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USA Dog Behavior Blog

Odd Dog Behaviors: Fly Snapping and Rage Aggression


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

In the 30-second video below you see Winston, a client's English Bulldog. Winston was brought to me with the owner stating that Winston was showing aggressive and compulsive behaviors (i.e., OCD in humans).

After a thorough assessment and observation, I determined that he was suffering from idiopathic aggression (also known as SOIA, Sudden Onset Idiopathic Aggression, or rage aggression) and fly snapping. The video captures Winston fly snapping.

Fly snapping is a condition where dogs seem to air bite at non-existent flies. In this video you will see two clear instances of this. Fly snapping can be a compulsive disorder but in this instance it is a neurologic issue caused by partial seizures.

Idiopathic aggression is a type of aggression that is sudden, unexplained and can be violent. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases in dogs diagnosed with idiopathic aggression, owners end up euthanizing them.

Sadly, both of these conditions are not properly diagnosed in most cases which oftentimes results in unfortunate consequences for the dog and owner including unnecessary euthanasia in some cases.

Once these issues were diagnosed in Winston’s case, we worked with Winston’s veterinarian and found a medication that appears to have improved both of these problems. We also started behavior modification to work alongside the medication.

The result? I am pleased to tell you that Winston is back to his friendly and leisurely ways.


Less is Truly More When it Comes to Dog Training


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

We all have things that people do that make us crazy. For example, some of us can’t tolerate it when people put on makeup in a public place (that one doesn’t bother me), others find it disgusting when restaurant employees don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom (that one bothers me), and there are those who come unglued when people crack their knuckles (I’m neutral on that one).


“Imagine having a collar around your neck that was attached to a leash held by the Jolly Green Giant.”


You know what drives me nuts? When I see dog owners having this kind of over-the-top “conversation” with their dogs:

Owner says: Bella “leave it”, “sit”, “stay”, “look at me”, “leave it”, “watch me”, “wait”, “stay”, “stay”, “stay”
Bella (the dog) thinks: What in the heck was all that?
Owner says: Get over here! [Owner proceeds to jerk the dog’s leash in a million different directions at once trying to move her closer to him.]
Bella thinks: There had to be a less traumatic way to move me over here next to my owner.
Owner says: Bella (much louder and rapidly), I said “stay!”, “stay!”, “stay!”, “stay!”, “stay!”, “stay!”, “stay”!
Bella thinks: I’m confused and my owner has turned into a nervous wreck. What does he want and what is going on?
Owner says: That’s it Bella! You are not going to “dominate” me. [Owner then gives Bella a handful of painful harsh leash “corrections”.]
Bella thinks: That really hurt! I’m getting really stressed now because I have no idea why I’m being harmed and why my owner has become a berserk drama queen!

Sadly, this is a fairly realistic and not uncommon type of dialogue between dog and owner. I see versions of it all the time. I don’t believe most dog owners are intentionally trying to make life difficult for their dog when this kind of thing transpires. They just haven’t thought through how this is being processed by their dog. I’ve provided a few simple rules in order for you to avoid this type of transaction (and poor relationship) with your dog.

Basically these tips ask you to do less with your dog, but do things smarter.

Say commands or cues in a soft pleasant voice, say them once, and give the dog a second to comply. Many dog owners are guilty of quickly giving too many commands to their dog. Remember, dogs don’t understand human language; multiple rapid-fire repeated commands confuse them. Think of the stereotypical international tourist loudly yelling and repeating words in a language that the listener doesn’t understand. For more on this see: Should you give your dog a command only one time?

Quit giving your dog so much leash input. I’ve found that most dog owners are unconsciously and constantly giving their dogs way too much and unnecessary leash input when their dog is on leash. This is known as micro-managing the leash. Imagine having a collar around your neck that was attached to a leash held by the Jolly Green Giant. How would you feel if he continually gave you little tugs and pulls every few seconds in all different directions? At the least you would soon start to ignore this significant annoyance; at worst, you would get very stressed and confused. Soften your arm when you walk your dog, become aware of what you are doing with the leash and provide leash input only when needed and do it gently.

Stop the “leash corrections” and other types of physical punishment; it’s not 1950 anymore. We all know that physical punishment to a dog (and humans for that matter) has all kinds of destructive long-term consequences. Human and canine behavioral science has taught us a lot about this over the last 25 years. We’re a lot smarter these days. There are easier and less distressful (for both dogs and humans) ways to teach your dog what you want him to do. For more information see: Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.

Fine tune how you interact with your dog by doing less while getting better results.

Do Dogs Have Emotions Like Humans?

