Sunday, September 20, 2015

Awkward Moments in Pet Ownership: The Humping Dog

My previous dog was a Basset Hound, and like many of his breed, he was a clown. He loved to play and, on occasion, he would hump his favorite bear. This often manifested in a display which reminded me of a football center trying to hike a football - repeatedly. Needless to say it was a great giggle point for my friends, but I’d typically ignore it since it was easily manageable and preventable. Not everyone is that lucky.

Mounting or “humping” makes owners feel uncomfortable, even though animals know nothing of being prudish. I suspect much of the discomfort relates to the thought that their pet is showing sexual or “dominant” behavior while grinding away on a friend’s leg during a party. 

In reality, mounting is a very complex behavior which has a myriad of causes, none of which are related to your dog finding people attractive or trying to dominate your guest. To start off with, let’s go over things we know: humping is a natural behavior found in dogs for reproductive purposes. Any natural behavior is one that you’ll probably see puppies practicing while playing with one another. This goes for both sexes. If your pet is altered, it may decrease the biological need for the behavior, but it doesn’t remove it from their doggy “vocabulary”.  The behavior may be lessened, but can still erupt if there’s a local female in heat. Additionally, humping feels good - dogs will masturbate and will find an object (or person) as an acceptable proxy.

Another reason for humping is as coping mechanism to deal with social stress such as excitement, anxiety or frustration As a displacement behavior, humping fulfills the need to do “something” to dispel stress when emotionally conflicted—akin to human chewing on their finger nails. A prime time where humping will happen in this case may be during transitions (someone arriving or leaving), during intense play or when the pet can’t get what it really wants (a treat, a toy or access to another person or animal).

The issue at hand with this behavior is the human reaction to it: embarrassment. Reactions to the behavior are important since it could be considered as encouragement. If people are laughing, the dog sees this as a cue to do it again. Keep in mind, depending on the type of dog you have, yelling can ALSO be reinforcing if the goal was to get your attention. In general the act is self-rewarding, so don’t add to it! In rare cases, this can become a compulsive behavior (where the pet isn’t able to stop himself from performing the behavior). With all of this in mind, how can you explain to your dog you want him to be remain “G” rated?

Determine a few things: when does your dog do it, where, in what circumstance and for how long does it occur. Can your dog be interrupted when engaged in the behavior? These are essential questions. 

If you discover your dog engages in the behavior within the first 10 minutes from the arrival of guests - he may be doing it due to stress or excitement. Keep your dog in a bedroom with a food treat when guests arrive. When he seems calm, this is a good time to introduce him to the new arrivals. If he attaches himself to someone, call him or lead him away (no need to be angry, but apologize to your guest!) to an area where he can settle with a food toy or other activity.

If it seems to happen at the dog park when the dogs are playing, it may be play behavior. Teach your dog to have mini time-outs for treats if you see he’s getting revved up. Practice simple obedience cues for rewards, then send him back out again. Typical play behavior may be exhibited by a dog who mounts another for a few moments and goes back to playing. If your dog is the type who’s making the rounds humping a single or multiple dogs over and over again consider it may be a displacement behavior due to social stress. Consider a smaller or more mellow play group. If that appears too much, consider just taking him for walks with other dogs rather than overwhelming him with a “pack” at the park.

If your dog is mounting objects, determine if this is a big deal. Really, it’s not hurting anyone, so turning a blind eye isn’t wrong. If he’s doing it frequently, see if he can be positively distracted. DO NOT punish your dog for this behavior! If he’s doing it out of anxiety, it will just feed the reason for doing it in the first place. If his focus is on an inanimate object, you can manage the situation: put item away and engage him in other activities. Additionally, you might try introducing an incompatible behavior: Distract your dog for a game of tug or ask him to “sit”. It’s ideal to invoke these cues prior to your pet engaging in full blown humping. If your dog can’t be distracted (you’ve tried to remove him from the situation but he goes immediately back to it) consider an appointment with a Veterinary Behaviorist. 

