He’s not your “furbaby”. He’s your friend.

He’s your buddy and he wants to hang out with you. Why not treat him like it?

Your dog is not your baby, or your “furbaby”, or a dress-up doll, or a social prop, or a member of your “pack”.  He’s none of those things.

He is your friend.  And if you simply appreciate that fact, he’ll be your best friend.  He doesn’t expect you to act like a dog or a parent.  And, although you might lose sight of this, he is perfectly aware that you are not a dog and that he is not a human.  He just doesn’t care about little things like that. He just wants to hang out with you, have some fun, and be part of your life.  So, please just treat him like your best buddy.   If you haven’t been, you’re missing out.

We take responsibility for our friends.  I mean real friends, people we care about.  We look out for them and try to keep them from being harmed or hurting themselves.  We keep track of their emotional state and make sure that they’re OK.  We share our belongings with them and make sure that they have what they need.

We have adventures with our friends.  We go places and have new experiences with them.  If we have a friend that enjoys doing something that isn’t really our cup of tea, we generally go along with him because he wants to share it with us.   And it usually turns out to be a good time.  On the other hand, we don’t make our friends do things that frighten them or that they don’t enjoy.  We want them to be happy.  The bottom line is that your dog is a friend from another country.  You can learn each other’s language, and each other’s likes, dislikes, favorite things, and things to avoid.

And when our friends are being inappropriate, behaving badly or are just embarrassing in public, we show them what they should be doing and how they should be acting.  When they’re occasionally annoying, we show them how not to be.  Because that’s what friends do for each other.

Your dog is your friend.  But he is a friend who is isolated and whose activities are limited to the things that you do with him.  He only leaves the house when you are with him.  You control his exercise, his mental activity, and his simple playtime.  You are his only source of comfort, closeness and emotional connection.   Why not give him the simple respect of treating him like that?

If you get a dog as a puppy, even though he is small and adorable he is still your friend.  He knows that you are not his mother or a littermate.  If you chose the dog wisely, he has been socialized with other dogs and humans to some extent, but it’s up to you to teach him the skills that he needs to function in the human world that we inhabit.  You can do this just by engaging in the classes and activities that will give him the skills that he needs and help you to understand him.  These puppy classes and training sessions will help you to communicate with your buddy and guide him as he makes mistakes and awkwardly bumps his way to adulthood.

If you bring a dog home from a shelter, it’s like making friends with the new kid at school.  You don’t know much about his background or what he’s learned and experienced, and its up to you to show him around and teach him how things work where you live.  He will be unsure of himself and may even act out a little, but that’s expected.  It will be a while before he knows “the rules” but you can help him along with it and involving him in the things that you enjoy.  ( Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people | The Animal Nerd   )  Pretty soon, he’ll be reciprocating.

If you got a dog, it’s probably because you wanted a friend.  You may have felt lonely or isolated, particularly during the last couple of years and you wanted a close companion.  Now that you have him, don’t deprive yourself of that friendship.   Treat him like the best friend that you wanted to have all along.

Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people

“He just came at me, with no warning!”, “All of a sudden, he just lunged at the other dog!”, “One minute, he was fine; and the next minute he was attacking!”   Whenever I hear statements like this, my response is usually “No, probably not.  He was probably giving off plenty of signs that he was scared or stressed, and he wanted to get away from whatever was bothering him.  You either didn’t see those them or didn’t understand them.”

In an earlier post, I addressed the topic of dogs being overly reactive to each other Dog-to-Dog Reactivity | The Animal Nerd.  But what about dogs reacting to people?

Most so-called dog aggression problems are completely avoidable.   They want to avoid conflict with people or other dogs, and they want to avoid frightening situations.  But we often do not give them the ability to do so, or we inadvertently prevent them from getting away from the thing that’s bothering them.  The entirely predictable result is that the dog gets even more stressed and is pushed over his behavioral threshold, resulting in him being labeled “aggressive”.

There is a simple, common-sense way to prevent any injury, drama or fallout from your dog becoming overly stressed and acting out:  Be aware of what signals your dog is broadcasting, and remove him from the situation that is stressing him out.

The fact is that dogs are communicating all the time.  They are a pretty darned intelligent species with sophisticated non-verbal communications abilities.  Not being handicapped by a spoken language, they are constantly communicating with us, with other dogs and with the world in general.  They fill every waking moment with indications of two things:  How they are feeling and what they plan to do in the next few minutes.   And make no mistake, they understand and react to the non-verbal messages that we are constantly broadcasting.  They’ve been living with us for over 20,000 years and they read our facial expressions, posture, gait and our other unspoken signals like a book.

Your relationship with your dog is unlike the ones you have with your human friends and family.  You control where he goes, what he encounters and limit his options for what to do in the situations in which you place him.   Since you control everywhere he goes, it becomes your responsibility to learn canine body language, particularly your own dog’s non-verbals, so you can avoid putting him in danger or in highly stressful situations from which he cannot escape.

When your dog meets a new person, it is up to you to control the situation.  This means that you are responsible for watching your pup and making sure that he is not anxious or overly excited:

Is his tail held at a neutral height, relaxed and wagging?  Or is it lowered or tucked, indicating anxiety?  Is your dog holding it stiffly with a slight wag?  That can mean stress or a warning to other dogs to stay away.  What are his ears doing?  Are they relaxed and held closely to his head? Are they held tightly back, indicated fear?  Are they held alertly in a forward position?  What about his back?  Is it held stiffly or even slightly rounded?  Or is it relaxed?  Is he turn his head away from that person, indicating that he wants to avoid contact?   Several illustrated examples of stressed or relaxed behavior can be found here:  Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu).

And what is the other person doing?  Is he or she approaching you dog head on, locking eyes with him?  Is he or she bending over your dog in a threatening posture?  It is up to you to watch your dogs’ responses to that person’s actions and determine if your dog is becoming alarmed or anxious.  Remember, whether the other person knows it or not, he and your dog are having a body language conversation and your dog is responding to everything he does.  For example, I recently worked with a shelter dog who was extremely wary of new people.  It took me a little while to accept me and to be relaxed and comfortable with me on or off leash, and we became friends easily.  The next day, I saw her react to the presence of a particular volunteer (a large, bearded man), during which she engaged in distancing behaviors, growling and barking.  I had him change his approach to her:  Instead of approaching her head-on and looking directly at her, I had him walk towards her at an angle without making eye contact then stand facing 90 degrees away from her.  She immediately relaxed, slowly approached him and accepted treats from him.  Following that meeting, he was able to leash her up and take her for walks without any drama.

