Kind of an odd question I know, but I bet you haven’t really given it much thought, have you? I’ve noticed a growing trend in many canine circles that dictate if your pup is afraid to go on walks, only has a few people they like, does not like other dogs, negatively reacts to (fill in the blank), or heaven forbid you have a dog that does not like the off-leash park then you as their owner have failed them and should feel ashamed for raising such a poorly socialized dog!
Often inexperienced dog owners are quick to share their views that are often flawed – each and every dog is different and should be handled differently according to their unique personality. After all, you wouldn’t apply the same parenting technique to every single child, you would adapt your approach to suit their needs, and the same can be said for your furry children. Using the wrong approach to handle a fearful dog can result in worsening behaviour, even leading to the risk of harmful behaviours, such as biting.
There is a very good chance that you have or know someone who has a fearful dog. Now let me just set the record straight, if anyone tells you are a bad owner simply because your dog does not conform to a “normal standard” of canine behaviour (whatever that means!), they are wrong! Just because a dog doesn’t conform to “typical” social norms does not mean you are not a bad owner! That kind of advice is counterproductive and harmful to the relationship between you and your pup. I want to share with you an analogy that has really helped me to better understand the way I interact with dogs, and is often the first thing I explain to clients while working with fearful pups:
Imagine that I am your therapist and you have come to me because you have a fear of spiders and you’d like to not have a fear of spiders. So in plain English you say to me,
“Cody, I’m deathly afraid of spiders, just the thought of them makes me anxious and afraid, to the point I cannot think straight!”
Alright, that’s fantastic, you have clearly communicated to me what you are afraid of and how it makes you feel, spiders = fear and anxiety!
Now imagine if after you telling me this I firmly tied you to a chair in a small room in which there was absolutely no way for to you escape and proceeded to throw spiders at you! Oh, and each time you flinched or squirmed I gave you a little electric shock, but in my most soothing therapist voice I kept reassuring you that everything is okay and there is actually nothing to be afraid of.
How would you feel about me and our relationship?
Would you trust me more or less?
Be more or less likely to look to me for guidance?
Would you feel betrayed?
In the future, would you be more or less likely to seek my help?
Believe it or not, this is a pretty common strategy for “helping” dogs overcome their fears.
Is your dog afraid of other dogs? Well, you better desensitize them by forcing them to interact with hundreds of other dogs… why not drop them off at doggie daycare?
Does your dog dislike kids? Well, why not force them to be groped by a bunch of children until they relax and start to enjoy it?
The technical term for this approach is referred to as flooding and while flooding can be useful in some situations, it’s better to avoid it with our dogs as we lack the verbal tools necessary to gain their compliance and understanding. Flooding is likely to weaken the relationship with our pups, because they do not understand what our goals are for them.
So, despite my best efforts and intentions, your fear of spiders will have remained and you will most likely now have negative feelings towards me. If this is the case, why then are we so keen on taking this approach with how we help our dogs work through their fears? If flooding is not helpful for your dog, why is it often the first thing that you encounter when talking with people about canine fear?
The simple answer is, because it’s an easy, cheap copout of a technique and it fits well with some outdated paradigms that despite our best effort are slow to fade into obscurity. Not only that, but it fails to appreciate the true complexity of your dog’s mental and emotional capacity. Proper behaviour modification is a labour of love which takes time, expert knowledge and years of education to understand the theory behind the intricate parts at play in your dog’s mind. Flooding is something that anyone can do; it appears to work early in behaviour modification programs, but fails to address the underlying factors, which unfortunately often arise later in life with negative consequences.
The size of your dogs’ world, the one where they are most comfortable is in no way a reflection of your handling skills, how much you love them or your canine competency. It’s ok if you have a shy dog, it does not mean you are a bad person!
The next time you feel pressured into bringing your shy dog to the off leash park with your friends, or you’re told you need to socialize your fearful dog more to help them get over their fear of other dogs, stop and ask yourself,
How big is my dog’s world?
Your answer to this question may not be considered “normal” canine behaviour… and that’s okay! It’s okay if their world is small – you are the only one who can properly advocate for your dog and be their voice. For the love of all things, if they tell you they are afraid of something, stop throwing spiders at them!
It can be nearly impossible to relax when you are on vacation and thoughts of your beloved pet keep flashing across your mind. Constantly worrying about your pups back home is no way to spend your precious vacation time, so we have created a quick reference guide that will help provide you the peace of mind necessary to enjoy a stress and guilt free vacation!
