Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

One gorgeous summer morning, I watched from across the pool as a small grey bird fluttered down out of a tree and hovered just a few feet in front of my foster dog, Quinn. Quinn tilted her head to the side and froze for a brief moment before lunging forward and snatching it from the air, issuing a neck-breaking shake, and then tossing it aside—all in one quick movement. She nudged it with her nose once or twice before continuing her sniffari in the pachysandra, as I stood there wondering about the absence of this bird’s self-preservation. I did not wonder about Quinn’s behavior. Quinn is a dog, and dogs are predators. More accurately, they are scavengers and predators.

We tend to forget this about dogs. We easily accept predatory behavior in cats for some reason, marveling at the “good little hunter” that dropped the decapitated mouse at our feet while we washed dishes. We might find it unpalatable, but we rarely classify it as a moral fail, nor worry the cat is deviant and a potential threat to people. We don’t mistakenly assign labels like “aggressive” to our rodent-killing cats. But cats hunt and sometimes kill vermin and birds for the exact same reason our dogs do: preinstalled software that comes with our companion animals from a time when food acquisition skills were necessary for survival.

Yet every year, once spring has sprung, my social media newsfeed blows up with posts from dog owners, upset—often angry—at their canine companions’ leisurely killing of all manner of critter. “Thanks a lot, Fido, you jerk! I’m so mad at him right now!” reads the script above the photograph of a broken bodied chipmunk. And I get it. It’s traumatizing to many of us. After all, most of us who share our homes with an animal are animal lovers, and so it saddens and upsets us to see any of them meet an end in our own back yards. 

I remember feeling horrified years ago when my Tuck was still young and fast enough to successfully dispatch the squirrels that dared to run our fence line. He’d spot them from the deck and stalk slowly and quietly to the foot of the stairs. He’d flat run to the fence, leap up and slam his body against whatever panel the squirrel had made it to, causing it to lose its footing. He would catch it in his mouth as it fell, shake it dead immediately, and then run a victory lap around the yard with the limp body dangling from his mouth. Tuck was having a gleeful time while I was worrying that somewhere out there was a nest of orphaned squirrel babies.

I also occasionally receive emails from clients and friends after these events, the owners worried this means their dog is dangerous. Could this “aggression” be extrapolated to the dog’s behavior toward people? “The answer is no,” I attempt to normalize, “because this isn’t aggression. It’s a feeding behavior, and it’s as normal as a gull scooping fish from the sea or a fox pouncing on a field mouse.” Yes, they use those teeth, but if we classify this behavior as “assault,” we need to recognize that we, too, assault our breakfast every morning. But assaulting our over-easies doesn’t make us likely to pummel our coworkers or neighbors.

When dogs direct aggressive behavior at people, it is typically in one of these contexts: stranger fear, body handling discomfort, or resource guarding. In all three cases, the objective is to increase distance: “Stay away from me” or “stay away from my super important stuff.” In the case of predation, the goal is to get closer and to actually obtain the stimulus. Put simply, it’s just a biological imperative triggered by prey objects or objects resembling prey.

I recently saw a meme with a picture of a Boxer that read, “Squirrels are just tennis balls thrown by God.” While quite funny, it’s really the reverse. Tennis balls are just artificial squirrels thrown by man. It’s because they simulate prey fleeing that dogs chase them. Predation is the reason dogs grab, shake, and often “disembowel” stuffed toys. It’s why tug is so exciting and a preferred activity for many dogs: the tug toy simulates struggling prey. In fact, when played with a set of rules, it’s an excellent outlet for this activity and a fantastic impulse control exercise. If the drive to engage in predation for objects that resemble prey is so great, imagine how triggering a real live prey stimulus must be for our dogs!

Dogs also rehearse feeding behavior in play by chasing, along with all the other skills they need to function in the world, like fleeing (being chased), fighting (roughhousing), and fornicating (mounting). We see this rehearsal in play in early puppyhood and throughout their lives.

Some may ask why dogs feel compelled to hunt if we’re already feeding them plenty. While selection pressures are lifted for food acquisition in domesticated dogs, it hasn’t been very long since dogs were domesticated. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s just been a blink of an eye. Just because the pressure to get it right isn’t there, doesn’t mean it goes away entirely in such short order.

