Scenario 1: You want to teach your dog not to bark when people walk past your house. If you give your barking dog treats while a person walks past your house, aren’t you rewarding the dog for barking?
Scenario 2: You want to teach your dog not to bark when you pass a yard with a dog in it. If you give your dog treats as you walk past the yard but your dog is barking, aren’t you rewarding his barking?
Consider the two scenarios. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give the treats after the person passed by your house or your dog passed by the yard, and only if your dog didn’t bark? The answer lies in understanding how dogs learn.
Most people can easily understand the basics of positive reinforcement (one of the quadrants of Operant Conditioning): after the dog does a desired behaviour, you cause something to happen to increase the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. For example, you say the word “Speak”, your dog barks, and you immediately give him a treat. He likes treats so he’s likely to want to bark again in the future when you say the word “Speak.” If you haven’t told your dog to speak and he barks at you, perhaps over and over, giving your dog a treat at this time would be a mistake because you would be rewarding his unwanted barking. This type of unwanted barking is addressed very differently from the barking described in the two scenarios at the beginning.
Operant Conditioning is how the “thinking brain” learns. In simple terms, it is when the dog learns that his behaviour can make nothing happen, good things happen, good things go away, bad things go away, or bad things happen. But dogs can also learn through association, and this can be described as how the “emotional brain” learns (also called Respondent Conditioning or Classical Conditioning).
When addressing unwanted behaviours that are emotionally-based, you will have limited success if you rely on Operant Conditioning. Waiting for the opportunity to reward your dog’s silence after the person walks past your house or after your dog to walks past the yard with a dog in it, isn’t likely to be successful. Granted, if your dog knows you have a treat and is distracted from the trigger, you may have some success, but it will take longer than it needs to, and you might always need to have a treat in your hand to distract your dog. Distracting the dog from the trigger isn’t really addressing the cause of the unwanted barking, although it can be used in certain situations as part of the whole desensitization and counter conditioning process.
When dogs are barking due to fear or even frustration, for example, the thinking brain is not really governing their behaviour. They are likely in (or well on their way to) a mental state often called “fight or flight mode”; their sympathetic nervous system is on high alert flooding the body with stress hormones, causing automatic biological responses like an increased heart rate, increased blood flow to muscles, etc. Basically, the “emotional brain” is driving their behaviour while they are in this state; typical behaviours may include lunging, barking, mouthing, pulling on the leash, etc. Neuroscience shows us that “neurons that fire together, wire together” which means connections are being made that become patterns of responses (repeated behaviours in similar situations). These patterns become more ingrained the higher the intensity of the experience and/or the higher the frequency. Imagine these patterns in the brain as tire tracks in the snow becoming deep ruts over time and repeated use; new tire tracks can be made in the snow (new patterns of behaviour) but it takes effort to stay out of the ruts and time to make new tracks that your tires will easily follow. Emotionally-based behaviours are like reflexes in that they are reactions rather than responses, and when the emotional brain is overly aroused, dogs have very little ability to think logically.
In the two scenarios described above, it is highly probable that the barking is emotionally-based. By presenting food after your dog first perceives the trigger and continuing to present food until the trigger is far enough away that the dog is no longer interested in the trigger, you can begin to build an association in the dog’s brain (Classical Conditioning). Through repetition, your dog’s positive emotional response to the food attaches to the trigger and soon your dog no longer feels the need to bark due to anxiety or fear; instead your dog feels a positive emotional response to the trigger. (The neurons that fired together, wired together.) After the positive emotional response to the trigger has been established, the food can be faded away and the problem barking is resolved. If during this process your dog inadvertently begins to learn to bark when he sees the trigger because he wants a treat (usually due to very clever dogs and/or training mistakes), that is a much easier training problem to solve, and it can be done through Operant Conditioning. The point is that the emotional cause of the unwanted barking has been suitably addressed and the thinking brain can now function better.
It’s important to note that to create an effective training opportunity, the intensity of the trigger should be lowered enough so the dog doesn’t feel the need to bark, or feel any stress at all if possible; then, as the desensitization process happens, the intensity of the trigger can be gradually increased. When the emotional brain is overwhelmed, dogs are not interested in food: the emotional brain is telling the body to get ready to run or fight, so the blood is pumping to the heart and the muscles and away from the digestive system*. If your dog is not eating the food and he normally would eat the food (e.g. he likes it, he’s not full), then this is a clear indication that the dog is far too stressed and you are likely sensitizing the dog further by allowing the dog to remain that close to the trigger.
