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.
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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.
Happy New Year, all! I look forward to seeing some of you at my seminars in 2014. For a full schedule, go to and click Seminars. And stay tuned for an announcement about a new book!

Wag This Way: Left or Right Offers Insight

November 4, 2013

tail wagI just got back from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers conference, where one of the seminars I presented centered on the lesser known aspects of canine body language. Among other things, I discussed a study from Bari University in Italy about tail wagging.

The study involved 30 mixed breed dogs between the ages of one and six. There were 15 intact males and 15 non-oestrus females. These were family pets, by the way, whose owners had agreed to participate. The dogs were put into narrow box-like structures with cameras that would track not only which direction their tail wagged, but the precise amplitude. There was a slat at the front of the box through which the dog could see out. (Imagine one of those movies where the character knocks on a door in a seedy neighborhood and the doorkeeper slides the slat open to ask for the password.)

Each dog was presented with a stimulus for one minute, rested 90 seconds, and then saw another stimulus. (The test lasted 25 days with 10 sessions per day.) There were four different stimuli: the owner, an unfamiliar person, a cat, and a dominant unfamiliar dog, who happened to be a large Belgian Malinois. The results were interesting, to say the least. The dogs’ tails wagged to the right for the owner (that’s the dog’s right, by the way), the unfamiliar person, and the cat. Predictably, the widest wag was for the owners, the next widest for the unfamiliar person, and the narrowest for the cat. But when presented with the Malinois, the dogs’ tails wagged to the left.

Why would that be? We know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. The anterior of the left hemisphere is associated with feelings of love, attraction, and safety, so it makes sense that a dog’s tail would wag to the right for their owner and others for whom the dog felt positive feelings. The right anterior hemisphere, however, is associated with fear and withdrawl, among other things. When the dogs saw the dominant Malinois, those left directional tail wags were telling a tale, and it wasn’t a happy one.

The study is fascinating enough on its own, but now the researchers have published a new study in the journal Current Biology. Building on the directional wag theory, they wondered whether other dogs would be affected by a dog’s tail wagging to the right or to the left. Would they know the dog was feeling friendly, or not wanting to be approached? As it turns out, yes, they did! They found that dogs who viewed a dog wagging to the right (the warm, fuzzy, left-hemisphere activated response) would show a relaxed response. In dogs who saw a left side wag (produced by the negative/withdrawl brain function), though, there was increased anxiety and even an increased cardiac response.

The research team posits that the directional tail wags might effectively be used to advantage during vet visits or that dummies could be used to elicit positive responses from dogs. Interestingly, during the seminar where I mentioned the tail wag study, I also discussed what I call the Robodog Study, where a robotic dog was used to gauge the response of other dogs to a short or long, wagging or still tail. Canine body language is such a fascinating subject, and these studies only touch on, well, the tail end of it. You can check out the DVD of my full day seminar Talk to the Paw: Understanding What Dogs are Saying—and What We’re Saying to Them here. In the meantime, watch your dog’s tail when he meets new people and other dogs; you just might learn a little bit more about his likes and fears!

Why Growling is Good

October 22, 2013

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyA woman I sometimes chat with during my morning dog outings asked my opinion about an encounter she recently had. She’d been been walking her four-year-old mixed breed dog around a local park when she crossed paths with a man whose dog was off leash. As the owners walked toward each other on the narrow trail, the foot loose and fancy-free puppy ran up to the adult dog. With the usual lack of canine cluelessness that accompanies early dogdom, the pup leaped at the dog relentlessly in an attempt to initiate play. The woman’s dog, while not aggressive, did not want to be bothered. He growled. The puppy didn’t back off, and again tried to engage the older dog. The dog growled louder. The man made no attempt to put his dog on leash. The woman, feeling embarrassed that her dog had growled, ended up apologizing to the man and walking her dog away.

The adult dog’s hackles might not have been up during the encounter, but mine certainly were. The woman’s dog had done nothing wrong. She had nothing to apologize for! Growling is a perfectly acceptable canine warning. It’s a dog’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t like that,” “Don’t come any closer!” or “Please stop what you’re doing.” Being on leash, the adult dog didn’t have the option to leave. He could certainly have snapped at the puppy, or worse. But instead, he gave an appropriate warning. That the puppy didn’t buy a vowel, get a clue, and understand what was being spelled out was a problem, so the dog growled louder. Hopefully that puppy will learn to back off when adult dogs warn him away, before his puppy license expires and an adult dog cleans his clock. And hopefully the man will learn to leash his dog when encountering others.

