Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Raising a Special Needs Pet

I have several clients living with deaf dogs who can attest to the fact that while deafness does create a few challenges, it isn't a deal-breaker.  I also have clients whose dogs are blind; a couple have young dogs who were blind from birth, while others have senior dogs who've lost their vision.  And because I have collies, I certainly know dog owners dealing with CEA, Collie Eye Anomaly, which can result in blindness in an affected dog at any age.  One of my long time clients even has a three-legged dog, aptly named "Tripod!" And, yes, he gets around her 5 acre property just fine. So, why wouldn't someone want to adopt a special needs pet? 

First and foremost, you need to make sure that your living situation will work for that special needs pet tugging at your heartstrings.  Is your home/yard/property fenced?  Are your gates secure and not easily climbed over? Those are the first questions you'll need to answer if you intend to bring home a deaf dog.  They (obviously) won't hear you calling them, nor will they hear traffic coming their way. It's your responsibility to be your dog's ears.  Deaf dogs often startle easily too, so making your deaf dog aware of your presence before you touch them is key.  Deaf dogs can easily be taught hand signals for all of the basic behaviors you'd like them to know, but you will definitely want to teach them other, fun behaviors as well and assign hand signals to those.  You can use a long line to allow a deaf dog to safely explore; simply apply pressure to the line to get them to turn toward you so that you can then give the hand signal for "come!" You can also use a vibrating collar for your deaf dog.  These collars simply buzz/vibrate (no shock or pain) thus getting the dog's attention. If you are considering a pet with visual impairments, you need to make sure that they can safely navigate your home.  Do you have lots of stairs? Are those stairs indoors, outdoors, or both?  Do you have other pets for whom a blind animal could be at risk? Having stairs won't keep you from having a blind animal successfully live in your home, particularly if that animal had sight, or some vision, before going blind.  Just remember not to move significant pieces of furniture around as that will affect your blind pet's internal map and spatial awareness. 

Not to be crass, but you also need to look at your finances when considering a special needs pet.  Does their disability mean they will need extra trips to the vet or a veterinary specialist?  Do they need daily eye drops, ear medication, or heart medication?  Is your special needs pet easy to give medication to? If so, maybe you can simply hire a sitter or dog walker to come by when you are at work and give those meds during the day.  My client with the three-legged dog has him on a strict exercise schedule, designed to keep his muscles in good condition and his weight a constant.  She is trying really hard to make sure that his body is well-balanced so that he doesn't end up tearing a ligament or injuring his other hip or one of his shoulders. And if you're considering adopting a pet who is epileptic, has Cushing's  Disease, is diabetic, or suffers from chronic skin infections, you are signing up for the care of  an animal who will need daily medication(s) and routine veterinary monitoring to insure their continued good health. Unfortunately, all of that can be prohibitively expensive for the average pet owner.

While many private rescues and animal fostering groups know the details on pets with special needs, it is often the case that those with special needs "fly under the radar" at the animal shelter.  So while a well-funded rescue group might be able to afford to fully diagnose an eye issue for a pet in their care, the average shelter may be able to offer nothing to that pet beyond basic veterinary care and a tentative diagnosis based on visual inspection of the pet only. Taking a newly adopted pet to see your own veterinarian within the first few days you've brought them home is key (particularly if you have other animals in your home), and that is definitely true for any pet you suspect or know will have additional care needs due to a disability or chronic illness.

It is also the case that I've worked with clients whose newly adopted pets are physically healthy, but who have significant behavior problems.  Separation anxiety, noise sensitivity, resource guarding, fear, not using the litterbox, and all forms of aggression can arise in animals who are physically sound.  Many of these behavior issues will not show up in the shelter, nor will they show up in a short-term foster environment. It's only when you get that new pet into your home and they become comfortable with their new environment, that those issues will arise. Once again, treating a behavior problem can be done, but it will involve a significant amount of your time, and will incur financial costs as well.  The bottom line is this:  While you may so badly want to adopt that special needs dog you see online, you need to remove the rose-colored glasses and look at that pet pragmatically.  Are you prepared physically, emotionally, and financially to take on that pet and what it will need in order to thrive?  It's okay to say no.  Saying no means that pet has a chance to find the person who is a better fit for his/her special needs.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

This is my  buddy, Gus.  Gus is a deaf Saint Bernard. He responds to hand signals, wears a gentle leader out in public, and loves all manner of human attention.  Gus can be overly exuberant with other dogs, so we work on that, and he recently lost his companion dog who basically served as Gus' ears when they were out in public together.  Navigating the outside world without his hearing friend has been challenging for Gus, but he's making progress as he has committed owners who knew the challenges of raising a deaf dog before they welcomed Gus into their home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Why Does My Puppy Hide During Puppy Class?

