How the Dog came to be…

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photo by Dr Nicole Laing

Dog domestication remains a controversial topic among researchers.

Some facts are becoming clearer, but many theories still exist and much is still to be nailed down. The popular belief for sometime was that early humans stole wolf pups and then these tamer animals became the founding animals for a species that was to become the domestic dog. But researchers today, who work with wolves and who on a regular basis “steal” the wolf pups at 10 days of age – right as the sensitive period for socialisation begins, have found that this is a tricky process and although the pups are heavily socialised with humans, from soon after birth, they in no way end up behaving like dogs as they mature. It is highly unlikely that neolithic humans, some 10 000 years ago, would have had the energy and time to commit to this. Humans today can barely train their much more approachable dogs!

A more robust theory is that some wolves, who began to scavenge from the outskirts of human settlements, as neolithic man moved to living in villages and no longer roamed as a hunter gatherers, managed to survive better and were more likely to reproduce. Being less shy around the humans, who scraps they fed off, gave them a reproductive advantage over their more risk averse counterparts. Over time these less wary wolves may have made phylogenetic leaps (saltations) that saw their morphology change.

So this evolution was a process that occurred without the active input of people, but similar to any other evolutionary process whereby an animal’s morphology and behaviour changes to meet its niche. The new animals were ones that lived on the periphery of human settlements, adding starch to their diet some 10 000 years ago, not fleeing when humans approached, becoming disestrous (coming in to heat twice a year) and no longer cycling according to seasons because of the adequate supply of nutrients. In the same way as we have domestic rats, mice, cockroaches and pigeons – dogs just came to be. We also learned to live around them – we evolved along side.

Wolves (Canis lupus) may have remained wary and untrusting of people, moving away when people were in sight, and the subset of wolves that went on to become dogs (Canis familiaris) became less and less like wolves in behaviour and appearance. This may have occurred in fact quite quickly as the Silver Fox experiments of Balyaev demonstrates. When he began selecting silver foxes for “tameness” ( not moving away from the outstretched hand) – a whole swathe of morphological characteristics followed suit – the foxes began to show floppy ears, paler colours, bark and play more. In a mere twenty generations, by selecting for a single behavioural characteristic and only breeding these animals together, the whole appearance of the tame fox had changed. This model is helpful when when think of how dogs may have come into being.

The vast number of breeds that we have today are not a reflection of natural selection but rather an example of “unnatural” selection that has occurred for the last few hundred years. Their characteristics do not offer a survival advantage if they were to compete for food ( in the maelstrom of a “village”) and reproductive fitness is definitely lacking in some breeds. The mutations (that arise in any population) have produced desirable breeds, such as the chondrodystrophoid ( dwarf ) and the brachycephalic ( flat faced)  dogs and are examples of what can happen when a random mutation is maintained and promoted through capricious breeding by people, but their presence is very far from what would happen when village dogs the world over breed without the interference of humans.

The household dog of the Western world makes up a mere 15% of the world wide population of domestic dogs.  Village dogs exist much like their ancestors did – scavenging on human detritus – often maligned and considered dangerous and dirty. Their presence might have some impact on reducing waste but they are not working for the humans they surround.

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photograph by Dr John Carles

Household dogs differ in that they are more reliant on the humans they live with, but sadly when humans have selected dogs and constructed “modern” breeds they often have done this with little thought of the desirable traits of a modern pet. Instead they may be selecting on colour, genealogy and unhealthy morphologies that humans find attractive ( eg flat faces) but are not conducive to general health. The end result are individuals with a long list of possible hereditary diseases and behavioural abnormalities who we continue to breed and therefore exacerbate the issues further. In our manipulation of the domestic dog we have sometimes created munted animals that really have a limited niche (a caregiver able to afford expensive healthcare) and whose lives are foreshortened by pain and discomfort. We call dogs “man’s best friend” but is our manipulation of them in their and our best interest?

For more reading on this and on domestication and genetics see:

Grandin, T., & Deesing, M. J. (Eds.). (2013). Genetics and the behavior of domestic animals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxious dogs – what’s really going on…

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Anxiety and anxiousness are words that are thrown around a lot. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what it looks like in humans (fidgety, heart racing, nail biting, worrying thoughts) and we can extrapolate that to dogs. But when is anxiousness a disease state? When should you be seeking help for your pet for suspected anxiety?

It might be somewhat normal to express some worry in a new environment or an environment that previously has been associated with some unpleasantness – eg the vet clinic and hence I think many dogs that show anxiety in their vet clinic may be dismissed as experiencing a normal level of anxiety for the event. For some this is probably reasonable. On questioning they cope well everywhere else and show no behaviours of concern to their caregivers. Make sure to tell your vet if this is not the case.

