When I first told my best friend Serena that I was going to become a foster parent for Muttville Senior Dog Rescue she literally laughed in my face saying “there’s no way you’ll be able to give up a dog!” Two years later, I am proud of the nearly one dozen dogs for whom my home has provided a safe haven before passing on to their forever families (or, in the case of my darling Franny, passing out of this world). But last week, Serena’s prophecy finally came true; I found a dog I couldn’t give up.
In dog rescue terms, a foster family that ends up adopting their charge is called a “failed foster” – good for the pet, bad for the organization who depends on foster families to rescue dogs from shelters with low resources and high euthanasia rates. Over the last couple of years I’ve run in to a number of people who have told me they “used” to foster or “tried” fostering but just couldn’t let go of the dog they were supposed to care for “temporarily.” I completely understand this. I’ve fallen in love with every single one of my foster dogs – gentle Cassie, spunky Layla, loveable Arkie… And the longer they stay, the harder it becomes to imagine your life without them. I still regret giving up Debbie, the toothless ten pound Pomeranian that lived with me for four months.
But there is something about Ginny that is different. She came to me as a skinny, frightened creature. She had big patches of scabs on her back and stomach and a ratty, hairless tail. Deaf, missing half an ear, and dragging her right hind leg, if you had told me three months ago that this was the dog for who would be my fostering kryptonite, I wouldn’t have believed you. But Ginny has blossomed over the months in to a fluffy and charming little lady. She now knows several commands (taught using hand signals, of course) and is even learning to enjoy the car, a thing she first feared. Ginny is far from perfect – we will be managing her on-leash reactivity issues for the rest of her life – but the thought of her soulful brown eyes looking up at some other guardian just broke my heart… Completely by accident Ginny found her forever home.
I failed this time around, I admit, but if my past record is any indication, I have a dozen more dogs to look forward to fostering in the future!
Thanks to popular culture, the concept of dominance in dogs has become widespread. Your dog won’t come when you call? Well he must be dominant. Your dog always sleeps on the bed? He’s showing you he’s dominant. You dog rushes ahead of you when you open the front door? Dominant.
But dogs, as individuals, are not “dominant”. Dominance is not a personality characteristic (as in, my dog is energetic and dominant), it is found in relationships between individuals. By definition, dominance refers to an individual’s ability to take charge of or influence others but to be dominant requires the presence of those other individuals; I can’t just walk around by myself being dominant.
Let’s apply this concept to some beloved friends. Take Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, the Taco Bell Chihuahua and Spuds Mckenzie, the Bull Terrier spokesman for Budweiser in the 80’s. On their own, these dogs are noble (in the case of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, at least), loveable, and obedient. Now put all four of them in to an empty room for 24-hours with only one food dish delivered 12 hours in to the experiment. It is highly likely that one or more of these dogs will dominate the others in order to eat as much of the food as possible but I’m not sure I could place a reliable bet on which dog that would be. That’s because in this specific context, Lassie may be the first to get to the food and protect it from the others or Spuds McKenzie might bully the others and fight them off. Does that mean Lassie or Spuds are dominant dogs? No. It means that in this specific context, one dog gained the upper hand and wielded power over the others in order to get what it wanted. In this context that dog “dominated” the others. Dominance in dogs is based on a loose hierarchy that may be established when two or more dogs interact. But this is an unstable and constantly shifting hierarchy. Let’s go back to our empty room. What if we suddenly throw two more dogs – Goofy and Pluto – in to the mix (ok, I realize these are not actual dogs, but bear with me here…)? Suddenly, the relationship that was established among our original four dogs changes to take Goofy and Pluto in to account. Even if Lassie acquired the food before, now it may be Pluto who is the most adept at securing resources for himself. Does this mean Lassie is a submissive dog? No. It just means that in this new context she is no longer the individual with the power.
If a dog can never be described as “dominant” how did this idea of a dominant or alpha dog become so entrenched in modern-day dog training? The concept was first developed by Austrian animal behaviorist and Nazi Party member, Konrad Lorenz, in 1949. Lorenz made many contributions to the understanding of dog behavior, but he was also highly influenced by the times in which he lived when dominance and submission applied to dictators and peons, to violent victors and overcome nations. Lorenz’s theory of canine dominance and submission closely mirrored these historical patterns of human action: submissive dogs will roll over (literally and figuratively) under the aggressive leadership of a dominant dog. In the relationship between humans and dogs, he believed, humans are dominant and should express that dominance any way necessary, including through physical means.
Over the following decades, the concept of dominance became standard in dog training and generations of dog owners were taught that the only way to produce an obedient dog was through punishment that proved the dog owner had the power. After the identification of “pack leaders” in the 1970s, research on wild wolf packs was used to support the theory. Unfortunately, this was a case of interpreting the data to fit the theory instead of the other way around. Wolf packs are family groups which are naturally led by wolf moms and dads. Just as in human families, when offspring mature, they leave to go and begin families of their own, they do not stick around to challenge their parental figures for leadership status. “Leaders” emerge in the pack not because one is more dominant or aggressive than another, but because parents must take charge over their children to keep the whole family happy and healthy.
