Friday, October 26, 2007

Canine Body Language

Here’s another old Amazon post to add to my treasure trove of essays on canine behavior:

Do Dogs Purposely Use Their Body Language 
to Communicate Their Thoughts and Feelings?
 If dogs use their body language to communicate, 
why are they also incapable of hiding their feelings?

There are three ways in which dogs are said to communicate with other dogs, as well as with human beings; through their body language, vocalizations, and direct eye contact. The question is, are dogs capable of forming the intent to communicate, or do they do it unconsciously?

Let’s take a look at the communication process itself, so we may better understand what is and isn’t communication. I think we need to differentiateas Daniel C. Dennett does in Consciousness Explainedbetween the two types or forms of communication; 1) intentionally reporting information and 2) unconsciously expressing an emotion.

Suppose you see a cat waiting by the refrigerator and you say, “The cat wants his supper.” This expresses your belief that the cat wants his supper. In expressing your belief, you are reporting what you take to be a fact about the cat. In this case, you’re reporting the cat’s desire. It’s important to note you’re not reporting your belief or expressing the cat’s desire. The cat is expressing his desire by standing by the refrigerator and you use it as the basis for your report. There are many ways of expressing a mental [or emotional] state, but only one way of reporting one, and that is by [using language].

In this analysis of the distinction between expressing an emotion (which may be done either consciously or unconsciously) and of using language to report information, (which can only be done with conscious intent) we see what many dog owners mean when they say that their dogs can communicate. Yes, dogs are certainly capable of expressing their emotions. But are they capable of intentionally reporting information?

In the strictest sense, this type of communicationreporting informationonly takes place when one individual uses some form of languageeither written, spoken, or signedto intentionally transmit information to the mind or consciousness of another, with the expectation that the second individual is capable of receiving and understanding that information. A dog is unable to form such an expectation because it requires an awareness of the other’s mental capacity, which is an awareness dogs don’t have.

There are times, however, when a dog does seem able to form an intent to convey information. A pup who carries his bowl into the living room seems to be telling his owner that he’s hungry. Likewise, a dog who drops his leash into your lap seems to be reporting his need for a walk. But when we humans look at these situations, we do so with a linguistic bent. Our understanding of them is tainted by our reliance on words. Since dogs are unable to use words, their experience has to be radically different from ours. Once we understand this we can see that these dogs aren’t trying to report anything to their owners—that is to make the owner understand something—they’re simply expressing an emotion, which is done to make the owner do something (provide the dog with food or exercise) or to get the owner to feel something (the dog’s desire for these things). It’s not a linguistic thought process at all; it’s a purely emotional or behavioral one.

Now let’s take a look at the belief that dogs communicate through body language. Is this true? 

I don’t think so. For instance, I’ve always felt that if my dog Freddie could keep from wagging his tail in situations where it would be advantageous for him to hide his feelings, he’d do it. But he can’t.

“Why does a dog wag his tail?” goes the old saying. “Because if the tail were smarter it would wag the dog.” In the case of canine body language, the tail is smarter than the dog.

Still, we’ve all been taught that a dog will produce certain postures in order to communicate with others. But once we realize that body language—even with humans—is almost always done unconsciously, without the slightest intent to convey information, we have to see that this may not be true.

Let’s look at one example of human body language: A young woman comes to a party where she doesn’t know anyone. She stands in the doorway, adjusting her clothing, twirling a ring on one finger, looking around nervously. Her body movements are sharp and quick. Does she do any of these things to communicate with others at the party? To tell them that she’s nervous and ill at ease? Probably not. They’re unconscious expressions of emotion.

Now let’s look at this same woman an hour later. She’s met an interesting young man and has engaged him in conversation. She smiles at him, flips her hair back from time to time, touches his arm as she talks. This is also body language, correct? Yes, but it’s also something more. Here she’s using body language to give off sexual signals. She uses her body language, at least partially, as a means of reporting to the young man that she’s interested in him. However, the only thing that other people at the party can see is an unconscious expression of her emotions—she’s not reporting anything to them.