David Mech organized the predatory sequence of wolves as search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat. It’s safe to assume that one-hundred percent of canids in the natural world that actually live to adulthood get this sequence right, because those that don’t will not live long enough to pass on their genetic flaw of poor hunting skills. In other words, there is a life-or-death pressure to get it right when no one is providing you kibble. 

Not so for domesticated dogs, which is why we see only partial versions of predation, or the software gets a bit buggy and is triggered by inanimate objects like squeaky toys. With the selection pressure lifted, they might not complete the entire predation sequence. They may chase, but not grab; chase and grab and shake, but not dissect or eat (like Quinn and Tuck); and so on. But predatory behaviors persist because they once had adaptive significance, and boy is survival ever significant!

Dogs that engage in predatory behavior are just behaving in a way that is normal for their species. For that matter, we humans are also just animals behaving in a way that is normal for our species. It’s normal for us to feel upset about a young bunny being killed, and it’s even normal for us to feel a bit frightened when we see our dogs use their sharp teeth in this way (there is an evolutionary reason for this, as well). As my primary and favorite mentor, Jean Donaldson, once said, “We are all just animals. Animal behaving.” And we behave in a way that is natural for our species.

So while I empathize with upset owners, I have great sympathy for the dogs that are often punished—even if by verbal berating (and sometimes by painful tools like shock)—merely for being normal dogs. They have no idea why their owners are suddenly so upset with them.

I hope it helps people to step back and view these events for what they really are and find some patience and understanding for their pet dogs. They are not morally deficient for chasing and sometimes killing the critters that happen across our lawns. They aren’t a species with moral capability. We simply chose to co-habitate with an animal that comes with some degree of hunting software. We can give ourselves a break for feeling bummed about it sometimes, but we do well to recognize our natural differences and give them a break, too.

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Socialisation et vaccination des chiots - Une question d’équilibre

Socialisation et vaccination des chiots - Une question d’équilibre

Vous venez d’aller chercher votre adorable petit chiot, tout frétillant et qui sent bon, et appréciez chacune des secondes passées en sa compagnie. Vous avez tout ce qu'il vous faut: des jouets à mâcher, un parfait petit collier, et bien sûr, son premier voyage chez le vétérinaire est déjà planifié.

Les premières visites du chiot chez le vétérinaire sont amusantes et bourrées d'informations! Dès le premier rendez-vous de 20-40min, votre vétérinaire abordera une plénitude de sujets, tel l'apprentissage de la propreté, l'alimentation, la croissance, le déparasitage, les vaccins, et plus encore. C’est beaucoup d'infos!

L'une des choses les plus importantes dont votre vétérinaire discutera est le calendrier des vaccinations et son interaction avec la période de socialisation de votre chiot. Cela peut être déroutant, et les recommandations peuvent avoir radicalement changé depuis la dernière fois que vous avez eu un chiot. Démêlons tout ça ...

À quoi servent les vaccins de base?

Le plus important des vaccins de base pour les jeunes chiots est pour la prévention des virus parvo et distemper. Ces deux virus sont inclus dans le vaccin DHPP (Distemper, Hépatite, Parainfluenza et Parvovirus).

Le distemper devient plutôt rare dans la plupart des États-Unis. Le virus provoque une maladie respiratoire, systémique, et parfois neurologique. C’est traitable, mais peut être fatal.

Le parvo est un virus malin et très contagieux qui attaque la muqueuse des intestins, provoquant des vomissements et de la diarrhée, souvent accompagné de sang. Cela peut conduire à une déshydratation sévère, faiblesse de l’animal, et parfois même à une septicémie ou une infection accablante. Le parvo se traite bien, mais peut être mortel chez les cas sévères. Le virus se loge dans les excréments, et est très stable, demeurant dans l'environnement pendant au moins 6 mois, ce qui le rend particulièrement risqué, car il peut - et le fait - traîner partout.

