By Debra Shore
It’s freezing outside, but Jane dutifully takes her five-month-old Lab, Rocky, for a walk before breakfast. Though he pees right away, they walk for at least 20 minutes before he poops. Finally she can go home. It was a terrible walk anyway. Jane passed a group of children at the bus stop who ran up to meet her new puppy. Rocky backed away and snarled at the little girl who reached over to pet him. Up ahead, a neighbor was walking her dog and Rocky pulled Jane across the street to greet them. But after a few minutes, out of nowhere, Rocky lunged at the other dog; Jane yanked him away just as they were starting to fight.
The rest of the day was uneventful, except that Rocky jumped on the delivery man and soiled the living room carpet. He also ran around the house with Jane’s shoe in his mouth and barked on and off like a maniac. Rocky did sit nicely when Jane asked him to, but his sharp teeth nearly punctured her finger as she handed him a treat. Then Jane was late for an appointment because Rocky wouldn’t come when called.
What’s going on here? Where's the adorable “best friend” Jane was expecting? Why can’t this dog just behave?
To understand Rocky, you'd have to know that dogs are highly social pack animals that descended from wolves. As scientist Temple Grandin says, “Dogs are genetic wolves that evolved to live and communicate with humans. That’s why dogs are so easy to train compared to other animals." Humans and dogs have lived and worked together for more than 15,000 years, but as domesticated wolves, dogs have maintained their ancestral instinct for a social hierarchy focused on pack leaders.
Chris Onthank, a leading canine behavioral specialist, explains that dogs who have a strong leader will be happier, less stressed and will live longer. On the other hand, “voting your dog in as leader, a job he doesn’t want and won’t do well in,” is what Chris identifies as the source of many behavioral problems. Chief among them is aggression, which is often rooted in fear.
So how can you become your dog’s leader? According to Chris, by doing the things canines instinctively recognize as the actions of a leader. Essentially, the leader goes first to determine who or what is safe or dangerous. The leader owns the territory and doesn’t say, “Excuse me” and step over a dog that's blocking the front door. Instead, the leader silently walks towards the door as if the dog isn’t there so that the dog has to get out of the way. This teaches a dog to watch and take direction from you.
The leader controls access to resources, including food, toys, your attention and affection. If these things are readily available, they lose their value to motivate. A dog who constantly has food in his bowl won’t be hungry when you mete out treats to reward good behavior. If you say “good dog” regardless of his behavior, praise will lose its value as a motivator. Earning rewards also helps to teach manners. Asking for a “sit” before putting on your dog’s leash, or a “wait” before he runs out the door teaches discipline and impulse control, and provides a structure dogs can depend on. To become a good leader, we must be patient, calm and compassionate and teach in a clear, consistent way that dogs instinctively understand. In return, you win your dog’s trust and respect. And you’ll gain a companion who loves you most and will always want to be with you.
Besides a strong pack drive, dogs inherited predatory instincts from wolves: searching, stalking, chasing, biting, chewing and dissecting. These are normal canine behaviors that have their roots in survival. For instance, dogs need to chew. It’s relaxing, it diminishes boredom and, as well-known veterinarian and animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar once said, it’s as enjoyable for a dog as drinking beer is for a guy. So if we don’t provide satisfying chew toys, dogs will find something else to chew on, like our furniture. During training we can use their prey instincts to our advantage as we motivate our dogs with food as well as with toys and games like Hide-and-Seek or Tug of War.
A dog’s defense drives -- the way he reacts to threatening situations -- are also hard-wired. Depending on their personalities, dogs will either stand their ground and fight, or try to avoid a confrontation by fleeing. From a canine perspective, anything they haven’t seen before can constitute a threat, as can a direct approach by someone getting too close and invading their space; hands that reach out at them, including hugging; men, especially tall ones; and children.
When faced with these scary things, it's natural for a dog to bite if he believes he must defend himself. So teaching puppies bite inhibition is as crucial as exposing and habituating them to various people and things. This should be done during the critical socialization period, which runs from about 5-16 weeks when dogs are more curious and less fearful. If that opportunity is lost, it will take much longer for a dog to socially adapt. Still, socialization should continue throughout a dog’s life to minimize his reactivity to new people and dogs.
