We’ve all heard the popular explanations for canine behavior. “He is trying to be alpha” or, “He is showing his dominance”. Or, my favorite: “You must show your dog who’s boss.” Everything from aggression to nuisance behavior is explained away using this alpha dog logic which came from antiquated studies of captive, unrelated wolves. The study suggested a rigid social hierarchy maintained by aggression. However, more recent research has revealed:
The natural social grouping of wolves is actually based on co-operative family members with very little aggression
Studies of interactions between dogs show no evidence of fixed ‘hierarchical’ relationships
There is no research to support that dogs even consider humans as part of their social structure to dominate
In fact, a true leader (dominant) dog is calmer, more confident, socially balanced and less aggressive, not more. Veterinarian behaviorists seem to understand two crucial aspects of our canine counterparts:
Aggressive displays largely stem from fear or anxiety
Most behaviors are learned responses
Aggressive displays are often used as a tool to create distance. Since, at the root of all canine communicationthere is one goal: To avoid conflict. Many under- socialized dogs feel extreme anxiety with the proximity of other canines. Each time an anxious dog uses an aggressive display and successfully creates the distance he needs, his use of it is reinforced. The aggressive display becomes a learned behavior because what gets rewarded gets repeated. Fortunately, ANY learned behavior can be unlearned once we stop attributing dominance as the ‘catch all’ explanation. Incorrectly ascertaining that a behavior comes from a dog’s desire to dominate usually leads to force based training methods which can largely exacerbate the behavior or worse – damage the dog’s relationship with his handler. Instead, methods that use positive reinforcement are gaining popularity- as well they should! We’ve all had that horrible boss that only harped on the bad and never acknowledged the good. Just as you attract more bees with honey; your dog learns faster and is more motivated to please when you consistently reward the behaviors that you want to see. That’s true leadership!
A reader submits: My dog meets and plays so well with other dogs at the dog park. But when he meets another dog on leash, he acts completely different. He has even attempted to bite a dog. What is wrong with him? On leash aggression is a common behavior. A lot of dogs who are fine with other dogs when left to their own devices, can suddenly become aggressive when meeting on leash. In fact, the behavior is so common; I simply never allow my dogs to meet other dogs this way. Now, some readers may be thinking: If the owner knows their dog has on leash aggression, then THEY should prevent THEIR dog from meeting on leash. My dog’s an angel and this doesn’t apply to me. Unfortunately, that’s where they’d be mistaken. Dogs communicate with one another through body language; primarily the use of ‘calming signals’. This language has at the root of it one beautiful purpose: To communicate peaceful intentions in order to avoid conflict. When a dog is on leash however, his natural body language can be unintentionally inhibited by his handler. This is where we can start running into a communication breakdown. The improper application of tension on the leash or the use of harnesses that encourage pulling behavior can cause your dog to posture against their restraint. This often looks to the other dog like an aggressive, forward advance and sadly, initiates the most altercations. Now you can see how even the most happy go lucky dog, pulling enthusiastically in the direction of his potential new playmate is communicating ineffectively. The other, also restrained dog feels anxiety from being approached in this manner, but is unable to create the needed distance and will be much more likely to react. So, it isn’t that either dog is aggressive. Instead, one has been ‘backed into a corner’ and is merely protecting himself from a perceived threat. It is, on the head of the handler who has unknowingly creating a situation between the two leashed dogs that would have never existed without human interference.
