Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Complex Language of Dogs

Dogs have their eyes balls, eyelids, ears, tail, muzzle, lips, teeth, legs, paws and spine, as well as jumping, spinning, stalking, sniffing, crouching and hackles to visually communicate. That is not including the wealth of vocalizations they use.  What a cornucopia of tools dogs have to communicate with while we, basically, just use our mouths to talk! 

Sure, our face expresses a lot. It sometimes even reveals lies. You know, the all-to-familiar through-the-teeth grin that is not accompanied by 'smiling eyes' that belies the hidden truth that the smile is, indeed, disingenuous? We can do that. To the watchful eye, much can be learned by facial expressions in humans. But, by enlarge, we rely on speech. Heavily!

Here are a group of dogs standing stark-still as a massive cloud and impending storm rolls in. They are all looking for any information on what will be coming. Their ears turned sideways or slightly back in order to gather the maximum auditory information possible. None are alarmed, but they all are watchful and aware.

I need to give credit were credit is due. I found a link on my friend Andre's web page (When Hounds Fly) and it includes a series of 97 pictures of dogs expressing complex and fleeting emotions, thoughts, states of mind etc. through images. I was mesmerized.  The link is The language of dogs

I sat for the longest time pondering in wonderment at each of the images they presented along with commentary on what, exactly, was being communicated between the dogs. What a great insight!

One of the things I loved about Patricia McConnell's seminar was the bulk of video footage she brought with her to show 'communication in motion'. However, we could not hear their vocalizations very well, nor could we clearly see the micro-expressions because they are too fast to be seen on the screen. 

The fact is, dog communication is a complex set of indicators that are best understood in concert.

So what have dogs got in their roster?
1) Strictly static, yet fleeting, visual cues that use virtually every part of their body (e.g. flash of white in their eye, position of the tail, curve of the spine, dropped head and so on)
2) Vocalizations which are often too low or subtle for us to discern (e.g. vry low growl that we cannot hear but occasionally feel as the vibrations are carried from the collar and up the leash to our hand)
3) The stringing of discrete signals linked to communicate either complex or simple messages (e.g. the 'charge' or a 'roll over'. In these cases, too though, each "string of signals" will make the intention of one ‘roll’ or ‘charge’ very different from another.)

The web link "The language of dogs" though complex and inclusive of hundreds of split-second signals that it is, it lacks both the stringing of signals into a complex message (that requires video tape or live observation), and the wealth of auditory signals accompanying the images. 

The beige dog on the left has a high body posture. Ears are forward, tail is up, gaze locked to the other dog, wrinkles forming to the muzzle as she bares her teeth. In the picture she's lunging.
The brown dog on the right seems much more ambivalent. She's afraid of the approaching dog, and because of her fear she is reacting aggressively. Her ears are to the side, tail is slightly up, face is smooth and corners of the mouth are back. She's leaning a bit backwards.

And we thought our dogs were dumb! We should be ashamed of ourselves. Even further, we should be ashamed of ourselves for talking to them and calling them dumb because they don't understand plain English when their language works so much better for them!

It's my blog and I'll say this if I want to. We humans are the dumb ones. In fact, dogs are more capable of reading our body language and even a good deal of our English words than we are in doing the reverse. They are masters at reading us even when we don't want them to. (Try getting your door keys without your dog reacting.) Yet we remain blissfully ignorant to the greatest way to get in side our dog's minds and that is by simply making the effort to understand their language.

I have been reading Stanley Coren's "How to Speak Dog". Now, Stanley Coren is a human psychologist not a scientist. He has a lot of great insights but I keep saying to myself, "Stanley, did you just observe that by yourself and come up with it or is there some kind of study from which you gleaned what you just claimed?" Nasty, I know. But we are so susceptible to anthropomorphizing (seeing everything in human terms) that we often impose our own expectations on dogs without really understanding that they have their own system already in place. Granted, a lot of our body language is similar. But a good deal is not and I want studies and qualifications for claims that seem just a little too anthropomorphic.  So, I read Stan with a grain of salt.