For others, the vet clinic is just one of many scenarios they display anxiety and it is these dogs that I am talking about. When a dog displays a concerning behaviour think about the frequency, intensity and duration of it to see if it qualifies as pathological. Does it serve a purpose? Or is it beyond what the environmental conditions would reasonably expect?

It is good survivability to feel fear in the face of danger. In a home invasion I hope you get out your baseball bat and swing it (or hide successfully in a cupboard), rather than offer the intruder a cup of tea. I can hear some of you arguing this point right now – but you know what I mean – there is a time to feel threatened, but hopefully it comes a long rarely, and when it does you act appropriately in order to survive. But if every time the door bell rings you act as if your life is in peril then this is a sign that you are living in a state that is unreasonably fearful.

It is bad for your brain and your general health to be living like the sky is falling. Poor little Chicken Little.

So, what do pathologically anxious dogs look like?

  • they show excessive arousal in unfamiliar environments – sometimes this is interpreted as “excited” but really look (at the emotional state) and see what you are witnessing – is this excitement a form of worry? Is there lots of lip licking, yawning, shake offs, whining?
  • they may be “frantic friend makers” – dogs who need to make contact with human faces, groins and lick a lot – all ways to gain and give information – just like the overly talkative person who is covering up their anxiety by talking at a million miles a minute, and laughing at the wrong moments. I see these dogs as the constant apologisers – not comfortable in their own skins and needing to appease everyone they meet.
  • there are physiological signs of over arousal – piloerection (hackles), pupil dilation, stressed vocalisations, panting, dandruff, needing to pee or poop, not being able to eat.
  • they don’t stop moving – they don’t lie after a short while in a new environment but instead remain hyper vigilant and often they are poor sleepers in general. Did you know a normal hound sleeps for 16-18 hours out of 24.
  • they startle and appear skittish to relatively benign sounds, changes in their environment, eg spook at a bin or something out of place in the home. They glimpse something from the corner of the eye and cower or scamper.
  • they might use aggression to keep whatever they are worried about at a safe distance from themselves and they might become better at this over time – becoming more and more offensive looking. They could be labelled “dominant” incorrectly. This is why it is important to ask what they were like when they were young and what did they look like when they first experienced the trigger. Often you will uncover signs of early fearfulness.
  • they make poor judgements about the intentions of others – both dogs and people and can be worried about benign interactions such as collar hold, or misinterpret another dog and warn another dog off, despite the appropriateness of the other dog.
  • they could be overly worried about access to their resources, including human attention, and therefore be poor companions with other canines, always needing to be the one to be next to the human they are bonded to.
  • they could be showing compulsive repetitive behaviours which can take various forms depending on the breed – they could be tail chasing, fly snapping, pacing, light chasing or any combination of these behaviours. As these behaviours become somewhat soothing to the brain they become harder and harder to stop and less and less interruptible. Then they begin to interfere with normal activity.

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What do we uncover in the histories?

There are often some commonalities for these animals:

  • they showed early red flags – eg timid, shy,  and made poor progress in puppy class
  • they came from breeding situations where not a lot of care was taken to select parents and give puppies the highest levels of nurturing care eg mother was in rescue, from a depauperate environment where genes for survivability have been selected for. Remember when selecting a puppy it is advised to know both parents – this is not to seeing them on Facebook – this means spending time with them and their breeder and really getting a sense of the dog’s temperament.
  • they have had some punishment in their past – maybe punishment that a “normal” dog would be resilient to, but in the case of the anxious dog it has been a stressor too severe and has caused further sensitisation towards any trigger – so often there is punishment in the history of anxious dogs.
  • they don’t cope well with change – be it in routine or smaller day to day things – anxious brains require predictability and control and whenever this cannot be achieved the animal’s ability to cope falters.
  • they have a “bubble” and outside of that “bubble” they find it very difficult to maintain executive thought and function – they then enter a reactive state where they are just trying to survive as best they can – they might develop strange coping mechanisms.
  • they often have other health issues – including skin and gut conditions and chronic pain.

So how should we treat these animals to make a positive difference in their lives and that of their caregivers? Make no mistake it isn’t easy living with a dog (or a person) who suffers mental health issues.