La rage est un vaccin distinct, et aux États-Unis c’est obligatoire pour tous les chiens dès l'âge de 4 mois. Il existe également d'autres vaccins tels que bordetella, leptospirose, lyme et grippe, qui peuvent être recommandés en fonction de l'endroit où vous vivez et du mode de vie de votre chiot. Demandez à votre vétérinaire de déterminer lesquels sont appropriés pour lui.

Immunité du chiot

Quand un chiot naît, son propre système immunitaire est faible, mais au fur et à mesure qu’il se nourrit de sa mère, il ingère des anticorps à travers le lait. Ces anticorps le protégeront contre les maladies pour lesquelles la mère a été vaccinée. Ces mêmes anticorps vont également interférer avec les vaccins donnés au chiot et c’est pourquoi il ne sert à rien de donner des vaccins à de très jeunes chiots.

Au fil du temps, les anticorps de la mère commencent à s'estomper, finissant par tomber en dessous du niveau requis pour le protéger et laissant ainsi le chiot vulnérable si exposé à la maladie. Cette période critique où les anticorps de maman ne sont pas assez élevés pour protéger, mais le sont assez pour interférer avec la vaccination s'appelle la « période-fenêtre ». C’est pendant cette période que les chiots sont le plus sensibles à contracter une maladie. Par la suite, les taux d'anticorps tombent suffisamment bas pour ne plus interférer avec les vaccins. Désormais, le propre système immunitaire du chiot peut répondre aux vaccins et le protéger contre les maladies pour lesquelles les vaccins sont destinés.

Il est impossible de prédire avec précision - pour chacun des chiots - à quel moment ces anticorps maternels s’estomperont suffisamment pour permettre aux vaccins de fonctionner, mais nous pouvons être sûrs que c’est le cas pour tous à 16 semaines. Les vaccins sont donc administrés à toutes les 3-4 semaines à partir de 8 semaines jusqu’à 16 semaines inclusivement. Le but est de débuter la vaccination dès que possible après la période-fenêtre, quand le corps du chiot peut répondre aux vaccins. À noter que si nous arrêtons de vacciner avant 16 semaines, il se peut que ce chiot ne soit toujours pas en mesure de répondre aux vaccins par lui-même. À l’inverse, si nous ne commençons pas les vaccins à 8 semaines, nous pouvons avoir une période de sensibilité prolongée lorsque le chiot n'a plus d'anticorps protecteurs provenant de la mère, mais n'a toujours pas reçu de vaccination pour stimuler sa propre immunité.

Période de socialisation

La période de socialisation est un stade de développement propre à tous les chiots qui dure de 3 semaines à environ 14 semaines, parfois un peu plus longtemps. C'est le moment de la vie du chiot pendant lequel il est le plus ouvert aux nouvelles expériences, explorant le monde et apprenant ce qui est sécuritaire et ce qui ne l'est pas. Si pendant cette période un chiot est exposé à toutes sortes de personnes, de chiens, de bruits, d'odeurs, de vues, de sons, de surfaces à marcher, etc., il est beaucoup plus susceptible de grandir heureux et confiant. Les chiots qui ne sont pas exposés à une grande variété de personnes et de lieux, qui sont séquestrés chez eux ou qui vivent de mauvaises premières expériences, auront très probablement peur au cours de leur vie lorsqu’ils se retrouveront dans de nouveaux contextes.  Malheureusement, cette peur peut non seulement être débilitante pour votre chiot, mais elle peut également conduire à des problèmes de comportement très sérieux, y compris l'agression. La période de socialisation est votre chance d'éviter des résultats potentiellement dévastateurs!

Une question d’équilibre

Maintenant que vous savez que votre chiot n'est pas entièrement protégé jusqu'à ses vaccins de 16 semaines, et qu'il y a un chevauchement inquiétant avec sa période critique de socialisation, la question est: Comment le socialiser sans le mettre inutilement en danger d’attraper une maladie? Avec prudence et créativité! Gardez à l'esprit qu'il n'y a aucun moyen d'être sûr à 100% que votre chiot n’attrapera pas le parvo - vous pourriez faire entrer le virus dans la maison après avoir marché sans le savoir sur une matière contaminée. Cependant, le risque d’attraper le parvo au cours d’une socialisation effectuée de façon prudente est beaucoup plus faible que le risque de développer des problèmes de comportement sérieux s’il n’y a pas de socialisation. Voici quelques directives générales pour s’assurer d’une socialisation sécuritaire:


