Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties

In recent months, I’ve been seeing a lot of dogs come into the shelter with extreme anxiety and symptoms of neophobia.  These dogs have been fearful of new people, new places and new experiences to the point that they will not willingly leave their runs to go for walks with volunteers.  The dogs have each been completely shut down and either actively or passively avoiding contact with every human that cares for them or walks by.  I’ve had cases of dogs that were extremely reluctant to leave their kennels, avoiding contact with new people, or refusing to go for any distance on walks and constantly trying to return to their “safe space” inside the shelter.

There is no consistent background for these dogs.  Some of these dogs were surrendered and some were transported from other shelters, and their histories are often incomplete.  That said, I must wonder whether this is related to the pandemic:  they had limited experiences, socialization and contact with people because their owners were pretty much housebound.  In any case, they’re here now and we have to help them get past their stress and anxiety.  And it is incumbent on us to do accomplish in a way that reduces their overall stress and increases their interactions with potential adopters.

There are a couple of techniques that I’ve developed that help dogs overcome these behavioral issues.  The basic thought behind them is to give the dogs time to work through their anxieties and become accustomed to their surroundings and to strange humans.  Give them a chance to solve their own problems without forcing them to perform any specific tasks.

First off:  When a dog is nervous about meeting new people, don’t force the issue or insist on leashing/harnessing him up in your first meeting.  When I am working with a dog for the first time, I don’t enter his run right away.  Instead, I spend a little time outside his run, turned sideways to him and not engaging.  Having some reading material helps.  When I enter the run, I stay turned sideways to him and kneel to reduce my apparent size.  If he doesn’t approach, I don’t force the issue; I just scatter some treats and ignore him for five or ten minutes, then leave.  I then wait an hour or so before returning and then repeat the process I outlined above.  Eventually, he’ll become more confident and start approaching for pets and more treats.  When he accepts contact, pet him briefly on his chest and the side of his neck and then pause with your hand nearby to see if he initiates more contact (consent signal).  Let him get as close as he wants.

The dogs in the above pictures (Jack and Yoda) are showing signs of being anxious upon our first meeting.   Note that they retreated to the rear of their respective kennels, and laid down with stiff postures, ready to run away from me.  Please also note the tightness of their mouths and around their eyes.  In both cases I scattered high value treats in the space between them and me, and did not attempt to force contact.  The picture on the above right was taken on a second visit with Jack, when he was a little more comfortable with my presence and was taking treats from my hand and accepted petting.  After I paused petting, he nosed my hand, seeking more contact.

When he is comfortable with you petting him with both hands at the same time, you can try putting on a leash and harness.  Take it slowly, as this involves a lot of contact and handling.  You may find that, at first, simply putting the harness over his head without fastening is all that he can tolerate.  Watch his eyes and facial expression to gauge his level of stress and discomfort (ref); stop and remove the harness when you think he’s had enough.   Eventually, he’ll allow you to snap the harness in place.   Note:  For dogs with a high degree of anxiety, I always clip the leash to the front ring of the harness as well as to the Martingale collar.  The harness and collar are only as strong as their plastic clips, which can break, and you don’t want to risk him panicking and bolting.  By using the leash and harness, you can retain control of the dog even if one of them breaks.

 

You might find that the anxious dog is unwilling to leave his run after being leashed.  In my experience this is pretty common:  The corridor is full of unfamiliar smells, noises, other dogs, strange people, etc., and once the dog learns that his kennel is a safe space, he may be very reluctant to leave it.  I never force the dog to leave the run.  Instead, I prop the door open and sit just inside it, facing in any direction except towards the dog.  I scatter some treats around and outside the door and wait for him to muster enough courage to leave the run in order to reach the furthest treats.  Be patient, this can take multiple attempts.  They key is to not put any pressure on the dog and let him decide when he’s ready.

