There are countless reasons why dogs are considered to be man’s best friend. They offer love, loyalty, and companionship, and anyone who has ever formed a special bond with a dog can attest to the symbiotic relationship between humans and canines. But what happens to a dog when he loses his best friend?
“When an owner passes away before her pet, it can be a confusing, sad, and difficult period, even if arrangements have been made for the animal to be taken care of by someone else,” says Russell Hartstein, a certified behaviorist and dog trainer based in Los Angeles.
It’s not unusual for dogs to grieve the loss of a person they’ve bonded with who is no longer present. While they might not understand the full extent of human absence, dogs do understand the emotional feeling of missing someone who’s no longer a part of their daily lives.
Because we can’t communicate with our dogs to explain when a loss occurs, certain indicators — such as a change in routine, or the absence of their owner’s sensations (sight, sound, smell) — convey that something is different.
“My definition of grief is that a surviving animal shows distress through behavior that is markedly divergent from his routine,” says Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of “How Animals Grieve.”
While we can’t say for sure whether the feelings a dog has when experiencing an emotional loss mirror that of a human’s, Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, says there is now solid evidence from brain imaging studies that similar areas of dogs’ brains light up when they’re feeling parallel emotions to those of humans.
No two dogs are alike, so the way in which they grieve — and for how long — can differ. In order to decipher a dog’s emotional state after losing a loved one, it’s important to keep an eye out for certain signs, as they can affect a dog’s health. Although there is no concrete way of knowing exactly how a dog processes grief, there’s no denying the sadness expressed through behavioral changes. Anxiety and stress can present themselves in a variety of ways. Signs to be aware of include:
Jme Thomas, executive director at Motley Zoo Animal Rescue, explains that dogs need to figure things out on their own and work through feelings when experiencing loss or grief. Other indicators of grief include:
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Lack of energy
• Listlessness or clinginess
• Loss of interest in physical activity
“Dogs are highly intuitive and sensitive, more than people give them credit for,” says Thomas.
In June 2014, Constable Dave Ross, a Canadian general duty officer and police dog handler, lost his life in the line of duty. His service dog, a German Shepherd Dog named Danny, stood alongside him during his time on the force. Throughout Ross’ funeral, the loyal canine whimpered next to his master’s casket. This is just one example of many that speaks volumes to the feelings a dog experiences after losing his owner.
Like us, dogs go through a grieving period. While there isn’t one specific approach, being sensitive to a dog’s needs can go a long way:
• Be aware of routines and try to stick to them
• Provide comfort by spending more time together
• Give extra affection — touch increases your bond
• Play his favorite game and increase exercise
“I have no doubt that dogs miss us as much as we miss them, and like us, they need time to heal from a deep emotional loss,” says Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist for animals and humans.
How long a dog grieves varies, but with time, most recover emotionally. At the first sign of decline in physical or emotional health, consult a veterinarian to ensure the symptoms of grief aren’t masking those of another illness.
How Do Dogs Grieve Human Death?
Pets may also show signs of loss and mourning in ways that the family may not recognize. Although somewhat different, they do feel the loss of loved ones. Many have a significant degree of attachment to their owner that leads to anxiety and distress when even short-term separation is thrust upon them, let alone bereavement.
Perhaps, the most famous dog-grieving story of all time is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier owned by a Mr. John Gray of Edinburgh, Scotland. Mr. Gray passed away in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, Bobby was one of the conspicuous mourners. As time went by he never forgot his deceased master. Every day for the next 14 years until his own death in 1872, Bobby spent each night lying on his master’s grave come rain, hail, and snow. In honor of Bobby’s devotion, a statue and water fountain was erected to his memory in 1873.
Which Dogs Suffer from The Loss of Their Human Owner?