The bottom line is that it is up to you to know how your dog displays stress, anxiety or happiness before you put him in situations were he can potentially get in trouble.   You need to understand that he is constantly telling you what his emotional state is and take that into account when you are taking him places or putting him in contact with other people.  You need to understand when he’s telling you that he wants to approach or avoid something or someone.  When you with your dog and other people are involved, look at him from time to time and ask yourself “If it were up to him, what would he do right now?  Stay?  Leave?”  Because that is exactly what he is saying to you.

There are several very good sources that can help you get a better understanding of your dog’s body language:

Rugaas, T. (2005).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals 2nd Ed .  Direct Book Service.

Abrantes, R. (1997).  Dog Language.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Aloff, B. (2005).  Canine Body Language:  A Photographic Guide.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Handelman, B. (2008).  Canine Behavior, A Phot Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

House training your new dog.  Part one:  Adult dogs

When you bring your new dog home, you can be certain of one thing:  There will be messes in your home.   Your home is a new environment for him and he doesn’t know the rules.  So, he will probably mark places that have interesting odors and he may relieve himself in places that look appropriate to him.  He will also be stressed and somewhat anxious, which may cause him to pee.   This is very common and is a normal part of dog adoption.

If you are lucky, you a bringing home a dog that has had house training to some extent.  If so, all that is necessary for you to do will be to show him the approved outdoor areas for him to relieve himself.  But, in all cases, the best thing for you to do is to assume that he is completely untrained and implement training from scratch.  Don’t assume that your new pet will understand your home and routine from day one.  If he’s from a shelter he is coming from a place where it was perfectly okay to relieve himself in his run.  And in any case, helping him with this one skill will help him to quickly adjust to living with you and will begin to establish your relationship with him.

Here’s how to get your new dog off to a good start.  We’re going to begin by assuming that you do not have any other dogs in the house.  We’re also going to assume that your new dog is an adult and not a puppy.

First, start him off right.  When you take him home for the first time, do not bring him indoors immediately.  Take him for a walk around your property and around your neighborhood and give him a lot of positive reinforcement when he relieves himself.  Praise and pets all around.

Second, you can use a crate to help with feeding.  Feed him in the crate with the door closed and keep him inside for a few minutes after he eats.  Once he’s done, take him outside to an area that you want him to use and stay with him until he relieves himself.  Again, give him a lot of praise when he does it.   FYI:  I strongly recommend feeding your dog twice daily on a set schedule, and that you pick up the bowl with any uneaten food after 20 minutes.  Free feeding your dog will make it difficult for you to establish a schedule with him.

Third, a dog does not want to pee or poop in the places that he eats or sleeps.  You can take advantage of this by limiting the area that he is allowed to have access to in the house.  Start with a crate, and gradually expand his living space with pens or baby gates, giving him more room and access as his training firms up.  It might be helpful to keep him on leash indoors at first.

Fourth, take him on walks and establish a routine for doing so.  Extended exercise and walking has the natural effect of encouraging bowel movements, and exposing him to outdoor spaces will encourage him to pee in interesting places.  As always, praise him and give him positive reinforcement whenever he relieves himself outdoors.

Fifth, when he has accidents in the house, do not – repeat not – punish him.  Don’t react to them at all if you can avoid it.  Simply clean the up pee or poop immediately and take steps to remove any residual scent.  There are two products on the market that are very good scent removers:  Resolve™ and Nature’s Miracle™ (I don’t endorse commercial products, but these both work).  Removing the scent is critical, as he will tend to reuse areas.

Lastly, as he learns that he needs to go outside, he will develop behaviors that will let you know when he needs to go.  Learn his body language so you can tell when he’s feeling the need to go, and to understand when he’s telling you that you need to take him outside.

The key thing to remember is that you are teaching him to relieve himself in places that you want him to use.  He wants to have go-to places and he wants to have a routine; its up to you to tell him what they are going to be.

If you are adding your dog to a family that has an existing, house-trained, dog then your job gets a little easier.  And a little more complicated.  I strongly recommend that you put the existing dog through a refresher course while you’re training the new dog.  There is a good possibility that the presence of the new dog might cause your current one to regress in this area.

For one thing, the new dog will be leaving new scents throughout your house.  Your current dog may feel a need to mark areas where he detects them.   This is normal dog behavior and shouldn’t come as a surprise.  You can also take advantage of this by having them go in your yard or on walks together, because the new dog will tend to use areas where your existing pup as left his own scent markers.  By praising the new dog when he does this, you are reinforcing a completely natural behavior.  By training them together, you are not only establishing a routine for your new dog, but you are also socializing them with each other.  Start this at step one (above), by having both dogs go on the initial walk around your neighborhood and property when you first bring the new one home.  This gives the new guy a good start and provides a way to introduce the dogs on neutral territory.

Also, if there is an existing dog in the house, this increases the need to establish a feeding schedule and walking/potty schedule.   If you leave full dog bowls around the place so that they can just eat when they’re hungry, you are making it difficult to determine which dog is eating most of the food.  And you are also increasing the likelihood of conflict between them as they guard their food bowls.  Feed the new dog in his crate at first, and take them both outside for after meal walks.  After all, you’re going to be picking up twice the poop now, you’ll appreciate having it on a schedule.

For some tips on how you should dispose of that dog waste, please visit Disposing of dog poo in a safe and eco-friendly manner | The Animal Nerd.

Additional reading:

Carson, L. L.  (2015).  Housetraining 101.  In Horwitz, D., Ciribassi, J. and Dale S. Decoding Your Dog. (pp 76 – 82).  Boston, MA.  Mariner

Hoffman, H. (June 30, 2020).  How to Potty Train a Puppy or Adult Dog.  PetMed.  Retrieved from How to Potty Train a Dog: Potty Training Tips for Puppies and Adult Dogs | PetMD

Miller, P.  (2008).  The Power of Positive Dog Training, 2nd Ed.  Hoboken, NJ.  Wiley.

Naito, K.  (2018), BKLN Manners.  Mount Joy, PA.  Fox Chapel

Dog Parks: What to know before bringing your dog to one.

Dog parks can be a great place for well-socialized dogs to play and have “doggy-time”.

