Click here to subscribe to
USA Dog Behavior Blog

Can Your Anxiety Make Your Dog More Nervous?

Dog Training.jpg

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

The title of this article is a question I am asked in one form or another almost every day. “Can my anxiety make my dog more nervous?” The short answer to this question is an undeniable “yes”.

“When dogs see their owner with a hard body, it can make them nervous…”

Popular made-for-TV dog training shows and the dog trainer actors on them (e.g., Cesar Millan, etc.) would have you think there is some sort of mystical magic going on that your dog has otherworldly abilities to sense when it comes to their owner’s anxiety. They want you to think there are “vibrations”, “energy”, and “auras” that your dog has special psychic abilities to interpret.

What a crock! Balderdash! Nonsense!

Owners can make their dogs more nervous, but how they do so is not really all that hard to understand. The reasons are explainable, observable and preventable. I’ve listed a few of the more common ways nervous dog owners make their dogs more stressed below. This is certainly not a complete list however.

Command-Crazy Dog Owners

This one actually sucks the life energy out of dogs. It also sucks the life energy out of me when I have to observe dog owners doing it. What is it? It’s those tense dog owners who are constantly giving their dogs rapid-fire commands (or cues). “Sit, stay, look at me, come, leave it…” You don’t have to be a dog behaviorist to know the dogs on the receiving end of this don’t know how to respond to this banter from their owners. All of this non-stop chatter from the owners only serves to make the dog more anxious. It makes me anxious just listening to it too.

Use cues or commands sparingly with your dog and say them softly. For more information, see Should you give your dog a command only one time?

Masters-of-Micromanaging-the-Leash Dog Owners

You’ve seen this a thousand times - maybe you even do it yourself. These are uptight dog owners who are constantly jerking their dog’s leash to guide, correct and punish their dog while the dog is being walked. Can you imagine having a collar around your neck and some giant continually jerking it one way or another for 30 minutes without stopping? Obviously, this kind of physical input through the leash creates stress for the dog. I’ve found that many dog owners do this unconsciously. They’ve been snapping the leash to-and-fro for so long they do it without even knowing it. Poor dogs!

Learn how to properly manage the leash with your dog. For more information, see What Is Leash Frustration? and Free Preview Available | My Dog is Out of Control on the Leash.

Statue-of-Liberty Dog Owners

These jittery dog owners are so nervous around their dog that they look like a statue in the eyes of their dog. Dogs are very good at reading human body language. One of the biggest cues they look for is how “hard” or “soft” our bodies are. Think about it for a second; when people are uptight or nervous, their body movements become rigid and mechanical (i.e., hard bodies). Conversely, humans who are relaxed and confident have soft bodies. Most experienced dog owners know that dogs also have hard bodies when they are stressed and have soft bodies when they are relaxed and happy. When dogs see their owner with a hard body, it can make them nervous because they interpret this to mean their owner must be stressed.

Learn to relax around your dog both mentally and physically. For more information, see Why Your Dog Likes Some People and Not Others and Free Video | Understanding Dog Body Language.

As guardians of our pet dogs, it’s important that we don’t project our anxiety on them. This is a good habit as dog parents because it enables our dogs to not only experience less stress, but it allows them to be more comforting to us.

How to Reduce Your Chances of Being Bitten by a Dog

Dog Bite.jpg

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

As much as we love dogs, they do sometimes bite humans. I really hate when that happens because it hurts a lot, even when small dogs bite. Know that most dog bites can be avoided, but not all. Here are some quick general tips to help you reduce the chance of being a casualty of the business end of an angry dog.

“We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.””

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

  • Never approach and pet a random dog that you know nothing about; I’m including dogs on leash too, not just unleashed dogs. Even the sweetest looking little 10 lb. Shih Tzu can do some pretty serious damage to your hand. I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs and I can tell you unequivocally that a dog’s appearance and “cute factor” are not reliable predictors of whether he or she is going to bite.

