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Shy dog

Today I began assisting for a training class at the SF SPCA called “Shy Dogs.” Everyone there has a dog with some major fears – they’re frightened of men, dogs, buses, tile floors, even of their owners. By the end of class I found myself thankful that Franny is fearless. Then I remembered…last night I took my best friend Jasmine’s Chihuahua mix, Sombra, for a doggy sleepover so she could spend the day at the Treasure Island Music Festival. Sombra is a shy dog!

Sombra is an adolescent and she’s carrying alot of baggage around from her puppyhood. First of all, Sombra was never well socialized with dogs. They freak her out. Cats too. Basically she’s a big weenie. Secondly, and this contributes to her weenie-dom, Sombra was born to a mother owned by a large family with lots of rambunctious kids who terrorized her with rough handling. None of this is Sombra’s fault and she’s a lovely dog but she has a lot of fears.

Paul, the instructor of the Shy Dogs class, used a good metaphor: in dogs fear and aggression are two sides of the same coin. A dog may growl or bark not because it wants to hurt another dog or human, but because he is afraid of it. If he barks and growls, maybe the scary object will go away. But it’s not too hard to push a frightened dog from a state of fear to a state of terror, perhaps inciting him to bite or to completely shut down.

Ultimately, the best thing that can be done to help a dog with his fears are to build up his confidence. How do you build a dog’s confidence? With food, of course. And lots of praise. Like people, some fears can never be gotten rid of and that shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. Instead, the goal in working with a shy dog should be bringing them to a point where they are able to tolerate the things that frighten them in a way that is appropriate (for example, running in to the street is not a good response to a scary man walking a dog you but moving by as quickly as possible and keeping eye contact with you is). We want to “chip away” (as Paul said) at the fear.

There is no quick or easy way to do this. So just remember to go slowly, set small goals, and don’t expect a full “recovery.”


The plight of the pit bull

My next door neighbors have two gorgeous dogs – Monkey, a calm and gentle Great Pyrenees, and Nash, a Blue Nose Pit Bull puppy. All puppies are exuberant but Nash is a special boy. At four months he was a bounding bundle of energy; at 7 months he is now a BIG bundle of energy. Franny hates Nash. She hates pretty much any dog that isn’t dignified and calm. So on the days I let Nash and Monkey out for a potty break in my back yard, I know I’m in for a grumpy Fran.

I love pitbulls and have for years but, like Franny, many people are not fans. Sadly, it is the pit’s reputation and the humans that have shaped them that are the problem, not the dogs themselves. But what is a pit bull, really?

Pits are a cross between terriers and bulldogs first bred to create a dog with a terrier’s tenaciousness and a bulldog’s athleticism. Pit bull is not a breed, it is a group of several different types of dogs with similar characteristics. Pits are intelligent dogs and are used as companion animals, police dogs, and therapy dogs; in the early 20th century, they were as popular as labs are today!

Pit bulls have a higher tendency towards agression than many other breeds. This is what has created a culture of fear around pit bulls in the US. Of the 238 humans killed by dogs between 1979 and 1998, 32% have been pit bull attacks.

Sadly, this is truly a case of a few bad eggs ruining a whole cake. The vast majority of pit bulls are sweet, amazing dogs. But their reputation has led to various forms of legislation banning their ownership, requiring that all pits wear muzzles, and more. Pit bulls are the hardest dogs for shelters to adopt out, in part because they have special requirements for their ownership. At the SF SPCA, for example, an adopter needs to bring all members of the household (including other dogs) to meet the dog and a note from the landlord approving the ownership of a pit bull by their tenants. Not many landlords out there are willing to take the liability risk. The situation was/is so bad that in 1996 the SF SPCA renamed pits as “St. Francis Terriers” in the hope that they would be more readily adopted.

Luckily, many residents of San Francisco have discovered how great pits are. With a pit, early socialization and training is key, but with a little effort, they are amazing companions!

If you are interested in adopting a pit, please visit a shelter or rescue organization and not a breeder. Even if you are searching for a puppy, rescues have plenty. Breeders are not only putting more dogs out there to eventually end up in shelters (over 50% of all puppies will end up in a shelter by age 2) but they often select for physical traits, not behavioral ones, and whenever a breed is shaped according to physical characteristics, it will automatically become more agressive.