Referrals! The best boarding kennels are tried, tested and true! Ask your friends for a referral – a positive review from a client is the biggest endorsement a business can receive!
Practice makes perfect! Schedule a trial overnight stay to make sure the kennel you’ve chosen is a good fit for you and your pet. Pay close attention to your pet’s body language when you pick them up; they should be happy, relaxed and clean.
It all comes down to putting in some good old fashioned leg work which I know can be difficult as we all lead busy lives, but if you follow these steps and put in the time chances are good that you will only have to do this once!
Your pup deserves a vacation as well and I know they will appreciate the effort you put into finding them their home away from home!
Thanks for reading! Feel free to check out our other great resources created to help you and your pup live a wonderful life!
Have a lovely day!
Impulse control; what gets rewarded gets repeated.
Impulse control is the act of restraint in a situation that would otherwise result in getting what you want right away. It’s a cognitive decision to delay or deny immediate gratification.
Have you ever seen a dog pull its owner to the ground while out for a walk? Or how about nearly losing your hand when giving a treat to your pup? some pups love to gather by the back door, jostling for position and nearly running their owners over as they are let out into the back yard for a run. We all have been in situations where our dogs have acted on impulse rather than acting calmly and while most of the time we don’t give it much thought; there are real problems when our dogs act purely on emotion and it is our duty to help our pups gain better control over their emotions and help them make the best possible choice in any given situation. In some cases their lives depend on making the right choices.
When you ask your dog to sit, prior to your nightly walk, you are tapping into a profound idea and way of training your dog. You are teaching them that in order to get what they want, a walk; they must first produce the behavior that will untimely bring forth said walk, a sit! What gets rewarded gets repeated, it’s a powerful statement and the amazing thing is that it applies to almost every action, activity and behavior your pup does!
Every negative behavior from jumping up, to barking at cars to pulling on the leash is in some way being rewarded. The good news is this means that we can change any behavior by rewarding only the ones we want and over time will replace the ones we don’t!
How powerful is this!
How can we use this in our training sessions and daily life to help our pups make better choices?
There are 5 simple steps, that when implemented correctly will immediately start to reshape your pups’ current behavior to behaviors that are typically safer for you pup, but also less stressful and embarrassing for you! The great thing is that you can use this process for almost any problem behavior you pup has!
Below are the 5 steps you can take that will help your pup control their emotions by providing them with the proper behaviors in every situation!
Step one: Find out what rewards your dog wants. What makes your pup tick? What would they do back flips for? For many pups some freeze dried liver or some other smelly meat is the ticket. Other still might go crazy for the ball, or a tug toy and some others for a walk. The important thing to keep in mind when choosing the reward for you dog is that it’s special and your pup perceives it as a high value resource.
Step two: Understand that what gets rewarded, gets repeated. If every time someone comes into your house and your pup jumps up to great them, they are being rewarded for jumping up. Whether it’s attention from your guests or some other factor, the fact that they continue to jump is a sign that it’s rewarding for them to do! The good news is that if we change the behavior that is rewarded, your dog will start to offer the behavior more often!
Step three: Be patient and stay calm. When working with a problem behavior it can be very frustrating, progress is slow and your moral is in the gutter! It’s our job to remain calm, keep a positive attitude and be willing to work at out pups pace as they try their best to learn a totally new idea and pattern of behavior.
Step four: Define what behavior you would rather your pup be doing. Knowing what we don’t want our pups to do is pretty easy, not having your 75 lbs. malamute accost company when they try to take of their coats is a no brainer! Knowing what we want our pups to do in these situations then becomes our objective! Having “four on the floor” is a common alterative in your face greetings!
Step five: Be Consistent. The most important thing that we can do is to be as consistent in our training as we can when working with our pups. If one day we reward four on the floor, but the next day we don’t we are sending mixed singles to our pups and it becomes harder for them to learn what it is that we actually want from them. What gets rewarded, gets repeated, we must be consist with our rewarding the new behavior if we want it to develop into a habit!
I know how frustrating working with a problem behavior can be; you are not alone in this battle! Having the courage to admit that a behavior your pup has is causing stress in your life is a huge step in the right direction and I am confident that if you work hard on implementing the above steps, stay positive and keep at it consistently you will come to a happy place! I’ve been there many times before and can tell you it is possible!