But, seeing the images on the flickr sight leaves little room for doubt. Each image has a caption. Once you get the hang of it, if you look very carefully, you will see many, many subtleties in communication between dogs that you never saw before. And dogs, like us, keep trying to use their own language to express how they feel to us just as we do the to them!

Sniffing is over. The terrier has already stepped a bit further and is ready to leave the scene. The ridgeback is trying to push the beagle to run, her ears are coming forward, there are wrinkles on her forehead, her gaze is locked to the beagle. She is making little jumps in the beagle's direction, trying to make her run. The ridgeback's tail is wagging, but it is not friendly: she is in a prey mode.
The beagle knows this. She doesn't move, she knows that the bigger dogs would chase her like a prey. The beagle lowers her head even more, keeps an eye on the other dogs without looking straight at them to avoid conflict. Her tail is down.
At this point we called our dogs away, because the beagle was clearly not enjoying the situation. Our dogs returned to us and left the beagle alone. The beagle found smaller, friendlier dogs to play with.

How many times have you heard humans say "Oh stop that, you silly thing!" all the while cajoling the dog with our body language into thinking we are playing with them? Confusing? You bet!  Or, even worse, "Come here Bessy, NOW!" while we are standing, square shouldered, making direct eye contact and barking out with our body language and tone that they must "Stay away or else" in dog language!

Make up my mind!!!!!!

We expect dogs to fully comprehend our body language, even when we use it incorrectly or misleadingly, and our human language even when we have never taught them to translate it!

Anyway, if anyone is interested in seeing and understanding critical microexpressions dogs use all the time to communicate to both us and other dogs, have a look at the link “The language of dogs”. Spend some time with it and then have a look at your own dog at play or when he or she is desperately trying to tell you something you don’t understand.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pet First Aid and CPR - My Wake-up Call!

Okay - different topic. I just want to talk about how important getting this training is, how easy it is, and how inexpensive--considering the possible consequences if you don't.

I just completed my yearly refresher course and only this weekend I saved a life that I wouldn't have been able to had I not taken the course.

Okay - so it was not a dog but rather a squirrel in Trinity Bellwoods Park, but the point still remains.

Here is a rundown on what you get with your certification:
- Knowledge of the importance of prevention of illness, injury and veterinary care
-Appropriate restraining of an injured animal
-How to take vital signs
-Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation
-Artificial respiration
-Heimlich on a pet (dog or cat)
-Recognizing and treating shock
-Poisons and poisoning
-Medical conditions triage (what constitutes an emergency situation)
-Administering medications

Nobody wants to ever have to use these skills or this knowledge but accidents happen all the time.  Knowing what to do, when, with what and so on can mean the difference between life or death for your loved one.

As I was taking the course the first time, I was shocked and amazed at how much I didn't know and I have been around animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc. etc.) all my life and thought I had a pretty good grasp of the situation. I didn't - clearly.

So here was my 'wake up call': Raj and Vanda ran up to 'something' in the grass. They are not 'killers'. They were just curious. There before me lay a drenched, barely breathing baby squirrel. I said "Off" to the dogs so they would step away for me to look. Both promptly did.

I picked up the tiny, soaked creature and examined him for injuries.  The only visible thing was an 'abrasion' on his tummy. Yet, he was not moving just breathing. There was no discharge of any kind anywhere nor any erratic movements so I surmised he had not been poisoned. He looked healthy enough (all things considered) so doubted he had a 'disease'.

Had a dog grabbed him and shook him leaving him for dead? I checked his reflexes in all his limbs and they were working. He could hold his head up but seemed dazed, confused and disoriented.

