Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Preponderance of Fear Aggression

I used to see just a couple of cases of fear aggression every few months.  Now, post-COVID, I see a couple of cases every week. The number of fear aggressive dogs has increased worldwide, seeming to indicate that those dogs born and raised during COVID lockdown and experiencing a lack of socialization with groups of people and other dogs during that time period, are having trouble adapting to this post-COVID world where they are now walked in busy public spaces and taken out of their homes and their comfort zones.  It's also the case that these COVID dogs are now old enough to breed, so we are now seeing puppies born to under-socialized COVID-raised mothers having (inherited) issues in fear and fear aggression.

Fear aggression is typically a defensive behavior by design, meant to move people or other dogs away from the fearful dog. Those growls, lip curls, and whale-eyes, while backing away, are meant to communicate "Stay Away!"  Unfortunately, however,  these signals often go unheeded, putting these dogs on the offensive and making aggression (and potentially a bite) imminent. Fear aggression is about a dog perceiving a threat; the threat does not have to be real, just perceived to be so. For these dogs, it is very difficult to teach them that their fears are unfounded. And for some dogs, their fears are real, meaning they don't want you to touch their feet/nails because someone grabbed their feet and cut their nails so short they bled, for example. 

Fear aggressive dogs look very different than, say, dogs with status aggression or resource guarding aggression. They are often so scared that they freeze, defecate, urinate, or express their anal glands while trying to escape. Their heads are low, bodies low, tails tucked, etc.  While you may see a low tail or a frozen body posture with other forms of aggression, you certainly won't see that unloading of the bowels! The big difference and the one that often gets people into trouble is recognizing the difference between a fearful dog and a fearfully aggressive dog until it is too late.  So, a dog who is afraid will back up, cower, and tuck their tail to avoid confrontation, but if you reach for them, they will not vocalize aggressively or snap/bite you.  Reaching for a dog who is afraid is never a good idea; reaching for a dog who is a fear aggressor is an even worse idea.  So what can you do?

First and foremost, you have to avoid putting the dog into those situations that trigger the fear and aggression.  If it's the groomer, skip the groomer.  Your vet?  You'll obviously need to work on that, but not taking them to the vet until you can work on the fear and aggression is key. For dogs afraid of strangers and/or other dogs, don't walk them where there are other people or dogs!  You can exercise them at home and it's less risky. Basically, all situations where the dog might be fearfully aggressive must be avoided until you can slowly desensitize your dog to those scenarios. Fearfully aggressive dogs must be counter-conditioned to view previously provocative situations as non-threatening.  You do this by starting at a distance from their triggers and teaching them to exhibit or engage in a behavior that runs counter to their fear.  So, instead of backing away or cowering, you teach them to sit close to you, for example.  The process will be slow, but worth it, as you watch your dog gain confidence and overcome their fears in a safe, predictable environment that you control for them. 

For safety reasons, never corner a fear aggressor, instead call or lure them out. Give them a safe space, however, and let them go there whenever they feel overwhelmed. It goes without saying that fearfully aggressive dogs should not be physically punished as that will just reinforce their fears. Never tell them that it's okay or that they are alright; they aren't okay and doing so just reinforces the fear. Instead, provide a safe haven for them, ask for that counter-conditioned behavior, and reward them for doing that. It's also true that many fearfully aggressive dogs require anti-anxiety medication to fully achieve counter-conditioning long term. 

While your friends and family may be "dog people" and want to help you with your fearfully aggressive dog, it's in everyone's best interest if you protect your dog from these well-meaning folks. Remember, fearfully aggressive dogs are behaving abnormally; they are just as afraid of gentle approaches as they are of unfriendly approaches. Instead, keep your dog in their crate or in another room with something fun to do. They won't see this as punishment but as a reprieve from a situation that will trigger them to behave fearfully.  And if you must have your dog with you in a provocative situation, muzzle train them so that you keep them and others safe.  Remember, though, your fearfully aggressive dog is still afraid while muzzled, they simply can't bite anyone.  You still need to work with them to keep them under threshold. 

My hope is that I will see fewer and fewer fearfully aggressive puppies and dogs as we move further away from the short term effects of the pandemic.  If there's one thing I learned from the pandemic it's that people and dogs need to see and engage other people and dogs, even if it's just exchanging pleasantries as you pass them on the street.  Avoidance fuels anxiety and fear in all of us.