  • Don’t bother a resting or sleeping dog. Dogs are animals and animals can be primal in their instincts. Startling a resting or sleeping dog can bring out those instincts which frequently include biting the first thing they see.

  • We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.” Nothing could be more incorrect! I don’t know how or where this misconception started. A hand coming toward a dog that might be afraid of this kind of approach causes thousands of dog bites every year in the US. When meeting an unfamiliar dog for the first time, including those owned by family/friends/neighbors, let the dog come to you while not extending your hand. This applies to dogs that are being held by their owners too - don’t extend your hand to dogs while their owners are holding them.

  • Don’t let small children play with dogs without proper adult supervision. If the children are very young, the adult needs to be physically next to the child when a dog is present to prevent dog bites.

  • When dogs are eating or playing with bones and toys, leave them alone. I have no idea why some dog owners feel the need to put their hands in their dog’s food bowl while they are eating. Ironically, this may ultimately teach the dog to bite when someone gets near his or her food bowl or other resource.

  • Never put your face directly in a dog’s face. This is true even if it’s a dog that you are very comfortable with and appears to tolerate this behavior from you. Most dogs do not appreciate this invasion of their space and it is exceedingly easy for them to bite you (in the face) if they want to send a message.

  • Most people really have difficulty accepting that dogs do not like being hugged, or more specifically, entrapped. Only primates (e.g., monkeys, gorillas, humans, etc.) enjoy and practice hugging in the animal kingdom. This is the number one reason small children are bitten by dogs; the child confuses a dog with a stuffed animal which can result in biting.

  • While not widely known by most people who don’t professionally work in canine behavior, dogs don’t like being hovered over. Many dog bites occur when someone is hovering over a frightened or anxious dog. It’s not always obvious why the dog bit to the casual observer, but in many cases this is why.

  • Never, ever, reach in the middle of two dogs fighting in order to separate them. This is probably the best way I know to get a bad dog bite. What you will receive is a redirected bite from a dog that is not necessarily meaning to bite you, but biting the thing that is getting in the way of the altercation with the other dog.

Parents, all of the guidelines above are super important for young children who represent the majority of bad dog bites and the resultant visits to hospital emergency rooms.

I want to wrap up this blog article with a very important cautionary note. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs over the years. In the majority of cases, owners underestimate, and sometimes grossly so, the bite risk their dog poses to others. Their dog never shows any aggression to them and they can’t understand why anyone would need to be cautious around their dog even if their dog has bitten a few humans in the past. Because of this, good dog bite prevention starts with never assuming an unfamiliar dog is 100% comfortable with you - even if the dog’s owner says the dog is.

To learn more about avoiding dog bites, see my video Understanding Dog Body Language.

Why do people abuse dogs?

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

No one likes to talk about it, but dogs are routinely and intentionally abused. Who does this? How are these dogs abused? How can you tell if a dog is abused?

Who is most likely to commit animal abuse?

  • You will not be surprised to learn that the majority (71% according to one survey) of purveyors of domestic violence also abuse pets.

  • There is an axiom in human psychology that says, “hurt people, hurt people”. If we apply this to dogs, animal abuse is commonly committed by individuals who have been physically and/or mentally abused themselves. This is known as the “cycle of violence”.

  • The majority of intentional dog abuse occurs by men under 30 years of age. Is there any surprise that many dogs are fearful of men?

  • Most abuse seen in hoarding cases is by women over 60 years of age.

  • A study found that 88% of homes that were under investigation for child abuse also had instances of animal abuse.

“None of us can fix all of the suffering that some of our canine friends have to endure…”

What kind of dog abuse is most common?

  • Hoarding is a common type of canine abuse. These individuals add one dog at a time until they find themselves with 25+ dogs living in a detestable environment. These individuals frequently don’t understand they have crossed a threshold and are in need of professional help themselves. I worked with an individual recently who had 38 dogs and didn’t realize she was a hoarder; she was not running a rescue. Needless to say, the care she was providing these dogs was substandard. I am currently working to get the dogs, and her, some help.

