When Fear of Aggressive Dogs Makes Dogs Aggressive, We Have Our Lizard Brains to Thank

Once We Were Prey and We Adopted a Predator

When we are faced with sharp pointy teeth, like in the picture above, it triggers a primal emotion inside us. Sometimes the feeling can be so fleeting that we don’t even notice it—maybe because our experience or knowledge quickly overrides our initial emotions—but we all have it in us: the fear of predators. The reason is, of course, that we were once prey. Back in the days, before we had the power of stone, fire and steel, fear of predators kept us alive because we avoided them. It’s our evolutionary legacy that, despite having unleashed fire and fury on every creature we fear ever since, we cannot shake this quintessential element of basic survival instinct. And this fear has been exploited, and sometimes fuelled, by authors and script writers, from fairy tales to horror movies to news reporting.

It is entirely reasonable then that we fear our dogs. Even the tiniest handbag dweller can render your hand a useless limb with their little canines. And technically, although only a B-grade horror flick could have an entirely improbable story line where a Chihuahua severs a person’s carotid artery, death by toy dog is a possibility.

Size Matters, Says Our Lizard Brain

The reality is, the little monsters tend to get off scot-free, no matter how much they snarl, snap or even bite. We may even laugh when tiny Cesar bares his teeth at a 50-kilo Bullmastiff. “Little dog syndrome”, we casually say in their defence, while we drag the noisy ball of aggression away. Turn the tables and there isn’t much defensive rhetoric you can come up with. Some people quiver, if your square-headed companion simply sets eyes on their dog. Little do they know that Bullmastiffs—like the boy in the photo—are often the sweetest dogs. The adverse reaction to these dogs is completely understandable, though. Large, powerful dogs resemble our ancient predators so perfectly well whereas little cute fluffballs can hide their deadly teeth behind their button noses and doe eyes. But those miniature fangs are there, waiting for that ankle or finger or carotid artery. This is not to say that small dogs are more likely to be aggressive than big dogs, but because managing a small aggressive dog is considerably easier than wrestling a heavy-weight who’s blown a fuse, small dogs have better survival chances. We keep them alive and we keep them at home or on leash.

Their bigger conspecifics are rarely that lucky, with certain breeds copping it especially hard depending on the current fashion. One day it’s Rottweilers, next it’s Dobermans, then it’s Pit Bulls (more precisely: the American Pit Bull Terrier or any dog that looks vaguely similar) with their mythical “lock-jaws”. Those dogs lose their lives because of an image problem, no matter if they committed any offence or if their offence was ridiculously trivial. There is no rationality behind it other than our ancient deep-seated involuntary fear of predators. But, we modern day humans make plenty of lizard brain decisions, so it’s not really that surprising.

How Our Fears Can Kill Dogs

When dogs interact in play, they show us plenty of predator-style behaviours such as chasing, pouncing, showing of teeth, making contact with teeth and growling. And what do we do, more often than not? We intervene. We pull the dogs apart or restrain them and try to teach them with lots of “no” and “ah-ah” that aggression is bad. We want our dogs to play nice. We want calm and gentle dogs. We don’t tolerate anything that we deem aggressive behaviour. This is our lizard brain talking.

The reason this is so devastating is not only that many dogs lose their lives for no other reason than our fears, but that we often make things worse for them, much worse, with our fears. If we deny dogs to behave in a species-typical manner—and that includes aggressive or aggressive-looking behaviour—we may in fact create aggression problems that weren’t even there in the first place.

If puppies are not allowed to learn how to communicate with their conspecifics, future encounters with other dogs can be challenging, and even dangerous, because of misunderstandings, wrong or missing signals and defensive behaviour. We may raise our puppies to be illiterate in their own language, and all because we thought we could, or should, teach them to communicate nicely and in a way that didn’t worry us.

Just as dogs need to be able to talk to each other in their own language—teeth, barks, growls, tumbling, humping and all— they need the liberty to tell us when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Punishing growling, snarling, snapping or any other form of antagonistic communication, be it directed at humans or other dogs, can create “silent killers”. How often a dog can tolerate being pushed to their limits of how much fear, anxiety and distress they can endure, only the dog knows. We’ll know once that dog bites.

Train Your Brain and Help Safe Dogs

Unless we accept that our dogs are a predatory species, for whom aggressive displays are a normal form of communication, and train ourselves to understand their language, we will always be slave to our lizard brains and make lizard brain decisions.

We can learn how to control our deep-seated fear of sharp teeth by watching lots of dog-dog play. I had an uncle who was one of those people who picked up a foreign language simply by immersing himself in that language. Mind you, his grammar and writing was shocking, but his communication skills were excellent. When it comes to dog language, we are still trying to figure a lot of things out. At least we have started to realise that we got quite a few things wrong in the past, mostly because we couldn’t resist interpreting their language using our own cultural and grammatical rules.

So, get yourself to a dog park during peak hour and watch. Depending on the attendees, you may see a large range of typical dog conversations. We have made things a little challenging for our dogs by creating such great diversity within the species, so you might come across the occasional problem due to dialect. But most importantly, look for those exposed teeth and snarly faces. Watch the fake fights. How are the dogs moving? Are they jumping around like excited kids? Are they taking turns? Does the one you thought was attacking the other suddenly fling herself on the ground, paws paddling in the air?

Watching dog play, and even the occasional altercation, provides an invaluable opportunity to learn canine language, but only if we free our minds from preconceived ideas. Let the dogs be our teachers. After all, they are the native speakers. If we can see dog behaviour for what it really is and learn to control our fears where they are unwarranted, we can safe lives. The more of us realise that most dogs are neither trying to kill each other nor us, the better we can make rational and compassionate decisions, as befits our species.

Is Your Dog a Hippie Dog?

What’s a hippie dog? That was the first question that popped into my head when a friend once asked me why hippie dogs were always so well behaved. The dogs she had in mind were the type that you would see off leash in public areas, typically hanging out with people who were, well, also just hanging out. I went through a hippie phase as a teenager and I remember it was all about being “anti-establishment”, whatever that meant. I think, what I mostly loved about it was the sense of freedom, the sense (or rather illusion) of not being bound by any societal rules. You could say, a hippie dog—not giving a care about leash laws and not forced to follow anyone—is a dog free to choose. So, why do they choose to hang with their people?