Éviter à tout prix:

  • Parcs à chiens
  • Plages
  • Promenades sur la rue (même si en laisse)
  • Parcs de quartier (à moins de transporter le chiot dans les bras ou dans une poussette, voir ci-dessous)

Alternatives:

  • Porter ou utiliser une poussette pour se promener dans votre quartier ou votre ville.
  • Visiter les magasins permettant l’accès aux chiens. Essayez de porter ou de placer votre chiot dans un panier. Pensez aux magasins de rénovations, aux banques, aux magasins de vêtements, aux magasins de plein air ... quand vous entrez, demander à la caissière si c’est ok. Habituellement, les gens adorent être en présence de chiots!
  • Visiter des amis, avec ou sans chiens, tant que les chiens sont en bonne santé, vaccinés et aimables envers les chiots. Vérifiez également qu'il n'y a pas eu de chiots malades à la maison au cours de la dernière année.
  • Inviter des amis avec des chiens qui aiment les chiots pour une période de jeu à votre domicile!
  • Organiser des fêtes à votre domicile, invitant les gens à rencontrer votre chiot. Vous pouvez même organiser des soirées costumées avec des personnes portant des chapeaux, des lunettes de soleil, des perruques, etc., ou avec des béquilles, des marchettes ou des planches à roulettes. Essayez d'inviter des personnes de tous âges, des bébés aux enfants jusqu'aux aînés. Il est important pour les chiots d'apprendre que toutes les formes et tous les âges d’humains sont sans danger et amusants.
  • Prenez le chiot avec vous à l'école pour aller chercher / déposer les enfants. Gardez-le dans vos bras mais laissez les enfants lui donner plein de gâteries.
  • Demandez à votre vétérinaire la permission d’effectuer des « visites positives » entre les rendez-vous de vaccination afin que votre chiot apprenne à aimer le vétérinaire! Cela permettra à votre chiot d’avoir une meilleure vie et d’être en santé.
  • Si votre travail permet les chiens, pensez à amener votre chiot travailler avec vous ou à vous arrêter à l’heure du dîner ou lors de votre journée de congé pour rendre visite à vos collègues.
  • Dernier point mais non le moindre, les classes de maternelle et les groupes de jeu supervisés entre chiots font partie des meilleurs moyens (et les plus sécuritaires) pour socialiser un chiot. Des cours de chiots bien organisés vous aideront également avec ses pitreries normales - machouillage, propreté, etc. Une fois que votre chiot se fait des amis, vous pouvez également organiser des périodes de jeu entre les classes! Avertissement: soyez difficile sur le choix d’un entraineur pour votre chiot, incluant les cours de groupe. La formation de chien est une profession non réglementée et malheureusement, un mauvais conseil peut vraiment causer des dommages. Consultez cet article pour en savoir plus sur le choix d'un entraîneur, et recherchez un entraineur de l’Académie dans votre région ici.

Il n'y a rien de plus adorable qu'un chiot qui se tortille en se promenant dans votre salon. Profitez-en! Mais n'oubliez pas d’établir un plan - et de le suivre - pour garder votre chiot à l'abri de la maladie et des problèmes de comportement lors de sa croissance. Une bonne socialisation contrôlée est vraiment, vraiment importante. C'est l'un des meilleurs cadeaux que vous pouvez offrir à votre futur chien adulte: le cadeau de la confiance et de la joie.

 

Traduit par Claudine Prud'homme.

This article is also available in English. Cover photo credit: Groomee from iStock.

 

La traduction française de ce blog a été effectuée via "French Connection". L'Académie est heureuse d’annoncer "French Connection"!

Un bon nombre de nos étudiants proviennent de régions francophones, et nous sommes fiers de pouvoir désormais leur offrir un support en français afin de les accompagner dans la réalisation de leurs objectifs d'apprentissage.

Avec French Connection, nous offrirons également des traductions de certaines de nos publications existantes, et à compter d’aujourd’hui, nos nouveaux graphiques éducatifs seront disponibles en français et en anglais !