To say he looked like a drowned rat was an understatement. But we had just started our walk and I thought, perhaps, if I just put him safely in the tree he could recover from what I assessed was shock from having falling from the tree. He did make some feeble attempts to climb higher but clearly didn't have the strength. I decided to leave him there and check on him when we finished our walk.

1 hour later we returned to the tree. We didn't see him anywhere so we started to walk away thinking he had climbed to safety. Not so! About 30' later we saw he had fallen to the ground again.

My Gawd, my heart went out to the poor thing so I wrapped him in some paper towels I take with me on walks for emergencies and took him home for more intensive attention.

My first aid book was handy and I looked up "Shock" and found that he was likely suffering from 'hypothermia' and 'hypoglycemia'. I followed the instructions to the letter including rubbing natural honey on his gums to boost his blood sugar. I wrapped him up and placed him close to a light bulb to dry him off and increase his body temperature.

All this time I was thinking, "he would have died if I didn't know what to do! This could have been one of my dogs or cats!" Accidents happen and shock is extremely common and very potentially fatal if not treated right away.

This little critter was in shock because he fell out of a tree on a rainy day in the summer time.

How mundane is that?

Anything, and I mean anything, as mundane as that could happen to any one of our pets, at anytime, and we may very well not be able to get them to the vet in time to save them if we don't know what to do in the mean time.  I am quite sure this little squirrel is grateful I took this course. For that, alone, it was worth every penny I spent.

I have heard vets say that if a person is versed in first aid they can substantially increase the likelihood of getting an animal safely to the vet, never mind actually saving his or her life.

Your dog or cat may not get in fights. You might do your best by keeping them 'on leash' at all times. But you can never guard, utterly, against the unexpected.

So, on my blog today I just want to sing out how grateful I am at this moment for having taken the time to learn these skills.

BTW, today I returned the squirrel to his family when I went into the park first thing this morning. By the time we left he was unrecognizable from all his many brothers and sisters who were all foraging blissfully around in the wet grass for chestnuts that had fallen.

I was in heaven. I hugged Raj and Vanda and we went trotting off home to get ready for work.


Walks 'n Wags
See website for the schedule of courses for pets

Pet First Aid and CPR (on demand)
This is great because you do it in your own home at your own pace. You can review it and if you have questions they respond to you within 24hours. They also offer yearly refresher courses.

Apparently St. John Ambulance and/or the Red Cross offers it too but I was unable to locate and courses available currently in Toronto. If anybody knows of any other places that offer this please let me know.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Patricia McConnell Seminar on Reactivity to Unfamiliar Dogs and the Importance of Play

OMIGAWD it was great to be with over 200 people all on the same page and eager to learn more. After a series of technical difficulties (which Trish handled with her typical aplomb) we were off to a great start.
It is impossible to post an adequate synopsis of this jamb-packed day.

One of the points she drove home was that "Reactive" is not always "Aggressive" but it can still be problematic. She linked the arousal level with the many behaviours associated with it like barking/lunging, biting and so on...

She brought up 2 different examples of "Reactive" dogs and we watched as she guided them through positive conditioning to more appropriate behaviour.  It was fascinating to watch how she treated each dog differently. One was encouraged to look at her in the other dog's presence and one was encouraged to look at the other dog depending on the specific behaviours we observed.  So this is no "cookie cutter" methodology but is rather based on the subtle and not so subtle messages the dog was exhibiting when in the presence of an unfamiliar dog.

One of the things I found the most interesting is that one of the reactive dogs was extremely well trained. It was obvious. And yet, all this training did not stop him from looking to 'pick a fight' with anything in his vicinity.  In this case, she rewarded the dog for NOT looking at the other dog. Whereas, the other dog, although 'trained' as well, was clearly frightened of new dogs and so was rewarded for looking in the new dog's direction.  She was not looking for a "media moment" and so stopped the exercise BEFORE either dog actually exhibited reactive behaviour.  In other words, she stopped with success however small!

