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USA Dog Behavior Blog

3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are three words that make me cringe when used in the context of dog behavior or dog training. When dog owners use these words, they normally do so because they are simply not fully informed. When dog trainers use these words, it can indicate an out-of-date, uneducated, or even harmful, approach to training dogs.

“Alpha”

Dr. L. David Mech published a book in 1970 entitled, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. In this book he first proposed the idea of alpha wolves. These were wolves that he imagined were quite literally pack leaders by their sheer strength and leadership abilities.

"I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost noble to virtually abuse their dog in the name of dominance."

Thirty-five years later, in 2005, Dr. Mech recanted this alpha concept. With further research he realized that alpha wolves were actually just mom and dad. That’s right; wolf packs are made up of a breeding male, a breeding female and the pups (i.e., kids). Just like with human families, there is no power struggle in this family model. Mom and dad run the show by default. See “Alpha” Wolf? for a short video on Dr. Mech’s current thinking on the subject.

Sadly, the alpha concept has caused a lot of misunderstanding between dogs and humans – even causing abuse toward dogs. One of the best (or should I say worst?) examples is the alpha-rollover. This involves a human forcing a dog into a supine position to demonstrate “who the boss is.” There are two big problems with this practice: 1) wolves have never been observed doing this in the wild, and, 2) it can cause all kinds of unwanted behavior issues. Cesar Millan’s many harmful and naive training concepts, including instruction on how to perform alpha-rollovers, are at least partially responsible for the reemergence and promulgation of this nasty practice over the last decade.

“Pack”

As a result of Dr. Mech’s book in 1970, many dog trainers and dog owners in the early 1970s quickly applied the concept of wolf packs and alpha wolves to domestic dogs, including making people part of the pack too.

While this may not have been obvious in 1970, it's a big stretch to assume that intraspecies wolf behavior in the wild is comparable to how human dog owners relate to their Golden Retriever dog named Max. For starters, dogs aren’t wolves and people aren’t wolves (or even dogs for that matter). Dogs aren’t anything like a wolf; wolf behavior is dramatically different than domesticated dogs.

We must not assume for a second that dogs think we are dogs or wolves. It’s safe to say that dogs know the difference. No one is fooling Max.

“Dominant”

Dr. Mech has done a lot of legitimate canine research to be sure. However, his misstep in 1970 created yet another problem word – “dominant.”

I guess the thinking in the 1970s went something like this, “Strong alpha wolves are in charge of their packs. Since my dog is nothing more than a wolf and sees me as a wolf too, he is therefore part of my wolf pack. I must completely dominate my dog in order to be in charge.”

Since the 1970s we’ve learned that dominating or subjugating dogs doesn’t work too well in the long run. Non-punishing dog training techniques that use positive rewards create better training results, more behaviorally healthy dogs and better relationships with owners.

I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost noble to virtually abuse their dog in the name of dominance. I want to assure these owners that their dog is not trying to take control.

The truth about wolf packs is less exciting than the fanciful and misguided tales from almost 50 years ago.  Unfortunately, much of this incorrect information lives on in popular culture and made-for-TV dog training.

Our role as dog owners is that of guardians or pet parents who provide rules and boundaries just like loving human parents provide their children. The idea that dogs are essentially wolves that need to be tyrannized by their wolf-pack human ruler is antiquated science that needs to finally be discarded.

Fake Dog News, It’s Everywhere

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Fake news is something everyone seems to be talking about in politics.  However, there is another kind of fake news that directly impacts dog owners and lovers – fake dog news. It’s everywhere. Unfortunately, in some cases it causes dogs to needlessly suffer.

As a full-time canine behavior professional, I am alarmed and, quite frankly, outraged by the amount of erroneous and unsound dog training “advice” that is on the internet. But let’s not stop at the internet. Inaccurate information can occasionally come from surprising sources: your well-meaning next door neighbor, inexperienced-untrained-uncertified dog trainers, and some otherwise great veterinarians.

Dog training misinformation knows no boundaries when it comes to absurdity. Some of my favorites include:

  • Let’s start with a choice example - “Don’t ever let a dog see you pick up his poop; it will make you subordinate to him.”
  • The legacy of misleading Cesar Millan made-for-TV dog “training” lives on (see Cesar Millan, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) - “If a dog goes through a door in front of you, it means he’s trying to dominate you.”
  • In what may possibly be the oldest example of bad dog information, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
  • This incorrect advice has caused a lot of dog bites - “A wagging tail means a happy dog.”
  • Many dogs have ended up in shelters, only to be euthanized, because of some variant of the following – “Dogs should have one litter of pups before being spayed.”
  • I think this one is for owners who want to justify why they don’t spend time with their dog – “Dogs love being outside all of the time and get plenty of exercise when they’re out there.”
  • “Putting a dog in a crate is cruel.” While crates can be misused, when used properly, they are great tools and a comfort to your dog.
  • And this one has caused a lot of confusion and suffering for dogs – “My dog is guilty when he does fill-in-the-blank.”