Let’s look at another unwanted behaviour: the problem of a dog pulling on the leash while on a walk.
Dogs are not born knowing how to walk on a loose leash. A dog who pulls on walks could be doing this because A) he hasn’t a clue about walking on a leash and is moving about randomly; B) he’s learned that pulling gets him where he wants to go; C) he’s over-aroused by the environment and is pulling because he’s anxious, fearful, or frustrated and the leash is preventing him from going where he wants to go; or D) a combination of C and A or B.
In the case of C and D, if a trainer only focuses on Operant Conditioning to address the pulling, there will be limited success because the dog is not able to learn well in a state of such stress, or the dog is not able to perform well when in an environment that is too different from the training environment (as in cases of dogs that walk fine on a leash in dog class but not in the neighbourhood). The cause of the pulling is not being adequately addressed.
In cases where the person trains using a correction or an aversive to stop the pulling (e.g, a slip collar, choke chain, prong collar, shock collar or a device that squeezes the dog’s body when the dog pulls such as in the case of leashes wrapped around the torso/abdomen area and some harnesses), the dog may learn to suppress the pulling, but then he is likely to be brought into situations that are far too much for his nervous system. The handler thinks that the dog is calm and comfortable because the dog is not pulling on the leash, but the dog may have learned to suppress his pulling but is barely “holding it together.” In cases like this, dogs often react to the stress “without warning” or develop other problem behaviours to release the stress. (Learn about subtle canine stress signals that people often miss: https://oberhund.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/reading-your-dog-2/)
Another problem with using corrections or aversive equipment to address pulling is the effect on the emotional brain: the dog learns to associate the person holding the leash with a feeling of discomfort; and to complicate things further, if the dog is pulling when he sees other dogs, children, or some other trigger and then feels discomfort, that unpleasant emotional response is being attached to the trigger in the dog’s mind. Neurons are becoming wired together. Classical Conditioning can teach a dog to associate triggers with good feelings or bad feelings. Be aware of this when choosing training techniques or tools.
The beauty of positive reinforcement training is that the food trains the thinking brain and, at the same time, the food helps to train the emotional brain. The positive emotional response of the food is transferred onto the person holding the leash, the things in the environment, performance of the behaviour itself (a dog can love to perform a “down” instead of viewing it as a chore or a punishment). Training becomes fun. Training becomes play.
When addressing a dog’s unwanted behaviours or training new ones it is imperative that you consider the emotional component. If you feel your dog’s behaviours are emotionally-based, be sure to consult a trainer who understands how to use Classical Conditioning, the process of desensitization, and how to read a dog’s low level signs of stress.
Visit the C.A.R.E. website for excellent information on helping dogs with over-reactive behaviours (http://careforreactivedogs.com). Remember, for dogs with emotionally-based behavioural problems, it’s best to get reputable professional help sooner rather than later because these behaviours tend to intensify rather than fade away, and they are more difficult to change the longer they are left unaddressed (or addressed in the wrong way).
* The immune system is also suppressed when a dog is stressed, so if your dog has digestive problems and/or immune system problems, it would be wise to look into the level of stress your dog may be experiencing.
“Skilled dog trainers know that elements in the environment can influence a dog’s behavior and addressing them can be the key to resolving a behavioral problem. For example, the best desensitization/counter-conditioning program will have limited effect if the dog is constantly over-exposed to triggers in the environment, and such a program is also hindered if the dog’s nervous system is exhausted because the home environment does not allow for enough quality sleep. The CCPDT recognizes the importance of the environment by including it as part of the first step in the Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practices, instructing that in addition to making sure a licensed veterinarian has been consulted to address any “indicators for possible medical, nutritional, or health factors” the certificant must also address “factors in the physical environment that have a potential to impact the dog’s health, nutrition, and physical condition.” One increasingly important environmental factor that all dog professionals need to be aware of is the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) produced by wireless devices. The ambient levels of radio-frequency/microwave radiation (RF/MWR) in the environment have exploded exponentially over the past several years due to the proliferation of wireless devices and this is cause for concern. A large body of current research from all over the world clearly shows that the RF/MWR emitted by wireless devices causes measurable and reproducible biological effects that can result in significant changes in health and behaviour.”
The full article is published in the July 2015 issue of Scoop, the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers’ newsletter and can be found here (scroll about halfway down the page):
Who is the walk really for?