At the end of the day your dog loves you and wants to please you, it is your job to teach them the behaviors that will keep them safe and your relationship strong and healthy!
I hope you enjoyed this and are able to take something away from it! If you have any questions or need some help please feel free to let me know and I would be more than happy to see what I can do!
All the best and have a lovely day!
Cody Shepherd, CBCC-KA
Owner / Opperator: The Place 4 Paws, Play Unleashed
Gold Zone Training or Gozo, as I like to call it is the manifestation of countless hours observing and working with both people and their pets in the training room. In its most naked form gozo strives, not for perfection of behavior, but rather a consistent, ever improving set of general behaviors and adaptations your pup acquires though fun and education in a positive and enriching environment!
That all sounds great! But what does it mean?
Recently I have been working a great deal with puppies and I have created a puppy socialization program which has been a huge hit, but it was not always something I look forward to each week! My first class I had 5 puppies attend an hour of off leash, supervised play time, how great does that sounds? Well if I had to be completely honest, it was horrible. Puppies would interact inappropriately, owners were either absent or over bearing with their participation, it was pure chaos and I was not excited about hosting any future classes. Giving up is not something I take lightly and after all my main goal is to help make the world a better place for our furry friends, there had to be a better way!
Everything I had read, other trainers I had spoken with and similar programs I had attended told me that I had done everything right, that it was just the nature of puppy socialization class to have a bit of “controlled chaos”. So I continued, I held about 4-5 more sessions, each week was worse than the one before it and each week I become more and more frustrated with the outcome.
In that first month I noticed that there were 2 types of puppies, those who submitted in play and those who dominated in play. As the weeks progressed I kept a journal of each puppy’s behavior and began to notice that the puppies who were more likely to submit in play began to exhibit a more fearful body posture and dare I say “energy” in class; whereas the puppies who would dominate in play, over the weeks began to exude confidence and “aggressive behaviors” and body language in play time.
I think we would all agree that no one wants, or even consciously thinks to train aggression and fear into their pups, but what if that is exactly what we are doing in early socialization of our puppies?
This distinction between fearfulness and aggression I know is highly over simplified and does not take into account the myriad of experience and genetics that ultimately is our puppy’s behavior. I also think it is inappropriate to label puppies as aggressive, as true aggression is rare (the intent to do harm). So I came up with a way to classify my puppies in a way that acknowledges their behavioral tendencies without the negative baggage that comes with terms like fearful and aggressive.
The creation of Bronze, Silver and Gold behaviors!
My Bronze puppies where the ones in play who were more likely to show dominate play styles; they would be rougher, chase other puppies, had hard mouths and were generally the ones I had to keep an eye on more often than not and would likely have to separate them more than once during class. My sliver puppies then were the opposite of the bronze puppies. Silver puppies would submit in play, they would often urinate when confronted; they would display a very passive body posture and would generally hang back near their person, only rarely engaging in play.
I believe that we are doing our puppies and our dogs a major disservice by not acknowledging the fact that they all have unique personalities likes and dislikes strengths and weaknesses. So I put together a program which takes into account that very fact, Gozo training is a system of learning that encourages appropriate behaviors, by building a strong relationship between the handler and the pup. While the “gold zone” is our ultimate goal, I like to think of it as something that we can work on every day, you are never finished training your pup and while they may exhibit some gold zone behaviors, you can always strive to do better! You are your dog’s entire world; you owe it to them to put in the time to forge that relationship.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a silver pup or a bronze pup, my classifications are simply there as more of a guide, or a zone of behaviors that is constantly changing and growing, just like your pup! Our main goal is to strive to do better each day, have fun with your pup and to work towards the Gold Zone behaviors!
Ok, so you’ve read this far and are probably interested in what the gold zone is! Very simply put gold zone behaviors are neutral; the dog’s emotional state and reaction is based neither in fear nor aggression, but rather a clam indifference to external stimuli. A gold zone dog, in the presence of another dog and handler will acknowledge their presence, but their presence will not affect its reaction to the situation. Seems pretty simple right? Well next time you take your pup for a walk and pass by another dog and person, take a mental note of the reaction of your pup as well as the other pup, chances are you will see either a bronze response, forward movement, lunging, barking, ect; or a sliver response, fearful body language, hiding behind owner, trying to get away. If you really want this point hammered home, grab a coffee and hang out for a bit at your local off leash park…If dog’s could talk indeed!
