Archive | Dog Behavior RSS for this section

A baby for Cricket*

The other day I got the wonderful news that one of my clients is adding a new baby to their family…a human baby, this time. Cricket*, their first “child,” has grown in to a sensitive four-year old terrier with lots of energy, tons of love to give, and some anxiety in new situations.

Sadly, some dogs never adjust to a new baby in the home and desperate parents have no choice but to surrender their pet. Cricket’s mom and dad adore their fur baby and would be absolutely devastated to give him up – even if it was a last resort to protect their human baby – so we want to make sure that he is as prepared as possible for the upcoming change. Ultimately, there is no way to simulate a new baby in the house but exposing Cricket to some of the scents, sounds, and other changes he will experience will help him to adjust to the real thing.

Sounds

Babies are loud and for a dog with a history of sound sensitivity like Cricket, it’s important to get them used to the cries and gurgles that will become a part of daily life. Buy a c.d. (or make a playlist) of baby sounds – crying, cooing, laughing, etc. – and play it (loudly) daily. Give your dog a stuffed Kong to munch on while the c.d. plays so he forms happy associations with the noises. The first several times you play the c.d., do so while you are home with your dog so that if he is frightened, you can reassure him. As he becomes accustomed to it, give your dog a Kong and press play before you leave the house.

Sudden noises, such as a baby’s cry in the middle of a quiet night, which can be particularly frightening to a dog. Single out a couple of specific noises that a baby may suddenly make, play them at random times without warning. Gather a handful of treats and when you press play, throw a shower of treats over your dog. This will teach him that a sudden cry means that great things will happen!

Scents

There are all sorts of new smells that you will bring home with your new baby. Expose your dog to baby powder or other products you will use regularly on your little one in the months before the birth by using it on your own skin and allowing your dog to sniff you. Play games with him while smelling of the baby so that he will form happy associations with these scents.

When the baby is born but before he is ready to come home, ask your partner or a friend to take a blanket or piece of clothing that the baby has been wrapped in or worn home to your dog so he can sniff it at length and get used to the new human scent.

Sights

Your dog will have to get used to the fact that you will holding or otherwise paying attention to the baby a huge percentage of the time. A person holding a baby, or carrying one in a pouch or pack, can look like a distorted monster human to a dog. Buy a life-size babydoll and practice holding and carrying it around at home, as well as simulating other common activities like changing a diaper or bathtime. Show the baby to the dog but treat the doll the way you will your real baby – don’t let your dog lick it or get close enough to jump up on it. Put the babydoll in a stroller and practice walking your dog with the baby stroller, too!

If you have friends with babies or young children, invite them over for a visit. Ask your dog to sit calmly with you and your guests and give him a Kong or treats to keep him busy while they are present.

Attention

The reality of bringing home a new baby is that you simply won’t have as much time to spend with your dog. Even though your natural inclination may be to spend more time with him now to make up for the change, it is actually better for your dog to begin spending less time with him in the months preceding the birth. This will help to mitigate the realization that new baby = less time with mom and dad.

Bringing home baby

It’s very important that your first actual interaction between your dog and your baby is a good one so go slowly. With mom having been in the hospital for a few days, let her greet your dog without the baby – he will be excited to see her! Have someone else take the baby in to the other room while mom calmly gives your dog love and treats.

After mom’s initial greeting, sit somewhere comfortable with baby and dog and reward him for being calm. If possible, have a friend or relative introduce your dog to the baby the very first time while you sit with him and give him affection. Also shower him with treats or give him a Kong to make him happy around the baby.

As time passes, be sure to give your dog some one-on-one attention each day. Since dogs are creatures of habit, try to establish a routine that is as similar as possible to the pre-baby one (make changes in your dog’s routine pre-baby to anticipate those that will come when the baby arrives). Above all go slowly and be patient; never force your dog to be around the baby if he is not interested. As things settle down over time, so will he, and you will have one big happy family!

Advertisements

Dispelling the dominance myth

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?