Si vous maîtrisez l'anglais, mais que le français est votre langue maternelle et que vous souhaitez en savoir plus sur la façon dont ce programme pourrait vous aider, prière de communiquer avec nous à This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. pour plus d'informations.

 

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Puppy Socialization and Vaccination – A Balancing Act

Puppy Socialization and Vaccination – A Balancing Act

You've just picked up your beautiful, wriggling, sweet-smelling little puppy, and you are loving every second of it. You've got everything ready: chew toys, that perfect tiny collar, and of course, your pup's first ever trip to the vet scheduled.

First puppy visits to the veterinarian are fun and packed with information! Your vet will go over so many things in that 20-40 min appointment – potty training, diet, growth, deworming, vaccines, and more. It's a lot of info!

One of the most important things your vet will discuss is the vaccine schedule and how that interacts with your puppy's socialization period. This can be confusing, and the recommendations may have changed dramatically since the last time you had a puppy. Let's hash this out...

What are puppy vaccines for?

The most important of the core vaccines for young puppies are for the prevention of parvo and distemper viruses. These are both included in the DHPP vaccine (Distemper, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza, and Parvovirus).

Distemper is becoming rare in most parts of the US. The virus causes respiratory, systemic, and sometimes neurologic disease. It is treatable, but can be fatal.

Parvo is a nasty, highly contagious virus that attacks the lining of the intestines, causing vomiting and diarrhea, often with blood. This leads to severe dehydration, weakness, and sometimes sepsis or overwhelming infection. Parvo is very treatable, but can be fatal in severe cases. Parvo is shed in the feces, and is very stable, remaining in the environment for at least 6 months. This makes it particularly risky, since it can – and does - hang out anywhere.

Rabies is a separate vaccine, and is required for all dogs in the US at 4 months of age. In addition, there are other vaccines such as bordetella, leptospirosis, lyme, and influenza, which may be recommended depending on where you live and your puppy's lifestyle. Ask your veterinarian to determine which are appropriate for your pup.


Puppy Immunity

When a puppy is born, his own immune system is weak, but as he nurses from his mom he ingests antibodies through the milk. These antibodies will protect him against diseases that mom has been vaccinated for. At the same time, the antibodies will interfere with any vaccines given to the puppy, so there's no point giving vaccines to very young pups.

Over time, the antibodies from mom start to fade, eventually falling below the level needed for protection and leaving puppy susceptible to disease if he is exposed. This critical period where mom's antibodies aren't high enough to protect, but are enough to interfere with vaccination is called the Window Period. During this time, puppies are most susceptible to disease. A little bit later, antibody levels will fall low enough that they will no longer interfere with vaccines. Now the puppy's own immune system can respond to the vaccines and protect him against the diseases the vaccines are for.

In an individual puppy it is impossible to predict exactly when those maternal antibodies will fade enough to allow the vaccines to work, but by 16 weeks we can be sure they have. This is why we vaccinate every 3-4 weeks starting at 8 weeks all the way through 16 weeks. We are trying to catch the puppy as soon as possible after that critical window of susceptibility, when his body can respond to the vaccines. If we stop vaccinating before 16 weeks, that puppy may still not be able to respond to the vaccines on his own. If we don't start vaccines at 8 weeks, we may have an extended period of susceptibility when the puppy doesn't have protective antibodies from mom anymore, but still hasn't received a vaccine to stimulate his own immunity.

Socialization period

The socialization period is a developmental stage of all puppies that lasts from 3 weeks through approximately 14 weeks, sometimes a little longer. This is the time in the pup's life when he is most open to new experiences, exploring the world, and learning what is safe and what is not. If a puppy is exposed to all manner of people, dogs, noises, smells, sights, sounds, surfaces to walk on, and so on during this period, he is much more likely to be happy and confident as he matures. Puppies that are not exposed to a wide variety of people and places, are sequestered at home, or have bad experiences early on, are very likely to be fearful in new contexts as they mature. Unfortunately this fear can not only be debilitating for your sweet pup, but it can also lead to very serious behavior problems, including aggression. The socialization period is your chance to prevent potentially devastating outcomes!