We are training our puppies to have inappropriate responses when they see other dogs in the real world. When bronze puppies are allowed to engage in rough, inappropriate play, we are telling them that it’s ok to do those things whenever they see another dog. When our silver puppies are allowed to get pummeled in play time, because it will “help them socialize” all we are teaching our silver puppies to do is to be afraid of dogs. This is a major problem and one that I intended to work on as I believe that the only way can make a difference in the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves is to take an active role in trying to understand how we can help them. I’ll be sure to keep you posted how our progress!
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, I truly appreciate it!
Puppy socialization and rise of reactivity in our dog populations
I have noticed an increase in the level of reactivity issues with our canine companions; it seems almost a routine article in the paper or on the news that someone has been bitten by a dog or worse. Why are our dogs less likely to remain calm around other dogs and people?
I believe it is the way we socialize our puppies during their highly formative early months. We reward inappropriate interactions between puppies and we remove ourselves as the source of fun from their lives; making it more likely that they will be reactive around other dogs later in life.
Progress and change can be intimidating
Reading books, attended conferences and seminars and hands on experience coupled with an open mind and a strong desire to help our puppies grow up to be wonderful companions means nothing if we are not willing to apply the changes that would help us raise well adjusted dogs.
Why do I believe that current puppy socialization classes not helping our puppies be the best they can be?
In traditional puppy socialization class the basic premises is as follows. Varying sizes, temperaments, ages and play styles of puppies are all let loose to interact as they see fit under the supervision of a skilled trainer or two. 5 minutes of play is interrupted by the owners wrangling their puppy away from their new friends and back to their set for a minute or two of calming work, sits, downs ect. Then the puppies are let loose once again to play as they see fit, this process continues for about 30-45 minutes.
We are setting our puppies up to fail
Puppies are very impressionable and are likely to develop behavior patterns in their younger days that will stay with them for their entire life.
Thoughts on where we need to go with early socialization of our puppies.
Agree with me or not, you have read this far! I am now going to discuss what I think we need to do to help our puppies and their people build a lifelong relationship. The first question we need to ask ourselves is who do we want our puppies to have the strongest bond with? I bet your answer is you!
We need to be the center of all things good in our puppy’s lives! We must feed them, exercise them, play with them, interact in meaningful ways with them, engage in fun activates with them; we must be their mentors and best friends. We must become the center of their universe, less they find one for themselves.
Puppy socialization redefined
If we want an calm and respectful adult dog, who can walk past other dogs and not lose their minds, or one that is kind to all he or she meets out in the real world should we not start their education as soon as possible? We are their mentors, their guides to successful living in a human world; we have to be better mentors for our puppies. Setting them up for success at a young age is the first step in the right direction!
Have you played with your pup today?
As the mercury continues its downward spire and the ice and snow begins to build up on your preferred walking routes how are you going to manage your pup’s energy? Do you put off the daily walk for safety concerns? What effect does this have on your pup and is there anything you can do to help them use up some of their energy without having to brave the elements or risk a injury?
I get asked this questions a lot when bad weather sets in and safety concerns mount. It’s often a better choice to stay indoors; however our pups do not think this way and for them every day is a good day to go outside and do doggie things!
I have come up with a list of 5 indoor activities that you and your pup can try out in an effort to battel built up energy from the winter blues! This is by far an exhaustive list, but I hope you are able to apply something new to your situation!
Don’t be afraid to try something new with your pup, after all the only thing they want is to be with you and to play with you! Add more play into your daily routine and you might be able to skip out on that evening walk when it’s thirty below!
Each meal your pup eats out of a bowl is a squandered opportunity. Sounds a bit harsh? Well hear me out, I promise by the end of this article you’ll agree.
Our pups are natural hunters and foragers; a big part of their DNA is programed to use all of their senses in the pursuit of their next meal. Most of our pets have never had to provide for themselves in any meaningful way, we are their providers it is our goal to take care of them by provides a nurturing, safe, secure and loving environment and yet we are failing them.
Why do you choose to share your life with Canis lupus familiaris? Take a minute or two and really think about this. I choose to share my life with my pups because they fill my life with purpose, companionship and excitement. I rank my pups as better friends than most of my two legged acquaintance as I am sure you do as well! Mechanically placing a food bowl in front of your pup twice a day is a kin to absentmindedly “liking” every picture that pops up on your favorite social media feed in an attempt to exhibit closeness with someone you see less and less. Of course it takes more work to call that friend up and meet up for a coffee, but which interaction do you think is building a stronger bond?