Once you’re outside with the dog, you might find that he is very fearful and wants to go back inside.  When this happens do not force him to go in any particular direction but don’t go back inside right away.  Just sit with him for a while and relax.  After a few minutes he’ll start to notice new sounds and smells and will probably start sniffing around and taking in his surroundings.  This provides some enrichment and helps him to get familiar with the area outside.  Keep an eye on his posture and expression and watch to see if he begins to relax.  When he begins to investigate his surroundings, look at his eyes, ears, posture and tail position to see how he enjoys it.  When he starts to relax, move a little further away from the entrance door and give him the option of joining you.  In my experience, he will eventually want to relieve himself and leave scent marks, which will allow you to take him further away from the building.  By degrees, you can increase his distance and time outdoors.  Again, let him get comfortable with being outdoors before moving further along.  In an earlier post, I gave a pretty good example of desensitizing a dog that was fearful of being outdoors (Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd).  In the picture to the right, you’ll see Yoda is anxious and stressed by being outdoors, but is slowly becoming engaged in his surroundings.

If he’s willing to walk with you for some distance away from the building, you might find that he suddenly stops and refuses to move in any direction except back the way you came.  If you think that you can go further without causing him serious distress, there is an easy way to get him to continue the walk.  Holding the leash In your right hand, approach his right side while taking up the slack in the leash with your left hand (just shorten the leash without pulling it tight).  When your left leg is alongside his right shoulder, make a turn to your left across the front of his body, so that you are guiding him in a tight turn.  Once he’s started turning, walk in any direction that you choose.  You may have to repeat this a few times.   Never try to force him to go in any direction, just make it easy for him to accompany you.

The point of all this is to help the dog to become habituated to new people and new surroundings without increasing his stress and anxiety.  You want to make meeting people and going on walks as routine as possible for him.   Once he’s relaxed in your company and you have established a trust relationship with him, you can introduce positive training and some playing.

 

Toby

Now that I’ve finished working with Jack Final Update on Jack | The Animal Nerd, I’ve begun handling a new dog at the shelter.  Toby is a large, handsome, one-eyed (his injured eye was recently removed) mixed breed with a number of behavioral issues that need to be addressed.

Prior to my meeting him, all I knew about him was that he had shown a distinct tendency to grab and bite his leash, and that he was inclined to treat handlers’ clothing as a tug toy.  So when I started working with him, I took him outside for quiet walks (no excitement or play) with an appropriate tug toy for him to grab and carry.  I limited the time that I held onto the tug, or that I engaged in play with it, to control his excitement level.  He began each session acting like a tornado, almost impossible to harness, pulling on the leash and grabbing at me, but the treatment worked and he calmed down after a while.

When he calmed down and we sat for a while, I noted that he was actually very insecure.   When we found a bench in a quiet area, he sat with his back to me and pressed up against my leg for security, while watching everything that went on around him.  He was showing signs of being a little apprehensive, but had it under control.

He began sitting with his back to me, pressed against my leg for security.

 

It became clear that his problem behaviors were not “learned” but was a reaction to the stressors of being in the shelter, being handled by strangers and (probably) the changes in his vision.  It also became plain that he likes people and readily affiliates with new handlers.   This made his treatment very easy.  In our next session, upon entering his run I spent ten minutes just being quiet, friendly and positive with him, kneeling down close to his eye line; when he began to ramp up, I added calm pets and body rubs, then quietly worked on straightening out his twisted Freedom Harness.  By the time I was done, he was sitting quietly, ready to go.  His walk went much more smoothly with no leash biting or grabbing, and he interacted with me in a normal way.

Volunteers and handlers have reported that he is doing much better with this approach and is becoming more relaxed in general.  I think this is a positive outcome and that he’s ready for adoption.

 

Final Update on Jack

After seven weeks of treatment, Jack ( My New Project Dog, update. | The Animal Nerd ) is continuing to do very nicely.  He is interacting very well with the kennel staff and the two volunteers who have been working with him.  His leash manners are very good, he is relaxed while being harnessed and he is continuing to relax and enjoy trips outside – responding to verbal prompts and interacting with his hander.  His reactivity to strangers is much reduced, and he has progressed to the point that he is interested in potential adopters who visit the shelter – approaching the front of his run and getting their scent.

Jack’s anxiety is greatly reduced and he is enjoying contact and petting from his human friends.