The Balancing Act

So now you know that your puppy is not fully protected until his 16 week vaccines, and that there is some worrisome overlap with his critical socialization period. How do you get him socialized without putting him at unnecessary risk of illness? With caution and creativity! Keep in mind that there is no way to be 100% sure your puppy will not get parvo – you could bring it into the house on your feet. However, the risk of parvo with careful socialization is much lower than the risk of serious behavior problems with no socialization. Here are some general guidelines to safe socialization:


Absolute don'ts:

  • Dog parks
  • Beaches
  • Walking down the street on a leash
  • Neighborhood parks (unless carried or in a stroller, see below)

Alternatives:

  • Carrying or using a stroller to take a walk through your neighborhood or city.
  • Visiting stores that allow dogs. Try to carry or place your pup in a cart. Think home improvement stores, banks, clothing stores, outdoor stores... ask the cashier as you come in if it's ok. Usually people love seeing puppies!
  • Going to friends' houses, with or without dogs, as long as the dogs are healthy, vaccinated, and puppy-friendly. Also check that there have been no sick puppies at the house in the past year.
  • Invite friends with puppy-friendly dogs over to your home for play dates!
  • Throw puppy parties at your home, inviting folks over to meet your new addition. You can even throw costume parties with people wearing hats, sunglasses, wigs, etc., or using crutches, walkers, or skateboards. Try to invite people of all ages from babies and kids on up to seniors. It is important for puppies to learn that all shapes and ages of humans are safe and fun.
  • Take the puppy with you to school to pick up/drop off the kids. Keep him up in your arms but let the kids shower him with treats.
  • Ask your veterinarian about doing “happy visits” in between vaccine appointments so your puppy learns to love the vet! This will set your puppy up for a lifetime of health and wellness.
  • If your work is dog-friendly, consider bringing your puppy to work with you, or stopping by at lunch or on your day off to visit with your coworkers.
  • Last but certainly not least, puppy class and chaperoned puppy playgroups are one of the best (and safest) ways to get your puppy socialization. Well-run puppy classes will also help you with normal puppy antics – chewing, potty training, etc. Once your puppy makes friends, you can arrange play dates between classes, too! A word of caution: be choosy about who your puppy trainer will be. Dog training is an unregulated profession and unfortunately the wrong advice can really cause damage. Check out this article on choosing a trainer, and look for an Academy Trainer in your area here.

There is nothing more lovable than a beautiful squirming puppy toddling around your living room. So enjoy! But don’t forget make a plan—and follow it—to keep your puppy safe from both disease and behavioral issues as they grow. Safe socialization really, really matters. It is one of the best gifts you can give your future adult dog: the gift of confidence and joy.

 

Cet article est également disponible en français - cliquez ici. Cover photo credit: Groomee from iStock.

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Intensity Isn't Bad

I am one of a small army of applied dog behavior people that fights against stuff every day.  Mainstays like the use of aversive stimuli (positive punishment and negative reinforcement) in dog training.  The absence of competence standards in dog training.  Breed-specific legislation.  Leadership leadership leadership.  And transient alarming trends such as don’t socialize puppies so much…socialization makes them outgoing, which is inconvenient.  And this one:  the idea that excitement is bad.  If dogs get amped up (buzzword: “aroused”), we should be alarmed.  And work to restore them to calm.  Which is good.  

This last one is even coming from some pros.  My best guess is it’s emotion first, then rationalization, i.e. “dogs moving fast or getting excited upsets me, and I’m an expert, therefore it must be bad.”  The reasons then put forward seem to shake out into three buckets:

  1. Excitement = intensity = aggression or crazy animal trampling people or traumatizing some person or dog, which would be bad.
  2. Allowing excitement opens a Pandora’s box of excitement that will never end, which is bad.
  3. Excitement = stress, which is bad.

Let’s unpack them each in turn.