Our pups are far smarter than society likes to give them credit for, anyone who has spent any amount of time with dogs know exactly what I mean. I watched in amazement last year at the APDT conference as I saw a video of a street dog in Asia, pick up fallen change from the street, walk over to a hotdog vender, pay for a hotdog and walk away to eat it! That dog didn’t have an owner, he was a stray no one taught him how to do this. When times get tough he got smart! This pup would continue to do this throughout the day and when he was no longer hungry, he would give hotdogs to his buddies! We are doing our pups a major disserves by not requiring them to engaging their brains during meal time!
I can remember, when I was growing up we would leave food out for our pups all day. This led to some minor obesity problems and our Vet recommended scheduled, portioned feeding. 2 cups twice a day! From a behavioral perspective this was a great move, we were engaging them each meal by asking for a proper sit or down before meals were dispensed. I have a feeling that most of us do this and that is awesome! But why not take it one step further? Ditch the bowl and single cue, make them work for it, after all satisfaction is often much higher after you have had to work hard for something and the same is true for our pups. Let’s add meaning to each meal!
I’m a true believer that no one is perfect, it is in our humility and desire to improve that keeps us motivated to do better. You might not agree with anything I’ve said, yet you are actively seeking out new ideas and ways to help improve your pup’s life and that is what is important!
Snuffle mats are huge right now, they are easy to make or buy and in my limited experience with them offer a huge benefit to our pups. A snuffle mat slows down feeding, forces them to “forage” for their food. They actively have to think and engage their brain.
Kongs Are another great tool for feeding time. There are many great ideas on line for how to best use a Kong for feeding a meal, basically you fill the Kong with their food and apply a peanut butter “plug” on the opening and you’re done!
NILF (nothing in life is free) is a concept where each meal is used as an opportunity for your pup to work for her meal. Say your pup gets one cup of kibble per meal, you would treat each meal as a quick training session. Ask for a behavior your pup knows and when they complete the task give them a small portion of their dinner. Do this until the entire meal is finished.
Wild foragers is a game I play with my girls and is easy to do and learn and is great when you are short on time! Take their meal to the back yard and in a wide sweeping motion scatter their entire meal onto a clean area of the lawn. Let them forage for their meal; this is a great way for them to engage their nose and to be a dog!
As with any new technique, always keep safety where it belongs, front and center! Supervise your pup when introducing them to a new feeding method and if you are aware of a preexisting issue with, say pica or coprophagia always ensure that the area is clean and safe for them!
I hope I have been able to plant a few thought seeds toady; it’s our small action that can add up to making a huge difference in the quality of our pets lives!
~ Cody Shepherd
One of the more common questions I get when talking with clients has to do with fear and phobias with their pups. What happens in your house when you bring out the nail clippers? Or say storm clouds start building on the horizon and it starts to thunder out; how does your pup respond? Fear, believe it or not, is actually an important part of your dog’s life, in a natural setting fear keeps them safe from dangerous situation. Fear keeps them away from swift moving rivers which could sweep them away (unless you have a lab!), fear puts the body in a heighten state of awareness and can speed up their response to dangerous situation, again something that could save their lives. In the right dose and context, fear is good.
All living organisms have a predisposition to fear behavior. Fear helps keep us alive, fear to life threatening situations makes sense; however say your pups nails were clipped to short once, albeit a very painful event, there is a good chance that a fear of nail clippers could developed.
The best solution I have come across in dealing with fear and phobias with my clients is a process call systematic desensitization, a counter conditions method in where, very simply put you slowly, over time build a positive association to the fear inducing stimuli. We create a hierarchy of fear and rank from least to most fear inducing, once we have our hierarchy set we can get to work.
I am working with a client right now who’s pup is terrified about having her nails clipped the situation was getting worse to the point where they felt a bite was inevitable if they kept trying, they were frustrated and sad for their pup, something I think we can all relate to. Together we created a hierarchy of fear for their pup and nail trimming:
|Behavior||Fear rating from 1-100|
|Having the clippers in view, but far away
Starting at 25 feet and slowly to 5 feet away
|1 at 25 feet away
20 at 5 feet away
|Having the clipper closer, but not touching||25|
|Being touched with the clipper on the back||40|
|The clippers touching the feet||75|
|The clippers touching the nails||85|
|Pressure applied to the nails but no clip||95|
|Fully clipping the nail||100|
Having a visual representation of what is causing the fear really helps in a systematic desensitization therapy program, as we can see just exactly how our pups perceive the fear inducing situation. By knowing that your pup is already 25% of the way to a negative reaction with just having the clipper near by, we can take steps to help them be successful!