That was the question one of my recent puppy class participants asked in frustration and with tears in her eyes.  You see, she was feeling defeated and like her puppy wasn't getting anything out of class as he hid under the benches during group play. This isn't the first time I've had this happen, in fact that happens quite a bit in puppy class!  I've seen puppies who don't want to get out of the car and come inside the building for class; puppies who freak out at the door to class and slam on the brakes; puppies who scream and yelp when another puppy just glances their way; puppies begging their owners to be picked up; puppies hiding in corners, under legs, and under the benches. The follow up questions on every new puppy owner's mind when their canine family members behave this way is, "Should we even be coming to puppy class? Am I harming my pup by bringing her to class?"  Let's talk about that and (hopefully!) ease your mind about your puppy's behavior.

First of all, yes, puppy class is still of value even for the shy or fearful dog, IF the shyness and/or fear doesn't keep them from being able to participate at all. If it's simply that your puppy hides during group play or is reticent to come into the classroom, do keep coming!  Over time, your puppy may explore beyond that bench he's hiding under and socialize a bit, either with the other puppies or with the people in class. Now, if you puppy is so fearful and/or overwhelmed that he can't even participate in the leashed activities away from the other puppies and people and he is so stressed out he can't take treats, then no, class is not valuable for your puppy.  Interestingly enough, the class may still be of value to you, the owner!  If you can, just attend the class without your puppy, prepared to be a good observer and take notes on the exercises so you can practice at home or in your yard where your puppy feels safe.  It may be the case that your training dollars are better spent on a few in-home sessions or attending class without your puppy, than stressing yourself (and them) out by making them attend.

So, how might you encourage your puppy to come out from under the bench?  Walk away from them and keep moving around.  If you keep moving, they can't use you as something to hide under or around. They can't beg you to pick them up.  As you are moving around, engage other people's puppies; pet them, speak kindly to them, encourage them as they play.  Your puppy may come out to investigate the other puppies you are interacting with. Encourage other people in class to say hi to your puppy briefly and then move away; this gives your puppy some support and exposure to new people, without being overwhelming or giving your puppy someone else to hide behind or under. If your puppy comes out from hiding, even briefly, reinforce that with praise and a yummy treat, if they will eat it.  Always have several kinds of treats with you of varying value for just such an opportunity!

Finally, I know we've discussed this before, but it really does bear repeating. Not every dog is a social butterfly who lives to meet lots of new people and new dogs.  Some dogs are introverts just like some people and that's okay.  Dog sociability is a spectrum from dogs who are outright aggressive with new people or new dogs, or both (this is a small group) to dogs who pick and choose who to socialize with (the majority of dogs fall into this group), right up to those dogs who love to socialize with everybody (also a small group). So, if that puppy hiding under the bench is great at playdates in your yard with the neighbor's dog, or plays well at home with your other dog, then he falls into that middle group of dogs who pick and choose who to engage with, and that's perfectly normal and okay.  

I hope this relieves any anxiety the humans in puppy class are feeling about their less than social puppies.  I also hope they are figuring out what works best for them AND for their puppies.  I am happy to support them in whatever decision they make, but I do hate to see anyone not enjoying puppy class for any reason.  Puppy classes are the best place to learn about dogs, work on fun behaviors, meet new people, and sympathize with one another about the pitfalls of puppyhood. And they are, by far, my favorite classes to teach.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

This is Dolores.  She is a French Bulldog puppy who is currently attending her second round of puppy classes with me.  Dolores is actually a social butterfly who will play with any other dog she meets.  Her play is appropriate, she backs off when told, and is good with the shyer puppies as well. It's nice to have puppies like her in class as she sets a good example of what an uber-sociable puppy looks like so that I can discuss that sociability spectrum I mentioned above.  Plus, Dolores loves human attention, so I can scoop her up for love as well!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Bite is a Bite: Why Size (of the dog!) Doesn't Matter