Dog parks are a place where dogs and their owners can spend time outdoors and off the leash, doing “dog things” with other dogs.   They have become very common in our urban and suburban landscapes, and are places where owners can take their dogs to play, have some enrichment and get some exercise.   In an environment where dogs (and their owners) are increasingly isolated, they are a place to socialize and have some time in the fresh air and sunshine.  They can be either publicly owned and maintained, or can be managed and funded privately.  Some are even private membership-based clubs for dog-owners.  They are very popular and surveys have shown that the majority of Americans consider them to be a benefit to neighborhoods.  The New York Times reports that dog parks are among the fastest-growing social amenity in the United States.[i]

There are varying opinions about dog parks, based on peoples’ experiences in them.  The internet is full of emotionally-charged articles about dog parks, many of them highly negative and verging on hyperbole, including claims that “Dogs die violently at dog parks all the time.” [ii]  A simple Google search of “Dog Park Horror Stories” will provide endless accounts of dogs being brutalized by other dogs or people at these parks.  In reviewing a sampling of these anecdotal and unverified accounts, I found that they were all related to dogs being over-aroused and stressed, and/or their owners behaving irresponsibly.

There are very few quality studies of dog-to-dog behavior in dog parks.  However, the consensus among them is that actual dog-to-dog aggression in these parks is very rare and very seldom result in injuries.  In fact, a 2018 study by Howse, Anderson and Walsh found that “there was little to no evidence of dog-dog aggression, with the possible exception of “lunge approach”, which occurred infrequently. This finding is consistent with two other published studies… which reported low prevalence of aggressive behaviours in two different dog parks, and no incidents leading to injury. Thus, overt aggression is rare in direct observational research despite apparent widespread concerns among trainers of high risk for conspecific aggression at dog parks.”[iii]   An earlier study cited differences in dog’s interactions based on individual personalities but found that all the dogs were in a highly excited and/or stressed state while in the park.[iv]

Based on the available behavioral studies and on reputable newspaper or internet articles, we can conclude that dog parks can be a pleasant environment that allows well-socialized and extroverted companion dogs with a means of exercising, playing with other dogs and getting some enrichment in the terms of new experiences.  But this all depends on several factors:  The dogs’ personalities, the health of other dogs in the park and the knowledge and attention of the dogs’ owners.

There are some simple facts about dogs and dog parks that many owners fail to understand:

First, all dogs are not the same.  They have varied personalities and experiences and have different preferences.  For instance, I’ve had three smooth collies in my adult life.  And I’ve had each of them in safe well-run dog parks.  The first one was overjoyed by the park.  She was the queen of whatever group of dogs she socialized with and always managed to get a pack of dogs to join her in a “chase me” game using every square inch of the fenced area.  She also made sure that she met every owner and invited new dogs to socialize.  We were frequent visitors and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My second collie hated being in the dog park.  He was socialized with other dogs and wasn’t fearful of them, but he was completely overwhelmed by the experience of being in the park.  He spent the entire time trotting around the fence perimeter, looking for a way out.  After that one experience, we never took him back.  The third collie is socialized with other dogs and meets them politely but is completely indifferent to them.  She loves to play with her human family and the people she knows, and she loves to go for walks in her neighborhood or on the local beach but has no interest in other dogs.  We’ve taken her to a dog park, and she spent her time exploring and investigating new smells, much as she would in her own yard, but didn’t spend a single minute socializing or playing with other dogs.    The point I’m making is that some dogs just won’t like being in a dog park and some are just not interested in other dogs.  There’s nothing wrong with that, its just the way they are.

Second, a dog park is not a place to get to train your dog, or to help them get socialized.  You can safely take a dog to the park after they are well socialized and after you are confident in their training.  For example, I once worked with a shelter dog a shelter dog whom I spent month working with, rehabilitating her, and socializing her with humans.  Over time she progressed from being fearful of people to accepting and bonding with me, after which I got her to accept new people, play nicely and interact well with people and other dogs.  She was adopted out to a man (I had a bad feeling about this guy, but it wasn’t my decision) who was given all the usual instructions to take things slow, let her get used to him and his home, gradually introduce new experiences, etc.  But… The day after her adoption, I found her back in the intake section of the shelter.  I found out that less than six hours after adopting her, he brought her to a crowded dog park and let her off leash.  So, naturally, there was a complete meltdown.  Rather than learning from his error, he blamed the dog and returned her that day.  The good news is that, once we got her settled down, she was adopted out to a nice young couple and that last I heard she was living a great life in a loft in Boston.

Third, the dog park is an unfamiliar place full of new smells, new and excited dogs, new people, etc.  This is a stressful situation for dogs to be in.  Ottenheimer et al, found that dogs in these parks are generally stressed state, regardless of their outward behavior.  And not all dogs handle stress well, many have limited communications skills.

Fourth, a lot of dog owners are clueless about their pets’ behaviors.  Some of them are too busy chatting or flirting to pay attention to what’s happening around them, and some of them are just jerks.  They will not always pay attention to their dogs, won’t understand that their dogs are becoming overstressed or over-excited, and may not intervene when their dogs act inappropriately.

Fifth, dog parks are not for puppies.  Although a puppy can safely interact with other dogs once they’ve had all of their vaccinations, when they’re about 17 weeks old, they are still forming their personalities and can be very negatively impacted by any negative experiences.  They should be socialized with people and other age-appropriate dogs in positive and controlled settings.  Any negative experiences, such as overly rough play by other dogs, bullying, or anything that is intimidating or frightening that a puppy experiences can adversely affect his still-developing social skills.  Many experts recommend against taking dogs to a park if they are under six months of age, or even less than a year old, depending on the dog.[v]  My own recommendation is to hold off on bringing a puppy to a dog park until he is well past his second fear impact period,  which will fall between five and twelve months of age Developmental-Stages-of-a-Dog.pdf (animalnerd.com).  between A supervised puppy playgroup is a much better option for pups who are still developing social skills.

Sixth, and very importantly, do not bring a dog to a park who has not been spayed or neutered.  The presence of a female dog in heat will cause unnecessary drama among the other dogs, particularly among any intact males.  In many cases, dog parks specifically prohibit any male or female dogs who have not been spayed or neutered.[vi]

So:  Should you take your dog to a dog park?  Sure.  Absolutely.  That is, if, and only if, you do the following things:

Get to know your dog.  Does he really like to play with other dogs?  Is he nervous around them or avoid any dogs at all?  Does he try to engage with them and invite them to play?   Also, how to they react around him?  You need to determine whether he has good manners and doesn’t play too roughly or overwhelm other dogs?  If you have any doubts about this, don’t take him to the park.  Find other ways to socialize and exercise him.  If your dog mature enough to be there, and are his social skills sufficiently developed?

Next, check out the park you’re thinking about using.  Visit it during the time of day that you are most likely to bring your dog.  Get to know the other owners and watch them with their dogs?  Do they keep an eye on their dogs and act responsibly?  Do they pick up after their dogs?  Are they people that you want to hang around with?  How are their dogs acting?  Is the play too rough for your dog to be part of, and do the other owners intervene?  Trust your gut on this.  Is everyone there a dog owner, or do dog walkers show up with a bunch of dogs and turn them loose inside?  (Yes, this happens.)