Any time we are working with our pups, never forget that we are working within their time frames, they are in control of how fast or how slow we proceed, especially when dealing with fear related issues, never, and I mean never, go beyond there threshold. When an animal is pushed beyond their comfort level, you are going to get either a reaction (highly stressful and potentially dangerous) or they will shut down, no learning will take place either way.
To start this program we placed the clippers 25 feet away, but in clear view, as soon as she noticed the clippers we would start giving her the most delicious treats ever, something that she does not normally get. After about 10 treats were given the session was over, we immediately removed the clippers and the treats stopped coming. We did this 3- 5 times a day for a few days, eventually it got to the point where any time the clippers came out on the table, she would start to get excited! She started seeing the clippers as the thing that comes right before awesome treats! Next we brought the clippers closer and started over with the same process as we did before, rewarding her as soon as she saw the clippers and stopping the treat train as soon as the clipper went away.
Our goal any time we are working with a fearful pup is to change their association. By creating a positive association between what causes the fear and something they absolutely love, we are counter conditioning their behavior so that when the previously perceived negative stimuli is present, rather than acting in a fearful way, they are going to act in a positive way. We are giving them the tools to be successful.
Picture something that absolutely terrifies you. Now imagine if every time you saw your fear inducing stimuli, say spiders, someone handed you a hundred dollar bill each and every second a spider was present and would stop the pay day as soon as it was removed, how long do you think it would take for you to start enjoying the sight of spiders! This is what we are doing for our pups, creating a positive associating.
Remember, when working with fearful pups we are always working on their timeline, never push them beyond their limits. Keep increasing their exposure to their triggers while staying below threshold, keep pairing it with a positive reward and sooner or later you will have a pup who gets excited when you pull out the clippers!
My one true passion in life is helping fearful pups overcome their challenges. It’s not uncommon for me to spend hundreds of hours with some of the more fearful wolfdog fosters I’ve worked with overcoming some of their fears, sitting 50 feet away from them in a large room (not all in one stretch mind you, but many 10 minute sessions over months) before they take their first tentative step in my direction. Be patient, stay positive and be supportive of their journey. Fear is a behavior and behaviors can be changed!
Our canine companies are very well adapted to life with us humans. They seem to be able to pick up on our emotions, our thoughts and our feelings. Have you ever come home grumpy after a bad day at work? How did your pup respond when you were stressed out? Did she greet you as normal, or maybe today instead she holds her head a bit lower than normal and then slowly walks over and lies down next to you. Perhaps she rested her head on your lap, letting out a larger than normal yawn. You might notice she licks her lips more than normal and has avoided direct eye contact with you; she even seems to be blinking at an unusually high rate! What’s going on here, are these just thoughtless things that every pups does, or are these behaviors learned and if so what do they mean?
What we are seeing in the above example are behaviors known as calming signals. Calming signals can be lumped into the broader category of canine communication, but are more specifically useful when describing behaviors exhibited to help calm, themselves, other dogs, and even us down during high stress interactions.
Calming signals are to canine behavior as Expecto Patronum is to Harry Potter; not the first thing you learn and one of the harder concepts to understand and become proficient with; however once you understand and master it you’ll see the world differently! Calming signals are great because they are like neon signs saying
“what you are doing right now is stressful to me, I don’t want to hurt you and in fact I’m pretty stresses out right now, please notice that I’m uncomfortable and give me some space.”
All of the above behaviors are calming signals that your pup will use when she is stressed out. What makes understanding calming signals so difficult is that as I’m sure you have already thought by now, these are all normal everyday things that your pup does without any other meaning than, say a yawn because they are tired. So what then makes a play bow both an expression of pure joy, but also sometimes a behavior of mild terror and stress? Context!
When you arrange a play date between your pup and her best furry friend, a play bow during the initial greeting and then a few more scattered throughout the session is typical and expected, nothing to worry about there. However say you are out for a walk in the mountains and around the next bend in the trail there sits a 1000 pound grizzle, a play bow here is more likely an indication of
“Wow, aren’t you a big pupper. I’m going to exhibit a calming signal, hope you understand that I’m trying to deescalate the situation. I’m uncertain how to deal with this you so I’m going to show you I’m not a threat.”