The Zoomies

Lambie*

We were just finishing our walk in Glen Canyon the other day when Lambie* took off at a dead run. At this point in the trail is a small preschool only accessible by foot. The school is separated from the walking trail by a natural ravine and a small bridge and I had taken the precaution of putting the bigger dogs on leashes so as to avoid any accidents. Lambie always stays pretty close and I had never even seen her run so I hadn’t even thought about putting a leash on her tiny 10lb frame. That turned out to be a bad move. She galloped in circles around the children and parents playing outside, changing direction on a dime, and avoiding me at all costs until she finally ran inside the building. By the time I caught up with her (after tying up the other dogs), she was in the arms of a teacher with a very stern look on her face. Apologizing profusely, I grabbed Lambie and sheepishly hurried away. The episode lasted just a few minutes but it seemed totally uncharacteristic of this sweet, obedient toy poodle’s personality. So what happened? Lambie got the zoomies.

The zoomies, or Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAP), are sudden bursts of energy in which a dog will take off running at top speed, spin in circles, and then collapse, exhausted. The zoomies happen most often in puppies but are totally common for adult dogs too. In some cases, the zoomies may indicate that your puppy or dog is not getting enough exercise and/or mental stimulation and has excess energy to burn. If your dog gets the zoomies constantly, you may want to add an extra walk to your day or try feeding him out of a Kong or similar toy to get his brain working.

There isn’t much you can do about the zoomies but wait them out. If your dog zooms around the same time every day, make sure he is in a safe place where he won’t hurt himself. Resist the urge to chase your dog, this may make him think that you are in on the game, too. If your dog has good recall, he may come when called or he may be so excited his mind is somewhere else. As your dog ages, the zoomies will decrease, so enjoy it while you can; you can’t help but admit that crazy eyed play is SUPER cute…

Dream state

Most dog owners (and cat owners too!) don’t need a blog entry to convince them that their pets dream. Rapid eye movement, twitching – these actions look exactly like a human in deep sleep. And they are. Structurally, dogs have similar brain structures to humans and, during sleep, they show changes in electrical activity in the hippocampus that mimic the changes that take place in our own brains while dreaming. Even animals with far more simple brains, like rats, have shown to have the same electro-activity during sleep as human beings in dream states.

On YouTube there are dozens of videos of quivering, paw moving, barking dogs that are fast asleep. So what are they dreaming about? Take this classic:

The dog appears to be chasing or running from something and, according to MIT scientists, he probably is. Dog dreams seem to be linked to activities in which the dog has engaged during the day. So, if you took your dog on a hike where he rolled around in a dead animal, his memory may have turned images from this event in to a dream sequence. If your dog got in a fight, these images might fill his dreams. My dearly departed Franny, a demand barker, would bark in her sleep, a noise that came out sounding high-pitched and underwater. Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in psychology and dog intelligence, shares this story from a letter he received:

“Goober is a basenji, and like many basenjis he hates water and being bathed. As soon as my wife finishes bathing him he bolts out of the bathroom door, finds me, and tries to hide behind me or under me. So one day Goober was forced to be cleaned and underwent his ritual of hiding behind me. Later that night he was sleep running. He awoke with a start, and then bolted to my location to hide under my legs. This was very awkward as I was sitting on the toilet at the time. I believe that he was dreaming, and I believe that he was dreaming about having a bath. I believe this because he only engages in this behavior when a bath is involved.”

Compared to humans who dream approximately every 90 minutes, dogs are believed to dream more often for shorter periods of time depending on their size. Extra-large dogs like the Rhodesian Ridgeback might dream every 45 minutes for about five minutes at a time; a Chihuahua is more likely to dream every ten minutes for about 60-seconds at a time.

Though adorable, understanding the abilities of dogs, cats, and rats to dream may impact our understanding of animals as a whole. Coren, referencing Charles Darwin, points out that if you can prove that an animal dreams, you have proof that the animal has consciousness, a theory that has historically been heavily challenged by the scientific community. This means that, when your dog is hanging out with you on the couch, he may actually be thinking fully formed thoughts, rather than just existing. Is it possible that our dogs have complete inner lives and internal “monologues” just like humans?