Understanding that a growl is a threat is hard-wired in humans, so it’s reasonable and even advantageous that we become upset when we hear one. But a growl from a dog is actually a good thing. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing for a dog to growl at his owner, but growling is a non-aggressive form of communication. Think about it. If someone kept shoving into you on line at the post office, you’d eventually say something like, “Excuse you!” But what if you didn’t have a way to warn the person that you were getting irritated? Eventually, you’d have to resort to either leaving, or physically getting your point across. Whether a dog is growling at another dog or a person, it’s simply a warning. If the dog wanted to attack, he would have. Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. But people misunderstand, and punish dogs for growling. A dog then learns that growling leads to being punished and, unfortunately, once his early warning system has been removed, the dog is likely to begin biting with no warning. As a trainer, I’ve seen many dogs like that over the years and believe me, they’re no fun to rehabilitate.

If a dog is growling at you, whether the dog belongs to you or someone else, the best course of action at the moment is to defuse the situation. After all, the dog’s arousal level is already elevated. You don’t want to shout or worse, get physical, as those things could lead to a bite. Instead, glance down and to the side (this tells the dog you’re not a threat while allowing you to keep him in your peripheral vision) and back away slowly. Don’t turn your back on the dog if you can help it, as some dogs are more prone to attack from the rear. If the dog in question is your own, address the situation that caused the growling—for example, food guarding—at another time when your dog is calm, with the assistance of a professional trainer if necessary. Remember, growling is simply communication. If we take a moment to assess why a dog is growling instead of automatically taking the attitude that he’s behaving inappropriately, we will react appropriately ourselves.

My full day seminar “Talk to the Paw! Understanding What Dogs are Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” is now available on DVD! Click here to check it out!.

Is Your Dog Who You Thought He’d Be?

October 14, 2013

under tree limb portrait small copyLast night, in a jet lag induced bout of sleeplessness, I watched a Sex and the City marathon. Somewhere in the midst of this guilty pleasure, Carrie or one of the other girls (I can’t be sure—it was 3 a.m.) opined that we might all be better off if we didn’t bring so many expectations into our relationships. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.

In some cases, strict requirements are understandable. Nancy, a trainer, got a dog specifically to do agility. An experienced competitor, she has a high skill level and knows what types of dogs excel at the sport. Not only did the dog have to be nimble and built for speed, but he also had to have certain traits including the ability to focus and the strong motivation that’s often referred to as drive. On the other hand, Sue, a retired woman in her late sixties, spends most of her time at home and wanted a dog for company. She didn’t care much what the dog looked like, or even the breed or age. She just wanted a smallish dog who would cuddle with her at night and not need too much exercise during the day. Nancy’s final choice of a young, intense border collie would not have made Sue any happier than Sue’s eventual adoptee, a sweet, calm, mixed breed senior, would have made Nancy.

For Nancy and Sue, the dogs really did need to meet specific expectations. But most adopters, whether an individual or a family, are simply looking for a dog to fit into their homes and lives without too much trouble. They typically envision an affectionate dog who’s fairly easy to train, won’t make major demands on their lifestyle, and is friendly with the family and visitors. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, really, who goes looking for a dog with baggage? Who wants a long-term project? Regardless, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My own dogs are both shelter rescues we adopted a few months apart. You might think I wouldn’t care much whether a dog has major issues, since as a trainer and behavior specialist, I know how to fix them. Wrong! Even professionals need a break now and then. My last two dogs were much loved but had their own issues—one with fear and the other, aggression—and I longed for an easier dog. As it turned out, Sierra, who came to us at around age two, had a wicked case of separation anxiety. Bodhi, who was allegedly two but turned out to be closer to one, was steeped in the hormones and outrageous behavior of adolescence. He was a handful and a half; rowdy, destructive, reactive toward other dogs, no manners…I could go on. Suffice it to say that despite careful screening (I still believe that he walked quietly past other dogs during his in-shelter temperament test chanting, I will hold it together until I get adopted, I will…) neither dog turned out to be quite what I was expecting. Working through their issues was challenging at times, but eventually, things resolved. Are they absolutely perfect now? Nope. Who is? Still, I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.

So what can you do if your dog turns out to be very different than what you were hoping? First, unless you’re an experienced trainer yourself, hire one. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website is a great place to start your search.) Unless there’s an issue such as major aggression toward a child or some other deal-breaker, be patient and work at it. In the end, sometimes the best course is to change what you can, and then accept and appreciate the being for who he is. I’m sure Carrie Bradshaw would agree.

