Why Not Pass The Puppy?

puppy conditioning exercise
In this image a trainer demonstrates conditioning a pup to being handled – no force is used.

Recently I read the responses a client had given in her Behaviour Q (which is the basis to the history taking ahead of a behaviour consultation) and noted how during puppy class her pup was often put in the “settle pose” for behaviour that was considered unwanted as well as the pup’s perceived comfort whilst being handed around during “pass the puppy”.

These are two antiquated and out-dated exercises that are still practiced in some puppy classes. So why not pass the puppy? Why not make pups submit to the settle pose?

It is true that we want your puppy to be friendly and affiliative with new people, but the way to ensure this is to expose the puppy, when he/she is neurodevelopmentally ready to do so, with the experience of new people.

The experience of new people should be that they are warm and nurturing – not giants that pick you up and pass you around as if you are their next meal.

The pup makes the choice to engage and that engagement results in a positive association – yummy treats. “Passing the puppy” takes away the puppy’s control and essentially allows a fearful puppy (maybe undetected) to be overwhelmed. This is what flooding looks like. A puppy that is worried about the approach of strangers should not be passed around as it confirms to the pup that the approach of new people is scary. If a pup cannot move away he/she may learn that a better strategy to keep these scary people away will be to act more threatening him/herself.

The “settle pose” was described as scruffing the dog till he desisted. It is used when a pup, who is acting in ways we don’t like, is held by the scruff, and asked to settle. The thought behind this is that it shows the dog who is in control – you – and that struggling or displaying any signs of resistance is pointless. This is relatively easy to do to a small pup and is very reinforcing for owners, as they immediately feel they have stopped whatever it is they don’t like and have therefore solved a problem. Trainers may tell owners that this is what a mother dog might do too and so therefore it is natural and normal and allows an effective way to communicate with your dog. Like you are speaking their language.

The problem with this is that it is untrue. Mother dogs do not scruff their puppies. Yes they move them like this, very gently when they need to, up until a certain age, but they do not grab them by the back of the neck and shake them.

And besides we are not dogs’ mothers. It is very likely that pups do not mistake us for their mothers. We are humans and we are scary enough.

When we physically restrain a dog and punish him with our touch we teach a dog that we will use force to get our way and that we do not care that they are experiencing distress. Their subtle signals do not work on us. We are not listening to what the body language is telling us (“I am afraid”, “I am overwhelmed”,  “I am over threshold”) and we continue on till the dog gives up. This neither helps the dog learn a behaviour that we want, (no replacement behaviour is taught) nor does it change the negative association into a positive one. It is unhelpful in so many ways. Later, as the dog grows, the “settle pose” can no longer be easily administered and many a person has been bitten attempting to assert themselves over a worried dog. The dog will then be labelled “dominant” and treated with more punishment. The cycle of misunderstanding will continue, till eventually the dog bites and bites hard. Then the dog will be euthanased or rehomed.

We do want the dog to be able to be relaxed, even on his back, perhaps being cradled in your lap – but this is done through slow manipulation of a relaxed and calm pup – a puppy that has come to be very trusting of what human touch means.

A pup receives deep, slow, long pats so he lies down and then once he has chosen to lie down, then he can be gently stroked along his belly. The pup is not forced into any position and  is not held down against his will. The pup is not scruffed.

Dr Karen Overall DACVB (my behaviour guru) says: “scruffing by humans is inappropriate to use in dogs”. That alone should be enough of a reason to stop this exercise.

Please give pups CHOICE, recognise when they are fearful and start making positive associations with the triggers of their fearfulness.

 

 

 

Losing the growl…

Jimmy brave

Everyone wants to have a dog that “you can do anything to.” But the reality is that even though these dogs do exist, we shouldn’t expect that dogs will behave in this way. Just as we are all individuals and have individual abilities to deal with life’s stresses, so do dogs. Some are more affable than others. Some are rarely frightened or worried.

But to be fearful is not a choice dogs make.

Just because the dog you grew up with as a child was able to be pulled around by children and dressed in outfits does not mean that the next Labrador you own will also respond with polite disdain to the rambunctious attention of toddlers.