 

Fascinating changes

I adopted my second cat Phoebe almost a year ago. Bringing a new cat in to the home is always stressful for the animal and I can only imagine how she felt coming in to mine, with the smell of multiple dogs and another cat everywhere. I followed the protocol of introducing two cats – keeping the Phoebe in a safe spot that Osito couldn’t reach for the first several days – but the relationship between the two of them was rocky from the start. Whereas Osito and his former roommate Bat got along pretty well, chasing each other down the hall and playing the “door game” trying to get each other’s paws from either side of a door, he quickly assumed a new role as head cat. He would bully Phoebe when she was eating or sauntering around the apartment. He wouldn’t let her up on the bed so she made herself a nest underneath it. Not surprisingly, Phoebe, though sweet as could be when approached, wasn’t interested in getting close to Osito’s humans.

Fast forward to three weeks ago. Phoebe spends a lot of time outside, presumably getting some exercise, but it was clear she had put on some weight. Since finding Osito, I had left a bowl of dry food out for him, rather than feeding him a set amount at mealtimes. This is a no-no in the kitty health world but, at the time, Bat was such a food monster that I felt if I left him only the amount of food he was supposed to eat, she would gobble it up instead. When Phoebe came in to our lives, I continued the practice, now setting out two separate bowls so they could eat at the same time if they wished. But newly fat Phoebe needed a change to help her shed the extra weight so I decided to switch the cats to mealtime feeding only. I left the food out if they didn’t finish what was in their bowl, but once gone, they received no more until the next mealtime.

Almost immediately, we noticed a change in Phoebe. All of a sudden she was approaching myself, my roommate, and visiting friends on the couch, purring and rubbing against us. Before this, I had seen Phoebe do this so infrequently, I could count the number of snuggle fests on two hands. But new Phoebe not only solicited our attention, she laid down to nap next to me and collapsed in to my side in a heap of soft fur.

So why the change? Because the only difference in her life is the way I feed her, and the change is a positive one (i.e., not a sign that might encourage me to take her to the vet), it is logical to assume that it is in fact the feeding that has changed her behavior to make her a sweeter and more loving cat. I suspect this follows a similar principle to one used in the dog world – Nothing In Life Is Free. With dogs that are controlling or overly excitable, trainers often recommend that the owner change the way a dog is fed (and receives other things it likes such as toys, going outside, etc.). Instead of just giving food and treats away, the dog must work for their meal every time. In other words, dog wants dinner, you make him sit and wait first. A more advanced version of this is never putting out a bowl of food but instead feeding a dog its kibble one nugget at a time in exchange for obedience like sit, stay, come, down, leave it, and so on. In this way, the dog comes to understand that good things do not happen unless the owner makes them happen; and the only way the owner will do so is if the dog is obedient and well-behaved.

In Phoebe;s case, I believe that by changing her access to food, she has realized that food doesn’t just grow on trees (or in her food bowl, at least), it comes from me and if she solicits my attention, purring and acting all cute, I may be more likely to feed her. And in the midst of that thought pattern, Phoebe realized something else: getting pet and snuggling is pretty great and worth doing whether she is hungry or not.

Unfortunately I will never know exactly what Phoebe is thinking; all I can do is theorize based on observations of her behavior. But either way I hope this new Phoebe is here to stay!

Signs of stress

Dogs are not humans in furry suits but they do seem to experience many of the same basic emotional responses that we do. Stress is a biggie in the dog world. Dogs can become stressed out by confronting any number of stimuli including new environments, new people, other dogs, car rides and loud noises. When stress occurs, cortisol levels rise and it takes a full 24 hours for them to return to normal, allowing your dog to fully relax.

In times of stress, signs are typically plainly written all over your dog’s body; you just have to learn the language! Common signs include:

– Lip licking or tongue flicks (small, quick movements of the tongue straight out of the mouth)

– Panting when your dog is not physically tired or overheated

– Yawning at times when your dog shouldn’t be tired

– A tucked or lowered tail

– A tense body

– Whining

If you notice your dog doing one of these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are experiencing stress. Your dog may lick its lips near meal times or when you are eating, for example. But when two or more of these actions is combined, your dog is probably stressed out. Here’s what it may look like:

If your dog is showing signs of stress, the best thing you can do is remove her from the situation. Since this isn’t always possible, try distracting her with treats (an extremely stressed out dog will not take treats so this can also help you to gauge the intensity of what your dog is experiencing), comforting her with long slow strokes, and reassuring her with slow, quiet words.

%d bloggers like this: