Can you create the dog you want?

dog-and-kid-reading

In class or consultations I often see a clear incompatibility between a dog owner’s life style and/or abilities, and the dog they chose to bring into their family. I know sedentary older folks struggling with high energy puppies; parents with a toy breed who’s afraid of and snapping at their unstable toddler; an athlete who wants to take up an active dog sport with a breed that typically prefers to be a couch potato. Bad fit from the start, which causes frustration and, sadly, a dog that may be abandoned to a shelter. Of course, with lots of training and management, we can often improve an undesirable situation. But there’s nothing more beautiful when, with planning and research, the fit is just right.

I came across this great blog article by Dr. Jen Summerfield I want to share with you here. (Check out her blog .)

If you’re a dog owner, I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain.

Conventional wisdom says that young puppies come to us as blank slates.  Full of promise and limitless potential, ready to be molded into your ideal companion as long as you do your part – provide lots of love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training along the way.  If you’re a caring, responsible pet owner, there’s no reason that your puppy should not grow up to be a model canine citizen.

“Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, right?  After all, it’s all in how you raise them.

As always, in the world of behavior – it’s not quite that simple.

There are few myths in the field of dog training that get under my skin quite as much as this one.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues.  After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s the countless number of fundamentally mismatched dog/owner pairings that every veterinarian and trainer sees on a regular basis.  The gentle elderly couple, with the adolescent field-bred Lab.  The busy young professionals with three children under the age of five, with the spooky English Mastiff who doesn’t like kids.  Or even the lovely middle-aged woman who wants to do therapy work in a local nursing home, with her aloof and introverted Chow.

What all of these situations have in common, at their core, is a lack of understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – an unshakeable faith in the notion that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet for the owner’s particular lifestyle, as long as they’re “raised right.”  That every eight-week-old puppy is a formless mass of behavioral clay, ready to be imprinted with whatever characteristics and personality traits are most convenient for their living situation and the wishes of their new family.

Unfortunately for all involved in the examples above, this is utterly and emphatically not true.

But wait, you might say!  What about socialization and training?  Can’t we influence our puppies’ adult characteristics through exposure to the things we want them to be comfortable with?  Can’t we teach them early on how we want them to behave, thus preventing any problems later on?

In other words, a perfectly socialized and well-trained puppy should be a foolproof bet to turn out the way we want – right?

Well… the answer, as they say, is complicated.

Don’t get me wrong – socialization and early learning are very powerful things.  (See my previous posts on these topics here and here for a more complete discussion of how they influence puppy development, if you’re interested.)  There is a lot we can do to set our puppies up for success, and also to address possible problems or behavioral red flags early on.  This is the “nurture” side of the nature-and-nurture paradigm, and it’s incredibly important – but it’s only half of the equation.

So what does nature have to say?

We all know intuitively that behavioral characteristics can be inherited.  After all, this basic notion is the reason for thousands of years of selective breeding in the dog world – it’s why we’ve been able to develop specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to retrieve things, herd sheep, guard our homes, or track rabbits without any formal training at all.  Why, then, does it surprise us that other types of behavioral tendencies can also be passed from parents to offspring?

The truth is, your dog’s genetic background plays a tremendous (and often under-valued) role not only in what inborn skills he might have, but in who he is – whether he is friendly or reserved with strangers, tolerant of other pets or not, a high-drive athlete or a snuggly couch potato, easily startled by loud noises or relatively “bombproof.”

Since the 1940s, studies in canine behavioral genetics have consistently shown that traits such as fearfulness, impulsivity, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression are strongly influenced by breeding.  Socialization and early learning can certainly help to sway things in one direction or another, but these forces are operating on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.

Is behavior moldable?  Of course it is – to a point.  You can only modify what you already have, not create the dog of your choosing from scratch.  So if you have specific goals for your pup or need a dog with a certain personality type, it pays to make sure that you’re getting a temperament you can live with!

Please note that none of this should be taken as a defense of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination, on the theory that certain breeds are bound to be aggressive or otherwise “bad.”  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variability within every breed – so much so that it’s not possible to make any reliable predictions about behavior based solely on breed identification.  It’s much more valuable to look specifically at the parents and littermates of a particular puppy, or at a certain line of dogs within a breed.

So, what can we do with this knowledge?

If you have specific personality traits that you need in a dog, don’t choose a puppy based on looks or a cheap purchase price and assume that you can “make it work” – this rarely goes well, in my experience.

