Beyond Typical Resource Guarding

January 30, 2014

bully stick 3 smallerWe’ve all heard about dogs who guard their food, or perhaps treats or toys. But there are some dogs from whom resource guarding goes beyond the norm, and seems to be an art form. Here are just a few examples:

1. Guarding people. Most dogs in this category guard their owners. At the dog park, I’ve watched dogs spend the entire time running at and fending off dogs who come anywhere in the vicinity of the owner. The owner believes he or she is doing a good thing by bringing the dog to the park for exercise and socialization. In reality, the dog is in a constant state of stressful arousal. After all, when vigilantly guarding a valued resource, who could relax? Unfortunately, some owners find this sort of behavior admirable, in a “Look, my dog is protecting me” kind of way.

I can always count on Sierra to add something strange and different to typical behavior. When I first got Sierra, I’d allow her to go greet dogs and owners in the dog park if there were only one or two inside. Here’s a typical scenario: There’s a nice Australian shepherd mix, and her owner, who is sitting on a bench. I open the gate. Sierra immediately runs up to the owner, hops up beside him, and begins her wiggly, flirtatious, pet-me routine. Fair enough. But, when the Aussie approaches Sierra guards the dog from her own owner! Needless to say, this is not something I let to continue to happen, but it certainly was interesting.

2. Guarding Other Dogs. Imagine two dogs romping happily. A third dog approaches, and suddenly a skirmish breaks out, as one of the previously romping dogs drives the interloper away. “Isn’t that nice? He’s protecting his friend,” says the owner. Not so much. If the dog could speak, he’d be saying, “Go find your own friend. This one is mine!” This dynamic isn’t uncommon when two dogs who live together come to the park, where one turns on the other to guard a valued newcomer from the housemate.

3. Guarding Locations. This isn’t all that uncommon. When there are two or more dogs in the house, often one will lie across a doorway that leads to a room or to the outdoors, in order to controlling access to the area. Before the other dog can pass, he’s got to get past the Club Canine bouncer. Some dogs will even do this with their owners. In those cases, many owners will step over their dogs, while others will get the dog out of the way by calling the dog to them. I recommend the latter, or simply teaching a “Move!” cue.

4. Guarding from Afar. This is one that sometimes goes unnoticed or is misunderstood by owners. In this case, the valued item is not even in the dog’s possession. Some dogs, for example, will stand near the kitchen table while the owners are eating, glaring at the other dog. They might well have never been fed from the table; it’s as though they’re just waiting for a tasty morsel to fall. And if it does, whose will it be? Yep.

5. Just Plain Weirdness. There are dogs who will guard their own leashes. I’ve known dogs who have resource guarded dust balls. (Good thing they don’t live at my house.) But the prize for the oddest guarding behavior goes to…Sierra! In the mornings when I make my green smoothie drink, I give them Bodhi and Sierra each a small piece of banana before it goes into the blender. Each dog will quickly eat their portion. Sierra will then walk up to Bodhi and begin to lick the remnants of banana from his lips and, if he opens up, the inside of his mouth. If he doesn’t allow it, she may growl. Yes, friends, Sierra is actually guarding the food that is in Bodhi’s mouth from him. That’s a new one on me.

Your turn: What sorts of odd things do your dogs guard?

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The Real Truth About Rescuing Dogs–and Wolves

January 21, 2014

Super closeup thoughtful smallWhen you bring a dog home from a shelter or adopt one from a rescue, you’re doing a noble thing. You’re taking a dog whose days might be numbered, and giving him a new lease on life. Perhaps the dog immediately takes to your family, fits right in, and never displays major behavioral problems. Good for you! But, unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes for everyone. Many of us who rescue or adopt dogs have adopted challenges along with them that must be worked through. It’s not something you’ll see on those tug-at-your-heartstrings commercials, but it’s the truth.

In addition to having been a canine behavior specialist for close to the last quarter century, I’ve always been involved in rescue. There have been the dogs I rescued personally, the ones I worked with in Los Angeles city shelters, and the wolves and wolfdogs at the rescue center I co-ran—three of whom I ended up bringing home. The road has not always been an easy one. Over the years, as I’ve dealt with various behavior issues with my own dogs, I’ve discussed them openly in my books and blogs. Dog owners and even other trainers seem to appreciate hearing about the struggles and problem solving, rather than just reading about how wonderful things are. And so, in the spirit of honest sharing, I offer a few excerpts from my latest book, Hit by a Flying Wolf: True Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation and Real Life with Wolves and Dogs.