Hippie Dogs Are Happy to Stick Around

A common concern I hear from clients is that they worry their dog may run off, if let off the leash, and my first response (although I don’t always say it out loud) is usually “why would they?”. What are the reasons a dog would not stay with the people they consider their family? A dog who has just been adopted from a shelter and not settled into their new home yet is a good candidate for running off into the blue yonder, maybe never to return. So are, one would assume, dogs who are unhappy in their homes, because something causes them serious ongoing or repeated stress. But otherwise, running off is generally a temporary thing, for example to meet other dogs, say hello to people, chase after someone else’s tennis ball or bother the local wildlife. The dog, once satisfied with their adventure, typically returns to their humans. But, just in case you aren’t eager to wait that long or your Kelpie keeps herding the children playing soccer or your friendly Lab disrupts the Tai Chi class or your 50 kilo Bullmastiff makes a beeline for the young family having lunch on a picnic rug, read here how you can get your dog to come back.

The attachment a dog feels to their people plays a factor in staying within range, no doubt. However, I have seen dogs behave in a way that people call loyal despite not having a good relationship with their humans or not having a happy home. I assume this sort of loyalty is a behaviour favoured by evolution: to stick with what one knows, because there’s usually less danger involved. In particular dogs who are anxious and lack confidence are prone to fear what they don’t know and less likely to explore and venture far. On the other hand, any sudden scare can send them dashing off across the road. The behaviour of hippie dogs though is not fearful at all. Quite the opposite, these dogs are as chilled as a cucumber and nothing seems to faze them. My guess is, they follow their people around because they want to, not because they are afraid not to. A positive relationship, built on trust and reinforcement of desirable behaviours, instead of force and coercion, is certainly a good idea, if you want your dog to stick around of their own free will.

Hippie Dogs Have Seen It All

But there’s more, of course. Hippie dogs don’t seem to get excited about much at all (and don’t say it’s probably the drugs!). You don’t see them run across the road, if they spot another dog on the other side, they don’t chase after the cat on the fence, they don’t jump up at people and they don’t bark at the garbage truck. The crucial component which makes a hippie dog is, I suspect, their stellar socialisation. Genetic makeup matters too of course, but if we are lucky and our dog has happy little genes, then the environment the dog grows up in is the biggest thing we have to focus on. Hippie dogs seem to have seen it all. They are not afraid of new people or novel things, because apparently their early environment was so rich with everything our crazy human world has to offer that they feel comfortable wherever they go. The rarer something is the more attention the dog will pay to it, so a dog with an impoverished socialisation is more likely to get overexcited or anxious when they see other dogs and people than a hippie dog for whom other dogs and people are nothing special.

Make Your Own Hippie Dog: Socialise, Handle with Care, Train with Kindness

So, would you like to have a hippie dog? I have to be honest: I highly suspect that the hippie dog is a mythical creature. Or maybe they are extinct. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping you from trying. You and your dog may end up a lot happier.

By the way, the hippie dog has an evil twin. Well, to be fair, they aren’t actually evil. Most of them are just scared most of the time. Guard dogs are on high alert, if anything in their environment raises their suspicion—which is almost everything. They were either trained or bred to fear what they don’t know, or both. In Australian states trained guard dogs are automatically classified as dangerous dogs. Any dog who ferociously barks at or goes after strangers—no matter if trained, born or raised that way—is potentially useful as a guard dog but makes a lousy family pet. They also tend to have a pretty lousy life (imagine going through life constantly looking over your shoulder in expectation of danger). Guard dogs and other stranger danger dogs don’t relax around people they don’t know, they have a limited environment where they feel comfortable and they have a very narrow, or non-existent, social circle. They are the exact opposite of the hippie dog.

The bottom line is, if you want a companion dog you can take everywhere and be social with, do not put the fear in your dog. If you already have a fearful dog, do everything you can to help them fear less. If you want protection, get an alarm system. Let’s populate the world with hippie dogs. Ok, we don’t have to call them that.

What “No” Really Means to Your Dog

No has to be one of the most uttered exclamations by anyone living with dogs and, dare I say, kids. Of course, we have to control those little critters who seem to have nothing better to do than throw us challenge after challenge and make our lives difficult. They just don’t listen, do they? And, if our authoritative no doesn’t suffice, let’s just increase the volume and— voilà!—now we have their attention. For a few seconds at least. Then we’ll start over like a broken record.

Or maybe we belt out a formidable NO!! with such ferocity that everyone ducks for cover and gives us peace for the rest of the day. Ah, finally, we get the respect we so crave.

Except it’s all but a fleeting dream.

The Loud No

Yelling at someone to make them change their behaviour is not exactly what I would call a teaching method. It has—together with other forms of intended positive punishment—fallen out of favour with educators for good reason. Aggressive behaviour doesn’t just affect the well-being of our dogs, but ours as well. Like a quick meal at the nearest junk food outlet, it gives us instant relief but, if repeated, it gradually makes us worse.

Despite the short-lived benefits of raising one’s voice, the immediate result—in case your dog stops whatever they were doing—can be reinforcing. It’s easy to convince yourself that your strategy has worked. Let’s say you catch your dog chewing on the carpet. You yell NO! and the dog slinks away with tail low and quietly lies down on their bed. Success!

So, how do you feel ten minutes later or the next day when your dog is chewing on the carpet again? It may be time to revise your strategy.

Here is the problem: If your dog is highly motivated to engage in an activity such as chewing, be they a puppy, a recreational chewer or a dog seeking stress relief, they keep doing it. To counter this strong motivation, your threatening behaviour—in the form of yelling—has to be severe enough to have even the slightest chance of success. But even then, the dog’s behaviour is usually only suppressed for a finite time or as long as you are around.

Attempting to punish your dog’s behaviour with aggressive methods could even have the opposite effect, for example if the dog chews out of anxiety. Your aggressive behaviour gives the dog an even greater reason to be anxious, so they chew the carpet even harder to relieve their stress.

Now imagine your dog is anxious around the kids next door and growls at them. I’m sure you would be grateful that your dog makes their feelings known (so you can change them for the better) rather than turning those feelings into direct action. If you silence your dog’s voice by threatening them, what you fear might happen is far more likely to happen.

