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.

Why Not Pass The Puppy?

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Shut Up! Barking behaviour explained…

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Firstly, the caregiver needs to know that barking is a natural behaviour of dogs and one that they have been selected for throughout history. A dog’s barking has served the humans who live with him/her to be alerted to intruders and to announce the arrival of visitors. So some barking is normal!

Of course there is a time when barking behaviour, because of the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviour, becomes problematic – both to the caregiver and to the dog.

It is such behaviour we are talking about today.

Let’s think about dog vocalising:

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Dog barking is an attempt to communicate to both other dogs and to caregivers.

Distance decreasing signals are designed to solicit care and attention. Dogs with separation distress may classically engage in whining and crying, as well as bark in a monotonal way with intermittent breaks as if saying: “Hello – where are you?”

Distance increasing signals are designed to keep intruders away and alert the caregivers to a change in the environment. This kind of barking tends to be loud and insistent and is related to a disturbance, noise or visual threat. Most people actually want their dogs to perform this action when required, but it is not in a dog’s repertoire to easily distinguish between friend and foe, and so a dog that performs this aroused barking may need to given extra protection from the sight and sounds of what is occurring outside of their home to have this barking decrease.

Most complaints come about because of repetitive and insistent barking, and many times a complaint can signal to caregivers that their dog is not coping when they are home alone. Some owners may be unaware, till the complaint is made, that their companion has a barking problem, if it is solely about separation distress. Separation distress barking is a serious welfare concern.

It is always advisable to record the behaviour of concern, and so if it is occurring when you are not home this can be done on a laptop set up to record the dog. Viewing the behaviour can allow you to distinguish the emotion behind the behaviour and then you are in a better position to address the problem.

Some canines have been selected for barking more than others and some breeds are known for their high propensity to bark – eg Maltese terriers, Jack Russells, Dachshunds, working breeds, to name a few. Some of these dogs may engage in barking behaviour when they are aroused by play and therefore it is important to keep play between yourself and these dogs as a less arousing activity. Some dogs may have had their barking behaviour reinforced – for instance barking before being fed and then getting the bowl given to them simply encourages further barking. Feed when silent.

The most efficient way to reduce barking is to first identify the cause and see if this can be avoided and the environment managed to reduce the exposure to the trigger that begins a bout of barking.

I never suggest the use of punishment devices such as shock collars or citronella spray collars as these have been associated with a worsening of anxiety.

Many patients I have seen have had their conditions deteriorate after the use of a shock collar, and, even if barking has decreased, a replacement problematic behaviour has emerged.

If your dog has an issue with barking – take is seriously – and consider a vet behaviourist appointment to treat this behaviour both compassionately and scientifically.

Nicole Lobry de Bruyn BSC BVMS MANZCVS

Let’s walk the dog

What do I think a dog walking with their human should look like?

Not like what I so often see – that for sure!

My house looks over a dog park and the beauty of this means that I can view from my kitchen window a large array of dogs and their caregivers. What I often see however frustrates me.

What I see is:

  • humans looking at their screens, or with their ears plugged into their headphones – oblivious to their dog’s movements and interactions, so often with their back to their dog.
  • humans who let their dogs off their lead BEFORE they reach the dog off leash area and then madly chastise them for running after a cat or a child on the street.
  • humans who stand around in groups chatting while their dogs build in arousal and frustration and then who have altercations with each other.
  • humans who let their exuberant dogs run full bore at other less exuberant dogs and who thereby ruin the shy dog’s experience of the park.
  • humans who run and leave their dog behind and never seem to look back to check what their pooch is up to.
  • humans who talk on their phone, again leaving their dog to greet without anyone watching to see how the interaction is going.
  • humans who only call their dogs when it’s time to leave or if they are doing something wrong.
  • humans who use retractable leads.
  • humans who believe over aroused running, barking and chasing after birds, balls or sticks is actually good for their dog.
  • humans who let an unleashed dog approach a leashed dog, saying loudly that their dog is friendly when the person with the leashed dog is asking for distance.
  • humans who let their children approach unknown canines.