Excitement = aggression or trampling or emotional trauma

The bad things that can happen because of a dog’s presence are finite: a person is bitten, a person is otherwise injured (e.g. a large, fractious dog knocks a kid to the pavement and they hit their head), a dog is physically injured, a person or dog is traumatized and made fearful.  The error is the conflating of excitement with aggression or unruly behavior.  In other words, plenty of calm-looking dogs bite people, and plenty of dogs in mid-joyous abandon don’t.  And, assuming competence in the trainer (I know, a tenuous assumption still), dogs can be taught to not jump up, not pull on leash and not body-slam people, all while leaving any excited-type emotions in place.  In fact, those are the very contexts we most need manners and so are dedicated parameters in our training plans.  Behavior – jumping on people, biting people, attacking dogs – is the problem, not excitement.  So we use smart bombs (training and behavior modification) to target the problem behaviors, replace them with likable behaviors.  And we don’t shoot for nebulous terminal behaviors such as “relaxation.”

Some people feel that excitement during play is a harbinger of imminent aggression.  I can understand this.  Dogs are intense animals and most people Feel Better When They Are Calm.  Dogs play using their jaws.  And they slam, they wrestle, they mount, they run fast.  De-coupling intensity from aggression is an uphill battle, emotionally, but it’s worth the slog.  For play it goes like this.  Provided dogs are self-handicapping – attenuating the force of their play-bites and body-slams – and there are meta-signals and bi-lateral consent, all is well. 

Consent doesn’t have to be guessed at (do a consent test).  And meta-signals such as play-bows, play-face and inefficient, bouncy movements are either present or they’re not.  Play can heat up and fisticuffs ensue when these items break down.  But focusing on “arousal” is eye off the ball.  It pulls resources from the actual ball, which is those three items: self-handicapping, meta-signals and consent. 

Now, the hand-wringing is sometimes about the *stuff* of play, which is (supposed to be, and, behold, is), play versions of fight, flight, feeding and courtship.  This unpacks as play biting and wrestling, play chasing and fleeing, and play courting and mounting.  These may be performed laconically or with great gusto, and dogs have play styles (some are wrestle-heavy, some like to chase, some to be chased etc.).  People are not always comfortable with all items.  But obsessing about biting or mounting is eye off that ball again. 

 

Most often, though, it isn’t the stuff, it’s the manner: it’s the dogs moving fast and being amped up that makes owners feel like it’s out of control.  But that’s not a good enough reason to stop dogs from playing.  There are welfare implications to denying species-normal play on insufficient grounds.  And micro-managing with eye off the ball usually shakes out as denying.  This is beautifully described in this post by Kristi Benson.

Allowing excitement opens a Pandora’s box

This school of thought, if you let an animal rehearse something, you’ll get more and more of it, is bested on the ideas playing field by a hydraulic model when it comes to play and excitement.  Activities such as eating, drinking, play and sex, wax and wane in normal animals depending on how recently they were engaged in.  The refractory period after a huge Thanksgiving meal.  The puppy out cold in the car after attending a puppy social.  How thirsty you are after not sipping all day and sweating a lot.  This waxing and waning is actually exploitable in applied behavior.  We use establishing and abolishing operations to make sure our motivators will work and to modulate the intensity of distractions in training plans.  Some of the very same trainers who likely do this worry about keeping a lid on excitement.  I can see channeling excitement but bottling it up to get less of it?  That’s how you build motivation: that’s how you get more of it.

Excitement = stress

There was consternation a few months ago about a video of an off-course agility dog.  He was having a blast racing around taking random obstacles, but there was a sub-set of viewers who read the dog’s glee as stress.  Then I saw a post recently where someone was warned against prompting zoomies lest they stress a particular dog.  Thankfully, no less than Marc Bekoff has now addressed this.  And, unbelievably, I just heard about an applied behavior practitioner who really ought to know better, admonishing against both training (sit, down, etc.) and enrichment (stuffed Kongs, snuffle mats etc.) because Stress.    

While everybody applauds the impulse to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in dogs; excitement of the kids on Christmas morning variety, of the crazed laughing with friends variety, of the dogs racing around or unpacking a puzzle toy variety, is not bad.  It’s good.  It’s tortured logic to stuff intensity, because it makes a viewer uncomfortable, into the category “stress.”  It’s understandable that intensity in animals with pointy teeth pushes deep evolutionary buttons in us humans.  But if we are stressed, it doesn’t mean our dogs are stressed.

 

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Spite or Confusion?

Conversations between dogs ...

 

 

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