Jack is now inviting pets and scratches from the people he knows, although he is still cautious around strangers.  He is also easily startled by sudden movements and retreats when people bend over him for any reason.  However, he is gaining confidence on a daily basis.  I’ve recommended that we increase the number of volunteers that are allowed to interact with him and walk him, with the provision that all human interactions be completely positive (no verbal corrections and plenty of positive reinforcement).

He is now available for adoption and the shelter is carefully screening applicants so that he is placed in the right home.   I don’t expect that I will be making any more posts about him, although I’ll be spending time with him until he’s adopted.

My New Project Dog, update.

In as recent post, I described my initial contact with a new shelter dog that had been displaying significant anxiety with people. My New Project Dog | The Animal Nerd After a few days, I’ve made some progress with Jack and, as he began reacting more “normally”, I’ve noted some behavioral characteristics that had not been apparent before:

First, he is very reactive to other dogs.  Our runs are glass-fronted, and whenever another dog is walked past his “space”, he charges up to the glass and barks very excitedly.  (He has a wide range of vocalizations, but his rapid “Stay Away” barks are particularly shrill.  Mariah Carey wishes that she could his high notes like this little guy can.)  However, he does not completely lose control when reacting to dogs and does not redirect his excitement to people or objects.  I suspect that a good part of his reactivity may be due to barrier frustration and that we may be able to socialize him with at least some other dogs.

Second, he is definitely more comfortable with women than with men.  He readily approaches women and invites contact with them.  However, once contact is made, he exhibits appeasing signals, such as rolling over, having a low posture, and submissive grinning.  He is making headway with meeting new humans but has a long way to go before he feels confident with us.

I’ve noticed that he tends to urinate in the center of his fabric bed, which leads me to think that he had previously been housetrained using pee pads.  This is just something to note for his eventual owners, as they may need to restart housetraining from scratch, depending on their desires.

He has accepted additional handling and is visibly more relaxed.

As I mentioned, I have made progress with the little guy.  In a recent session, I was able to increase the level of physical contact that he’d allow.  This included increasing the area that he’d permit scratching and petting, as well as calming rubs and massages.  He became more inclined to lean into pets and ear-scratches and allow me to touch him with two hands.  He still maintained a “personal space” with me, however it became much smaller than previously.

Most recently, I was able to put an Easy-walk harness on him and take him outside for a walk.  He accepted the harness and leash easily and, once he got past his initial excitement, walked well.  This was an important development, as he began to “check in” with me while walking – looking at me for social referencing and direction.  He was also visibly relaxed and became more responsive to verbal cues from me.  I had to be careful with my posture and actions – for example, he became apprehensive when I bent over him to untangle the leash from his front legs – but he was overall much more confident.   I think this is something of a breakthrough that needs to be repeated and reinforced.

My treatment plan is developing to increase the level of contact with him and to have more men involved with his daily activities, to include feeding and handling, and gradually increasing their contact with him.  He has become available for adoption, and I will recommend in-home support post-adoption.

My New Project Dog

My latest “project” dog is a small mixed, breed named Jack – I’m guessing that he’s a chihuahua/border collie cross.  I’ve had one session with him so far, consisting of two thirty-minute visits with a one-hour break in between.  Jack is neutered and it about 18 months old.  He came to us from another shelter with very little information.

After a little while, he was able to lie down in the furthest corner, but was tense and ready to bolt if I approached any nearer.

When I entered his run, Jack fled to the back corner and gave me a warning growl along with some other distancing signals[i].  He was extremely stressed and alternated between pacing and being frozen in place.  I responded by turning 90 degrees to him and sitting down, making myself as small as possible.  I didn’t initially engage with him or speak to him, but simply relaxed and gave a few calming signals (yawns, deep sighs)[ii].  After about five minutes, he relaxed enough to lie down in the far corner.

He eventually accepted light petting on his chin, neck and chest, and began giving small consent signs for further contact.