So we have to be careful about how we look at a dog’s body language and ask ourselves “is the dog displaying the body language as a way of intentionally reporting information, or is it done as an unconscious expression of emotion?”

For instance, the most common explanation for the posture where the dog holds himself low to the ground, with his tail and ears down, is that he’s communicating fear. But is he? To me, a dog who does this isn’t communicating anything—not intentionally. He’s experiencing fear, so his tail goes down. It’s simply a reflex, designed to protect his genitals and possibly to mask his scent. He doesn’t do it with the intention of protecting his genitals or of masking his scent, either. It’s an automatic, unconscious reflex—nothing more.

Likewise, when a dog “bares his teeth” he’s thought to be communicating aggression and warning you to stay away. However, once again the dog is not intentionally communicating anything, nor is he warning you, or even “baring his teeth.” He’s feeling aggression, which causes the bite reflex to come to the surface. When a dog has a strong urge to bite, the lips curl back involuntarily to get them out of the way of his teeth so he won’t bite into his own flesh if he has to bite his foe or a prey animal.

My own dog bares his teeth when he settles down with a bone. Does he do this to communicate to the bone? Hardly. It’s a purely instinctive reflex. In fact, a dog who feels a strong urge to bite will bare his teeth even if he’s facing away from his intended victim (or vice versa).

My Dalmatian Freddie and I met a dog one day who’d been bitten by another Dalmatian when he was a puppy, so he took an instant dislike to Fred and began barking and lunging at him. Then the oddest thing happened: Freddie turned his back, and the other dog stopped barking and instead bared his teeth—even though Freddie could no longer see him. Why would you use a facial expression to communicate with someone who clearly can’t see your face? The reason the dog switched from barking and lunging to baring his teeth as soon as Freddie turned his back is that, by turning away, Freddie was more vulnerable. This stimulated the dog’s bite reflex to a higher level, so his lips curled back involuntarily.

And you should see the display of teeth when many dogs play! Are they communicating aggressive intent to one another when they "“bare their teeth?” No. Biting, in some form, is part of their play vocabulary, so the stronger that feeling of wanting to bite, the more their lips draw back automatically, even in play.

So, if we stop and think about it from the dog’s point of view, with a clear understanding of their cognitive abilities, we would see that body language is not an intentional form of communication, at least for dogs. Still, understanding body language is a valuable tool for learning what a dog is feeling. The mistake comes in thinking that the dog has the conscious intent to communicate those feelings to.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Monday, October 15, 2007

Walking Two Aggressive Dogs Together

Part of my reasons for re-starting my blog here was that it gives me and the readers an easy way to find favorite blog posts from my Amazon days. I'm in the process of going through all the old posts and consolidating them. This is the first post that I think should be available here. Enjoy!

Walking Two Aggressive Dogs Together
Originally posted April 25, 2006

I’m working with a big, burly, three-year old chocolate Lab named Boomer, trying to deal with his aggression toward other dogs, and had planned yesterday to take him on a walk with one of his sworn enemies, Malachi, a tall, two-year old black Lab with too much unfocused energy. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, where does Boomer’s aggression come from? What is the root cause of his behavior? He’s generally a sweet animal, with positive social impulses. What’s going on?

When I first read Natural Dog Training (which is the basis for the way I train dogs), I was struck by something Kevin Behan wrote: that when a dog lunges at another dog, in attack mode, he’s actually highly attracted to that dog. This may sound paradoxical at first (it certainly did to me at the time), but when you think of it in terms of pure magnetic energy, i.e., the polar opposites of electromagnetism -- attraction and resistance -- and then think about how certain emotions carry a strong energetic charge, you may begin to see a little of what Kevin meant. If you add the fact that all aggression is based on some kind of fear (whether it’s a fear of what the other animal might do to you or a fear of what the other animal might take, aka resource guarding), then also add the fact that fear always creates one of two responses -- fight or flight -- and recognize the obvious, that an animal who wants to fight, rather than flee, will tend to move very energetically toward the object of his aggression, then you’ll start to see that a dog in attack mode really is highly attracted to his “enemy.”

