Archive for Dog Behavior

Instinct & Drive

As I take my foster dog Lumen out the door for an afternoon walk, we suddenly come upon a rabbit nibbling clover on the lawn. I look down at this little 25 pound dog and it is as if something has taken her over. Her muscles are coordinating in a ballet as old as canids. Her legs are bent, her body tensed, her head lowered and ears forward, as she soundlessly stalks the unsuspecting prey.

Most people, including many professional dog trainers, when seeing this behavior think of how wild and wolf-like it is. They tend to think of untrained behaviors, especially those reminiscent of wild ancestors’ as innate, triggered by an instinctual drive inherited directly from the wolf. But when I see these behaviors I notice how different they are from the wolf. Yes Lumen, a little grey frazzled dog from the streets of Texas is displaying pieces of the ancestral hunting behavior, and there’s no need for training a rescue dog to display these behaviors! But beyond that her behavior is quite different. We call these pieces of behaviors motor patterns, they are snapshots of a behavior. The wolf hunting behavior is made of “orient,” when the wolf focuses its eyes, ears, and nose on its potential prey with its head up above its shoulder, ears forward and attention rapt. Next are “eye” and “stalk,” two motor patterns that happen at the same time. “Eye” refers to the position of the head, which is now at or below the level of the shoulders. The ears are either forward or out to the side and eyes and nose are still trained on the potential prey. “Stalk” refers to the position of the body which is tense, but the legs are bent and the wolf is either frozen still or creeping forward slowing. Next is “chase,” which is exactly what it sounds like, then “grab-bite,” which is the initial bite to the prey. For wolves hunting large prey, this is a bite to whatever is handy – often the flanks. And finally “kill-bite,” which in the wolf is a bleeding bite often to the jugular. In wolves hunting large prey, this behavior is also performed with other members of their family, all coordinating together to hunt the same prey.

While dog behaviors are all made up of motor patterns that exist in the wolf repertoire, they are shown in different sequences, different contexts and at different thresholds, resulting in entirely different behaviors. Furthermore, while the motor patterns themselves appear perfectly the first time they are displayed, the behaviors that they make up like Lumen’s stalking of the rabbit, have to be developed. And while genes are important in producing behaviors, there are no genes for behavior, instead there are complex interactions between genes and environment. During my upcoming “Instinct & Drive” webinar, I will be breaking down what we know about behaviors that are often thought of as intrinsic and explaining the current knowledge of how genes and environment play into their development.

Kathryn Lord received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, where she studied the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior, with Dr. Raymond Coppinger.

Changing Bad Dog Habits in 4 Simple Steps

Leash chewing, paw licking, and poop eating are just a few examples of behaviors that may develop due to a very specific set of circumstance and then linger long after the underlying reason for the behavior is gone. What advice do you provide your dog training clients?

  • Resolve the underlying reason for the behavior. Puppies chewing on leashes can be teething. Paw licking can be related to allergies, and poop eating a nest-cleaning instinct gone awry. Whatever the underlying cause of the behavior, if you don’t remove it then it will return.
  • Train an alternate, incompatible behavior. A few examples include teaching a dog to hold their toy or tug in the mouth while walking for the leash chewer, and chewing a bully stick or bone for the paw licker.
  • In moments where training fails, be ready to disrupt, distract, and redirect. Whether through management or training, it is very important that the dog not be in a position to practice the undesirable behavior. So be ready with management when you’re not actively training an alternative behavior. Providing great chews and interactive toys is one option, increasing exercise and mental stimulation will generally also help.
  • Repeat for 2 to 4 weeks. Compare this to the amount of time you might expect a human to take to alter a specific undesirable habit like nail-biting.

