Trigger Warning: pet injury
I have been trying to capture a video of doing LAT with my dog while on a walk. I wanted to show my class participants how my dog leads the conversation and lets me know when they are done "talking" about it. As we were coming out of the woods at the end of our hike this morning, I spotted a dog lying down at the picnic area and thought this would be a perfect opportunity. I pulled up my phone camera on my brand new nifty backpack clip and started recording.
What I didn't know was that this dog was not on a leash. If your dog does not respond to your recall cue in the presence of other dogs, THEY SHOULD NOT BE OFF-LEASH. I don't care how "friendly" your dog is -- the dog they are approaching may not be. You are endangering not only your own dog but any dog they encounter who may not appreciate their approach. Trust me. I am speaking from experience.
When I was in my early twenties, long before I was a professional dog trainer, I was walking my lab mixes through my neighborhood. As we walked by one house, a man opened the door and let his little dog out. It immediately started running toward my dogs - one of which was dog reactive and the other who had a strong prey drive. I tried to get my dogs away, but it was too late. My boy picked that little dog up in his mouth and shook it. Although he then dropped it and I was able to get both dogs away, the damage had been done. The man who had been uselessly calling his dog collapsed on the lawn in tears. His little dog was whimpering and crawling toward him. I will NEVER forget that day. I still carry the guilt and horror of that traumatic experience. The real tragedy is that it was completely avoidable. If that man had just put a leash on his dog, it would never have happened. I was trying to be a responsible pet parent by having my dogs on-leash and under my control, but I didn't have the knowledge or skills to handle the situation.
Fast forward to this morning. Obi-Wan is dog-reactive on leash and in the yard. I have mostly focused on his reactivity in the yard and not as much on leash since we usually hike off-trail and are able to avoid other dogs or keep enough distance that he stays under threshold. Between homeschooling my kids, running my own business, trying to maintain my house, yard, and - oh yeah - sanity, I just haven't taken the time to really focus on training with him like I should. Now that we are suddenly faced with a situation where I can't control the distance from the other dog, all of my training failures flash before my eyes.
For some reason, seeing that little dog running toward us sent me right back to that horrible memory. While yelling at the pet parent to get their dog, I was mentally panicking. For a moment, all the skills I had learned in the ensuing years deserted me. I finally remembered to forcefully tell the dog to go away, and thankfully that stopped its forward progress. Once he stopped approaching, I stopped panicking and started thinking like a dog trainer. I was able to focus on helping my dog cope, and the person was finally able to get their dog. Crisis averted.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence and dog trainers often hear stories like this from their clients. While it should NOT be their responsibility to make sure that someone else's dog does not encroach on their dog's personal space, they want to know how to keep their dogs safe. I'm going to share some of the strategies that I forgot in the moment in hopes that it will help someone else in the future.
Did you know that the “Alpha Dog” mentality--a theory that says dogs form packs with one “alpha” or leader and that proper training requires a human to instill in their dog that the human is the ‘alpha’ of the pack--is really a myth?
This theory stems from research done on a constructed pack of unrelated young male wolves in a captive setting in the 1930s & 1940s, but more recent studies have shown that wolves do not naturally behave this way. That is because wild wolf “packs” are actually families. The so-called dominant pair are actually parents and the “submissive” wolves their offspring. Young wolves remain with their parents and help raise the pups. When they are ready, they leave to find a mate and establish a new “pack.” In captive settings, the wolves are often unrelated and are not able to leave the pack, so a hierarchy is established to maintain order and prevent bloodshed.
Dr. L. David Mech, a wolf expert who studies wild wolves, is largely responsible for establishing this more accurate structure of wolf packs. Ironically, it was Dr. Mech’s book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species which first brought the concept of the alpha wolf to popular culture in the 1970s. This theory was unfortunately applied to dogs and became a mainstream method of dog training.
Alpha roles (such as eating first, being the first through the door, controlling desirable territory such as a bed or couch, forcing the dog to release something from his mouth), alpha rolls (rolling the dog onto his back to force a submissive pose), scruffing (grabbing the fur at the back of the neck and lifting or shaking the dog), and growling or yelling to establish dominance are all based on this flawed theory.
In addition, a 2009 veterinary study found that dominance-based training does more harm than good. “Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses,” said Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study.
So what about dog-dog relationships? The latest scientific research suggests that dog hierarchies (if you want to use that vernacular) are fluid or situational. Dogs make decisions based on how much they desire a particular resource (such as food, water, or territory), how much another dog seems to desire it, and whether they think they could win if a conflict occurs.