Practically speaking, for me, this is all but impossible to do given the high density of dogs in my neighbourhood and the likelihood that they will be confronted with a situation beyond their comfort zone.

However, watching her gave me a brand new set of tools and direction for better managing my dogs' reactive behaviour. I am a more observant 'watcher' and guide. Let's hope it sticks when the moment requires! (I, too, have to watch MY reactivity and not make matters worse.)

I was disappointed because the one book I really wanted to get was sold out by the time I got there, "Feisty Fido",  but I did manage to get "Feeling Outnumbered?" which I don't actually ever feel but it is about dealing with multiple dogs which I do ever day both in my personal and professional life and I just KNOW there will be helpful tips on how to better manage my packs.

I also got "How to be the Leader of the Pack... and Have Your Dog Love You For It".  I am sure I will love both of them because I love everything she writes. It is so in tune with how I intuitively feel and ultimately want to relate to my canine friends.

The second part of the day was called "PLAY, PLAY, PLAY".

During this time we watched many clips of dogs at play and saw what is appropriate and positive play and when it can go wrong; how to spot the signs of 'play going wrong' and how to tell when, what appears to us as 'too rough play',  really isn't and just let them get on with it.

One of the most important things I brought away from this portion of the seminar is that play needn't be 50/50% exchange of dominance and often isn't.  But we did identify behaviours exhibited by dogs who, clearly, were not having fun and wanted out but the other dog wasn't letting them and they were about to be bullied.

But this concept that play CAN consist of one dog dominating the action without it being called bullying fascinated me.  She did lay down criteria for what is identifiable "play" activity:

- Actions out of context -mounting, chasing, grabbing, biting etc.- their 'context' being sex and hunting behaviours (i.e. predation) which the dogs were clearly not actually engaged in.

-Elicited by different stimuli

-Exaggerated actions (including locomoter-rotational play) - jumping up in the air, grabbing, pulling, mouthing, spinning and repetition, etc ...

-Lack of purpose -nobody knows WHY dogs play exactly as they aren't actually intending to achieve the results the behaviour is normally associated with i.e. procreation or a 'kill'

- Self-handicapping common: in other words, the stronger of the two will tone down their strength and skill in order to level the playing field for their playmate. This most often happens when there is an advantage in either age or size between the two players.

-Emotional Arousal is contained in healthy play - neither dog goes 'over the top' to the point of 'losing it'.

-Most common in young animals, rare in adults (People and dogs are the exception which is probably why we get along so well!)

- Most common in predatory mammals and social birds species

- Sex differences in play styles are common (especially in primates, Rough and Tumble Wrestle Play is common in males, not females.) As time goes by, she postulates, females prefer to play with females and males with males.

Let me say here that my dogs DON'T PLAY with other dogs. They are both rescues and, for different reasons, were not able to learn this important skill. That is so sad. Still, they do enjoy many games we play together such as ball throwing, 'fun' learning games, and so on.  They just don't know how to play with other dogs. They get either frustrated, annoyed or bored and these states of mind lead them to engage in inappropriate behaviours. I usually need to remove them while other dogs are hard at play because they just don't get it!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cesar Millan and Merial

Patricia McConnell speaks on her blog!