If he’s attracted though, you might be thinking, why the intent to kill or harm his enemy? The answer is simple: there is no intent, just emotion and instinct. However, if you need or want to put an intent to the dog’s actions (which is probably anthropomorphic), you could see it as an intent to conquer or destroy his fear by conquering or destroying the object or the source of that fear. “If I kill Malachi,” Boomer would be saying to himself in this kind of scenario, “I’ll be able to get rid of this awful feeling I have inside and feel safe.”

But I think a clearer understanding of pure emotion vs. conscious intent comes from an analysis of the phenomenon of raised hackles. Biologists tell us that an animal raises its hackles in order to make himself look bigger to his enemy. But does a dog (or an owl or a porcupine) intend to make himself look bigger, and thus think, “I should raise my hackles (or my feathers or my quills). Then I’ll be safe!” Of course not. The behavior is controlled by the autonomic nervous system; it’s no more under conscious control than a raise in blood pressure caused by a frightening stimulus. By the same token, neither does Boomer have a conscious intent to damage or harm or kill Malachi; just to reduce or resolve his own emotional tension. And if Malachi is the source of that tension than Boomer will be highly attracted to him as a result. Either that or he’ll run away.

So why doesn’t Boomer (or Malachi, or any dog) always run away?

Good question. I think the answer is because that when a dog is in an aggressive mood he’s already beginning to download his fear energy through aggression. The other part, particularly with Boomie and Mally, is that the most prominent psychological characteristic of dogs as a species, and Labs in general is that they’re friendly animals. They want and need to form strong social bonds, both with humans and with other dogs. So Boomer’s fear is not a pure fear. It’s an amalgam of the fear of what Malachi might do to him, and a desire to make friendly contact with a possible packmate and potential playmate. If it were pure fear then, yeah, Boomer would avoid Malachi like the plague, and vice versa.

If you still think Boomer and Malachi didn’t have an intense attraction for one another, when they first met outside Boomer’s brownstone, my back muscles and knee joints would beg to differ. So would Frances’.

Here’s what happened:

Boomer and his owners live a few blocks away from the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Malachi was staying with Frances Kuffel, my former literary agent, who lives a few blocks in another direction. She agreed to bring Malachi along for this training exercise, which is simply to try to take both dogs on a walk together. (As I mentioned yesterday, when two dogs hate each other and you walk them together, the parallel movement stimulates a fixed-action pattern similar to the way wolves move in synch, side-by-side, when they go out on the hunt; this type of harmonious movement temporarily dissipates their aggression.)

I met Frances and Malachi at her place, then she and I came over to Boomer’s building. I went inside to get Boomer and had Frances wait across the street with Malachi. She was a little worried about what would happen, and so was I. Make no mistake about it, all theory aside, this was going to be brutal! At least initially. But I knew that once we got the dogs walking together everything would settle down.

When I brought Boomer outside he was happy and excited. Then he saw Frances and Malachi. At first he did nothing. He loves Frances. And Malachi was clear across the street -- no danger there. But Malachi has less impulse control than most dogs, so he began barking at Boomer, and lunged in our direction, nearly pulling Frances off her feet. This caused Boomer to become a “sled dog,” he pulled me toward Malachi, matching the other dog’s barks with vocalizations of his own.

Frances was saying, “Now, Mally, settle down,” in a quiet, reasonable tone. This was kind of amusing to me and basically pointless, but at least she wasn’t screaming “No!” at the dog, which would’ve made things worse. (She should have praised him.)

Meanwhile I got Boomer under control by pulling hard on the six-foot leash with my left hand (which from the flying position I was in threw my lower back muscle into spasms) until I was able to make a temporary loop, which I held in my right. Then I let Boomer lunge by dropping the temporary loop, spun around on my right heel, and ran in the other direction. This discombobulated Boomie long enough for me to show him some kibble, invite him to jump up on me to take it, which he did, and that dissipated his energy momentarily. While Boomer was eating from my hand (with his back turned to Malachi), I told Frances, “Go down to the boardwalk and we’ll meet you there!”