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

Does this dog look scared to you? Rather than finding out the hard way by walking over there, hovering over him or reaching for him, just call him.  Crouch at a distance, body facing away from him, and call him in a friendly manner. If he isn't afraid AND if he WANTS to interact, he'll get up and come to you.  Reward that with some gentle pets and a tasty treat, thus reminding this dog, afraid or not, that you represent safety and all things that are good and predictable in this world.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Tis The Season

Well, the holidays are upon us whether we're ready or not and that means lots of pressure for pet owners. Pressure to make sure our dogs don't jump on anyone uninvited. Pressure to make sure they aren't table surfing, or worse yet, sampling off of plates on laps.  Pressure to make sure our cats aren't walking on the kitchen counter prep area and that the litter boxes are clean. While we hope our family and friends will understand that this is our house and that the pets live here year round, we do want those people visiting us to feel comfortable.  At the same time, however, we don't want our pets to feel left out and more importantly we don't want to feel judged.  There's nothing that takes the holiday spirit out of a pet owner faster than being judged.

My wish for you this holiday season is that your family and friends will see the hard work you've put into helping your pet companions thrive.  That they will see you working on your dog's barking, or your cat's furniture scratching behavior and complement you on your progress rather than criticize you for not having it "fixed." They need to embrace the fact that you are a pet owner and dogs do bark and cats do scratch and that's normal behavior for their species.  You would not have chosen a dog companion if you didn't expect them to bark, nor would you have chosen a cat if you didn't expect to have to teach them where to scratch. These are hard concepts for non-pet owners to understand.  The rest of us totally get it. So if no one tells you this holiday season, you know what? You're doing great! I see you making headway with your dogs and cats and I appreciate your efforts.

Look, I have an 8 month old puppy right now.  He's made huge progress but he's not perfect. Yet.  Hey, I've still got a month before Christmas so a girl can dream.  Just kidding. He won't be perfect then either, whatever perfect really means.  You see, he's perfect to me and he's becoming such a delightful companion, walking nicely on leash, only occasionally trying to chase the neighbor's cats now.  He rarely barks and when he does it's because he genuinely heard or saw something important.  He still eats the fruit and veggies in my garden, but at least he doesn't eat the furniture or my shoes.  He would like to sit at the table when people are eating, but he will go lay on his bed if asked.  Twice.  You need to ask him twice.  Still, that's progress.  He does try to jump on people, so he'll be wearing his collar and leash when guests arrive, but that's okay.  My friends and family accept that he's still a puppy.  An over 50 lb. puppy, but a puppy nonetheless.

It's also a good time to remember that letting your dog chill out in another room with something fun to chew on, or letting them hang out in their crate with a bone, are perfectly acceptable solutions to some common holiday woes.  If your dog hasn't mastered not bolting out an open doorway as guests enter, jumping up, table surfing, etc., then placing them in another room or in their crate is fine. It's safer for them and less stressful for you.  And if it's possible to keep them on leash, tethered to you, that's a viable option as well.  Now, if your dog is afraid of new people or aggressive, then you simply must put them somewhere else when you have guests.  It's your job to keep them under threshold for unwanted behaviors that put them (and you!) at risk.  Rather than having those out-of-town guests stay with you and your fearful or aggressive dog, instead suggest a local hotel or an Airbnb for their safety and comfort.  You can still get together at your house, confining your dog when they do, but the guests staying elsewhere means your dog won't have to be confined the entire length of their visit, thus making guests a big negative for them.  If you haven't already done so with your aggressive dog, now is the time to muzzle train them.  Muzzle training them means that they can be on leash and muzzled anytime they aren't confined. This makes it easier and safer for guests who are staying in your home. Muzzle training doesn't make you a bad dog owner or them a bad dog; it's a tool that can be used to increase safety and provide a reactive dog with an obvious on/off switch.

It goes without saying that your well-mannered, social butterfly cats and dogs will need to be watched as well.  You see, they are going to be the ones receiving often unnecessary or unsafe handouts from well-meaning friends and family as a reward for their "good behavior."  While one little piece of skinless turkey won't hurt a dog or cat, several pieces will definitely upset their stomach and it's not like guests will be tracking who gave your pet a tidbit and who didn't.  And your dog/cat sure as heck isn't going to tell, right up until the point they feel ill and begin experiencing vomiting or diarrhea!