I suggest:

  • manage the signs – this may mean avoiding the triggers of the cause of anxieties whilst using short acting and intermittent use medications to alleviate the very horrible feelings associated with anxiousness. This is the humane thing to do. These animals are suffering. This might require some careful tailoring of medications that work to reduce arousal and anxiety and act rapidly.
  • modify the behaviour – this can be like watching paint dry if it’s done correctly and hence why you never see TV shows with positive reinforcement trainers desensitising a dog to his/her trigger. It should look boring because the aim is to keep the dog below his/her threshold for reactivity – using distance and intensity of the trigger – whilst creating a new positive/neutral association around the trigger. This is why you will always be paired with a recommended trainer as you will need someone to guide this process and stop you from flooding your dog.
  • change the brain long term – this is the role of the serotonin medications that are taken on a daily and ongoing basis. The aim of these medications are to enhance connectivity between the reactive (primitive) brain and the prefrontal cortex so that the animal becomes less impulsive, more clear thinking and his/her brain is protected from becoming more and more reactive. These medications require the caregiver to have faith in the long term goal and to stick with medications for sometimes a few years.

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So how successful are we at changing the anxious state? Well it depends. It can depend on many things – how severe the dog’s current state is, how long the dog has coped with his/her current state, what else is going on in the dog’s health picture and how able are the caregivers to change their lives and adjust their expectations for their dog. We do not give these dogs new brains and there are many things we are still learning about the emotional issues dogs face, just as mental health research for humans changes constantly too. But we can make a difference.

And dogs and people do show improvements with the right ethical, humane and scientific care plan.

What I do know, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of dogs who have behaviour issues, is that the caregivers who love them have an incredible bond to these sometimes broken animals and are willing to help them and support them with extraordinary sacrifices. I take my hat off to all my wonderful clients and I say thank you for all the work you do and all the love you give.

Revisiting Barbara Arrowsmith Young

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(originally published in 2013 for The Chook House when I had only recently started on my dog behaviour journey, but still reads well today)

It is a winter’s night, but not cold.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young tells us of her usual winter’s night in Canada where temperatures hover around minus forty. I wonder if she is speaking Fahrenheit or celsius. Either way it is nothing I can imagine.

But Perth people don’t really do winter or the rain.

The audience is mainly women between 40 and 50 in slacks. Like me. A queue has formed for a snappy white wine before the lecture begins. Not a skirt in sight. Trouser wearing women – practical types. Women who think they can change things – including their own and others’ brains. That’s the business they’re in. Mostly educators, psychologists. Probably mothers too.

My friend works in Mindfulness. She is well in-touch with her mind and its capabilities. She knows she needs a lot of sleep. She tells me how working with people to develop mindfulness “deepens their keel in the water.” What a steadying, comforting image. Indeed for most minds it is a rough sea out there, but what a difference a solid keel makes.

Barbara tells us her own story first. As a child she had such severe learning disabilities that she was a danger to herself. Despite so many issues she managed to learn through sheer determination and persistence. It helped that her mother was an educator and her father a creative inventor. But it was not till adulthood when she discovered the work of a physician, who had studied a patient who had had a bullet lodged in his brain, that she uncovered the source of her problems. Seeing the similarities between her own cognitive fog and that of the damaged man, she was able to locate her disability and pin-point it to the angular gyrus in the cerebral cortex. She then devised exercises to teach herself the things she could not do. She worked at the exercises, which were always slightly above her level of skill, till she mastered them and then she made them harder. She changed her brain, at a time when medicine really didn’t believe it was possible to do so.

It is accepted today that the brain is changeable. Neuroplasticityis studied and yet in schools we don’t give children the cognitive exercises that would help them to change their brains. Instead if a child is poor at hand writing we give them permission to type. She didn’t really go in-depth as to the specific exercises she has developed to help the various disorders of learning, but gave examples of how countless people have changed their brain’s functioning through the use of exercises in the areas that they have trouble with. She said people needed to lose the supports they had developed to cope with the learning disorder and approach it head on.

Again I thought of dogs.

Dogs too can change their brains. And we can be their teachers. I have a sense that changing a dog’s brain may be simpler than changing your child’s, especially since asking your child to join you in some cognitive exercises might be harder than you think. At least with a dog there is always food rewards. Just like people, dogs have the ability to learn new things. Everybody needs the right environment to learn. Dogs and children need not to be anxious, not ill, not in pain, not sleep deprived and not chronically stressed. The old adage “you can’t teach a dog new tricks” may not be true after all.

Think of the dog-reactive dog that flies into a rage every time it sees another dog. To improve behaviour he/she must practice being calm in front of other dogs. It is best to work just below threshold with dogs like this. We don’t want him/her to tip over into non-thinking dog. Brain-switched-off dog. One that is just shouting – “go away, go away.” But he/she must see other dogs to learn the new way. Neurons need to make new connections, instead of flying down the well-worn path of reactivity. I think of the laminex table and its marbled pattern – why now it resembles dendrites. A filigree of filamentous nerve endings reaching out for connections. A finger can trace the path to get from one point to the other, but the route can change. So too the destination. Left isolated, apart from other dogs, our Cujo will never improve his/her dog reactivity. Leaving maths alone won’t make your arithmetic better. Buying a piano and leaving it idle will not turn you into a pianist.

