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USA Dog Behavior Blog

8 Indicators You’re Taking Good Care of Your Dog

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

Animal professionals such as behaviorists, groomers, daycare workers, rescue workers and veterinarians should be concerned for dogs’ welfare in all areas (e.g., general health, behavior, nutrition, preventive medicine, environment).

While my expertise is in behavior, that doesn’t preclude me from checking with the client about other areas to ensure that there aren’t any possible issues that may impact behavior or general well-being. Every time I work with a new dog, I ask a lot of questions.

"...it is my responsibility as an advocate for the dog to educate the guardian."

Let me be rather blunt. Dog guardians who aren’t properly taking care of their dogs usually have a poor prognosis for any behavior modification program. Behavior modification can be difficult and time consuming; guardians with the highest level of commitment to their dog have the highest chance of success.

These are some key indicators I look for to assess a dog’s general level of care. If I feel that a guardian may not be providing an adequate level of care in one or more of these areas, it is my responsibility as an advocate for the dog to educate the guardian. Frequently that is all it takes; most people want the best for their dogs.

  1. Is the dog getting regular heartworm preventive? This easily preventable and common disease causes long-term suffering and ultimately death to dogs if not treated. Heartworm, once diagnosed, requires a long and expensive treatment program. This is probably my biggest warning flag that the guardian is not particularly committed to his or her dog.
  2. Are the dog’s nails properly clipped? Long nails and nails that curl under can be painful and uncomfortable for the dog. It can also indicate that a dog is rarely, if ever, walked.
  3. Is the coat dirty and uncared for? It’s not a good sign when I see a dog with a chronically dirty and bad smelling coat. It can also indicate that a dog is spending a lot of time outside – time away from the guardian’s family.
  4. Do the guardians walk their dog? Pet dogs need the mental and physical exercise of frequent long walks. Most people claim they walk their dogs; however, the devil is in the details. My follow-up questions usually tell me the reality, “How far/long do you walk the dog?, Who walks the dog?, How often do you walk the dog?”
  5. Does their dog know any basic cues such as sit or stay? I’m not concerned if a dog knows 58 cues – my dogs certainly don’t. But, there are some basic cues such as “sit”, “stay” and “come” that every dog needs to know.
  6. What veterinary practice do they use and when did their dog last see a vet? I don’t care if they don’t know their vet’s specific name; most vet practices don’t assign vets to specific dogs anyway. What concerns me is when they don’t know the vet’s business name or when their dog last saw a vet.
  7. Is the family engaged with the dog? Dogs are social animals and need to have their lives interwoven with ours. There needs to be at least one person in the family who is intimately involved with the dog.
  8. What is the family’s approach to training? Too many positive references by the client to Cesar Millan can be a red flag. Lots of references to things such as alpha, pack and dominance are also concerning sometimes. Punishing a dog as a way of training can poison the dog’s relationship with the family.

Dog lovers know that dogs aren’t “things”, but are complex living animals that require a multi-faceted approach to their care. For the time and resources that we put into our dogs, they give us back many times our investment.

7 Things you Must do When you Rescue a Dog

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

Rescue dogs are great. They come in every flavor and each has quite a story to tell. My Great Pyrenees, Luke, is a recent rescue (from SPIN rescue) and I’ve had other rescues.

Let your dog just nest, relax, chill and cocoon.

As a professional dog behavior specialist who works with many rescue organizations, I have a few recommendations that will make your newly adopted rescue dog’s transition from foster/shelter to your home much easier.

Before I provide the list, let me give you the most important rule that will guide your dog’s first three weeks with you: Let your dog just nest, relax, chill and cocoon.

1. Most rescue organizations want you to do a test introduction at the shelter/foster location with the dogs that already live with you. While this idea is not bad, it’s not always the best predictor of how a new dog may do in your home. Your job is to properly introduce the new dog to each of the dogs at your household. Please, do not just bring a new dog in the front door – even if this dog has been previously introduced to your other dogs at a foster or shelter facility.

2. Avoid dog parks for at least the first three weeks, and if/when you do take the newest addition to your home to a dog park, please watch him carefully for stress. If he’s showing signs of stress, go home.

3. Your new dog probably does need a good cleaning and trimming; however, waiting a few weeks before you take him to a groomer isn’t going to kill him. New dogs to your home do not need the trauma of a groomer.

4. Veterinarians can be a bit tricky. Many rescue dogs are not completely comfortable with veterinarians (that’s putting it mildly) for a number of reasons out of your control. You probably won’t need to take your new dog to the vet on his first day in your home. After checking with your veterinarian on when you need to schedule your dog’s first visit (wait a few weeks if possible), do the following once there:

  • Go at a time when there won’t be a lot of other animals in the clinic.
  • Use a side door when entering the clinic to avoid the drama and trauma of the waiting room.
  • Use plenty of treats to help make the experience pleasurable.
  • Watch your dog for signs of stress; if your dog is overly stressed at the vet’s office it can make him forever fearful of vets (vet phobia). If things are getting overwhelming for your new dog, leave and try again later. Traumatizing vet visits, especially early on, can have negative long-term behavioral effects.

