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.


Sang Koh said...

Hey Lee, this doesn't have anything to do with your post about dogs and doorways. Though it was another great post:)

But I stumbled across a radio interview of Kevin on a local radio show and thought I'd share it so others could hear more about Kevin's philosophy and beliefs if they're interested, and didn't know where else to post it.

Hope you're doing well:)


LCK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LCK said...

I got a comment from our friend "anonymous" the other day. In case you don't remember, I told him quite clearly that if he wanted to debate issues here he was welcome to do so. Unfortunately his recent comment, which was several paragraphs long, was almost pure personal hostility; no discussion of issues at all, just attacks against me and Kevin (based on a complete misunderstanding of the principles in Kevin's book). His major hang-up is still the fact that we will occasionally recommend using a prong collar with certain types of dogs. He can't seem to get past that or discuss it logically or reasonably. It's stuck in his mind that any trainer who uses a prong collar isn't any good. And that's not a productive comment. Nowhere has he ever explained why he feels that way.

Yes, I've decried the use of the gentle leader as loudly and as often as possible. And yes, I have questioned the sensitivity of trainers who use and recommend them. But I've always given clear, rational reasons for my position. It's never been a hostile, ad hominen attack. (Sarcastic sometimes, yes; not hostile.)

At any rate, here's the only passage from "Anonymous" that I felt was postworthy:

"I hope that you continue to have success as a dog trainer ... Paco Adamiak."

Quite a distillation from several paragraphsl, huh?

As I've said before, I think it's unfortunate when ideology interferes with a free exchange and examination of ideas. I've seen this time and time again, where people get locked into their own ideology and are unable to process new or opposing ideas as a result.

Anyway, these are just my general observations. I have no interest in attacking anyone personally. So, again, Paco, if you want to discuss issues, feel free to do so. But I would very much appreciate it if you would NOT send me such hostile stuff again. I asked you this once before, remember? I pointed out that I have taken the time to discuss issues with you on a personal, almost friend-to-friend, or at least collegial basis. And you don't have the right to come into my home (through my computer) and attack me with such petulance and hostility.

And by the way, as I've learned from training dogs the Natural Dog Training way, whenever I find myself getting angry at a dog I'm working with I almost immediately recognize that I'm really only angry at myself.

Something to think about,


PS: I encourage you to listen to Kevin's radio interview. You might be pleasantly surprised...

Anonymous said...

This isn't related to your current post.. but.. will you do a book review on this one?

Bruce Fogle
The Dog's Mind

LCK said...

Unfortunately I don't have the time to re-read and review the book right now, but I remember thinking when I first looked at it (which was sometime in 1994 or 5) that it was one of the few books I'd come across that made more sense than not.

I also remember not agreeing totally with Fogle's views, but that he was on the right track.

This is my best recollection of the material.

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful.


LCK said...

Incidentally, there are 2 anonymous posters mentioned on this thread so far. The previous one (our "friend" Paco) tried submitting another comment the other day, which as usual had no substance just a lot of attitude.

In his most recent attempted post he complained that I should let his views be read by others, which is something I've already said I would do as long as he gave me clear, debatable points based on logic, science, or personal experience, NOT based purely on his opinion.

Unfortunately Paco has repeatedly failed to do that. His attempted posts are all snotty attitude, opinion, and his own personal beliefs (i.e., prong collars are bad and anyone who would use them doesn't know how to train dogs).

If he WERE to actually give substantive reasons for his views, based on science, logic, or personal experience, I would gladly post them, as I would with anyone else who comes here.


Anonymous said...

I love this idea and can't wait to try it on my Jack Russell, Sissy. She doesn't bite, but jumps and licks. I won't even pretend to have trained her in any form, she trained me. I tend to make excuses for everything she does wrong rather than looking for a way to correct the problems. I have read, or at least started reading, several dog training books, but I always run into something that puts me off because I can't ever see me treating Sissy like that. I do, however, love this idea on how to overcome the jumping on and licking guests. I just finished your book, To Collar a Killer, and was so intrigued by the training ideas in it that I started researching natural dog training immediately upon finishing it. Your book was a wonderful read. I can't wait to start the next one. I am excited to find a way to start training Sissy that is positive, but not food reward related. Do you have any suggestions for the Jack Russell Terrier breed? I also have a Bull Mastiff/German Shepherd cross and a Yellow Lab mix that both think they are lap dogs. None of our dogs have aggressive issues and we have always played with them and rolled around on the ground with them, much to the disgust of some of our friends when we get up with Mastiff drool all over us. This was long before I heard about your ideas, so this reinforces my belief in your methods. Kudos to you for all your hard work in not only the training, but your books as well. I'll let you know how the training goes and can't wait to have not only loving dogs, but well trained ones too.

LCK said...