  • As hard as it might be to believe, dogfighting is still commonly practiced. The things done to dogs by those who promote dogfighting are literally horrifying. It is almost impossible to believe that many dogs rescued from dogfighting rings can be placed in homes and live in peaceful harmony with people. God bless the people that perform these kinds of rescues and God bless the dogs.

  • There are a lot of angry people in the world. “Anger abuse” is done to dogs as a cathartic act that makes the angry person feel momentary relief from his or her rage. A common expression that is symbolic of this kind of unhealthy behavior is “kicking the dog”.

  • I am sad to report that a lot of abuse is done by “dog trainers” who use physical punishment. I get extremely frustrated by “dog trainers” who use shock collars, prong collars and other forms of physical punishment in the name of “training”. It sickens me how many times I follow up after these impostors who pretend to understand dog behavior. These dogs are brought to me with an increased fear of humans and sometimes show the physical injuries caused by their “training” methods.

  • Puppy mills not only provide inhumane environments for the dam, sire and puppies, but they are highly irresponsible in their breeding practices and early socialization of puppies.

How can you tell if a dog is abused?

  • A filthy, matted or physically injured dog is a telltale sign.

  • The dog is not provided food or water and is well below optimum weight.

  • No provision for shelter from the elements including the sun and temperatures below 60 degrees. Dogs’ skin will sunburn and blister if overly exposed to the sun.

  • The dog is chained or roped in a small area where there is nothing but mud and feces.

  • The dog’s collar has become embedded in his or her neck.

  • There are way too many dogs on one property - this is evidence of hoarding.

  • An owner or family that physically strikes or otherwise hurts a dog is an obvious example of abuse.

When you witness dog abuse, it needs to be reported. Almost all municipalities have an animal services department that can be notified. If you see violent abuse to a dog, you can call 911 to report it since this kind of abuse is frequently accompanied by violence to family members. The most important thing you can do in animal abuse cases is provide information - photo and video evidence are extremely helpful to law enforcement and animal services.

None of us can fix all of the suffering that some of our canine friends have to endure, but we can surely step up and intervene for abused dogs when we see it.

6 Additional Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use

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

In an earlier article, 3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use, I identified 3 words that make me cringe a little bit when I hear them: “alpha, pack and dominant”. As a postscript to that article, I identify 6 more cringe-worthy words below that need to be removed from the world’s canine vocabulary.

“The picture you see above is of a dog that was “trained only using the buzzer”…I’ve seen many more disturbing cases than this.”

I normally hear this from clients who have received advice from a dog trainer about how to address certain behavior issues. This usually takes the form of a “leash correction.” A leash correction means the owner jerks the dog’s leash violently in order to punish the dog for not complying with a request. This inflicts pain to dogs and theoretically tells them what you don’t want them to do. Isn’t it better to teach dogs what we want them to do with positive reinforcement? The list of don’t-do-this-or-you’ll-be-punished items is infinite while the to-do list is simple and direct, thus making it easier for a dog to learn.

This is a term that has historically been used in the equine world. A horse trainer would “break” a horse by forcing an untrained and unridden horse to accept a saddle and rider and stop bucking or they would quickly end up as pet food. It should be of no surprise that the failure rate for breaking horses using this method was very high. Using heavy-handed techniques like this in the canine world in order to change behavior causes the dog to fear humans. Addressing this fear takes much longer than properly addressing the problem behavior in the first place.

As hard as this might be to believe, some people still spank their dogs. Dogs have no idea why their owner is hitting them. They simply assume their owner is a scary person and needs to be avoided. Spanking does not work; it creates new and long-lasting problems (just like it does with human children according to all the latest scientific research).

Any punishment technique that uses physical pain in order to train creates short-term gain and long-term pain. There is a cultural imperative in some groups that mandates they use physical punishment in order to “properly” train canines. Physical punishment is a siren song for those who are too lazy or impatient to train using know-how from current animal behavioral science.