The most difficult component of this is selling owners on a very high level of diligence for the 2-4 week period. Explain that by front-loading the owner’s efforts, they will resolve the problem behavior much more quickly. Allowing the dog to practice a particular undesirable behavior only lets the dog get cleverer about the behavior and makes it more difficult to extinguish later. Professional dog trainers frequently have to sell their clients on certain aspects of training. This is a very important skill to develop, because the long-term success and maintenance of the training is in the hands of the person who is spending time with the dog – and that is your client.

Stereotypes’ Impact on Dog Training

Fluffy dogs beg to be touched, petted, and hugged. Bully breeds inspire caution, and even fear, in some people. Cropped ears create an illusion of attention, which can be intimidating to some people. And small dogs are a portable size, easily scooped up and cuddled. The simple fact is that the appearance of a dog can impact the way in which people perceive and interact with the dog. Why is this an important concept for certified professional dog trainers to understand? Clients need to be aware that bringing their dogs into public forums exposes them, and their dogs, to certain attitudes, and their professional dog trainer – that’s you! – can help them understand what those attitudes may be and how they can best prepare.

Here are a few tips:

1.      Especially fluffy, attractive, cute, or exotic looking dogs can attract attention from children and other dog lovers. These dog-loving folks may or may not ask before touching. Additionally, they may not interact in ways that the dog enjoys.

TIP: Emphasize the importance of practicing and mastering polite greetings. If the client’s dog is not particularly stranger friendly, then create a strategy for handling approaches. For example, teach a “middle” cue where the dog stands in between the clients legs, or teach a hand target so the client can quickly manipulate the dog to be on the non-approaching side of the handler’s body.

2.      Bully breeds are loved by many, but they are equally feared. Strangers may be leery or show signs of discomfort when greeting bully breed dogs.

TIP: Emphasize the importance of early socialization and polite “company” manners. Sell your bully breed clients on becoming bully breed ambassadors. Training to the highest level of their ability and making their pet a model citizen can be a rewarding endeavor. Also, encourage bully breed clients to attend appropriate venues for the level of their dog’s training, so that their dog shines in all of his public appearances.

3.      Small dogs can be leery of feet coming too close and may not enjoy being picked up by strangers, yet they are appealing to a crowd of dog lovers that may be more hesitant to approach larger dogs.

TIP: Help small dog owners to understand what interactions their dog enjoys having with strangers. Looming over the top of their head is unlikely to be a hit, but kneeling next to the dog may win a few tail wags. Once your small dog client is armed with a number of interactions his dog typically enjoys, he can instruct friendly strangers in specific, descriptive terms how to best interact with his dog. Also, being able to interpret canine body language well enough to recognize enjoyment and stress will make all interactions smoother, since the client can interrupt when his dog shows signs of discomfort.

Combating Media Misperceptions

Dogs make for great news, especially dogs that perform unusual acts that benefit their humans. Unfortunately, the media are not subject matter experts on dog behavior and can be guilty of misinterpreting or oversimplifying the dog stories they’re reporting.

In the following news article, a family dog exhibits reactive and possibly aggressive behavior toward the family’s babysitter. The article details abusive behavior perpetrated against the child and witnessed by the dog. The family discovered the abuse when their dog’s unusual behavior toward the babysitter prompted them to set a voice recorder.

As professional dog trainers, we know that most reactive and aggressive behavior exhibited by dogs is not in response to witnessing the bad acts of an individual or an indication of that individual’s bad character. It’s important to educate your clients as to the causes and treatment of aggression and reactivity. People-friendly dogs may respond adversely to a “different” person, including people of an ethnicity, mobility, or state of health that they have not routinely encountered. Some dogs have more generalized reactivity to people unknown to them. 

Be aware that you will routinely encounter misconceptions, whether influenced by the media or otherwise, and that part of your job as a certified dog trainer is to help your clients make training decisions based upon accurate information, not misconceptions.

Creating a Safe Space, a Crating Alternative

How often have you recommended crate-training to your clients as a part of a comprehensive training plan? Crating is one of the safest ways to manage a dog’s space, and most dogs can be acclimated to tolerate, if not outright enjoy, being crated. But there are human clients that prefer not to crate and canine clients who are better served by other options than crating. How do you help these clients?