She complied.

When Boomer and I got to the promenade, and the two dogs were again face-to-face, there was another loud explosion from both of them. This time, however, all I needed to do was make a kissing sound and Boomer spun around to me, ready to jump up and get some more kibble. Then I got him walking toward the far end of the promenade and motioned to Frances to follow. (We couldn’t hear each other very well due to a helicopter flying low above us.)

Frances and Malachi caught up with me and Boomer, and as the four of us walked along there was a bit of aggressive eye contact passing between both dogs, but no lunging or barking. Then, after what amounted to one small city block the dogs had settled down quite nicely; Frances and I were praising them the whole time.

Then an interesting thing happened, Boomer veered energetically off to the left and took a long pee, When he was done, and we moved back next to Frances and Malachi, he started looking over at the younger dog with no aggressive feelings at all. His eyes, which had been narrowed and hard before, and almost glinting, had now softened considerably. So had his muscles and his body language. In fact, he seemed to want to make normal, social contact. He began walking directly behind Malachi, pulling me in that direction (which I allowed him to do, sensing his lack of aggression). He went right up behind the dog he’d tried to kill just minutes before, and began sniffing his butt! That’s akin to a friendly handshake in the human world!

Malachi didn’t like that much, though, so he spun around and barked at Boomer, trying to make him to back off. Boomer didn’t like Malachi barking at him so a tiny fracas ensued, which I was able to easily disperse again with a kissing sound, which caused Boomie to turn around and look at me. Once I got Boomer’s attention, Malachi was fine and there was no more trouble.

We walked clear to the far end of the promenade, then up Montague Street, and met a few other doggies along the way, whom both dogs sniffed and said hello to at the same time, with their noses within mere inches of one another, and there was no emotional tension. At one point I thought Boomer might even relieve himself again, this time to empty his bowels -- which would’ve been a real positive step -- but he still wasn’t feeling like totally letting go of his aggression.

The session ended with both dogs worn out, tired, and mostly in-synch, though not totally in phase, with one another (meaning I won't be allowing them to try to play together at the dog run just yet).

Frances asked, “Does this mean they won’t try to kill each other again?”

I said, “Probably not. It’s just a step. But at least Boomer knows now that he and Malachi can get along. That’s gonna help in the long run.”

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Monday, October 8, 2007

Blog Carnival

Here's a link to a recent "blog carnival" with several trainers offering tips.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

How to Cure Jumping Up

I’m in the process of revamping my website, and I want to make a list of training tips available here (on the left). So here’s another tip from one of my newsletters.
How to Cure Jumping Up
Does Muttsy jump up on you whenever you come home? Does he do the same thing when friends come to visit? Have you been telling him “Down!” or “Off!” with little or no results?

There’s an easy fix, but first you should know that when a dog jumps up he’s usually expressing an energetic state called “social attraction.” This is not something you’d want to quash or squelch in your dog. In fact, you actually want to nurture more of it, because social attraction is the repository for the same emotions that make Muttsy want to come when called and walk nicely next to you on the leash. These emotions comprise one of the basic keys to Natural Dog Training.

There are two simple rules about jumping up: the dog should never be rewarded for jumping up unless hes asked to do so (i.e., given the command to jump up) first, and 2.) the dog should never be punished for jumping up, at least not overtly. To “enforce” the first rule, just make sure that whenever Muttsy jumps up without being asked to, simply twist sideways while saying, “Okay, off!” in a pleasant, inviting tone. His idea is to make contact; yours is to not let him.

As for teaching Muttsy to jump up on command, that’s pretty simple too. Just show him a treat or a toy, hold it in front of his nose, then move it up to your knee or thigh, or wherever Muttsy would naturally put his paws if he were to jump up. As he jumps up say “Hup!’ in an inviting tone. (When first teaching a new behavior it’s always a good idea to give the command after the dog has already obeyed it, not before—it sounds backwards, I know, but it works much better during the initial learning stages.) 