You may have heard by now that the pharmaceutical company Merial (they make Heartguard and Frontline) have teamed up with Cesar Millan to promote their products. They are offering veterinary clinics a deal this summer in which they can give any client who buys Heartguard or Frontline a free DVD from Cesar titled “Mastering Leadership!” They will even include a DVD that clinics can use to “entertain” their clinics in the waiting room (they did not use the word “educate”) with segments from “Mastering Leadership with Cesar.”
I’m happy to say that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and several CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) have written Merial to complain. The paragraph below is an excerpt from a letter by CAAB Suzanne Hetts Ph.D.
“Scientific research about how animals learn, about canid social behavior, and social relationships between dogs and humans does not support Mr. Millan’s training methods or his view of those relationships… This marketing campaign makes it clear that Merial did not do their homework when it comes to the science of animal behavior. Instead of relying on the academically trained, scientific community of veterinary and applied animal behaviorists or even to certified dog trainers, you instead turned to a media personality. Because you clearly don’t care about science when it comes to animal behavior and training, I now wonder what other scientific information you might choose to ignore in marketing and product development.”
Here Here, Suzanne!  The American College of Vet Behaviorists also has written an excellent statement, click on their name to read it. If you are so inclined, you can let your views known to Merial by writing I say all this knowing full well how many people love Cesar and how much they think he has helped dogs. I personally believe that  Cesar loves dogs without question and wants to help them. I love that he advocates for more exercise for dogs and illustrates that many behavioral problems can be solved. However, I am deeply at odds with his perspective that behavioral problems are primarily caused by “dominance” issues, and that owners need to be physically forceful to achieve “leadership.” (I do appreciate that he has switched a bit from “dominance” to “leadership”… although I have no doubt that he and I define it differently and I worry that his use of it will undermine its value.)
I’ve never met Cesar (would love to) but I suspect that he is one of those remarkable individuals who has incredible presence. You know, one of those people who walk into a room and everyone stops talking to look at them. Gradually the person is surrounded by people who just want to stand next to this person who has… something? But what? What is presence?  Good question–Malcolm Gladwell first brought it up to me when we were talking about an article he wrote on Cesar, and he said he was thinking about writing a book about it.  I suspect that would be tough. How do you measure presence? Who has it and who doesn’t?
No matter what it is, people with it can do all kinds of things that the rest of us can’t. My suspicion (and it’s only that) is that dogs also respond to Cesar’s presence (confidence? being comfortable in your own skin?). That also means that those methods won’t work so well with people who don’t have that quality. Thus, his methods are problematic from two perspectives: they are often based on a misunderstanding of dominance and what it has to do with canine behavior, and they also assume a quality that Cesar doesn’t even know he has, and can’t be replicated.
Personally, I’d love to have an open and sincere conversation with Cesar about this. If I can get the podcast up and running, I’ll do my best to try to have him on. This issue will come up often I suspect for me in the next few days, because soon I’m leaving for meetings in Chicago between me, other CAABs and Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists to find common ground and resolve some conflicts. (Ex: statements by some vets that all behavioral problems are medical problems and can only be diagnosed and treated by veterinarians, whether the vets have had any training in behavior or not. Guess which side of that argument I’ll be on? I’ll keep you posted…).

Monday, August 9, 2010


From Dogstar Daily.

On a recent visit to a new client’s home, I was amazed with the information that she shared with me, regarding her previous dog training experiences with her small dog.  She sat and explained that she had opted to take her small dog to a local trainers play group in hopes to address her dog's reactivity around other dogs and strangers.   The trainer knew her concerns and had no problem enrolling her into the group of small dogs. 
My new client had been going to this playgroup for about a year and noticed that instead of her dog getting better around other dogs, she was getting worse.  After asking my client a myriad of questions and investigating how the group was designed and operated, I uprooted some very troublesome information.  It appeared that the trainer did not allow dogs to bark while they were playing so the trainer took the liberty to use a spray bottle filled with water to squirt them in the face if they barked while they played!  If that wasn't enough or didn't work, she then took the opportunity to use an air horn to stop the barking!!  The trainer also told my new client that she should incorporate the spray bottle and air horn technique at home.  She was told to use it when company came to the door, if the dog chose to bark at them.  My client complained that her small dog was becoming more and more reactive around other dogs, company and strangers.  When the doorbell rang, the dog would become violently reactive and then run and hide under the couch.
 I think we all have a good picture of *why* her dog's behavior was becoming worse instead of better.  Dogs form associations and this dog had associated the fact that punishment occurs in the presence of other dogs and strangers.  Her dog was becoming more and more fearful that punishment would occur if other dogs or strangers came too close. 
Interestingly enough, my client told me that she had a hunch that damage was being done but she felt that the trainer knew best.  The moral to the story; all trainers are not created equal.  Some dog trainers incorporate unnecessary measures to try to eliminate unwanted behavior/s.  It’s important for dog owners to observe a dog training session in progress, without their dog, before they enroll into any trainer’s classes or sessions.  If it doesn’t feel right, if the dogs don’t look happy, if it gives you an uneasy feeling, quietly slip out and be thankful that you didn't subject your dog to poor training practices.

