Tag: arousal

Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

A white dog with brown ears lies on a purple mat in a vet clinic. The muscles in the dog's face are very tight and bunched up.

In February 2013, I published a set of photos of formerly feral Clara at the vet. Trainers worldwide have used those photos, with my permission, as examples of extreme stress in a dog’s facial expressions.

Clara was terribly afraid. She panted, paced, and panicked. We were working on desensitization and counterconditioning to people slowly, in much more controlled situations. But every once in a while she had to go to the vet, and we just had to get through it.

Her fear and panic were obvious.

The photos of 16-month-old Lewis in this post were also taken at the vet. Lewis is friendly and enjoys meeting new people, even at the clinic. But Lewis was stressed as well.

I won’t go into arousal vs. distress vs. eustress here, though the interplay of these is a fascinating topic. That’s a post for another day. Nor do I want to get into “how much stress is OK?” or related philosophical and ethical questions.

My focus here is a simpler one: stressed dogs look and behave in many different ways, and some of them can be harder to spot than others.

We always need to look at the whole dog when reading body language, not just a part. We’ll get there. But this is a tricky case, in that we tend to associate the behaviors Lewis is exhibiting with happiness. I think it’s informative to look at a small part—Lewis’ facial muscles—before going to the big picture.

Photos of Stress Face

Maybe this is overkill (who, me, belabor a point?) but every photo below shows bunched-up muscles on Lewis’ right cheek between his eye and his mouth. And the corner of his mouth itself (commissure) was tight. His pupils were dilated. I took many stills from a one-minute video, and they all showed the same thing. Be sure to zoom in on at least one or two of them.

I’m showing the photos before the video on purpose because it may be challenging to see the stress in the video before you know where to look.

Video of Lewis in the Vet’s Exam Room

This is the video from which I grabbed the image stills. As you’ll see, Lewis was bouncing up and down a little, getting on and off his mat. He was gobbling food, and he was wagging his tail in a fairly happy way. He oriented to me most of the time. He was not calm, but at the time, he didn’t seem upset. But now that I have studied the video and stills, his face shows the stress.

Note: partway through the video, I started to toss treats rather than placing them on the mat. This was not a good idea, since tossing treats can add to excitement, and Lewis was already ramped up. I did it only for that brief period, and that was because it was hard to keep him on the camera screen and put treats on the mat at the same time.

What Was Lewis Not Doing?

You’ve seen Lewis now, and can tell he was excited and tense. How does his behavior compare to Clara’s, or that of another terrified dog? Here are some things he wasn’t doing.

• He wasn’t constantly panting.
• He wasn’t trembling.
• He wasn’t pacing; he just got up and down a few times.
• He wasn’t frantically looking for a way out of the room.
• He wasn’t licking his lips constantly or having trouble swallowing.
• He wasn’t hypervigilant. He oriented to sounds, but didn’t startle.
• He wasn’t flushed or shedding.

If you’d like to see the comparison, this short video includes footage of Clara’s February 2013 visit to the vet where she was so frightened.

Greeting the Vets

Back to Lewis.

It’s always such a bother when you have to drop the camera to participate in real life, isn’t it? When the vets came in, I couldn’t film Lewis’ over-the-top greeting. What you can briefly see is that I grabbed his harness firmly, so he couldn’t cannonball into the vets. Again, having a dog who likes people is awesome. But his greetings verge on frantic, and show he is not entirely comfortable with the situation.

Look at his ear movement before and after the vets entered the room.

In the photo on the left, a vet turned the handle on the door and Lewis was watching and listening, with his ears lifted forward. In the photo on the right, the door was open, and humans were visible. Lewis’ ears dropped, and you can catch briefly on the video that his tail was wagging wildly. As he greeted the vets (not shown), he exhibited puppy-like appeasement behaviors. He crouched low to the ground and flattened his ears as he shot forward. I would approximate what was going on with him as saying both, “Hi, I love you!” and “Please don’t hurt me!”

A Final Look: That “Open Mouth” Thing

This last comparison is fun. Marge Rogers and I, in our book about puppy socialization, talk a lot about looking for an open mouth and relaxed jaw in puppy body language. An open mouth is one of the easiest indicators a pup is relaxed and comfortable in a situation. But there is always nuance.

In the photo on the left, Lewis was sunning himself on the grass in the winter. The weather was cool, and his mouth was shut. But look at his soft eyes and smooth face. He was relaxed, only perhaps a little curious to see what I was up to. Here is the uncropped photo in case you want to see the rest of his relaxed body language.