For dogs who show an initial reluctance to jump up, try doing this while seated for a few days, then transition to getting the dog to jump up while you're standing.

Once you've gotten the dog to jump up on command, and the dog has taken the treat or toy from your hand, twist sideways while saying, “Okay, off!” in an inviting one. With most dogs you’ll only need to do this for a few days and he’ll have learned to jump up on command—no more need for treats or toys.

For XXL dogs, have them jump up to an outstretched arm, or just have them lean up against you. For dogs who are shy about jumping up, start from a sitting position or even by lying down on the floor. Gently encourage the dog to come make contact, starting with just one paw on your chest and building slowly and gently from there. 

Give yourself something like two weeks of short, two-minute sessions, several times a day to bring this type of dog along. For dogs who are too energetic about jumping up, teach them that they only get rewarded when they make calm, steady contact. No “pogo-ing” allowed! 

After a few days add a twist: hold the dog’s collar as you give him the treat or toy. Don’t let him jump down (or if he’s an XXL dog, don’t let him stop leaning against you) on his own. If he tries to break contact, hold him in place for a fraction of a second, then let him go while saying, “Okay, off!”

Okay, now that the dog has learned the “Hup!” and the “Okay, off!” it’s time to trick him! 

Stand as you usually do, then pat your knee or thigh, but don’t say “Hup!” Just induce him to jump up without giving him the command, just use the treat and hand gesture. When he jumps up, step back or twist sideways. Don’t let him make contact! Do this two or three times in a row, depending on how soon he starts to show uncertainty about what you want him to do. Then, on the third or fourth time, pat your knee and say, “Hup!” Praise and pet him when he obeys.

With really hard cases it’s okay to put the leash on, let it fall to the floor, stand on it with just a little slack so that Muttsy self-corrects when he tries to jump up. When he does self-correct give him lots and lots of praise so that his positive social emotions and energy don’t shut off.

Do this for a few minutes, several times a day, for two or three days, and you’ll be surprised at how Muttsy no longer jumps up, yet is still socially attracted to you!

Detailed descriptions of these exercises can be found in the groundbreaking book Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious?

The following post is already available elsewhere. Summer’s Mommy e-mailed me today about a trainer she’s been working with who uses some of the same techniques we do, but is still hung up on the dominance label. If you know anyone like that, e-mail them this post.
Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious?
Dominance: I Know It When I See It!
You hear a lot of talk among dog owners, dog trainers, and even the man on the street, about dominance in dogs. What is it, exactly? Is it an instinctive behavioral tendency, an inherited genetic trait, part of a natural power struggle to become top dog? We all have our own ideas as to what it means, and we all “know it when we see it,” but what are its scientific origins? How does it manifest in behavioral terms? Does it have a sound evolutionary purpose? Or is it based on a simple misunderstanding of a dog’s true emotional nature?

One clue is that in multiple dog households you often hear owners say that one dog is “dominant” over food, while another may be “alpha” over the couch, and a third may be “the pack leader” when it comes to who’s first through the door or who gets to play with which toys. But if dominance were a real genetic behavioral tendency, geared toward ruling the roost, why would it be so specific to food bowls and not to the best sleeping spots and going through doorways and controlling how others play as well? Why wouldn’t one dog in a multiple dog pack be dominant about everything? Isn’t that his role as the pack leader?

As part of a new trend away from this idea, many experts in animal behavior are now beginning to replace the old terms of dominant and submissive behaviors with the more accurate threatening and non- threatening postures. In other words, where before we’d see a dog acting dominant over food but not over the couch or during play, we now know that he might simply exhibit a series of threatening postures to keep other dogs away from his food bowl in the one case, but not exhibit such postures in the others. Is this true dominance, or is the dog simply engaging in resource guarding—keeping the other dogs from having access to the things that mean the most to him individually? If it’s resource guarding, then the behavior is probably caused by simple possessiveness, not by an instinctive need or desire to be “alpha.”