My husband and I rescued Bodhi, a malamute mix, and Sierra, a husky mix, from separate shelters. Not only did they each have behavior problems—and believe me, Bodhi had enough for five dogs—but at the start, there were conflicts between them:

There were periods when I’d have a few minutes or even a few hours where I felt more optimistic about Bodhi—and then something else would happen. Two weeks after we brought him home, I was taking a much-needed break from the book I was writing about separation anxiety. I was lying on the living room couch reading, with a box of peanut butter crackers wedged between my body and the back of the couch. Sierra came walking up through the narrow corridor formed by the couch and the coffee table. She sniffed the air and then the couch. I patiently explained that although peanut butter was indeed one of the world’s finest inventions, the crackers weren’t for her. Just then Bodhi approached from the opposite direction. Now the dogs were nose to nose in a very small space, with me in the middle. Before you could say “Not good,” a snarkfest broke out. Jaws clacked and snarls filled the air as the dogs lunged at each other. I wedged the book between them (now, there’s one advantage of a solid book over a Kindle) and simultaneously sprang up, employing reflexes I didn’t know I still possessed. Sierra seemed scared, while Bodhi just looked puzzled. I calmed the dogs down, put the crackers away, and made a mental note that the Fear of Clacking Jaws Diet could be quite the effective deterrent against late afternoon couch snacking.

Dogs aren’t the only ones who come with issues. For years I co-ran Villalobos Rescue Center with my friend Tia Torres—this was years before Pit Bulls & Parolees came along, when the center was dedicated to rescuing only wolves and wolfdogs. Amongst other duties, I went out on house calls to assist owners so they could keep their animals, transported wolves to the rescue, and did socialization and training with the residents. Then, for reasons explained in the book, I brought three of them home to live with me. As you might imagine, wolves aren’t exactly like dogs, and they presented some serious challenges. That they hadn’t had the best start in life didn’t make things any easier, either. Like so many rescue dogs, Heyoka, a mostly-wolf, had an intense fear of people; it took a long time for me to even be able to touch him. As you might imagine, veterinary visits weren’t the easiest….

This particular veterinary office had seen a lot of the rescue’s animals over the years. None had ever fazed the burly gang members-turned-vet-techs. These guys had wrangled huge Pit Bulls, wolves, and everything in between. But they hadn’t met Heyoka. C.C. and I watched from the waiting room as a dark-haired, twenty-something tech strode confidently toward the holding area in the back. Ten minutes later, he emerged covered in a thin film of sweat, and called for another tech to assist him. The two disappeared. Fifteen minutes later they both reappeared looking sweaty, disheveled, and with a distinct deficiency in the swagger department. “We need the catch pole,” one panted to a third tech, who looked at them and asked, “You wrestling alligators back there or what?” Three techs and thirty minutes later, Heyoka was safely back in the crate.

I don’t mean to give the impression that life with the wolves and dogs has been nothing but difficulties. The love, trust, moments of bonding and affection, and near-magical turnarounds in behavior and spirit are more than worth all of the time and effort. My goal in writing Hit by a Flying Wolf is, beyond simply offering what is hopefully a fascinating read, to inspire owners to not only feel better about the struggles they’re having with their own dogs, but to hang in there and keep trying, even when behavior problems cause disruption, frustration, and challenges. Sometimes true change can take months, or even years. But when we take animals into our homes and families, in the end, the effort is always worthwhile. Just ask Bodhi, the dog I thought I’d never bond with; he’s lying quietly by my side as I type this, and I absolutely love him. That’s the truth about rescue.


Is Lip Licking Beagle a Threat to Baby?

January 13, 2014

beagle licks lipsA veterinarian recently told me an interesting story. A woman who had brought her beagle in for vaccinations mentioned that she was very concerned about the dog’s behavior. There was a baby in the family, and it seemed that the beagle would lick his lips whenever he was in close proximity to the infant. The dog also growled when the infant made certain sounds or movements. Did this lip licking, the woman wanted to know, mean that the beagle wanted to eat the baby?

