Its The Dog

Learning through dogs

Archive for the category “Behavior”

The importance of body language

I’ve posted about body language before. It’s something I believe everyone should have some understanding of, especially those who share their lives with dogs. Understanding body language can prevent bites and maulings, it would seem like common sense to have at least a basic grasp of calming signals.

Unfortunately most people aren’t even aware that dogs communicate with us so much. I recently viewed a youtube video depicting a great dane with a small child climbing on his back. The dog was clearly not enjoying the experience, but the parents recording the event were encouraging the child. There were two instances within the 2 minute video where the dog froze. These people were oblivious to the danger they were putting their child and the dog in.

The video can be seen here; Danger dane

Just because a dog is tolerant or below threshold doesn’t mean you should continue to push the dog, doing so is asking for trouble.


More than just friends

As I think we all know, dogs and humans have been together for some 15,000 years. Dogs are the first known domesticated species and no doubt the closest to us. This relationship has been studied, and it’s still not fully understood.

Have you ever laid in bed with your faithful furry companion and noticed your breathing is synchronized? Or perhaps you sigh at the same moment your dog just happens too. It’s relatively common for dogs to yawn when their people yawn, the cause isn’t known as yawns don’t appear to be contagious in canines like they are in humans.

One college has even stepped up to study these behaviours and others. At Duke University in their Biological Studies building they conduct experiments on dogs. No, not caged beagles that never get to see or smell the earth. The dogs they use are volunteers from the community. These dogs are tested on their interaction and interpretation of human expressions and gestures. One incredible fact they’ve discovered is that dogs will recognize human facial expressions much the same way people do; by focusing on the right side of the face. When compared to our closest living relatives; chimps and bonobos, dogs come out above.

Another fascinating discovery made by the University of Padua in Italy shows that dogs use facial recognition to identify their people in crowds. Until recently it’s been believed that dogs use scent to identify people. However their studies show that dogs may use facial recognition and possibly mannerisms to identify people. By setting dogs up to watch two people, one person they know and one they don’t. They walk back and forth several times, crossing paths, then exit out two separate doors. The dog is then released, the majority of the dogs would walk to the door the familiar person exited and would wait for them to return. When the test was repeated but bags were placed over the heads of the humans the dogs were more variable.

What sets these responses to human behavior apart is that dogs don’t use them when interacting with other dogs. These are innate skills dogs have developed to communicate with people. If only we were so devoted to dogs as they are to us.

If you’d like to participate in the Duke Canine Cognition Center you can sign up here

It’s a flood

Flooding as defined by the Webster’s dictionary is; to  fill quickly beyond capacity. As you can assume from that, flooding in behavior is the act of overwhelming the organism with until the anxiety/fear/etc subsides. The problem with flooding is it often leads to learned helplessness toward the stimuli. In other words, they just give up, totally.This has been done in labs numerous times, one instance C.P. Richter’s study during which would squeeze rats in his hands until they stopped struggling, he then placed them in water. Rats that had been squeezed would drown within 30 minutes, compared to rats that hadn’t been squeezed which swam for 60 hours. That’s a big difference.

Flooding is often used in traditional methods, people assume because the dog is moving that it’s accepting that it is okay. Dogs that are shocked repeatedly and give up will move around the cage, they know they cannot escape the shock and they give up on trying, they do not necessarily accept the shock as okay however. Dogs who are flooded will often exhibit stress-induced displacement behaviors when confronted by the stimuli that triggered the anxiety/fear/etc. previously. This would lead me (at least) to believe that flooding does not work to do anything other than create a helpless state.

Most dogs that are abused are flooded, the end result is learned helplessness. This is why dogs who’ve been beaten do not react with a bite; the bite has been beaten out.

Displacement behaviors are behaviors that are normal by nature but out of context. For example a dog walking on leash wanting to greet someone would not be expected to yawn, or some other behavior, but many puppies will do this when their handler ushers them away from the person they want to greet. Dogs exhibit displacement behaviors when two or more behaviors are at conflict with each other. The puppy wants to be with his handler, but also wants to greet this new person. It’s fairly common to see puppies plant their rear ends to the earth and scratch their necks or ears or some other self grooming behavior.