Social Facilitation: When Two Dogs are Better Than One

September 3, 2013

babies english cockerNoises from the upper floor of the house; unfamiliar people; sudden movements. Those were just a few of the things that scared Buster. The buff-colored Cocker spaniel lived with his human parents and dog-sister Betsy in a two-story condo. His owners had called for help in rehabilitating Buster so he could go through life without being chronically anxious. At our first session, he appeared to be as frightened as they’d reported. Although he was clearly food-motivated, he was afraid to approach me. Everything in his body language broadcasted a hesitancy to interact. Where, I asked his owners, was Betsy? They’d locked her away in another room so as to reduce distractions during training. I suggested we let her out. I wanted to see whether Buster’s behavior might change with her there.

To say a transformation occurred would be an understatement. As soon as Betsy entered the room, she ran over and jumped on me for attention—and so did Buster! It was hard to believe this was the same dog who had, minutes before, practically been afraid to breathe the same air as me. With Betsy in attendance, I was able to work successfully hands-on with Buster. As our sessions progressed, we worked gradually toward his feeling confident without Besty present; but having her there at first was the key that allowed me to get a foot in the door.

Social facilitation means that one dog’s behavior amplifies or changes another’s. For example, one dog howls or barks when another does, or one anxious dog’s behavior in the vet’s waiting room causes another dog to become upset. But social facilitation can work to a dog’s advantage too, as in Buster’s case. Studies of thunderstorm phobias, for example, have shown that the presence of another dog who is relaxed can actually calm the phobic dog, whereas whether the owner was nearby or not didn’t seem to make much difference.

I’ve employed social facilitation with clients whose dog was afraid of a family member. Unfortunately, the trigger in these cases is usually a man (sorry guys, it’s the testosterone—you’re bigger, have deeper voices, and tend to be scarier to fearful dogs). Behavior modification programs can go a long way, but sometimes bringing another dog into the picture can move things along a lot more quickly. (Be sure the dogs get along first, and don’t invite another dog over if yours is territorial.) The scared dog sees the other dog approach the man; the man pets and plays with the friendly dog, and feeds treats. The scared dog will, more often than not, begin to approach the person as well. Even if he doesn’t get involved in the action the first time around, chances are, with repeated exposure, he’ll learn from the other dog that the person is no one to fear. (If the second dog doesn’t like the man either, I might start to wonder about the guy…I’m just sayin’.)

For a dog who’s frightened of pretty much everything in the great outdoors, assuming the dog is dog-friendly, inviting a friend with a confident dog to walk alongside can help. Just as with Buster, it could help the dog to see the world as less of a threatening place. There are so many types of situations where one dog can alleviate the stress of another. I even know of a woman who’s second dog was allowed to spend the night in a cage at the vet’s office with the one who was recovering from surgery, since the second dog served as a sort of security blanket for the first.

Social facilitation is one more “tool” to keep in your toolbox of things that may help your dog. Or, to put it in common terms, sometimes two dogs are better than one!

For “Help for Your Fearful Dog,” more books/DVDs and Nicole’s seminar schedule, please visit

Is Reacting Really Reactive?

August 20, 2013

Sierra snarl smallThis past Saturday, I took Bodhi and Sierra for an early morning walk. As we navigated the hills and pathways of our local park, we passed a few regulars. It was encouraging to see how far their dogs had come. There was the woman with two Chihuahua mixes, one of whom used to lunge and snarl each time we passed. Between her good handling skills and my own dogs’ improved behavior, encounters are now much less stressful. Another positive pass-by with a gentleman and his poodle mix, and I was feeling pretty good—that is, until we passed the man with the Akita.

The Akita was on leash, and the pair was headed in our direction. There was plenty of room for us to pass each other on the paved walkway. The man veered toward one side, while Sierra, Bodhi and I kept to the other. Things were going well until Sierra lunged and barked at the dog. Now, I’ve worked long and hard to modify this habit, and for the most part, Sierra’s done very well. So when she erupted, no one was more surprised than me—except, perhaps, the Akita. The dog reacted in kind, and the man instantly gave the dog a hard correction by roughly jerking the choke chain. I cringed as the dog did the same, and I told the man, “You know, it really wasn’t his fault. I’m sorry, but it was actually my dog’s fault.” He mumbled something under his breath about it not being okay that his dog had behaved like that, and continued on his way.