A final note: don’t assume that your dog is trying to be dominant. Labeling an action as “dominant” is often misapplied and can erode the bond with the pet. Again, this behavior is most often shown in numerous emotional states which have nothing to do with a “power play” between people, animals or even stuffed animals. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

As of last week, I graduated from the Professional Dog Trainer’s Course through the Karen Pryor Academy. The process of learning new skills was terrific for me, but it was even better for my 15 year old Beagle Pocket.

Pocket had been an animal actor many years back and was an absolute ham. The minute he entered the set, he lit up immediately. Unfortunately, seven years later his career was cut short due to a compressed cervical disc. After surgery, he was officially retired. We still would go for walks regularly, light hikes and road trips - but his training took a backseat. When I applied for KPA, I chose him as my partner because I know how much he enjoys the spot light. What I didn’t realize was how the training would change my perceptions about my relationship with my dog.

Lesson One: OMG he doesn’t know how to think for himself!
In his former career, we used a lot of manipulation and luring. This became blatantly apparent when I started clicker training. The beauty of the clicker is your dog is an active participant in the learning process. Many of the behaviors that are put on cue are based on natural behaviors that the dog offers. Here lies the problem: If you’ve been told exactly what to do all of your life, and then someone says “hey, show me what you can do!” it’s downright weird. Pocket found this process frustrating. He’d get a click, eat, then stare at me as if he was asking for his next line in a script. I’d wait for something small that I could click, to keep up the rate of reinforcement, but he’d quickly become flustered. It took a while for him to break free and start offering behaviors on his own. The day it happened, he seemed like he’d been freed from a straightjacket.

Lesson Two: What was bad is now good.
Pocket historically hated fetching. Originally, we placed the object in his mouth, he was told to “hold” and then it was removed for a treat. It sucked. He looked like he was fetching a dirty toad. With clicker training, this all changed! I put a highlighter pen near him and waited - he stepped near it - I clicked! He looked at it - I clicked! This continued until he was picking it up with amazing gusto! I laughed so hard at his discovery of the new “game” that I wanted to cry. It was the best day ever - see for yourself: 

Lesson Three: You talk with your hands
I am a horrible double cuing machine! Cuing is an established trigger which tells your dog what behavior to perform. For example: If you ask your dog to sit you expect his furry little heiny to hit the pavement. The thing I didn’t realize is that I would ask Pocket to “sit” with a verbal cue while giving a hand gesture at the same time - this is double cuing. For all these years I thought Pocket knew the word “Sit”, but with my hands sequestered behind my back I received a blank look. When I let my hands do the talking by themselves - BAM, butt on pavement. Lesson learned.

Lesson Four: There's no "I" in Team
My last assessment for the class was to show off a fluent chain of ten behaviors seamlessly blended together. Each behavior doesn’t get a click and treat. Instead, your cuing reinforces the previous behavior. It’s like a row of dominos that are stacked on end, ready to tip each other over. The cue acts as the flick of momentum to get each one domino to tip into the next. Timing is essential, or the next domino won’t fall. If properly done, it creates a chain of behaviors that morph from one to the next naturally, cuing one after the other until the click and treat at the end. 

On the day of the assessment Pocket was eating grass and, over all, not feeling well. Though he obviously felt sick, he did his best. It wasn’t beautiful, but he was a trooper. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a flicker of panic to push him harder…but I didn’t because clicker training is about the bond you have with your partner. Though this was my exam, it was just a training session to him, and one he didn’t feel up to participating in. I stopped early, unsure whether our efforts were enough to gain a passing score. I never felt bad about my decision though; Pocket spent years doing what he was told, and now he finally had the power make his own decisions - to do or not do. It was my job to listen, even if my grade was on the line. To disregard his needs would be an unimaginable breech of trust.