Is your dog enjoying the walk as much as you hope he is? Does your dog get to stop and sniff things or are you putting your need for a brisk, steady walk ahead of your dog’s need to stop and sniff things? If you are asking your dog to walk perfectly beside you the entire time, ask yourself A) why you are setting that as a rule and B) why your dog is complying with this rule. Who decided there was a “correct” way for a dog to walk? Is your dog avoiding discomfort from a piece of equipment? A walk is for exercise and training, sure, but it’s also for mental stimulation, social development, and bonding with you.
Here are some tips to help you turn the daily dog walk into a more pleasant experience for you and your dog.
Think about the walk from your dog’s perspective. Many years ago (before I got into the dog-training thing) I had the pleasure of walking a well-trained dog that stayed beside me with a loose leash the entire walk. We walked the neighbourhood for about an hour on a beautiful spring day and as I headed briskly up the driveway to the back door, I had a quick thought that I should check the mailbox at the front door and without thinking of the dog on my left side, I made a sharp left turn. I gave no intentional signal (no slowing down, no verbal cue, etc.) and there had been no sharp turns on the walk to prepare her for my sudden turn, yet the dog was able to maintain perfect heel position and get out of my way without me touching her at all. At first I was surprised and relieved she had managed to get out of my way when I had been so careless as to forget about her at my side before I made that very quick turn. But then I was sad: I realized that what I had thought was a nice walk in the neighbourhood for both of us was not so for her. She had been trained by someone else using corrections (choke collar and knee jabs for getting in the way), which for her, made the walk less about enjoyment and more about paying close attention to my movements and trying to avoid a correction.
Let the Dog Stop and Sniff!
Providing “sniffing time” is essential. Dogs see the world through their noses and not letting them stop and sniff is akin to taking a friend to an art gallery without letting him stop to look at anything, or dragging a child quickly through a carnival. This is not to say that you must be permissive and let your dog sniff every possible thing; it’s about finding a balance between your needs and your dog’s needs. Sue Ailsby in her book Training Levels uses the analogy of friends holding hands during a pleasant walk: when one wants to stop to look at something, the other stops and waits.
The chance to stop and sniff something can be used as reinforcement for a loose leash. Put “Go Sniff” on command and get there together on a loose leash. Congratulations! You are now even more awesome in your dog’s eyes because you are the source of something your dog loves.
It’s important to note that dogs often sniff when they are stressed and when they are signaling to another dog that they are not a threat. If your dog wants to stop and sniff, let him, as long as it’s safe. If you’re worried about time, then walk for time (not distance) and head for home at halftime. If approaching dogs tend to cause your dog to react poorly, try this before your dog has a chance to react: toss some treats on the ground for your dog to sniff and find or guide your dog to something that is sure to have some good scents (e.g. fire hydrant, tree trunk, fence edge). Remember to consider your dog’s health: be sure you can see the area he’s sniffing so he’s not likely to ingest dangerous items, and if your dog’s immune system is weak, avoid letting him sniff places where dogs of unknown health may have urinated/defecated.
Comfort and Safety
Consider the types of injuries that can occur in the neck area from pulling and jerking on the leash, such as spinal injuries, pinched nerves, thyroid damage, eye and ear problems due to restricted blood flow, and interference with the nerves in the front legs, and a collapsed trachea. It’s essential that you take the pressure off this area.
Many dogs have problems with impulse control and over-reactive behaviours, making walks very difficult. Some people turn to pinch, choke, slip, or shock collars for their promise of an instant fix. Sometimes they can be an “instant fix” but they don’t address the underlying cause of the pulling behaviour, and these collars often cause behavioural or physical problems.
If you’d like to transition away from using these collars, one step is learning how to walk a dog without the leash/collar tightening. (See “Walking on a Loose Leash” and “Addressing Reactivity” below and, if needed, consult a trainer skilled in the exclusive use of positive reinforcement training.) Buckle collars or limited slip collars do not cause choking or pinching so your dog shouldn’t have the associated anxiety he would with a pinch, shock, slip, or choke collar, but if your dog is a puller, he’s still putting pressure on the sensitive neck area. (NOTE: Head halters put no pressure on the neck area, but for some dogs who find them aversive they can cause some anxiety, and there is the risk of injuries from leash jerks.)