Are Raj and Vanda truly "Aggressive"?

I am, by no means, an expert. I scour the net looking for great articles I think people will find interesting. I will, of course, give full credit and a link back to the site where I got them.

Reading the past article on 'aggression' I found that many behaviours we label as 'aggression' are really not so. "Leash reactivity" is one of them. I like that she chose to call it "leash reactivity" because I truly believe that, in many instances, the dogs just want to get to know the other dog but we are too paranoid to let them meet because we read their lunging, barking etc. as aggression as opposed to curiosity or frustration.

I think Vanda falls under this category and, to a certain extent, Raj does too.

There is also territory-guarding component, which she doesn't mention. On the rare occasion when Raj is off-leash in his "territory" (around the building where he lives in) and he spots another dog in what he thinks is "trespassing zone"  I believe he thinks it is his job to drive them off.  I believe this because he stops short when he reaches the other dog and does not make contact. I don't feel he wishes or intends to cause the other dog any harm but rather that they simply leave the territory. People have called this 'aggression' and have called me out for not being 'Alpha-enough' to stop him.  I am not saying this behaviour is acceptable in the dog-crowded neighbourhood in which i live, I am only saying he has no intention of hurting the dog.

Mind you, in the park he CAN be a bit of a 'Tarzan'  because he 'gets off' on throwing his weight around most especially on large to mid-sized dogs who look like it would be fun to terrorize. That is REALLY embarrassing. However, it has been a very long time since he has actually made contact and a quick, sharp "OFF" stops him. I am quite sure he gets a 'rush' from this so I leash him immediately if he doesn't come "OFF" as soon as I say it. I am happy to say, Raj has not actually engaged in a fight in a very long time.

The other senerio where he behaves in what most would say is "aggression" is when a young puppy violates his personal space and runs up in his face while he is lying down with his ball. The puppy is too young to read his prior signals "go away" so, without getting angry he 'ratchets' it up and 'roughs up' the puppy sending him screaming off. Then he lies back down having accomplished banishing the rude 'space offender'.

I don't find this acceptable behaviour either. Make no mistake. So, whenever I see a puppy I think will trigger him and who is running wild, and, where the new owner is not controlling the puppy at all, I simply remove him from the vicinity of the puppy so as to avoid this 'lesson in manners'.  I see it as partly the puppy-owners responsibility to monitor their puppies behaviour but none seem to think anything the puppy does is in need of dealing with. I find this very frustrating and so does Raj.

Vanda, on the other hand is truly exhibiting "leash reactivity" when she barks and lunges at dogs on leashes when she is really saying: Why can't I go meet that dog? She is frustrated at not being able to 'meet' the other dog and it causes her to become highly charged and reactive tho I do not believe it is rooted in 'aggression'.
Nonetheless, I wish she wouldn't do it and am working on her to try to 'calm' her and stop this behaviour.

It makes it all the more difficult because they are German Shepherds and nobody will let her near the dog to satisfy her desire to meet the him or her.