Instead, I would strongly encourage you to look into getting a puppy from an excellent breeder, with a good track record of producing dogs with the traits that you want – this is your very best chance of ending up with a dog that will be a good fit for you and your family.  Many owners need a dog that is reliably gentle and tolerant with kids, or with low prey drive because of smaller pets in the home, or easygoing and low-energy because they are elderly or disabled.  Getting an adult dog from a trusted source who knows the dog well (such as a breeder, or a good rescue group) can also be a great option.

This kind of predictability may not be important for all owners – which is fine!  Many of my clients don’t have any specific plans or goals for their dog, and their lifestyle is flexible enough that a wide range of personality types would fit into their household with no problems.  If this describes you, then you could absolutely open your home to a puppy or older dog with an unknown background and see where life takes the two of you.  There are many such dogs who desperately need homes, and the relationship that you have with a dog like this can be extremely special.

By the same token – if you are thinking about breeding your dog, or if you already have an active breeding program, please carefully consider temperament in your breeding decisions!  Most good breeders know this already and are very selective about which dogs they choose to breed, but this idea can be surprising to many owners who are new to the process and aren’t aware that personality traits can be inherited.  Excessively fearful or aggressive dogs should not be bred – period.  These issues should be taken as seriously as hereditary physical problems like hip dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, as they are every bit as devastating for both the puppy and his/her new family.

And finally, if you have a pup from an uncertain background (or a known, not-so-great background) who is struggling with a behavior problem despite your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up!  For many of my clients, it comes as a relief to know that they have done nothing wrong – the misplaced guilt that comes with having a much-loved dog who is also severely aggressive or fearful of everything can be crushing.

It helps to understand that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; all dogs come with their own personalities and behavioral tendencies, for better or worse.  We can do a lot to help these dogs live safer, happier lives with training and careful management – we can build their confidence, teach them better coping skills to handle stress, and strengthen their bond with their owners – but we can’t change who they are.  And usually, that’s okay.

So if you have a dog like this, to paraphrase the famous Serenity Prayer – I would encourage you to work on the things you can change, and accept the things you can’t.

The trick is learning to know the difference.

Puppy Playtime!

It’s healthy & important, but there are things to watch for to keep it fun for your pup.

What is cuter than puppies playing? Nothing! It brings a smile to the face to watch a bunch of furballs jumping around, mock fighting, and having fun. That is until one puppy is not having a good time. Luckily, in most cases, no harm, no foul and they quickly resume the fun. But what about when the puppy who got scared goes and hides. Should you push him back to play or let him be? It’s important to support your puppy’s emotional needs. When he is ready he will return, and if he is not, let him participate in his own good time. When we allow puppies to build their trust, their confidence will grow.

Play is important, especially in early puppyhood. Puppies are the most emotionally flexible until the age of 16 weeks, and the good experiences your puppy has now will help him grow up feeling safe and empowered. This is a critical socialization period . After that it gets harder, it takes longer, and your dog may never fully get the hang of feeling comfortable in the world and around other dogs (and other experiences).

My vet/breeder said to wait until my puppy has all of his shots

Early puppyhood is a critical time for socialization and learning. This time will set the stage for the rest of your puppy’s life. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show your puppy how to confidently relate to other puppies, unfamiliar people, and strange sights, sounds, and events. It is crucial that this developmental stage is used wisely! Luckily, the vast majority of modern veterinarians and breeders understand that puppies don’t just have medical needs, but behavioral needs as well and will instruct you to begin a properly run puppy training and socialization class as early as possible. Here are some resources for you:

Letter from noted veterinary behaviorist and Director Emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota

Read the position paper on puppy socialization and vaccinations from the American Animal Society of Animal Behavior.

The benefits of play in puppies can’t be over emphasized.

  • Physical and mental exercise
  • Socialization
  • Teaching boundaries and rules
  • Emotional control
  • Bite inhibition- puppies with little or no bite inhibition tend to bite more vigorously and harder than normal. If they don’t learn it as puppies, their bite as an adult will inflict much more serious damage.
  • Teaching new skills

What is a Consent Test?

Sometimes a puppy in a group has a particularly aggressive play style and does not understand how to play appropriately. Most of the other puppies run from this over assertive puppy. Or this puppy always appears to be pinning another dog beneath it. It is necessary to intervene early with these puppies who are either over aroused or just have poor play skills. Make their play sessions brief, pair them with an adult with good play skills, redirect to toys, and teach an on-off (arouse/settle) switch. To see if one puppy is truly bullying another, use the “consent test”. Hold the tough guy briefly away from the other pup. If the other puppy comes back at the more assertive dog to continue the play, then it is safe to let them play again and it should not be considered bullying. If the other puppy runs off or hides, then  he or she was probably being bullied, or the top dog had a play style that was too assertive for the bottom dog.

consent test
Is the dog on the bottom having fun? Do a consent test to find out. Gently pull off the top pup; if the other puppy comes back for more, release for more play.

