of basic understanding of canine communiation. Consider this scenario: A dog is chewing on something his owner considers valuable. The owner yells at the dog and hits him on the rump. The dog, frightened, growls a warning. The growl is viewed as insubordination. The person, now outraged, shakes the dog by his scruff. The dog, feeling trapped and frightened, becomes even more defensive. At this point some dogs will “submit” but others, in a state of high emotional arousal, will bite. Escalating a physical confrontation with a dog, or starting one in the first place, is such a ridiculous way to establish leadership that if it weren’t so widespread, it would be laughable.

Don’t misunderstand; of course we want dogs to respond appropriately when when we ask them to do something, or to stop doing something. But lest you think teaching gently means being permissive or lax, please know that my training methods do not include prancing through the posies tossing cookies hither and yon, hoping dogs will follow and do what I want. Dogs need clear direction, rules and structure, and consequences for their actions, just like kids do. But to achieve better canine behavior, I use my brain instead of my brawn (okay, not so much brawn here, but you get my point). In all my years of working with wolves and wolfdogs—and believe me, nowhere is the old school, dominance-is-everything mindset more alive than in the wolf/wolfdog world—I never once stared a wolf down, growled in one’s face, or performed the alpha roll. Guess what? I still have all my fingers and toes, and I was able to effective train and socialize some very large, strong, potentially dangerous animals. When Phantom (the big black wolf in the photo) first came to me as a rescue at age three, he was skittish about being handled. But I needed to be able to look between his toes, examine his teeth, and do whatever else needed being done to care for him. Did I alpha roll him? Stare into his eyes? Threaten to blow his house down? No. I worked with him kindly and calmly until he learned to trust me and cooperated of his own free will. I would most certainly not have gotten the same results had I tried to scare him into submission.

As Abraham Maslow says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” And if all we see when we look at ill-behaved dogs is a bid for dominance, perhaps where we really need to look is in the mirror. I’ll say it again: Old school dominance theory? School’s out! It’s time to enter the Age of Enlightenment. Humans should be seen as leaders because dogs respect us, not because they fear us. Training and communication should result in a dog’s eyes lighting with joy and enthusiasm, not smothering that light under the threat of violence. Anyone can scare and intimidate dogs. It takes a better trainer, and a better human being, to be able to work with dogs and to get the same, or dare I say, even better results.


The Threat of Stillness Pt. 2: Rapid Relief from Menace Mode

June 12, 2013

5_2147 Large guard dog.jpgLast week’s blog The Threat of Stillness received many comments. Some readers had observed that stock still, staring, danger-radiating pose in an unfamiliar dog they encountered, while others saw their own dog display the body language toward other dogs. More than a few asked what to do when it happens.

Before exploring solutions, I want to clarify that the type of stillness we’re discussing is not the stalking sequence’s frozen moment before the dog explodes into chase, often seen in breeds such as the border collie; it’s not the moment preceding a hunting dog’s swift pursuit, or the seconds before the pounce of a dog wanting to play. It’s not even the sort of continual scanning the horizon type gaze that some hypervigilant sighthounds demonstrate. The type of lock and load stillness I’m talking about broadcasts a serious threat. Remember, the still, focused dog is conserving his energy to attack. One reader described it as “the calm before the storm,” and another called it a “marshalling of forces.” Those are both apt descriptions.

Let’s first talk about what not to do. When a dog is so precariously balanced emotionally, it is all too easy to push him over into aggression. If you are the unfortunate focus of the dog’s attention, yelling at the dog, grabbing him, or trying to dominate him is likely to escalate the situation and tip the balance in an unfortunate way. Running away is likely to trigger the dog’s chase drive. As mentioned in the original post, averting your gaze (while keeping the dog in your peripheral view) and backing away slowly is the best option.

Sometimes, though, there’s no space to back up. Years ago, I’d gone to see a new client with a large, male German Shepherd. Thor had a bite history with many, many triggers. He’d been on a long, loose leash held by the owner throughout our session. (This was in the early days, when I still trusted owners to restrain dogs.) Things had gone very well. Thor seemed comfortable with me and the clients were attentive. I was sitting in their living room chair giving homework suggestions when I noticed that the man had dropped the leash. I wasn’t too worried, as the dog had been calm throughout the session. Just then, Thor walked up to my chair and in a slow, purposeful way, placed one of his paws on each arm of the chair, leaned in until his face was inches from mine, lowered his head, stared into my eyes, and issued a low growl. I immediately averted my gaze while turning my head very slowly slightly to the side and down. I wanted to ask the client to call Thor or to him or to grab the leash, but I was afraid the man might do it less than calmly, and tip the balance the wrong way. Since I knew the dog was well trained in basic obedience, I said in my best, cheery trainer voice, “Thor, sit!” Apparently the stars were in alignment because he immediately sat and cocked his head as if to say, “Yes, what would you like me to do next?” My point in sharing this story is to say that in a dire circumstance like this, attempting to switch the dog into another mode just might work.

What if your dog is staring down another in that about-to-explode way? Offense is the best defense, in this case meaning you learn to recognize the signs and situations where your dog might go into this type of posture, and head it off at the pass. But if it’s already happening and your dog is off leash, the goal is to get him back on leash in as calm a manner as possible, without startling him into action. If you have a long leash, you could turn it into a slip lead (pass the clip end through the loop to form a lasso) and then gently and quietly slip it over your dog’s head. Then, try some kissy or clucking type sounds to get his attention, and lead him away. (The lasso lead may be a safer, easier alternative with some dogs than reaching under the neck to clip the leash on, especially since the latter requires you to place your own body closer to your dog’s face.) Be careful, because no matter how much your dog loves you, in such a tense situation there’s always the chance that he might redirect.

