Recently, Debbie Jacobs from Fearfuldogs.com shared a video demonstrating how we can misinterpret a dog’s behavior.
Is your older dog suddenly refusing to sit on command? Maybe it’s arthritis.
Is your dog suddenly afraid to go outside? Maybe those new wind chimes you placed outside is scaring them.
Does your dog suddenly stop and refuse to move on a snowy street during your walk? Maybe the salt the city put down is hurting their paws.
Our dogs are telling us something all of the time, we just have to take the time to listen to them. I think the biggest mistake we (myself included) make when it comes to our dog’s behavior is not taking the time to understand the “why” behind it. Is it because there is something of higher value to them in their environment? Possibly. Did he have a bad experience in this environment that is affecting his ability to do something now? Could be. Is what we are asking of our dog confusing? Very likely.
It’s so easy to scold our dogs and assume they are refusing to obey us because they don’t want to do it or they don’t want to listen, but before we jump to the easiest, and most often the incorrect, conclusion we may want to take time to really listen to what our dogs are telling us.
Before making a judgement about their behavior we should… Watch. Look. Listen.
Here is that video Debbie shared. Take a look and let me know what you think.
The instructor directed us to watch the Great Dane as she approached him from the front. What was his body posture? Was he on his toes showing some confidence and eagerness? Or was his body compressed, tightly pulled inward or leaning back? Was he breathing normally or did he freeze and curve away from her? Did he suddenly freeze or step backwards? At what distance did he seem most comfortable with her and when did that change? What was the dog telling her in the slightest of body movements?
This is just an example of one of the dog-human interactions I had the chance to observe at one of the Suzanne Clothier sessions I attended in November of last year. To say the two sessions I attended were mind-expanding would be an understatement. It was enlightening and educational and exciting. I learned more than I can possibly put into words. If you’re a dog behavior geek like me then you know what an opportunity it was to be able to attend these sessions.
Suzanne Clothier is one of the premier experts on understanding dogs and dog behavior. She observes them on a level that most of us don’t even see because she breaks them down into the smallest components before putting them together to get the whole picture. What made the sessions so valuable was our ability to see these dog behaviors through her eyes. In the case of the Great Dane, we learned he was most comfortable with a personal space that was three times the length of his body, meaning he demonstrated fear and nervousness when his personal space was violated. He would freeze, hold his breath and curve backwards as someone entered that space. We learned that dogs often need more space than we do and that we are constantly violating that space. Knowing that little bit of information can make such a difference in how we interact with dogs – both our own and others’ dogs.
So many of us misjudge our dog’s behavior (myself included) or fail to see what they are telling us because we either lack the knowledge to recognize what they are communicating or we are too busy to pay close attention to the slightest changes in behavior. It’s not easy to see what our dogs are telling us. We have to be both knowledgeable and aware.
That’s why I thought I would share this interesting video with you today. I think is a great example of how much we can learn from our dogs if we are paying attention to what they are telling us. In the video, you observe two dog’s reactions to touch. I encourage you to watch it and then try it with your own dog. What were the results? What did you learn? Was your dog’s reaction a surprise to you or did you already know what would happen? It’s always fun to learn something new about our dogs. I would love to hear what you found out.
Earlier this year, there was a Hyundai car commercial that played with great frequency for a few months. The reason I remember this specific commercial is because it had a distinctive “beep” that would sound throughout the commercial. It sounded like the beep given off by a smoke alarm when the battery is dying.
As you can imagine, it was quite unpopular in our house, especially with Jasper, who has a profound fear of smoke detectors and the noises they make. Whenever the commercial would come on, he would immediately wake up and go into the bedroom – his safe spot, with Daisy. I started to anticipate when the commercial would be on and start muting the TV just in case. It just upset him too much.
We haven’t seen this commercial in about a month now, but it appears it was not just the beep that Jasper picked up on in that commercial. It was the background music too. Earlier this week, and again last night, Jasper stopped in the middle of playing with his ball to stop and look at the television as a new commercial came on. It uses the same background music (sans the beep) as the Hyundai commercial.
I watched as he came to a complete stop, turned his head slowly towards the television, and waited. A few seconds later, when it was evident there would be no beep, he again resumed playing.
I love studying dogs and watching how they figure things out, but even I am surprised by how observant they really are to the sights, sounds and smells around them. I can drive the same route every day and not notice a new sign or building until many days or months later. I have walked my dogs in the neighborhood and been completely oblivious to the sight of a squirrel on the ground until my dogs alerted me to it.