What about the park?  Is it securely fenced?  Is there a double gate at the entrance to prevent dogs from escaping?   Is there fresh water inside?  Is it maintained in a clean and safe manner? Who is responsible for the park?  Is it privately funded or is it a municipal park?  Also, are there separate areas for large and small dogs?

Once you’ve checked all these boxes, there are a few other things you need to do:

Make sure that your dog is completely vaccinated and is protected against parasitic diseases.  Talk to your vet about his heartworm preventative and make sure that it includes protection against intestinal parasites.  In addition to his rabies vaccination, your dog should also be immunized against parvo, distemper, Bordetella, canine influenza and leptospirosis.[vii]  The simple fact is that dogs relieve themselves in these parks, and they are frequented by nocturnal wildlife, making them playgrounds for parasites, bacteria and communicable viruses; some of them transmissible to humans.  And many of the parks have communal water bowls that are shared among the dogs, which provides another route for sharing diseases and parasites.  Make sure that your pet is protected.[viii]  Also, wash your hands thoroughly when you leave the dog park.

I strongly recommend that you do not bring small children to a dog park and, if there are small children present, do not bring your dog inside.  Aside from the health issues mentioned above, this is not a childrens’ playground and it is not safe for them.  Having little kids excitedly running around among a group of excited off-leash dogs is never a good idea, particularly if the particular dogs from the childrens’ family tend to be protective of them.

I recommend that you do not bring any food or dog treats to the park.  The dogs are already in an excited state, and you have no idea how they will react to the presence of food or of other dogs receiving treats.  There is a strong potential that this may result in dogs either aggressively guarding the food or becoming overly excited.

If you bring any toys to the park, be prepared to go home without them.  Once you throw a ball in a dog park, it can become the property of any dog that wants it.  Also, you risk the possibility of a dog deciding that the ball is a resource to be guarded, resulting in a fight.  If you do bring a toy and manage to leave the park with it, completely disinfect it right away.

Be a good citizen.  Familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations that are posted at the park, and abide by them.   Bring waste bags and promptly clean up your dog’s poop and dispose of it properly.  Bring hand sanitizer and share it with other dog owners.

The bottom line is that dog parks are a great place for some dogs and some people to enjoy off-leash time, socialize, exercise and have some fun.  But they are not for everybody.  Your dog may be much happier just going for a walk, playing with known human or dog friends, or just hanging out with you.

 

[i] Lowery, S.  (February 6, 2020).  The Dog Park is Bad, Actually.  New York Times.  Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/smarter-living/the-dog-park-is-bad-actually.html

[ii] Retrieved from Dog Parks Are the WORST. – Overdale Kennel

[iii] Howse, M. S., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2018).  Social Behaviour of Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris) in a Public Off-Leash Dog Park.  Behavioural Processes 197 (2018) 691-171

[iv] Ottemheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2013).  Exploring the Dog Park:  Relationships Between Social Behaviours, Personality and Cortisol in Companion Dogs.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146 (2013), 96-106

[v] Anderson, T. (October 5, 2018).  Why Puppies and Dog Parks Don’t Mix.  Modern Dog.  Retrieved from moderndogmagazine.com/articles/why-puppies-and-dog-parks-don-t-mix/101482

[vi] Brent, L. (April 28, 2019). How to Avoid Aggression (and other problems) at the Dog Park. Parsemus Foundation News.  Retrieved from www.parsemus.org/2019/04/how-to-avoid-aggression-and-other-problems-at-the-dog-park/

[vii] Nicholas, J. (June 24, 2021). What You Should Know Before Taking Your Puppy to the Dog Park.  Preventive Vet.  Retrieved from www.preventivevet.com/dogs/what-you-should-know-before-taking-your-puppy-to-the-dog-park

[viii] Nelson, S.  (May 16, 2013).  Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better.  K-State News.  Retrieved from Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better | Kansas State University | News and Communications Services (k-state.edu)

 

Coyote Encounters

In a previous post ( Eastern Coyote Myths and Reality | The Animal Nerd ), I discussed eastern coyotes and their habits – and tried to dispel a few misconceptions about them.  Since then, I have spoken with a number of people who have encountered coyotes in suburban communities and are somewhat apprehensive about their proximity to their small children and pets.  Based on these concerns, I would like to offer some guidance on how to manage interactions with coyotes and how to discourage them from approaching people or residences.

A few facts about urban coyotes:

First, they are predators and opportunistic feeders.  And they’re omnivores.  They will hunt and forage either in small family groups or as individuals.  As individuals, they will hunt small animals or forage for fruit and tasty vegetables, and will scavenge human food sources.  If you leave food out for neighborhood cats or desirable local wildlife, you can expect to get a visit from a coyote.  They will also prey on any small feral or domestic animals that they can catch, including small dogs and housecats.   Individual coyotes do not chase or try to catch deer, but will do so in family groups.

Second, although they are semi-social animals, they do not form “packs”.  Coyotes live as individuals or in small family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their pups, possibly including young coyotes from a previous litter or a bachelor that they allow in their group.  Large packs of coyotes are simply not a thing.  And they do not always stick together in groups, when you see an individual on his own, he could simply be doing his coyote business away from his family and will return to them later.

Third, they are vocal.  When you hear an individual coyote howling, he is generally trying to get a response from his pack/family in order to have them join him, or to establish a territory for himself.  When you hear a group howling together, it is generally a greeting behavior.  People generally wildly overestimate the number of coyotes involved in a group howling session, three or four of them can sound like eight or ten.  What they do NOT do is howl during hunting or to “celebrate” a kill.  They have no wish to warn prey that they are in the area or to attract other predators to any animals that they have successfully hunted.[i]

Fourth, eastern coyotes are genetically distinct from the ones found in western states, particularly so in the northeast states.  While their population expanded eastward from the upper mid-western states, they intermingled with a hybrid wolf population in Ontario and picked up from grey wolf and dog DNA along the way.  This does not mean that they are “coy-wolves” or “wolf-hybrids” or any such scary mutation.  They are about ninety percent coyote and have not become a new species.  They are, however, slightly larger and have more variation in their coats.  The coyotes in the southeast

If a coyote appears to be watching you, or seems to be following you, he is not hunting.  He’s either curious or is worried because you are near his den.

states did not expand through areas where they could pick up any wolf DNA, however that population did pick up a very small amount of dog genetic material.  They are not interbreeding with domestic dogs –  there is no need for them to do so as their population isn’t under any pressure.[ii]

Fifth, they are becoming more common.  Over the past several decades, coyotes have established themselves along the east coast and in the New England states.  Urban and suburban areas have abundant food sources for them and they are thriving in our neighborhoods.  They have established themselves as apex predators, filling the niche that we created when we humans exterminated other predator species in the east.  They have become part of our urban landscape, much like deer, foxes and other native species.  Over the years of human contact they have become a primarily nocturnal predator, although they are also commonly seen during daylight hours. [iii]

Which brings us to the topic at hand:  As they become more common, people are encountering them more often in locations that coyotes were not expected to be found.  And, being humans, we often respond to unexpected events with alarm or by behaving inappropriately.  So, I’d like to offer some advice and guidance on how to act in the presence of coyotes and how to be a good neighbor to them.