Biologically, dogs and human are closer than one might think. The limbic system, a primitive brain structure under the cortex that controls emotions and motivations, is very similar in dogs and humans. So we share many of the same emotions, especially those related to survival and reproduction such as fear, anger, joy, sadness, jealousy, boredom, frustration and revulsion. Canines, like toddlers, have linguistic intelligence -- and the ability to understand language even though they can’t speak it. They communicate with each other and with us through vocalizations and signals. These express, among other things, dominance and submission, which are necessary to maintain a social structure.
Pack order, however, is often fluid. The dominant dog might defer to a lower-ranking dog because he doesn’t care about a particular toy or bone, or because he’s confident enough to let the other dog win. When hiking in the woods, there are times when I let my dog lead because his navigational skills are far superior to mine. (But when I see someone up ahead, I assume leadership by saying "back," so my dog gets behind me. )
Sometimes he doesn’t come when I call because he's mesmerized by squirrels running from tree to tree. I go outside and watch with him and get the feeling that’s what he wanted anyway. When my husband and boys play his favorite game, Monkey in the Middle, he’s totally impervious to me. As they take out the football, his primal howls of joy and utter inability to stand still recall his ancestors in all their predatory glory. As in good parenting, you have to pick your spots. If you demand absolute obedience, your dog won’t be able to express his natural wants and needs that are essential for his health and happiness. You might also miss all the extraordinary things dogs can teach us, about love, loyalty, courage, patience, ingenuity, stoicism and of course, nature.
If you want to know what your dog is thinking, look where his nose is pointing. If he needs to go out, he might try to communicate with you by looking at the door, back at you, and at the door again. The signals are quick and subtle but they are there. If you ask your dog, “Where’s the ball?” his nose might point to the floor. You may not see the ball, but your dog’s acute sense of smell tells him where it is. So if you get down on the floor and follow his nose, you’ll see that the ball is under the couch. Your dog’s cognitive ability, while not as advanced as ours, enables him to solve problems and apply strategies to new situations. So dogs will learn better if given the opportunity to figure things out by themselves.
Dogs, like children, need mental stimulation, playtime and enriched environments to freely explore; and like babies they need affection for their brains to properly develop. Dogs are brilliant at reading tone and body language so they know when we’re happy or upset. And the tones we use when asking for a behavior affect how canines move and react. High- pitched, happy tones like you’d use when speaking to a child, are instinctively pleasing to a dog’s ear, so they’re good for praise. A deep growly tone mimics the mother’s growl, so that works best for corrections. Long tones create stability, useful when asking for a “down,” while repetitive tones create movement, as in “go, go, go.”
So how do dogs learn? They learn by cause and effect -- and by association. Dogs are learning things all the time whether we realize it or not. You just need to figure out what motivates your dog. Mine learned that as soon as our son Ryan comes home, all he has to do is bark once for attention, hit his paw on the refrigerator door and he gets delicious food. He repeats this behavior whenever anyone comes home because it works. If a behavior is reinforced, it will be repeated. Simple as that. So be careful which behaviors you reward.
Dogs don’t speak our language, but they can learn hundreds of words. To teach a dog, for instance, that the word “sit” means, Put your butt on the ground, it will take roughly 50-100 repetitions while he’s in the correct position. And because their brains have smaller frontal lobes, dogs don’t generalize well, so you’d need to practice “sit” in many different locations, inside your home and out. Since dogs are geniuses at discerning tiny details, timing is critical. If you’re one second late in marking a behavior as correct, your dog might unintentionally learn that “sit” means “stand.” How quickly dogs learn is a function of how well we communicate what we want.
Dogs also learn by negative association. If you have a shock collar on your dog in an effort to stop leash pulling and you happen to shock him at the precise second he is looking at a child, he might associate the shock with the child. For the rest of his life he might be fearful and aggressive with children. You should avoid anything that causes your dog pain or discomfort, such as shock collars, citronella collars or gentle leaders. These contraptions are not only cruel but counterproductive. If your dog is afraid of you, he won’t trust you and therefore will not obey you.
My seven-year-old German shepherd has never forgotten the time when he was 15-weeks old and I took a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer to cut off the tape the breeder used on his ears. I stopped as soon as I started because he was scared and uncomfortable. But for years he would run from the kitchen to the den and lie next to my husband’s chair whenever he heard me open the kitchen drawer and take out the scissors. He never reacted to my removing scissors from the den drawer, since he didn’t generalize.