 

The Stern or Firm No

So how about we dial down the decibels and employ what is often referred to as the stern no or the firm no? Surely, this establishes our leadership and authority without the nasty side effects.

You might be in luck, if your target is human, of good hearing, sufficiently intellectually mature and dependent on your goodwill. Without the latter, well, at least you have a chance to start an argument. Try this with a toddler, a dog or a lizard and you can expect tantrums, disappearance acts or just plain indifference. Just like the loud no, the stern no is intended to stop the dog from doing something by exerting some sort of authority, so the tone tends to be threatening, regardless of the decibel level.

I suppose once upon a time commanding voices were thought to teach our children such grand values as respect, authority, discipline, obedience and loyalty. It seems odd that—while we have long realised that young children aren’t capable of grasping these concepts—we believe members of another species do a better job. Alas, a threatening voice does not teach your dog morality. They just learn to avoid you.

 

The Conditioned, or Learned, No

Because the word no, said in a resolute voice, has such a clear meaning to us humans, it is not really surprising that we use it with other animals as well. But, of course, a dog has no idea what the word no means unless—over time—they recognise a pattern and learn what happens after the no.

Let’s say your dog stalks your cat, prompting you to say no. Then, because your dog ignores you and starts chasing or pestering the cat, you get hold of the dog and put them in the laundry for a two-minute time-out. If you consistently repeat this pattern, your dog will learn that your no predicts time alone in the laundry, unless they leave the cat alone.

Time-outs can be highly effective, as long as you manage to deliver them consistently in a matter-of-fact way, without scaring the dog with either your voice or your actions. Once your dog has learned the pattern, they have a choice to avoid the negative punishment, i.e. the time-out. If you can pull this off, your no will take on the meaning of a warning. Congratulations. This is no simple procedure.

Reward-based dog trainers avoid the word no precisely because it has a default meaning to humans. It is almost impossible to deliver the word in a neutral tone, especially when your dog is about to do something you don’t approve of. To avoid slipping into the loud or stern category, it’s best to choose a more pleasant word or phrase as a warning (“gentle”, “easy”, “nope”, or how about the Aussie classic: “oi”), give a learned cue for cease & desist (“leave it”) or ask the dog for an alternative behaviour (come, sit, touch, fetch).

 

The Overshadowed No

In reality, the word no is rarely delivered in a neutral tone nor on its own. Its delivery is forceful and it is often accompanied—rather than followed—by some form of action, such as rushing towards, staring at or leaning over the dog, throwing things at the dog or worse. Your actions overshadow your words just like your tone of voice does. So, the word itself is entirely irrelevant. You could use any verbal uttering, because your dog responds exclusively to your body language and noisiness.

 

The Most Appropriate No in Dog Training

The most appropriate use of the word no in dog training is the one where you simultaneously slap your forehead because you left your puppy alone with what used to be your precious new throw rug (management fail); or when you finally realise your dog never sits longer than a split-second because you consistently rewarded them after they stood up (sloppy training mechanics); or when your dog does an instant U-turn away from a sweet-smelling possum carcass after hearing your irresistible voice and you realise you left those super tasty treats at home (badly missed opportunity).

 

Dog-dog play is (almost) all we need

If I could patent dog-dog play and sell it as a tonic for anything from depression to foot warts, I think my future might be secure. At least my product wouldn’t harm anyone and have a real chance of making people forget about their worries and ailments, if only for a while. Especially, if we’re talking puppy play!

Being a professional dog trainer, I could, of course, also prescribe play as a one-stop solution to the entire range of behaviour problems that are common in our pooches. Just allow your dog to play and – problem solved! And you know what? In quite a lot of cases this may in fact be enough to give stressed out dog owners and even more stressed out dogs a breakthrough in their stress laden relationships.

Using physical exercise as a solution to emotionally based problems is nothing new and it works for humans just as well as for other animals. Sure, it’s certainly not always the entire solution, rarely actually, but it can be a large component in a ‘make-me-feel-better program’, a safety net, and even an emergency get-away-from-that-cliff-edge activity.

Dog-dog play is not only about physical exertion though. No doubt, play can be extremely tiring, but there is also the social component and the mental and emotional challenges that come with it. For most dogs, play is a good thing. It’s good for their brain, it’s good for their health and it’s good for their general behaviour. Some dogs just love to play with other dogs, even past their puppy years, while others are a bit more ho-hum. Some dogs have deficits in their play style and some are outright hostile. Others are accomplished play pros who know all the right moves.

What is your dog’s play personality?

If you have stopped going to the dog park because your dog’s behaviour wasn’t as polished as you hoped, please reconsider! What if your dog really loves to play with other dogs but simply doesn’t know how? What if playing with other dogs would make your dog happy and also improve their general behaviour and well-being? Do you really want to deny your dog this essential ingredient to a happy life? Yes, it may be easier for you to simply keep your dog on leash in public, but just how much is your dog missing out on? How much better could their life be, if they could only run free with other dogs?

Before you ban your dog from a lifetime of dog-dog play, please make sure you understand what normal dog-dog play looks like, including all the growling, barking, chasing and grabbing. Then – in case you do identify a genuine problem with your dog’s play style – explore the possibilities of changing your dog’s behaviour, ideally with the help of a reward-based dog trainer.

So here’s a taste of my – not yet patented – tonic. This one’s for free. May it help with whatever sucks the happiness out of you. Oh, and don’t miss the Chow at the end.

 

RESOURCES

ISpeakDog – Website on dog body language
Dog Body Language: Understand What Dogs Are Saying (Fear Free) – Video
Academy Play Week – Video
Puppy Play: Why it matters

Multi-animal households: The more the merrier or crowded house?

Dogs are social creatures, just like humans. And so are cats, by the way. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone gets along with everyone else, same species or not. Scenarios where individuals are more or less forced to live together and don’t always have a say in who they share with are common. Starting with the family you grow up in (and hopefully it worked out for you!), you may have moved on to share with friends or fellow students, and maybe even later in life, because you couldn’t afford a place on your own. Age or disability may also force you to live in a home where sharing with others is unavoidable.

There are situations where living together simply doesn’t work out. There could be a clash of personalities or incompatible lifestyles. There could be constant fighting or even an abusive relationship. If you are not able to change your situation and feel trapped in a social network, you are likely to suffer mentally, emotionally and, quite possibly, physically. I assume this may be a major reason that people disappear. And, it is mind-boggling just how many people go missing without a trace every year.