I can’t say how happy I am that I went on this adventure with Pocket. He’s recovered from his tummy trouble, I passed my course, and managed to keep my promise to be a better listener. As you can see—I, too, can learn new tricks.

Monday, May 25, 2015

They're Speaking, But Are We Listening?

Due to our conversation-heavy communication style, dogs are considered nuanced since they use tons of body language to convey feeling. This can make owner-pet relations strained if the human isn’t up to the task of learning a new language. Learning “Dog” is something that pet owners can pick up with time and experience. Some behaviors, such as a play bow, a whole body whipping tail wag or growling and snarling are quickly picked up. What’s missed is in the details. When your dog’s body language changes, it’s a huge boon in understanding their intentions and concerns. These changes are related to your dog’s threshold for new experiences or effects of old concerning triggers. If you learn how to pay attention, you can often create a more confident and comfortable pet who doesn’t feel the need to become reactive.

What is a threshold? A threshold is essentially an emotional thermometer. At the low end, you have a relaxed and content animal. At the high end, your dog is a overly aroused, aggressive or terrified. By understanding the various stages of the threshold thermometer, it will assist you in understanding whether you can turn a bad situation into a positive one - or if retreat is the best option. If you’re new to learning “Dog”, please click this youtube video link for a short introduction to deciphering body language. For an in-depth presentation of body language, we recommend “The Language of Dogs” DVD by Sarah Kalnajs. Lastly, you can click this link for a list of canine Signs of stress and anxiety. Get familiar with them and try to highlight the ones your dog shows most often. Note when it happens: a certain area, time of day, with a specific person or animal, when a resource is present, etc. Keep in mind to evaluate the dog’s entire body. A simple lip lick may mean “I’m thirsty” when combined with soft eyes and a loose body. Typically you’ll see more than one at a time to let you know that you really are seeing stress.

Why is all of this so important? Because reading “Dog” can make potentially bad interactions into beneficial ones. So here’s a scenario: You’re walking your dog down the street when he sees a motorcyclist get off of his bike about 20 feet away. Your dog slows it’s pace, starts to stare, lets a few abbreviated barks and starts to back up. This would be a perfect time to whip out some treats and see if you can get your dog’s attention. If you can, ask for some simple behaviors you can reward and then leave - going the other direction. This session will open the door to your dog becoming more comfortable with a motorcyclist next time since the adventure was marked with yummy treats and there was no confrontation. 

Some people might see this as their dog being a “wuss” and proceed by dragging the dog over towards the motorcyclist. “See! It’s just a person. Hey Buddy, could you pet my dog so he can see you’re not scary?” This would be a perfect way to create a long standing fear or even a phobia. This person looks weird, remember? When ordinary people or animals look weird, dogs often see them as concerning. Alas, as you drag your dog over, his ears go back, he licks his lips and then pulls to get free. His tail’s tucked, he keeps looking away - he’s screaming “NO!!! SCARY ALIEN!” The closer you get to the person, the more your pet fights. 

At this point your pet is trapped, since running away isn’t  much of an option for a leashed dog. A dog that’s forced into a situation may feel helpless and shut-down. A “shut-down” dog is one that’s so traumatized that it gives up. The dog may not fight you, but the effect of this situation will lead to greatly intensified fear in the future.

The flip side of the coin is your dog may attack. When a dog is over its threshold it goes into “fight or flight” behavior. If there’s no way to leave, the dog will attack defensively. By understanding the early warning signs that your dog’s over threshold, this can be averted. Many dogs learn to bite because the previous warnings: barking, running away, growling, etc were not heeded. Biting ALWAYS works since the object of their ire normally will retreat - which is what the dog wanted in the first place. With such a record of success, the dog may use it as a favorite in its “leave me alone” repertoire. 