Dogs that have the hyper-attachment syndrome of separation anxiety are likely to be hard hit following their owners’ demise. Cardinal signs of this all-too-common condition, affecting up to 15 percent of dogs in the United States, are as follows:
• A checkered history of earlier neglect or multiple owners
• Excessive following behavior (“Velcro dogs”)
• Pre-departure anxiety as owner prepares to leave
• Barking, whining or howling immediately after the owner’s departure
• Destructive behavior only in the owner’s absence (and often directed toward doors and windows)
• House soiling only in the owner’s absence
• Loss of appetite when the owner is gone
• Depression/inactivity in the owner’s absence
• Self-directed licking behavior in the owner’s absence (e.g. lick granuloma) or other repetitive, compulsive behavior
• Excessive greeting behavior on the owner’s return
A score of 5 out of 10 of the above possible signs confirms separation anxiety. Some dogs with separation anxiety are so bonded to one person that if that person leaves the dog with other people in a crowded room he will display full-blown signs of separation anxiety. Such a dog will not take well at all to his owner going away on a trip or, indeed, to the permanent separation caused by death. The dog will panic at first and will eventually become depressed. While we can’t ask a dog how he feels, we can (and do) sometimes see all the visible signs of depression in bereft dogs that we see in a recently bereaved or otherwise depressed person.
Clinical Signs of Mourning in Dogs
Here are some signs that dogs are mourning a human loss:
• Lack of energy and interest
• Absence of play
• Loss of appetite/anorexia
• Reduced social interactions
• Increased daytime sleeping
• Nighttime restlessness/insomnia
• Weight loss
In people, post-bereavement depression following the death of a loved one usually begins to decrease. Sometimes it lasts 2 months, and sometimes it lasts longer, requiring medical or psychological help. The same is true in dogs. Some will eventually get over their loss and form new bonds whereas others enter a seemingly interminable funk. The latter cases present a therapeutic challenge.
Treatment of Dogs for Bereavement-related Depression
• Where possible, allow time to heal the wounds and merely supply appropriate supportive therapy. Make sure the dog continues to eat and drink, even if this means assisted feeding of favorite foods.
• Provide company during the daytime and at night. Have the dog sleep in the bedroom with his caretakers/remaining human/animal family.
• Provide distractions during the day such as toys, delicious food treats, games, excursions and so on, so that the dog is gainfully employed and entertained. Some coaxing may be necessary.
• Attempt to interest the dog in interacting with people or dogs. Sometimes a visitor dog to the house will stimulate the affected dog’s appetite and activity by a process known as social facilitation.
• Daily exercise is extremely important as it has a calming, soothing, and mood elevating effect. Aerobic (running) exercise is best if this can be summoned.
• Medication, as a last resort, in refractory cases. Human anti-depressants work well in this situation. Either older tricyclic anti-depressants like amitriptyline or imipramine, or more modern anti-depressants like fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®) and paroxetine (Paxil®) can be used. Each has its own unique advantages in terms of mood elevation and stabilization; and each has its own slightly different therapeutic profile and list of potential side effects. Remember, these drugs must be prescribed by a veterinarian – doses for humans are very different from what dogs are prescribed.
Following acute loss of a closely bonded owner, dogs can suffer the pangs of separation anxiety or depression just as people do. The extent of the suffering is directly proportional to the strength of the bond with the owner and is a function of the dog’s reliance and perceived dependence on that person. Owners who feed into a dog’s intense dependence on them are more likely to have dogs that do not cope well when left alone for any reason. The emotional pain dogs feel on their owners death is an extension of, and extreme, protracted version of separation anxiety. While we all enjoy a close bond with our pets, and children for that matter, it is as well to prepare them to stand on their own four/two feet (respectively) so that they are not adrift should anything happen to us.
WALKING YOUR DOG
(“He” used here means “she” as well.)
Dogs are simply amazing creatures. In fact, it is said, “God did not create dogs, he already had one.” As paradoxical as that is, next to humans, dogs are a miracle of creation. The dog was created with a propensity to humans. They truly are “man’s creatures.” Of course, we want to be careful not to anthropomorphize too much. The dog is still an animal with animal traits. They are not humans is fur. The dog needs to be properly trained. One phase of that training is walking the dog. In this short writing I want to focus on just walking the dog. I could write extensively on just my preface and hundreds of articles and books have already been written on these subjects. But walking the dog is a basic and needed function of our relationship.