It might clarify things if we knew how the idea of dominant behavior originated.

A Reflexive Dance
Konrad Lorenz was the first to describe the basic difference between dominance and submission in canines his 1952 book KING SOLOMON’S RING. He stated that when two dogs or wolves are engaged in a conflict, the defeated animal supposedly offers his neck to the other because if he does he’ll “never be seriously bitten. The other growls and grumbles, snaps with his teeth in the empty air and even carries out, without delivering so much as a bite, the movement of shaking something to death. However, this strange inhibition from biting persists only as long as the defeated dog or wolf maintains his attitude of humility.”

Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange (a word that even Lorenz uses) that when two animals are fighting one would offer himself up to the other to be executed? Why wouldn’t he struggle with all his might to survive? Does this dog suddenly have some magical awareness of Ghandi’s “peaceful resistance?” Has he studied Zen? Or is something else going on?

That’s exactly what biologist Rudolf Schenkel, who disagreed with the alpha theory from the very outset, said. “It is always the inferior wolf,” Schenkel wrote, “who has his jaws near the neck of his opponent.” Schenkel also points out that it’s the supposedly dominant wolf or dog who walks away from the fight, making him “more vanquished than victor.”

Now that makes sense. The submissive wolf actually has his teeth closer to the throat of his opponent, putting him at a slight advantage. That’s why the “dominant” wolf doesn’t bite, and that’s why he walks away without finishing his enemy off. Yes, the lower wolf is in a weaker position physically, but he’s not rolling over on his side in submission or to commit suicide; he’s putting himself in a position that, given the weaker nature of his temperament, feels most natural to him, yet still enables him to defend himself if need be.

The behaviors of both parties probably originated simply for the evolutionary purpose of defusing tension and maintaining harmony between pack mates. Wolves and dogs are predators. And being a predator of any kind requires that you have a reservoir of aggressive energy available to you at all times. But if you’re a group predator, meaning you’re a social animal too, nature doesn’t want that aggression being directed at your brothers-in-arms, she wants it directed only at prey animals and sometimes at other packs who invade your turf. (Which again, is a form of resource guarding.)

Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that either one of the wolves in Lorenz’s example would be consciously aware of his position of advantage or disadvantage, of power or weakness. Instead, it would be much like the interaction between two magnets whose poles counter one another’s energy: the superior wolf has a direct, assertive energy, which when directed at the inferior wolf causes his indirect energy to spin off in the other direction, both physically and emotionally. If they were both direct and both assertive, and came toward each other with ears, tails, and shoulders held high, bloodshed would quickly ensue. But nature is wiser than the individual wolf; she wants the pack to get along, so she created this reflexive dance.

So here we have, at the very start of this idea about dominance and submission, what is probably a major misunderstanding committed by the primary architect of the alpha theory, a misunderstanding so major, in fact that it turns out that the “submissive” wolf or dog is in fact controlling the “dominant” one’s behavior as much if not more than the other way around. Yet despite the simple, obvious logic of Rudolf Schenkel’s view, Konrad Lorenz’ misinterpretation that the weaker wolf is offering his neck because he’s showing submission, or “humility” (as Lorenz calls it), continues to be handed down to us as “fact” today.

They Aren’t the Same Animal
Part of the problem with the manner in which the ideas about dominance and submission emerged may come from the belief that Lorenz and others of his time had that the social behavior of captive wolves, being held prisoner in zoos and sanctuaries, would be much the same as it is in wild wolves, who roamed free in the wilderness. This belief may have arisen partly out of scientific necessity, because during the 1930s and 40s, when these initial studies were done, wild wolves were almost totally inaccessible. That’s no longer true.

Dr. L. David Mech (pronounced Meech) of the University of Minnesota, who has spent his entire career studying wild wolves in their natural habitats, writes, “In captive packs dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves. In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage.” [1]

If Mech is right, then captive wolves and wild wolves aren’t the same animal, at least not when it comes to their social behaviors. In fact, in Mech’s observations over the past forty years, there actually is no pack leader in wild wolf packs, at least not in the traditional sense. He writes, “The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” Mech and his colleagues are also reluctant to use the word alpha because, as they put it, “It falsely implies a hierarchical system in which a wolf assumes a place in a linear pecking order.” They reserve the term alpha for the breeding pair, though Mech says that’s a bit like calling your dad a “male” father.

