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    Friday, February 29, 2008

    Ring the Bell

    When we brought Lady home, we had given thought to what we would teach her. We would only teach her useful things – no parlor tricks. She would not fall down and play dead for the amusement of guests. We soon learned that Lady had her own ideas.
    She did not differentiate between useful behaviors and parlor tricks. All behaviors were parlor tricks if there was a chance that the human she was showing off for would give her a treat. She would sit, lie down, and stand in rapid succession, all the while casting a happy smile and shining eye on her target.

    Also, she loved to learn new things, and we quickly ran out of standard obedience commands and had to find some new things to teach her. This is not to say that Lady was (or is) completely obedient. But she knew the commands, if she was inclined to follow them.

    That’s then we started looking for more novel but still useful behaviors. Ring the bell on the door when you want to go out. Spin three times on the towel on the floor to wipe your feet. Take it to the kitchen – it being anything from the newspaper and mail, to the bag from the pet shop holding her treats. Do your business right now. I’m tired and I want to go to bed.

    How did we teach lady these behaviors? All we did with the bell was to hang it on the door. In a perfect example of classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dogs), she learned to associate the opening of the door with the sound of the bell. In short order, she was pushing the bell with her nose to ring it and to make the door open. As always, consistency was the key. We opened the door each time she rang and the behavior quickly stuck.

    Why did we teach her to do this? Quite simply, we were having trouble reading her mind. She would get that look on her face. Did she want a treat, some attention, food, water, or did she need to go out? She had not yet developed the complex body language that answers those questions today – touching the treat jar with her nose is a pretty good indicator that she wants a treat. We knew we would never get her reliably housetrained if we couldn’t figure this out. The bell solved the communication problem.

    The downside of this behavior was what I called in and out and in and out and… One other command Lady learned fairly early on was no.

    Thursday, February 14, 2008

    Dogs and Fighting – Part III – Anticipate and Intervene

    In the last two posts I wrote about breaking up fights and recognizing the signs that one was about to break out. Now let me share a few hard lessons I’ve learned by watching my own dog, reading and talking with animal behavior experts, and spending countless hours at the dog park.

    Training and socialization

    Begin broadly socializing your dog from day one. Older dogs as well as pups benefit from positive exposure to new experiences. Introduce him to other dogs, cats, wildlife, people (adults and children), places, sounds… anything you think he might find new and therefore spooky. Make these new experiences positive through the use of praise, treats, and fun. Enlist friends, family, the mailman, groomer, and those annoying solicitors that knock on your door, to help.

    Teach your dog a few simple behaviors you can count on when needed. If your dog is sitting, he can’t be mounting another dog. Learn to substitute and reward a desirable behavior (sit) for an undesirable one.

    Work hard on recall. If you intend to unleash your dog in a public area – whether a designated and fenced off-leash area or not – you need to have established voice recall. That is, you must be able to get the dog to stop what he is doing and come to you when called.

    Plan your visit

    If your dog is possessive about treats or food, don’t take any with you and ask others not to offer them.

    If you have more than one dog, don’t go alone. Though many dog parks allow handlers to bring up to three dogs, you need to be realistic about how you would handle more than one if there is a problem.

    Leave female dogs in heat at home. Likewise, if you own an unaltered male, be prepared for some fireworks, especially if there is another unaltered male present.

    At the dog park

    Unleash your dog as soon as you arrive. Otherwise, your dog is handicapped in his ability to interact naturally with new dogs and to defend himself.

    Stay calm, no matter what happens or you think is about to happen. Your dog can read the tension in your body language and it will cause him to become nervous too.

    Don’t allow humping. Typically, a dog will test the waters by laying his head or a paw on the back of a dog it intends to mount. Discourage your dog from such behaviors as well. Though some believe this is a playful act, if you look at the expression of the dog being mounted, you will see that he is not having fun.

    Keep moving. If a handler stays in one place the whole time, their dog could become territorial about that patch of grass.

    Discourage clustering. You may find that too many dogs are congregating around yours (perhaps all trying to sniff at once), know that this can be intimidating and help your dog to extricate himself. Get close to your dog and then encourage him to walk away with you.

    Finally, if another dog seems overly aroused or prone to starting fights, and the owner is unwilling or unable to control the dog, then stay away. You may feel righteous about your right to use the dog park, but the safety of you and your dog needs to trump those feelings.

    Think of it as your job to know what your dog is doing (and what is being done to him) at all times, especially when around people and dogs you don’t know. You take your dog to a park for his enjoyment and enrichment. Though it is tempting to loose yourself in conversations with other dog owners, or to catch up with your cell phone, it is not fair to your dog or others if you are inattentive to what is happening. Your goal is to prevent fights before they break out.

    Do you have pointers you would like to share? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts. Leave me a comment. Hate the blog? You can tell me that too!

    Dog and Cat photo © photographer: Eriklam Agency:
    Dogs at Park photo © Photographer:
    Cammeraydave Agency:

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Dogs and Fighting – Part II – Recognizing the Signs

    In my last post, I wrote about how to break up a dog fight. Learning to read the signs of an impending fight and being able to intervene before it starts is preferable.