I was motivated to write this article when I ran across the following fake dog news article, 10-Year Old Dog’s Reaction To Being Adopted Is The Best Thing You’ll See All Week! Isn’t it obvious from just the title of this article that you’re about to read fake dog news?

The dog in the accompanying video is at the Soi Dog Foundation which is a legitimate dog rescue in Thailand. But the writer of this article has taken this video and made it into something it is not. We are to believe that this video depicts the dog’s joyous reaction when “…it was time for a volunteer to let him know of the great news [that he was being adopted]!”

I’ve worked with hundreds of rescue dogs; not one of them could even come close to understanding someone telling them that it’s their lucky day because someone from the UK is going to adopt them. The dog in this video is aroused by the play behavior of the volunteer and nothing else. This fake dog news is just silly but isn't really injurious. Sadly, this isn't always the case.

Please, check your sources carefully when searching for information about your dog’s behavior. Seek the help of a qualified dog trainer (CCPDT.org is a good place to start). If your dog is experiencing significant behavior issues, search out and find a qualified and certified dog behaviorist or specialist.

10 Ways Veterinarians Can Contribute to Your Dog’s Overall Behavior Treatment Plan

 
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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"I've found that the majority of veterinarians are helpful contributors to the treatment plan team."

People rely on their veterinarian for their dog’s physical health. Vets can also be counted on to play a role in a dog’s behavior treatment plan.

In moderate to severe behavior cases it may be necessary to use psychopharmaceutical medications (see “The Truth About Doggy Downers”) as part of the behavior treatment plan designed by a certified behavior specialist.

The probability of a successful outcome for a treatment plan is improved if the veterinarian is properly involved in finding the best psychopharmaceutical drugs for the client’s dog.

I like to tell clients they are part of an all-important three-member team: dog owner, behavior specialist and veterinarian.

Your veterinarian plays an important role by:

  1. communicating well with everyone on the team. In other words, the vet makes it easy to give and get information from his or her office.
  2. getting information from client’s animal behavior specialist about behavior observations and assessments before prescribing any medications. And the vet’s office will make these notes part of the dog’s health record.
  3. engaging in a dialogue with the client’s dog behavior consultant about medication considerations before any prescriptions are written.
  4. ensuring the client is not overpaying for medications by offering competitive prices at the vet’s in-house pharmacy or writing prescriptions that can be filled at competitively priced human pharmacies.
  5. writing prescriptions for outside pharmacies if the appropriate medication is not immediately available at the vet’s in-house pharmacy.
  6. staying in touch with the dog’s owner to adjust dosages either up or down and assisting in tapering off the drugs when appropriate.
  7. informing the clients about the possible side-effects of medications.
  8. administering any physical rule-out tests deemed necessary by the vet or requested by client or behaviorist (e.g., thyroid profile, blood chemistry panel).
  9. not wasting resources on inappropriate or ineffective over-the-counter remedies that are frequently more expensive than tested and proven prescription medications.
  10. fully supporting the treatment plan created by the behavior specialist.

I've found that the majority of veterinarians are helpful contributors to the treatment plan team. However, if your dog has a serious behavior issue and you find that your veterinarian is not an enthusiastic and positive contributor to your dog’s treatment plan, frankly, you may want to consider finding another vet.

The team approach to behavior modification in serious cases works extremely well; I’ve seen many dogs make exciting and inspiring improvement using this model.

Will Behavior Medications Change my Dog's Personality?

 
 

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"…for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy."

Many moderate to severe behavior issues I see in dogs require the use of behavioral medications as part of the treatment plan. It can greatly increase the success of behavior modification in some cases; it can also speed up the process.

These drugs are known as psychopharmaceutical, psychotropic or psychoactive medications and are the same drugs used in humans for the same issues. See my article, The Truth About Doggy Downers, for more information.

Common, and not so common, examples of these drugs used for dogs to facilitate behavior modification include fluoxetine (Prozac), trazodone (Desyrel), alprazolam (Xanax), clonidine (Catapres) and naltrexone (Vivitrol).

In most cases, I work with your veterinarian to help control your dog’s anxiety using medication since anxiety is the root cause of most behavior issues such as aggression (all types except prey aggression – although I would argue that prey aggression is not really aggression at all), separation anxiety, inappropriate urination, fear and compulsive disorders.

When the subject of these medications comes up, the next statement from the owner is usually, “But I don’t want to change my dog’s personality.” I completely understand, but I encourage the owner to consider the following:

  • When dosed correctly, most of the medications have no significant sedating effect on the dog.
  • I remind owners that in some cases we want to modify the dog’s personality. This would be especially true in cases of aggression and fear issues.
  • It is not uncommon for clients to tell me that their dog’s temperament has changed in ways they didn’t expect after starting meds.  They frequently reveal to me that, for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy. Anxiety can negatively affect dogs in many ways.