I don't have this problem 'fixed' for either of them completely but what I do when I see an approaching dog (on the crowded street) is to quietly, and unobtrusively, gather their leashes short while never actually pulling or making the leash taught. As we approach a dog that I think they MAY react to I give them loads and loads of calming, friendly, words to 'guide' and/or distract them so as to let the dog pass without incident. 8 times out of 10, it works and I reward them for their good behaviour.  The reason I shorten the leash is because they may decide, despite my best efforts to lung and bark and I want to make sure they don't get a chance to frighten the other dog and the owner with their displays.  The owners of the other dogs appreciate that I 'collect' the dogs and, in turn, feel less anxious about my dogs passing as they can see I have control of my dogs. This reassurance acts to lessen the fear or panic they feel towards both my dogs and their own which, lessens the over all arousal and stress as we pass.

Also, I take them by the back alley TO the park as it is at the beginning of the walk they are most excited and the least able to self-monitor. After a good long run and games of fetch, they are much more receptive to letting dogs pass and so I practice walking down Queen St. when they are most likely to have success letting dogs pass without incident, for which I alway reward them.

I have also been doing some serious reading on the subject and Patricia McConnell, who is a zoologist and certified animal behaviourist, states that ALL mammals (no matter the species-including Human) have genetically predisposed 'comfort zones' regarding proximity. Some are more comfortable with less space while others have a much wider 'sphere of comfort'. While nurture (i.e. what WE do to alleviate this) plays a huge role. The fact still remains that they have it in their genes and so this should be respected, dealt with compassionately and not punished. We can help them feel more comfortable beyond their genetically predisposed comfort zone but it requires quiet understanding and patience.

Just imagine it for yourself. Many of us, myself included, HATE crowded malls and public transit. I can learn to adapt because I can 'intellectualize' that I have to such and such. Dogs, though, need help and reassurance. Some dogs are 'touchy-feely' and others not so, just like some people.  I believe it is the caretakers responsibility to work with their dog's comfort zone in a compassionate and patient way.  They, like us, can learn to tolerate closer proximity but they will never actually like it.

I am TERRIBLY excited about the upcoming seminar by Patricia McConnell next weekend because it is this very issue she will be dealing with. I am quite sure she will enlighten me on how to deal with this issue more effectively and I will take notes and pass them along to my blog.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dog/Dog Aggression, or Is It?

Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
One of the most common calls we get from prospective clients starts with something like, “My dog is aggressive with other dogs, can it be fixed?” I’ve learned over the years that dog/dog aggression is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The situation is further complicated because there are different types of dog/dog aggression.
Normal Dog PlayDogs playing
Sometimes, what an owner describes as dog/dog aggression is actually normal dog play. The way dogs play can seem scary to some human beings. These owners are overly conscientious about their dog’s behavior and his/her interaction with other dogs. While being conscientious about your dog’s behavior is a very good thing, like any good trait, it can be taken to an extreme. I sometimes wish I could wave a magic target stick that would make some overly conscientious owners worry less by transferring some of their worry and concern to owners who do not have enough of it. There’s a hilarious blog called Three Woofs and a Woo published by a photographer. She has wonderful shots of dogs playing.
Playground Bully
Some dogs never learned the manners of polite dog play society. They are like some people, just kind of clueless about how their behavior affects others. Jean Donaldson calls these dogs “Tarzans”. The most common sign of a playground bully is that the dog just doesn’t read cut off signals from their playmate. The other dog throws all kinds of body language that says, “OK, we’re done now, that’s enough play from you” and these bully dogs just don’t take the hint. Some dogs handle bullies quite well while others, well; they get a bit snarky when being mugged rudely by another dog who just doesn’t know when enough is enough. These dogs are rude, but not what we would call “truly dog aggressive”.
dog dog aggressionFear Aggression
Many owners believe that in order for their dogs to be mentally healthy, they must go to the dog park, or have social interactions with other dogs of some kind. This is not always the case. The reason that a dog is afraid of other dogs can stem from several causes. Some puppies were not exposed to other puppies during their socialization window. The socialization window is the first 18 to 20 weeks of a dog’s life and it’s the most important developmental learning period in a dog’s life. Puppies who never learned how to read other puppies’ body language and play cues can be afraid of other dogs later in life. Imagine if you lived at home with your brothers and sisters and never saw other children until you were 16 years old. When you finally left the house to go to high school, you’d probably be pretty uncomfortable around teenagers your own age, right?
Some dogs have had one or more traumatizing experiences from their interactions with other dogs. These experiences might have been terrifying, but not result in any physical damage. The damage comes in the form of fear of other dogs. When I see young puppies at the dog park being knocked down, run over, and played with inappropriately for their age, I cringe. What may seem funny or cute to the owners who think they are doing the right thing by “socializing” their puppy with other dogs inappropriately may be setting that puppy up for fear aggression around other dogs later in life. Its inappropriate to socialize a young puppy at the dog park where you can’t control the play interaction. If you have a puppy, find a Puppy Kindergarten that focuses on lots of supervised, off leash play with other age appropriate puppies. I’ve had clients call me because their dog was brutally attacked by another dog and now their dog is afraid of all other dogs. That’s the problem with fear; it has a tendency to generalize.
Leash Reactivity (aka Leash Aggression)Dog pulling on leash
I don’t like the term “leash aggression” because many of the dogs that react badly on leash by growling, barking, and lunging at other dogs are not aggressive. They’re reactive. You can tell whether your dog is exhibiting dog/dog aggression vs. leash reactivity by answering a simple question, “How does your dog play with other dogs off leash?” If your dog plays well at the dog park, but acts aggressively toward other dogs on leash, you have leash reactivity. If your dog displays fear aggression towards other dogs off leash, you have what most people call leash aggression.
Sometimes the most difficult cases for me to handle are the ones where the owners have never let their dog off leash around other dogs based on their reaction to other dogs while ON leash. I got a call from a woman who adopted a black lab mix from a shelter. Whenever she took the dog outside for a walk and encountered another dog on leash, she said her dog “was uncontrollably aggressive”. She had never let her new dog play with other dogs off leash because she was afraid of what her new dog would do. I decided to have a look for myself, or I should say I decided to let my dog Conner have a look for himself (see my colleague Greta’s post about Canine assistants for dog/dog fear & aggression). My dog Conner is absolutely amazing with other dogs. He just “speaks dog” with the most beautiful, calming body language that he throws at other dogs.
Dogs playing tugI had the owner stand with her dog on the sidewalk. I got Conner out of the car a block away. As we walked closer to her dog, I saw her dog put his ears up and rotate them out (sexy ears!) and then he started prancing and throwing play bows. As we got even closer, he starting barking hysterically and lunging on leash. Her dog wasn’t aggressive. He was leash reactive. He was so desperate to get to the other dog to play that he acted like a total lunatic. When I told the owner to drop her leash, I dropped Conner’s leash and totally appropriate and hilarious play ensued. It’s wonderful to see an owner cry tears of happiness.
We had some work to do with that dog, after all, while the owner was relieved her dog wasn’t dangerous, she still couldn’t walk him in the neighborhood acting like a total hysteric every time he saw another dog, but we knew what we had and could fix it relatively quickly. The way we treat leash reactivity and leash aggression can be quite different, but to treat it appropriately, we’ve got to know what we’ve got; hysterics, fear, or aggression?
Dog/Dog Aggression
Dog/dog aggressionWe do encounter what we call “true dog/dog aggression”, but it’s the most rare type of dog/dog aggression. Some dogs just find fighting with other dogs incredibly reinforcing. Other dogs, because of their breeding, or how they’ve been handled, or both, actually will kill another dog. This type of dog/dog aggression is quite rare compared to the dog/dog aggression that we see that is fear based.
These cases are difficult because of the time and resources that it takes to counter condition this behavior. Performing this type of work to help these dogs takes controlled environments, a great deal of time, and many, many stimulus dogs before we begin to see any effect. Often the cost and time are prohibitive and we’re left with two choices; the 3 Ms (a lifetime of Management/Muzzles/Medication), or euthanasia.

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