She described the feeling of living with a learning disorder as walking through life with a heavy pack of rocks on your back. But when people changed their brains they were released of their heavy loads. Previously difficult tasks became easy and free of stress. A stressed brain cannot relearn. At any age change was possible. For all species.

Like a dance. The neurons that fire together, wire together, and the more they fire together the stronger the connections between those neurons become. I guess this is the basis of learning. We can all do it. Change our brains to become peaceful, calm and plastic.

You can take the dog out of the outback but you can’t take the outback out of the dog…

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When humans take on the role of rescuer they can feel they are giving a dog a better life. I get it. We all think our life is the one to be aspired to.

If you are an outback dog chances are you have developed some pretty good survival strategies. You are probably pretty good at holding on to your resources and keeping others away from them – maybe you have had to, to get enough to survive. But survive you have, and survived so well that you have passed these genes on to your offspring. You may have had to use aggression to get what you want, as resources are scarce.

Your mother might have been stressed because she suffered malnutrition and fearfulness, but she still went on to conceive and carry the pups to full term.

Along come some rescuers and they want you to have a better life. They would like you to have the benefit of health care and a comfy bed. They take you away from your mother, who they sterilise and leave in the community, and they take you and your siblings on a stressful journey to Perth to start a new life. Worse still they take the mother too, and expect her to adapt to a widely different life from the one she has successfully navigated till now.

Unsuspecting dog adopters are thrilled at the honey coloured fur and the street dog look of puppies that seem shy, but not aggressive, and who will surely grow out of that. Dog adopters are not thinking about the fact that maternal stress changes the way the future brain of these dogs responds to stress. They are not thinking that shyness tends towards fearfulness and later aggressive responses, as the dog matures.

Future adopters do not have a clue that they are adopting a dog with inherited traits that make it good for surviving a life in the bush camp, and not so good at negotiating the cafe strip.

Instincts for survival are not the necessary requirement of dogs whose biggest threat is missing out on sofa time.

We now know that the mother’s genes and the mother’s mother’s genes are all playing a role in the future temperament of the dog. This is why it is important to know what the mother felt, and how stressed she was. This is why it is important to not buy from puppy mills or adopt from bitches who have been distressed and in a state of emotional and physical hardship. This is why it is important to select pups from breeders who are selecting for temperament, NOT colour.

It is happening all over the world – In England rescuers bring dogs from the continent to live in England and in Australia dogs are “rescued” from the North of Australia or from Asia. The problem is that the potential adopters are not after an animal with severe anxiety related illness who is a square peg in a round hole – adopters are after a family pet and many of these dogs are never going to be able to fit this bill. They live with ongoing anxiety and aggression with the aim of keeping themselves safe, and their strategies, that would be quite successful in the world they came from, are not acceptable, or safe, in the urban environments into which they have been parachuted.

What would be better would be to give the dogs the health care they need, in the environments they live in, and to neuter all animals so they cannot continue to breed. The communities they come from would benefit from education into the care of the animals that surround them, and those animals, to my mind, would be better to live out their days in the environment they have evolved to be successful in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking about Enrichment

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Recently I felt like I needed a break from the internet and scrolling through my instagram, or Facebook. I was yearning for something from an older time. I find it difficult to switch off and find that my thoughts are forever returning to my caseload.

I thought of a jigsaw puzzle. I had remembered loving them when I was a preteen – when the holiday season was long. The school books had been bought and covered, swimming lessons finished, and the buffalo grass too hot and spiky to lay on. Inside, in a cool dark dining room, a place on the large round table would be made to do a puzzle – usually an Alpine scene (a gift from an overseas relative) – Swiss cottages and snow covered peaks.

The jigsaw puzzle fulfilled in me a need to do something repetitive and strangely soothing. It incorporated more than one sense – mainly visual, but also tactile – enjoying the click and the snap of the perfectly fitted next piece.

Absorbed in the pieces and how they might fit together the task seemed to push all other thoughts from my mind. It is strangely quietening, like lap swimming, like knitting, like colouring in – all the mundanities that I find soothing.

If I had been truly compulsive in this task then no dinner would get cooked, no dog would get walked and no laundry done. It would then become somewhat of a problem.