It makes me wonder how much more we notice in a given day if we had our dog’s attention to detail. If you get a chance today, observe your dog for a few minutes. What noises causes their ears to twitch? What movements or sounds cause them to turn their head? What smells excite them? I would love to hear what you noticed or observed about your dog’s own observation skills.
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by animal behavior. When I was a child I would sit for hours observing the Canadian geese that lived in the pond across from my house. I even took an animal behavior class in high school. Dog behavior is just one more area in which I am often fascinated. I love watching my dogs figure things out or adjust their behavior to a new circumstance or puzzle.
When my friend Debbie over at FearfulDogs.com shared this piece on Neophobia (fear of new things) in dogs, I immediately went to check it out. Not just because it was about dog behavior, but because it was one more piece to the puzzle in understanding my own dog’s behavior.
When Jasper was about a year old (I adopted him at 9 months), I took him to training class at the shelter where I volunteered. During our weekly training sessions, it soon became clear Jasper was frightened by everything new that was introduced into his environment. He refused to go near a dish full of food because he had never seen it before. He refused to go near any of the dividers or other equipment because they were something new he had not seen before. He was easily startled if something new was brought into class and would often freeze in fear or back up or look for an escape route to get away from it.
Unlike most puppies, Jasper was not curious about new things. In fact, he was outright fearful of all of them and would shut down as soon as they appeared. I remember our instructor, a friend of mine, mentioning that maybe he suffered from something called “brittle dog syndrom,” or neophobia, as a result of not being exposed to a lot of new things when he was a puppy. I had never heard of such a thing, but I now know she was right on.
So what is Neophobia?
Some of the behaviors dogs display when they are confronted with something new in their environment are:
- avoidance or attempts at escape when around new things (In Jasper’s case, he avoids and barks what I call his “chicken little bark.” The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Alarm! Alarm!)
Many dogs who display neophobic behaviors were not socialized as puppies. In Jasper’s case, he spent the majority of his early life in a puppy mill, and then in a pet shop store window. He was “rescued” from that environment at around 8 1/2 months. Before coming to our shelter and then to me, he had very little opportunity to be exposed to many new things, except people, which he has no fear of at all.
Some neophobic dogs can also be so as a result of genetics or breed disposition (i.e., some breeds appear to display it more than others). Although I have no expertise in this area, I would not be surprised to discover that Shelties are a breed who falls into this category. One only has to look at the number of lost Shelties who were lost, after they bolted in fear, to suspect this to be the case.
Since Jasper is a Sheltie and had little socialization as a puppy, he has two strikes against him. However, I have been able to manage his fear of new things by removing him from the object he fears and/or rewarding him with treats when he examines it with curiosity. It takes work, time and patience, but a neophobic dog can learn to live a fairly normal life, depending on how bad the fear is and how well you manage it.
If you have a dog you think may suffer from Neophobia, check out the great article on the ASPCA site. It’s definitely worth the read. My thanks to Debbie Jacobs for sharing it.
Two days ago it was 80 degrees out. Today? The high is expected to be 47 degrees. Tomorrow? Snow flurries. Brrrr!!!!
Is it any wonder that I chose a video that shows exactly what I would like to be doing this Friday morning? Not in the least. I’m guessing I’m not alone today.
I hope all of you stay warm this first Friday in October.
Have a great weekend!
Why is that when it comes to our dog’s behavior, or misbehavior, we seek the easiest solution first? I am as guilty of it as anyone else. I like to think I know better (and I really do), but I admit it, sometimes I just get lazy and choose the easy way out.
I am sure you must think my dogs are perfect, after all they look so darn adorable in those photos I share with you, but the truth is we have a little secret here at Casa del Mel (well okay, if you’re my neighbor it’s not really a secret). We have a barking problem. No, actually it’s worse than that, what we have here is a fence-charging, fence-fighting problem.
It used to be a once in a while thing, but over time, as Jasper and Lady have gotten closer, they gotten better at triggering one another with a simple look. Now, the simplest thing (a sound, a person walking by, etc.) can trigger “the look” and a race to the fence to bark and fence fight with the neighbor’s dogs behind us.
It is not a pretty sight. It’s also very annoying for both me and the neighbor. The problem is that both our dogs are outside a lot. And, both take part in the fence fighting.
So what have I tried?
- Making the dogs wait at the door before going outside – This only works until we get outside and then some sound or person triggers them and off they go again.