Last week, I posted a video where I talked about a senior living facility where their only criteria for admitting a resident dog was the weight of the dog (under 30 lbs.); no requirements regarding temperament, training, or previous bite history required.  My new client was frustrated as his adult kids have a lovely, well-behaved, CGC (Canine Good Citizen) certified dog who can't visit with him in his new home because she weighs 80 lbs.  You read that right.  The dog can't even visit "Grandpa," let alone stay with him when the family is on vacation.  And yet, this same senior living community has had a handful of bites to humans (and even more skirmishes between dogs) in their population of dogs 30 lbs. and under. It just doesn't make sense, right?  The temperament, training, and behavior of a dog are better predictors of success in any home environment than the weight/size of the dog.  

Well, apparently this isn't just an issue in senior living communities.  Another client reached out to share a story about something that happened at a recent family gathering.  Now keep in mind that while my client has large dogs who are incredibly well-behaved, she knows that not everyone's dogs are required to meet the same expectations she has for her own dogs.  Nonetheless, her family members have set the bar so low as to be dangerous.  The rest of her family has always had little dogs (right now, Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes) and they've all been bitten multiple times over the years by these dogs and previous small dogs.  The dogs have bitten other people too outside the family!  And in all instances, these bites were written off as "Oh, he's just a little dog, so it's no big deal!" and "Oh, you scared her when you tried to brush her, so it's your fault!"  Basically, her family members have gotten to the point where they honestly believe that getting bitten by their little dogs is okay and par for the course.  What makes this situation even more incredible is one of these owners is a young woman who plans in the next couple of years on having children.  Dogs who bite, no matter the reason, do not belong in homes with children. Period.  No exceptions. It's one thing for a consenting adult to decide that they are willing to live with a dog that bites them, but you cannot knowingly put children into that situation.  And trying to keep a child away from a dog and vice versa is difficult at best, and rarely works.  I've had many clients over the years attempt to manage their aggressive dogs as children were born into their families.  Some were successful at getting their kids through the baby stage and keeping them away from the dogs, but by the time those babies became toddlers, the risk was too high, and most either removed the dog at that point, or were forced to remove the dog because of a bite to their now mobile child. 

Let's just take a look at some statistics:  The U.S. has a population of roughly 333 million people.  Every year, 4.7 million people report being bitten by a dog (I'm certain the number of bites is actually higher than that, it's just many bites go unreported). Of those reported bites, 885,000 dog bite victims require medical attention of some kind. While there are 345,000 emergency room visits in that statistic, the horrifying one is that 32,000 of these emergency room visits are for children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old. Even more sobering is this: Of the fatalities resulting from dog bites, 26% are children between newborn to 2 years of age.  While many people would like to think that these bites are all being delivered by Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers, the truth of the matter is that a significant proportion of these bites are from smaller breed dogs including Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Lhasa Apsos, and Jack Russell Terriers. And a study in the "Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science" found the most aggressive dog breed was indeed the Dachshund where one dog in five has tried to bite or has bitten a stranger and one in twelve has tried to bite or has bitten their owner. The second most aggressive dog breed in their study?  Chihuahuas.

So, let's circle back to my client living in the retirement community with the 30 lb. weight limit for dogs.  Obviously, small dogs can be aggressive and pose a bite risk to people and to other pets. While those bites may not be fatal, they are bites nonetheless.  It would be more efficient to base a determination of suitability of a dog to reside in this retirement community on the dog's temperament and behavior.  A veterinary evaluation which could include both physical and behavioral health, at a minimum, and an evaluation by a trainer or behaviorist who has seen the dog would be prudent as well.  Owners whose dogs have attended training classes and/or have certifications like the CGC, should have those taken into account as well.  And the bottom line is any dog with a bite history should not be allowed to reside in a senior community, regardless of size. And for my other client dealing with family members who are ignoring the statistics and putting other people at risk, this has to stop before a child is injured or worse.