At this point, I tossed some high value treats in his direction.  He sniffed, sampled and left them on the floor.  I got a little closer, within arm’s reach, while staying in a seated posture facing away from him.  He allowed me to touch his chin, throat and chest, and accepted petting.  After a few times, he gave small consent signs when I paused, eliciting more contact.  However, he still startled and retreated every time I moved.  At that point I considered that I had made enough contact and ended the session.

When I returned an hour later, I found that he had eaten the high value treats that I had left scattered in the run.  I entered and sat down as I had before, whereupon he approached and started sniffing my clothes and shoes.  He began taking treats from my hand and ate them immediately.  He was less inclined to accept petting and would retreat when touched, but immediately returned for more treats.  At this point, I began interacting with him by speaking in a light, positive fashion and looking directly at him.  I showed him a leash and Easy-walk harness, which I placed over his head without attempting to fasten it.  He responded by freezing in place, at which time I removed the harness and put it out of sight.  By the time I ended the session, he was approaching within a few inches of me and accepting treats from my open hand but would still startle and retreat when I moved.

At this point, Jack is less afraid of me but is not comfortable with my presence.  He’s begun to associate me with high-value treats but hasn’t progressed much further in socializing with me or with men in general.  I can touch him, but I am nowhere near being able to put a harness on him without overstressing him.

My treatment plan is to continue to treat-bomb him and gradually increase my interaction with him to the point that I can touch him with two hands at the same time (a necessary step to harnessing).  Then I’ll reintroduce the harness while giving him treats.  At that point, I’ll introduce more postures, such as standing, before taking him for walks and seeing how he interacts with outside stimuli.

[i] pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

[ii] Rugaas, T. (2006).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise

Trigger Stacking – How to keep your dog from getting overwhelmed and overloaded.

You probably already know what trigger stacking is.  If you’ve ever seen a small child have a melt-down at an event or a party, or seen a co-worker go ballistic over a seemingly small incident, you’ve already seen and understood what it is.  Trigger stacking is the cumulative stress and excitement that results from a consecutive series of events[i].  It becomes a problem when that person’s accumulated stress reaches a level at which he is overloaded and goes ballistic.

The same thing happens with dogs.  Like us, they encounter a certain amount of stress in the course of their day and probably get excited about a few things, and their level of general arousal builds. Then, probably at the most inconvenient time, they encounter that “one last straw”, their excitement level exceeds their behavioral threshold, and they lose all self-control.  This doesn’t have to be the result of adverse or negative experiences; their overall arousal level can just as likely result from a series of very positive experiences. This has been touched on in previous posts on problem behaviors (Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd  ), and their causes.

For example, I worked with a shelter dog recently who had a very difficult time with triggers getting stacked. “Cal” is a people-friendly pit mix who had a tendency to become over-excited when being handled by volunteers or staff.  When he became so aroused that he went over his behavioral threshold he would start frantically trying to grab and tug anything that the volunteer was wearing, including shoelaces, pants cuffs, gloves, sleeves, hoodie drawstrings, etc.   Simply standing up and not responding didn’t work, as he would keep grabbing anything on the handler was wearing.  Walking him was not possible, as he would continually grab for the leash or his handler.  I should note that there was nothing aggressive or fearful in his behavior, he was just excited past his ability to interact with this handler and listen to commands.  However, there was legitimate concern that this tendency to go over the top would result in him losing his bite inhibition.  And, even if it didn’t escalate further, this over-excited behavior was a potential hindrance to getting him adopted.

So, why was this happening to a friendly and playful dog?  Consider his environment:  He was in a shelter – an environment filled with unfamilia

r and stressed-out dogs, unfamiliar smells and sounds, strange people, etc.  Strange humans would approach him and stare at him from outside the door and windows of his run.  Often, when the shelter staff entered his run, it was to give him food.  And handlers would often give him treats to occupy him while he was being harnessed and leashed up.  So, he was constantly in a stressed and excited state; when a handler entered his run to take him for a walk or play session, that would be the final trigger that sent him over his behavioral threshold.  So, what to do?

Cal and his therapy tug toy.  By giving him an approved outlet, he could control his mouthy impulses.