Now spare a thought for all those animals that we add to our homes. Not only do they not have a choice if they want to live with us in the first place, they also have no say every time a new family member is added. How do they cope? Well, not always very well. Some animals do wander off in search for a better life – mostly cats who have better survival chances than dogs – but most animals are unable to vote with their feet. They are either physically trapped or their dependency on us is so great that escape is not an option. And, just like humans, they get stressed, depressed and anxious if they have little control over their lives.

Trying to tick all the important boxes before adding someone to your family is ideal, but in reality neither our decision-making nor life itself are always ideal. Not even close. So, if you already are in a challenging situation, here are some things you can do to create a more harmonious household.

Everyone needs to feel safe

If you live in a mixed species household, consider the natural relationship between the animals (predator – prey?) and have safety measures in place. The risk of your dog preying on your cat or guinea pig may be low, if they have grown up together, but it is never zero. Leaving them alone together without supervision can end in disaster. So is leaving large dogs with tiny dogs or animals that don’t know each other well or have a history of serious fighting.

Of course, who is scared of who isn’t always clear-cut. If your dog tip-toes around the house because they are constantly vigilant of being ambushed by your cats, it may make for ‘funny’ YouTube videos but it sure is a hellish life for your dog.

If any of your animals is afraid of others in your household – and that includes you, your children and anyone who comes to your house – things need to change. For example, change how you manage your animals, think about how your own actions affect your animals’ behaviour and avoid anything that could scare your animals. Don’t be hesitant to engage a qualified positive reinforcement animal trainer or veterinary behaviourist to set you on the right track.

Everyone needs their own space

Personal space is not just a human need. Opportunities to retreat and not be bothered by other members of the family – human or other – are essential for everyone. For cats this means high places where dogs and kids can’t reach. For dogs this may be a crate, a playpen or a cosy bed under a desk that is off limits to everyone else. This is especially important, if the dog or cat is shy or anxious. Closely supervise any human member of the household who is not old enough or able to understand that animals are not toys.

Having separate feeding, resting and toileting stations for your animals is important. For example, don’t expect your three cats to share one litter tray, keep your puppy away from your senior who is desperately trying to have an afternoon nap and feed dogs separately who have a history of being a little too protective of their food. Stressful situations cause friction and, if repeated over and over, can escalate and make one or more of your animals decidedly unhappy and even sick.

Everyone needs to be listened to

Animals living with humans have one very significant problem: They can’t tell us how they feel or what they want. Understanding another species – which mostly means understanding what their body language and behaviour might tell us – is a science and needs to be learned from qualified animal behaviour experts. So, in order to understand your animal better, stick to sources that rely on actual animal behaviour research. Avoid following advice you hear on TV, social media or from anyone who thinks they have all the answers but no scientific data to back it up.

If you are able to recognise your animals’ emotions and moods, you can take immediate action if things are not well. Rather than being reactive to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and potentially making a situation worse, your knowledge and understanding will turn you into a skilled planner, coordinator, negotiator, protector and friend.

 
 

To sum it up, if a multi-animal household is to have any chance of success, each individual must feel safe and have the right to express themselves in a species-typical way. Sometimes this means you have to get creative with how you provide suitable outlets for your animals’ favourite activities. You are, after all, a zoo keeper.

 

Who is your dog?

Dogs are predators with pointy teeth and bone crushing jaws. Yes – even the cutest, cuddliest, button-nosed munchkin is a serial killer at heart. And they live in our homes.

This mercilessly self-centred yet sociable species gave us a leg up when we still had much more to fear from the equally merciless Mother Nature. Dogs helped our ancestors track and catch prey, protected them from other sharp-toothed predators, provided a public health service in form of waste removal and proved their mettle in bovid crowd control.

But many of the historical jobs for dogs have been on the decline due to our advanced technologies and changed lifestyles. Although dogs can still showcase their outstanding abilities in some specialist fields – such as drug detection, search & rescue, conservation – the vast majority of dogs are unemployed. Yet they are still around in large numbers. The reason, of course, is that we turned them into pets.

Seriously, who wants to be a pet?

When dogs became pets, their roles changed but their nature did not. Instead of using and appreciating their unique skills, we became engrossed with their looks and cuddliness. In the process of narrow-focused breeding we robbed many of them of their good health and quality of life. Their tendency to still behave like dogs started to be frowned upon and these days it is not uncommon that their barking, chewing, chasing, digging, jumping, growling, snarling and biting is labeled abnormal. Dogs are suspected to have psychological problems when in fact their only problem is us!

The dogs of old gave us their unique skills in exchange for food and shelter and, in many cases, were otherwise free to roam and be dogs. They could roll in the grass, follow a scent and chase after a critter whenever they pleased. In short, they had the freedom to satisfy their needs and wants, largely without constraints. In contrast, the modern domestic dog typically has to learn how to access the things they need and want by either using us or bypassing us – whatever is easier. At the same time, they cannot easily escape our presence. This can readily trigger fight, flight or freeze behaviour, including aggressive displays, whenever we accidentally or intentionally frighten them. And the behaviour problems follow.

So we invented pet dog training to help with the resulting frustrations. Except, while we can easily formalise our own annoyances with the other party, we really struggle to understand what’s going on in our dogs’ heads. But without understanding the nature of the dog, against the backdrop of their evolutionary history, there is no way we can ever make up for taking their freedom away. Forcefully trying to shoehorn dogs into our human lifestyles – which is what pet dog training has mostly been about – has caused a lot of confusion and misery for a lot of dogs. Our biggest mistake is that we routinely assign thoughts and intentions to our dogs which exist in our imagination only.
 

We can be better than this!

 
We all have the power to make the world a better place for dogs. We can allow them to be dogs again and resist the urge to interpret their behaviour as if they had human thoughts and motives. We can embrace who they truly are. Can you? Here is your leg up:

Your dog is a dog and has no ulterior motives.

When your dog drags you down the sidewalk towards the next fence post, they demonstrate their most impressive canine skill: To be able to smell stuff that is nowhere near our radar. And, unfortunately for us, it means we frequently drop off our dog’s radar.