I know I've said this before, but dogs do have choices when it comes to biting.  Most dogs will try really hard to do anything else BUT bite.  They will walk away, they will hide, they will turn away, then will growl or snap, but stop short of biting.  People need to heed all of these warnings so that those anxious dogs aren't compelled to bite.  This idea that a dog can't help but bite is nonsense.  Dogs have choices and those that bite choose to do so.  If your dog doesn't like being groomed, then you need to work with him so he doesn't try to bite you (or the groomer) for brushing him.  If your dog doesn't like the vet, you need to desensitize him to that environment.  And if your dog is "great most of the time," but occasionally makes that choice to bite, then humanely teach him to wear a muzzle in those high stress situations.  Bite prevention is key; don't force a dog to make that choice because he is afraid that he has no other options.  And if you have children in your house, you really do need a dog that doesn't make those kind of choices and instead just walks away.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

This is a really old picture (Jessica, the little one on my lap, is now 22 years old!), but one of my favorites nonetheless. The collie puppy snuggling up to her is our first collie, Cooper.  He was a natural with children and loved them all. I did not call Cooper over to snuggle with us, in fact he was visiting with a friend sitting nearby when he decided to come over, plop down, and lay his snoot gently against Jessica's sleeping face.  It's hard to believe that he was just 5 months old when this picture was taken.  He was a treasure and one of those rock-solid family dogs every dog owner dreams of having, especially when their children are young.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Heated Topic of When to Neuter Your Dog (pun intended!)

Why has the discussion of when (or whether) to spay or neuter your dog become so confusing?  Conflicting "evidence" abounds on when the "right time" to schedule this surgery actually is.  And then there are the proponents of keeping animals intact (that is, not spaying or neutering) for their lifetimes as that's "what nature intended."   I've had numerous clients ask me to weigh in on this topic as they are interested in the potential behavioral consequences of spaying or neutering their dogs at specific ages.  I'm going to preface what I say here with the fact that I am not a veterinarian.  My opinion (and it is my opinion) is based on my extensive reading on the subject over the years.  As with many topics related to animal health, changes have been suggested with regard to the timing of altering pets as researchers have discovered more health consequences associated with early spaying or neutering.  The decision as to whether to spay or neuter a pet AND when to do so should be made with your veterinarian, and your veterinarians should be basing their decisions on the latest research related to this topic combined with what they know about the health and behavior of your individual pet.  

Now, if you'd like to know what the research shows, I am happy to share that with you so that you can discuss it with your veterinarian.  My major professor in graduate school was a veterinarian and a behaviorist by the name of Benjamin Hart.  Dr. Hart is still conducting research related to the health and welfare of companion animals and completed a 10 year study that was published last summer on the topic of helping dog owners determine when to alter their pets.  Here is the link to the study if you'd prefer to read the whole article yourself:

Basically, they looked at 35 dog breeds and how early neutering, defined as before their first birthday, may be associated with an increased risk for joint issues, certain cancers, and urinary incontinence.  While previous studies had found links to these diseases in dogs who were altered before a year of age, Ben's study got really breed specific.  What he found was that generally speaking, none of these issues were a problem for the vast majority of dogs.  There were, however, certain dog breeds for whom these problems were an issue if they were altered before a year of age. For example, with regard to joint issues, those at highest risk if altered before a year of age were larger breed dogs like Labs, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Smaller breed dogs like Cavaliers, Corgis, and Pugs did not show an increase in joint issues associated with early altering.  Rather surprisingly, a couple of the giant breeds (Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds) didn't show an increased risk for joint issues with early altering at all. Again, this study looked at 35 dog breeds, so going to the study via the link above will let you examine the specific results for your dog breed, or perhaps a similar dog breed, when making your decision with your vet about when to alter your dog.

For decades, the advice given to pet owners with regard to altering their animals reflected a need to decrease the unwanted pet population. Thus, pet owners were told to spay or neuter as young as 4 to 6 months of age, and even earlier for pets entering shelters.  Pet overpopulation isn't really as big of an issue anymore here in the U.S., but animals coming into shelters are still being altered before being adopted out and many veterinarians are still advising their clients to spay or neuter at 6 months of age. Given the research by Ben Hart and others, we now know that waiting until a dog is at least a year of age (and in some instances closer to 2 years of age), may be beneficial from a disease prevention standpoint.  Meaning, keeping those hormones around in your dog's body serve protective health benefits in the long run.  So, if that's the case, why alter your dog at all?