Why walk the dog? If I have a back yard, why can’t the dog just run and get his exercise there? First, having a dog and letting the dog just get what “we” think he needs in the large or small back yard does not build his personality, nor does it build the human/dog relationship. The whole purpose of having a dog is to build a human/dog bond. If that is not your purpose, please don’t acquire a dog. It is not to either of you.
First, consider the dog. Is he afraid, easily frightened? Is your dog noise sensitive? Afraid of people or other dogs? Know these things about your dog. Don’t force your dog into situations he is not comfortable with. This means you might need to do some desensitizing work. If that is the case for your dog, then contact a good trainer. Make sure the trainer is “force-free” in his/her approach.
That being considered, let’s think about the proper equipment. Yes, you will need equipment. I know there are owners who want their dog to be so obedient that no leash is necessary. Well, this may give you pride or machismo, but it is neither wise nor safe. Remember, dogs are still dogs. If something is little and runs fast, it demands being chased. If something frightens the dog flight is instinctual. There is just too much danger lurking about to have my beloved dog unleashed and unprotected.
What is proper equipment? A regular collar. A martingale collar, properly fitted is acceptable. If it is a martingale, the collar should be drawn to a comfortable fit, never too tight and never used as a punisher. A fixed leash, preferably no longer than six (6) feet. Longer collars, starting out, are just too much length to handle comfortable for the owner. A waist attachment is also a consideration. If a harness is used, use the easy walker where the leash clips on the dog’s chest rather than on his back. The back-clip harness just encourages pulling as it triggers a reflexive action and gets the dog in trouble. The purchase of a Gentle Leader. This goes over the snout of the dog and provides the owner leadership of his head movements which provides less likelihood of the dog’s pulling. Some people might think the gentle leader is a muzzle, or that your dog is mean. You can easily correct this misinterpretation.
Never use a choke chain/slip collar. These collars hurt the dog’s neck and can cause damage to the trachea, the nerves in the neck and the human/animal bond.
I tell my clients, “If your wife will wear a choke chain for a week and allow you to use corrections for her talking or actions, and maintained a loving, respecting and trusting relationship, then I might discuss the choke chain.” Seriously, the choke chain is 1. Dangerous, 2. Will encourage aggression. If a trainer refutes these, do not use that trainer’s services. It is a through back to archaic training methods. Also, Pet stores recommend the slip collar. Clerks are generally uninformed and are there to sell what you want.
All the above also is true of prong collars. Slip collars and prong collars are designed to inflict pain, pure and simple. As is the shock collars. Never use ANY of these on your dog. They are inhumane and serve no positive, loving purpose. As far as I am concerned, these are in line with the thinking of Rene Descartes of the 17th century. Read about his thinking on dogs and pain.
Don’t use expandable leashes.
THE PLANET OF THE GORNS
By: Jean Donaldson
Imagine you live on a planet where the dominant species is far more intellectually sophisticated than human beings but often keeps humans as companion animals. They are called the Gorns. They communicate with each other via a complex combination of telepathy, eye movements and high-pitched squeaks, all completely unintelligible and unlearnable by humans, whose brains are prepared for verbal language acquisition only. What humans sometimes learn is the meaning of individual sounds repeated association with things of relevance to them. The Gorns and humans bond strongly but there are many Gorn rules that humans must try to assimilate with limited information and usually high stakes.
You are the lucky humans who lives with the Gorns in their dwelling. Many other humans are chained to small cabanas in the yard or kept in outdoor pens of varying size. They have become so socially starved that they cannot control their emotions when a Gorn goes near them. Because of this behavior, the Gorns agree that they could never be House-Humans. They are too excitable.
The dwelling you share with your Gorn family is filled with numerous water-filled porcelain bowls, complete with flushers. Every time you try to urinate in one, though, any nearby Gorn attacks you. You learn to only use the toilet when there are no Gorns present. Sometimes they come home and stuff your head down the toilet for no apparent reason. You hate this and start sucking up to the Gorns when they come home to try and stave this off but they view this as increasing evidence of your guilt.