Ignoring you, as insulting as this may feel, is not a matter of attitude in your dog, it’s a matter of biology. To make things work for both you and your dog, try to rid yourself of any lingering ideas about your dog’s unsavoury motives and start using your analytical skills. It’s what we humans are good at, right?

If you still believe your dog looks to you for leadership or tries to challenge your status and you base your dog’s training on that belief, stop wasting your time. Dogs are opportunists. They try to figure out how they can access the things they want and if they find a way, they’ll stick to it. Now, it happens to be the case that we can offer most of the things that dogs want, e.g. food, play, going for walks and sniffing. They want it, we can provide it. Tada! No need to bring relationship counselling into what is essentially a supply & demand model where the supplier – we – can set the price.

By taking the relationship aspect out of dog training, we can stop the blaming and the speculations. And, by playing fair and being generous, we can get our dogs to love our brand and come back for more.

Know your dog’s specific skills and [let your dog] use them.

Use your dog’s natural skills and behaviours to reinforce them for the behaviours that are important to you. Again, use your smart forward thinking before you feel negative emotions that cloud your judgement. Think of it as making a deal with your dog:
“You adjust your speed to mine instead of pulling me off my feet and I will let you sniff at that tree; you come to the kitchen instead of barking at the delivery person and you get a tasty chew; you bring me a Frisbee when you feel the urge to chase the kids and I throw it for you”.

When trying to understand your dog based on their particular breed, look for energy levels and certain traits that have been enhanced for specific tasks, such as stalking and chasing in herding dogs or going underground and killing critters in terriers. Knowing what to expect can prevent frustration and misdiagnosis. Not to mention panic, in case you thought your Border Collie was aggressive for chasing and nipping the children.

If your dog is a mixed breed, don’t bother. The result of mixing genes is too unpredictable to allow for any useful predictions in regards to your dog’s behaviour. Your dog is much more than a result of breeding and inherited genes. Individual gene expression and environmental influences are what ultimately shapes your dog’s individual character.

Get to know your dog and be the best friend you can be.

What does your dog love and what do they fear? Your dog’s body language is the most valuable tool to gauge their possible emotions, motivations or intentions. Become an expert in your dog’s body language by educating yourself through qualified sources rather than relying on folk knowledge. The more often you can make that tail wag, those ears perk up and those eyes sparkle with anticipation, the more your dog will pay attention to you and make you part of their decision making.

Signs of stress, fear and anxiety in dogs are so commonly missed or dismissed that it poses a wider animal welfare problem. Fortunately, modern technology and increased scientific interest in the domestic dog have been delivering fascinating facts on canine brain & behaviour, which is changing the ways we treat and train them. Companion animal professionals across the board are taking this knowledge from the lab into vet offices, dog training schools, grooming salons and more. You can be part of the change by pro-actively choosing force- and fear-free practitioners to protect your dog from fear and pain.

Your dog is a unique creature. A dog who suddenly found themselves in your home and tries to adapt as best as they can. A mind, although at basic level quite similar to yours, preoccupied with its nature as hunter and scavenger, lacking our societal rules and moral values. A character that you have the unique chance to get to know and love better than anyone else. Enjoy the journey.

 

 

RESOURCES

ISpeakDog
Fear Free Pets

Puppy play: Why it matters

Play is fun. We may still be in the dark about why dogs and other animals play, but I think we can be fairly confident that they get something out of it. Most young dogs routinely and eagerly engage in play and their body language is ridiculous when they do it. They throw themselves on top of one another and on the floor, they paddle and punch with their paws, they hang off each other’s ears with their teeth, they chase and invite being chased, they bow, bowl and bounce all over the place. In short, they seem to be having a ball.

I could stop right here, since this alone gives me reason enough to be an ardent supporter of dog-dog play. But, we can also assume that something as risky (think injuries) and energy-consuming as play could not have evolved if it didn’t equip the animals with some sort of advantage or – in evolutionary terms – improve their fitness. So, there must be more in it for the individual than just the thrill of letting their hair down.

We don’t know what animal play is for, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

Animal play is a topic that has challenged researchers for a long time as there may well be more than one reason that play evolved. Evidence for the commonly held view that play might serve as practise for real life has so far been elusive. However, the lack of conclusive research to explain exactly why animals play does not mean we can dismiss play as a useless and irrelevant activity.

Here are some of the possible functions of play that have been put forward by researchers:

  • Helps an animal cope with stress throughout development.
  • Facilitates learning and creativity.
  • Develops the cognitive abilities of an animal.
  • Prepares the animal for unexpected situations.
  • Increases emotional resilience.
  • Is an opportunity for self assessment.
  • Hones an animal’s physical skills.
  • Is fun and therefore psychologically beneficial.
  • Aids in the forming of lasting social bonds.

Even if we cannot fully explain the adaptive and proximate functions of play behaviour in animals, we have to assume it delivers benefits to the animal and is important for their welfare. As animal behaviour researchers Held and Spinka1 point out:

“if engaging in play strengthens some future somatic properties, enhances skills or widens competencies, then it also improves future animal welfare since the animal will be better able to withstand adversity, maintain health, reduce fear and achieve goals that will be sources of reward”.

The latest hypothesis that animal play prepares an individual for the unexpected2 and teaches them to recover quickly from loss of locomotion or sensory control is especially interesting. Watching puppies play does indeed seem like a string of mishaps such as being pushed over or falling over, losing balance, being pinned down, being jumped on, facing sudden role reversals and being barked or snapped at and so on. If this develops the puppy’s ability to quickly get back on their feet physically as well as emotionally, that is a good thing.

So, if play is beneficial for dogs, why would we not allow a puppy to engage in dog-dog play?

One reason someone may not allow their puppy to play is the fear the dog could be harmed, similar to the over-protectiveness in some parents of human children. This can be rooted in the personality of the owner but could also be a result of misinformation. As long as puppies are only exposed to other puppies and friendly adults and play sessions are properly supervised, the risk of receiving any sort of physical or emotional damage is tiny compared to the benefits. Incomplete understanding of what good dog-dog play looks like may also be to blame. Being knocked over, jumped upon and bitten on the neck (with inhibited bite force of course) is just as much part and parcel of normal dog play as self-handicapping and role reversals.

Each dog has a life of their own and we have no right to spoil it for them.