Sophia Yin Blog posts:
New Study Finds Popular "Alpha Dog" Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm Than Good
Experts Say Dominance-Based Dog Training Techniques Made Popular by TV Can Contribute to Bites
Dave Mech website
For more information:
Position Statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
Position Statement by Association of Professional Dog Trainers https://apdt.com/docs/resources/dominance-and-dog-training.pdf
Last week we established that “socialization” is the process of learning how to properly function in a particular environment. This raises the question, “Won't dogs naturally learn what is 'normal' in a human household?” Well, yes and no. Your dog certainly could learn what is acceptable behavior at home and be comfortable with everything and everyone in the household without any effort on your part. But what about everything else? What about visitors, neighbors, neighborhood dogs, the vet office, the pet store, the park, vacations, etc. The list goes on and on. This brings us to another key concept about dogs: they don’t generalize very well.
Generalization is the process of applying a concept to a group. A puppy at home may learn that the humans she lives with or who visit regularly are friendly. That doesn’t mean the puppy will generalize that humans are friendly. Get it? This is why when it comes to proper socialization, nothing at home counts! Just because you have kids at home doesn’t mean your puppy will be comfortable with all kids. It takes planning and structure to introduce your puppy to the concept of coping with novelty.
So what is involved in a deliberate and thorough puppy socialization program? I’m so glad you asked. These are the key concepts that I recommend in a puppy socialization program:
This involves allowing your puppy to explore new and different surroundings in a safe manner. In my classes, this is the one that I find helps shy puppies the most. The process of physically and mentally exploring their world on their own terms helps them to gain confidence in their abilities while also decreasing their inherent fear of the new environment.
There are so many things that I want to share about this topic that I might have to do a separate blog post. For now, I will just say that I want you to think QUALITY over QUANTITY and to remember Laura’s mandate: “Humans don’t meet puppies. Puppies meet humans.” While someone may invite your puppy to say hello, it is up to your puppy whether or not to approach. The person should not approach your puppy.
This is a checklist of all the different people, animals, locations, sounds, substrates, weather….(I could go on ad nauseum) that you should introduce your puppy to before 16 weeks of age. If you tried to hit everything on the checklist, you would overwhelm your puppy. Think of these more as a guideline for the different categories to include in your program. It's about positive experiences, not hitting every checkpoint. Here are some sample checklists:
Dr. Sophia Yin’s Socialization Checklist
Chris Pul’s Socialization Checklist shared in Laura’s book
Pet Professional Guild Checklist
This is what most people think socialization refers to--puppies playing with other puppies and dogs. Just like children, puppies learn through play. Play time can teach your puppy how to properly communicate and read another dog’s body language. It can also help with that ever important bite inhibition (to control the strength of the bite).
While this aspect of socialization is important, it is last on my list. That is because a dog that does not get along with other dogs can lead a perfectly happy, healthy, and full life. Trust me. I know. That doesn't mean you should ignore this aspect of socialization. I’m just not prioritizing it as high as getting your puppy comfortable with strange humans. That is a lot harder to live with.
Now that you know what is involved, why not get some help? Look for a puppy class that is specifically designed for puppies in the critical socialization window.
For more information about setting your puppy up for success, check out these great resources:
As an adopter of several reactive shelter dogs (dogs that “react” to other dogs, wildlife, or people by barking, lunging, or growling), I am passionate about getting the word out about properly socializing puppies. Unfortunately, while “socialization” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in dog circles, most people don’t have an understanding of what it truly means or how to properly go about it.
Let’s start with what socialization really means. In her book, Social, Civil, and Savvy, Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP defines socialization as “the acquisition of cultural habits and social communication to equip an individual to live in society.” To put that in layman’s terms, she tells her clients, “I want a dog to think rationally and proactively about any new stimulus or situation, and I want him to act intentionally and with confidence.”
But why is this process necessary? To answer that question, we need to look at how dogs develop socially. After a puppy is born, he will go through socialization periods which are structured to maximize the species’ survival. The first socialization period occurs when the puppies are still in the den and only interact with family members. The second period occurs between 7-16 weeks of age as the pups begin to explore and experience life in the outside world. In the wild, parents would keep puppies away from danger while they are in this stage of learning, so they are only exposed to “safe” areas, animals, etc. Once this window closes, the pups will be leery of anything new or different as this could be potentially dangerous in nature
That last sentence is the key to the importance of the socialization process. An adult dog with too much curiosity could end up dead. Therefore, adult dogs are programmed to avoid unfamiliar animals and environments. In the dog’s mind anything different means danger. For this reason, it is imperative that puppies living with humans are taught how to deal with novelty so that they may function in a constantly changing environment with new dogs, people, and locations.
I hope that helps you to understand a little bit more about the importance of socializing your puppy. Next week I will talk a bit more about HOW to properly and fully socialize your puppy. In the meantime, feel free to check out some of these resources for more information.