First and above all:  We want them to be shy and wary of us.  They are not tame or backyard animals and, for their own benefit, coyotes should be fearful of humans.    They are wild animals and we need to keep them wild.

Second, if you see a coyote at a distance, going about its business, there is no reason to do anything except say “Huh, a coyote.” and go back to what you were doing.  if you find that a coyote is watching you or even appears to be following you at a distance, there is no cause for alarm, and you don’t need to do anything.  He isn’t stalking you, he’s just wary and curious.   In fact, if one is “following” you, it may be that you have wandered closer to his den and pups that he would like, and he is escorting you from the vicinity.[iv]

However, if one is closer to you or your home than you would like and does not seem to be avoiding contact with you; you can engage in “coyote hazing” to discourage him from human contact.

Note:  Before engaging in any hazing, take a minute and think.  Are you possibly near his den?  Is it possible that there are pups nearby?  Coyotes have one breeding season, in late winter, and pups are born in the spring, maturing over the next several months[v].  You don’t want to engage in any threatening behavior to any animal that is protecting its young.  Second, take a minute to observe the coyote.  Does it appear to be generally healthy and alert or is it acting as if it is ill or suffering.  If so, just leave the area and notify local wildlife authorities.[vi]

If the coyote appears to be healthy and you are in an open area where dens are unlikely to be located, you can discourage him by hazing.  This consists of making yourself threatening to the coyote, taking advantage of their natural fear of humans.  Make yourself big, wave your arms and shout at it.  Take a couple of threatening steps towards the coyote while you’re doing this.  Noisemakers such as whistles or shaker cans, or bright flashlights are also helpful.   Hazing generally works, but might not be effective if the coyote is already habituated to human presence.[vii]  If it doesn’t cause him to flee, then you should simply leave the area.  Remember, the point is to keep him wary of humans and help prevent him from becoming accustomed to being around people.[viii]

In addition, you should discourage them from being near human homes.  There are several simple steps you can take to accomplish this:

First, do not put out feeding stations for any wildlife, including feral cats.  They are prey animals and their presence will attract coyotes to you home.  It is never a good idea to feed wild animals, regardless of how cute they are.[ix]

Second, if you have bird feeders, regularly clean the area around them to discourage any rodents from feeding on fallen birdseed.  They are also prey for coyotes and will encourage them to hunt in your yard.

Third, if you have a cat do not let them roam outside.  They are prey for coyotes, hawks, large owls and other urban predators.  In addition, they are active predators of desirable wildlife, including songbirds. [x]

Fourth, if you do not have a securely fenced yard, don’t put your dog outside without y

ou being present and in control of his movements, even if he is on a tether – particularly if your dog is not spayed or neutered.  And if you have an invisible fence, remember that it will keep your trained dog in your yard, but does nothing to prevent predators from entering.[xi]   Also, do not allow your dog to interact with coyotes during walks, and keep your dog leashed if you are in areas where coyotes tend to be found.[xii]

Summing it all up:  Coyotes are here and they’re here to stay.  They are adjusting to our environment and are thriving, and its up to us to live alongside them and to act responsibly.  We can do this by limiting our interactions with them, discourage them from getting accustomed to us and helping them to stay wild.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] Fergus, C. (January 15, 2017).  Probing Question:  Why do Coyotes Howl?  Penn State News.  Retrieved from Probing Question: Why do coyotes howl? | Penn State University (psu.edu)

[ii] Nagy, C.,  (2017)  New York’s Newest Immigrants:  Coyotes in the City.  Anthrozoology Graduate Program, Canisius College

[iii] Coyotes 101.  Coyote Smarts.  Retrieved from Coyotes 101 – CoyoteSmart (coyotesmarts.org)

[iv] What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season.  March 22, 2021.  Wolf Conservation Center.  Retrieved from What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season | Wolf Conservation Center (nywolf.org)

[v] Bradford, A. and Pester, P.  April 02, 2021.  Coyotes:  Facts About the Wily Members of the Canidae Family.  LiveScience.  Retrieved from Coyotes: Facts about the wily members of the Canidae family | Live Science

[vi] Coyote Hazing Field Guide. Project Coyote.  Retrieved from CoyoteHazingBrochureFieldGuide.pdf (projectcoyote.org)

[vii] Bonnell, M. A & Breck, S. W.  (2017).  Using Resident-Based Hazing Programs to Reduce Human-Coyote Conflicts in Urban Environments.  Human Wildlife Interactions 11 (2).

[viii] Coyote Hazing:  Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes.  The Humane Society of the United States.  Retrieved from Coyote hazing: Guidelines for discouraging neighborhood coyotes | The Humane Society of the United States

[ix] How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes.  Urban Coyote Research Project.  Retrieved from How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research

[x] The Case for Indoor Cats.  The Wildlife Center of Virginia.  Retrieved from The Case for Indoor Cats | The Wildlife Center of Virginia

[xi] Derrick (March 9, 2021). Coyote Behavior –  Fascinating Facts About Coyotes.  Wandering Outdoors.  Retrieved from Coyote Behavior – Fascinating Facts About Coyotes (wanderingoutdoors.com)

[xii] Dogs and Coyotes.  Project Coyote.  Retrieved from Dogs_Coyotes.pdf (projectcoyote.org

 

Dog-to-Dog Reactivity

Many of the dogs that I encounter at the shelter are overly stressed and somewhat frightened.  And they sometimes come to us with, and because of, behavioral issues that their owners were unable to manage or live with.  Reactivity is one of the more serious of these issues that we encounter.