The woman’s concern is understandable. But the good news is, it’s very unlikely that the dog was looking to have the baby for lunch. Lip licking is a common, subtle stress signal in dogs. It’s often seen in anxiety-producing situations such as sitting in the vet’s waiting room, being in a training class where harsh corrections are used, or even being hugged. (There are some dogs who like or tolerate being hugged, but many don’t like it.) In this situation, it’s likely that the beagle was simply anxious around the baby. The growling further reinforces the likelihood that the beagle was stressed, since growling is a dog’s way of warning us that he’s uncomfortable. (See my previous post Why Growling is Good.)

Other subtle stress signals to watch for are yawning, scratching, sniffing the ground, scratching, turning away of the head and/or body, or averting the eyes. Of course, any of these signals, including lip licking, can be seen at other times as well; canine body language must be observed as a whole, and in context. It’s ironic that understanding these signals is absolutely crucial for dog owners, and yet they’re not commonly taught or discussed. In a situation such as the beagle-baby one, had the owner’s mind not been put at ease, the dog might have lost his home.

While lip licking and other stress signals do not indicate aggression, keep in mind that a scared dog, if pushed too far, can become dangerous. If you see any of these signals in your own dog, try to figure out why he might be nervous. If possible, remove the dog from the situation, and, at another time, work on reducing the dog’s stress in those situations. Paying attention to these subtle signals can alert us to the difference between a dog wanting to eat a child and wanting to simply be left alone—and that’s a life-changing difference for everyone involved.


Can Technology Offer a Shortcut to Reading Dogs’ Emotions?

January 2, 2014

cocked head smallA while back, a product called the Bowlingual claimed to translate dog barks. Is your dog happy? Sad? Frustrated? Lonely? The Bowlingual would offer a phrase to let you know. While intriguing, suffice it to say the Amazon reviews are a little sad and a lot tongue in cheek. No one seems to have as yet gotten the inside line to their dog’s thoughts by using this type of device.

Now, a small group of researchers at the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery have come up with a newer, more technologically oriented device which they hope will offer a scientifically based glimpse into your dog’s emotions. “No More Woof” is touted as “the first device to translate animal thoughts into human language.” It consists of a headset (which I’m guessing most dogs would have to become acclimated to wearing) with an EEG sensor that reads your dog’s brainwaves and, via micro-computing and special software, translates them into human speech. Although the technology is still in development, the goal is to produce 3 levels of the product, with the price ranging from $65 to $1200. The lower end model will be able to distinguish 2-3 thought patterns, most likely “tiredness, hunger, and curiosity.” The most advanced model will allegedly program itself while in use. According to the website, “Over time this option lets your dog speak short sentences (‘I’m hungry—but I don’t like this!’).” Oh, no—I’m already imagining Bodhi’s device sounding off non-stop throughout the day: “Got anything to eat? Can we go out now? Pet me! Pet me! Pet me!” The researchers do point out that the most easily detected neural patterns are “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “I’m curious, who is that?” and “I want to pee,” so maybe it wouldn’t be quite that bad.

It would be all too easy to dismiss this sort of technology as a joke; I mean, do we really not know when our dogs are hungry, curious, tired, or need to eliminate? But I do think there is merit to the concept, and that it might be helpful in specific situations. There are owners who are either not very adept at tuning in to their dogs’ emotional states, or are too distracted with their own lives and gadgets to realize their dog needs something. I can also imagine the device being helpful to a segment of the elderly population who tend to be forgetful, and might not feed their dog on time or let him out without a prompt. And while most dog owners do believe that their dog has emotions, it’s always good to “prove” it to those who keep insisting on viewing dogs as robotic little servants who live to please us. After all, it’s harder to get physically harsh with a dog when you know they’ve got feelings, too. I would love to have technology that would tell us once and for all whether a dog is enjoying training, or being stressed out by it. It would certainly settle some arguments between trainers who use different types of training tools.

The No More Woof is a project in development, and funds for the prototype are being raised. If the product moves forward, no doubt improvements will be made. For now, we’ll have to stick with the best technology we’ve got for reading our dogs’ emotional states: our eyes, our brains, and our hearts.
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Happy New Year, all! I look forward to seeing some of you at my seminars in 2014. For a full schedule, go to http://www.nicolewilde.com and click Seminars. And stay tuned for an announcement about a new book!


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