5. Your new puppy doesn’t yet know the 100 rules that your other dogs have learned about living with you in your home. Be patient as he learns all of the rules required to live in your household. For more information, see 100 Reasons Why You Need to Give Your Dog More Respect.

6. I don’t know of one dog trainer or dog behavior consultant who doesn’t use crates for his or her personal dogs. They are a valuable safe haven and a great way to introduce new dogs to your home. Immediately start to acclimate your new dog to a proper crate. And by “proper crate” I mean one that is enclosed, not the open-wire kind.

7. Select a positive rewards dog trainer or dog training school and get you and your dog enrolled. This is critical for many reasons and will pay dividends for years to come for you and your new dog.

Whether you are thinking about rescuing a dog or even buying a puppy, for more information about breed selection see How to Select the Right Dog for You.

Did you know there are 8 types of dog aggression?

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

Most people think of dog aggression as the only diagnosis needed when assessing a dog that is presenting with agonistic behaviors such as barking, growling, biting, lunging, etc. The reality is more complicated.

There are eight major types of dog aggression and each has a unique root cause. To effectively treat aggression in dogs, it’s important to understand the details of each case because each kind of aggression requires a different treatment plan. In many cases, dogs simultaneously present with more than one type – known as a comorbid diagnosis.

"After seeing literally hundreds and hundreds of dog aggression cases, I’ve seen only one case of human directed prey aggression - and it was quite disturbing."

Using an independently certified dog behavior specialist or behaviorist is the best way to ensure that dogs receive appropriate behavior modification specific to their specific type(s) of aggression. All too often I deal with aggression cases that were initially treated by dog trainers or dog training companies that, quite frankly, were in over their heads and used contraindicated techniques, only making things worse. See Pretenders Who Claim to Treat Aggressive Dogs, Buyer Beware for more information.

I’ve identified eight major categories of canine aggression below.

Fear aggression is the most common type of aggression that I treat.

  • An offensive posture is taken by the dog to increase the distance from the trigger (e.g., human, dog, etc.). In short, the dog takes an offense-is-the-best-defense approach.
  • This type of aggression can also be directed at inanimate objects (e.g., vacuum cleaners, skateboards, cars in motion, etc.).
  • Fear aggression can also simultaneously present with avoidance behaviors (i.e., dog tries to escape from the trigger) in addition to agonistic behaviors and is known as an ambivalent presentation.

Territorial fear (also known as sentry dog or junkyard dog) aggression is a type of fear aggression that is directed toward humans in the dog’s designated “territory”.  It is the second most common type of aggression I see.

  • Dogs presenting with this type of aggression can appear perfectly normal outside of their “territory”.
  • The intensity of the aggression is normally fairly significant.
  • The dog’s “territory” is typically the inside of the owner’s home but frequently extends to the property surrounding the owner’s home and even beyond that.

Idiopathic (also known as rage) aggression is an unpredictable type of aggression because the triggers aren’t known or understood. The word “idiopathic” is defined as, “relating to or denoting any disease or condition that arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”.

  • This type of aggression can be very dangerous because it includes sudden and severe outbursts with little to no warning.
  • Treatment options are limited.
  • Some of the most aggressive dogs I deal with are in this category.

Prey aggression is really not aggression at all in my opinion. Your dog is not angry or afraid of that squirrel or rabbit; he just wants it for lunch.

  • Considered extremely pathological if directed toward humans.
  • A common diagnosing attribute is silence and slow, deliberate movements.
  • After seeing literally hundreds and hundreds of dog aggression cases, I’ve seen only one case of human directed prey aggression - and it was quite disturbing.

In-home (also known as sibling or intra-household) aggression is the third most common type of aggression that I treat.

  • Indicated when two or more dogs living in the same home display chronic agonistic behaviors toward one another.
  • The probability of in-home aggression increases exponentially as the number of dogs increase; four dogs in one home is a common tipping point.
  • Can be challenging to treat because the dogs are constantly in close proximity.

Control related (also known as dominance or owner directed) aggression presents as a learned aggregate of agonistic behaviors that have been taught to the dog through improper handling and management of the dog.

  • Have you ever been in a home where their five-year-old child is a screaming tyrant while the parents stand around with a deer-in-headlights look on their faces? Substitute the dog for the child and you get the idea.
  • Aggression is primarily directed at owners or those with whom the dog frequently interacts.
  • Can appear terrifying to dog owners but frequently has a good prognosis with a proper behavior treatment plan.
  • A common mistake dog trainers and dog training companies make in treating this type of aggression is using punitive or aversive measures. This error is caused by misdiagnosis and lack of understanding of proper treatment protocols for this type of aggression.

Dogs with conflict aggression present with both affiliative (i.e., friendly) and agonistic behaviors simultaneously. This is a difficult to diagnose type of aggression in some instances and is somewhat rare.