Well, at a certain point, you will reach maximum benefit from leaving your dog intact.  So, your aging adult female dog who is left intact will be at a greater risk of mammary cancer which is fatal in 50% of dogs and 90% of cats, according to AAHA, the American Animal Hospital Association. By the same token, neutering your male pet reduces the risk of testicular cancer. There are also behavioral reasons to spay or neuter your pet.  Altered pets don't tend to roam or wander off as much, are less vocal (males seeking females in estrus bark and howl, and oftentimes those females in heat yowl, whine, and bark as well), and with respect to male animals, get in fewer fights. There is, obviously, the issue of heat cycles and bleeding which many pet owners find annoying as they have to put pants on their female dogs to curb the mess. It is also true that some male dogs begin marking indoors (lifting their leg and urinating on furniture, doorways, etc.) and some female dogs become more anxious/restless/or moody when in heat.  All of these potential behavioral consequences can be controlled by altering those pets. 

Keep this in mind too. Not every male dog left intact marks inside the house, wanders off, or gets in fights and not every intact female dog is restless and moody when in heat.  These are generalizations and as with any generalization there are plenty of exceptions.  I, for one, would not have neutered my collie, Ozzie, before his second birthday if he hadn't started marking in my house!  He had some fear-related issues as an adolescent dog and I really wanted to keep those hormones on board to help him cope with his anxiety, but I couldn't put up with the marking, so he was neutered at just over a year of age. Yet, I have a good friend with an intact male dog who never marks, who doesn't plan to neuter him until he's 3ish, or maybe even later if her breeder decides to use him for breeding purposes.  Which brings up another issue: What if you have a contract with a breeder to alter your dog at a certain age?  If that's the case, and you signed the contract, you'll need to adhere to those guidelines, or show cause (likely with a letter from your veterinarian) that can be given to the breeder to show why you are not following your contractual obligation based on the advice of your veterinarian.

And then, as if all of this wasn't an overwhelming amount of information, there is also the issue of whether to do a conventional spay or neuter, or one of the other options.  For example, a full ovariohysterectomy (removal of the ovaries and uterus) has been the norm for spaying a female pet for years.  Now, however, there is another procedure called ovariectomy (removal of the ovaries only).  This procedure is more common in Europe, still renders the pet infertile, but is associated with less surgical site pain due to a smaller incision, risk of pyometra (an infection of the uterus) is low even though the uterus is still intact, and there is no change in the chances of urinary incontinence between the two spay methods. Whether your female pet should have their ovaries AND uterus removed is something to discuss with your veterinarian as your pet's age and general health must be taken into consideration. Plus, not all veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada are familiar with this alternate form of spaying a female pet.

With regard to neutering your male pet: Neutering, or castration, traditionally involves removal of the testicles. Alternatively, a vasectomy can be performed on a male pet.  With a vasectomy, the animal is still considered intact as both testicles are still in place.  This means that testosterone will still be affecting your male pet's behavior.  So, vasectomy is often chosen for working police dogs, for example, if they want to keep the dog from reproducing, but still want that testosterone in place that many feel contributes to their working drive and performance. Dogs who have had a vasectomy are still at risk for testicular cancer, prostate enlargement, and prostate cancer as they age. From a behavior standpoint, a working dog might need testosterone to be the most effective at his job, but that same hormone could contribute to marking in the house and posturing with other male dogs that pet owners find upsetting. Again, whether a vasectomy would be a better option for your male pet is a conversation to have with your veterinarian. Not all veterinarians feel comfortable doing this procedure and still endorse castration for male pets for multiple health reasons.

And an unfortunate statistic for anyone who shares their home with a female Golden Retriever: The research from multiple studies indicates that spaying Golden Retrievers at any age is associated with an increased risk of one or more cancers (the risk jumps from 5% to 15%). A statistic like that might lead the owner of a female Golden Retriever to opt to wait as long as possible to spay their dog in an effort to cut that cancer risk as much as possible. 

