Calming Signals

Sep 18 2010

Kate and Sawyer are 6 mos. old border collie mix sisters, but they have different play styles. Kate enjoys more chewing and laying down play while Sawyer is more raucous and enjoys more vertical play. Sam, 6 mos. old Rhodesian Ridgeback, is trying to be flexible to accommodate both friends! Watch as Kate produces several calming signals to try to calm the play down to her desired level. Dogs use calming signals when they are stressed or anxious, but Kate is using them here to encourage her playmates to adjust their play. When a dog is anxious, you will often see these calming signals repeated in rapid fire progression. Here, Kate only does a few strategically placed signals. Can you find them?

The most obvious signal Kate was producing was sitting. Didn’t it seem odd that a dog would be sitting in the middle of playing dogs? Not only was she sitting, but she was deliberately positioning her bottom on the ground! As if to say, could I be more clear?!! And her sister, Sawyer, even helped her out by joining her for a second! Kate also did some quick lip licking and yawns. Lip licking (where the tongue juts out quickly and licks the lip and/or nose area) and yawning are very common calming signals. Hers are quick, can you find 5 lip licking and 2 yawns? Her yawns are not very wide, short and quick. At the end she tries a different approach, sniffing the ground. These three dogs were the first dogs to arrive at the daycare that morning, but they had plenty of time to sniff the area. The area did not, all of a sudden, have a new smell! Sniffing the ground intensely is a very common calming signal that is often overlooked as normal sniffing. Kate is a very good signaler. She is very clear and distinctive in her movements. When she sniffs the ground, it’s as if she is fascinated by the area. As if to say, “Hey guys, look over here! You just gotta smell this!!”

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Teaching Social Skills to a Pushy Puppy

May 10 2010

Pushy Puppies is the term I use to refer to dogs or puppies who, for whatever reason, approach dogs in a very vigorous and socially inappropriate  way.  These dogs have never injured another dog, but people and other dogs often read the pushy puppies’ actions as threatening and aggressive.  Pushy puppies appear to be unable to read other dog’s social cues and therefore, often end up injured themselves by dogs who have no other option but to go to the most extreme action in order to get the pushy puppy to listen!

Penny, a new Pushy Puppy client, came in barking, whining and lunging at every dog she saw while on leash.  When I evaluated her, she approached my tester dog straight on, jumping up and linking her paws around his neck, then followed him in a very pushy, forceful way.  My tester dog, Bailey T., gave her a lot of signals to calm down and back off, but she didn’t see them.  He tried turning his head to the side, shaking his body and moving away from her, but she just followed forcefully behind.  Bailey T.’s movements were soft and loose while Penny’s entire posture was rigid.  Penny’s stiff body and forceful actions were in direct contrast to her tail’s wide wag evenly parallel with her body.  She gave Bailey T. mixed messages.  Luckily, Bailey T. knows this well as he too used to be a pushy puppy!!!

On her first day of the Pushy Puppy program, Penny displayed extreme hyper arousal.  She acted like a Champagne bottle that busts off it’s cork after being shaken!  Chasing her tail repeatedly and running full force without regard to anyone or anything in her way – the zoomies!

Some dogs chase their tail for fun and others do it out of nervous energy or as an obsessive behavior. She did not do it enough to be considered obsessive, but more as an outlet for her anxiety.

In my Pushy Puppy program, I use very well-adjusted, tolerant dogs as my teaching assistants to encourage the pushy puppy to listen and respond in a socially acceptable way.  I see my role as part facilitator / part instructor.   While I set up the environment so that I am in complete control at all times, I do allow the dogs a lot of freedom to communicate as they see fit providing positive feedback for appropriate responses.  Ultimately, my goal is to create a dog who, from a distance, knows how to assess another dog’s interest and can perform socially acceptable greeting behaviors based on that early assessment.  Just like people, each dog has their own boundaries and comfort levels.  Socially skilled dogs are capable of reading these signals and responding very clearly.  When Penny was able to settle a little, I introduced my first teaching assistant, Bear.  Her calm and very tolerant personality helped Penny recognize that her over-the-top spin, jump behaviors were unnecessary and would not engage her.

