Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Huh? Thoughts on Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads!

An up and coming Bay Area social media influencer asked me a fun question at the Pawsitively Summer Event a couple weeks back.  She wanted to know why dogs tilt their heads and how she might get her dog to do them more often as those were her most engaging posts.  I couldn't help but giggle as I, too, love a good doggie head tilt, but never really thought a lot about what it would take to get them to happen with some kind of predictable regularity.  I worked with her dog for a couple of minutes, getting a handful of solid head tilts, and left her with some ideas to start working on herself.  All the way home in the car, I was still smiling about those head tilts.  Ever wonder why dogs do them in the first place?

While not widely researched, there does seem to be evidence to support five possible reasons for the canine head tilt:

1.  Doing so helps makes them more attentive listeners. One study actually found that dogs tilt their heads more when their humans use the words that the dog finds most interesting/important and were thus words that they knew really well.  This makes sense given the plethora of funny viral videos of people saying nonsensical sentences, punctuated with their dogs' favorite words like car ride, walkies, cookie, etc. and the dogs' responses which invariably include head tilts and enthusiasm. So, it would seem one possible explanation is that tilting their heads helps them process what we are saying, picking out the key words and phrases of value to them.

2.  The tilted head makes it easier to see better. A dog's vision could be blocked by a long nose (my collies, for example). Evidence to support this would be the fact that flatter faced dogs tilt their heads with less frequency than those with the longer snouts. So, it would seem some dogs tilt their heads to get a better perspective.

3.  Tilting the head may make it easier to figure out where a sound is coming from.  I've seen this one many times.  My female smooth collie, Pearl, used to sit in the yard like a statue, tilting her head from side to side, before pouncing on a spot and starting to dig.  She was listening for the moles under the lawn! Some breeds of dogs with heavy ear flaps may tilt their heads even more as those heavy flaps can mute or block sounds. So, they may be tilting their heads to listen better.

4.  If tilting their head gets them positive attention, they'll do it for the love. Dogs are smart.  If they see you laughing, smiling, and giving them treats and attention for tilting their heads, they'll do it just for that.  Case in point: All of those videos on social media of dogs cocking their heads!

5. And a more serious reason; the dog has an underlying medical concern. Dogs with vestibular issues (problems with balance and depth perception, turning in circles, etc.) may tilt their heads to try to regain their equilibrium.  Dogs with ear infections may tilt and shake their heads to try to dislodge whatever is in the ear canal or as a way to indicate pain/discomfort in their ears. Head injuries and brain tumors can also cause head tilt in dogs.  So, if you see your dog tilting its head with some regularity and at times when you've not been soliciting and rewarding the behavior, see your veterinarian to further explore the underlying causes. 

So, what did I do to get the influencer's dog to tilt his head? I made ridiculously high pitched sounds and then quickly offered a high value treat for the head tilt.  Within a couple of minutes, I was getting head tilts in rapid succession due to the rewards and excitement.  

My first dog was a Border Collie mix named Shadow, who I know I've mentioned here before.  I could get her to cock her head basically on command.  What was the command? Me saying, "Huh?" and cocking my head.  She'd mimic me!  Never discount observational learning as a way to get a desired behavior as well.

I think I love these fun questions almost as much as the serious ones.  As always, if you have any questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

I'd never tried to get Henley to tilt his head.  How did I get this perfect head tilt?  I made those ridiculously high pitched sounds again.  He tilted his head first, then sat down, 
right before he tackled me!  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

You've Got Questions, I've Got Answers!

A dear friend texted me last week about her own dog.  She'd noticed that her young, now neutered male dog doesn't like other male dogs who are intact, that is unneutered. She talked to a dog walker she knows and he said it's a pretty common occurrence.  She was curious if I'd seen this too and thought it might be good to address the topic here in my blog, and she was right!  In fact, I had two people come up to me at the Pawsitively Summer Event series and ask about the same thing.  Let's dive into this topic more deeply, including what you can do if you own an intact male dog and this is happening to you when you are out and about.

First off, why this happens.  Simply put, intact male dogs smell different.  Their hormones mean they smell like a dog who is still male and has the ability to mate. The scent of an intact male dog can cause tensions to rise even before the dogs engage each other.  Neutered male dogs, on the other hand, are believed to smell like female dogs and thus don't automatically put other male dogs on high alert.  Intact male dogs can also trigger aggression in female dogs, both spayed and intact. Why?  Because, once again, those intact male dogs have the ability to mate. It is also true that some intact male dogs engage in postures that elicit negative responses from other dogs, meaning intact male dogs may stiffen their gait, raise their tails, and stare directly at other dogs resulting in an altercation. While dog on dog aggression can occur between any combination of dogs, it seems to be on the rise between intact male dogs and their neutered male counterparts.  Why is it on the rise?  No, we can't blame this one on COVID-19 and a lack of socialization.  Rather we need to look at changes in spaying and neutering trends among dog owners. 