Another question I get from owners is “How long will my dog need to be on these drugs?”

  • Normally I tell clients to consider an initial six-month trial period. During this period, it’s important to adjust dosages as necessary and possibly change medications if we’re not getting the desired results.
  • At the end of the trial period we can evaluate whether it is necessary to continue the medications.
  • While a small percentage of dogs will stay on these medications for an extended period, most can be tapered off these drugs as we begin to see the results of behavior modification.

The other question I often get from dog owners is, “How much will this cost?”

  • Fortunately, all of the medications used to help with behavior issues are available from local human pharmacies such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS. As a result, owners are also able to shop for competitive pricing using tools such as GoodRX.com.
  • Just like with humans, the amount of medicine required varies according to the dog’s weight and the specific medication. I’ve found that the cost averages about $50 per month per dog when generics are used. Surprisingly, in many instances the cost for prescription medications is less expensive than lesser effective (or completely ineffective) over-the-counter supplements that frequently are nothing more than an owner placebo and a profit generator for the seller.

There is no reason to be afraid of these medications if they can help your dog work through a significant issue. Working with a certified dog behavior specialist as well as a veterinarian who understands and is experienced with these drugs can make this a not-so-difficult process for you and your dog.

7 Dog Behavior Questions I'm Always Asked

 
 

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"Think of behavior modification in dogs in the same way that you think of engaging the service of a fitness instructor."

As a full-time dog behavior specialist, I meet with dog owners, rescue organizations and veterinary practice employees almost every day. There are at least seven questions I am repeatedly asked by them. I’m surprised by some of them. Their questions with answers appear below.

1) Do you ever get bitten as a dog behavior consultant?

Short Answer: Yes, multiple times over the years.

Longer Answer: I do my best to avoid getting bitten (it hurts and is really annoying), but dogs are fast and sometimes it can be hard to read their intentions. When you consider that I work almost exclusively with dogs that have behavior issues, including all seven major forms of aggression, it should be no surprise that I have been bitten.

2) What breed has the least behavioral problems?

Short Answer: It’s more an issue of the individual dog than it is the breed.

Longer Answer: All breeds, including All Americans (i.e., mutts), can make great pets. Conversely, all breeds can have behavioral issues (e.g., labs, collies, poodles, etc.). It’s hard for me to select one breed in particular because each individual dog can be so different – just like people.

3) Have you ever seen another dog with my dog's issue?

Short Answer: Yes, frequently, and much much much more severe than your dog.

Longer Answer: When a behavior issue raises its ugly head, many dog owners tend to think their dog is the only dog on the planet with the problem. The reason for this is that most people aren’t aware of the range and ubiquity of unusual dog behaviors. In addition to aggression and separation anxiety cases, I routinely see dogs with canine compulsive disorders (i.e., OCD in dogs) and severe phobias (i.e., irrational fear of something such as potted plants in the home - seriously).

4) Can my dog’s behavior challenges be fixed and how long will it take?

Short Answer: It depends on many variables.

Longer Answer: For severe cases of aggression, separation anxiety, phobias, compulsions, resource guarding and fear, I tell clients we can expect the dog’s issues to improve, but usually they will not be completely eliminated. As a benchmark, I look for notable improvement in the dog’s behavior two months after behavior modification has begun. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest variables in the “Can my dog be fixed?” question is whether the owners will do the behavior modification that has been prescribed. You gotta do the homework.

5) Are you training the dog or me?

Short Answer: You.

Longer Answer: Think of behavior modification in dogs in the same way that you think of engaging the service of a fitness instructor. You meet with the fitness instructor who assesses your fitness level and goals. Next, the instructor creates a custom fitness program and explains and demonstrates the exercises to you. Finally, you execute the program on a regular basis and watch your muscles and fitness levels grow. Behavior modification in dogs is no different, but substitute a certified dog behaviorist for the fitness instructor.

6) If the weather is bad, can we still have our scheduled dog training session?

Short Answer: Yes.

Longer Answer: The majority of a behaviorist’s time is spent educating the owner about concepts. While there are some skills that need to be learned outside, most of the physical skills can be demonstrated and taught inside.

7) Did I do something to cause my dog to act this way?

Short Answer: You probably didn’t create the problem.

Longer Answer: Owners frequently want to blame themselves for their dog’s ills, but in my experience I’ve found that few people planted the seeds of their dog’s problems. It’s virtually impossible to definitively pinpoint what causes a dog to behave the way it does. The possibilities include, but are not limited to, any combination of the following: genetics, neonatal treatment, abandonment by the mother (intentionally or unintentionally), single event learning (i.e., a one-time very bad experience), neurologic, health related, environmental.