Stress-induced displacement behaviors often turn into an obsession. Paw licking to the point of self-mutilation could be a stress-induced displacement behavior gone obsession. There are other reasons for excessive paw licking, such as allergies, boredom and many others. Stress-induced displacement behaviors are not limited to paw licking, some dogs may become destructive in the home or to other parts of their bodies as well. These behaviors are often called stereotypic as they become repetitive.

Counter conditioning and desensitization

So what other methods are there to work with biting dogs? A little thing called counter conditioning and desensitization of course. But what are they?

Counter conditioning

CC as it’s often called is a tweaked version of Pavlov’s classical conditioning. Pavlov used a neutral stimuli to trigger a response. In the case of counter conditioning you’re taking a negative stimuli and giving it a positive meaning. remember last week when I mentioned habituated responses? this is what I was talking about.
The point of this method is not to go over threshold so you never put the dog in a position where it feels the need to defend itself. This is why it takes so long. 


Desensitization is not the same thing as socializing. It’s the process of getting the dog comfortable in the presence of a trigger without going over threshold.

What do these two methods used together look like? well like this.

Notice the dog is fairly comfortable throughout the session, her head and tail are high, she’s focused on her handler and the leash is loose. There’s no physical contact with the dog other than during the transfer of treats.
Heres a dog who’s afraid of the world beyond the comfort of the house.

This video touches on what I will talk about tomorrow, flooding and displacement behaviors. displacement behaviors are similar to calming signals, however they mean something different. Calming signals are used to diffuse stressful interactions, displacement behaviors are used when the dog is experiencing two conflicting drives. An example would be a dog is afraid to move forward but want to stay with his person. More to come tomorrow.

The truth about dominance

As I mentioned last week, many popular and famous trainers boast about dominance. Helix Fairweather made a list of the behaviors often refered to as dominance behaviors, the list follows; 

1. paw whacks
2. going through the doorway first
3. jumping up
4. not instantly performing whatever behavior was just cued
5. sitting/lying on the furniture
6. being destructive in the house
7. barking at strangers on the street
8. peeing in the house
9. pulling on the leash
10. leaning on people for petting
11. barking while family is eating
12. struggling with/trying to paw at head halter
13. chewing through leash
14. scraping feet after peeing or pooping
15. putting a foot on top of owner’s foot
16. rushing out the door
17. walking in front of you
18. not getting out of the way
19. stealing a Kleenex
20. non-compliant dog, refusing to do as you ask
21. nudging, pawing, begging for attention
22. bumping into you
23. standing over you
24. putting dog paws on your shoulders
25. barking at you in response to a cue
26. stealing your items
27. house soiling past the usual expected time a dog should be trained
28. body slamming you with their rear end
29. having his “lipstick” out (HF: male dog, think about it, it took me a minute)
30. won’t sit, down, or anything else unless he feels like it
31. barks at me when I yell at her
32. bites me (my favorite was the recommendation from a vet regarding a 5 -week- old rescue pup whose mother died, he instructed the foster mom to alpha roll the pup 3 times a day)
33. eats too fast (i’m not kidding)
34. won’t come in the house
35. won’t get off the bed/sofa
36. barks at strangers
37. barks at the cat
38. barks at cars
39. when in the car, barks at people who walk by the car
40. growls when i try to take his bone
41. growls when i try to take his toy
42. lays down when i’m walking him (young giant breed puppy, being walked 2 miles in the heat, idiot is lucky the pup is still alive!)
43. barks while i’m getting her meal
44. throws his food bowl around
45. mounts my 3 yr old 46. stood on my bed, looked me right in the eye and peed on my pillow
47. growled at other dog when they were introduced (after questioning the poster about the situation, they were introduced in a 6′ x 6′ hall where there were 4 adults and 3 children)
48. my puppy puts everything in her mouth
49. obeys my husband, doesn’t listen to me
50. mounts me
51. mounts my brother in law
52. barks when left alone
53. pees in crate
54. isn’t neutered
55. 8 week old puppy dives on golden, bites him
56. licks the bottom of my shoes (huh?)
57. is dominant over my other dog and my other dog gets hot spots
58. growls at me when i put her citronella collar on her
59. snores (another real eye opener for me!)
60. eats rocks
61. eats off of kids’ plates
62. lunges at people
63. steals my shoes
64. poops on husband’s clothes (in my never humble opinion, serves him right for leaving his clothes on the floor…tee hee)
65. stares at me
66. puts her paw on me when i pet her
67. when he’s bad and i shake his scruff, he’s started to growl at me (wow! what a good start at owner induced aggression!)
68. tried to bite my son when my son tried to drag him out from under the bed 69. when trying to grab his collar to take him inside or finish playing he starts running crazy away from you
70. always wants more food
71. peeing on your leg
72. not giving up items on request
73. being stubborn
74. growling, snarling, snapping, biting
75. sitting on owner’s foot