Finally, I hope you take the time to enjoy the holiday season.  We all get so rushed trying to get everything done and make it all perfect that we forget to to enjoy the moment.  Pets are good at reminding us to relax, take a break, and play.  So, walk the dog, cuddle your kitty, and play with all of your pets. It's good for you and it's good for them.  Stress relief in the form of a nice boost of serotonin and a bit of dopamine for good measure.  Tell those judgy friends and relatives that your pets are good for your mental health, I'll back you up on that.

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

Henley is ready to party!

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

When Labels Do More Harm Than Good

I taught a class last weekend for new pet assisted therapy animals and their humans.  After class, one of the new volunteers commented on how much she appreciated it when I said "it isn't that jumping up is bad, it's just that it isn't appropriate for pet therapy animals on visits." She said she'd been told numerous times that her dog was "badly behaved," had "poor impulse control," and "needed to be taught who's in charge."  These comments had come from friends and family, as well as a couple of dog trainers.  I was saddened by this, but I can't say that I was shocked.  I've worked with many clients who've been told similar things (or worse) by those they've approached for help, guidance, and support.  

But see, here's the thing.  What I said is true. Whether you're talking about a dog who jumps up, a dog who surfs counters, a dog who barks a the mailman, a dog who chases squirrels, or a dog who pulls on the leash, all of those behaviors are normal dog behaviors.  Dogs jump up in joy or to get a better vantage point. Dogs surf counters because there is food there.  Dogs bark at the mailman because he's invading their territory.  Same goes for those pesky squirrels.  And we know already that dogs pull on the leash to get to the next sniff because we've talked about that many times.  Now, I understand that YOU may not want your dog jumping up or counter surfing, and that's okay. I can help you with that.  But don't succumb to labeling your dog as bad or poorly behaved, lacking impulse control, for doing those things.  He's just being a dog. It's our job as their guardians to teach them boundaries and limits as defined by us and our living situation.  You've all heard the phrase "my house, my rules." Well, that applies to dogs too.  Just because I don't allow my dogs on the couch doesn't mean your dog is bad if he gets up on yours. It simply means that the rules at your house are different than mine.  And guests to your home need to understand that they will be sharing the sofa with your canine companion and that doesn't make the dog bad or poorly behaved.  He's just following your rules.

In pet therapy class, I let the new volunteers know what behaviors are unacceptable in terms of being successful pet therapists.  I don't just tell them "don't let your dog jump on people," I also tell them how they can get a handle on that behavior now so that it won't keep them from being able to participate.  All of our pets are leashed for therapy visits, so simply standing on the leash of a bouncy dog helps them to understand that jumping up doesn't work there.  Same goes for dogs who paw for attention; that may be something you are okay with at home and that you reinforce by petting your dog whenever he paws you, but we can't allow pawing for attention on therapy visits. So, I ask owners of the pawing dogs to simply place their forearm across their dog's front legs during petting to keep those legs from coming up and pawing a patient for attention. Dogs who paw for attention aren't bad dogs; they are just dogs who are allowed to do that behavior and while you may hate it, their owner clearly doesn't as the dog has been allowed to do it all the time!

So, my friends, be careful labeling dogs (or their owners) when you are out and about.  Just because that dog is jumping up on someone for an ear ruffle and love doesn't make him a bad dog. It simply means that he and that human he's jumping up on are enjoying their interaction.  And for those of us who don't like being jumped on, we can simply ask our friends with the bouncy dogs to stand on those leashes so that we may greet their dogs with four feet solidly planted on the floor.  

And all of this is really important as the holidays are rapidly approaching and you'll have family and friends visiting your home and your dogs.  Make sure your guests know the house rules with regard to your dogs.  If they don't want to share the couch with the dog, then maybe they should sit in a chair instead!  And if they don't want the dog sleeping with them in your guest room, then they can shut their door.  It's as simple as that.  

