Monday, March 16, 2009

Puppy Myth-Busters!

Canine Communication can be confusing! In fact, the biggest part of my job as a trainer is mostly translation between the species. See if you've ever muttered one of these common misguided beliefs:

1. "A dog with a wagging tail is friendly." Not always. So please don't rely on this as an indication that a dog will be happy to meet you. Tail movements are one of the important ways dogs communicate with each other (which is a great reason not to dock tails... pups without tails are more likely to get into dog fights due to miscommunication.) Tail movement nuances can be difficult for us humans to pick up on: Is the tail wagging vigorously? Wagging slowly? Wagging high or low? Wagging to the left or right? Wagging towards you or leaning away? Slight variations of the wag can mean different things.

2. "My dog loves it when I hug him!" Primates (like humans, chimps, and gorillas) are very pro-hug, but hugging does not naturally occur between canines as an expression of affection. Over time, our own dogs come to realize that when we hug them, it is our way of being affectionate... so they usually adjust to our "strange human behavior," knowing it's well-intentioned. Dogs may tolerate our hugs, but when someone they don't know well tries it (like, say, a visiting grandchild)... or when a human sibling transforms into a superenthusiastic octopus... it can become overwhelmingly uncomfortable and irritating. If you see your dog squirming to escape, step up and help her out (before she feels an urge to protect herself another way.) Take a look at the body language of these puppy/parent duos in the photos below (taken from The Other End Of The Leash.) Can you read the obvious joy in the humans, and the subtle annoyance in the canines?

3. "Pat the dog on top of the head, Honey..." Most humans think this is a friendly way to greet a dog, but in the canine world, it can mean something very different. When a dog wants to take a rambunctious, unruly pup down a few notches, she'll often... pat him on top of the head. It's a gentle warning, a way of saying "Now, that's quite enough, you little wippersnapper..." As you might imagine, that's probably not the friendliest or most respectful message to send to a well-mannered dog (and especially to a dog you've never met before.) It can send a confusing message, and come across as rude or challenging. An insecure dog might even react aggressively. The top of the head is also one of a dog's sensitive areas (so what feels like affection to you might actually feel uncomfortable to a young puppy or senior dog.) I've found it's usually a better idea to gently pet a dog on the chest, back, or under the chin, instead.

4. "It's sweet how protective my dog is of the kids!" Aggressive behavior really isn't cute. And child-guarding can sometimes be a sign that your dog believes you are incapable of protecting the children yourself...eek!

5. "Alpha Rolls will help a dog learn to be submissive." An Alpha Roll is when a human forces a dog on it's back, tummy and feet exposed, and holds the dog down. As you might expect, this can make a dog feel very vulnerable. In the past, some trainers, including the famous Monks of New Skete (who popularized this technique) would use this in an attempt to correct dogs who were exhibiting dominant behaviors.

The monks had correctly observed that submissive dogs would take this rolled-over position to demonstrate their submissiveness to other dogs. It's a way of saying "I'm obviously no are the boss..." The monks believed that forcing a dog into this submissive posture would be an effective way to communicate the monk's authority. What the monks failed to realize at the time (and admitted to later on in newer editions of their book) is that submissive dogs offer up this posture willingly. They are not forced into this posture by other dogs. In fact, if a dog pinned another pack member down like that, the dog doing the pinning would generally be regarded by others as abnormal (the human equivalent of being a bully, or being...mentally ill.)

When a human uses the Alpha Roll technique on a dog, the dog does not see that person as a stable leader... she sees that person as someone to fear... someone who's behavior is confusing, probably crazy, and quite possibly dangerous... (and that's probably not how you'd prefer to be thought of.)

6. "Choke/prong/shock collars are harmless." In the past, it was very common for trainers to use these collars, but today their use is considered controversial. It's really not just an ethical issue. The fact is that there are very valid medical reasons why most modern trainers prefer to avoid using these tools. Even when "used correctly" these collars can cause damage to some dogs:

The neck is a highly sensitive area of the body. Certain breeds in particular have especially fragile necks, so much so that what would be considered an average-strength "correction" to other dogs can cause permanent damage to these more delicate breeds.

Puppies are very susceptible to serious collar-induced neck injuries, as well. During the first year, puppies are still growing, and they're still fully developing and strengthening certain areas of the body. Think of how we humans take special care when holding an infant child's head... Although dogs are a different (typically more rugged species), it is wise to show kindness and respect when handling puppies, too. If the neck of a dog is injured before reaching adulthood, puppies can sustain painful, irreversible tracheal, esophageal, and laryngeal damage.

Happily, modern positive-reinforcement techniques do not require the use of these potentially dangerous tools. If you do decide you'd like to use these collars in your training, or encounter a trainer who insists upon their use, please take the time to consult with your vet before going forward. Remember that all dogs are individuals, and (depending on your dog's age, breed, temperament, and history) what works for one dog might not always be the best for yours.

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