You are also punished for watching videos, reading certain books, talking to other human beings, eating pizza or cheesecake, and writing letters. These are all considered behavior problems by the Gorns. To avoid going crazy, once again you wait until they are not around to try doing anything you wish to do. While they are around, you sit quietly, staring straight ahead. Because they witness this good behavior you are so obviously capable of, they attribute to “spite” the video watching and other transgressions that occur when you are alone. Obviously, you resent being left alone, they figure. You are walked several times a day and left crossword puzzle
books to do. You have never used them because you hate crosswords; the Gorns think you’re ignoring them out of revenge.
Worst of all, you like them. They are, after all often nice to you. But when you smile at them, they punish you, likewise for shaking hands. If you apologize, they punish you again. You have not seen another human since you were a small child. When you see one on the street you are curious, excited, and sometimes afraid. You really don’t know how to act. So, the Gorn you live with keeps you away from other humans. Your social skills never develop.
Finally, you are brought to “training” school. A large part of the training consists of having your air briefly cut off by a metal chain around your neck. They are sure you understand every squeak and telepathic communication they make because you sometimes get it right. You are guessing and hate the training. You feel pretty stressed out most of the time. One day, you see a Gorn approaching with a training collar in hand. You have PMS, a sore neck and you just don’t feel up to the baffling coercion about to ensue. You tell them in your sternest voice to please leave you alone and go away. The Gorns are shocked by this unprovoked aggressive behavior. They thought you had a good temperament.
They put you in one of their vehicles and take you for a drive. You watch the attractive planetary landscape going by and wonder where you are going. The vehicle stops and you are led into a building with the smell of human sweat and excrement. Humans are everywhere in small cages. Some are nervous, some depressed, most watch the goings on from their prisons. Your Gorns, with whom you have lived your entire life, hand you over to strangers who drag you to a small room. You are terrified and yell for your Gorn family to help you. They turn and walk out the door of the building. You are held down and given a lethal injection. It is, after all, the human way to do it.
This nightmarish world is the one inhabited by many dogs all the time. Virtually all natural dog behaviors – chewing, barking, rough play, chasing moving objects, eating food items within reach, jumping up to access faces, settling disputes with threat displays, establishing contact with strange dogs, guarding resources, leaning in to steady pressure against their necks, urinating on porous surfaces like carpets, defending themselves from perceived threat – are considered behavior problems. The rules that seem so obvious to us make absolutely no sense to dogs.
If someone tried to punish out behaviors, you knew were necessary for maintaining your well-being or earning a living, would you cease doing them altogether or would you try to figure out when it was safe to do them and when it wasn’t safe? How would you feel about the punisher? What kind of credibility would they have? It is as inherently obvious to dogs that furniture, clothing and car interiors are good for chewing as it is inherently obvious to you that TV sets are good for watching. If I reprimand you for watching TV, your most likely course of action is simply watch TV when I’m not around. And you’re a large-brained, conscience-laden human.
We smart, moral beings do this kind of discriminating all the time. Take speeding on the highways. A lot of people get tickets. Wat’s the actual effect of this hefty punishment? An immediate suppression of the behavior: you slow down right after you get the ticket. You’re angry and upset. But what happens over the next few hours, days, and weeks? Most people start speeding again, although they will tell you that they fully understand that speeding is against the law, that it is potentially very dangerous, and they understand the penalty if they are caught. Those last four words are the key: if they are caught. What is typically obtained with punishment is finer discrimination: you get better at smelling out speed traps, at knowing where and when you can speed. This is the typical result obtained with punishment. We are subject to the laws of learning. So are dogs, but with less incentive from understanding the potential harm of their behavior. Dogs cannot have moral failings as they cannot knowingly act against the common good. They therefor never self-punish with guilt and self-recrimination as we do. This doesn’t make them morally inferior. It’s just how they are. We take far too personally phenomena that are simply products of animal learning laws.
Similarly, burning your mouth on pizza makes you check the temperature of the pizza next time before digging in but doesn’t stop you from it again. This is because pizza tastes good and you know this. An organism will always look for a way around the punishment to get the reinforcer if there is one. It’s useful in fact to think of punishments as obstacles to overcome on the way to reinforcement. Likewise, a dog will rarely find it “wrong” or quit cold turkey his habit of digging in the azaleas although he may learn it’s dangerous to do so when you’re there. What else could a flowerbed possibly be for, to a dog? Whenever you punish, you’re the cop giving out the speeding ticket to a not so sophisticated and amoral being who really wants and maybe even needs to speed. Oh, he’ll stop for a while if the fine is hefty, but he’ll sooner or later be back to speeding and he’ll be better at avoiding speed traps.