“Reactive” is a poorly defined term that is commonly used in describing dog behavior.  I tend to use Dr. Karen Overall’s definition of a reactive animal as one who responds to a normal stimulus with a higher-than-normal level of intensity.  This can be based in a strong emotional response to that stimulus, such as fear, over-excitement, or simple frustration.  Putting it another way, reactive behavior is a severe, undesirable response to anything that causes the dog to feel fear, anxiety or an abundance of stress.  If the intensity of the response reaches the level that the dog is unable to control his actions, this becomes a problem for most owners.

Reactivity is very common among the dogs that you will encounter in shelters.  Shelter dogs are under a great deal of stress under the best of circumstances and may be prone to having exaggerated reactions to the presence of certain stimuli – most often other dogs.  Their level of stress may be such that the sight of another dog, or any other stimulus that triggers a strong emotional response, is all it takes to put them over a behavioral threshold into a state in which they become aggressive.  This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • They may be experiencing barrier frustration, due to being restrained by either a handler’s leash or by the walls and door of their run.
  • It may be that the dog is fearful of other dogs, based on some prior negative experiences.
  • The dog may be poorly socialized.
  • The dog may never had been trained to exercise self-control.
  • It could also be that the dog has a genetic predisposition that against tolerating other dogs.

This dog is reacting to the barrier frustration of being restrained by a leash.

Note that I have not used the word “aggression”.  Reactivity and aggression are two entirely different things.  A reactive dog is over-reacting to a particular situation – he may simply overly eager to meet and greet another other dog or a person.  However, the amount of frustration that he experiences during this excited state can reach the point at which he behaves aggressively, or even redirects his over excitement and potential aggression to the person that is handling him. (Rakosky, 2020).

Please also note that, although the presence of other dogs is a very common reason, a dog can be reactive to almost anything that causes an emotional response.  Men wearing hats, children, cars, or anything else that induces fear or excitement can cause a dog to become over-excited and react.  The reaction can be based in fear, over-eagerness, or any other strong emotion.  And this behavior can become reinforced over time:  If your dog sees a person or another dog outside your window his territorial instincts may go into overdrive, causing him to go ballistic.  When the trespasser eventually goes on his way, your dog will interpret that as the result of his over-the-top performance and will reinforce and encourage that behavior (Miller, 2003).

Which brings us to a dog that I’ve been working with at the shelter.  She is a one-year old Akita, very pretty and well-socialized with people, who was presented with a history of strong reactivity to other dogs.  In reviewing her history, I found that she had initially been transported in from another state with very little background or information, and then was adopted out to a local home after a relatively short stay in the shelter (this is not surprising, pure-bred dogs do not tend to have lengthy stays in shelters).  Her adopters lived in a townhouse with a small, fenced back yard, and she had been “aggressive” with the neighbor’s dog through that fence.

I began working with her by taking her on walks around the shelter grounds, avoiding interactions and keeping to quiet areas with trees and benches.  She was extremely anxious the first couple of times I had her outside her run:  She was on high alert and was vocalizing with whines and whimpers, with her Akita tail held down and refusing treats.  That said, she never displayed any anxiety about being handled or being fitted with a harness.  It took three outings on consecutive days before she relaxed and began to enjoy being outdoors with me.  She eventually relaxed, interacted with her environment and me in normal, curious manner and carried her tail in the distinctive Akita curl.  Once I had gotten her accustomed to the shelter grounds and a low level of activity, I worked on determining the level of her reactivity.

Given that she was a large and powerful dog, for safety’s sake I tested her reactivity by having her harnessed and on leash while an assistant leash walked a life-like dummy dog near her and we both watched her closely while this stimulus was present.  She became agitated when the target (dummy) dog was being walked (pacing and whining), but she could be easily distracted from it and never lost her leash manners or responses to my instructions.  However, when I had my assistant position the dummy so that it was facing her – apparently standing still and “staring” at her – her response intensified, and she began aggressively barking and lunging.    However, she never became so aroused that she ignored her handler or redirected her “aggression” to any persons or objects.  Throughout this exercise she was relatively easy to distract and move away from the dummy.

I reported to shelter management that I thought her reactivity was at a low level and was manageable.  From what I observed, she was uncomfortable with other dogs and tried to avoid interacting with them.  When confronted with the dummy, she had engaged in distance-increasing behaviors and tried to move away from it; and it was only when we increased the level of engagement with the dummy that she increased her distancing behaviors and put on a threatening display (Farricelli, 2021).  I informed the shelter staff that, although I hadn’t observed her in her adoptive home, I considered it possible that her yard had been too small to give her a chance to escape the neighbor’s dog even though they had been separated by a fence.  I also offered the possibility that she engages in trigger stacking and that the intensity of her reaction to the dummy had been increased by the “background” stress of being in a shelter.

This illustrates the need to closely define the exact stimulus that triggers the over-the-top emotional response in a reactive dog.  It could be a person walking by the house, or just a person walking another dog.  It could be anyone who comes to the door, or just a deliveryman in a uniform.  It could be the presence of one dog, a particular behavior by that dog, or a group of dogs playing.   Before diving into a treatment, you must first diagnose the specific stimulus that is sending the dog over his behavioral threshold.  It’s not enough to say that he’s reacting to other dogs, you must fine-tune that statement as much as possible.  For example, does he react to the sight of all other dogs everywhere he encounters them, or is it only under certain circumstances?  Is it all other dogs, or just dogs of certain sizes?  What are the dogs doing that sends him over the threshold of his self-control?  Are they excited, playing, roughhousing? running?

And it illustrates the need to closely observe the dog in situations where the reactivity occurs.   Ideally, you will observe the dog with its owners in the home environment in which the behavior occurs.   You must identify how the dog behaves from the moment that he first encounters the stimulus that causes his reactive behavior.  Does he try to distance himself from it?  How is he communicating his anxiety?  And at what point does he reach a behavioral threshold?

Its only after going through this process that you can determine how to manage or treat the dog’s reactivity.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it requires the owners to either commit to avoiding or managing situations in which the reactivity can be triggered, or take part in course of systematic desensitization.

I’m happy to report that my akita friend was adopted last week.  The shelter staff took care to place her with experienced adopters who had more space and were committed to engaging a behaviorist/trainer to help socialize and desensitize her.

 

References

Farricelli, A. (2021, April 12). Distance Increasing and Decreasing Signals in Dogs. PetHelpful.  Retrieved from pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

Miller, P. (2003, October 10).  Causes of Reactive Dog Behavior and How to Train Accordingly.  Whole Dog Journal.  Retrieved from www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/causes-of-reactive-dog-behavior-and-how-to-train-accordingly/

Overall, K. (1997).  Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals, 1st Edition, Maryland Heights, MO, Mosby.