- Running down to where the fence fighting was occurring and try to stop the behavior after it was already in full swing – Uh yeah. Waaaay too late.
- Using a device that emits a sound only dogs can hear to stop them in mid-run to the fence – This worked on the two dogs it was meant for, but scared the bejesus out of the dog who wasn’t involved, Daisy. It made her afraid to go outside. Can you imagine how awful I felt about that one?
- Keeping one dog on a leash until they settled down outside and then letting them off leash once they were calm – See bullet number one for how well this one worked.
What I started to realize was just how little time I was spending trying to understand what was happening and why. Instead, I was focusing the majority of my time on trying to stop the behavior after it had already occurred. No wonder I had so little success.
Any good dog trainer will tell you observing a dog’s behavior can help one to understand his triggers, and in doing so, reveal a wealth of information about him and the behaviors you are seeing. Understanding a dog’s triggers can also help show you where and when to redirect them. But here I was trying to solve the problem without really observing their behavior. So that’s what I started doing first.
What did I learn by observing Lady and Jasper?
- The behavior almost always starts when Jasper and Lady get excited by something in their environment – a neighbor walking their dog, the sound of a dog barking (usually one of the fellow fence-fighters on the other side of the fence), a child running through the front yard, etc.
- In almost every case, Jasper is the one who gets the most excited by this external stimuli.
- Before the mad dash to the fence, there is a “look” exchanged between Jasper and Lady. Once this happens, there is only a second or two before redirecting the behavior is too late.
- Very rarely does Jasper engage in the actual fence fighting, but he loves to get it started.
- Lady doesn’t appear to see fence fighting as an act of aggression, but rather as a fun game.
- When outside alone, neither dog seems interested in fence fighting at all.
- If Lady can be redirected before she reaches the fence, Jasper loses all interest in the game. Jasper is much harder to redirect because food is less of a reward for him than the excitement the behavior creates (I seriously suspect he is an adrenaline junkie.)
Armed with this new information, I have now had a place to begin to start to address the issue and the resulting behaviors (let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to prevent the triggers that set Jasper off).
So what have I started to do to change the behavior?
- Train all 3 dogs to understand that the click of my clicker will yield a treat. (I have tried using a clicker in the past, but it used to scare Jasper and Daisy.)
- Retrain the dogs to “Come” and follow-up with a click and a treat.
- Increase their recall response by calling them to “come” at random moments (e.g., when they are playing or sniffing in the yard).
- Wait for that trigger to occur and use the recall to redirect Jasper and Lady to “come” to me instead of running to the fence. Often I catch them in mid-run and will get Lady to spin around and come back. Jasper is less likely of the two to respond to the recall when he is excited, so I use the recall specifically with Lady because I know that 1) Jasper has no interest in fence fighting unless Lady is there, and 2) if he sees Lady is getting a treat for following through on the “come” command, he is more likely to follow suit.
- Be more consistent. If I don’t have a treat on hand I use lost of praise, but I always use the recall command to redirect.
So far the results have been fairly successful. There are still times when the recall doesn’t work, but the more we practice, the more successes we have and the less fence fighting we see. We are a work in progress. (Now if only I could get them to stop when I have to run inside for something!)
So now I am interested in you… What things are you working on with your dogs? Have you also had an issue with fence fighting? How have you worked to resolve it? Share your training issues and successes.
When the neighbor behind us hangs her laundry on the line, Jasper will stand at the fence and bark like the world is on fire at the sheets blowing in the wind. Lady is completely unfazed by the vacuum, and will even lie there as it approaches, but Daisy and Jasper run and hide in my bedroom until I am done.
When I walked dogs at our local animal shelter, I would always watch to see what new things each would find interesting, or in some cases, frightening. The fire hydrants we had on the shelter property were always of great interest to the young dogs. It might have been the fact that they were painted white with black polka dots (like a Dalmatian) that caused so many varied reactions. So many found them to be quite puzzling and frightening the first time they encountered them. They would back away from them in fear, or give them a wide berth, as if they feared it would attack them if they got too close. I would often knock my knuckle on the metal to show them it wasn’t alive. That usually seemed to settle their fears enough to check them out with some curiosity.
We had something else on the shelter property that also drew a lot of attention from the new dogs. A topiary in the shape of a dog (similar to the one below).
It always made me giggle to see some of the dogs’ reactions to it. Some just peed on it. Others ignored it or gave it a cursory sniff and moved on. But it was the dogs who would approach it with a wagging tail that were the most fun to watch. These are the ones who would greet the dog nose to nose or would sniff its underside or back-end to try to get its scent. They were also the ones would greet the it with a play bow or two. Some even tried to engage it in a game of chase.