  • The root cause is a result of confusing interactions by the owner with the dog. The dog doesn’t understand the intentions of the owner.
  • Commonly seen in first-time or inexperienced dog owners.
  • A sad and normally preventable type of aggression.

Possession (also known as resource guarding) aggression is when dogs keep other dogs and humans away from their food, treats, toys, space, owners, other dogs, etc.

  • While it appears not to be a fear-based aggression, some argue that the dog is fearful of losing a valued resource thus making it fear-based in actuality.
  • A sub-type of possession aggression is distance resource guarding. In this form the dog will monitor things from a distance and rush to the dog or human near the resource-guarded item and aggress.
  • This type of aggression is particularly susceptible to escalation.

If your dog is presenting with one of the types of aggression noted above, please seek the help of an independently certified dog behavior professional. Since aggression in dogs almost always escalates, the early stages are the best time to start a treatment plan.

What to do When an Off-Leash Dog Approaches

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

   Antoinette Brown

   Antoinette Brown

“What should I do if an off-leash dog approaches?” is a question that I’m asked more frequently since Antoinette Brown was killed by several loose dogs in Dallas, Texas in May of 2016. It’s understandable that most people want a straightforward and uncomplicated one-size-fits-all answer. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Every situation is unique when it comes to off-leash dogs. The reason? No two dogs are alike behaviorally. In most cases, when dogs approach off-leash they are just curious; they are primarily interested in your dog. Ignoring them and calmly walking the other direction is all that is typically needed.

"The movement of a small dog up and into your arms can trigger prey instincts in an approaching dog."

However, there are instances, although uncommon, where you and your dog may be in danger.

Below I’ve provided some tips on how to assess the situation and respond. These guidelines certainly do not represent all of the possible scenarios or strategies, but they may provide some options that might fit a situation you find yourself in.

✓  First, never “reach in” the middle of a dogfight if one occurs. Dogs in the middle of an altercation will often bite the hand (known as a redirected bite) that is reaching in – and it’s frequently a serious bite. If a human is being seriously attacked and there is no other quick way to separate the dog from the human, then you may have to resort to something like this.

✓  In the majority of cases, simply calmly walking your dog away from the approaching off-leash dog does the trick. Don’t engage the approaching dog in any way. This usually works with dogs that are placidly walking toward you. If the dog continues to approach after you turn away, the dog probably is interested in greeting your dog. Simply continue to calmly walk the other direction and the approaching dog will frequently lose interest.

✓  Many people with small dogs pick up their dog when an off-leash dog approaches. This can be effective, but I have one caveat. The movement of a small dog up and into your arms can trigger prey instincts in an approaching dog. If you’re going to pick up your dog, you might want to momentarily turn your back to the approaching dog to hide that movement.

✓  Carry a treat bag with you on walks and throw a handful of treats on the ground to distract an approaching dog to buy yourself time. This is one of my favorite techniques as it can eliminate much of the drama and trauma. This is not a good long-term strategy with off-leash dogs as it can actually teach them to approach you.

✓  In many instances dogs may show aggressive behaviors (e.g., barking, growling, etc.) because they are simply nervous about your presence. Sometimes turning the front of your body directly toward the dog in a low-key manner (called “blocking”) will stop the approach. If the dog is anxious about you, he doesn’t want you coming toward him and may back away from you. This provides a chance to continue moving away from the off-leash dog.

✓  Dog deterrent/repellent sprays such as Sabre Red Protector Dog Spray or PetSafe SprayShield Animal Deterrent Spray can be used on an aggressive off-leash dog. Using these sprays has some problems including: wind blowing the spray into you or your dog; approaching dog has to be close to be effective; local laws regarding the use of these sprays may limit their use; possible unnecessary injury to an approaching dog.

✓  Sometimes the only strategy is to put a physical barrier between you and the approaching dog. There are many ways to do this. Some of your options include: getting behind a fence and closing the gate; jumping on top of a car’s hood, trunk or roof; ringing the doorbell of a neighbor to quickly enter their house.

✓  I’ve witnessed more than one instance when an off-leash dog is being “walked” by its owner. I’m always amazed how many of these dog owners will just passively watch as their dog rudely, or even aggressively, approaches an on-leash dog and its owner. Sometimes they may yell, “He’s friendly!” First, off-leash dogs are illegal in virtually every urban and suburban area in the US. Second, these dog owners generally don’t understand dog behavior well enough to know if their dog will be “friendly”, or not, in a given situation. My advice is to proceed with the off-leash dog in this situation as if the owner wasn’t there. You’re primarily trying to protect your dog and it’s highly unlikely that the off-leash dog’s owner will be of much help.

✓  Lastly, report the off-leash incident to your municipal animal control services. If there are no consequences to owners when their dogs are off-leash, they have little motivation to stop this practice.

There are no simple answers to this all-too-common dilemma. If you have a reactive or aggressive dog, these situations can cause additional behavior issues for your dog in the long run – further frustrating responsible dog owners who always walk their dog on-leash.

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.