While getting your dog back on leash is always a good idea, you might not always be able to do that. A great solution, and one that is best implemented with careful pre-conditioning, is to switch your dog out of Menace Mode into a more relaxed, dare I say even happy frame of mind, much as I did with Thor. How to accomplish this? Simple: use your voice and body language. Call your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice, followed by whatever cue is likely to have the most effect. If your dog is super food motivated and knows, “Cookie!” or “Treats!” use his name followed by that word. If you’ve trained him to follow you at the cue, “Let’s go!” or something similar, that’s what you should try. Again, be sure to use the happy tone you’d use for “Want to go for a walk?” One last alternative, if your dog is very bonded to you, you could simply walk away sing-songing, “Byyyyye, Buddy!” as you go. There are a lot of dogs who, while invested in staring down another dog, will still be a lot more invested in not being abandoned.

Many dogs become conditioned to respond to words like “cookie” or “treat” because every time their owners utter the words, the dogs receive a reward. Imagine if those owners decided instead that the word for “Cookie” was actually “Come!” There would be some amazingly well trained dogs out there…but I digress. Both a conditioned cue like “Cookie” and a “Let’s go!” type phrase meaning to follow you should be trained at home and then practiced in progressively more challenging and distracting situations. In fact, they should be proofed to the point that no matter what type of emotional state your dog is in, he will automatically respond. You should eventually be able to switch that full-on Barking at the UPS Man arousal instantly to Let’s Get a Cookie happy time. It takes some time and effort, but it most definitely can be done, and is a safe, effective way to switch your dog out of Menace Mode.

If the situation is an off-leash dog staring at your dog in that still, threatening way, if you feel it’s safe, stand in front of your dog. If the owner is present, call her to get her dog. If the person does not respond or is not present, such as in the case of encountering a stray, you will have to assess the situation and make a judgment call. Some dogs, while perfectly happy to threaten other dogs, are not willing to stand up to a person; many dogs, if you simply say, “Go on!” in a certain tone of voice, and perhaps wave them away, will leave. (Again, this is a judgment call; doing so could set some dogs off.) Especially in a situation with a stray dog, you must be careful not to escalate the situation. Scattering a handful of treats behind the dog is a safe way to defuse the situation so that you and your dog can walk away. (There are many other ways to deter an oncoming stray dog, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

Hopefully none of you will ever have to face a truly dangerous situation with a dog who is in that still, menacing mode, but if you do, I hope the ideas in this blog will help you to get yourself and/or your dog out of the situation safely.


The Threat of Stillness

June 4, 2013

5_2147 Large guard dog.jpgI recently observed a temperament test being conducted to determine whether a dog was aggressive toward other dogs. The dog in question was a large, strong breed, and there was much concern because of his past history. As I watched, it became obvious that the other dog being used in the test was very worried. She licked her lips and averted her gaze, both common stress signals. But something else concerned me a lot more: she seemed afraid to move a muscle. Was it because the dog being tested was lunging at her, barking, or otherwise being overtly threatening? No. In fact, he was standing stock still, head slightly lowered, body tensed, staring directly at her. I could feel the tension in my own body just watching it. Seconds later, the dog being tested exploded in a display that, had he not been on leash, surely would have ended in physical harm to the other dog.

We are taught things about dogs early on. We learn that a growl is a warning, and that if a tail is wagging, that dog is happy (although that isn’t always the case). If a dog is lunging and barking we know to be careful, because the dog is emotionally aroused in a potentially dangerous way. But what we’re not taught is to beware of stillness.

As most trainers know, the vast majority of what we call “aggression” is really fear-based reactivity. While it’s true there are dogs out there who are flat-out aggressive, there are a lot more who are acting defensively. All of that lunging and barking is their way of saying, “Stay away from me! Don’t make me come over there!” In truth, they don’t want to come over there. What they want is for the scary thing to vanish into oblivion, preferably yesterday. But think about this: if a dog really meant to attack, he would. The lunging, barking dog is spending precious energy on a display that, if heeded, will actually avoid conflict. But if a dog is very still, staring, body fairly humming with tension, he’s conserving his energy. That is a dog who should cause the hairs on your own neck to stand up, because he might very well attack.

I remember receiving an email from someone who had been bitten when he’d encountered a woman and her dog out in public. The dog had been standing very still and staring at him. Not realizing this was a cause for concern, he approached and reached to pet the dog. The dog bit him. He had no idea why. The answer was in the first line of his email, where he mentioned that the dog was staring. If more people learned to recognize that stillness for what it is—a precariously balanced moment that could result in violence—more conflict could be avoided. Of course, there is a difference between a dog simply standing still, and a dog who’s gone into that tense emotional state which can too easily boil over into decisively aggressive action. Unfortunately, many people really are unaware of the difference. See the photo above? That’s a stock photo. The photographer had as part of the description, “Large guard dog with expressive eyes staring in disbelief.” The only disbelief here is mine, that incredulity is the dog’s underlying emotional state.

Meeting this type of dangerous stillness with threats or aggression is never wise, and will almost certainly cause the dog to explode in violence. If you encounter a dog who is displaying this type of body language, don’t try to overpower or scare the dog. Instead, avert your own gaze, and back away verrry slowly. Notice I said back away, not turn and walk away; walking away offers the dog a chance to attack from the rear. If a dog has gone still when meeeting your dog, get your dog out of there as calmly and quickly as possible.
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