There is plenty of misinformation out there as well.  If you read somewhere that intact male dogs are more aggressive than neutered male dogs, that simply isn't the case.  Aggression can occur in ANY dog and dogs bite whether they've been neutered or not.  And the notion that all spayed female animals get fat and lazy?  That isn't true either.  If your pet is gaining weight, take a look at what you are feeding them and how much exercise they are getting.  If they are exercising a lot and not overeating, then speak with your veterinarian about other reasons your pet may be lethargic or gaining weight.

The bottom line is this: Regardless of what breed of dog you have and what the research shows for that breed (please read that article from Ben Hart if you haven't already!), you need to feel comfortable discussing these issues with your veterinarian.  You must advocate for your pet, while understanding your veterinarian is trying to do the best that they can for your pet's health as well. You are on the same team trying to insure that your pet's life is a long and healthy one.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

So, while Ozzie was neutered just after a year of age as he started marking in the house, Desi wasn't neutered until he was 4 years of age and was done being shown.  Desi did not mark in his breeder's home and has always been a confident, laid-back collie.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Canine Body Language--Part 2: Applying What You Know!

So, last week's blog was a long one, but should have given you all a solid overview of canine body language and how dogs communicate with each other and with us.  Now, let's put it all together so that you will have a better understanding of your own dogs, as well as those you see when you are out on walks or at the dog park.

Dogs often seek out attention from us by bowing, relaxing their ears, softening their gaze, etc. If they don't get a response, they may ramp up their behavior provoke a reaction. Truly, so much of what our dogs do with us is defined as attention seeking and appeasement. Your dog may bark, paw, or jump up on you to get your attention. Then, when you acknowledge the dog, he will bow, relax his ears, slow the wag, and then offer appeasing gestures like lip licking, yawning, or shaking it off. 

Believe it or not, we do this too. When we want our dog's attention, we raise the pitch of our voice, make a dramatic gesture with our hands (patting legs, clapping), bend down thus making ourselves smaller, smile, and make kissing sounds. This is us attention seeking and appeasing! And our dogs respond in kind. It's a dance where the partners don't necessarily speak the same language, but they can use context and familiarity to reach common ground. Occasionally, you will see people trying to imitate dog communication; they may try a bow, lolling tongue, and give a bark at their dogs. Dogs find humor in this, I believe, much as we find humor in those viral videos of husky dogs saying, “I love you” and “Mommy!” Dogs know that we aren't dogs. This is why the notion of people being pack leaders is so ludicrous. Dogs are not wolves and dogs aren't looking for a pack leader. Dogs know that we are people and that we have thumbs and upright posture, which translates to the dog getting what he wants faster if he can manipulate said human into using those thumbs and upright posture to get the cookies on the top shelf of the pantry! And vice versa, we know that dogs are not wolves. Wolves would not want to, nor thrive, living in our home environments. Wolves are aloof, self-contained, and driven to hunt, mate, explore their home range, etc. Most dogs enjoy hunting bugs and chasing squirrels, and if un-neutered show an interest in mating, and while they do like to explore their worlds, they are just as happy hanging around their homes and yards, playing with toys, and sleeping in air conditioned/heated comfort. Dogs put out on their own do not do well. As opposed to cats who feralize very quickly if left to their own devices. Dogs are truly domesticated. Cats most definitely are not.

Through years of selective breeding, we have created dogs that seek us out, choose to spend time with us, and engage us in play. Most dogs can clearly see that rough housing style play doesn't work for most people, and will thus bring a toy instead. While they will certainly bring toys to each other, play is much more physical between two dogs than between a dog and a person.

The science of body language in humans is a fascinating topic as well. Being adept at non-verbal communication has its perks. It can be used to get ahead in business, find the perfect companion, draw people to you, push people away, and better understand the criminal mind. People can tell when someone's words don't match their body language. For example, when a person says, “Oh, I am so happy to see you!” and, yet, their smile doesn't quite reach their eyes. Dogs find this confusing when our words and our body language don't match. Thus, when you call your dog to you and then yank their collar or sternly leash them, they are confused...and less likely to come readily the next time you ask. Now, it is true, that dogs are more concerned with pitch, tone and volume than our actual words. So, for example, you might say, “Come here, you little idiot! Come here little Satan puppy!” and your dog will come because your pitch, tone, and volume seem appropriate for the come command. Again, dogs use meta-communication just like people, so if most of what you are “saying” seems to jibe, they will respond accordingly.