Not giving one’s dog access to social play with other dogs, especially during their juvenile and adolescent developmental periods, can affect the dog’s ability to cope with life outside their immediate family and make them less adoptable should they ever get into that situation. Intentional or not, this essentially ties the dog’s fate to that of their current owner. This is an unnecessary and potentially tragic situation.

I believe we have a responsibility to set our dogs up to successfully negotiate life in a society that includes humans, dogs, cats and other animals. The likelihood that a dog will encounter other dogs (and cats) during their lifetime is extremely high. Even if this does not include off leash encounters, a dog is more likely to be at ease, if they have a history of positive experiences with other dogs. Ethically, I believe we do not have the right to deny our dogs potentially crucial experiences which contribute to their future happiness. Anxiety can arise from many sources, not all of which we can control. But we can control our knowledge and compassion. Let’s do everything we can to make our dogs happy.

References and resources

1 Spinka M, Newberry R C & Bekoff M (2001) Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76:141-168.

2Held S D E & Spinka M (2011) Animal play and animal welfare. Animal Behaviour 81:891-899.

Dugatkin L A. 2004. Principles of Animal Behaviour. 509-539.

Learn dog-language before you teach

“Don’t worry, I can handle these dogs”. The burly man was referring to a German Shepherd whose humans had just sat down next to him at an outdoor cafe. The dog had curiously approached the man and received a pat in return. A nice thing to witness at first: A confident German Shepherd, not afraid of human strangers, happily accepting a pat on the head and even doing a bit of playful jumping around and inviting the stranger to engage further. Unfortunately, in response to the owner’s gentle attempts to curb his dog’s exuberance, the burly man made the above statement – completely ruining the moment.

Whatever ‘handling’ means, it’s not teaching

It was a typical example of the still widespread belief that getting a dog to ‘behave’ (meaning: to do what we want) is a result of how we ‘handle’ them. ‘Handling’ is not a word that I would associate with teaching or training. To be a good teacher or trainer you have to be an expert in the subject matter and – just as importantly or arguably even more so – be able to effectively and constructively communicate with your students.
So, to be a successful teacher of dogs requires not just solid knowledge of how animals learn, but an ability to understand ‘dog language’. Since dogs communicate primarily via body language, this means being able to pay attention to and correctly interpret canine body postures, movements and facial expressions, but also vocal signals such as growling or barking.

Dominance theory, anthropomorphism and laziness keep us in the dark ages

Interpreting canine communication has always been plagued by human bias and misinformation. Dog behaviour is either labelled in the same vein as human behaviour and with the same presumptions (naughty, guilty, stubborn, loyal, aloof, mischievous, etc.) or it is reduced to a simplistic and fault-ridden version of wolf behaviour (behaviour is driven by status-seeking, i.e. trying to be dominant). The former just shows how hard it is to step outside our human minds and drop our biases – even when we attempt to understand a member of a different species – and the latter is a result of ill-designed experiments – and most likely influenced by the same biases – and was discarded by animal behaviourists a long time ago.

It is of course very intuitive for us to describe canine behaviour with human words that have intrinsic meaning to us, but since language influences how we think it also influences what we think our dogs think. And that is where we go astray. For example, if we label a dog as ‘stubborn’ for not doing as we ask, we clearly put the blame on the dog and insinuate an intention not to comply with our request. This is of course much easier than looking at our own failure of not training the requested behaviour so a satisfactory standard. Could it be that what we interpret as ‘stubborn’ is in fact a dog who is confused and maybe even a little intimidated by our commanding voice and growing anger? Teaching a dog requires a step-by-step plan, proper execution and high-value motivators. It is a labour-intensive endeavour. How much more convenient is it to blame the dog for intentional non-compliance?

The idea that our dogs’ behaviour is dominance-driven fits in nicely with this attitude. All we have to do is show the dog that we are in charge and they will happily submit and ‘behave’. Except that the only way this method has ever worked is through intimidation. The dog learns that some of their behaviours turn their human into a scary person, so they try to avoid those behaviours. Intimidation, however, has nothing to do with teaching. It is a violent and abusive way of controlling someone else’s behaviour.

Learning dog-language is the only way forward

So, if you want to make sure your dog is well-behaved and happy, there is no way around learning dog language. In order to make good decisions, you need to be able to recognise when your dog is scared, anxious, aggressive, happy, playful or relaxed. Giving your dog more reason to be anxious or even aggressive by coercing and intimidating them will do nothing to make your dog a better canine citizen. But, if you make your dog feel safe by listening and responding to what they tell you and if you encourage their cooperation with gradual and reward-based skills development, your dog will be a much better – and safer – companion to have around.

Fortunately, a new resource – iSpeakDog – makes it even easier for anyone wanting to extend or update their knowledge of dog language and behaviour. Created by writer Tracy Krulik, a member of The Academy for Dog Trainers, the website is a unique knowledge base reflecting scientifically sound canine communication expertise. Dig in!

The suburban choir of dogs that shames us all: what you can do.

Chances are that at some time in your life you have been annoyed by barking or howling dogs in your neighbourhood. Be it the constant daytime yappers, the intermittent howlers or the midnight patrol, a constant barrage of canine voices – especially at times when we want our peace – can test the patience of most people, including animal lovers.

But apart from the nuisance factor those voices are often trying to communicate something. Instead of listening and understanding though, we routinely just want the noise to go away. Putting the suburban choir of dogs on the same level as noise from building sites or overzealous gardeners with their power tools ignores the real problem: why are those dogs barking so much?

Why dogs bark

Every dog barks. It is normal dog behaviour and something we humans have bred into them to protect us and our stuff. But there is no such dog who only barks when there’s an intruder on the property and the family is in danger. Dogs cannot make such subtle distinctions. That’s why visitors and neighbours often get the same noisy treatment as the ‘baddies’. That’s why people who walk past the dog’s fenced yard get barked at. That’s why delivery people are the most hated individuals in the canine universe.

Dogs bark at stuff they are not familiar with and they do so because they feel threatened, i.e. because of fear. The reason behind this is often insufficient socialisation as a puppy, but genetics also play a role. Being afraid of the unknown has always been an important trait for survival. No animal can simply shake off its evolutionary history. Not even humans.
And then there are of course those dogs that we specifically raise and train to be guard dogs. Rather than socialising them, we exploit their fear of strangers to achieve their ‘protective quality’ for our own purposes. Those dogs rarely make good neighbours.