First, I recognized that I couldn’t do much about his baseline stress level from simply being in a shelter environment.  So, I concentrated on reducing the stimuli that accompanied being taken out of his run.  I began by making sure that I had his harness ready to go before I even started, so that I wouldn’t be fiddling with it while in the run with him.  Upon entering the run, I didn’t face him directly or remain standing – I turned sideways and knelt down.  I gave him a durable tug toy to mouth and shake – satisfying his grabbing impulse and giving him an appropriate alternative to a handler’s clothing.  Lastly, throughout this interaction I moved slowly and I did not use any treats or use excited “baby talk”.  I petted him on his sides, chest and under his chin, and spoke to him in a calm and friendly tone.  By doing all this, I was able to help him manage his excitement level:  He accepted the tug toy and acted in a friendly and excited manner – accepting pets and signaling that he wanted more contact.  He was still excited, and was practically vibrating like a guitar string, but he never went over his behavioral threshold.  Harnessing him and leashing him up was much easier and, by allowing him to carry the toy during a walk provided an outlet for his impulse to grab and tug.  After a while he began dropping the toy in order to investigate smells and relieve himself, then coming back and reclaiming it with decreasing excitement during the course of the walk.  When the shelter volunteers adopted this treatment, he was able to control himself while being handled.

 

Cal was just one example that illustrates how we can reduce the triggers that can accumulate and lead an already-excited dog to lose control of himself.

First:  Be mindful of the dog’s stress and excitement level.  Before any interaction with him, watch his body language for signs that he is stressed[ii].  Get an idea as to how much more excitement he can handle.

Second:  Check your own emotional state.  Are you calm, relaxed and operating in the moment, or are you focused on aggravations and frustrations that you’ve encountered during the day?  If so, you are contributing to his stress level.  Dogs use us for social referencing and will read your expressions and body language to determine your mood and respond to it[iii].  If you’re acting angry or stressed, he will be on edge as well.

Third:  There’s no hurry.  Take your time when you’re interacting with an excited dog.

Fourth:  Be mindful of your own body language.  Don’t engage in a staring contest, approach him directly or bend over him.  Stand, sit or kneel sideways to him at first without looking in his eyes.  Don’t reach over him when leashing or harnessing him.

Fourth:  Be mindful of his body language.  He will give you signals as to how you are making him feel.  If he starts giving calming signals such as yawning, lip-licking, etc., then stop what you’re doing.  You’re freaking him out.  Let him decide when to approach you[iv]

Fifth:  Don’t add any stimuli that aren’t necessary.  Don’t act excitedly, give treats or give commands that aren’t needed.   Don’t prompt him for behaviors that he has been given rewards for performing.  Just let him calm himself down.

Lastly:  Monitor his behavior the whole time that you’re working with him.  If you are walking him and he stops, freezes and focuses on a person or another dog, then calmly walk in front of him, block that distraction with your body and take him in another direction.  Make his time with your interesting and provide enrichment that let him bring down his excitement level.

Once he’s calm and relaxed, you can start adding toys and playtime, or engage in some training.  But sometimes, the best thing you can for a dog is to just relax with him and help him to bring down his stress level[v].

 

[i] McMullen, D. (nd). “He Never Does That.  Positively.  Retrieved from “He Never Does That!” | Victoria Stilwell Positively

[ii] Center for Shelter Dogs.  (nd). Dog Communication and Body Language.  Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.  Retrieved from centerforshelterdogs.tufts.edu/dog-behavior/dog-communication-and-body-language/

[iii] Merola, I. et al, (2012).  Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers.  PLoS One 7 (10). doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0047653

[iv] Rugaas.T.  (2006).  On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals, 2nd Ed.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

[v] McGowan, R.T.S. et al (2018). Can You Spare 15 Minutes?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-Minute Petting Session on Shelter Dog Well-Being.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (2018).  42-54

Tribute to a Dog.

In 1855, Attorney George Vest represented a man who was suing a neighbor over the death of his dog.  His trial summation has been preserved in part, and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest representations of our relationship with “man’s best friend”.

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.  

Vest went on to serve as a US Senator from the state of Missouri for 24 years until just before his death in 1904.

www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/olddrum/StoryofBurdenvHornsby

 

 

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