1.       Explore crate training. Some clients simply don’t like the idea, and a clear presentation of the advantages of crate training by a respected canine professional is enough to change their mind. It is the safest option available for most dogs, so you shouldn’t immediately exclude it.

2.       Determine the needs of your specific client, both human and canine. An elderly dog may need a bigger, well-padded space but may not have the same jumping/escaping concerns. A very energetic dog will need more secure containment, for example a dog-proofed room with a tall dog gate. Note that dogs with anxiety have special needs that exceed the scope of this blog post. Signs can range from the dog not settling, whining, and constantly soliciting attention, to destructive behavior.

3.       Make the space comfortable. This might mean providing something as simple as a comfortable dog bed and a bowl of water. White noise and covered windows can make a space more comfortable for environmentally sensitive (sound and sight reactive) dogs. Also, provide a cubby-like space that the dog can choose to lie in within this larger safe space to allow the feeling of a den.

4.       Attach value to the space by feeding all meals there. Leave Kongs and chews for the dog when he’s confined within the space. Allow free access to the space at all times when the dog is not being actively contained.

The moral of this story? Professional dog training is about being flexible, providing solutions, and accommodating the special needs of your human and canine clients.

Puppy Prevention Saves Dog Aggression

Choosing what services you offer is one of the first decisions you’ll make when you start a dog training business. Preventative puppy training is extremely important for a number of reasons:

1.       Puppy class is the earliest training opportunity you have with prospective clients. If they’re not pursuing puppy training with you, you may miss out altogether on the opportunity to provide services to them, as they will find another trainer.

2.       For a well-rounded product selection, puppy class is a must. If you want to be one-stop shopping for your clients, then including puppy class is necessary. You may determine that you’d like to specialize for a number of reasons, but that’s another blog post!

3.       If you’re marketing through veterinary clinics, the 2 highest volume referrals are for puppy training and for problem behaviors (pet manners and behavior work.) If you fail to offer puppy classes, you’re missing a good number of vet referrals.

4.       Providing timely puppy training that focuses on topics like proper socialization, preventative measures for resource guarding, and appropriate dog-dog interactions can help your clients avoid any number of problem behaviors later in their dogs’ lives.

5.       And, last but not least, puppy class is fun!

The first three points listed above are about good business, but the fourth is about good dog training. By reaching clients earlier, before serious behavioral problems develop, you have an opportunity to help those puppies grow into well-adjusted, sociable adult dogs. This improves the quality of the both the dog’s and the owner’s lives. 

Some dogs, even with the very best of starts, can develop aggression or anxiety. If you have provided a positive dog training experience for your clients, then they are much more likely to turn to you for help and advice in resolving those developing behavior problems. And even better, they may seek your help more quickly if they already have an established relationship with you.

Enrichment & Exercise: Why Your Clients Need To Make The Time

Here are a few benefits to cover with your clients when encouraging them to increase exercise and mental stimulation. Enrichment is a vital component to a dog’s mental and physical health. As a certified professional dog trainer you can help your clients to understand why it’s so important to incorporate enrichment into their dogs’ daily lives.

  1. Reduce boredom. Boredom can lead to a number of problem behaviors ranging from excessive grooming/licking to nuisance barking to destructive chewing.
  2. Increased fitness and weight loss. Leaner, fitter dogs live longer and better quality lives. Mobility is increased as dogs age if they don’t carry excess weight. Heart health is improved.
  3. Sufficiently exercised dogs are calmer. Under-enriched dogs can display nervous energy that expresses itself in pacing, excessive vocalization including whining, and hyper-vigilance.
  4. Provides an outlet for natural instincts. Many games and sports incorporate natural hunting, herding, and foraging instincts.