See “punish” above. The word “discipline” has a more thoughtful connotation to it, doesn’t it? However, physical discipline is no different from physical punishment.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the following phrase, “The dog trainer used a shock collar on my dog but she said she only used the buzzer.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with shock collars (politely relabeled as an e-collar or electronic collar to make them less offensive sounding), a buzzer is frequently added to “warn” the dog that a painful electrical shock is coming soon if the dog doesn’t quickly comply. The truth is that dog trainers who use shock collars always, as in 100% of the time, shock the dog. Here’s the little secret that many dog owners may not know - the buzzer won’t work in training unless the dog is shocked. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that people still use these things in the 21st century.

The picture you see above is of a dog that was “trained only using the buzzer” by a questionable dog training company. This dog belongs to one of my clients and I took the photo. The two white spots you see on the dog’s neck are where the electrical contacts touched the dog’s skin and permanently burned off the fur from being repeatedly shocked. Sadly, I’ve seen many more disturbing cases than this. Why are these barbaric devices still legal?

Changing vocabulary or eliminating words alone doesn’t change human behavior, but the absence of these words in our daily conversation about dogs would certainly indicate that things are moving in the right direction.

Why Greyhound Dogs Wear Muzzles

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

“Am I the only dog lover who is in awe at the site of a Greyhound…at gallop speed?”

Greyhound dogs, a breed that can be polarizing. Almost all of the Greyhounds that you see as pets came from the racetrack. They ended up at a Greyhound rescue organization because they either retired from racing at four to six years of age or because they never made the cut and therefore can be very young.

As with every breed, there are good points and some things that can be challenging. This is why they are so polarizing. For more information on the breed please see this great article on the 10 reasons you don’t want the breed and 10 reasons you do. I wish there were more articles like this for every breed because all dog breeds have pluses and minuses.

One of the biggest controversies about Greyhounds revolves around rescuing them. One school of thought says these dogs need to be rescued and placed in forever homes or else the racers will euthanize them. Sadly, these dogs are usually euthanized when they are not rescued.

Another mindset says that racing Greyhounds is unnatural and inhumane. Further, the environment they are required to live in while of racing age can be abusive. Rescuing the retired racers and those that didn’t make the cut only makes it easier for those racing these dogs to readily dump their dogs when they are done with them, recruit yet more young dogs and give the Greyhound racing community an air of legitimacy.

I fully understand both camps. One could make a compelling argument either way.

Back to the original question of this article - Why do Greyhounds wear muzzles when they race? Let me be clear about something before I answer that. Greyhounds normally only wear muzzles when they race; as a family pet this is rarely necessary. Greyhounds are normally just big sweethearts that are very happy to snuggle with you on the sofa for hours on end. They are also pretty good runners too if you haven’t noticed. They are visually stimulated by prey (they officially are a sighthound) and therefore must always be kept on a leash as pets because they will go from 0 to 45 miles per hour in about two seconds to chase a paper bag blowing down your street.

Speaking of running. Am I the only dog lover who is in awe at the site of a Greyhound, or any dog for that matter, at gallop speed? God knew what he was doing when he gave canines this ability - beautiful!

The two primary reasons Greyhounds wear muzzles when racing are:

  1. When Greyhounds race they get extremely stimulated and aroused. When they are excited like this their bodies are flooded with epinephrine (i.e., adrenalin). Humans have this same reaction to high levels of stimulation and arousal. When they are flooded with epinephrine they can sometimes bite the dog racing next to them. This is called redirected biting and all dog breeds can do it. It’s nothing personal; they just don’t know what to do with their excitement. Think of the football team that just made the winning touchdown and the players are hitting and pushing each other around - and they are on the same team!

  2. The other reason Greyhounds wear muzzles when racing may surprise you. It is not uncommon for there to be photo finishes in these races. If there are a number of dogs with their pointy noses crossing the finish line at the same time it can be difficult to see who won. Muzzles make it much easier to determine the actual winner.

Greyhounds are sweet, gentle and athletic dogs. It is common to see Greyhound owners who would have no other breed because they love them so much and have owned a number of them. Greyhound rescue groups can be some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated organizations in the dog world.