To help you understand thresholds, please feel free to click on the link (and share) our PDF version of our UC Davis Threshold Thermometer.  Some say actions speak louder than words, but unless we’re all on the same page, misunderstanding can lead to painful life lessons.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Puppy Socialization and Training - A Winning Investment

Puppy socialization and training is an essential component of a dog’s life. It lays the foundation of communication between the owner and the pet, as well as defining boundaries and expectations. Without training, a pet is far more likely to be euthanized due to behavior-related issues that the owner finds intolerable. Considering the stakes at hand, it’s troubling that only a small percentage of owners take their dogs to puppy classes. The owners who decide to train their dog themselves (or not at all) have many reasons, but the impact of missing this golden opportunity is far-reaching.

“I took my last dog to class, so I know what I’m doing. Why should I spend money to have someone tell me what I already know?” Training methods change. As the years go by, innovations in science and teaching methods have developed better ways to communicate with your pet. Additionally, if your last class was 15 years ago, a brush up goes a long way! I took Algebra in high school, though now I’d probably flounder, since I only use a few select principles in daily life. A refresher of principles and clean training habits are as good for you as they are for the dog.

“If I take my dog to training class, he’s going to get exposed to Parvo, and he’s not fully vaccinated.” Once upon a time, every vet gave you this advice. Again, times have changed. According to Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Meredith Stepita’s study on “Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinatedpuppies that attended puppy socialization classes, the fear of Parvovirus (CPV) is less of a worry compared to the threat of euthanasia. As she has previously stated “Approximately 250,000 animals are euthanized annually as a direct result of behavior problems”. Conversely, her study indicated that “vaccinated puppies attending socialization classes were at no greater risk of CPV infection than vaccinated puppies that did not attend those classes.” Typically early puppy classes require one prior DAP vaccine, a clear fecal test and no signs of illness for the safety of attendees.

“I’m busy right now, so I’ll get him into classes later.” Classes for adult dogs and socialization engagements are terrific, but can’t make up for early interaction. Dogs have a short, ideal socialization period ranging between the ages of 8-16 weeks. During that time, puppies are very malleable and accept new experiences readily. Controlled exposure to new people, other dogs, sounds, places, distractions and textures at this age prevent future fears. Trainers work with owners to detect signs of fear or aggression which can be more easily dealt with early on. Once your pet is past the socialization period, you’re no longer socializing, you’re applying desensitizing and counterconditioning (gradually introducing things your dog fears in small easily tolerated sessions, while offering high value rewards). This type of training is a much longer and harder road.

“My dog doesn't need to be socialized with other dogs. I have two other dogs at home and she does just fine.” This would be like saying I’m fine with all people, based on the fact I get along with my own family members. If I never went out of the house (except to go to the doctor or a stroll around the block), meeting new people who had a different appearance, customs or spoke with an accent could become scary and very stressful. I might not understand how to act around them, therefore leading to awkwardness and miscommunication. It’s much the same way with dogs. They need to be around other dog breeds, sizes, and body types so they can learn to understand and interact appropriately.

Though most puppies will meld into a group class immediately, some may not be the right fit if they’re very reactive or fearful. These dogs would need one-on-one training prior to being stable enough to enter a group situation. The benefits to the “average dog” makes any inconvenience or cost of a quality training class seem like a trifle. No longer is puppy class just about teaching “obedience”, rather it’s about cementing a lifelong partnership through learning and discovery for dog and human alike. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

What's the Prognosis

One of the hardest parts of working in the Behavior field is confronting the question “so do you think I should put him down?”

When an owner arrives for their appointment, we realize that many are coming as their last resort. They’ve tried what worked for their last dog, suggestions from friends, spent time with trainers, spoken to their veterinarian and now they’re taking one last shot with us. From each past effort there’s been peaks of hope and plummets of despair, and now they’re frustrated, angry, sad, lost and hopefully still interested in trying again in a new direction. The owner who has a dangerous dog is the most likely to ask “Is this fixable? Am I a bad person for giving up? Should I give up? Would it be better if I find him a new home?”