Once you start learning more about calming signals and the context in which they are given you will be amazed at how often our pups are using them, on us, other dogs and even on themselves during times of uncertainty. Next time your pup lets out a long silly yawn ask yourself, why? She might be telling you something.
Thanks so much for read this far, I hope you have learned something useful. Have a lovely day and take care.
~ Cody Shepherd
Maximums a Pit bull cross has Sophia the lab pinned on her back, Max grabs her by the scruff of her neck, teeth take hold of her flesh as the jaws of this strange dog bite down. Your heart is pounding, your eyes dilate and your thoughts are racing “what do I do”, you’re scared. Max starts thrashing his head from side to side, A primal vocalization erupts from Max has he shakes Sophia with all his might. This is it, you think; my poor Sophia is not long for this world!
Sound familiar, sound scary? Let’s fill in a few more details to this story and we’ll take a look through a different lens.
Max, a 15 week old rescue special (pity, Shepherd cross?), exuberantly awaits his much anticipated play date. For only being 15 weeks old Max has attended a couple puppy classes and his people actively seek out play dates with appropriate puppies in an effort to help socializes Max. Sophia, a 13 week old yellow lab, is easy going and according to her people is pretty laid back (labs right!). Sophia has not attended a formal class, but her people are very diligent with Sophia’s early socialization and have arranged a pay date with their neighbor’s puppy, Max has he is an old pro at meeting new friends! Sophia’s people feel that Max will help their pup learn “puppy things”.
Already I hope you can feel the tension loosen its grip on your nerves, why is that? Well for starters, both are young puppies, over 11 weeks old which is very important; this means neither pup is currently in their first fear imprint period (8-11 weeks) so they are more likely to be able to brush off perceived traumatic events and not have a lasting negative impact into adulthood. Both Max and Sophia are in a development phase of learning to cope and compete, trying to find their place in the world so to speak. They are both actively looking to clarify questions of leadership; you may notice that your puppy at around 10 weeks through till about 16 weeks will test your very sanity! They are trying to find out where they fit in the world, they will test your boundaries, other puppies, other dogs, the cats, bees…just to see where they fit. This is a 100% normal behavior for young pups and the best way for them to learn where they fit in this big world is to go out there and test each and every boundry!
“What about the pinning and shaking behavior we saw earlier? Surly, that can’t be safe?”
Well, is kind of is, and don’t call me Shirley! Let’s take a look at our opening paragraph. Max has Sophia pinned on her back, a normal play behavior. Max grabs at her exposed neck and bites down, pretty common in puppy play. Max starts to shake his head looking like a wild animal tearing off a chunk of meat from a carcass, still 100% ok for puppy play time. But why!
Young puppies are like a new computer, they come with all the hardware installed and ready to go, but they need to be programmed. They need to know what is ok and what is not, ever chase your pup around the yard after they rolled in a big fresh turd while you’re trying to scoop some of it out of her mouth? Nothing is off limits to a puppy and the best way for them to learn what is good verse what gets them sent to the groomer ASAP is for constant feedback.
Feedback occurs when what the puppy likes doing is abruptly ended because of an external factor. Had Sophia, at any time yelped or cried out in pain, chances are she would be less likely to engage in play in the future, Max would pick up on this fact that his once awesome play partner now holds back when she is pinned down, and may discontinue play all together should he bite at her neck. Max, wanting the play to continue will try to alter his play style to make sure he has a happy and engaged friend. Sophia will respond by engaging in play when she feels safe and the “tyrant” Max is being more respectful.
Puppy play dates are a wonderful thing and for the budding behaviorist and current puppy chaperones out there reading this I highly recommend watching as many puppies play as possible. Not only is it super cute, but you will learn so much about their boundaries, impulse control and how they problem solve in real time, it truly is fascinating. Of course it’s not all sunshine and roses, a good play group will be supervised and structured to allow for time outs when things get heated. Providing feedback is the only way our puppies will learn, we do this by educating ourselves in canine body language, knowing and understanding our puppies development periods and by just knowing our pup; it is very important to know when play is escalating into something more nefarious and who better than you to advocate for you little one. It’s ok to take breaks or call it a day when you sense a negative energy shift in your pup.
Happy play everyone.
~ Cody Shepherd