Properly fitted harnesses take pressure off the neck and spine and are the most comfortable choice (as long as they are not the type that are designed to cause discomfort when the dog pulls). Contrary to a popular myth, harnesses (even back clip ones) don’t teach a dog to pull. Harnesses make it more comfortable for the dog if he does pull, but the harness doesn’t “teach” the dog to pull. Letting a dog pull where he wants to go teaches a dog to pull, regardless what type of collar or harness he wears. If there is a risk that your dog will slip out of the harness, be sure to get a safety clip that attaches the harness to the collar.
Walking on a Loose Leash
No one likes to walk a dog that pulls on the leash, but that doesn’t mean the dog has to walk precisely by your side. The formal heel position isn’t necessary for a relaxed, everyday walk, and for a dog who pulls, setting such high standards at the beginning is likely asking too much of the dog. I suggest lowering the criteria to merely requiring the dog maintain a loose leash and then improve skills from there if you wish.
NOTE: retractable leashes are not safe. It is very difficult to quickly pull your dog close. Many people let dogs on these leashes get too close to other dogs, causing fights, tangled leashes, and rope burns or cuts. (If the dog is heavy enough and the leash is narrow enough, it can sever a finger.) When a dog hits the end, the sudden stop can cause physical and emotional trauma. As well, these leashes are difficult to hang onto when the dog pulls suddenly, and many dogs have been known to run away from the scary handle banging along the ground behind them.
It’s essential that you rethink the purpose of the leash. It’s a tether, not a towrope; a safety line, not a fishing line. Try to avoid pulling unless you absolutely have to, such as to get your dog away from something for safety reasons or get him away from the trigger causing him to lose his mind. If you merely want to direct your dog to move beside you or to come towards you, use other means: coax with your voice, take a step or two backwards, use a piece of food or toy to lure the dog where you want him to be (fading the lure later), teach your dog to follow your hand, etc. Break the habit of directing your dog’s movements by using the leash and teach him how it feels to move about on a loose leash.
It’s also important to understand why dogs pull when on leash. Humans are slow and boring on walks and the dog has learned that pulling gets him closer to exciting things more quickly. Because of this, the most important rule you must teach your dog is this: he gets to go where he wants to go only when the leash is loose. Remember this always. If you let him pull sometimes, then you are reinforcing the pulling behaviour like a slot machine that pays out intermittently. Try using praise, food, or toys to reinforce him for being beside you, starting with a high rate of reinforcement then gradually reducing the rate as he improves. Talk to your dog to keep his attention for short periods of time, do some training exercises to help regain his focus, and use the environment to reinforce loose leash walking (e.g. let your dog get to an interesting spot on a loose leash). A lot of pullers have problems with over-reactivity, so you will likely have to address this first (see below). Consult a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to help learn how to reward your dog for doing the right thing rather than how to punish him for doing the wrong thing.
There are other things you can do to help set your dog up for success. Let him burn off some energy first with a moderate play/training session. Practice loose leash walking in the house and then in your yard before trying it out in the neighbourhood. Begin asking for self control the moment you pick up the leash, and require it before continuing with each stage of the walk (e.g. leashing up, opening the door, out the door). Walk back and forth over the same area to make it less exciting, and walk for time rather than distance so you won’t be tempted to rush and let your dog pull; you’ll notice your dog will get further in the same amount of time, and your dog will figure out that he gets to see and smell more things the better he walks.
Most over-reactive behaviours are due to fear or frustration. (If pinch, slip, choke, or shock collars are being used, it is likely the dog has reactivity issues — either prior to the collar use or as a result of its use.) Walking with a loose leash is essential in this case because a tight leash adds tension, so give your dog enough length to make a choice. If the dog knows how to walk on a loose leash in a low-distraction environment (e.g. in the house, in the yard) and is making the leash tight on a walk, then that is a clear indication that dog is over his threshold. Treat the tight leash as information about your dog’s level of arousal and move him to a less intense environment so he can make better choices. Choose locations and times that limit your dog’s exposure to triggers, and if you need to, drive to a different location to avoid your stressful neighbourhood.
Addressing over-reactive behaviours requires systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, not leash corrections and equipment to punish or suppress behaviours. Some trainers offer classes for dogs that are over-reactive to other dogs, but these classes might sensitize your dog further if there isn’t the space that your dog needs, if there are too many dogs, or if the trainer doesn’t have the expertise. A dog with reactivity problems needs enough distance from the trigger in order to be aware of it but not anxious, otherwise he will become more sensitized to the trigger.