Check out some of these pit-bull specific rescue organizations!

Bad Rap

Reunion Rescue

Our Pack Pit Bull Rescue

If you are looking for a pit bull but want to make sure you adopt the right one, contact me at!

Autism and animals

Despite near debilitating autism as a child, Temple Grandin has risen to be one of the most famous and talented animal behaviorists in the country. Not only has she appeared on Oprah and NPR, in 2010 HBO made a biopic film about her, starring Claire Danes. But what Temple Grandin is best at is understanding animals. She has devoted her life to animal welfare – but not in the way you would think. Instead of confronting the factory farming industry, Temple Grandin works with it to assure that animals used for food have the safest, most humane lives and deaths possible. It is her autism, the way she is detail oriented and thinks in pictures instead of words, that has made her great.

But Temple Grandin has a lot of amazing insights on dogs too. Her book, Animals in Translation, is not only full of useful information but is an interesting read. But since not all of us have the luxury of reading every interesting book out there, I thought I’d share some of her fascinating insights.

1) Animals see everything in extreme detail, whereas humans, we see a general picture. While we may not notice a spooky shadow or a yellow sweatshirt hanging on your coat rack, your dog will – and it may be the scariest thing in the world.

2) Animals see everything in high contrast. They are only able to see two colors – green and blue – so if, for example, there is a brown ball on a hardwood floor, your dog probably won’t see it, unless it starts to move. Animals not only see motion very well, they are “riveted” by it!

3) New things are hard for animals, just like for autistic people. Any new object in your home, for example, has the potential to frighten him.

4) High pitched sounds are distressing, but they are even more distressing if they come intermittently instead of steadily (for example, the honk of a car alarm vs. the high-pitched whine of a machine). This is true for humans too, that’s because intermittent sounds activate our “orienting response” that drives us to make a decision. In animals, an intermittent or sudden sound drives them to think “should I run away?” or “should I chase something?”

5) Like autistic people, dogs can’t have mixed emotion. They either love or hate – they aren’t capable of a love/hate relationship the way non-autistic people are.

6) Purebred dogs are consistently more trouble than mixed-breed dogs. They are responsible for 74% of all fatal dog attacks on people and their brains are often wired incorrectly because breeders select for physical traits instead of behavior. A common effect of this kind of breeding and brain rewiring is aggression.

7) A dog stops developing emotionally and behaviorally at the wolf equivalent of 30-days old! Chihuahuas never develop past the equivalent of a wolf pup at 20-days of age!

For more amazing insights, check out Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin (2005, Harvest Books).

Paku’s paws

Paku, a five pound nearly hairless Chihuahua, is an occassional resident of my little zoo. I have to admit that I am not a Chihuahua person. They typically strike me as needy, frightened (both timid and agressive out of fear), and all around odd. So when 7-yr old Paku arrived six months ago it took me awhile to warm up to him. But eventually, he won me over with his funny antics and snuggly nature.

One of the things I find most amusing about Paku is the way he plays with stuffed toys, pouncing at them, chasing them around, carrying them in his mouth. But when the fun is done, Paku gets weird. He begins to lick his paws. Obsessively. His mom told me that, at times, he has gotten so over zealous that he has licked the hair right off. Lately, I have noticed Franny licking her paws, too. It seems to occur when she lays down for or wakes up in the middle of a nap in the evenings and, though she doesn’t obsessively lick, the action is the same as Paku’s. So, why do dogs lick their paws?

There are several possible reasons:

– stress

– boredom

– an allergic reaction to diet or outside stimulus (like chemicals used on lawns)

– psychological reasons (obsessive-compulsive behavior)

– fleas

In Paku, the behavior seems to be obsessive compulsive. In fact, Chihuahuas are among the most likely breeds to have obsessive compulsive disorders (along with Australian Cattle Dogs, Chows and Dobermans, among others). With Franny, the problem may high levels of cortisol in her blood stream. Stress is typically the cause of high cortisol levels but Franny’s Cushing’s Disease also causes her to have excessive cortisol. Franny’s paw licking, then, is likely a side-effect of her Cushing’s Disease!

For some suggestions on what to do about paw licking, check out tomorrow’s blog!

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