DIVISION OF MATTER IN THE UNIVERSE
FURNITURE CHEW TOY
FOOTWEAR CHEW TOY
CAR RETREATING OBJECT
CAR INTERIOR CHEW TOY
DOG FOOD FOOD
HORS D’OEUVRES FOOD
CELLO CHEW TOY
BOOK CHEW TOY
CAT RETREATING OBJECT
SQUIRREL RETREATING OBJECT
PLASTIC WRAP FOOD
HI-FI SPEAKERS CHEW TOY
ROCK FOOD (LABRADOR)
The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson, Chapter Four “It’s All Chew Toys to Them”
Dog-on-Dog Aggression (DDA)
Witnessing a dog fight is frightening. It’s violent, loud and appears as though the dogs
Dogs becoming overly aroused during play can result in a dog fight.
involved are trying to kill each other. If you’re the owner of a dog that’s dog-aggressive you must have experienced or are currently experiencing how stressful simple events such as taking your dog for a walk can be. While it may appear as though the dog is trying to kill its adversary often most fights are little more than loud displays of aggressive posturing and they rarely result in serious injuries. When wounds are sustained the resulting injury is usually a lip or ear tear, or puncture wounds to the neck.
When a dog truly intends to kill another its actions are swift and death can occur in 15 seconds or less. Attacks intended to kill often are directed at the victim’s stomach in an effort to disembowel its victim or behind the head at the base of the neck in an effort to sever the spinal column, not necessarily in areas around the face or shoulders.
If you have a dog that’s dog-aggressive your first step in treatment would be to report the behavior to your veterinarian so they can rule out any medical issues. If none exists its recommended that you consult with a veterinarian behaviorist for help.
Assessing Injuries: A dog weighing 70 lbs or more has the ability to crush bone with a jaw that can deliver over 500-700lbs of pressure per square inch. German Shepherds, Rotties and Pits in excess of 700 lbs. Armed with such knowledge it’s helpful to know that even deep tears to the face, neck and shoulder wouldn’t be considered life threatening or those indicative of an intent to kill. However, any injury should be considered serious enough to get qualified help with the behavior.
When left to their own devices most fights – especially among males – will end with a clear victor and loser. The loser will walk away and avoid future conflicts with the victor. In most cases the victor allows the loser to retreat. This is not necessarily true in cases of female-on-female aggression which should be closely monitored and taken quite seriously since females have been known to kill each another. If you have a female-on-female aggression case, or any aggression issue for that matter, it’s important to get qualified help immediately.
The Neutering Debate: DDA is more common among males, however, females fight too although it usually less common. The difference between the two sexes is that altercations among males often is nothing more than loud aggressive posturing displays and hardly anyone ever gets seriously injured. Females on the other hand may fight to the death – particularly if the two females know each other and have a history of fighting each other.
The most common type of altercation involves neutered males aggressing toward intact males. Neutered males smell like females. The scent of an intact male cause many neutered to react negatively toward them since intact males smell male. The scent of an intact male can cause tensions to rise even before the two dogs engage each other because intact males retain the ability to mate and give of the scent of male, which can be considered a threat to neutered males.
While neutering isn’t known to affect the behavior or personality of the dog it can have a profound impact on the way neutered males perceive their intact counterparts. On the medical side there are many benefits such as longer life spans because neutering may help to reduce the risk of some cancers, particularly testicular cancer, mammary cancer (males & females) and pyometra – a life threatening uterine infection. Spaying a female does not have the same effect on reducing DDA as it does with males, although it does have the same health benefits.
Common Causes of DDA: Most dogs squabble over valued resources such as mating rights, food, territory and a safe place to sleep and rear young. Altercations among males is more common when females are present. In fact, in all-male groups they fight less when females are absent. This holds true in most species including lab mice and rats.