These are all valid questions that we take seriously. We never make the decision for our client. Instead we give a clear picture of the dog that they have in order to determine if they’re willing to commit to trying again. 

The first step is to explain what is concerning in the situation. A large dog is inherently more dangerous than a small one due to the amount of damage that can be done. Does the dog have readily identifiable triggers that we can work on, or is it more generalized? Is the behavior based in fear or confidence? Has the pet hurt someone before? Where does the family reside and how high is the threat to the public? What has the owner tried before? Is the owner’s home life a problem (elderly people who can’t get away, exposure to children, etc.)? Can the dog be safely managed by the owner? Is the human-animal bond broken? Is owner willing to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to help their pet while providing safety for their family and the pubic? That’s a lot of questions, but all of them are important to give the owner a prognosis for the issue at hand.

With this information in mind, our job is to support the owner as they wade through the pros and cons, feeling and fears to get to a decision. As a service, we support owners in the decision to euthanize their pet if it poses a danger. Some would find euthanasia of an otherwise healthy animal repugnant. The thing is - the pet isn’t perfectly healthy. Mentally, this pet is not doing well. Many of these dogs have equal parts of nature and nurture creating a perfect storm for bad things. The owner may not be the right person to take on this project, and it’s our hope that if they do decide to euthanize then at least they may avoid making the same mistakes with future pets. Is it fair for the dog? Probably not, but warehousing the pet for the rest of its life isn’t exactly a kind fate either. Rehoming is typically irresponsible in these situations. As much as I would love to have the perfect owner pop up to whisk the dog away, finding someone with the knowledge and ability to adopt an aggressive dog is like winning the lottery. We’ve seen rescues which adopt out dogs with a history of aggression problems and it creates a rehoming nightmare. The dog is bounced from home to home, breaking hearts (of the owners and pet) until someone decides to pulls the plug. 

Euthanasia is permanent. Ending a life is never easy for any veterinarian, and we’re no exception. As it is, our service euthanizes a dog about every 6 months. It’s our hope that owners keep this information in mind when deciding to adopt a pet. Do your research, socialize and train your dog,  and if things seem to be going badly, the best way to avoid euthanasia is to seek out professional help early.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An Ode to the Non-Retractable Leash

If there’s one seemingly innocuous item I could eliminate from the Earth, it would be retractable leashes. These leashes are popular with owners who love the freedom it affords their pet. Indeed, the dog can jet ahead, trail behind, sniff or eliminate without causing a break in pace for the owner. Additionally, retractable leashes aren't as cumbersome as carrying a long-line. Over all, it would seem like a dream come true. I know many people who love these leashes so much that to take it away, you’d have to pry it from their cold dead hand. There can be advantages if the leash is used by a conscientious owner who understands its inappropriate use, and can judge whether their pet should be walked on one at all.

Though the lead itself seems benign, the design lends itself to becoming a mobile razor wire and tripping hazard all in one. This is no joke! I have long suggested retracto-leads as a James Bond weapon. If you look at the packaging, you’ll see a sticker or packaging alerting you to the danger of cuts, burns and finger amputation. It can cause bodily injury due to falls caused by tripping or wrapping up in the line. Additionally, if your pet breaks the lead, there’s a danger of face or eye injury. Oh yes, it sounds like you’re playing with a bright shiny chainsaw rather than a dog leash. In fact, the danger is so severe that labels state, “avoid using around small children”.

Besides the ghastly injuries that they cause, I hate them due to the way people use them. If you have a dog that pulls, a retractable leash only teaches your dog to be more effective at pulling. When an owner notes the dog is harshly gasping against the pressure of its collar, they often opt for a body harness. You know—the ones they use for sled dogs. Nothing like a good tractor pull! Far worse is the owner who combines the retractable with a choke or prong collar, since the dog will be constantly correcting itself while pulling for more lead. Mind you, most people miss the warning on the device stating it isn't to be used with “disobedient or uncontrollable” dogs.

