Category: Aggression

My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science.  They drive observable behavior.

Continue reading “My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training”
Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Dog and baby
Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. The problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, are hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs–don’t bite. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”–will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

OK–remember–we don’t have to be talking about your dog. But when you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him, hugging him, riding him, pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers, or just plain sitting too close to him, and you “Like” it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move with lightning speed if they feel the need to. If you are six feet away taking the picture and the dog has his face right up next to your baby…you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real Life Examples

A lot of people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some real quotes from real people–mostly parents–from real news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise–they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. –2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday… The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head.–2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years.–2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor.–2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened.–2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog.–2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue.–2015

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites don’t usually come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child was allowed to do it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners duly punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Maybe you simply can’t believe that your dog could get fed up one day and bite (probably after several warning signs that you might miss). Perhaps you’ve got the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

There’s nothing new in what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the one going around right now because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!


4/8/15 Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I really debated whether to include one, but finally did because I felt I needed an example of what I’m talking about. I hope the narrative I have written sheds a different light on this type of photo. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?

I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.

Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.

Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.

In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.

But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.

I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.

In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.


Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

Related page

Dog body language posts and videos

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings) delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of  a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.

She does not have the finesse of a dog who merely “splits” the other dogs away from each other, or tries to herd someone away. She is not any kind of peacemaker. What she does is dash into the middle of the play, growling , snapping, and even biting. Since the other dogs are typically already aroused, this is dangerous.

How About an Incompatible Behavior?

I have discussed the process of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior (DRI) before. This means you teach the dog, via positive reinforcement,  to do something that is incompatible with the original behavior whenever the triggering situation (antecedent) arises. I have examples of DRI in my post of examples of the steps of Humane Hierarchy, and in the post and video about teaching Clara an alternative to jumping up and mugging my face.

In the “Fun Police” example I have chosen to make it worth Summer’s while to come to me in the yard instead of trying to boss the other dogs around with her teeth. She can’t do those two things at the same time.  I reinforce her for coming to me, offering eye contact, offering a sit or down. Basically she hangs out with me having a mini training session instead of starting a fight.

Modifying a Problem Behavior

Clara (the blur on right) is mostly playing. Summer is not.
Clara (the blur on right) is mostly having fun. Summer is not.

Deciding how to intervene with a potentially dangerous behavior can be tricky. I did have some other choices. I could have used management and decided to keep the dogs separate. I have done that in the past with combinations of dogs who were incompatible and too volatile. This included keeping Summer and Clara apart when Clara was small, because I wasn’t sure Summer would grant her a puppy license. I could have worked on to desensitizing and counter conditioning Summer to the other dogs’ play, although it would be challenging because I can’t turn their play on and off and control the intensity or distance well. It would have had to be in the context of a whole program of work on her reactivity. Which–hey, I am doing anyway, with relaxation and confidence work with her, and sound desensitization–but in the meantime my dogs need to go outside.

If her aggression were more serious, I would have chosen the above options. But because her reactions were undesirable but not completely scary, and because I am always with the dogs when they are outside, instead I tried DRI. I became a treat dispenser for her if she would come over to me when they started to play. I called her to me the first few times, but it didn’t take long for her to realize the connection between “Clara and Zani playing” = “Easy training session for Summer.”

As I’ve mentioned before, Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior involves extinction, not punishment, of the original unwanted behavior. Ideally that behavior gets no more reinforcement. I want to point out that in this example, I have not eliminated the potential for Summer to get reinforced by rushing in and snarling at the other dogs. That is one reason that this method would not be appropriate for lots of dogs. It worked fine for us though, because Summer appeared very glad to be taught something different to do, and because my other dogs are pretty tolerant (in case we had slipped up). Summer latched onto her new “job” very quickly, and it has been more than a year since she has shown even an inclination to intervene in the other dogs’ play. I believe she is glad not to have to be a cop anymore.

By the way, this also wouldn’t have worked if my passing out treats had interrupted the other dogs’ play. I like it that they play, and I don’t want to interrupt things when they are playing appropriately. But as it turns out, they know full well I am giving Summer treats, but continue to play because they enjoy it so much.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

The Dominance/Punishment Model

When discussing possible methods above, I “forgot” to mention punishment. Oops. So let’s discuss the option just for a moment. Leaving ethical considerations for later, first let’s see how practical it would be.

Zani and Clara play about once a week. That’s once out of the fifty or so times per week that I go outside with my dogs. So I would either need to put a prong or a shock collar on Summer, keep a leash on her so I could give her a jerk, or–I know!! Get some of those bags or chains that certain franchises sell you to throw at your dog. I would have to stay ready to do something to Summer if the other dogs started to play and she launched into them. For that one time out of fifty.  My timing would have to be superb. If I threw something, I’d need to avoid scaring the other dogs. Not sounding too practical, is it? Maybe an air horn? Yelling wouldn’t do it. That would affect my other dogs at least as much as her, but it also wouldn’t function as much more than an interrupter. It would not be likely to decrease the behavior in the future, so it wouldn’t be punishment. Compare these gyrations to having treats in my pocket (which I generally do anyway), and calling her over to me to do a few behaviors when they start to play. Easy peasy. 

And the ethics. Need I even say that I can’t stand the thought of hurting Summer when she is already such an anxious dog? Her behavior is not some gleeful flouting of my authority. She’s trying to stop something that makes her nervous. We don’t need to be hurting or scaring dogs for any reason, and certainly not one who is reacting out of stress and anxiety!