Rakosky, E.  (2020, August 19).  What is Aggression?  Dog Reactivity vs. Dog Aggression.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/reactivity-vs-aggression/

Excited Biting / Arousal Biting

I’ve recently worked with two shelter dogs who were in danger of being deemed “unadoptable” due to their excessive mouthiness with humans.  Both dogs were medium sized mixed breeds who had developed tendencies to grab arms, hands and clothing when being handled – to the extent that some shelter personnel were unwilling to deal with them.  It became my job to identify the reasons for this behavior and find a way to reduce its intensity and severity.

The first of these dogs, “Aggie”, was the more severe case.  She was a very pretty, goofy and friendly pit mix who was almost impossible to handle due to her biting and grabbing behavior.  She would be walking on leash and suddenly turn on the handler and begin intently biting his shoes, cuffs or socks.  When being harnessed, she would grab and hold the handlers’ hands or forearms.  Her behavior was escalating and becoming a serious problem and impediment to adoption.  So she became one of my “project” dogs.

Excited/arousal biting is an impulse that some dogs have to use their mouths inappropriately when they are in a high state of excitement.  Their need to use their mouths to hold and chew something becomes greater than their bite inhibition, and they tend to grab something that in inappropriate or harmful to others.  Arousal can be defined as “The state of being that occurs when strong emotions are evoked by fear, anger, stress, excitement or joy…During heightened arousal, animals are predominantly reactive, the limbic system in the brain manages their flight or fight reactivity.  During peek arousal, the animal may be unresponsive to attempts to elicit trained behaviors.”  (Handelman, 2008).  This behavior is sometimes found in dogs that are housed in shelters, due to the high levels of stress that they’re under in those environments.   One of the primary roles of shelter staff and volunteers is to reduce the dogs’ overall stress and help them find ways to cope with life in a shelter Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd .

Mouthing during play is a normal puppy behavior. They learn bite inhibition during early socialization with littermates and humans.

Dogs use their mouths to play and to grab, hold and carry things.  It is a completely natural behavior that is part of their normal daily life.  And dogs generally exercise exquisite control over the speed and force with which they use their mouths.  This control, generally termed “bite inhibition” is learned during early socialization, primarily from their dams and littermates; and behaviorists encourage owners to continue this learning when they bring puppies into their homes (Dunbar, 2003).   Not all dogs learn this inhibition during the critical early socialization phases, however it can be trained later in life.  This important subject will be addressed in a later article.  The immediate problem we’re addressing here is how to deal with a dog who is prone to becoming so excited that his arousal level overcomes his training and bite inhibition.  I should point out that this is not aggressive behavior – it is simply a reaction to an overwhelming level of arousal.  But it can easily escalate due to frustration and responses to the handler’s reactions, leading to injuries.

This was the case with Aggie.   During the first few sessions I had with her, I simply observed her behaviors and interactions, and learned a few things:  First, she was very social and affectionate with her handlers.  Second, she was highly stressed (This is normal for shelter dogs.  No matter how much enrichment and positive experiences that a shelter provides, simply being in the shelter is a stressful situation for any dog.) Third, she didn’t have the normal ability to shed stress and didn’t engage in the usual self-soothing behaviors that most dogs have in their repertoire.  Lastly, she “trigger stacks”.  Trigger Stacking is a phenomenon that occurs when reactive dogs are exposed to multiple events that trigger excitement at the same time, or in succession, so that their excitement level ramps up to the point that they reach threshold that causes a behavior to occur.  In her case, when handlers came into her run, she gave them an excited greeting which the handlers responded to and inadvertently encouraged.  They then tried to get control of her in order to harness her for walking by giving her high-value treats.  The presence of the treats and the prospect of going for a walk further added to her excitement level, sending her over her arousal threshold and causing her to lose her inhibition against grabbing and biting.  This level of excitement carried over into her walk outside, to the point that any new stimulus caused aroused biting.

The first treatment that I put in place was to change her handlers’ behavior.  The goal was to make being harnessed, leashed and taken out of her run a normal and routine part of her day.  So, I eliminated the use of all treats in her run and instituted a friendly and low-key attitude for handling her.  At the first sign of arousal biting, handlers were told to leave her run for a timeout and avoid all other forms of correction.  I also adopted a Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior protocol, giving her a “sit” command during harnessing and leashing.  These served to keep her excitement level below threshold during leashing.  After a couple of days, she was much calmer during handling insider her run and would simply approach handlers for pets and affection rather than jumping and biting, then sit as soon as she saw the leash and harness.  She was visibly excited, but she was making good decisions and controlling herself.  However, as soon as she was taken out of the shelter building for a walk, her excitement level would ramp up to “11” and she would lose all bite inhibitions and would stop responding to any commands or prompts.  Virtually and sight or sound would send her over her behavioral threshold, and she would attack handlers’ shoes, clothing, hands and arms.  This was part of her trigger stacking: although she was handling the excitement of being harnessed and leashed, she was still in a highly stressed and aroused state and was unable to deal with additional stimuli.

I experimented with giving her an alternative outlet for her biting impulse.  As soon as I took her out of the run, before going outside the building, I showed her a huge rope chew (double rope, 30 inches long).  She immediately adopted it as her favorite thing in the world and began treating it as a tug toy as soon as we went outside.  For the next half-hour, she initiated tug-o-war games and carried the rope toy throughout our walk.  Whenever she made a move towards my shoes or pants cuff, I gave her a light audible correction and reintroduced the approved toy.  After two of these interventions, I saw her look at my shoe, then decide to grab the toy instead.  After a while, her excitement level dropped, and she began dropping the toy to sniff interesting things; and I noticed stress-relieving behaviors on her part (yawns, body shakes, etc).  After a while we stopped for a rest on a bench, upon which she jumped up alongside me, put her head in my lap, sighed deeply and relaxed.  Later in the day, I was able to use the toy as part of training the “drop it” prompt.  Other trainers began using novel tug toys with her and reported similar results.  And, in a few days, her biting impulse in general was much reduced.  By having an approved alternative outlet for her excitement, she was able to regain some self-control; and by having an outlet that did not provide any feedback from being bitten, it became a less desirable behavior.