Daily I explain to caregivers the need to understand canine communication – and the more proficient humans are at reading the low level stress signs of their canine companions the better they are at predicting the outcome of encounters, and at protecting and redirecting their dogs before the dog becomes worried enough to bite.

Humans are hard wired to understand that the low guttural sound that a dog delivers when it growls means “keep away from me.” The point of growling for the dog is to make it clear to the person, or other animal, to whom the dog is directing his growl that he is uncomfortable about this encounter and wants it to stop. NOW. It is a clear and unambiguous sign that the dog is in real discomfort over the encounter and you should always heed it. Take note of what caused the dog to growl because now you have something to work on. You have identified a TRIGGER. But the time for teaching is not now.

When we tell a dog off for growling (which is almost everyone’s automatic response) we are essentially telling the dog that we are not listening to his attempts to communicate.

When we add scolding the dog also learns that the encounter was as negative as he felt it to be, and yes he was right to attempt to end the encounter. But it also teaches the dog that growling does not have the effect he wanted. The encounter continues sometimes with punishment added in. Sometimes caregivers physically reprimand the growl by pushing or yanking the dog – further confirming to him that his communication is ineffective.

After enough failed attempts at signalling politely with a growl the dog may proceed to snapping or biting and the humans are apt to label this as “coming out of nowhere.”

Please thank your dog for growling.

Understand that removing a growl from a dog, through the use of punishment, does nothing to change the dog’s association with the person, or other animal, but just removes a valuable communication tool. It is like removing the smoke detector from the home. It increases the risks of living with a dog. To change the behaviour of growling the dog must be taught a new positive association with the person or circumstance that creates the feeling of unease. This is done, not when the dog is growling, but at a later time when a desensitisation and counter conditioning program can be constructed. This is the kind of work we do at ANIMAL SENSE.

 

Dominance thinking getting in the way…

companion

Daily I am confronted by the pervasiveness of dominance theory as a describer of canine behaviour problems. As an explanation for canine behaviour it befuddles clients with advice like not letting dogs go through doorways first, getting them off high vantage spots like couches or beds and insisting owners take stuff from their dogs.

The theory suggests to caregivers that dogs are on a mission to rule the planet and take over the world, and that any hint of aggression is a dog’s signal to you that you are “below” them in some pack hierarchy. This kind of magical thinking gets owners all worked up into making sure their dog understands who is boss – suddenly rules are changed in households and dogs are being ordered about – because this is what “alphas” do.

Can you see how confusing this is to dogs? Dogs who like couches like comfy spots. Big deal. Dogs who like human beds like to be close to their people and the smells and coziness of being next to members of their social group. Dogs who exit doorways first are simply in a rush to get outside, because dogs find it hard to wait for good stuff, and may not have been taught to exit in any other way. Dogs who want to keep hold of something tasty they have been given are just normal, greedy dogs and maybe haven’t been taught to exchange in the first place.

Assigning dominance to dogs has resulted in may dogs being confused and mistreated. When a dog has an issue with aggression it is more likely to have come about through fear and anxiety. It may be genetically predisposed and have been reinforced through prior learning. There are many explanations for aggression to humans, but when the detective work is done – pain, anxiety, fear, conflict and learning are some of the possible causes – but dominance is not one of them.

Aggression is a tool that dogs use to keep scary things away.

It is what we call a distance-increasing signal that tells the receiver that I need space from you. Invariably signals to indicate this need for space have been given before the bite but many times humans have missed these. Sometimes humans have punished previous signals such as growls, as they make them uncomfortable, and hence the growl is forgone as either ineffective by the dog or not to be expressed. But, if the worry and fear remains, and the person continues to proceed, then the bite becomes more likely.

This is what caregivers should be spending their time contemplating. What makes the dog uncomfortable? List triggers. And then how do I change the emotional association with that object/event/person into a positive one. It is not curative to suppress a growl by admonishing it – since the fear remains. Cure only comes about through changing the way a dog feels. Actions are an expression of emotions. If you want the dog to be safe, then this is the kind of work that needs to be done. And in the meantime set up the environment so the dog is no longer coming into contact with the objects, persons or events that create that fear in the first place.