One of the core emotions is the need to SEEK – to locate resources required for living, as well as to find mates with whom to procreate. In our dogs we mostly take away their desire for procreation by neutering them and so the desire to SEEK can only be fulfilled if they are given something to do in their search for life sustaining resources. This is why food enrichment is such a vital and gratifying thing for dogs to do.

When we give dogs a way to source their food, through enrichment, we allow this neuronal pathway to fire and the neurotransmitters associated with this work makes the animal feel good. SEEKING works best when more than one sense is used – and hence the power of nose work, combined with manipulation.

It is interesting to see dogs who are not used to using enrichment – they often lack the ability to work their noses. Dogs who are anxious are also less inclined to take the time to sniff their world, and hence the suggestion that caregivers allow their anxious dogs the time to sniff more, and move less.

I felt the world slow down and my mind free itself of clutter as I clicked the small pieces together and watched the puzzle take shape.

Some of my patients have their SEEKING system in over-drive and these animals are the ones who engage in compulsive behaviours. These animals are so driven to perform a task over and over again that they do it to the detriment of other needs. They may become so focussed on this behaviour that they are difficult to interrupt from it and can even be aggressive if something, or someone, interferes in their drive to perform the behaviour.

I liken these dogs to addicts (the “crack-heads” of the canine world) – as their brains are in such desperate need of the chemicals released when they perform the behaviour – and after a certain amount of time – the behaviour is no longer pleasurable, but something simply required to be done, just to feel normal. It sometimes starts as a coping mechanism but later becomes so necessary that an animal cannot be in the world without doing the behaviour, and so he/she begins to look for ways to perform the behaviour more and more.

Allowing dogs adequate ways to SEEK from puppyhood may help to prevent some compulsive behaviours from beginning, but there are a percentage of dogs who have this tendency inherited, and will develop compulsion, despite adequate outlets for more appropriate displays of SEEKING. Some breeds have been developed with a strong drive to perform a certain work and when this work is denied they may develop a compulsive behaviour that in some way resembles the work for which they were designed. For any dog a job needs to be found that fulfils some innate need to SEEK so that the brain does not develop its own less profitable work to do.

Find the equivalent of the jigsaw puzzle for your dog – something soothing, that creates a calm brain, that removes clutter, and, after it is done, leaves a feeling of success.

 

 

 

 

Socialisation – what it’s NOT and how important is it…

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Socialisation is not taking a small puppy to Bunnings and have it bombarded with attention and pats.

Socialisation is not taking an adolescent rescue dog down to dog beach to “play” with all and sundry.

Socialisation is not taking a fearful pup to a cafe and asking people to greet your pup while is cowers in your arms.

In a natural setting socialisation takes place when the pup, with mother near by, meets and interacts with new things. It happens in a safe way. It happens when the dog is neurodevelopmentally ready for the interaction. It happens because the mother dog is feeling safe and knows the interaction is safe too. She is not about to introduce her precious pup to something she deems is unsafe. Everything she is introducing the puppy to is something that later the puppy may experience as a “safe” object/state/place to be around. After a certain period of time, about 12-14 weeks of age, the pup becomes fully weaned from the mother and separates from her, and after this time anything newly introduced may be greeted with mistrust and a fearful response. It makes sense not to stay open, infinitely. Otherwise you might just bound up to the first tiger you meet. It is a good survival mechanism and has evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In normal development the mother is also able to move away from the puppy – to source food for herself, to toilet and to exercise, and so a pup learns that time away from mother is normal. Independence is gradually grown, not abruptly enforced. Bitches who are not allowed to move away from their puppies – as in a puppy farm scenario – may not be tolerant and nurturing in the same way that a mother who has time away can be. Then puppies are drastically separated, whilst at the same time forced into frighteningly new scenarios with all new sensations and with no nurturer to safely retreat to.

When we take on the job of socialising a young animal because the pup is no longer with its mother it is important to remember that socialisation experiences will only be good and beneficial to the pup if the feeling at the time is one of relaxation and associated with positive emotions. The pup must not be forced to interact, but rather make the choice to.

If the experience is frightening and causes the puppy to want to avoid and repel the new person/thing/place then the experience may be creating a very different outcome from want we aimed for. Fearful early experiences can create later phobias.

Ideal socialisation in a breeding setting would be a breeder who is able to expose puppies to all the future possibilities of its destined home. Some proactive breeders take part in programs such as Puppy Culture – where they follow a timetable of introductions ensuring a wide range of future possibilities. But a good rule of thumb is to consider all the senses and making sure puppies are experiencing a wide range of surfaces and obstacles, unusual sounds, smells, food textures, background noises, sights.  Puppies should be faced with some challenges and some mild frustrations that help to build impulse control. They should be being exposed to a wide range of people, other animals and environments consistent with their future homes.