There are seven universal facial expressions in humans that show our emotions. These are called micro-expressions. They are universal in that they are true regardless of your sex, age, where you live, your culture, etc. They are as follows:

  • Disgust: the “ew” face

  • Anger: Eyebrows together and tensed lips

  • Sadness: This one is hard to fake. It's the “boo boo” face

  • Happiness: Your smile reaches your eyes

  • Fear: Big eyes, open mouth, but flat brows

  • Surprise: Big eyes with raised brows and open mouth

  • Contempt: smirk, one side of mouth goes up

What I find fascinating is that most of our dogs can recognize these seven micro-expressions too and will respond accordingly! And, if the dog seems unsure, all you have to do is add in a verbal cue, and they get the message you are conveying immediately and respond appropriately.  For a fun exercise, try these micro-expressions at home with your dog and see what happens!

A really important reason to understand canine body language and teach it to your family members is that understanding dogs can help keep you and your loved ones safe. One of the things I get asked a lot is how to approach an unfamiliar dog, for example,  and what to tell kids who are approached by a dog. So, let's start with how ANYONE should approach an unfamiliar dog. Don't. Don't approach them, instead, let the dog approach you. Do not offer your hand to an unfamiliar dog as that just gives an aggressive dog something to easily bite! Stand with your body sideways and don't stare at the dog. IF the dog approaches you and begins to sniff, you can gently reach down and rub the dog below the chin or across the chest. This is a non-threatening gesture designed to increase relaxation and promote trust. Do NOT pat the dog on the head, go over the dog's head, drape your arm across the dog's shoulders, or get in the dog's face. All of those maneuvers are considered aggressive and non-affiliative. Always pet an animal in the direction the fur grows. If your gentle gesture is tolerated, you can make the contact more engaging by briefly glancing at the dog, adding in verbal cues, and if the dog is relaxed and presents its rear end, a butt scratch. And a really important thing to remember: If a dog is accompanied by a person, don't listen to what the person says ("Oh, my dog is friendly!"), but look at what their dog is saying. Many a bite has occurred because an inexperienced owner said their dog was friendly because he was wagging his tail and approaching the stranger!  You all know how to read dogs now, so believe what you see, not what that other person is telling you! Obviously, no one should pet a dog without an owner's permission. Period. No exceptions.  Even for those people who claim to be "dog people;" actually, maybe especially for those people.  Everyone should ask if it's okay to engage your dog. 

Now, what should a child, or anyone for that matter, do if approached aggressively by an off leash dog? Stand still and sideways. Don't make any sudden moves. Don't stare at the dog. Be quiet. Keep you hands up and close to your body by folding your arms. If you have stuff in your arms, drop it or throw it away from you to distract them and get them to move away from you. Move away slowly and never run. If you and your dog are approached by an off leash, aggressive dog, you can throw treats away from you to distract the dog, or carry an airhorn to discourage the other dog. Do NOT yell at the dog, flail your arms, or get yourself between your dog and the other dog as you will get bit. And you may even get bit by your own dog. The bottom line: Always carry treats and an airhorn (or pepper spray, or mace, but be prepared for a lawsuit) and make yourself as non-threatening as possible if you, or you and your dog, are approached and engaged by an aggressive dog.

So, what about what you see at the dog park where off leash dogs congregate to play? Let's talk briefly about what constitutes good play from a body language perspective. First off, all play needs to be supervised, particularly with regard to unfamiliar dogs. Never walk away from your dog at the dog park, even for a few minutes! When you are supervising dog play, however, you must make certain you are clear on what constitutes appropriate play and when you should intervene. If you are going to put yourself out there in an off leash dog situation, you need to feel comfortable interrupting inappropriate play behavior and calling your dog away BEFORE it goes south. I like to divide dog play into three categories: good, questionable, and inappropriate. Here's how to tell these things apart:

Good dog play is play that needs no interruption. The dogs seem to be monitoring themselves in the give or take of the interaction. No one is actively escaping the play session. The dogs involved will have loose, relaxed bodies often with goofy facial expressions and lolling tongues. If chase is involved, no one is hiding or defensive. It is not necessary for good play, however, to see dogs switching off between chaser and chasee. Some dogs like one role or the other and stick to that. Play bows, hip checks etc. are the norm and the dogs will stop themselves if it gets too rough. 