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

Do you ever wonder if dogs have emotions like humans? Do you sometimes stop to consider what motivates dogs? Are their emotions and motivations similar to ours?

This is the short techie answer to those questions: Applied Behavior Analysis states that dogs’ behavior is learned through external stimuli; furthermore, it’s impossible for us to know what dogs are thinking since we can’t directly communicate with them. Comparisons between dogs and humans are futile they would say. In short, applied behaviorists believe dogs don’t think for themselves but rather have their behaviors and motivations shaped from external experiences.


“Possibly the most important, and least scientific, reason I feel that animals…can feel human-like emotions is…”


And now for my answer to those questions: First, it feels like I’ve read all the animal behavior books, attended all the seminars and have taken more courses than I can remember on the subject. I understand what the “techie” camp is saying above; however, after personally working with thousands of dogs I feel very strongly that dogs have emotions that can be profoundly similar to humans. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe this:

  • The chemicals (i.e., neurotransmitters and hormones) that make up a dog’s cognitive (i.e., thinking) process are similar to those in humans. These include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, cortisol and epinephrine; all of these, and others, are shared by humans and dogs.

  • Canine body language closely mirrors humans in many ways. The more I learn about and teach others about dog body language, the more I realize how closely it parallels human body language. If you’d like to learn more about this, view my free video Understanding Dog Body Language.

  • The psychopharmaceutical medications used with dogs (e.g., Prozac, Xanax, etc.) are exactly the same medications used to treat similar issues in humans. In fact, virtually all of them can be purchased from your local Walgreens, Walmart or CVS with a prescription from your veterinarian.

  • Many of the significant behavior issues that dogs are diagnosed with are also found in humans such as generalized anxiety, depression, compulsive disorders, hyperactivity, separation anxiety, etc.

  • While dogs’ brains are smaller than humans, the anatomy of their brains is very similar to ours.

  • Techniques used to encourage behavior changes in dogs are similar, at least at a foundational level, to those used in humans. These include operant and classical conditioning that are seen in both canine behavior consulting and human psychology.

  • Dogs that are exposed to significant levels of ongoing punishment share the same long-term behavioral issues that humans endure such as chronic anxiety and hyper-vigilance. The longer they are exposed, the longer it takes to work through the resultant behavioral issues.

  • Dogs express jealousy just like humans do. We call it resource guarding in the animal behavior world, but it looks a whole lot like plain old human jealousy.

Possibly the most important, and least scientific, reason I feel that animals can feel human-like emotions is from my own personal experiences with canines. It’s just impossible in my opinion to work around dogs and not see and feel the emotions that so closely mirror ours.

What does this mean for the average dog owner? It means that dogs are to be treated as feeling animals. They have social needs (primarily with their human families) as well as needs for physical comfort and safety - just like people do. If we acknowledge this reality, we become better dog owners while also greatly improving the relationship we have with our dogs.

My Infant Grandson was “Alpha” and “Dominant” Recently - We Took Care of That Promptly

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

It is my utmost hope that everyone reading this article understands that the title of this article is tongue-in-cheek. Let me explain what inspired me to title an article this way.

I recently spent a number of days with my 10-month-old grandson. Anyone who has spent time around 10-month-olds knows they can certainly be cranky from time to time. They expect their needs to be met 100% of the time - or else! We might even (foolishly) compare this primal need of very young children to dogs being “alpha” or “dominant”.

“Very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal…”

“Alpha” and “dominant” are terms applied to dog training and dog behavior that date back almost 50 years to research that was flawed. The basic concept from 1970 was that your family dog was trying to take over your household by wanting to unseat the humans for power and control. Doesn’t this concept seem silly in 2018 when you read it or say it out loud? To read more about the original author of this research and how he recanted his findings, see 3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use.

As I was dealing with my grandson’s grumpiness during my recent time with him it made me reflect on how we handle dogs that are incorrectly titled “alpha” or “dominant”. This comparison is legitimate because very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal (e.g., food, water, sleep, human interaction) and the cognitive capabilities of 2-year-old children are roughly equivalent to the average adult dog.

Imagine if a very young child (around 2 years old for example) was treated in the same way that some people approach their dogs that are being “alpha” or “dominant” in order to gain “control”. For example:

  • A very young child inappropriately reaching for food would be punished by hitting the child instead of just moving the food away and teaching the child impulse control around food using a caring and proper approach.

  • If a very young child demanded a lot of attention from adults, he or she would be punished with constant removal from the family gathering instead of rewarding the child with positive feedback when appropriate interactions were being attempted by the child.

  • Imagine a very young child that didn’t want to be held being forced to endure this even though he or she was becoming panicky and was too young to understand why someone was doing this to him or her. Instead of forcing the child to comply, a better way would be to slowly introduce the child to the concept of being held while making it a positive experience for the child.