In 2020, the results of a study at UC Davis were published, examining the rates of some joint disorders and cancers in 35 breeds of dogs, looking at the correlation between early spaying/neutering (at or before 6 months of age) and those specific health concerns. As a result of this study, many veterinarians have begun advising their clients to postpone spaying/neutering their dogs until after a dog's first birthday, and for some breeds, even longer than that.  While timing of spaying or neutering varied with breed, one thing seemed quite clear; larger breed dogs had a higher incidence of joint issues and cancers if they were altered early. This is likely due to the absence of hormones which provide a certain level of protection from those health issues. 

Back in the 1970's when I was a kid, very few people in our neighborhood altered their pets.  And yet, I can remember very few aggressive encounters.  Why is that?  I chalk it up to different pet practices back in those days.  Dog owners didn't spay or neuter, but they also didn't take their dogs to dog parks, doggie daycare, or to restaurants and stores with them. Rather those dogs were mostly in the house or yard, and walked on leash in the neighborhood with little chance to get into an altercation with another dog. While the techniques used to spay and neuter pets have been around since the 1930's, it really didn't become a common practice until the 70's and beyond.

So here we are today, having come full circle.  We are delaying spaying/neutering if we do it at all, knowing that keeping our dogs intact may protect them from some very common health concerns. But we are also taking our intact dogs everywhere with us, including to dog parks, daycares, off leash at the beach, etc. Doing this means we are exposing our intact animals to potential negative encounters that could result in aggression.  

I was also asked why intact male puppies don't trigger these same aggressive responses and the reason is still all about hormones.  Testosterone peaks around 10 months of age when a dog reaches adolescence.  Research seems to indicate that these adolescent dogs have testosterone levels 7-10 times higher than intact, adult dogs, which explains why so many intact, adolescent male dogs are getting aggressed by neutered adult male dogs.  They smell like a threat.  The bigger issue here for owners of those adolescent dogs is putting those dogs into situations where they have to face this overt aggression daily, which may result in fearful or preemptively aggressive behavior in their young dog. So, what can you do to protect your intact adolescent dog?  For starters, avoid the dog park or any other place unknown, off leash dogs congregate. Keep your dog on leash and only allow off leash interactions with known playmates who have an established relationship with your dog and are therefore less likely to behave aggressively toward him.

Now, you may be wondering when (or if) I will be neutering my newest collie, Henley.  Based on the above mentioned study (and here's the link to it in case you want to explore it in more detail:, I've got options.  Of the 116 total collies they looked at in the study, they found no increased occurrence in joint disorders or cancers associated with neuter status in the male dogs.  They did find, however, an increased cancer risk in female collies spayed earlier than 6 months, and an increase in urinary incontinence in female collies spayed between 6-11 months of age.  So, I always encourage my friends with female collies to wait until their dogs are over a year of age to spay them.  For me, I still think I'll wait for Henley to reach at least his first birthday before I neuter him, unless he starts urine marking in my house, something that could happen given that I have a household full of male dogs!  Ozzie started marking in my house when he was just shy of his first birthday, so he was neutered before he hit that milestone.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed with Henley!

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

He's getting bigger all the time.  His ears don't look like they belong to someone else any more!

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

My Favorite Advice!

As you know, I did a special event for the Golden State Warriors last weekend to kick off their month of Pawsitively Summer activities in San Francisco. It was a lot of fun to attend and participate in a dog-friendly environment.  One of the people who interviewed me at the event asked me for my favorite behavioral advice that I regularly give to dog owners.  I told her that would be a great topic for my next blog post, so here goes! Here are my top 5 pieces of advice given regularly to dog owners:

1.  Aim for well-behaved dogs, not obedient. I love a well-behaved dog just as much as the next person, however well-behaved doesn't always mean obedient per se. You see, while I do know some amazingly obedient dogs, not all of them are well-behaved; they can perform sits, downs, long stays, and come when off leash, but they still bark at other dogs, jump up on people they meet, etc. I love a good community dog, that is one who can walk through a crowd without jumping on people, one who doesn't lunge at other dogs to greet them, and one who quiets when asked.  I'm always mindful to tell people their goal should be a well-behaved dog first, with rote obedience taking a back seat to that.