Modern dogs also spend far too much time on their own. They sit at home all day waiting for their people to come home. They have nothing to do and may therefore chew the couch to pieces, dig up the garden or bark the neighbourhood down. It could simply be boredom or it could be distress because they are left alone. If a dog has full blown separation anxiety, they suffer a state of severe panic every time their family is away. It is a terrible way to spend one’s life.

Arousal by wildlife or other creatures of the night is a particular problem for dogs who sleep outdoors. Some dogs do just fine sleeping outside, but if a dog’s mental, physical and emotional needs aren’t met, if they feel lonely or if they are prone to bark at noises or anything that moves at night, they’ll likely join the midnight choir. That’s why it’s best to keep dogs indoors where they belong: with their families.

How not to complain

Complaining to the dog’s owners can be a delicate mission.  Unless you know the people well, how do you think they’ll react? If you are only concerned with yourself or your patience has been stretched too far, you might not even care. Maybe you simply drop an angry note in the person’s letter box and threaten with calling the authorities if things don’t change pronto.

However, if you are even slightly concerned about the dog’s wellbeing (or if this is your primary motive) or you want to stay on good terms with those neighbours, it’s best to use a non-confrontational approach. It’s also better for your own stress levels.

If someone worries their dog may create trouble with neighbours and possibly the law, they may take desperate measures. Even people who love their dogs could resort to suppressive and even cruel methods, such as citronella collars and electric (shock) collars – anything to stop their dog from barking. This will solve the problem for the humans but not for the dog. In fact such measures can be catastrophic for the dog.

Bypassing the owners and going straight to the authorities can have similar detrimental results for the dog. Depending on a particular council’s policy, the owner may first be reminded of their duty of care for the animal but, unless there is a serious case of cruelty, it’s usually ‘case closed’ once the barking has stopped, no matter how this was achieved.

Working towards a solution

The best approach is to be constructive. If there is a dog in your neighbourhood that annoys or concerns you, first ask the owners politely if they are aware that their dog barks a lot at such and such times. Who knows, they may not even have noticed if no one has told them before. Ideally, you do this in person (far less room for misinterpretations) but if you don’t feel comfortable, just put it in writing.

I would avoid going into too much detail about how you are affected by the dog’s noise. There is usually no need to elaborate on your lack of sleep, how much it stresses you out and other inconveniences caused by the dog. The goal at this stage is to make your neighbours aware that there is a problem, not to make them feel defensive (which is what generally happens when you blame people). Your neighbours will most likely feel bad anyway when they learn their dog causes a noise problem. They don’t need the blame. They need solutions and support.

If the barking happens at night, it is still a good idea to pretend the barking may have gone unnoticed. For all you know, the owners may work at night. Finally, even if there is awareness about the dog’s vocalisations, there may be genuine ignorance, subconscious denial of the severity of the problem or a feeling of helplessness. You won’t know until you start a conversation.

If you decide to add an assessment, make sure you don’t “go all expert on them” (even if you happen to be a trained animal behaviourist). For example, you could say the dog seems to be stressed when alone or the dog seems to be over-stimulated by the wildlife at night – whatever the situation is. By doing so you show your neighbours that you have sympathy. This can in turn mean the difference between the dog receiving genuine help or having an “anti-bark” collar slapped on them. It’s an animal welfare issue, so unless you are a cold-hearted person, please consider the consequences for the dog.

You could even go further and mention that you know someone who had the same problem with their dog and solved it by keeping the dog indoors. Who cares if you actually do know a person or if you only heard about that ‘someone’ somewhere (like right here right now), it’s still good advice. Furthermore, you could add links and references to positive reinforcement trainers and websites*.
Another possibility, just in case you have the time and inclination, is to offer to look after the dog while the owners are away.

If your friendly approach is met with silence or does not lead to a reduction in barking, send a note a couple of weeks later using slightly firmer but still polite vocabulary. For example, you might ask first if they have received your previous note (maybe it got lost?). Then ask if they have started working with a trainer or behaviourist to solve the problem.
You could also say you hope they take the problem seriously for the sake of their dog and the neighbourhood. And you could mention that other neighbours are concerned as well.

After you have sent two or three notes – always polite but each time with a more urgent call to action – it is time to contact the authorities.

 

Not starting the communication with assumptions about the owners’ character or conduct is definitely the way to go. Too many problems and misunderstandings are caused by making assumptions about others. By keeping an open mind and not being judgemental you can help solve the problem for everyone involved rather than adding to it. And how good would that be?
 

 
 

*The Pet Professional Guild Australia, The Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals
Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia

Lament for the “non-reward marker”, the underdog in dog training

I never thought I would revisit “quadrant hell”, as we used to lovingly call it at The Academy for Dog Trainers. My venture into this pesky topic was triggered by a lack of consensus regarding a humble training aid called the “non-reward marker” (NRM).

While its most famous “reward marker” counterpart – the clicker – enjoys a cult-like following, the NRM has an image problem. It seems the poor NRM has become the nerdy kid that few people want to be seen socialising with. Always rooting for the underdog, I’ll try to jump to the little fella’s defence.

The context: The four quadrants.

In short, the four quadrants are used to explain the processes of learning via consequences.

REINFORCEMENT

R+

Your dog comes to you when you call her and as a consequence you give her a piece of chicken. If, as a result, your dog comes more often when called in the future, the behaviour will have been ‘positively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of coming when called increased and positively because you ‘added’ something to make this happen (you gave the dog chicken).

R-

You say ‘sit’ and put pressure on your dog’s rear end until he sits. If, as a result, your dog sits more often when you say ‘sit’ in the future, the behaviour of sitting will have been ‘negatively’ reinforced. ‘Reinforced’ because the behaviour of sitting increased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped putting pressure on the dog’s butt).

P+

Your dog jumps on the couch and you hit him over the head with a rolled up newspaper. If, as a result, the dog jumps on the couch less often, the behaviour will have been positively punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour of jumping on the couch decreased and ‘positively’ because you added something to make this happen (you whacked the dog).