One of the most common causes of DDA is lack of appropriate social interaction with conspecifics (members of its own species) during a puppy’s socialization period. Pups not exposed to all sizes, shapes and ages of polite, well-behaved dogs before 12-weeks of age have a greater chance of developing social issues with conspecifics when they mature. Similarly, pups who’ve experienced a traumatic event in the presence of other dogs can be a contributing factor.
Inappropriate play interactions with conspecifics during puppyhood and early adolescence also play a substantial role. Rough play with over-the-top adolescents and adult dogs – or even at the hands of humans – may contribute toward elevated levels of stress/ hyperactivity and can affect the dog’s nervous system for the rest of its life. Rough play has also been blamed for ‘play deficits’, a term coined by behaviorist Jean Donaldson.
There’s compelling scientific evidence that adverse social experiences and resulting stress levels can cause permanent damage to neuro-connectors in the hyppocampus of the brain – the area responsible for storing good and bad memories. Such damage also negatively effects learning and social skills.
To avoid altercations or affect positive change in a DDA case it’s always best to be proactive by socializing the dog early in life with well-behaved, gentle dogs (and gentle humans), neuter the dog and make sure play is polite and gentle during its socialization period as well as throughout its life.
Prevention: When I work on a DDA case careful attention is focused on the dog’s past experiences. This history-taking helps narrow down possible causes/triggers and may reveal exactly where and when the behavior started. This information is helpful because training success often is influenced by the length of time a dog has been suffering.
However, no matter how compelling a dog’s history may be the most important task is changing the dog’s behavior going forward. On that end prevention and management plays a key role in the training process. This means the owner must make every effort to prevent future altercations. In almost every case I work with owners report multiple encounters, some as many as several times per week. It’s critical to the dog’s re-learning process to make every effort to keep the dog calm (and safe) by avoiding such encounters.
This can mean walking the other way when a dog is approaching; running away; walking the dog during off hours when other owners are not out walking their dogs; providing appropriate confinement so the dog does not escape through an open gate or jump over a low fence; fitting the dog with a harness such as the Easy Walk no pull front clip harness; fit the dog with a head halter such as the Halti; scanning the environment for other dogs; asking individuals who are out walking their dogs if they don’t mind staying put while you get your dog to a safer area and more. In short, the owner will become the point man, the look-out guy who keeps an eye out for possible danger and work toward avoiding it. While calling to a stranger, “Hey! My dog is aggressive toward other dogs. Could you just stay right there while I get him out of here?” may be a bit embarrassing for some, I’ve never heard anyone on the other end complaining. In fact, most people say thank you. I know your dog will thank you.
Repeated encounters can create elevated corticotropin (fear hormone) levels. Most often it takes nearly 48 hours for elevated levels to stabilize. This may explain why some dogs become hyperactive or destructive 1-2 days following a thunderstorm, or why fights seem to closely follow another. If your dog appears to get into one altercation after another these elevated corticotropin levels may be a contributing factor. This is why it’s so important to avoid future encounters.
Environment: Environmental triggers (or antecedents) play a huge role in how your dog reacts toward or in relation to certain objects and areas. For example, if most fights occurred while on-leash, anxiety or hyperactivity may begin surfacing the moment you pick up a leash. Often this hyperactivity is misinterpreted as happiness when a dog is actually experiencing a tremendous amount of stress-related excitement. Such excitement can quickly teeter over into aggression. An example is two hyperactive dogs playing together in a dog park and who chase each other to the point of exhaustion or roll each other and engage in over-the-top dominance rituals. Often these are the dogs that end up in a fight at some point during the session.
Other environmental factors may be related to traumatic events that took place a certain locations. For instance my German Shepherd becomes hypervigilant the closer we get to a certain baseball field near our house – the site of his last altercation two winters ago.
Human Body Language: The owner should learn to concentrate on their behavior. Are there particular areas where you get stressed while walking your dog? Do you panic or start to lose patience in specific areas of your town or street? When you see another dog? Quite often our own behavior negatively affects our animal.
Pack Mentality Myth: There are some trainers and animal enthusiasts who place great emphasis on “pack leadership” and “pack mentality.” In order to truly understand what such terms mean we must first learn a bit about canine social structures as it pertains to our pet dogs.