What I wish to see more of when I observe people out with their dogs is caregivers engaging with their dogs in ways that bring joy to both parties.

I suggest:

  • allowing your dog to sniff his world – for as long as he likes.
  • only letting your dog greet other dogs who are also off lead, but whilst greeting WATCH your dog for the body language he shows so you can see when he or the other pooch is uncomfortable and you can help disconnect the encounter by calling your dog to you.

  • this means your dog should be good at coming – perhaps practice this a lot in low distraction environments before imagining your dog might be able to do this when arousal is high and there are many competing interests to deal with.
  • take time during the walk to bond and work with your dog to build trust and reliability – call back to you often, for no reason, other than to reward (carry food) and then release again.
  • leashing your dog when you see another person coming towards you with their dog  on a leash and giving them distance so the dogs are not forced to greet on lead.
  • teach your dog not to overwhelm other dogs or people but how to be calm and polite when greeting.
  • keep moving so dogs do not become bored and frustrated.

Happy dog walking…

Canine Cooperative Care

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Every dog can benefit from learning how to comfortably handle a routine examination and the common veterinary procedures they may have to face during their life time, conscious.

To be honest most veterinary procedures are not painful (and for those that are then an anaesethetic should be used), but for some animals, even simple things have become a source of panic and fear. Some dogs may be so fearful that they then pose a threat to the humans who are attempting to perform the procedures.

Dogs are often forced to endure a procedure before they have been taught to perform all the necessary steps that make up the procedure.

They have received no reinforcement for their cooperation and may have even been punished for struggling against a procedure, thereby learning further negative associations with handling and care.

Let’s take, for example, having a rectal temperature taken: this may involve placing the dog on a table, restricting the dog’s movement, whilst lifting the tail and then inserting the thermometer. If the dog has not been taught to associate all of these individual components with a reward, but is expected to deal with the restraint and the discomfort, the dog may, over time, become more and more reluctant to have the simple procedure done. If, on the other hand, the whole procedure is taught, and each step of the procedure linked with a high value reward, then the dog learns that the event is something positive and he/she will likely participate in the procedure, as he/she would in any other learnt event. The earlier a dog learns to make a positive association with care required the easier it will be for the dog and the caregiver. Overcoming past negative experiences can be fraught.

More often than not caregivers expect dogs to submit to their physical pressure, yet pressure and restraint is a natural thing to fight against. “Fighting back” is hard-wired in animals to allow them to escape the grip of predators, and can be stimulated by simple procedures such as placing dogs in unnatural positions (being tipped off their feet) or that involve force and a feeling of being unable to escape.

Just because we think an animal shouldn’t be afraid does not mean that what they are feeling is not real. If animals are acting afraid the terror is REAL.

The canine cooperative care movement takes its lead from zoo animal trainers who have taught tigers to have blood taken voluntarily and lions to open their mouths on cue to have dental examinations. It is bizarre to think that we might struggle with a three kilogram Chihuahua who won’t allow a caregiver to clip his nails, but the fault lies not with the uncooperative Chihuahua, but with the animal care professionals who have not adequately educated the caregivers on how to condition their dogs to partner with them in their husbandry needs.

Times are a changing (hallelujah) and now vet students are no longer taught to upend dogs on to their sides and hold them down to clip their nails. Vet students (at least the ones I teach! ) are now taught how to desensitise those dogs who are afraid of nail clipping and to teach others that they need not be afraid in the first place. If they are not yet ready for a procedure that truly MUST be accomplished today, then sedation that works, should be used so that fearful memory is not created.

Here is a recent example of some cooperative care with a fearful patient, called Cash. Cash had recently been diagnosed as having Addison’s Disease and this serious medical condition means he now needs bloods taken every three months to keep an eye on his electrolytes. Previous to his illness, handling had always been stressful for Cash and he had had sedation to have anything intrusive performed.