    Many experts have written books on understanding and dealing with canine aggression – people far more credentialed than me. If you are interested in learning more about animal behavior and the science behind it, I recommend reading books by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. (For the love of A Dog, and The Other End of the Leash), Karen Pryor (Don’t Shoot the Dog), Jean Donaldson (Culture Clash, Mine, and Fight), Stanley Coren (How Dogs Think), and Temple Grandin (Animals in Translation). In the meantime, here are some practical suggestions from my experience.

    Become a student of your own dog
    Learn what makes him fearful and what he will and won’t accept from other dogs. Is your dog jealous of his toys, protective of you, intolerant of the big exuberant affections of younger dogs? Does he become fearful when too many dogs crowd around to check him out? The only way to learn these things is to pay close attention to all of your dog’s interactions.

    Read your dog’s body language
    Sometimes a dog’s discomfort with a situation is obvious. In a fearful dog, you may see the head lowered with ears pulled back tight against the head. The tail may be low or completely tucked under the body. Sometimes it is more subtle – just a worried expression on the face and a more alert stance. If my dog senses trouble is about to start, she looks for me and backs up to me. She knows I’ve got her back. If she can’t get to me, then she looks for another human to shield her back.

    Dog’s looking to pick a fight may stare intently at the intended target. Staring directly into the eyes of another dog is considered rude and challenging behavior. You may also notice an extremely stiff stance and a tail that is straight up and unmoving. Signs that are more obvious include growling, a tense tight mouth, a curled lip, showing teeth, and a ready to pounce posture.

    Where to look
    Arousal is sometimes exhibited by hair standing up on the back. This is called piloerection and is an involuntary response that can be the result of fear or excitement. Generally, happy dogs look loose and relaxed with lots of movement. Unhappy dogs are tense and unmoving. Learn to look for signals in the body posture, eyes, ears, mouth, and tail. You need to be able to read these signals quickly and in combination to assess what may happen next. Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of A Dog is especially good at helping you understand the behavior and emotions of your dog.

    Trust your dog’s instincts
    A well socialized dog will be savvy about dog park dynamics and body language. You need to learn to trust his instincts. If he is acting uncomfortable, there is a reason. Look for it. Though none of the signs mentioned individually presage a fight, they do indicate it is time to pay close attention.

    Next time, some suggestions on how to intervene before the fight starts.

    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Dogs and Fighting – A Primer Part I

    This weekend we walked to an unofficial off-leash dog area in our neighborhood to allow our girl to engage in her favorite pastime – patrolling for squirrels. Apparently, Lady believes it is her mission in life to keep squirrels in their trees. Though she gets along with well mannered dogs, her mission doesn’t leave much room for frolicking with them.

    This visit started off like most others. She bounded into the area and made a quick scan for squirrels on the ground. Not seeing any, she deigned to greet a couple of new dogs, and was about to move on to more serious squirrel scouting when she was attacked by two other dogs.

    Though we managed to get the dogs off her quickly and she escaped with a minor scrape on her head, it made me think of several things I would have liked to teach the owner of the two instigators. However, they beat a hasty retreat while my husband and I were still examining Lady for injury.

    Here is what I would have told them. First and foremost, everyone who owns a dog and unleashes it around other dogs should know how to break up a dog fight safely. That is the topic of this article.

    After five years of daily trips to dog parks, I know two things for sure. One person can not break-up a dog fight alone and if one person tries, he risks as much or more injury to him as to the dogs involved. The injury might even be due to a bite from his dog.

    The most common mistake I see is a person reaching to grab the collar of one of the fighting dogs. When dogs are fighting, they are hyper aroused and any sudden motion from a new direction may well be perceived as another attacker. In the chaos of flashing teeth and lunging dogs, sometimes a human reaching for a collar just puts their hand in the wrong place.

    The best way to break up a dog fight is for two people (preferably the dog’s owners) to each grab their dog by the hind quarters. Quickly lift the back legs off the ground and begin dragging the dogs backward away from each other. Done properly, this can very quickly get the two dogs out of reach, and allow the necessary breather to regain control and calm. It has the advantage that neither dog handler need to get too close to flashing teeth, and it effectively prevents the dog from spinning around to attack the handler.

    As soon as you are sure that your dog is under control and the other dog is safely controlled, grab for that collar and snap the leash on. Because of their aroused state, it is best to keep these two dogs separated and one or both should probably leave the area for that day. Often it may seem that the fight is over, but one (or both) of the dogs is just waiting for an opening to start it up again.

    If your dog is not involved in the fracas, the best thing you can do is stay out of the way and keep you own dog under control. A problem I see is too many people trying to intervene at once – despite having no knowledge of either dog. It is always best to allow the dog owners to handle the problem. I can remember being quite irate when another dog owner and I had just safely separated our dogs only to have a do-gooder rush up and dump coffee all over the dogs and us. You would have to ask him what he was thinking.

    The flip side of this is that if you are not confident to control your own dog – maybe he is too big for you or you are simply too fearful – speak up right away and ask for help. There are usually some experienced dog owners at any gathering.

    If your dog is not involved and you know what you are doing, do be ready to jump in if asked. Quickly find someone else to mind your dog and get close to the action so you can help if needed. However, for your safety, and the safety of the owners and the dogs, do not jump in unless asked, or unless it becomes clear that the owner is not going to take action.

    Next time, how to recognize the signs of an impending dog fight and diffuse the situation.