Was it really so wrong for the Akita to react to a dog who was lunging and barking at him? What if a total stranger ran up to you and yelled in your face? Should you be expected to stand there and behave politely? Of course not. And yet some of us hold dogs to the impossible standard of never barking, never lunging, never…being dogs. Our knee-jerk reaction to barking and growling is understandable. It’s jarring, it can be frightening, and it can certainly portend trouble. But those behaviors are also perfectly natural, and in some cases, totally appropriate.

I remember more than a few training appointments over the years where a mother would complain that each time her child entered a room, the dog would slink away. It turned out in all of those cases that the child had been doing something the dog had found unpleasant. Hugging or petting in a less than gentle way was often the issue. Little girls in particular love to hug dogs, while dogs view hugging as restraint. So what’s a dog to do? He could growl a warning, which in dog-ese is perfectly polite, but would likely elicit an, “Oh, no! The dog is growling at my child!” True, growling at a child is cause for alarm, but that’s frequently where the thought process ends. The next step, which is to figure out why it happened, is frequently overlooked. Alternately, the hugged/offended dog could do the least violent thing by simply leaving the area. But active avoidance doesn’t seem to be an acceptable reaction to many people, either, as they want the dog and child to interact.

I’ve also been called in to a number of training appointments where the issue was aggression between two dogs who lived in the home. It was interesting to see the number of cases where it was assumed that one dog was starting the skirmishes when, in fact, it was the other. The first dog would give a hard stare or other signal that went unnoticed by the owners—all they’d see was the second dog reacting, which was interpreted as starting a fight. Again, the dog was simply reacting appropriately, given the situation.

Whether it’s reacting to another dog’s actions or those of a human, dogs use what they’ve got: body language and vocalizations and, sometimes, their teeth. If we can calmly assess a situation where a dog is being “reactive,” we will be much better able to respond appropriately and address the root cause of the dog’s behavior, rather than overreacting ourselves.


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Is This Play Okay?

August 7, 2013

2 snarls edit crop smallA woman asked me recently whether I thought the play happening between her own dogs was worrisome. She was concerned because one dog would nip at the other’s legs almost incessantly, and the behavior seemed like the genetically watered down version of how wild animals bring down prey. The dogs were about the same size and, outside of play, got along well. Without seeing video or knowing more it was impossible to give a definitive response, but my question was, “How does your other dog react?” She said the other dog didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all, and play normally continued with both parties enthusiastically involved. That, then, is the answer—it’s not a problem.

Dogs have their own individual styles, both during play and while issuing an invitation to play. While some use the traditional play bow to engage another dog, others will stand still and bark repeatedly. Some will nip at the other dog’s legs. In my seminar “Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play” (now on DVD), there’s footage of all of those things, plus a scene where a very rude Dalmatian tries to get Sierra to play by slapping her!

Sometimes, things that seem to us like potential trouble really aren’t. When dogs growl and bark at each other, that can look frightening to an onlooker and seem like a precursor to aggression. Certainly, if the vocalizations get more intense and deeper in tone, intervention might be warranted. (Other warning signs include fewer pauses, stiff bodies, and over-arousal.) But very often, dogs who are growling and barking during play understand each other perfectly well, and are having a grand old time.

It often happens that one dog chases another relentlessly, and we wonder if the chasee is getting overwhelmed. In that case, simply stop the action and ask the dog who’s being chased if he’s okay with it. No, I’m not suggesting you grab the dog and say, “Pardon  me, but is that peppy poodle a bit much?” What I mean is to calmly, gently, and carefully take hold of the dog who’s doing the chasing. (Ask permission first if it’s not your own dog.) Give the other dog a moment. Does he run and hide behind Mom or take cover under a bench? If so, the dog probably was getting overwhelmed, and an enforced play break is in order. But you might be surprised at how many times the other dog will run a short distance away and then dash back, or give other signals that he wants the play to continue, thank you very much!

Don’t get me wrong. There are times to interrupt play before it escalates into aggression, and a multitude of things that can go wrong, particularly among dogs who don’t know each other well. Just being different of breeds can create dislike and misunderstandings. For example, many dogs don’t love the way Labs or Goldens play, as they tend to be very in your face. Some dogs find bully breeds, with their “bull in a China shop” approach, overwhelming. And I’ve personally watched more than a few dogs who are playing with a standard poodle, have a thought bubble over their heads that reads, “I thought it was a dog, not a pogo stick!”