I can’t imagine what they were thinking when the topiary dog did not return the favor. Did they thing the dog was anti-social? Rude? Or, did they finally realize this dog was not a dog after all? I guess will always wonder.
There is so much you can learn about a dog, and dog body language, by watching them approach something new in their environment. It makes me wonder… What new or unusual things has your dog found interesting in his/her environment? How did he/she react?
Last night our local station, Fox 9 News, aired a great piece on dog attacks. I highly recommend watching it.
There were so many things I liked about this piece, it:
– Recognized that dog attacks happen with all dog breeds (they even mentioned the small breeds)
– Included an animal behaviorist from the U of M
– Discussed the dangers of letting leashed dogs greet one another (as a professional dog walker, I never let my client’s dogs greet other leashed dogs for this very reason).
– Spoke with veterinarians and a professional Twin Cities dog walker about the dangers of dog attacks
– Included information on why dogs who get out of fenced yards may be more dangerous
– Concluded with tips on what to do in case of an attack and linked to two videos on Dr. Sophia Yins’ website on dog aggression
Kudos to this news organization for doing a well-rounded discussion on the issue! I have rarely seen a news organization do a piece on dogs that was as well-informed and educational as this one was last night.
One of the things I most worry about are dog attacks. I have been in the middle of one between a client’s two dogs and it was one of the most frightening things I have ever experienced (by the way, pouring a bucket of water on them is what finally worked to break them up). I have also been charged by dogs who have escaped from yards before (in both cases, yelling “GO HOME!” is what worked). Even at the dog park, I am constantly watching other dog’s behavior to see what signs they are giving off.
One of the areas I avoid at my dog park, is the front area. Why? Because that is where (I know this will sound condescending) the uneducated and unknowledgeable dog owners hang out. It’s where I find the most frustrated and over-hyped dogs too. The owners who stand around while the dogs play are not helping their dogs. They are not exercising them either. They are are waiting for trouble to happen – they just don’t know it.
I keep my dogs moving when we are at the dog park. We don’t stand around. When I see trouble coming our way, I change directions or leave.
I know dog attacks will happen. They just will. But I don’t have to be a willing participant nor a sitting duck.
I hope people will watch this piece and learn from it. It was one worth sharing.
In the piece, Suzanne shares an email (see below) from a concerned dog owner who is confused by her dog’s “aggressive” behavior towards “young, hyper dogs.” If ever there was a description of Jasper, this was it. Cream and Jasper are hewn from the same cloth when it comes to young, hyper dogs. They don’t like them. Most especially when the young, hyper dogs who get in their face don’t recognize (or ignore) the behavioral cues being displayed to them as a warning.
Jasper’s most easily recognized behavioral signals are: a stiffening of his body, his tail curling up and pointing towards his head and the curl of his lip. If a rude dog chooses to ignore those signals, then Jasper will put them in their place. And, he has done so on several occasions.
As his owner, it is my responsibility to intervene before Jasper has to say or do anything. I try to call Jasper to me when I see trouble coming. I have also caught many a hyper puppy before they could get to him and also warned them (and their owner) off before they can get to Jasper. I try to be the one who keeps Jasper from having to express himself with these rude dogs, but on occasion, one does get past me. And, then I have ask the owner to call their dog back to avoid any issues. Unfortunately, not all of them have great recall.
The one thing I haven’t done very well is explain Jasper’s behavior in a way that makes sense to the average dog owner, who does not understand dog body language and behavioral cues and does not see their dog’s behavior as being “rude.” So, I often end up placing the blame on Jasper, not because he is necessarily doing something wrong, but because it’s easier to explain “He just doesn’t like young puppies.” or “He doesn’t like dogs jumping on him.” or “He doesn’t like other male dogs (which isn’t true).” than to explain that my dog doesn’t like your “rude” dog.
I know I am doing Jasper a disservice by explaining his behavior in such a way as to make people seem him as an aggressive dog, but how else do you explain rude dog behavior in such a way that it makes sense to the average dog owner? I welcome any ideas you may have.
In the meantime I will continue to intervene, dodge and defer to avoid moments like Suzanne mentioned in her piece.
You don’t know me, but L. is a friend of mine, and she suggested I write to you regarding the strange behavior of my dog. I have a female (spayed) golden retriever, 3 years old, named Cream. Cream comes from good lines (champion show), and is “almost” your typical golden: sweet, goofy, lovable, loves ALL people. Recently, Cream became a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society.