CAN Socialisation FIX everything?

Recently I had a internet conversation with a person involved in dog rescue who had been worried by my labelling of a post of a dog as “another reactive rescue” and then we discussed how there is indeed a prevalence of behavioural problems in dogs whose mothers had experienced stress and distress in pregnancy, whether they be purebred dogs or dogs from rescue.

Sadly even pedigree dogs may be being bred in environments where mothers are stressed and distressed. Paying a lot of money for a dog does not preclude future behavioural problems. There is evidence that stress during pregnancy and during the neonatal period creates permanent effects on the ability of the offspring to deal with stressful experiences later in life. These animals may be permanently effected by their poor start and this may be reflected in later behavioural abnormalities.

Purchasers of puppies need to have reliable information about the source of their dog  and know that the mother was well-fed, well cared-for, emotionally stable and responsive to her puppies.

People adopting dogs sometimes assume that purchasing a puppy at 8 weeks of age is like buying a blank drive – ready to have information uploaded and stored, but the truth is that so much is already downloaded and installed, and sometimes, continuing the computer analogy, corrupted from the get-go by the early history and the genes inherited.

 

 

 

Why I don’t suggest Boot camp…

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Have you heard it said that when your car needs fixing you send it to a qualified mechanic and therefore when your dog has problems it makes sense to send him/her away too…

The problem with this analogy is that a dog is not as simple as a car. A canine is a biological organism and an emotional one at that. A better analogy would be to consider your relationship with a dependent and ask yourself if you will improve your relationship with a child by sending him/her to boarding school?

To build a relationship with a dog you need to spend quality time. I suggest this time be spent building a strong relationship based on mutual respect and trust. So how do you get a dog to trust you?

Firstly, and most importantly, you give a dog predictability and control.

You make yourself understandable by being a benevolent leader who rewards the dog for following cues and teaches cues that are understood. A good leader of a dog does not lose his/her temper or teach through the use of punishment.

When you send a dog away you create stress – new place, new people, other dogs. Dogs and people do not learn well when they are stressed. In fact stress damages the learning and memory areas of the brain. Dogs can feel so overwhelmed by the process that they may appear obedient (learnt helplessness) during camp but this is seldom a long lasting change. Dogs attending camp are taught through aversive means and sometimes even have shock collars placed upon them whilst under such “care”.

Ending up with a well trained and happy dog does not happen in a few days, or even in a few weeks, at boot camp, but rather comes about by the slow, kind and consistent work of a caregiver who has their dog in their front of mind. Look at the dog in front of you and design a plan under the guidance your behaviour veterinarian and their recommended trainer if you want to achieve a life time of happy dog memories. The work may not be instantaneous but the change will come and it will be long-lasting, ethically-created and be mutually beneficial to you and the dog.

 

Canine Body Language

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The caregiver should look at the WHOLE dog, in context, but sometimes an observer can break the dog into body parts and over a few minutes take note of the following.

This list can help caregivers recognise stress, and I suggest caregivers get familiar with these signs in their own dogs and note the triggers that cause these reactions:

 Mouth/Expression – look for

  • Tight brow, furrowed – ear position can signal this
  • Pulled back commissures of lips, grimace – anxiety, stress
  • Closed mouth
  • Panting – commonly a short dry pant, some dogs however can hypersalivate
  • Baring teeth – distance increasing signal – threat – the more teeth shown the more defensive the dog
  • Turn head – polite withdrawal, social withdrawal, asking for space
  • Lip lick
  • Stress yawn – often repetitive
  • Licking persons – anxiety, seeking information, can be a reinforced behaviour

Eyes

  • Dilated pupils – fear
  • Whale eye (white showing) – fear, asking for increased distance by turning head NB breed differences, eg Cavalier King Charles, exophthalmic breeds
  • Darting looks – hyper-vigilance, anxiety
  • Not comfortable with eye contact, therefore looking away, averting gaze
  • Hard eye – stare, usually accompanied with freeze (you feel this!)
  • Squinting/blinking/closing eyes – can sometimes indicate stress, anxiety

Ears

  • Ears back against head – appeasement, fear
  • Ears forward – arousal, interest, alertness
  • Ears – position dependent on breed, not all dogs move ears as much
  • Ears twitching – hypervigilance
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Fearful GSD – Ears back, whale eye, dilated pupils, weight back, hackles, woo woo bark
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Fearful GSD – barking, whale eye, paw lift, uneven weight – mainly back, curved approach – asking for peace, hackles raised, woo woo bark – distance increasing signal