(The information provided is an overview and is for general information; please consult a professional who uses only force-free training methods.)
The information provided here only touches the surface of the subject. If your dog has severe reactivity problems, please consult the services of a professional who uses positive-reinforcement methods rather than traditional, compulsion training (corrections and/or aversive equipment such as pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, slip collars). Compulsion-based methods often result in an escalation of unwanted behaviours and new unwanted behaviours.
What is over-reactivity?
Over-reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top emotional response to normal stimuli in the dog’s environment. These stimuli are commonly referred to as “triggers” because they trigger a response in the dog. Some dogs are over-reactive to a few triggers (other dogs, kids on skateboards, the mail carrier) but some dogs seem to overreact to nearly everything (sounds, movement, new objects, things that are out of place). In most cases the behaviours are due to frustration or fear, even if the dog is lunging and barking aggressively. In the case of fear-based over-reactivity, these aggressive displays are often used as a way for the dog to provoke a response in the “new thing” to determine if it’s a threat or not or to make the “scary thing” go away.
What can cause over-reactivity?
Genetics play a significant role in determining a dog’s temperament, and it’s important to note that a dog can only progress as far as his inherited “nature” will allow. What happens to a dog after he’s born will also have a huge influence on his temperament, especially socialization, training, and diet. (Illness can also be a factor, so be sure to consult your vet if you suspect this may be the case.)
Poor socialization during the first few months of a puppy’s life can lead to reactivity. Puppyhood is when the dog learns what to expect in his environment, and if a puppy isn’t exposed in a positive way to the sights, sounds, and smells he is expected to encounter in his daily life, chances are he will have problems with over-reactivity. The puppy then enters adolescence, a stage of development where his instinct is to be very cautious about new things. (During this time it’s common for dogs to experience “fear periods” where they seem particularly sensitive.) Extremely negative experiences, especially if they happen during a fear period, can also create a fear of something that lasts the dog’s lifetime. Even if a dog is well socialized during puppyhood, there is the risk of de-socialization if the dog is no longer exposed to new things, becoming overreactive to the environment outside of their yards.
Adolescent dogs can be very difficult to manage. Owners who don’t put in the training during puppyhood are often overwhelmed when their adolescent dogs show behaviours that were tolerated as puppies (e.g. jumping up, biting, pulling on the leash). Combine this with poor socialization and fear periods, and it’s no wonder some dogs are ignored, kept indoors, no longer walked, and/or left alone in backyards for most of their day. Shelters are full of these dogs.
One factor often overlooked is diet. Low quality or highly processed ingredients, heavy starch-based diets (i.e. kibble), additives, and gaps in nutrients can lead to behavioural problems in some dogs. A healthy nervous system needs proper nutrition, and a weakened digestive system cannot properly digest food to get the nutrients the dog needs. A damaged digestive system leads to food sensitivities, allergies, hormonal imbalances, etc., which can stress the entire body including the nervous system.
Things you can do:
Reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and appropriate exercise and play, increase sleep and quiet time, improve diet, and work with a positive reinforcement trainer to help improve your dog’s ability to cope with things in the environment. Do what you can to avoid isolating your dog because this can lead to an increase in reactivity. But this doesn’t mean forcing your dog into situations he’s not ready for because this can reinforce and increase reactive behaviours. Work slowly and systematically.
When discussing the behaviour modification for over-reactive dogs, it’s important to understand how essential it is to keep a dog under his threshold. When a dog is over his threshold, it’s extremely difficult for him to learn new behaviours because his brain is in “reactive mode” rather than “thinking mode”, and each time he over-reacts to a trigger that behaviour is reinforced. To ensure you are able to keep your dog below his threshold, you need to be able to read his subtle signs of stress so you can intervene before he goes over his threshold. By the time he’s straining at the leash or vocalizing, it’s too late; he’s over his threshold.
It’s best to consult a professional trainer experienced in working with over-reactivity, especially severe cases, as this can be an involved and complex process. Avoid any trainers who suggest forcing a dog to remain over his threshold to “let him work it out on his own”; these flooding techniques can overwhelm a dog – especially one with a sensitive nervous system already — and cause undesirable side effects. Sometimes a dog will quiet down after a forced exposure and the humans think the dog is cured of his reactivity. This is not necessarily the case. The dog may have exhausted his nervous system and temporarily “shut down”; he has not changed his mind about the trigger, but he may have changed his mind about you and how much he can trust you. This dog may be more likely to bite without warning in the future, and this approach is likely to result in a more extreme reaction to the trigger in the future and/or a new, undesirable behaviour (i.e. regression in housetraining, aggression around food or toys, etc.).