Next, Gracie was introduced.  While Bear’s approach is of calm passivity, Gracie’s style is more forceful.  She acts aggressive without harm, which is very helpful to teach socially inept pups to listen clearly and do avoidance maneuvers, showing respect.  Gracie is very clear with her “I like that” and “I don’t like that!” responses!    Pushy puppies learn a lot from Gracie in a very short amount of time.  When Penny accidentally bumps Gracie when she starts to do her frenzied spin/jump, Gracie grumbles at her and moves away!  Notice that I tell Gracie she’s okay.  In the daycare, we discourage grumbling, growling, snarling, or aggressive posturing, because there is really no reason for it.  All the dogs that play at our daycare have been evaluated to determine their compatibility, tolerance and ability to choose evasive maneuvers.   All the dogs understand and trust that we wont allow another dog to annoy or pester them, so they are comfortable choosing to just walk away.

Gracie shows Penny to move in an arc and to sniff and then move away calmly.

Penny learns to move away after sniffing to release pressure and show respect. Gracie is so proud that Penny learned from her earlier lesson! What a good teacher you are Gracie!

Next up is Hombrito.  He is a big dog in a little body!  He helps pushy large dogs know that little dogs need more space and more calm movements when being approached.  Again, I am always aware of the teaching assistants comfort level when asking them to help me.  Hombrito actually enjoys assisting me as do all the dogs I use as TA’s.  And their teaching involvement is done in  short segments with large breaks in between.  I want all my daycare dogs to enjoy their time here, whether they are romping with their buddies or performing important teaching roles!!

Notice how Penny is clearly making conscious decisions about her body movements based on input from Hombrito.  Good listening, Penny!!

Lastly, it’s Rally’s turn.  Rally is also a reformed pushy puppy!  She is still young and reverts back to inappropriate behavior on occasion, but her ability to understand Penny is fun to watch!!  Rally decided Penny needed to learn how to play laying down.  What a smart girl!!  Calm play or playing while laying down is a fundamental skill taught at our daycare to ensure safe yet rewarding play!  Notice how Rally holds still when Penny is bouncing around and then instantly begins to engage her (rewarding her for the correct response!!) when she starts to play laying down!  Absolutely beautiful!!  Dogs use positive reinforcement with one another too!!

Lastly, Penny observes everyone resting quietly.  Yes Penny, you don’t have to be in a frenzy all the time, you can lay down and relax!

Good job Penny!

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To Play or Not to Play…

Feb 23 2010

When is play too rough? How can you tell the difference between bullying and play? Dogs play mildly imitates dogs fighting. Dogs give very clear indicators to each other when their intentions are aggressive, but we misinterpret or completely miss these signals very often. Some of the most common misread signals are piloerection (raising of the hackles along the back), neck biting and growling. People often think these are instant signals of aggression. Unfortunately, they can be both play or aggression. The best way to discern the intent of a dog is to observe the overall tension of the dog. Is the dog stiff, rigid, leaning forward with locked knees standing as tall as possible? If so, walk away! However, if the dog is loose, wiggly, bouncing around erratically, their motivation is to play!

I took a couple videos from daycare to illustrate these points.  This first video shows Miley, the Havanese, and Luke, the Chihuahua
Terrier mix, engaging in a fair and balanced play where each dog
initiates play after a quick pause. Luke displays a behavior that is
very informative about his state of mind. He places his head and chin over Miley’s shoulders.
This is a sign of assertiveness. If the display is quick, as in the
video, there is no need for concern.  However if the display is more
forceful and prolonged, intervention is necessary!

In this second video Mitch, the beagle, has his hackles raised and Ziggy, the miniature schnauzer, tackles Mitch to the ground and chews vigorously on his neck while growling.  This can appear to be aggressive, but look at their body tension. Mitch freezes for a second and then makes a large, exaggerated movement into a play bow. This is a solicitation to play. Mitch’s hackle raising is simply a sign of excitement, the neck biting, a very gentle, benign play style and the growling, a soft communication of play. Because their play is very vigorous, it is important to require that the pups disengage for short breaks often so that levels do not escalate into frustration, similar to children when they get too aroused!

As you can see,  it can be difficult to interpret the dogs signals unless you look at the overall context.  Each element in and of themselves can have multiple meanings.  The combination of signals is what provides the full story of what the dogs are communicating.