Tail

  • Tuck – fear, sometimes extreme so tip of tail touches belly
  • Held high – alertness – dependent on breed
  • Fast wagging, held high – can signal alertness, bite can be about to occur
  • Wagging – willing to engage – not necessarily indicative of happiness
  • Hackles near rump – fear, alertness
  • (the only true tail wag I trust is a whole body tail wag eg “helicopter tail”)

Movement

  • Slow movement or fast movement – both can signal anxiety
  • Failure to rest, lie down after 20 minutes in a room is suggestive of hypervigilance
  • Jumping on, pushing on people – seeking information, provoking response, anxiety
  • Curving body on approach shows appeasement, breaking off of conflict
  • Forward approach – offensive, also breed differences in greeting style
  • Avoidance, or hiding, slinking – anxiety, asking for distance
  • Seeking owner attention – fear, anxiety
  • Fiddle behaviours – eg scratching, sniffing the ground, genital check
  • Sweaty paws – stress
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Fearful Bull Terrier: Dry panting, paw lift, whale eye, ears back, look away, weight back

Body

  • Hackles – physiological arousal – adrenalin release – flight or fight response
  • Paw lift – appeasement, unsure
  • Look at body weight – forward or back? forward – interest, back – withdrawal, fearful. Can be both – sign of conflicted response
  • Muscle trembling/shivering – fear response
  • Startle response – an involuntary response to fear – seen to benign objects is a sign of over reactive fear response
  • Roll over – expose belly – can be a signal to ask for space, cut off engagement
  • Loss of hair, coat dander – anxiety
  • Shake off – seen after something stressful, usually social engagement people or dogs, look at what happened just prior to shake off

Vocalisation

  • Barking – usually a distance increasing signal or designed to alert caregivers although caregivers can distinguish between attention seeking and play barks in known dogs
  • Low bark with growl undertone – WooWooWoo – fearful bark, designed as distance increasing signal – give me space
  • Barking – separation distress – generally monotonal – bark…wait…bark, repetitive.
  • Growling – distance increasing signal, take note
  • Whining, crying – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers
  • Howling – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers, sometimes stimulated by sirens etc in some dogs, some breeds more inclined
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Worried Mixed breed – lip lick, furrowed brow, averting gaze

 

Dr Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

A case of Food Bowl Aggression

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A few weeks back I had an interesting case of a canine with food bowl aggression. This patient has other anxiety issues but his food bowl aggression was something his caregivers needed to deal with on a twice daily basis, and hence it was really something that could no longer be ignored.

It had got to the point where the diminutive Shiba Inu, I am going to call Manny, would hold his caregivers prisoners while he ate. For twenty minutes around each meal time they needed to remain motionless. If they attempted movement, whilst he was eating, he would bite their feet. Sometimes he would abandon his bowl and come and lay his head, menacingly, on a foot, but if there was still food in the bowl it meant they should remain stationary or else he would attack their foot.

Both caregivers had been bitten several times by Manny. This creates a situation where  a strong history of reinforcement exacerbates the behaviour. They are in a vicious circle. Biting people had resulted in them not moving whilst he ate – his goal. Manny wants to keep people still while he eats, probably because he is worried about what people might do. He finds the world a scary and unpredictable place. His aggressive responses are his attempts at gleaning control. It is bizarre and strange to require this much control over your caregivers’ movements whilst eating – especially as they are unthreatening and often just trying to stay away – but this is a good example of how such strange behaviour helps us to diagnose Manny with a mental health disorder. This is not a result of a lack of training. Needing to have such control over his caregivers movements is abnormal and is suggestive of a brain that cannot deal with the information it is receiving. He is neither an effective communicator of his needs or a fluent reader of the communication sent from others. Manny’s brain is acting on instinct – he is over reactive and seeks an abnormal level of control over his surroundings.

When dealing with a behaviour issue one of the first tasks of the veterinary behaviourist is to manage the behaviour so there can no longer be reinforcement – that means the practice and rehearsal of the unwanted behaviour must not be allowed to continue, as this only strengthens the behaviour.

It seemed difficult to create any safety whilst still using a food bowl with Manny – his caregivers had already changed the way they fed him on numerous occasions, and were now left with a series of no-go zones that all resulted in the same guarding and offensive behaviour.