PUNISHMENT

P-

You play tug with your dog and she nips your hand. As a consequence you stop playing with her for a minute. If, as a result, your dog grabs your hand less often, the behaviour of grabbing your hand will have been ‘negatively’ punished. ‘Punished’ because the behaviour decreased and ‘negatively’ because you subtracted something to make this happen (you stopped playing with your dog).

What are the quadrants for?

Animal trainers use the quadrants in two ways. First, to choose which of the processes to use, based on what we hope to achieve and our individual philosophy. And second, to assess the outcome of our training.

INTENTIONS

You may wonder why I have colour-coded the quadrants and, yes, your suspicion is correct. I prefer to use R+ and P- because I consider P+ and R- to be offensive and fraught with danger. If you read through the four examples, you will notice that there is a common factor in R+ and P-: they deal with good things (stuff that the dog likes such as food, play etc.). P+ and R- on the other hand deal with bad things (anything the dog wants to avoid such as fear, pain, discomfort etc.).

Since my intention is to keep the dog happy when I train, I avoid the use of bad things. So it is my choice to use R+ and P-. But do my intentions lead to the desired outcomes?

We cannot know for sure what the dog experiences as punishing or reinforcing. So, when I choose a certain type of food for training, I’m simply guessing that it will work as a reinforcer. Once I witness the dog doing the target behaviour more often in the future, I can be confident my approach has worked.

OUTCOMES

Equally, if I remove myself from the room whenever the dog chews my clothes, I cannot claim I am punishing the dog (by removing myself) until the time I have firmly established that the behaviour of chewing on my clothes has indeed decreased because of my actions.

But wait, there’s more

DIFFERENTIAL REINFORCEMENT

So, one way to tell if reinforcement or punishment has occurred is to monitor the frequency of the dog’s behaviour we are concerned with. However, behaviour doesn’t only decrease when it is punished. It can also decrease because it is never reinforced.

A training technique called “differential reinforcement” strengthens one behaviour over others. By rewarding one behaviour but not others that occur in the same context the dog will likely perform the rewarded behaviour more often and other behaviours less often. Although other behaviours are decreasing in frequency, they have not been punished. The dog neither lost something they value nor did they receive bad consequences in response to engaging in those behaviours. They simply weren’t reinforced. If a behaviour never pays off, it is not worth engaging in.

EXTINCTION

We use the term “extinction” to describe non-punishment-based behaviour reductions. If a behaviour has a strong history of reinforcement, extinction can be very frustrating for a dog because it leaves a “behaviour vacuum”. This is unless we direct the dog towards alternative behaviours to build a new reinforcement history.

What are markers and why is one the superstar and another the villain?

REWARD MARKER

Sometimes it is helpful to “mark” the target behaviour we want to reinforce with a “yes” or a “good” or a click with the clicker. This is especially recommended when we are not quick enough to deliver the reward and the dog may therefore not make the connection between a specific behaviour, e.g. sitting, and the reward that follows. The marker stands for “your reward is coming” and therefore becomes a reward marker, a type of conditioned reinforcer. Reward markers, and in particular the clicker, have proved to be incredibly useful training aids and have been closely linked to the rise of reward-based animal training.

PUNISHMENT MARKER

Do markers also work for punishment? Yes, we can condition a sound, word or phrase to mean “you are about to lose something”. Usually that something is the company of people or other dogs, for example when giving a timeout for bullying another dog at the dog park. The marker is useful to inform the dog of the precise moment they “stuffed up”, particularly when getting hold of the dog may not be instantaneous and the implementation of the timeout is therefore delayed. After several repetitions of preceding the capture and timeout with a marker, e.g. “you’re gone”, the dog will learn that the marker predicts being removed from the fun. The marker becomes a punishment marker, or conditioned punisher.

NON-REWARD MARKER

And finally there is this thing called a non-reward marker. It is easy to see how it could be interpreted as being the same as a punishment marker but we’ve already established that the absence of reinforcement does not automatically mean punishment. If I let the dog know that they just made the “wrong” move, for example moving out of the position they were asked to stay in, am I telling them they are being punished? Am I telling them they are about to lose something? Or am I telling them the opportunity to earn a reward has just been delayed? I think the latter. We are not taking anything away from the dog that they are currently in possession of or enjoying, so there’s no case for P-. And, as long as the non reward marker is given in a friendly, non-threatening tone, there is also no risk of it tipping over into P+.

The training scenarios that have been presented as evidence that NRMs are “punishing” and decrease a dog’s enthusiasm for training were – to my knowledge – cases of using NRMs without a clearly defined instance of the “wrong move”. The NRM was given when the dog did not perform the desired behaviour. The NRM was apparently given to mark a whole range of behaviours, except the target one, as “wrong”. That would seem to me like a bad application of the NRM. From the dog’s perspective, there is no clear instance of behaviour to attach the NRM to. The risk here is that – after enough repetitions – the dog may well make an association between the NRM and a frustrating experience (“What am I supposed to do?!”), which could make the dog reluctant to take part in future training.

Compare this with a very clearly defined instance of “getting out of position” in case of a stay exercise. The dog is already doing the “right” behaviour but then breaks before the trial is complete. The information given to the dog by marking the break of stay is unambiguous. And if the break of stay doesn’t resolve itself quickly, we go back to a shorter duration to help the dog succeed.

Conclusion

A dog who has learned what to do by being rewarded for it (R+) will eagerly take part in training as training itself becomes rewarding. They want to be there and share the fun with you. If using a non-reward marker makes this less enjoyable for the dog, the problem is not the marker. If we leave the dog guessing as to what exactly triggered the NRM or if we use the NRM too frequently because our training setup is too difficult for the dog, we have only ourselves to blame if the dog quits.

RATE OF REINFORCEMENT

In my opinion, as long as the dog wins a lot, there is usually no need to aim for errorless learning. If the dog sometimes doesn’t get a treat because they haven’t done the requested behaviour, that’s perfectly OK. The anticipation of earning rewards and the social aspect of training is already reinforcing for the dog. Not always getting a treat is part of the game and raises the anticipation (this is exactly what we do to maintain behaviour once it is learned: we put it on a variable reinforcement schedule). There is no risk of frustration if the rate of reinforcement remains high enough for the dog’s level of skill in the required task, training experience and sensitivity. It’s the trainer’s challenge to take care of that and to know their students.

Phew! Now back to more entertaining things.