Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Post About Dogs and Doorways

This entry starts with the opening section of Chapter 7 in my second Jack and Jamie novel, Murder Unleashed. (It's currently out of print but I'm going to republish at some point.) Jack has driven Jamie to a crime scene where a boxer named Roarke is inside a dead man's car, snarling and growling, preventing the police investigators from getting inside. Jack offers to help out. The police think Roark killed the man, but Jack isn't so sure. The reason I'm re-visiting this bit of detective fiction now is that it illustrates the energy dynamic behind a common household behavioral problem: dogs who jump up, bark too much, or want to bite when anyone who comes over to visit.

Dogs and Doorways
Unlike Jamie—or any woman who’s angry at her mate—most dogs will bite only as a last resort. It’s kind of a paradox, too, since the urge to bite is at the core of a dog’s most positive social instincts. This idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of course, which says that a dog’s social instincts revolve around issues of dominance and submission; who’s alpha and who’s not. But in my opinion—and in the opinion of more and more experts these days—there is no such thing as an alpha dog. No canine has any desire to be alpha, and no ability to form a social hierarchy based on concepts like rank and status. (Dogs don’t think conceptually.) My belief is that the pack is actually a self-emergent heterarchy, in which the behaviors of the individual dogs create the social structure, the social structure doesn’t control the individual behaviors.

Besides, all dogs really want to do is to chase things and bite them, which is the foundation of their prey instinct. And canine social behavior is inextricably linked to prey drive, particularly the need to hunt large prey. If wolves and dogs didn’t hunt in packs, they’d be more like foxes (who never hunt large prey and therefore don’t need a pack instinct).

Think of it like this: When a lone wolf bites into a fleeing rabbit the crunch of bone and flesh between his teeth and jaws is a highly pleasurable thing. But when that same wolf--working in glorious synchronicity with his packmates--bites into a galloping deer or a cornered elk and feels the moist, hot, massive flesh tear away from the animal’s heaving body, while his packmates are all emotionally aligned to the same purpose, and are all filled with the same wild emotions, that, my friends, is pure ecstasy.

I should know. I was a wolf in a former life.

This didn’t make my journey across the road to Judge Merton’s Cadillac any less nerve-wracking. I’d dealt with aggressive dogs before. I’d even been bitten four or five times, though most of the incidents were accidental; a high-strung standard poodle named Ozymandius once tried to grab a tennis ball from my hand and bit me on the thumb instead. A poor, neurotic boxer named Spike did the same thing to my arm. (Either I moved at the last second or he had bad aim.) My saving grace with Roark was I knew that he liked to play fetch, which is why I had a tennis ball in my pocket just in case I couldn’t lure him out of the car with the liver treats.

I had another thing on my side—a sensible caution based on a studied understanding of a dog’s den instincts. You see, there’s this thing about dogs and doorways. The dominance crowd believes that a dog who goes through a door ahead of you is trying to be alpha. Supposedly one of the perks of being the top dog is being the first to go through any opening. This is total nonsense of course. The truth is much simpler (it always is): Whenever a dog senses movement at the threshold of the den, his bite reflex is automatically stimulated. Why? My theory is that crossing thresholds is a risky business; there might be danger just outside of the den door when, there might be danger lurking inside when you come home. A canine’s bite reflex has to be right up on the surface, available to use, whenever he leaves the den or whenever someone else comes in. This is the only reason some dogs and wolves snap at others who go through a door ahead of them. It has nothing to do with being alpha. It’s just that the bite reflex is always stimulated around the den door. And for some dogs, movement around a car door or window is much more stimulating than movement around the front door of your house or apartment.

I remembered all this as I approached Roark, ending up about four feet from the passenger side of the car. By this time, he was a barking, snarling maniac—just as Flynn and Quentin Peck had described him. The car door was the same for him as the door to a wolf’s den. He was ready to guard it with his life. Any attempt by me, or anyone else, to get inside that car, or to even put a hand through the door, would result in bloodshed. Offering him a liver treat would lose me a finger. Teasing him with a tennis ball, then throwing it across the ice would have no effect. The question was: How could I entice him to get out of the car voluntarily?

I couldn’t. I realized I’d have to force him out somehow. I wished for a moment that I’d waited for Animal Control. Having a padded suit on, even wearing just the arm pad, would certainly help. I had quick mental image of Roark grabbing hold of my padded arm with his teeth, the way attack dogs are trained do, and that’s when it hit me; tug-of-war. Screw the liver treats, screw the tennis ball, screw the army blanket. All I needed was something Roark could sink his teeth into. Then—once he was fully committed to playing tug-of-war with me—I could yank him out of the car and onto the ice. Presto!

I searched my pockets for a tug-toy or a bandana. Then I noticed the tassels of the ragg wool scarf Jamie’s mother, Laura, had given me for Christmas and thought, “Shit, there goes a perfectly good muffler.” I untwirled it from around my neck and had a [nearly] perfect tug toy.

I opened the door, and as soon as I did, Roark faked a lunge at me, but stayed inside, as I knew (or hoped) he would. I began teasing him with my makeshift tug toy, waving it around the door, trying to entice him to grab hold of it. He was more intent on growling and snarling at me, though, so I began praising him as I danced the scarf in front of his nose. The praise was not to reward him for trying to kill me, but to make him feel that we were on the same side; that we both wanted the scarf ‘dead’. I even threw in a few fake growls of my own, to let him know that the two of us were killing the scarf together.

It worked. He stopped focusing on me and grabbed the scarf and pulled on it, hard. In fact, he pulled so hard he almost yanked me into the car. I don’t know how, but I managed to stay upright. We played tug for a few seconds, me praising him and doing my fake, ‘play-growl’ the whole time, and then I used the scarf, and leverage from the open car door, to pull Roark’s ass outside and onto the icy ground. He lost hold of the scarf, then grabbed it again. What a silly goose. He wanted to kill me a moment earlier, now he was helping me ‘kill’ my muffler.

I let go of the scarf and praised him for beating me—which is how all tug-of-war games should end; you always praise the dog for winning. Then, while he shook his head around as if breaking the neck of the fallen scarf, I took hold of his leash, which he’d been wearing while he was in the car, and began to lead him gently up the side of the ditch, stopping for just a moment to take a look inside the vehicle. Just as I’d thought, there was almost no blood visible on the judge’s spent air bag. He’d been murdered before he got behind the wheel of his car, and the killer wanted to make it look like Roark had torn the judges throat to shreds.

I was startled by an unfamiliar sound. I looked across the road and saw that everyone was standing outside their vehicles, applauding.

Okay, so what does this have to do with controlling your dog’s greeting behaviors? It’s pretty simple, really. One of the reasons dogs jump up on guests, or bark madly, or spin in happy circles, or even nip their sleeves or bite their butts is because of this atavistic impulse that gets switched on anytime there’s movement around the den door, particularly if it involves a non-pack member coming through that opening. These behaviors are simply various ways a dog has of offloading the energy behind that urge to bite in more socially acceptable ways.

What do you do to stop these behaviors? That’s pretty simple too: you teach the dog that when the doorbell rings, or the buzzer sounds, or there’s a knock at the door that her job is to first sniff the person, then go grab a toy and bring it to the door with her. If she’s a fairly typical dog, the feeling of having that toy in her mouth will satisfy that urge to bite and totally offset all the other behavioral quirks she may have previously exhibited.

Boywunder posted a link to a radio interview with Kevin Behan in the comments section, but you have to cut and paste to get to it. Here's a direct version of that link.