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My Dog is Afraid of Loud Sounds

Jun 23 2008

Sound sensitivity is a common problem for dogs. Generally, the best approach is gradual desensitization and counter-conditioning. What this means is that you very gradually introduce the particular sound in a controlled environment at a barely audible level using a looped recording. Every day you should try to increase the volume while observing your dog, but if your dog reacts, you must lower it back to a non-reactive level. Only reward your dog with calm petting when she is being calm and non-reactive. If you encounter a sound that frightens your dog, never coddle or try to reassure your dog when she is reacting to a sound. This can be misinterpreted by the dog as praise. The best solution is to remove your dog from the source of the noise as calmly yet quickly as possible. Maintain an upbeat nonchalant attitude as you leave the sound behind. If your dog is afraid of fireworks, the desensitization process should start at least a month before the 4th of July. Some dogs can not acclimate to certain sounds, and if professional training is unsuccessful you should consult your vet for medications that can help.

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Teaching Children to Greet Dogs Properly

Jun 23 2008

All children should be taught how to behave around dogs. Your own pet may accept attention very differently than other dogs. Many children run up to their own dog and hug them around the neck. This is a very inappropriate and dangerous greeting with strange dogs. Teach your child to never approach a strange dog without an adult present. Staring directly into a dog’s eyes and running towards a dog is not an appropriate greeting either, and very common with kids who are often at eye level with dogs. Teach your child to approach slowly, turn her body sideways, stand still and put out her hand palm down. Always allow the dog to approach you, that way you know that the dog is interested in being pet. Teach your child warning signs for dogs that should be avoided. Barking, growling, or snarling are signs to stay away. If the dog’s ears are laid back, the tail stiff and high, and the hair on the back is raised, slowly walk away sideways. If the dog is soft and wiggly and approaches willingly, teach your child to start petting the dog under the head on the neck and chest area. This is less threatening to the dog than when you reach over the top of their head.

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Doggie No-No’s: Toxic Items around the House

Oct 05 2006

Unfortunately, toxic items can often be found in every room of the house! Common household cleaners (even the all-natural stuff), antifreeze, prescription and over-the-counter medicines (usually your dog does not just “take one”!) should ALWAYS be kept in drawers or cabinets not accessible to canine family members.
There are also some items that may surprise you!
Xylitol, a common all-natural sugar substitute found in certain sugar-free chewing gums (Trident for example), candies, baked goods and other products can potentially cause serious and even life-threatening problems for dogs. Signs to look for include a fairly sudden drop in blood sugar, resulting in depression, loss of coordination and seizures. These signs can develop quite rapidly, but if the item ingested has a low level of Xylitol, symptoms may be delayed as much as 12 hours from ingestion. If your dog ingests any product with Xylitol as an ingredient seek veterinary treatment immediately as xylitol ingestions (even small amounts) may be linked to the development of liver failure.
Cocoa bean shell mulch is becoming a popular landscaping product used by gardeners and homeowners because of it’s attractive odor. In small amounts, cocoa bean shell mulch consumption can cause signs similar to that of chocolate poisoning, including vomiting and diarrhea. In cases where very large amounts of mulch have been consumed, muscle tremors, seizures and death can occur. Unfortunately, most dogs find any type of organic material spread out on a lawn to be a delicacy, and therefore are at great risk for toxicity. Know what products your gardeners or family members are using on your lawn and avoid neighbor’s lawns when any fertilizer, manure, pesticide or any organic material is present. Your dog may not immediately present with obvious life-threatening signs even after ingesting large amounts of cocoa bean shell mulch. So seek veterinary attention immediately, irregardless of lack of symptoms, if you suspect your dog has ingested cocoa bean shell mulch.

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Physical and Emotional Well-being in your dog

Sep 29 2006

I appreciate the comments I have been getting from readers. One of the comments I received on the Cesar Millan article has inspired me to write today’s blog.

As our society’s perspective of the dog shifts from worker (herder, hunter, sled puller, for example) to family member, our attention to the emotional and physical needs of the dog must keep pace with those changes. We have an obligation to exercise our dogs both mentally and physically. This is where training can be so useful. To Cesar Millan’s credit, many behavior problems are a result of owner miscommunication and misunderstanding and his show does succeed in highlighting that issue. Unfortunately, many professional dog trainers continue to employ techniques that have proven to cause serious injury to the dog as well as to the bond between dog and human.