Not a Recommendation

Finally, as successful as it was for me, please note that I am not suggesting this method to others with problems in multi-dog households.  I can’t make any recommendations on other people’s situations. This method was a good choice for me because I work with an excellent professional trainer who knows Summer well and has taught me some methods of reading her and dealing with her behavior. This solution would not be appropriate for every dog, and trying it could even be dangerous in some situations, for instance if a person’s carrying treats triggered resource-related aggression when the dogs were already aroused. My dogs are used to my carrying treats, and none is a serious food guarder.

The best advice you can get on the Internet if you have a dog who aggresses at your other dogs is to keep them separate, get off the Internet, and consult a professional trainer. Get some help.

The Pet Professional Guild has a page where you can search for a local force free trainer. Also, here is a list of Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists in the U.S. and a few worldwide.

You know I love to hear from you about your own dogs. Got any examples of DRI or other interventions for obnoxious behaviors?

Coming up:

We get to play unmolested now!
Zani and Clara get to play unmolested now!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

P.S. A reader speculated about something that brought up a great point (thanks Ann M.!), and that was whether Summer’s new calmness carried over to when the other dogs played when I wasn’t there. Great question, and an important one. The answer is that my dogs are completely physically separated when I am not there, so no play occurs. Between Summer’s reactivity, Clara’s sometimes overbearing behavior, and Zani being so much smaller, they are separated when I am not home, always within my earshot when we are in the house together, and completely supervised in the yard. I have not changed Summer’s emotional response enough to count on it carrying over.

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Clara guarding the sprinkler

Before completing it, I showed the  movie featured in this post to two different training buddies and both responded with questions. Is it really resource guarding if the dogs don’t escalate to violence or obvious threats? How come the “winner” in the interaction is throwing stress signals right along with the other dog? I thought we were talking about aggression; how do we know this particular interaction is resource guarding? Isn’t Clara just giving play invitations sometimes? I don’t know the answers.  I think these are great questions and also inevitable when we are trying to discuss dog communication and body language in real life.

What the interactions in the movie have in common is that they all show two dogs who appear to want the same thing. The dogs communicate rapidly with body language, and one dog keeps control of the thing. There is usually a definite assertion of ownership by the guarding dog, but both dogs may also exhibit other types of body language.

Defining Resource Guarding

Jean Donaldson defines resource guarding in her excellent book, “Mine!”, as

Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.

— “Mine!” p. 6

She goes on to describe ritualized aggression, where an animal behaves in truncated versions of more serious or violent behaviors. The truncated versions allow animals including humans to indicate intent but avoid bloodshed. Some of the behaviors that Donaldson categorizes under that include:

…hard stares, growling, snarling, snapping and biting without maiming force…

— “Mine!” p. 3

She describes these ritualized aggressive behaviors as:

 …the “legal” conflict resolution behaviors in dog society.

— “Mine!” p. 3

Donaldson’s book is a how-to manual on dealing with dogs who resource guard items from humans. She uses protocols of desensitization and counter conditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to a human approaching when the dog has a valued item. She makes the point that guarding is a natural behavior tied to survival, and common among dogs in a group.

There is plenty of online information on resource guarding. I like the definition of resource guarding in this blog post as well as the comprehensive list of dog behaviors that could fall under that heading.

Also, I highly recommend the FaceBook Group: Observation skills for training dogs. This group is great for anyone who wants to hone their observation skills. Members post videos, their own or others found online, and the behaviors in the videos are described and discussed. The group has a very smart guideline: the participants are asked to practice using descriptive words to describe observed behaviors and THEN (emphasis mine) attempt to interpret the behaviors they see. We humans tend to skip right to what we think the motivations of the behavior are, rather than first observing and describing what is happening. This is a great place to learn about both. I got some nice comments and encouragement there for an early draft of my movie.

Guarding against Humans

I am fortunate that none of my dogs currently resource guards items from me. This is a combination of luck with Summer and Zani, and deliberate training with Clara. Because of her feral history, Clara has abundant, strong survival behaviors. (Translation: she is very pushy.) So I made a special effort to head off potential resource guarding against me when she was a baby. This is a good idea with any puppy or new dog.

Notice I said my dogs don’t currently resource guard against me. Here’s a photo from many years ago of Cricket with a rawhide chewy. Enough said.

Small tri color terrier holding a rawhide chewy between her paws and showing "whale eye"
Cricket is ready to defend her rawhide chewy

Is it Resource Guarding or a “Discussion”?

My movie shows my dogs having “discussions” about objects and places they want to have control of. The resource guarding behaviors are mostly on the very low end of ritualized aggression, which to me is a very good thing. They are working things out without coming very close to harming each other.

In addition to the hard stares, growling, and snapping that Donaldson mentions, my dogs perform several other more subtle behaviors that I would also classify as resource guarding and these are shown in the movie. They include moving forward into the other dog’s space, standing with a stiff, straight stance, muzzle feint (my name for a mouth closed muzzle punch without contact), and even intrusive sniffing and licking.

I agree with my friends that there is a lot of different stuff going on in the movie. Clara rarely looks very stressed. At times her guarding behaviors resemble (and could be) invitations to play. In Summer’s “successful” guarding of her toy in the last interaction, she darts a furtive glance and a lip lick towards Clara, who seems to be considering stealing her toy. This does not seem to be very assertive behavior. Perhaps Summer lucked out that time, but still, the outcome of the interaction was that she got to keep her toy.

What else do you see?

Final Note

I am fortunate at the low level of aggression my dogs show. I don’t mean to minimize the real dangers that resource guarding behaviors can pose, and of course I don’t encourage them. These clips were taken over several years. I take habitual precautions: supervising heavily when valued toys are available, intervening when someone (ahem Clara) is being a jerk, and separating all four of my dogs completely when I am not home.

Resource guarding can be a very serious problem. I hope if any of you have a dog who has started guarding things from you, you can get access to an experienced trainer or behaviorist.

Discussions coming soon:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

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