Using play as a training reward

Puppy (and dog!) play is valuable and can be used in training as a reward, but it is important not to allow the release of the puppy back to play until he or she is calm and mannerly. Insist upon fair play to prevent play from escalating to high arousal and then aggression. Be sure that there are frequent pauses in play to avoid over arousal; know when to allow them to work it out and when not. Bites should be inhibited and directed to the legs and lower body, with short mouthing to the neck and head area. Batting, brief pounces and pauses are all parts of good play. We suggest interrupting puppy play every minute or less to briefly get your puppy’s attention back to you for brief moments. At  those these times, expect your puppy to focus on you and follow simple cues; be sure to reinforce your wonderful pup with high value treats. Then again reinforce your puppy’s calm, attentive behavior by releasing back to play. This also teaches them that coming to you from play does not mean it’s over. (If play ends each time you call your puppy, you will find your puppy not wanting to come to you.!)

Gotcha! 

collar grab- Sly crop
This dog is leaning away from the hand that is reaching for him. He is showing additional signs of stress including the raised paw, ears pulled back, and the furrowed brow. He needs lots of positive gotchas!

Teach your puppy a collar grab. Simply start by touching the collar with one hand and then giving your puppy a treat with the other. Work up to grabbing the collar, and while still holding it, deliver the treat. Your hand should remain on the collar as you give the treat, then release and repeat a few times. (If your pup is really shying away from the hand, back off on the intensity and nearness of the grab until your dog show no reaction or is actually happy to see the hand nearing him.) Do several session throughout the day, choosing different locations within the house or yard. Do 10-15 collar grabs per session, breaking it up into several collar grabs (always with reward), then play, then several more. It’s great to add in a collar grab when you call your dog to you. Call, grab, reward. Once your puppy is happy with your hand coming at his collar, you can use the collar grab to help you call him out of play.

Know when to interrupt dog play

There are specific signs that indicate that play between dogs should be interrupted, including:

  • Dog is showing signs of distress;
  • Excessive mounting and other challenges; however you should not get too excited over the mounting behavior, it’s just that sometimes other dogs don’t like it. Mounting can indicate anxiety or over stimulation;
  • Excessive vertical play;
  • Excessive vocalization including throaty growls (most good play is actually pretty quiet);
  • No interruptions or pauses in play (leading to high arousal);
  • When one dog is avoiding the situation; watch for head or body’s turned away from the other dog;
  • When one dog is attempting to diffuse the session;
  • When competing for a resource such as a toy or treat;
  • Pinning;
  • Tandem sneezing (which indicates stress);
  • Continued orientation to the other dog’s neck or throat;
  • Body slamming or other hard physical contact;
  • Grabbing/biting with head shaking;
  • Full mouth biting;
  • Hackles are raised (piloerection);
  • Snarling;
  • When the body language of a dog shows that he or she is afraid, including ears back, mouth closed, tail down or tucked, lip licking, and trying to get away. Intervene immediately.

In this video taken at Ideal Puppy Training & Socialization class at Lucky Dog there are some nice examples of play. The yellow lab/great Pyrenees mix, Riley, is inviting play using play bows (front feet down and hind end in the air). Harley, the Akita, has nice soft body language in response. In the other puppy play group, you can see that Cody, the yellow lab pup, is unsure of the interactions and comes in for a quick sniff before retreating. He also does a lip lick, which is often a sign of stress, or an appeasement signal (“I mean you no harm”). The instructor is giving frequent breaks from play and having the owners do collar grabs before releasing back to play. This was on class one. In future classes the puppies will be asked to give attention or listen to obedience cues before being reinforced with more play.

What about dog parks?

Choose you puppy’s play group carefully to set your puppy up for success. If you do not know the play style of the other dog(s), proceed with caution. I do not recommend taking a puppy to a dog park (that’s an entire blog post in itself!). That can be a recipe for disaster. One traumatic event with an adult dog with poor socialization skills can convince your puppy that other dog are unsafe and not to be trusted. This can potentially set your dog’s emotional development into a tailspin that is not easily changed.  But once you have found some perfect playmates, or a good, well-run group, enjoy the fun!