In the photo on the right from the vet clinic series, Lewis’ mouth is open. But is he relaxed and comfortable? Hell no. There are those bunched muscles and tight mouth. You can even see the tightness in his lower lip. This is the opposite of the relaxed jaw we look for when trying to determine whether a dog is comfortable and happy in a situation.

This is a comparison collage of two pictures. Both show the same white dog with brown ears and ticking. In the photo on the left, the dog's facial muscles are relaxed. In the photo on the right, the dog's mouth is open but his facial muscles are very tense and bunched up.

It’s new for me to live with a dog whose stress can look like happy excitement (or for whom the two commonly combine). Now I know one “tell” to look for. Stay tuned for further adventures!

Related Posts

Dog Facial Expressions: Stress
Shelter Puppy “Smiles” from FEAR after She’s Adopted
Dog Body Language Is Crucial to Puppy Socialization
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Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?
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Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

My Dog Refuses Food Away from Home!

My Dog Refuses Food Away from Home!

zani-standing-at-st-johns

Many dogs refuse food away from home at times. Don’t panic if this is happening with yours. It doesn’t mean that she is “not food motivated” or that positive reinforcement training somehow “doesn’t work.”

Fear is one reason a dog won’t eat away from home, but there is another common reason. In this post, I’ll discuss what I believe to be the next most common reason: competing reinforcers.

Why Won’t He Eat?

Continue reading “My Dog Refuses Food Away from Home!”
Puppies Need an Off Switch! (Puppy Lesson Four)

Puppies Need an Off Switch! (Puppy Lesson Four)

So how many of you with puppies out there wish sometimes that you could flip a switch to turn them off, just for a little bit? Catch your breath, do the dishes, sit down for just a minute?

I have it on pretty good authority that most of the puppies would also appreciate having an off switch, too! Just as human babies can get all wound up without knowing how to come down on their own, puppies get overwound too.

Some of the advice that gets passed around is off the mark.  Owners of high-energy dogs are told to exercise them more and more to burn off the energy. Every time the dog leaves the house it’s for a rousing run or play time. While stimulation and exercise are vitally important, taken by themselves, they can actually exacerbate the problem of being wound up. The dog rehearses a pattern of arousal.

That’s why learning to relax and settle is an important life skill. Marge is really good at teaching it, in my opinion. She teaches “relax” as a behavior, just like teaching sit, down and come. And it’s a win/win for puppy and caregiver.

Black and white parti-colored Portuguese Water Dog puppy in a bright blue plastic kid's pool. The dog is on his stomach with his back legs stretched out straight behind him.
Zip takes relaxation to a whole new level

Resources

There are many, many resources for this. A lot of what Marge does with her dogs, including what you will see with Zip, is from the work of Leslie McDevitt (Control Unleashed, Control Unleashed– The Puppy Program, Control Unleashed Seminar DVD) and Dr. Karen Overall.

Lots of other trainers have methods for teaching this behavior, too.  Sue Ailsby teaches it in her Training Levels program.  Nan Arthur has a method in Chill Out Fido, Laura VanArendonk Baugh has a whole book about it, and Emily Larlham has some videos. I have some resources here in the blog as well. You can search the blog under “1,000 Treats” to see Clara’s progress in relaxation. 

The goal of all of these methods is far beyond just getting the dog to stay still. It is to teach the dog to chill out and relax.

From Practice to the Real World

Being able to recover and think through increasing levels of arousal can be taught. Most people play with their dogs and puppies without breaks. But breaks allow the puppy to reset, and to learn how to transition between different states of excitement and arousal. They also can keep the pup from going over the top. 

In the movie, you will first see Zip relaxing in a non-challenging situation. Then Marge transitions him back and forth between relaxing and getting up to play.  Marge works with lots of puppy owners, and has them start with play increments of 5 seconds (one banana, 2 banana, up to 5.). Reset/relax, then start again. Gradually increase duration and difficulty.

At 1:06, watch Zip’s right front leg. He is not just lying down; he is relaxing his muscles. Later you can see him also change his breathing when asked to relax. I’ve watched the movie several times, and keep seeing other aspects of the relaxation.  In the last tug session, between the 2:00 and 3:00 minute marks, Zip is growling–a symptom of high arousal for him. You can see how hard he has to work to control himself when Marge asks him to release the tug and relax. “Ohhhh I wanna bite that shoe……but I won’t.” This is yet another version of impulse control.

Take note as well, how Marge reinforces Zip for the relaxed behavior. She is using food rewards, delivered with soft body language right to his mouth. Nothing active, no tossing treats. This is in contrast to the active play with the toy during the “up” states.