Questionable dog play should be interrupted BEFORE it goes too far. For example, wrestling can be appropriate, but should not involve bullying (more that 2 dogs involved) and the dog wrestled to the ground should be enjoying himself. If he is fighting back, trying to escape and hide, it's gone too far. When unfamiliar dogs play, there should be NO TOYS OR POSSESSIONS READILY AVAILABLE. When dogs know one another, tug-of-war and shared toy play sessions are fine, but with unfamiliar dogs this can lead to questionable play with one dog actively defending a resource from another.  Other inappropriate behaviors include stalking...I am not talking about herding here folks, but true stalking as you might see in a lion hunting down a gazelle. Often stalking is followed by a body slam to the ground with intent and that's not okay. Rude and totally inappropriate play is not really play at all. It is aggressive and must be stopped immediately, even if that means leaving the park. Do not allow your dog to be bullied, body slammed/t-boned, relentlessly chased or mounted repeatedly. This is not "normal," despite what other dog owners at the park may be saying and you and your dog don't have to put up with it.   Persistent neck or collar grabs, excessive barking and harassment (using the bark to push another dog into a corner or a submissive posture), body slamming to the ground, repeatedly pinning, snapping, repeatedly adopting a position of head over another dog's shoulder, ganging up, and growling with full teeth on display and erect posture are all aggressive behaviors. 

Everyone needs to work on being able to call their dog away from play AT ANY TIME. That way, if play is inappropriate or not play at all, you can remove your dog safely. Use a long line to work at home on calling your dog away from desirable things and then work with the line during play. Give your dog time to calm down before you even consider releasing him to play again. Any dog repeatedly harassing other dogs needs to be removed from the play session PERIOD.  It is important to remember that rough play will often look like fighting, hence why so many researchers over the years have even taken to referring to it as play fighting. However, it isn't fighting really...bites are inhibited, sequences of behavior are incomplete, and movement is often exaggerated and bouncy. While it is important to interrupt inappropriate play, we need to be careful that we don't misinterpret. While you may feel that you are playing it safe, you can actually end up creating a lot more frustration for the dogs by constantly butting in on their game.  Thus, if you have concerns, intervene briefly and look at the dogs involved. Do you see relief and avoidance or are the dogs struggling to get back to their game, offering big grins, lolling tongues, and play bows? Whether rough play is OK for your dog will depend on many factors including their past experiences. The biggest factor, however, in whether they will engage in rough play is what kind of relationship, if any, they have with that other dog. Play does not have to be balanced or fair, it just has to be consensual. 

Researchers studying dog play have found that after observing hundreds of hours of play fighting between two dogs WITH ESTABLISHED RELATIONSHIPS, never once did it escalate into a real fight. Rough play or play fighting is not done to prepare dogs for real fighting or killing prey. It is done to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise, and practice coping skills and strategies. To summarize, play should always be monitored between dogs who differ significantly in size or age or who don't know one another well. However, trust your dog. He knows who he wants to play with and how to play well with that dog. Dogs speak dog more fluently than we do, so, ultimately, let's respect that. A growl isn't just a growl; dogs growl during play, it's acoustically different, and dogs know the difference, even if we don't. Multi-dog play needs close monitoring to make sure ganging up isn't occurring. The best play is between two, familiar dogs. No toys should be involved. Be the most cautious with young, inexperienced puppies. And always do the work on recall in advance of actually letting your dog off leash to play. You want to ensure good recall so that you can get a pause in play at any time safely.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie and Westley love to play together.  They are collies, so their play involves racing around the yard, chasing one another.  Westley likes being the chasee, which works quite well as Ozzie likes to be the chaser!  Westley diffuses play if Ozzie gets too pushy; he usually stops running and starts sniffing the ground.  Ozzie will stop running then too, try a bow and a bark to see if Westley will run again.  Both dogs can easily be called away from play (as you can see!) and are always up for a cookie break.