The better dogs know each other, the rougher play can be. And the better we know our own dogs, the better we can tell whether they’re okay with what another dog is doing. But when we’re not sure, the bottom line is always this: just ask the dog.

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The Case of the 160-Pound Yard Guard

July 30, 2013

My pet sitter recently called me with a behavior question. She’d just begun a weeklong assignment caring for a 3-year-old, 160-pound English Mastiff at the owner’s home. Lisa had taken care of the dog before, and they’d gotten along well. This time, however, Lucy was displaying a previously unseen behavior. Whenever Lisa placed her hand on the gate to enter the yard, Lucy would stare at her and issue a low, throaty growl. She’d then bark as Lisa entered. Once they were in the back yard things went back to normal, with Lucy jumping and rompting around like a big, happy puppy. But the threateing growl resurfaced whenever Lisa approached the front gate to leave.

Lisa was concerned for her safety, and rightly so. She was also worried about what would happen to the dog in the future if a pet sitter couldn’t interact with her, as the family took frequent trips. Lisa scheduled someone to go with her to the next feeding, to wait outside the gate just in case something went wrong. What she really wanted, though, was to change the situation. Not knowing the details of the dog’s history or anything about her, there was no way I could say for sure why Lucy was behaving the way she was. Lisa wanted to know if there was anything she was doing with her own body language to trigger the behavior, but I doubted it—she’s very aware of her body language, and is very good with dogs. (And can I tell you how thrilled I am to have a pet sitter who’s not only great with dogs, but always wants to learn more about their behavior?) I didn’t think this was a typical case of fear-based reactivity, like those where a dog is only confident enough to nip once the person turns their back—the behavior didn’t start when Lisa turned her back to walk to the gate, but only once she’d reached it. My gut feeling was that for whatever reason, the gate had become a highly charged location for Lucy, to the point that she became reactive whenever someone touched it, regardless of whether they were coming or going.

Tossing treats would be an easy enough way for Lisa to gain access when entering, but more needed to be done. I explained how to teach Lucy the “Find It” game by tossing a treat on the ground for her and saying, “Find it!” in a happy voice. Lisa would begin the game in the back yard where Lucy felt safe. Once Lucy was happily playing along, Lisa would gradually move the game down the walkway that led to the front gate, always monitoring the dog for signs of stress. If all went well, she’d move close to the gate, still playing Find It. To exit, she’d scatter-toss a windfall of treats in a final Find It, and then walk out. (I also suggested including a well-stuffed Kong be included in the last toss.) Lisa said she’d try it the next morning. I assured her that if things didn’t look promising, I’d accompany her on the evening feeding to observe.

The next morning, I received an email. Lisa wrote:
“The Find It game was a hit! We played in the back yard, and Lucy caught on quickly. Each time she would come and sit, and wait for the ‘Find it’ command. She was wagging her tail every time she came back to me.
In the front yard, we played the game. I moved closer to the gate before each throw. On my exit, I threw the ‘Find it’ cookies in one direction and the cookie-filled Kong in another and went out the gate. Lucy could care less! I left, and she was so happy playing the Find It game.”

Lisa has gone back to the home a few times since and each time, Lucy was very happy to see her. There were no incidents on the way out, either. Lisa finally got to speak with the owners last night and told them what had been going on. They revealed that there had been a teenager who was taunting Lucy through the gate a short while back, and that Lucy had actually snapped at the boy’s hand. As a potential root cause for Lucy’s behavior, that made a lot of sense!

The whole situation with Lucy made me reflect on what a trainer who relies heavily on physical force would have done, assuming the person wasn’t up to overpowering a reactive, 160-pound mastiff. Someone had actually suggested to Lisa that the owner should physically “correct” Lucy for the behavior. It’s true that allowing a huge dog (or any dog, for that matter) to growl and lunge at visitors is not okay. But as with all behavior issues, we’ve got to look at why the dog was behaving that way in the first place. As with any canine behavior problem, instead of reacting with violence, we must address the underlying issue. That way, the symptoms cease naturally, and there are no unwanted side effects like those that can occur when meeting violence with violence. Lucy’s dad loves the joy the Find It game gives her and plans to keep playing. I’m glad, as he’ll be able to use it in situations such as when Lucy notices another dog he doesn’t want her approaching, or the moment she spies a squirrel. Most of all, I’m glad Lucy is learning that the gate is not a scary place, and that the Case of the 160-pound Yard Guard ended well and safely for everyone.

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.

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