As a general rule domestic dogs or even feral dogs don’t have complex social structures or hierarchies such as those observed in their wolf cousins. In observations of free roaming dogs, particularly in a 1989 study (Daniels and Bekoff) of over 154 free-roaming dogs in Newark, New Jersey, compelling evidence supported the hypothesis that even free-roaming dogs lack organized or complex social structures – or what some may term “pack mentality.”
The term pack mentality is an impressive term, but it’s also quite vague. And the term has nothing to do with humans. I’m waiting for a study involving feral humans and dogs to be published. When that scientific paper is available perhaps we can use the term pack mentality to describe how dogs view their relationships with their pack-humans. The word mentality means “character or disposition,” so when someone uses the term pack mentality to describe how the dog interacts with humans the term lacks any observable information pertaining to actual leadership skills and everything to do with the overall emotional state of a group of dogs. In my opinion, the term pack mentality is an impressive, colorful and imaginative term, but it lacks little scientific evidence it even exists.
What such individuals may be trying to convey – and rather poorly – is the concept of leadership, which has nothing at all to do with pack mentality (disposition or character).
Recently a woman asked me how could she go about teaching her dog that her baby is the pack leader. I’m thinking dogs don’t have complex pack structures, the child is not a dog, doesn’t look like a dog, smell like a dog, act like a dog, play like a dog, communicate like a dog, doesn’t compete for the same resources as a dog…. When I asked to see how she was trying to achieve it now she poked the dog in the neck (for no reason). She along with countless others have been mislead into thinking that humans must act like dogs or use scary tactics in order to convey the concept of leadership. Complete hogwash!
Dogs respond to the individual who controls the good stuff such as treats, food, toys, etc. Period. If you’re looking to establish what we call “leadership” you can easily do so by controlling valued resources and having your dog work for them (reward-based training). Also, you establish leadership by setting up boundaries and rules. When you control the good stuff your dog will look to you for what happens next. Some may call this leadership. I call it a smart dog who learns how to get the good stuff… usually with the least bit of energy output.
In human homes there are many resource-controllers and those roles change constantly. Depending on the time of day these individuals can be switched with another. My husband is disabled and stays at home. I’m the one responsible for making the dogs work before taking them for walks and feeding them. For those two things I can get my dogs to do quantum physics. It doesn’t matter if my husband calls them to him, it doesn’t matter if he grabs a squeaker toy to distract them – they only have one goal: to get me to walk them and give them the good stuff. When I leave, however, my husband controls the good stuff. When I walk through the door at night resource-control roles change again.
Another pack mentality myth is that the pack leader walks in front. Really? It does? Take any two dogs for a walk at one time and its easy to see there is no strict protocol between the two in regards to who is out front, unless you have a mushing team. This protocol is equally as weak in free-roaming dogs unless a female is in heat. The concept that a dog has to walk on your left side while making eye contact with you (heel) was developed by humans to keep the dog from being distracted by its environment, not because it lowers its status. In fact all forms of training iare human inventions.
Learning patience at doorways should be included in training to help the dog learn how to control itself when excited and so it doesn’t dart out the door and get hit by a car, not because there’s a hierarchical battle taking place. My dogs always walk out of the door first, but I taught them to be polite enough to wait for me until we can descend the stairs of my porch to walk.
Generalizing: If the dog’s level of aggression has been escalating over time toward a particular size/color of dog and it begins bleeding out to other breeds there’s a pretty good chance the dog has begun to generalize its fear. While dogs are poor generalizers when it comes to figuring out what we want from them they are exceptional at generalizing fear. For example, a dog who was bitten by a small white dog during adolescence may begin reacting toward blowing white bags in the street when it’s an adult. Similarly, one who experienced multiple encounters by a dog on leash may begin to aggress toward strollers or other moving objects that are connected to a human by a tether of some sort.