Activities/Classes for over-reactive dogs:
Any class for over-reactive dogs should provide safe, controlled opportunities for reactive dogs to choose appropriate behaviours in the presence of the trigger. It’s essential that the space be large enough for the dogs to have the distance they need to avoid sensitizing the dog further. Dogs with over-reactive behaviours should be gently and systematically desensitized to their triggers while they remain below threshold, and counter conditioning should be a component of the training, something that even experienced dog trainers can have trouble understanding and implementing properly.
Anyone interested in taking a class for over-reactive dogs can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This type of training has been a great help to my dogs. Both are leash-reactive with other dogs, and this training has helped me to learn to give my dogs other options to draw from now when seeing other dogs on leash. I can slowly see that my dogs are beginning to look to me for instructions when they’re not sure what to do about seeing another dog. I am seeing that my dogs are now starting to use more of their “thinking” part of their brain rather than always using their “reactive” part of their brain. This training is not a quick-fix. It takes a lot of time and patience to work with your dog on these techniques, but in my opinion, it is worth it in the long run. I am a big believer in this type of training!”
~ Jodi B.
When Frasier and I moved off of our farm, his world got smaller. Gone were the days of running free through the cranberry bogs for our morning walks. In the city, he was confined to leash walks and he became increasingly frustrated and reactive to other dogs. If he saw a squirrel, he pulled so hard that I could barely stay on my feet. Walking him became a chore instead of the best part of my day. Then, we found Jennifer Berg. The training that she introduced us to has worked wonders. I can honestly say I enjoy walking my dog again!
~ Frasier’s “mom”
I’m thrilled with how quickly Lucy’s reactivity to other dogs has diminished! And I remain impressed with Jennifer’s quick eye to point out the tiniest of stress reactions from Lucy. Many thanks for helping me become a more sensitive dog owner!
~ Nadine Baker
A lady walking her small breed dog stops to chat with a friend. The lady gestures to her dog, suggesting the dog go meet the friend. The dog stands behind the lady and backs away from the friend, as far as the leash will allow. The lady picks up her dog and hands him to her friend. The dog is looking away from the friend and is very still. The lady smiles at how well-behaved her dog is.
A man is walking his Beagle when a lady walking a Lab comes around the corner into view. The Beagle licks his lips and starts to sniff the grass nearby; the man pulls his dog away from the grass and they continue their walk in the direction of the lady with the Lab. The Beagle, now panting, pulls towards the Lab; the man shortens the leash to pull his dog back beside him as they continue to walk, getting closer to the lady with the Lab. The Beagle pulls harder towards the other dog, and the man jerks on the leash in an attempt to “correct” his dog. The lady and her Lab are now passing by on the other side of the street, and the Beagle stares and begins to lunge and bark at the other dog; the man yanks the dog back roughly, scolding him.
The Animal League Defense Fund uses a photo to promote a photo contest to showcase pit bulls as wonderful family dogs. The photo appears to have been taken by the subject’s father and shows a toddler lying on top of the family dog. The child has a look of pure joy and it’s obvious he loves the dog. The dog is lying on its side on the couch; its mouth is closed and the white of its eye is showing. There also appears to be tension lines around the dog’s eyes and mouth.
(The photo can be seen here: http://pinterest.com/pin/384143043186433881/)
These real examples are typical of how people interact with dogs when they don’t understand subtle canine body language. Sadly, these types of situations often result in the dogs being labeled as unpredictable or dangerous when they act appropriately (from their perspective). A lot of behavioural problems could be resolved or prevented in the first place if people knew how to read a dog’s subtle body language and manage a situation to reduce the tension.
Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. Brenda Aloff’s book Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide (2005) contains nearly 400 pages detailing the subtle combinations of canine signals and is certainly beyond the scope of the average dog owner. Turid Rugaas’ groundbreaking book On Talking Terms with Dogs is a little more accessible as she focuses on what she has labeled “calming signals”: the subtle communication dogs use to avoid conflicts and keep the peace. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.
Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.
- Closed mouth
- Look away or turn away
- Lip licking
- Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
- Shaking off as if wet
- Yawning when not sleepy
- Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
- Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
- Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
- Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Many dog owners will be surprised by this list of behaviours that before may have seemed meaningless. With this information, dog owners now have some tools they can use to manage situations and prevent their dogs from going over their thresholds. People will be able “read” their dogs and act before the dog starts “yelling at them” with growls, snarls, barks, and lunges.