The final part of the movie shows a real world application. You can’t see it in the movie, but while Zip is chilling on the floor at the animal hospital, there are two very active toddlers and another dog nearby. This is where you can see yet another benefit of playing tug with a puppy (with a rule structure such as Marge uses).  Environmental stressors can also bring about an aroused state. A dog doesn’t have to be jumping around to get over-excited. But playing tug has helped Zip learn how to “come down” from that state, and his lessons carry over beautifully to the new environment.

 Just like last time, this is another lesson on how to teach a puppy not to do something using positive reinforcement-based training. Notice all the things Zip is not doing?

  • Biting
  • Running around screaming
  • Stealing the toy and running away
  • Leaping up to investigate the other dog or the kids at the vet

All because Marge has “filled in the blanks” with desirable behaviors, and is teaching Zip at a very young age how to calm down.

How about you all? Does your puppy have an off switch? Also, any guesses about Lesson Five? Because we have left out something BIG!

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Impulse Control. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. (Puppy Lesson Three)

Impulse Control. Impulse Control. Impulse Control. (Puppy Lesson Three)

OK, wait a doggone minute! How is it that in Zip’s last lesson, I was being all poetic about how the behaviors didn’t matter all that much, but all of a sudden we are zeroing in on just one thing? And it sounds so…cold! How did we get there? Does this mean that Marge has given up on bonding and positive reinforcement and creating fun for her puppy (and rainbows and fairies while we’re at it)?

Of course not! What Marge has done is make learning impulse control a win/win situation. With good teaching of impulse control (including what people call “Leave It,” “Zen,” or “It’s Yer Choice,”) dogs learn that when they control themselves around stuff they want, they can get even better stuff! As Sue Ailsby says:

It’s not my job to control the animal. It’s the animal’s job to control herself. It’s my job to put the animal in a situation where she can learn what I want her to know as quickly and easily as possible.

Sue calls it Zen, since the way to get the thing is to leave the thing alone. It’s just something else to learn, and Zip has already had many lessons in “learning is fun!”.

Zip on rug

That Puppy Sure Sits a Lot!

For a puppy that didn’t have any formal training sessions on “sit” Zip sure sits a lot. How did that happen? While Marge may not have done any training sessions on “sit,” she was still teaching Zip to sit by reinforcing that behavior when he offered it. Since, as Marge would say, Rewarded Behavior Continues, Zip started sitting more. When barking doesn’t work to get out of a pen, he’ll try sitting and will get rewarded (you can see this in the movie). If dashing towards the door doesn’t work, he’ll try sitting. That’s how highly reinforced behaviors can start to fill in the blanks. I love seeing puppies put two and two together and try it out, like Zip does.

Having default, highly reinforced behaviors are one of the lovely things about positive reinforcement training. At first, when teaching impulse control, any behavior but lunging toward the desired object or goal is usually reinforced. But soon, the trainer can select out of these other behaviors that she has already been reinforcing what she’d like to have. You can see that Marge is building in eye contact and a general orientation to her in all these situations, as well as sitting.

By the way, one of the reasons Marge hasn’t done any formal “sit” training is because she wants to teach Zip a “tuck” sit and just hasn’t gotten around to it.  Zip turns 10 weeks old today. She has plenty of time.

What Do They Practice?

So, what did Marge show us in Lesson 3? Zip is working on impulse control in the following ways:

  • Waiting for permission to grab the tug toy. Getting the permission by looking at Marge.
  • Staying away from food in Marge’s hand (at puppy level). Getting the food by looking at Marge.
  • Being quiet in his pen when Marge approaches.
  • Sitting quietly to get his leash put on (see, she is teaching sit, but she still has yet to say the word!)
  • Waiting to go out the door. Getting permission by looking at Marge.
  • Reorienting to Marge after they go out the door together.

Not only is he learning to control his impulses, he is learning to look to Marge when he wants something. A huge part of impulse control is focus on the handler. And Marge has been building that since Day 1.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Using Positive Reinforcement to Teach the Dog Not to Do Something

So many of us came to dog training because our dogs had behavior problems. We wanted them to Stop. Doing. That. And that is also one of the main questions that people ask about positive reinforcement based training: how to you teach a dog not to do something? Today’s whole movie, plus the two before it, do exactly that, but you have to know what to watch for. When you increase some behaviors, some others decrease without a whole lot of work. Some of the things that Zip is learning not to do are:

  • Lunge for the toy
  • Run off with the toy (since Marge has made herself the entertainment center–and also because the toy has a handle on it!)
  • Help himself to food without permission
  • Jump around when Marge puts his leash on
  • Run out the door without permission
  • Go nuts once he gets outside
  • And countless other behaviors that humans do not prefer!

All without a harsh word, a stern look, being forced into a position or held in place, or any kind of physical punishment.

How do you teach your dog about impulse control?

Zip holding tug

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