2.  Don't overtrain.  While it's good to work on your dog's training every single day, you don't need to put in hours of work. In fact, too much work can end up backfiring on you when it comes to dog training.  It's better to do frequent short sessions with your dog than to work with them for hours at a time.  This is particularly true of puppies.  Remember too that incorporating training into your everyday activities with your dog is better than a devoted training session.  Working on drop it and leave it, for example, during your daily walks is a much more productive way to work on these behaviors than to just try to do it at home where there are fewer distractions.

3.  Speaking of leave it and drop it. I know a lot of people like to teach their puppies and dogs sit, down, and stay first, but I like to teach leave it and drop it. Why? Because dogs don't have thumbs, so they explore their worlds with their mouths.  Some dogs readily drop items, even before they are asked, while others hold onto (or worse yet, swallow) anything they can get into their mouth, even if it's not technically edible. If your dog has been taught leave it and drop it early on in your relationship, and they know you will trade whatever they have for something that IS delectable and IS edible, then they are much more likely to play let's make a deal with you when they get something they shouldn't have.

4.  Don't compare your dog to other people's dogs, previous dogs you've owned, or even the other dog you live with now.  Each dog is an individual.  Even if you always get the same breed of dog, each dog you add to your family is unique.  Treat each of your dogs as an individual and find out what motivates them and use that to your advantage. While your previous Border Collie may have been ball motivated, your current one might be more treat motivated.  And I've certainly met more than one Border Collie who didn't like to chase a ball and didn't like herding sheep, but did like mozzarella cheese, so that was the motivator used.

5.  Have fun! No matter what you are doing with your dog, find the joy.  Their lives are short and they live to just spend time with you.  So, spend time with them.  You can spend time with them actively (playing, training, going for walks, heading to the pet store, etc.) and you can spend time with them passively (encourage them to sit or lay near you while you work, read, watch TV, or prepare food). And whatever time you do spend with them, have a good time. If you're having fun, they're having fun.  This is precisely why I encourage the use of tricks training for puppies and young dogs.  It's just more fun and if it's fun, you are more likely to do it, and less likely to find reasons NOT to do it.  Plus, most of the tricks I like to teach lead right into cooperative care exercises for making trips to the groomer, vet, etc. easier. 

I'll be back in San Francisco again this Saturday for one more Pawsitively Summer event, and I'm really looking forward to it. In the meantime, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Working on a group stay with this gang of Collies! Fun for them and lots of fun for me.  Everyone did great and they all received a small treat for their efforts.  That's a win/win!


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Hot Fun in the Summertime!

I'm excited to announce that I will be participating once again this year in the "Thrive City Paws-itively Summer" Event series hosted by the Golden State Warriors.  Dog friendly fun will be happening on all of the remaining Saturdays in July, but if you want to see me, you'll have to be there opening day, this Saturday, July 8th, or next Saturday, July 15th. You do need to RSVP for the events, so here are the links for each of those dates:

The fun begins at 10 a.m. and ends at noon. I'll be on stage from 11 to 11:30 with collies in tow.  This Saturday, it will be all about Henley,  while next Saturday will be Westley's turn in the spotlight.  Henley will be doing tricks and helping me show attendees how tricks training can help you form a lasting bond with your dog of any age. I'll also be talking about all things puppy and answering questions on leash training and socialization for puppies. On the 15th, Westley will be helping me show what's involved with attaining a CGC, Canine Good Citizen designation.  Should be fun for the collies and a great opportunity for me to work with them around a lot of distractions.  And if you are wondering why I'm not bringing Desi or Ozzie:  This is an outdoor event where it could be quite warm.  Our young, smooth collies will do much better in the warm weather than our older roughs.  If it's cool enough on the 15th, I might bring Ozzie just to show off my Lassie descendant dog, but I won't make him go if it's really warm.  That's no fun and these events are meant to be fun for all involved!

Please stop by and say hi if you are there as I always love to see you.  Don't forget to bring water for you and your pup and sunscreen for sure.  Putting water on your dog's feet and head will help keep her cool and the fact that all of the events will be winding down at noon means we'll all be out of there before it gets too warm to be walking around on the pavement and artificial turf. 

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

Here's Henley working on place in a hula hoop.  He's also working on being able to walk through the vertically held hoop, with little hops, when prompted!