Reader: “I have a giant breed dog. The breeder advised me to socialize him early and often. What ways do you suggest and what should I avoid?” Dear reader, I too have a giant breed, an Irish Wolfhound named Kya; they should meet! A dog’s sensitive socialization period is between the ages of 3 weeks to 3 months. It is during this time that they learn what is safe and what is scary. This is one of the reasons why we do not have wild animals running to greet us from the woods! Therefore, it is crucial for canines to be gradually habituated and exposed to a variety of objects, sounds, environments, new dogs and new people. Puppies that do not receive adequate environmental enrichment and socialization can grow up to be fearful or even aggressive once they reach developmental maturity (24 months). To keep your pup properly socialized, I would find a reputable daycare program in your area. If you can find a program tailored to puppies, even better! When selecting a daycare, ensure the care provider is well versed in canine body language and behavior. Initial experiences should be carefully monitored so they learn that other dogs are safe, not scary. It’s for this reason I gently recommend avoiding dog parks; leave these early experiences to the professionals. Since giant breeds have open growth plates, I would pay attention to the structures in the play area. Equipment that fosters excessing jumping is not appropriate for these breeds. Also, create regular opportunities for your pup to meet new people. Tall and short, male and female – your pup is generalizing their knowledge that all humans are friendly and safe! Environmental exposure is just as fundamental to a dog’s development and overall balance. Play a fireworks recording at increasing levels of volume while administering treats to lessen the likelihood of a sound phobia later in life. Take them to new places, show them different objects and encourage healthy investigation with rewards and praise. Dogs learn by trial and error, so guard their experiences, create happy associations and have fun with your new puppy!
Dear reader, thank you for the question and congratulations on your bundle of joy! As a new mother myself, it was very important to me to have a successful union between my son Wyatt (now 8 months) and my Velcro pup, Lily. With Lily having no previous exposure to children and already being an adult dog, I had to have realistic expectations. I had some planning/preparing to do. Small children can be enormous sources of stress for the canine. We all know that dogs’ senses are much stronger than ours; so the barrage of new smells and deafening cries can weigh heavily on the family dog. The baby’s erratic movements and direct stares (never allow) can all be very intimidating. A dog’s breed, age, socialization, environmental exposure and past experiences can all dictate their reaction to this stressor. Prior to Wyatt’s arrival, I worked on resolving unsafe attention seeking behaviors, like pawing, jumping, etc. Since Lily has a sensitivity to sounds, I played a low recording of a baby’s cry with increasing volume while administering treats. My husband, while I was still in the hospital, even brought home one of Wyatt’s onesies so she could get acquainted with his smell. When you come home, it’s important to form very positive associations with the new baby in your dog’s mind. Allow your pup to calmly investigate baby at his own pace. Reward positive interactions with treats and attention. Pet/reward your dog for lying calming at your side while you are holding your baby, take him on his regularly scheduled walk with the baby, etc. We want Fido to learn that GOOD things happen when baby is near. Constant reprimand in proximity of the baby will only serve to confuse and form negative associations. It’s important to pick your battles and choose management techniques over scolding tailored to your specific situation. Easing your pup’s anxiety with proper and planned interactions set the positive foundation for your baby becoming mobile; an entirely different topic.
Many dogs have sound phobias. Take a close look at your pup the next time a thunderstorm rolls into your area. Is he panting when he should not be hot or thirsty, repeatedly yawning when he should not be tired, pacing as though he is looking for an exit or being hypervigilant (looking in many directions)? These are all signs that poor Fido is experiencing some extreme anxiety. Dogs with sound phobias will not get better with reprimand or inundation. In fact, improper exposure with no safe refuge will make the sound phobia much worse. There are many management techniques that can be adopted to ease your pup’s anxiety, but your empathy is paramount. By providing love and reassurance you are not rewarding the behavior as many believe. The only thing that will reinforce fear is more fear. During a thunderstorm or fireworks event, always make sure your pup is wearing up to date ID tags and you have a current photo of your pup. Exercise your pup very early in the day if you are able to anticipate the event. Allow Fido to find refuge in the innermost and quietest room of your home and turn up all the TVs to drown out the noise. There are so many tools on the market such as thundershirts, DAP diffusers, essential oils, bioacoustic music for dogs (Through the Dog’s Ear), etc. that have proven clinically effective. In a few rare cases, the fear may be so extreme that prescription medication may be needed. These are all management techniques however, not to be seen as a cure. In order to rehabilitate the dog’s sound phobia, you must change the emotional state of the dog. You must condition the dog to have a positive association with the thunderstorm, rather than a fear association. This can be done by using counter conditioning techniques in conjunction with desensitization. www.throughadogsear.com has a wonderful collection of CDs, “Canine Noise Phobia Series” which provides desensitization tools along with behavioral modification protocols for owners looking to treat the cause instead of the symptom.