If you’re enjoying your walk with your dog romping around 10-25 feet away, it makes it difficult to keep track of what’s going on. At the park, it’s not uncommon to see owners talking to a friend while their dog is off leaving a fecal calling card in the distance – with the owner totally unaware. They may also not notice that their pet is running in between people, tying a kid to a tree or rushing someone else’s dog. In the case of the latter, the leash may fly out of the owner’s hand and the line could break or cause damage to the other dog when the line is retracted. I especially hate these leashes in a veterinary setting. On a regular basis an owner would be at the front desk, while their dog wandered across the room, relieving itself on a plant or harassing a poor cat stuck in a carrier.

Speaking of control, the “brake” button is a great source of false security. I often call it the “pause” button. Cheap ones have a hard time engaging and must be held down manually, while more “deluxe” models have an integrated lock which is a pain to engage. The brake gives a false sense of security since it takes time to engage, and by that time your dog has covered a lot of ground. The brake on the leash is just like the brake on your car – it’s only helpful if engaged at the appropriate moment…which is tough from a distance.

All of this being said, I remind myself: training tools can be helpful when properly utilized. They aren't “bad” on their own. It just appears that the wonders of retractable leash attract all the wrong people.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Five Common Themes We See In "Misbehaving" Dogs

This was a previous post, but still begs repeating!

At UC Davis’ Behavior Service, we see some common themes among our clients resulting in frustration. I thought it might be good to discuss some of the chief issues:

  1. My dog pulls! Undoubtedly this happens with many pets, but when we see that your pet is wearing a harness, we just smile and say “we can fix this”. Harnesses are made to teach dogs to pull – think of a sled dog. Use a gentle leader, via conditioning your pet to it first, and the problem for most pets is usually resolved.
  2. My dog doesn't respond to my commands! If I ask the owner to show me what they mean, then this often happens: “Juju sit. SIT. Sit, sit, sit! Come on now, I mean it!” Well, I’m sure that he knows you mean it, but he’s unsure if it’s from the first mention of the command or the fifteenth. Use the command ONCE and wait. Let your dog think. Reward him if he does obeys. If he refuses, tough luck, the cookie, toy or attention that was in the balance just walked away. He’ll get the clue that winning comes from listening.
  3. My dog digs, barks, and destroys the yard then I’m not at home! There are many causes for this type of behavior, but the first thing to rule out is easy – is your dog bored? If you were left in a sterile environment for 8 hours a day, wouldn't you get a little crazy? If pets aren't given activities, they will find their own source of amusement. Hide toys stuffed with treats for a treasure hunt. Frequently switch out toys so they aren't the same old, same old. Play or do training sessions with your dog for a period in the morning and evening – a tired dog is a less destructive dog.
  4. I don’t know why my Terrier tries to eat my hamster, my hound is hard to control off leash, my Schnauzer barks a lot and my Border Collie tries to herd me! Researching the characteristics of the dog breed you’re interested in before investing in ownership is a big help. While these characteristics aren't set in stone—some dogs will display them to a greater or lesser extent—knowing what you’re getting into can help inform you of the type of training you may need to provide to curb the behaviors that might drive you nuts later.
  5. My dog growls at people and it makes me mad! This may seem counter intuitive to some, but: don’t punish your dog for growling. Why? Because, as I've often heard Dr. Stelow say, “thank your dog for the warning and remove them from the situation.” A growl is a warning and, if you punish your pet, she may skip the growling and go straight to biting instead. Growling dogs often do so out of fear; don’t punish them since it simply cements the fear they feel. If you were afraid of spiders and I told you to hold one and just get over it – would that change your feelings? Examine the problem to learn what triggered it. Once the trigger is discovered you can desensitize and counter condition your pet. Scared pets can be made more confident and comfortable, and allow you to make a negative into something positive.