His caregivers worked hard in a short period of time to condition him to a wearing a muzzle, to lie on his side and have his limbs handled, all with the aim of collecting blood in as low stress a method as possible. Prior to this video he had not performed this behaviour anywhere but his home and with his caregivers and trainer.

This is Cash – after about ten days of training – and is an example of how giving a dog time and choice allowed for a successful blood collection (with more improvement to be expected over time). This shows that the procedure was not time-consuming, despite the hiccups – it took 15 minutes – and resulted in a dog that did not need to be sedated, was safe for caregiver and veterinarians, and maintained a patient who was not made worse by experiencing fear or panic.

There are many good example of trainers working to help caregivers give their dogs a happy and low stress veterinary experience.

Here are some examples that should inspire you to excellence in canine cooperative care:

Laura Monaco Torelli

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH_dmcusS0b17WLJhb0WE5w

Chirag Patel – Domesticated Manners

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEx7qRAzUH_nmQn_hiLo2Ig

And locally – Sonya Bevan – Dog Charming

https://www.youtube.com/user/Zurison

Need to find a local course? – Manners N More Canine Cooperative Care classes

https://www.facebook.com/events/1584064275022668/

 

 

 

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

Preparing Anxious Dogs for Christmas

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The upcoming holiday season can pose many problems for caregivers of anxious dogs.

At this time of the year anxious pets may have deal with an increased exposure to their triggers, without being probably prepared to handle them.

Their caregivers may have changed focus to creating special moments for family and friends and have forgotten the difficulties that having an anxious pet adds to this equation. Know your dog’s triggers and take these into account when arranging your holiday celebrations.

Some of the things that may add to the stress quota for an anxious pet include:

  • Christmas tree with flashing lights
  • A new object sitting in the room – yes something as simple as the appearance of a Christmas trees can be worrying for some pets
  • Change in daily routine – more/less contact
  • Being the object of increased attention
  • Being the object of decreased attention
  • Being dressed in silly hats/costumes
  • Christmas crackers
  • Visitors
  • House guests
  • Excited squealing, running children
  • Relatives visiting with their pets
  • Intoxicated adults
  • Party hats and whistles
  • Loud music
  • Laughter
  • Children’s toys that make noise
  • Not getting enough rest/sleep
  • Exposed to rich/new foods

Anxious animals may need to be given extra space and quiet time away from some of the new people and events that surround a holiday period.

If an animal is known to be anxious and worried by the arrival of visitors to the home the animal should be well prepared ahead of time, in a safe place, behind a solid and locked door where the caregiver is able to enter and check on the dog, but unknown persons cannot accidentally wander in there and disturb and startle the dog.

A startled dog is apt to react with aggression.

Some less worried dogs may handle the visits if guests follow the instructions of the caregivers.

Instructions should be made clear well ahead of the visitors arriving and agreed upon. Instructions may include – Do not TOUCH, do not STARE at, do not LEAN over. If guests are not trusted to follow the caregiver’s instructions then it may be better to sequester the dog away.

If a caregiver cannot relax while the dog is free amongst guests then the dog is better placed away. Sometimes a dog is better to spend time at an alternative house if the house is too unstructured to follow the dog rules.

Anxious dogs are helped by learning to enter and remain happily in a crate. This is a space not used for entrapment or confinement but an area that a dog seeks out to feel safe and no-one should bother the dog that seeks out time in his/her crate.

There are many good links to teaching a dog to use a crate. Here are two:

Once happily in a crate a dog can have good things to do in this spices, eg stuffed Kong, antler to chew.

Some dogs who are currently under the care of a veterinary behaviourist may be able to have intermittent use medication to provide anxiety relief over a stressful period.

Remember Christmas is not a time to expose your anxious dog to his/her triggers. Work to desensitise to triggers must take place at an intensity and at distance that sees the anxious dog remain calm. Christmas is not this time. If your dog is not ready for what lies ahead it is time to start preparing an alternative NOW.

 

 

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.