Yet Cream has one problem: she hates young, hyper dogs. If a dog starts jumping all over Cream, Cream gets aggressive – starts to growl, shows some teeth, and if the dog doesn’t take the hint after a few seconds, Cream will “attack” the dog. Every time this has happened, it’s happened very quickly, and I get Cream off the dog immediately (and “correct” her – laying her down, holding her muzzle, shaking her a bit, saying “NO!” very sternly, etc.). Cream doesn’t even like young dogs to lick her – she snaps at them if they do.
Now, Cream only displays this aggressive behavior with young, hyper dogs. Cream has regular dog pals that she plays with almost daily – they wrestle, play bite, and run around together. Some of the dogs she plays with are older, some are the same age, some are even younger, the youngest now being about 9 months old. She plays with both sexes, but she does seem to prefer males. (Cream was spayed at 10 months.)
Cream is in good health. She’s on a raw foods diet, had titer testing this year instead of vaccinations, had a full blood panel and thyroid check and both were fine, has been CERFed and her eyes are fine. She does have some mild hip dysplasia, but it doesn’t bother her, and she shows no symptoms. She’s been very well socialized since she’s been a pup, and I bring her everywhere I can (shopping malls, parks, sometimes to campus).
Cream’s been through lots of obedience classes, beginning when she was a pup at 4 months old in puppy kindergarten. For the past several months she’s been going through a basic obedience class with young dogs – I’ve been trying to recondition her behavior towards young dogs. I’ve been food rewarding her when she shows no aggressive behavior to a pup.
It’s been going okay, but two weeks ago, a young mastiff puppy got away from her owner, and came charging at Cream. She crashed into Cream (and it was just because she was over excited – she wasn’t being aggressive) and Cream came up growling and snarling. Then last weekend, a black lab pup did the same thing, and Cream had the same reaction. Throughout the class, Cream won’t even look at the puppies – has her back turned toward them the entire time.
I’ve got the dog trainers of the class stumped, as they don’t really know what to do. Cream’s normally such a sweet dog, good with commands, great with people. Cream’s also wonderful with children, and has an endless supply of patience with kids – they can pull on her ears, hug her tightly, pull on her tail – and Cream loves it. Cream’s fine with dogs who are calm, even friendly towards them, with her tail wagging, and she might even try to get them to play.
Cream has had some bad experiences with dogs. A pit bull jumped out of a car when we were on a walk, and attacked Cream (Cream was about 7 months old). She’s had dogs run out of houses and attack her, and dogs who were supposedly tied up, get loose and attack her.
So, do you have any suggestions or theories for us? Well, I’d really appreciate any thoughts you have on our situation.
Last week was kind of a gross icky mess at Casa del Mel. We had two girls with upset tummies in the house and three of the five working days I came home to discover several presents left for me. It was not pretty. But, perhaps the most mystifying were the ones left in my office two days in a row (on my floor mat from Indonesia of course).
I took to calling this dog The Mystery Pooper. In reality, I had no idea who did what and where, but this particular location was different because it’s not easy to get to if you’re a dog. It’s blocked by a baby gate.
Back when I had my pet sitting business, I put it up to keep our house guests separated from my own dogs while I was out caring for my other clients. It usually wasn’t necessary, but it gave me peace of mind to know there would be no trouble going on between the dogs while I was out. I thought about taking it down, but I started to like the fact that I could keep the dogs out of my office while I was working and they seemed to like that they could still see.
The gate has a latch that locks it closed, but I’ve never really used it since none of the dogs had ever seemed to figure out how to use their noses nudge the gate open. Until now. Clearly, someone had figured it out, but who?
My first suspect was Daisy because she was the first one get the upset tummy (over the weekend). But, she had never attempted to get into my office before. Then, Lady got an upset tummy too and I was left wondering. Could it be her? I had never seen her attempt to open the gate, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t. Plus, she’s really super smart. She certainly could have figured it out.
Then tonight, while I was working on my taxes in my office, I felt someone brush up against my leg. I looked down and guess who was standing beside? Lady! That little turkey had figured out how to open the baby gate! Mystery Pooper revealed!
I will now be latching the gate when I leave, but it made me wonder… Has anyone else has had (or has) a dog that surprised them with their uncanny ability to figure something out? Or, to get into something that you thought was safe? I would love to hear your stories.