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

Here's my granddog, Westley, at my daughter's house where he's allowed on all of the furniture.  At my house, I have a "no dogs on the couch" rule as my new couch is small and there's not enough room for the people AND all of the dogs.  Westley knows that it's "grandma's house, grandma's rules" and he doesn't even try to get up there anymore.  He's not a "bad dog" for trying to get up there the first couple of times he visited me with the new couch.  He simply needed to learn the new rule. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Please Be Kind

Last Sunday, I held my dog walking tutorial at the park.  It went swimmingly well and I think everyone benefited from being there.  One of the participants reached out after the tutorial to tell me how panicked she'd been beforehand, almost to the point of not showing up and making an excuse for her absence, but then decided to at least show up and see how it goes. You see, she has a "challenging" dog.  Or at least everyone around her is telling her that her dog is challenging.  She's been working really hard to help her dog be less anxious in social situations, to enjoy walks, etc.  And yet, her family, her neighbors, and even a few of her friends keep telling her that her dog "still needs work."  Well, I'm here to tell you, first of all, we can all use a little work, can't we?  And second, comments like this are not well-meaning, nor are they helpful or kind.  All those comments have done are make my client feel like she's not doing enough for her dog, when it's actually quite the contrary; she's doing so much for her dog and it shows!  She and her dog did great in the class and I was thrilled with her progress and told her as much.  

The whole point of teaching this dog walking tutorial was to offer an opportunity for a group of dog owners to get together in a non-judgmental, supportive environment, and work together on their leash handling skills, ability to move around other people and other dogs, and expose their dogs to children playing, bikes, scooters, etc. in a controlled setting, and under my watchful eye.  I chose the participants for this class based not just on my knowledge of their dogs, but on their ability to be kind and caring with each other.  I knew that a couple of the dog owners attending this tutorial were going to be way out of their comfort zone.  I wanted them to know that every other dog owner around them has had similar experiences.  I had them practice exchanging pleasantries as they passed each other, learn to say no to friendly strangers who wanted to pet their dog, and what to do when children charge at you unattended.  We problem solved approaches from off leash dogs when your dog is on leash, and we even worked around picnickers and food.  Everyone left class with a better sense of how much they've accomplished and a few pointers on what they can do to make their walks even better in the future.

When I saw two people exchange contact information after class to set up a walk together again sometime soon, that's when I knew this tutorial had been a success.  Folks came to learn but walked away with the confidence to step out of their comfort zone and hit the park again without me there cheering them on.  As any good coach knows, you teach the skills and then you let your students soar.  One person asked if I'd do another tutorial in a few months to assess progress and make further recommendations, and I think that might be a fun thing to do a reunion, of sorts!  Do I think this group really needs it?  Not at all.  But if they want to work together again, I am happy to facilitate that and provide guidance.  No matter what, they all know now that kindness can be found among strangers.

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

Just me with some dog friends and their guardians on a lovely day to walk
 and work in the park.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Play Time!

I had such fun on Sunday, overseeing a first playdate between dogs belonging to two of my favorite clients.  Both have young, large breed dogs and were looking to set up a playdate that would be safe and fun.  I was happy to introduce them, knowing that their dogs would get along really well and have fun together, but I promised to attend the playdate, just to make sure it all went well, and it did.

I love talking with people about play behavior; it was the topic of my dissertation research in fact!  Play is important to normal growth and development for many animals, and the value of good play cannot be emphasized enough.  Good play helps build confidence, problem solving skills, and sociability. Good play is not necessarily synonymous with large group experiences; some of the best play you will ever observe will be between two participants, whether those two participants are children, dogs, or birds.

Those of you who know me or have been reading my blog for a long time, know how much I dislike dog parks. I feel like I need to explain again why that is the case.  You see, back in the late 90's when dog parks were really taking off, I was invited to be at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the brand new dog park in Alameda.  It was a beautiful park and they'd incorporated so many of the features in their design that I thought were important in a park made for dogs, including signage that indicated who should (and who should not) be using the dog park.  It wasn't a year later that the sign was gone and the park had become a very different place, one that wasn't all that safe for the dogs using it.  After visiting a few other Bay Area dog parks with clients whose dogs used them regularly, I discovered that the problems I'd seen at the park in Alameda were not unique to that park; problems at the dog park seemed universal.  There were people taking dogs there who were aggressive; there were dogs there who were bullies; there were people on their phones not watching their dogs; there were kids running around in the dog park; there were toys being thrown (and guarded) by dogs; there were filthy communal water bowls; there were older dogs who clearly wanted to be anywhere but there; there were young dogs who wanted to be anywhere but there; and there were dog owners who clearly knew nothing about basic dog body language or behavior, letting their dogs' behavior influence the experiences of others.  I always became overwhelmed, frustrated, and upset when I went to the dog park with clients to the point where I tried really hard to never have to go!