The second dog, “Anna” was a different, and easier, case.   Anna is a medium-sized Labrador mix (AKA, American black dog).  Like Aggie, she was friendly with shelter staff and volunteers but was difficult to handle due to her constant state of stress-related excitement.  When she was in an aroused state, she was very reactive.  She would respond to the slightest touch by whipping her head around to the hand that was touching her, sometimes making contact with her teeth.  Unlike Aggie, she retained better bite inhibition and didn’t attempt to grab and hold her handlers’ arms or hands, but her behavior was escalating.  While observing her I noted that she is a very food-motivated, almost to the point of becoming fixated on any food that is in her vicinity. I also found that the shelter staff and volunteers were using food as a bribe while harnessing and leashing her for an outside walk, which increased her stimulation and excitement level – making her even more reactive.  I also saw that she had a similarly strong fixation on squeaky toys.   She would ignore durable chew toys or tugging ropes, or any other toy that did not provide an audible squeak when she bit down on it.  Her fixation on these toys did not reach the level of resource guarding to the point that she would show any signs of aggression but, once given a toy, she would actively keep anyone from taking it away.   It became we were dealing with a dog that had near-obsessions with food and with particular kinds of toys, and who became excited and reactive when she had them.

The first thing I did was to eliminate the use of any treats while she was in her run.  I wanted her to become accustomed to be leashed and handled without associating people with food treats.  In fact, I withheld all treats except to use as reinforcers when she was being trained on a new skill and kept training sessions very short.  She was so food-motivated that she would learn new skills very quickly, and by keeping the sessions short we could keep her excitement level down to a manageable level.

I then began walking her to quiet areas of the shelter grounds and sat down with her before giving her a a durable squeaky toy.  She immediately grabbed the toy and began mouthing it, while I engaged in touching and petting her.  At first, each time I touched her she would redirect towards my hand before returning her attention to the toy.  But after a while she began to relax and accept touching.  And, without any other exciting stimuli in the area (other toys, dogs, people), she began to self-sooth and seek contact with me.  Over the next several sessions, she became much easier to handle in her run and she continued to shed stress during walks.  She continues to be fixated on food and squeaky toys.  But, by incorporating these traits into her training regimen we’ve been able to modify her obnoxious behaviors and help to reduce her reactivity.

Aggie has since been adopted and her new owners are telling us that they’re thrilled to have her in their home.  Anna is in the process of being adopted and the shelter is encouraging her new family to continue training and socialization.

Additional information on dealing with dogs with excited biting and mouthiness can be found here:
How to Survive Your Dog’s Arousal Biting – Whole Dog Journal (whole-dog-journal.com)
Managing mouthing in dogs | Animal Humane Society

References

Dunbar, I.  (2003).  Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book.  Berkeley, CA.  James and Kenneth Publishers.

Handelman, B (2008).  Canine Behavior.  A Photo Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Three

In my earlier post ( Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two | The Animal Nerd) I went through my recommended process for leashing a dog and taking him out of his run with the minimum excitement and drama.  Today, I’d like to talk about working with him outdoors.

First, before taking the dog out of his run, you should find out whether the shelter staff has drafted and implemented a training or behavior modification plan for that dog, and what it entails.  It may not be a formal document and behavior log, and you might find it to be as simple as asking whether they have any particular instructions for that dog.  As always, if you don’t feel comfortable working with that plan, find another dog to work with on that day.

Before taking the dog outside, ask the shelter staff what his day has already been like.  Did he have a vet visit?  Has he already had some play time?  Has he been seen by potential adopters?  If he’s already had a big day, it might be best to just take him outside and let him sit quietly in a nice quiet spot and relax.

Once he’s leashed and you have good control over him, take him directly outside.  The dog has been cooped up and will need to relieve himself – that’s a little bit of stress that you can help him with immediately.  Hint – always have a few poop bags in your pocket when you’re at the shelter.  Don’t try to do any training for the first few minutes, until he’s had a chance to work off his initial excitement.  If your shelter has an outdoor off-leash pen, you might take him to it so he can work off any “zoomies” that he might have from being cooped up, or you can provide him some enrichment by playing with him – that’s one reason that I favor cargo pants, you can always have a tennis ball handy.

However, if the dog is new to the shelter or if you haven’t worked with him before, I wouldn’t include any off-leash time or play in the first couple of times that you take him out.  When I’m working with an unfamiliar dog, my practice is to take him for a long walk on the shelter grounds and let him have a good sniff around.  I don’t include any training or play, and I try to not correct anything he does – beyond removing him from any situation that raises his stress level or causes an over-reaction.  Remember, he’s new to you and doesn’t know you.  You want him to associate you with a pleasant, relaxing experience.  I also try to incorporate quiet time, in which I find a pleasant spot for him and me to just sit and relax.  Let him get used to the sights and smells of being outside and learn how to get comfortable.  This is an opportunity for you to observe him and learn his behavior cues and characteristics – What does he focus on?  At what distance does he react to other dogs?  What are the signs that he’s feeling tense?  How does he self-soothe and shed stress?  This knowledge is invaluable in socializing him.  And simply experiencing being outdoors provides a great deal of enrichment to him, engages his brain and helps his emotional state.

Once you’ve had him out a few times, and he knows you, then you should be able to incorporate some light training or play time – in a closed, controlled area.  Although, except for leash walking,  I recommend against trying to do any training while you’re outdoors – there are simply too many distractions.   When playing with the dog, especially for the first few times, carefully watch his excitement level.  A lot of shelter dogs have a tendency to become overexcited when they’re playing and can become difficult to handle.  I’ve had pitbulls suddenly become overexcited during play and decide that my sweatshirt would be an excellent tug toy.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave their harness on during the play session, and leave the leash attached for the first couple of them.  If the dog becomes jumpy or mouthy, you can step on the leash and reduce his movement until he regains some self-control.

When you’re walking the dog, remember that he is not your dog and that you are not his buddy.  He really doesn’t know you.  He may decide to head in a particular direction that you don’t want to go.  In this case, simply plant yourself and wait him out.  After he stops pulling, you can simply say something like “Let’s go” and head in the direction that you want.  Or, he might stop and freeze, or pancake himself and refuse to move.  If either of these happen, do not get into a contest of wills or a tug-o-war with him.  You can kneel or crouch down and wait him out – give him the choice of either doing nothing or approaching you.  Or you can change direction and head off at an oblique angle to your original plan. This usually gets him to go along with you.  Don’t get frustrated or let your attitude show anything except that you’re having a relaxing good time.

At the end of the walk, he might not want to go back inside the shelter.  If this happens, try taking him back inside through a different door than his usual one.  This is also the time to use some very high-value treats to help him go back inside.  And always give him a few treats when he goes back inside his run – not only does this help him associate the end of the walk or play session with a positive reinforcer, but by scattering a few treats in his run you buy yourself a minute to take off his leash and/or harness, and get out the door while he’s distracted.  This reduces the drama associated with leaving him inside, and prevents him from door-dashing while you’re exiting.

That’s it for today.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.