At the Shelter: Can We Put People in the Mood to Adopt?

February 18, 2014

Elderly Lady with PetI’m one of those people whose mind always seems to translate things into how they relate to dogs. The other morning was no exception. I came across an article stating that researchers have discovered what they call the “temperature-premium” effect. According to the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a series of five field and lab studies were used to measure and manipulate physical warmth in conjunction with shoppers’ assessments of perceived value of products. The findings suggest that “exposure to physical warmth activates the concept of emotional warmth.” This study follows others that found a relationship between positive feelings and reduced distance from the subject, and suggests that increased temperatures also reduce people’s perceived distance from the subject.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we “trick” anyone into feeling like they should adopt a dog; the last thing anyone wants is adopter’s remorse and a return. But there’s nothing wrong with making people feel as comfortable and receptive as possible when meeting their potential new best friend. In regard to the temperature premium effect, the meet and greet rooms in shelters and rescues comes to mind. In the study, the target temperature was a few degrees above 72. That’s not a temperature that would be uncomfortable to most dogs, and it might relax people. If you run an adoption facility, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to conduct an unofficial “study” to see whether it helps? I wonder too whether we could extrapolate from the study that a higher temperature in the kennel buildings would make people feel closer to the subjects in distance, which might in turn reduce emotional distance.

We also know that music can help dogs to relax in shelter type environments, thanks to studies that have been done with classical music as well as music that is psychoacoustically designed to help dogs relax, such as the Through a Dog’s Ear series. And, we know that certain types of music are more likely to make humans relax. As a general rule, classical music is more relaxing than, say, heavy metal music—unless, of course, you’re a sixteen-year-old boy. So why not pump relaxing music into the kennels? It could relax the dogs, in turn making them more adoptable, and calm the people, putting them more at ease and hopefully in a more receptive state.

There are also other senses that can be engaged to help dogs and people to relax. Smell is a dog’s primary sense. DAP—Dog Appeasing Pheromone—is a product that mimics the pheromones emitted by a lactating female dog. Turns out they’re comforting not only to puppies, but to adults as well. (There is some debate about whether this product is effective; to me, it falls into the can’t-hurt-might-help category, and I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence where it did work.) Using DAP in kennels could well help dogs to relax. But what about humans who don’t have the vomero-nasal organ dogs have to detect those pheromones? Well, there’s aromatherapy. What about some nice, relaxing lavender?

You get the idea. We all want to stay in environments that we enjoy longer than ones in which we’re uncomfortable. (Case in point: I have walked out of more mall stores that were playing obnoxious music than I can count.) If we’re physically comfortable and feeling pleasantly relaxed, we’re a lot more likely to be in a receptive state mentally and emotionally. Again, we’re certainly aren’t aiming to “trick” anyone into adoptions. But isn’t it worth our while to do everything we can to help people be more open to considering the dogs?
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Check out Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com and her photography at http://www.nicolewildephotography.com.

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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?


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!


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!


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.