Now, I know some of you regularly use dog parks and love them and that's great. I also have clients who simply get together at local school fields at certain times of day to let their dogs run together.  Me? I love a good playdate in someone's backyard.  Whether it's two dogs or more, I feel like playing in a yard is an environment that can be better controlled.  You know all the players, you know their owners, and you've established that the physical space is safe for play.  In a dog park, anyone can join in on your dogs' playtime and those dogs joining in may be unsafe and you may not realize that that's the case until it's too late.  I've had many a client tell me that they had to leave the dog park after their dog was repeatedly bullied or attacked by another dog, all while that other dog's owner was telling them that it was fine and "that's just how dogs are."  I'm here to tell you, that's NOT how dogs are; most dogs are not aggressive, nor are they bullies. But some dogs clearly are and for whatever reason their owners are taking them to the dog park and allowing them to behave badly.  I'm not okay with that.

One of the many benefits of attending a puppy class with your new puppy is that you will meet other puppy owners. I always encourage the people in my puppy classes to exchange numbers and email addresses so that they can set up playdates between classes and after classes are over with. I want those owners I've educated on what makes good play to continue to give their puppies those opportunities to play in a safe environment.  And for many of the puppies who don't enjoy playing in puppy class because it's too many puppies off leash etc., they do end up enjoying those smaller playdates, one on one, as they can play without getting overwhelmed.  And that feels safer to me than any dog park.

My almost 8 month old puppy, Henley, attended puppy classes where he fit in best with the bigger, older, rowdier puppies. That's his personality and I have to find him playmates who match his energy level and enthusiasm for tag, chase, and barking while running in circles.  Luckily, he has a young "cousin," my friend's male French Bulldog, Argon, and those two run around like lunatics, playing hard and being a pair of goofy boys, until we tell them enough and make them take a break.  They play hard.  Ozzie is not a fan of this kind of energy, so I don't take him to these playdates.  While Henley and Ozzie do play together, it's different than when Henley plays with other puppies his age, or with his Frenchie cousin. Henley is getting all kinds of play opportunities, including play with me.  He's developing into a very confident, outgoing, fun-loving dog. He needs to play and I need to make sure that need is filled, but I'll not be filling it at a dog park. I know too much about dog behavior and body language and I'd drive everyone there nuts!

I'll finish up a dog play seminar this Saturday and my hope is that the participants in that seminar will now have a much better idea on what constitutes good play, and what doesn't, and thus be better observers of behavior when they use their local dog parks. You need to feel confident enough to step in and step up on behalf of your dog if someone else's dog is behaving in an unsafe manner.  You need to tell that other dog owner that bullying is not, in fact, normal dog behavior and they need to collect their dog and get that dog under threshold or leave the park.  That other dog owner will likely not take that advice well, so you may just want to leash your dog and leave the park instead.  But you do need to stop it.  The number of times I've treated dogs repeatedly bullied to the point that they are fearful and/or aggressive around other dogs is too numerous to count.  Don't risk your dog's behavior and well-being by forcing them to stay in an unsafe "play" environment.  I've often used this analogy with parents/grandparents:  You wouldn't allow your kids/grandkids to play on a playground where they were being repeatedly beat up or bullied, so why are you letting that happen to your dog?  They are family members too!

Henley has a playdate coming up with someone who was in his puppy class and I hope to have time to set up another play date with his "cousin" soon.  In the meantime, he and Ozzie are running around the yard together at full speed and they are having a good time. I'm monitoring them to make sure it continues to be fun for them both.  Why? Because that's the right thing to do for both of my dogs.

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

Here they are mid-chase!  Henley is bowing to indicate he's still interested in the game and Ozzie is looking back at him right before he takes off to the left, straight through my flowers and tomato plants!