What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Just because a dog hasn’t bitten yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation, as if dogs either like something or hate something, with no middle zone.
In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs. In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals. She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals. She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.
Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting. In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger. Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene. The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.
To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking. They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning. Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety. Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours. The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.
When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve. Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.
Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can email email@example.com if they are interested in taking a class.
Tripe is the stomach of a grazing animal (i.e. cow, sheep, goat, deer) and it is being touted as a “canine superfood.” It is highly nutritious and has been credited for drastically improving the physical and behavioural health of our furry friends.
Before you buy, there are some things you need to know:
- Choose green tripe, not white tripe. White tripe, intended for human consumption, has been bleached and stripped of most of its nutrients. Green tripe still contains most of the nutrients and digestive juices and often has a greenish tinge from the grass the animal ate at its last meal.
- Tripe stinks. A lot. If you are concerned, you should know that the smell of dried tripe is more tolerable than raw, frozen, or canned. Also, sheep tripe stinks the least whereas beef tripe stinks the most. But don’t worry about tripe making your dog stink; the tripe only stinks until the dog eats it. In fact, as your dog’s health improves, any breath or body odours should improve.
- Not all tripe is created equal. Consider how the animal was raised and how the tripe was processed. Green tripe from organically raised grass-fed/pastured animals is superior to tripe from factory-farmed animals; it is higher in nutrients and will have better probiotics. Fresh, raw tripe is highest in nutrients and probiotics but not very practical for most dog owners. Frozen or freeze-dried is the next best, followed by dehydrated, and then canned. (The high temperature involved in the canning process destroys many vitamins and enzymes and all the probiotic benefits.)
- Use good food safety precautions when handling tripe because it is a raw food containing bacteria (probiotics). Handle it the way you would handle other raw meat: wash utensils and hands after handling. If serving tripe in a dish, be sure it is non-porous and can be sanitized (i.e. stainless steel, glass, un-chipped ceramic). A plastic dish is easily scratched and can harbour bacteria.
- Tripe is a highly nutritious, natural food containing amino acids (including taurine), vitamins A, B, C, D, E, potassium, magnesium, and a calcium/phosphorus ratio of 1:1, which is particularly important for proper muscle and bone development.
- Green tripe is full of digestive enzymes. These help your pet digest food, especially if your pet’s diet is a cooked diet. Poor digestion leads to vitamin/mineral deficiency and the resulting ailments, and it can contribute to and exacerbate gut dysbiosis, causing further digestive and immune dysfunction.
- Tripe contains probiotics Lactobacillus acidophilus and can help heal a variety of digestive problems, infections, skin conditions, autoimmune ailments and allergies. These “good bacteria” help promote healthy gut flora and heal the digestive system, which is 80% of the immune system.
- Tripe can help improve behavioural problems such as anxiety and hyper-reactivity. Again, it does this by aiding the digestive system. An improved digestive system can digest food properly to obtain the nutrients the nervous system needs. An unhealthy digestive system contains pathogens that produce toxins that can cause neurological problems. Pathogens can also cause damage to the intestinal lining and cause leaky gut, letting all sorts of toxins and foreign particles into the bloodstream and overloading the body’s detoxification pathways. Many of these “invaders” are damaging to the nervous system either directly or through the resulting autoimmunity.
- Green tripe is high in omega 3 fatty acids. These are particularly important for proper cell function, brain function, and reducing inflammation. Tripe also contains omega 6 fatty acids in recommended proportions to omega 3.
- Chunks of tripe that are big enough to chew are excellent for dog’s teeth. Raw tripe can quickly dull a knife, so it would be a challenge for any dog’s choppers.
According to Kurt from Metro Pet Market in Regina, “Many holistic vets believe tripe is the miracle food for dogs suffering from pancreatitis and/or liver disease because it’s low in fate and easily digested.” Kurt’s favourites are K9 Natural Freeze-dried Tripe and Red Dog Blue Kat Fresh/Frozen Buffalo Tripe.
“The Stink on Tripe” by Dogs Naturally, November 14, 2011
November/December 2010 issue of Dogs Naturally
By Dana Scott
“How Green is Your Tripe?” by C.J. Puotinen, from The Whole Dog Journal July 2008