First of all, congratulations on your new family member! I recommend acquiring a crate, a front attaching harness, a hands free leash, a Kong and other food dispensing toys, a treat bag, and some low calorie treats. With these items, you have everything you need to help your pup get off on the right paw. For several weeks or even months your furry companion will be unsure of his new environment and will be on his best behavior – I call this the Honeymoon Period. As he adjusts, you may start to see certain undesirable behaviors arise. However, by properly establishing your bond with Fido, you can avoid this common phenomenon. The crate: You’ve just rescued this pup from what can only be described as a doggie jail. How can you sentence him to further imprisonment? However, too much freedom too soon can cause stress which can manifest into separation anxiety. Destructive behaviors due to separation anxiety are one of the main reasons dogs are returned to a shelter. We want to set Fido up to succeed! The front attaching harness is imperative for pups that haven’t been properly leashed trained. The EasyWalk pulls the pup off his center of gravity and is a humane solution that discourages pulling behavior in even the largest dog. The remaining items are needed to teach your pooch that certain behaviors reap rewards and remember: What gets rewarded gets repeated! By using a pup’s kibble, you literally have 100’s of moments where desirable behaviors can be rewarded instead of serving up a ‘free meal’. Reserve treats as high value rewards in distracting situations. By keeping Fido close with the Buddy System, you won’t miss a good behavior or accidentally allow a problem behavior to occur. Use the Kong or other toy puzzles to feed them the remainder of their kibble (in the crate) and keep their mind stimulated while you are absent. By consistently rewarding behaviors that you want to see (sitting for pets, loose leash walking, etc.), you instill good habits, impulse control and become the leader your pup can trust to guide him!
A reader submitted an article that summarized a veterinarian’s opinion on why human babies and children are attacked by dogs. He stated that no matter how well trained, dogs will resort to their natural instincts when threatened, especially around babies that make sounds that entice their prey drive. He suggested that dogs will feel ‘jealousy’ towards the child since dogs obey a social hierarchy. He concluded that “every dog has the capability to be a dangerous wild animal.”
While I agree that no matter how many silly human tricks Fido can perform, it bears no weight on how he handles a perceived threat. There are many reasons why children are bitten by dogs. Prey drive and the suggestion that there’s a dangerous wild animal lurking within your Pomeranian do not make the list. In fact ~15,00 years of domestication eliminates the validity of the word ‘wild’ when referring to the family dog. To say that a dog is threatened by the social position of the child in the pack is to say he feels the child threatens his resources: territory, food and right to progeny. Dogs do not have a rigid social structure that they obey like their very distant ancestor, the wolf. They do not have the same fight for survival and there is no evidence that dogs consider us part of their social structure. Dogs also do not consider us food, so a child’s cry does not waken the vicious carnivore within Mr. Fluffy.
So why do dog’s bite? Body language, resource guarding, anxiety or simply; plain ole’ bad handling. The bite is the dog’s last attempt to communicate the need for distance and is ALWAYS provoked. Children are bitten because they are naturally aggressive with their body language and are not taught how to respect dog’s boundaries. With 37-47% of all households in the US owning a dog, I shudder to think what percent took the time to study canine body language and behavior. A topic that is not even required in the curriculum of many veterinarians.
Simply because canines communicate differently and part of that communication is the bite, then I completely agree we should never leave them alone with our children. However, it’s time we take responsibility for these preventable tragedies and learn more about the family member at the foot of our beds – and stop blaming the big bad wolf.