Free ranging dog packs (when they form packs, which is not a given as in the wolf world) differ from wolf packs in that individuals may not have familial ties. But even in this case, dogs fail to establish and cede all power to one “leader.” Instead, as shown in research by Roberto Bonanni (2010), adult individuals take turns in the leadership position according to which dog can contribute most to the pack at any given time. In the pack he studied, Bonanni witnessed at least half of the dogs taking the “lead” at some point (with six individuals in regular rotation at the head of the group) according to which dog could make the strongest contribution to the pack’s welfare in any given context.
So if the idea of canine dominance is invalid, and establishing yourself as the “alpha” in your relationship with your dog is unnecessary and, in many cases, cruel, how should we approach dog training? Luckily, there is not only an alternative, but one that has been proven to be more effective in training dogs. This method – positive-reinforcement training or reward-based training – is in many ways the polar opposite of training that uses physical dominance, pain, and intimidation as a tool. In positive-reinforcement training, the dog is rewarded with something it loves (food, toys, or even praise) when it does something good. This basic tenet opens up tons of possibilities for training a dog to do something positive to replace a behavior you dislike (instead of punishing the “bad” behavior) and for shaping a dog to do fun tricks. Instead of instilling fear in your dog which may lead or exacerbate aggression, reward-based training (in both operant and classical forms) can decrease fear, build a dog’s confidence, and strengthen the human-canine relationship.
With positive-reinforcement training’s record of incredible results in obedience and behavior modification, there is absolutely no reason to use intimidation to train your dog. Really, wouldn’t you rather have your dog love to work for you than fear your presence?
A few weeks ago I go an email from Bethany*. Her family had recently added a new canine member, Chloe*, and she was looking for a little guidance in furthering her training. At the age of three, Chloe had never been housebroken or taught basic commands so we set to work turning her in to a tiny, obedient ball of white fluff. A few sessions in to our training, Bethany asked if I knew anything about the peach colored stains developing under her eyes, on her paws and on her rear end. Though I was used to seeing this discoloration on white dogs, I had to admit that, no, I didn’t know anything about the staining. So, to the internet I went for a little research on the topic.
Discoloration on a dog’s coat is often caused by a yeast infection called Ptyrosporin or “red yeast” that develops from tears and saliva – though other possible causes include the oxidation of saliva or artificial dyes from foods and toys. This discoloration is most common in dogs with white coats but any dog can have excessive tearing if the eye sockets are too shallow, hair grows too close to the eye, or tear holes (puncta) become blocked due to inward turning eyelids or previous eye infections or damage that causes scar tissue. Some dogs – especially short-nosed breeds like Pekingese and Maltese – are more susceptible to these eye issues.
In the case of blocked tear ducts, there may be surgical options that can improve the drainage around your dog’s eyes but those dogs with shallow eye sockets are, unfortunately, stuck with them. In any case, minimizing irritation and discoloration is an option. Keeping hair short around the eyes can help, so can keeping the eyes clean. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to reduce or eliminate tear stains but going this route could be dangerous if the bacteria forming the stains becomes drug resistant. If the cosmetic issue is paramount for your pup, there are a number of tear stain removers on the market. Carefully wiping the stains with hydrogen peroxide may also help to whiten the area.
If your dog is impacted by the staining of red yeast, check with your vet before beginning a whitening routine to rule out damaged tear ducts that may be further irritated by harsh products.
Every dog is different and it can take some time to get to know the quirks of each individual. The first week I walked Lambie*, I was taken by her sweet, plucky nature but I was also concerned by an odd characteristic that seemed to come and go. As Lambie walked, particularly the faster she moved, she lifted her back leg. The action happened every few seconds – Lambie lifting her leg up, putting it down, and lifting it up again – and it was intermittent, occurring a few times during an hour-long walk. Having just met Lambie, I became concerned that she may be experiencing pain or have something prickly stuck to her paw but after checking her paw several times and manipulating her leg to see if she flinched or yelped, it seemed nothing was wrong.
I debated whether to talk to Lambie’s dad about it but, the more I thought about it, I began to recall other dogs in which I had seen this strange leg lifting action. Paku, the five-pound Chihuahua that temporarily resided in my home lifted one of his back legs up while running around the house or when he was let outside to do his business. Bertie*, a lovely Shiba Inu that brightens my world three days a week will lift up a leg while she runs at top speed down the stairs towards her building’s front door on the way to a walk.
In many cases, this action is caused by a luxating patella or “trick knee;” as the dog moves, the knee cap slips out of its socket. A luxating patella is most common in small breed dogs with weak ligaments, tendons or muscles and in dogs with a narrow or shallow kneecap groove. You may see a trick knee in one leg or two and there are different degrees of severity. The first grade – the lowest one – is when the kneecap can be moved by a vet but won’t slip out-of-place on its own. The second grade – the level that seems to be affecting Lambie – is a kneecap that occasionally slips (luxates) back and forth as the dog moves. Grades three and four may regularly cause pain through chronic lameness (grade three) or a kneecap that has permanently slipped to the side (grade four).
If your dog doesn’t seem to be experiencing pain, grades one and two probably aren’t causing any major problems. It may be a good idea to keep an eye on your dog’s movement and get the knee(s) checked out every couple of years by your vet to make sure pain doesn’t develop. If there is pain, your vet may prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (steroidal meds have been proven to negatively impact the immune system and cause serious side-effects) which will not fix the problem but will help your dog to feel better. In very serious cases, your vet may recommend surgery. To help keep your dog’s condition from progressing, supplements such as Glucosamine may help; so may keeping your dog trim, his exercise moderate, and his diet high quality.