So in wild wolves there’s usually no hierarchy, no pecking order, and no pack leader. Is there such a thing as dominance?

Yes, says, Mech, though it only occurs in rare instances, and usually only take place over how to disburse food to the young. Yet one of the most striking things about these battles is that it’s usually the “submissive” (or non-threatening) female who triumphs over the “dominant” (aggressively threatening) male! She actually wins by acting in a manner that we’ve all been taught is the instinctive way one wolf will submit to the authority of a dominant pack mate.

How Does a True Dominance Display Happen?
The male has killed a hare and comes trotting back toward the den where, presumably, he wants to eat his kill in peace and safety. As he approaches, the female comes toward him. His neck and back go up. He stands tall and stiff. She approaches, low to the ground. The closer she comes, the stiffer he stands. The stiffer he gets, the lower she gets to the ground. Then as she comes right up to him, while he’s growling and standing firm, she very nearly rolls over on her back in the way the inferior wolf in Lorenz’s description does. Here, though, she’s not on her back and not offering her neck. So why is she so low to the ground? The next part of the drama explains it: crouching in front of her mate, so low to the ground as to almost be on her back, her jaws are actually now in a perfect position to grab the hare right out of the male’s mouth. Which is exactly what she does! Then she runs back to her pups, leaving the male standing there, hare-less and “wondering” what the hell just happened.

So again, this natural behavior in wild wolves is in direct contradiction to the idea that dominance is about being in control. It’s not; it’s simply about resource guarding. (The male wants the hare for himself; she wants it for her pups.) And just as in the battle Lorenz described, it’s the non- threatening wolf that actually exerts more control and eventually wins the confrontation.

Are there other times when dominance displays erupt between wild wolf pack members? Yes, they happen rarely and usually occur when the pack is hungry and hasn’t hunted large prey in a while. This might explain why dominant behaviors are much more common in captive wolves who never get a chance to hunt large prey together as a real wolf pack would.

Dominance = Anxiety
Wait, let’s go back. Why would hunting large prey reduce a wolf’s tension?

Simple. Because hunting large prey uses up a lot of aggressive energy. In wild wolf packs this goes a long way to reducing their individual levels of internal tension and stress. But since captive wolves don’t have access to this natural method of reducing stress, or of offloading their natural predatory aggression, or of fostering group harmony (you can’t hunt large prey without working together), captive wolves find themselves fighting over little things instead; that’s what they do with their aggressive energy—they scrimmage.

The same process would be apparent in both village dogs and domesticated dogs. Village dogs don’t usually hunt together; they mostly scavenge. So they tend to have the same build up of tension seen in captive wolves, so they skirmish a lot. With pet dogs, who are like both village dogs and captive wolves in that they don’t routinely hunt as a group, it’s often the most “dominant” dog in a household who doesn’t know how to play, for example. And since play is nature’s stand-in for the hunt (it teaches young predators how to catch prey, and young prey animals how to avoid being killed), it’s a great tension reducer, as well as a kind of social “glue”—it bonds dogs and owner together emotionally. And for dogs, in fact for all animals, social play is probably the best tension-reducer there is.

That’s why when a “dominant” dog is taught how to play hunting games in a harmonic social context, or when his owner or trainer find another way to reduce his inner anxiety, you’ll find that all his supposed instinctual dominant behaviors begin to “magically” disappear.

So it turns out that what we’ve all been taught was “dominance” is really two things: a build up of internal stress, and a form of resource guarding, which is an anxiety-based behavior.

Wait, dominance is nothing more than a form of anxiety? Yep. The standard pharmacological treatment for “dominance aggression” in dogs comes in the form of anti-anxietal medication. And though these drugs don’t cure “dominance aggression,” they are generally effective at managing it! So yes, clearly “dominance” is just a symptom of anxiety.

Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “The ‘alpha’ concept is an outdated one with almost no data to support it. There are no truly ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant/alpha’ dogs, and by [using] these labels we blind ourselves to all of the interesting information that dogs are communicating with [their] postures.” (“Interdog aggression: What are the warning signs?” April 1, 2002, DVM Magazine)

So now we’re back to our new terminology: dominant and submissive behaviors aren’t what they seem: they’re more rightly called threatening and non-threatening postures. And they aren’t inherited traits in dogs and wolves, nor are they part of the pack instinct’s non-existent hierarchical structure; they’re simply communicative actions and postures that express a dog’s inner tension, stress, and anxiety. So the upshot of all this is, if you think your dog is dominant, you might want to take another look. He could just be anxious and need a lot more play time…

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"
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1) Mech has since gone back on this statement. Ignoring the data he gathered during his 9 summers studying the Ellesmere Island pack, he now says that dominance is a key feature of canine social behavior.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Coming When Called at the Dog Run

Here's a fun exercise for teaching your dog to come when called at the dog run.
Coming When Called at the Dog Run
It's fun to run as hard as you can!
Whenever you take your dog to the dog run, always bring along some treats and the squeaker from a squeaky toy. Always pay close attention to your dog. When he’s not interacting with other dogs, or not sniffing around, and seems to need something to do, give a loud whistle, or clap your hands, or squeak the squeaker. (If I’m in a big dog run I’ll use an actual ref’s whistle.) 

When he looks at you, show him that you’ve got a treat. BUT DON’T CALL HIM TO YOU YET! Wait until he starts running toward you. Then, while he’s already in the process of running, say “Muttsy, come!” in an excited voice. Then reward him with the treat and a lot of praise. (It wouldn’t be a bad idea to jump up and act happy and get him to chase you around a little too.) 

This will probably excite not only your dog but several other dogs in the vicinity, so let things settle down a little, and the dogs will start playing again. Wait until there’s another lull in the action, and repeat. Do this every time you go to the dog run, and within a few weeks, you’ll have a dog who loves running back to you whenever you call!

Another cool trick is to play a modified version of “hide-n-seek”: When your dog isn’t paying attention to you, move. Go stand or sit somewhere else. Then, when he looks back to where you were standing or sitting, and can’t see you, he’ll suddenly have a strong desire to find you. When he does, wave a treat and run away. He’ll come flying toward you as fast as he can. As he does, say, “Muttsy, come!” in an excited voice, then reward him with the treat and a little bit of chase. (Most dog runs frown on people getting dogs to chase them around like this, so you have to keep it to minimum.)

After a few days of doing these exercises, your dog will automatically start looking for you more often when there’s a lull in the action. He’ll even start coming back to check in with you from time to time. It’s vitally important during this stage, that every time he comes back to you on his own, without any direction from you, that you praise him and give him a tasty treat.

One other important bit of advice, if your dog is in the habit of running away when it’s time to leave the run and go home, never stand there with the leash in your hand and call him! Have the leash hidden, and put it on your dog while he’s distracted by eating a treat out of your hand. Another good tip: after you leash him up, take him for a brisk walk, a game of chase and tug, while running or jogging around or near the dog run. Then take him back inside and let him loose again.

If your dog has as much fun playing with you as he does with the other dogs, you may find that when you get back inside the dog run he’ll actually hang around you for a while before he finally runs off and throws himself into the tumble of dogs waiting for him. If you do these exercises often enough, and make your dog’s experience of leaving the run with you as fun for him as being inside with the other dogs, he won’t associate the leash with the feeling that “the fun is over.” And the really cool thing is, after just a few weeks of playing with him, you can simply show him the leash and he’ll come running over to you to be leashed up. You won't need to keep doing this every day, either. Nor will you have to keep giving him treats every time he comes (you should gradually wean him off the treats altogether any- way; they're just a tool for those initial stages of learning).

Have fun at the dog run!

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