One of the goals of your dog training business should be to help your clients get the most benefit from the best, if not least, effort. That means helping them find ways to fit enrichment into their and their dogs’ lives and finding activities that are both beneficial to the dog and enjoyable for the owner. You’re a matchmaker – matching your client dog needs with appropriate activities. See one owner’s creative solution that utilizes a toy, some moving water, and a dog’s love of fetch.

Talking Dogs, How Technology Can Make It Happen

Every professional dog trainer’s dream? Dogs talking to humans. In the article “Meet The Researcher Who Wants To Get Dogs Talking To Humans In Five Years,” new technology is discussed that will facilitate clearer communication between dogs and their people. Specifically, service and search dogs are both mentioned in the article as targeted audiences for the technology. Researchers are training dogs to utilize a specialized harness to indicate specific hazards, in the case of service dogs, or a specialized dummy attached to the collar to trigger a GPS location signal, in the case of search dogs.

But as a certified professional dog trainer, it’s important to remember that dogs speak to humans all the time. Dogs are social creatures, and every interaction is an attempt to convey something – I’m happy; I’m hungry; don’t take my bone; I have to pee. It requires training and practice to understand some of the more complex or subtle forms of communication, but they certainly are talking. For an in depth discussion of interpreting dog body language, register for Raising Canine’s “Canine Body Language.” Interpreting body language is an essential skill if you’re interested in becoming a professional dog trainer.

Can technology help us to improve our relationships with our dogs? Absolutely. In the instance described above, the service and search dogs are being trained to communicate in specific, human-friendly ways that a lay person can easily understand. The technology is an interface between the dog and the human that the human handler can easily interpret. So while technology can help, there is still a need for training and an understanding of body language for communication between humans who specialize in dog training and dogs to exist and improve.

Resource Guarding Face Off

For a great commentary on body language related to resource guarding, read Patricia McConnell’s blog entry “Who is Going to Win?” We can’t mention often enough that becoming a professional dog trainer means acquiring and maintaining a strong understanding of canine body language. Keep practicing, and hone those skills!

Greetings: Not Meeting Leashed Dogs

As a certified professional trainer, be ready to have solutions for your less sociable clients. Your less sociable clients or clients sensitive to the special needs of their shy dogs may be less desirous of dog-dog interaction on walks. These clients can use a few helpful tips and words of encouragement.

1. Meeting social needs.

Help your clients understand that dogs experience a diminishing desire for social interactions with unknown dogs as they age. With this knowledge, they are less likely to feel pangs of guilt for minimizing on-leash greetings during regular walks. It’s also important to help clients understand that dogs are individuals, and their dog may have different needs than previous dogs or friends’ dogs. There are social butterfly dogs and wallflower dogs. Shy or fearful dogs simply may not feel comfortable meeting new dogs on walks.

2. How to speak with other dog walkers.

Give your client some examples of how they can avoid dog-dog interactions. Having a few responses for oncoming dogs and their people can help some clients have more confidence about speaking up and advocating for their dog. A few examples include:

· An extended arm straight out from the body with an open hand, palm out. This resembles a halt gesture.

· “We’re training and not meeting strangers today.”

· Simply turn and walk away.

· “My dog isn’t friendly with new dogs.”

Each of these is polite but clear. Most clients with whom I have discussed this topic are uncomfortable either with confrontation or with giving strangers a negative opinion of their dog. The above suggestions take this into account. Some clients aren’t shy. They’ll simply yell “STOP!” or tell people their dog is contagious or even that their dog is. But most importantly, your clients should have a response with which they are comfortable so that they can respond readily on walks.

If you hold an appropriate class (shy dog class or reactive dog class), you can practice this technique with your clients, so they are better prepared when it happens in real life.

Read more tips for creating successful greetings in our Greetings series: “Greetings Meeting the Friendly Stranger,” Greetings: Mom, You’re Home!,” and “Greetings: Meeting The Friendly Leashed Dog