Do you see a common thread? Whether it is young children or dogs, teaching the appropriate behavior with positive rewards is infinitely more effective and less damaging psychologically than using punishment. Punishment can feel good to the punisher sometimes, but research has shown over and over that it provides very short term results with frequent long term, and serious, problems.

I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost heroic to physically punish a dog…or even a human child for that matter. Hitting dogs and children takes no skill or intelligence and isn’t effective in the long run.

This is not an article about teaching children. It’s an article about the absurdity of hitting and manhandling dogs that are doing nothing more than being dogs. Just like skilled and capable human parents, the best dog owners use intellect, knowledge and positive reinforcement in shaping their dog’s behaviors - thus avoiding longer-term problems. What are some of those longer-term problems?

Fear of the owner
Lack of confidence
Fear of people in general

Neither your dogs, nor your young children, are trying to take over your household. They just need to be taught appropriate behaviors in a way that doesn’t scare or hurt them.

For further reading, see Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.

You Can’t Make a Dog Unafraid (Ditto for Humans)

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

In your mind’s eye, I want you to imagine that you are sitting next to a passenger on an airplane who is really afraid of flying (known as aviophobia - maybe this is you). I’m talking sweating, trembling, fast breathing, death grip on the armrest, etc. If you’re a relaxed flier, sitting next to someone like this can really be annoying. You try to tell the person that you’ve been flying for 28 years and nothing bad has ever happened to you. You tell this extremely fearful flier that flying is the safest form of transportation on earth.

However, you notice this person is absolutely not listening to you. In fact, this individual hasn’t heard a word you’ve said. Why doesn’t this person listen to your calm and informed voice? Maybe you should just smack this Nervous Nellie really hard and force this individual to get under control - but, of course, you know you can’t make someone relax.

“This 3-step process is known as IRRC (Ignore Reactivity, Reward Calm).”

What’s going on with this flier is a fear reaction and is known as an anxiety attack. A sense of overwhelming fear and dread. This poor character’s body is filling with the hormone epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline) because his or her amygdala (i.e., survival center of the brain) is in overdrive. This person is absolutely not having a fun time at this moment and doesn’t want to have this reaction. There is not much this flier can do about these physical manifestations once this level of anxiety begins.

Dogs are no different.

When a dog is considerably afraid of something (e.g., moving cars, visitors at the front door, loud sounds, thunderstorms, etc.) he or she is experiencing the same kind of anxiety that the human fearful flier is going through.

What confuses a lot of people is, in the majority of cases, dogs use aggression to scare away the things they fear. For example, a dog “greets” a visitor to a home with, shall we say, unfriendly and intense barking that doesn’t stop. This dog is not protecting anyone; he or she is afraid of the visitor and wants that person to leave or at least get further away. This dog has learned to be afraid of visitors for a number of possible reasons and is essentially experiencing an anxiety attack complete with a rush of adrenaline, the same adrenaline response that humans experience.

Seeing this dog’s barking as disobedience and punishing those behaviors is exactly the same as seeing the fearful flier’s irritating nervous behaviors as bad manners. Neither species wants to feel this anxiety and can’t help themselves at that moment.

Here are the realities of anxiety attacks for both humans and dogs:

  • Focus is solely on the scary event - awareness of other stimulus is virtually gone

  • Punishing the behaviors associated with high levels of anxiety only increases the anxiety

  • The experience is extremely uncomfortable

  • Once the anxiety attack begins, it escalates quickly and control of body responses is lost

  • It takes a period of time for the chemicals associated with anxiety (e.g., adrenaline) to wash out of the body

What should we do when our dog is reacting aggressively (or submissively) to something that he or she really fears? To begin with, don’t punish the behaviors because that only increases the anxiety and don’t soothe the dog as it may reinforce or encourage fear behaviors. The proper course of action is: 1) Ignore the fear responses, 2) If necessary, move the dog away from the thing it fears in order for the dog to be able to calm down, 3) Immediately reward him or her when reasonably calm. This 3-step process is known as IRRC (Ignore Reactivity, Reward Calm).

Next, realize that what you are seeing are symptoms of the problem. The problem is the fear of something; it’s this fear that needs to be addressed. When the root cause is addressed, the symptoms are normally eliminated. This is done by reintroducing the dog, in the proper way, to the thing that is feared. Simply treating the fear behaviors can be worse than doing nothing at all.

If your dog has things he or she is afraid of, seek the help of a qualified and properly certified dog behavior consultant. With patience, realistic expectations and consistency, these behaviors can be humanely addressed and improved.