What this basically means is dogs should be robotic, they should lack the free will.

Lets see what dominance looks like. Here a man is making a dog “submit” to him by alpha rolling him, pay attention to the dogs body language, what is the dog telling the guy.

So did you watch the dog? Did you notice the dogs reaction when the man approached? Did you see the calming signals throughout the video? That was a fairly mild video, lets look at more.

Here a man is working with a “dominant aggressive” cane corso.

Whats going on? I’d be willing to bet the dog has an underlying health condition going by the thick vaginal discharge. The dog throughout the video is giving calming signals, and some threats. After he “alpha rolled” her you notice she stayed down, blinking, squinting and averting her gaze, she’s on her way to learned helplessness. The averting gaze continued til the end of the video, the only time she looked at him was to make sure he wasn’t going to attack her again.

I am not saying that a biting dog is okay, however there are better ways to approach their training, and I will touch on those tomorrow. For now lets continue.

Can you see what happened here?

You can break it down. Dog 1 starts a low rapid tail wag(calming signal/excitement) Dog 2 gives a side ways glance(whale eye threat). Dog 1 continues low rapid tail wag and possibly attempts to mount dog 2(excitement and stress relief), Dog 2 becomes tense(anti social) and lunges(anti social). Dog 1 appeases(a calming signal) and stops the attack. Dog 2 backs off and Dog 1 continues with the calming signals.

Calming signals

Lets look at some behavior.  Starting with calming signals.

What are calming signals?

Calming signals are behaviors and postures that dogs exhibit to diffuse tense situations. They’re a dogs way of saying “I mean no harm.” There are times when these behaviors are not calming signals. If Fido is outside in the sun and lays down, that doesn’t mean he’s stressed.

Sniffing the ground

Sitting, laying down

These dogs are exhibiting very nicely sitting, laying down, and averting gaze, they are not comfortable

Lip licking, tongue flicking

he doesn't appreciate this embrace

lip licking and whale eye, he doesnt appreciate this embrace

The human in the photo appears happy, but the dog, not quite.

Blinking, averting gaze, turning away, whale eye

Many hound breeds will give what is affectionately called hound dog eyes. These gazes aren’t always calming signals. Looking at the whole dog will usually tell you the dogs intent. Whale eye is usually accompanied by stiffness or other calming signals. If the dog is laying there looking at you showing the whites of his eyes, he’s more than likely just looking at you.

Notice in this photo there are many calming signals.

The dog he’s holding his tense and tongue flicking, ears pinned and whale eye.

The tri color terrier is whale eyed and pinned ears, he’s also raising a paw.

the bi color terrier is sitting and squinting

the grey terrier is completely turned away.

the yellow terrier in the foreground is showing pinned ears

None of these dogs is comfortable with this situation, I dont blame them.

exhibiting obvious

calming signals.




Notice in tis photo that the 3 GWPs are exhibiting obvious calming signals.

There are many other calming signals and I will touch on those tomorrow.

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