Hey, Jennie,

Thanks for the kind words.

I've had tons of experience with Jack Russells. I'd have to know what kind of thing you're looking to "fix," though. I don't usually make general comments about specific behavioral tendencies of various breeds.

I WILL say one thing, JRTs seem rarely, if ever, satisfied. All dogs need a job in order to use up their natural energy, whether it's herding sheep, chasing rabbits, or learning to heel, etc. But Jack Russells seem to have a lot more energy to burn than most dogs.

I'd concentrate on the stay exercises in Kevin's book, the down while running, and the recall.

Thanks again for chiming in,


Anonymous said...

Hey, I met you in the east village. I appreciated the comment on my blog that you left.

Almost nobody walks their dog in the rain. It's amazing.

I like your blog. I can't say that I totally agree with what you were saying about the den opening.

It represents going outside and excitement. That's it.

It has an interesting effect on a dog when you leave a door open and just sit in front of it with the dog.

Just walk in and out. Lay down on both sides, sit on both sides, read a book in the door opening.

This way, the door doesn't just represent excitement because she had different experiences with an open door.

I know that dogs are also defenders of the den opening but that's just when a stranger comes to the door.

It's not when nobody is there and you are going to take the dog for a walk. He's happy then not mad.

LCK said...

Hi, Spicy,

Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the feedback.

You're right in a way, and I probably should have brought it up in my article: some of the energy inherent to a dog's reaction to someone coming through the door or going out the door is happy excitement. But that's secondary. That's a learned behavior. What I'm talking about is an unconscious, unlearned, automatic reflex that always stimulates an urge to bite in all dogs.

yes, it's true that you can leave the door open, etc., as you pointed out and that defuses some of the energy about LEAVING to go for a walk (which, again, is a learned behavior). But the thing that most tellingly indicates that the urge to bite is the primary cause of a dog's surge in energy, whether it's a stranger or not, is that even when you come home and your dog is happy to see you, if you teach him to bring you a toy when you come through the door most of his energy will be instantly displaced. There'll be no more circling around, jumping up, crazy tail wagging, whining, etc. All the energy will go directly into that toy (well, a lot of it is, anyway).

And going back to the rather insane belief that some dogs get snippy around doorways and openings because they have to prove who's "alpha," that serves no adaptive purpose. There would be no reason for nature to have created such an instinct; it serves no real purpose survival-wise. On the other hand, having the quickest urge to bite whenever there's movement around the den door IS adaptive, and it does serve an evolutionary purpose.

Also, you have to realize that dogs and wolves spent a very long time living in dens before there were any people around to put leashes on them and take them for walks. So while the excitement to go for a walk is real in some dogs, it's not the main cause of the surge in energy they feel. After all, there are some people who have to coax their dogs to leave the house or apartment, and yet those dogs will still bark at noises and show a lot of excitement when people come over.

It all starts with the urge to bite.


Natalie's Life said...

What happens if your dog really doesn't care for a toy?

Not much of a reward for him to get a toy in lieu of getting a pat and attention... unless, of course, the precursor of getting a pat is to get the toy.

LCK said...

Hi, Natalie,

The point isn't to give the dog a reward, it's to give the dog something to plug his energy into. Since I think the surge of energy is directly related to a dog's urge to bite, grabbing a toy completes the circuit, so to speak.

If your dog doesn't like toys, that's another story. You might want to read "How to Jump Start Your Dog's Prey Drive."


bxrsnkds said...

Hi Lee,

I just came across your blog a few weeks ago and it is alot of info the read. I am enjoying it very much and feel like I am going to learn a few things. I have a question about this doorway thing and apologize if I am off topic at all but we have recently adopted a pitt mix from a local shelter and did not discover his shy/fearful issues until we got him home (long story) anyway at first he did not bark at anything outside but now has started barking at the mailman and other passersby, I like to leave the front door open but if I see the mailman coming and close the door he just moves to the window to do his it ok to let him bark or will this develope into a "bad" territorial behavior? (he growls and paces when we have visitors and then leaves the room until they leave) I have 3 small children and am trying to get a handle on his behavior for safeties sake. Thanks for any insight.


Unknown said...

Wow, this explains a lot.

My 12 yo cocker, Rudy, arrived out my house 8 years ago an emotional disaster. He's come a looong way. He has the cutest "trick". Every time I come home or when someone he knows comes to my house he goes to his toy box and picks up his favorite plush squaeky toy and carries it around as part of his greeting. And NOW I know why he does this! He is a brilliant dog :)

Lou, on the other hand, given the chance, will bite the pant leg or shoes of any person walking through my door. Heck, he grabbed the pant leg of a neighbor walking out her OWN door. Every time he exits my house he lets out a HUGE bark.

LCK, you have explained a LOT. Thanks soooo much.