So let’s go back and look at Jane’s bad day from Rocky’s point of view:
- Rocky wasn’t taught the words “pee”and “poop,” nor was he rewarded for doing so outside. All he knows is that he loves to explore the neighborhood, but as soon as he poops, the fun ends because he has to go home. So he holds it in as long as he can.
- Rocky wasn’t raised with children, so he’s afraid of them: children yell, they are unpredictable and often sound like prey animals. As the girl ran towards him, Rocky flicked his tongue and yawned -- signals dogs use to convey discomfort – but no one noticed or understood.
- Rocky tried to escape, but Jane kept tightening his leash; in this way, she unconsciously transferred her trepidation to Rocky, which made him even more anxious.
- As the girl reached for him, all Rocky could do was growl to let her know that he was uncomfortable with her approach. And it worked, because she ran away. So maybe growling at children is a good thing.
- He pulled Jane around the neighborhood because that’s how he typically gets where he wants to go.
- While he was excited to see the other dog, he couldn’t really play or communicate effectively on leash. So his arousal and good intentions quickly turned to frustration and aggression.
- Rocky jumped on the delivery man because Jane was standing behind him; he thinks it's his job to protect her.
- He relieved himself in the living room because he hadn’t been outside in four hours and had biological needs. Besides, dogs don’t like to soil their “den,” so they choose a room to eliminate in where no one ever goes. The living room is the perfect place.
- Rocky thought Jane’s shoe made a fine chew toy: it was fun to grab it, shake it and have Jane chase him all over the house. The more she yelled the more excited Rocky became and the faster he ran.
- How should he know to be gentle when taking treats from a human hand?
- Finally, when Rocky heeds Jane’s call to “come,” she is sometimes angry and puts him in his crate, so coming when she calls is not always a good idea.
Nevertheless, after just a few weeks of training, Rocky was wonderful to be with, most of the time. Jane took him to puppy classes for socialization with other dogs and brought him with her on errands to meet lots of new people. She worked with an experienced trainer to teach Rocky manners. Rocky stopped pulling her around the neighborhood because he learned that if the leash gets taut, Jane signals that she will stop or change direction. Besides, he can explore what he wants as long as he walks nicely. He also learned to walk behind Jane and was rewarded for doing so. They don’t stop to greet dogs on leash anymore – it’s just too stressful. Instead they go hiking off leash. That’s Rocky’s favorite thing to do because he can roam freely in the woods and meet other dogs, while continually checking in with Jane.
Whenever they meet up with children who want to greet Rocky, Jane is prepared. She tells the children to stop and wait, while she approaches them first. With Rocky behind her, she gives them some treats that she always carries in her pocket and asks Rocky to “make friends” – a cue he learned that means it’s safe to greet. When the children offer treats, Rocky gently and happily takes them from their hands, a skill he learned when Jane taught him bite inhibition. She’d yell “ouch” whenever Rocky’s teeth touched her hand and then she withheld the treat. From then on he kept his mouth soft so Jane felt only his tongue. That was a quick lesson. House-training was a breeze because he was taken out every two hours and rewarded with praise and treats as soon as he eliminated in the designated spot. Then they enjoyed a nice walk or playtime. To prevent mistakes inside, Jane actively supervised Rocky and learned the signals that meant he needed to go: sniffing, circling and leaving the room.
At home, Rocky is more relaxed and doesn’t bark nearly as much because Jane has taken over. It’s her job to greet strangers at the door and all he has to do is bark to alert Jane that someone is coming. At times he picks up her shoes, but drops them when she asks him to. In return, he gets a better chew toy and the chance to play Tug of War with Jane. Rocky comes when Jane calls because something good always happens when he gets to her. Often he receives a treat or sometimes it’s a “good dog” and a smile.
But once in a while, Jane gives him a big, juicy piece of steak. Just the chance of that is worth running to her every time.
Debra Shore is a certified dog trainer with more than 15 years of experience. She is a founding member of The Humane Society of the US Southern Connecticut Regional Council. In addition to her work with animals, Debra is a self-taught cook and baker; she is currently writing her first cookbook, targeted to the amateur chef. With an MBA from Columbia, she has brought a business approach to her multi-disciplinary career, including a background in advertising. She and her family live with the above-mentioned German shepherd and a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
Photos of Debra's dogs by Tischmanpets.com