Many trainers use a mixture of new positive techniques and old force-based techniques, making it difficult to determine their true philosophy. My personal opinion is that absolutely all positive motivational methods should be thoroughly exhausted by several different trainers and a comprehensive vet examination must rule out any mental or physical cause for the behavior before any mild force-based method should be attempted under the guidance of a professional dog trainer. And under no circumstances should a force-based method be used that could potentially cause severe or irreparable physical or emotional damage.

Training is teaching, helping another to learn by instruction and practice. When we are trying to learn something new, we are most receptive when our teacher provides clear instructions in a calm, stress-free learning environment without fear of abuse if we choose the wrong answer, and huge rewards if we choose the correct answer. I know of very few instances in pet dog training where positive motivational training will fail to provide results. These rare cases can be related to medical conditions which if discovered by a veterinarian can often be treated or managed. Again, you know your dog best. The best indicator is your own gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, get a second opinion, or third or fourth until you feel comfortable.

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Things dogs teach us

Sep 25 2006

My goal in life is to be as good of a person as my dog already thinks I am. ~Author Unknown

“Winston”, photo by Kelly Moren

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Put your best paw forward!

Sep 19 2006

Learning the proper way to greet a dog is simple and very important. If more people perform these simple techniques, others will watch and learn and every dog will benefit. As humans, we communicate primarily through the use of our voices, although popular dating shows and talk shows have made us more aware of our extensive body language vocabulary! Dogs actually use body language as their primary source of communication, so it behooves us to learn exactly what we are communicating to them when we offer the standard ‘pat on the head’ greeting. To a dog, any dog, even your own dog, reaching over the top of the head is a dominant or challenging signal. To make matters worse, we are usually facing the dog and staring directly into his eyes when we reach to pet his head. This posturing is interpreted by the dog as very domineering and not at all the friendly gesture we are attempting to offer. If the dog is frightened, he may back away, snap, or growl. If the dog is used to being in control and accepts a dominant role in his own family, he may perceive your ‘friendly gesture’ as a challenge and bite you. If the dog is friendly and has had overwhelmingly good experiences with people in the past, he may tolerate your inconsiderate gesture, but this isn’t what we want either. When we reach to pet a dog, our desire is to communicate to the dog that we are no threat to them and that we would like to be friends.
This can be communicated by changing 3 simple things in our typical greeting ceremony.
1. Body position- turn your side to the dog
2. Eye contact- glance sideways at the dog without looking directly into his eyes
3. Hand position- put your hand out just lower than his nose, palm down and allow the dog to decide to sniff or approach you, if the dog accepts your invitation by moving calmly toward your hand, you may pet him gently on his chest.
If we all simply improve the way we introduce ourselves to the dogs in our lives, we can all start to put our best paw forward!

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Where to purchase/adopt a dog

Sep 15 2006

Before starting your search for a dog, do some research. Read books, call trainers, research local rescue organizations. Do not make a spur of the moment decision. Make an educated decision.
Shelters/Rescue organizations– These are great places to start a search for a new addition to the family. Look for organizations that have a behaviorist on staff who will speak to you about the dog that you are interested in. Not all dogs are right for all families. If you have children, elderly family members, or other pets living with you or if you live in an apartment, you will need to narrow your search to dogs that will fit comfortably in that setting. Always include training expenses into your budget when planning to adopt a dog.
Professional Breeders– Research any breeder very well before purchasing a dog. Ask a lot of questions, and expect to answer a lot of questions. If the breeder seems to be probing into your life,…GOOD! You want someone who cares about the welfare of their dogs, not just a dollar amount. You want a breeder who is a professional, but not someone who mass produces dogs. Make sure they personally care for the dogs in a home environment, not a kennel situation.
Friend or Backyard breeder– NO! NO! NO! Absolutely no one should be breeding their dog unless they are a professional. There is a lot of knowledge that goes into breeding. Anyone who is not in the career of dog breeding/showing, should not own an intact female or male dog. Absolutely all pet dogs should be neutered/spayed. NO EXCEPTIONS!
Pet store– NO! NO! NO! Pet stores are the absolute worst place to get a dog. Dogs that are sold in pet stores are typically mass produced in large kennels with little human contact. Pet stores are trying to make a profit from inferior dogs. If you want a purebred dog, go through a breeder instead!! You will get a more well-bred dog, professional guidance on the right dog for you and you will pay close to the same price. Now that you are aware of other options for bringing a dog home , there is no excuse for buying a dog from a pet store. None!

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