A decision was made to hand feed Manny with very small morsels of food, no bigger than a small fingernail – nothing that was large enough to be taken away and then guarded – food would be fed at a fast rate so as not to create any frustration. During the consultation Manny had showed himself to be exceptionally smart, but also unable to deal with frustration (barking for attention) and any prolonged waiting for food might see the plan fail. It is always important to remember that a strategy has to be constructed for an individual, and although it would be ideal to teach Manny some impulse control, the first thing that needs to happen is that there needs to be a period of time (of around eight weeks) where there have been no aggressive events, and Manny has developed some calmness and reliability around meal times. After this time we might be able to introduce some more variables.

Thankfully this first part of the puzzle is working well and Manny’s caregivers report that hand feeding has been working well – so well that they are prepared to remain doing this for some time – as it was, they could not do anything with the time when he was eating – except wait while he “shark circled” – so the time taken to hand feed him is not onerous – but rather a chance now to build on trust and eventually they will be able to work on focus and self control.

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Understanding Aggression

The first thing to remember is that aggression can be normal. If a threat is real then it might be an appropriate response – just imagine an armed intruder in your home, threatening your life – you may very well act aggressively in return. If you are in pain and someone attempts to move you, you might shout at the person, or push them forcibly away to protect yourself – again a normal response.

So aggression, in and of itself, is not a diagnosis.

Aggression is also often labelled by the target or the context – also not very helpful. If your dog has aggression to familiar persons it may still stem from a variety of causes. Perhaps it feels threatened by past punishment (fear and conflict) or perhaps it values resources such as bones highly ( learnt behaviour, anxiety).  If your dog has territorial aggression again the underlying motivation can be varied and complex.

So what to do?

When we talk about aggression and the threat it poses it is helpful to look at a number of criteria to assess the level of risk. One such criteria is understanding that dogs should normally follow a set behaviour sequence. For instance they should try to communicate discomfort before escalating their threat. They should move away, turn their head, lift a lip or even growl to signal they wish an encounter to stop – be this with another a dog or human. There should be a PAUSE whereby the receiver of the signal can then respond appropriately by moving away, withdrawing, allowing space. A normal dog would then see that his/her communication had been successful and the threat would STOP. In an abnormal dog this sequence can either happen very, very fast, so the receiver has no time to respond or the sequence may be so abnormal that it feels as if a “switch” has gone off in the dog’s head. For the high risk dogs there is an abnormal ability to read and respond to signals. This makes their behaviour sequencing abnormal and therefore they fall into the category of high risk.

If the behaviour sequence follows a predatory pattern, which appears very different from a bite that follows failed communication, then this would also suggest a HIGH risk case.

A dog who shows predation does so silently, with the aim to bite and inflict injury – and, in essence, this drive arises from a different part of the brain than does the drive to keep a dog safe from something he/she fears.

The dog predating someone/thing is not feeling threatened. It is alert and poses a serious risk.

Another criteria for assessing the degree of risk when dealing with aggressive dogs is the ability of the caregivers to manage and understand the risk their animal poses. If, for instance, the dog has shown aggression around children and lives in a home full of them then this makes this a high risk scenario. If the same dog lives with an elderly couple with no grandchildren and who can ensure the dog does not meet children then the risk is reduced. If a dog has shown aggressive responses to other dogs and caregivers want to  routinely let the dog off lead then this equates with a high risk and caregivers who have a poor understanding of the risks involved. As you can see the same dog can be classed as carrying a low or high risk dependent on who is the caregiver.

It makes sense that the larger the dog the more serious the risk. Yes, any dog can bite, and even small dogs have caused fatalities, but clearly the larger the dog the more serious the injury to both human and other animal.

Knowing the predictability can be useful. If you know your dog is likely to become aggressive in veterinary visits this can mean you can prepare yourself and your dog ahead of time. There is so much that can be done to reduce both the risks and, over time, improve your dog’s emotional association with the vet visit. Most dogs who are aggressive in veterinary clinic scenarios are mostly acting out of fear. They may have had a previous poor experience and therefore very strong memory of the past event. They are desperate to keep the vet away and they are a very real bite risk if the vet must examine them physically. Understanding this can allow for interventions such as training ahead of time, e.g. muzzle desensitisation, chin rest exercises and simple training that can at least allow a vet to give a dog a sedation injection.

Having a dog that has displayed aggression can be very frightening and upsetting but it is imperative to remember that aggression is a very broad label and really tells you very little. A lot more detective work needs to be done to understand the emotion behind the aggression and then decide what is the most appropriate treatment.

Focus on the emotion not the behaviour. This is the way forward.

Many times aggressive responses will be based in fear and anxiety and hence it is imperative to never punish the behaviours being shown – you are just confirming to the dog that it has every reason to want to protect him/herself.

Acknowledgement – this blog was inspired by attending an Aggressive Dog Workshop run by Dr Martin Godbout DACVB. Thanks Martin!