Set Goals: Set realistic goals and establish short-, mid-, and long-range goals. For example, John’s long range goal is he wants Rover to play with familiar dogs. There’s a very good chance Rover may develop enough skills to play with familiar dogs, but that may not be feasible until two or more years from now. Rover will first need to achieve short-term goals such as walking calmly in the neighborhood without becoming hysterical when he sees a dog two blocks away (short-term goal); Then work toward the point where he can focus on his owner or a task such as touch while walking past dogs that are less than a block away (mid-range goal); Then to teaching him how to come to his owner or walk away when he’s getting stressed when interacting with a familiar dog (long-range goal). There are many steps in between. Many goals and none of them should ever be rushed.
Learn Dog Language/Practice New Skills: There is no miracle cure for DODA. Working with such behavior takes time. You will have to work toward very small victories and build on those until larger ones can be achieved. As far as I’m concerned, I feel learning canine body language is vital to training success in so many areas. I’m not saying you need to get a PhD in ethology or evolutionary biology, but learning some basic body language signals can go a long way in understanding your dog’s emotional state. A behaviorist or knowledgeable professional dog trainer can help you gain these skills or you can teach yourself by reading books by experts such as Stanley Coren, Patricia McConnell, Turid Rugaas and Roger Abrantes.
Even when a dog appears to spontaneously engage in fighting there are clear warning/calming signals he may be sending out indicating elevated stress levels long before he reacts. Such signals may be as subtle as licking the lips, a head turn, ear twitch, yawning or sniffing the ground. Having knowledge of what to look for can arm you with knowledge that can go a long way in helping to prevent encounters and help you rebuild some of the trust that may have been lost in your relationship.
Establish the Dog’s Threshold: When trying to predict when your dog will react it’s helpful to establish its threshold as a starting point for retraining. Threshold is the point of reactivity – the point where the dog reacts. When working on cases it’s imperative to keep the dog below threshold at all times and systematically increase its tolerance to stressful stimuli while it’s experiencing something pleasant. As an owner you play a vital role in keeping your dog below threshold by observing his body language. This may provide you with clues to your dog’s emotional state.
Types of Training: Your trainer may choose several techniques to work with your dog. If they have experience with stressed dogs they likely will rely on two powerful learning techniques: classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning), which is pairing a pleasant experience/sensation with something fearful; and operant conditioning (B.F. Skinner) which is based on the concept that every action has a consequence. This particular form of learning is the central core of clicker training. In all positive training techniques desirable behaviors reap positive rewards and negative behaviors get nothing.
One form of training to avoid is one involving harsh corrections and physical punishments. Such types of adverse consequences can make aggression worse, especially if the aggression is fear-related. Another to avoid is flooding. Flooding is a term used to describe forcing an individual to face its fears until it surrenders. An example would be forcing a person who’s terrified of spiders to lay strapped to a table (no escape) as spiders are poured on top of their body. They will panic, scream, fight, cry, beg it to stop, seem to give in then fight once more (extinction burst) and then finally shut down (learned helplessness). This technique has been surprisingly successful on humans, but is usually a miserable disaster when used on canines and other non-primates.
Helpful Tips: The keys to success in helping a dog-aggressive dog are multi-faceted and include the ability to read canine body language, keeping a dog below threshold, actively practicing avoidance techniques and working to change the dog’s emotional state as it relates to other dogs. One technique I’m in love with is called behavior adjustment training (BAT), which was pioneered by Griesha Stewart in 2009. BAT uses retreat and avoidance of scary things as a reward when a dog offers calming and cut-off signals, such as ground-sniffing, head turns, lip licking and other signals.
Before you engage in any training program it’s vital to rely on an experienced professional for advice and guidance so you don’t make mistakes that can cause the dog to get worse. You should look for an individual who understands the science of learning and who can teach you new skill sets for working with your dog through positively-based methods.
IT’S JUST A DOG!
I write this from the perspective of a pastor of 40 years, and a therapist having been in private practice for 20 years. When I retired these careers, I went back to school to become a Certified Animal Behaviorist. With this brief background I am qualified to address those who look at a dog or have a dog as a pet and, for whatever reason, conclude, “It’s just a dog.”
My work is with dogs. As a behaviorist I specialize in rehabilitating very aggressive dogs and training various categories of Service Dogs for people with special needs. I think I am qualified to address this, “It’s just a dog” mentality.
Let me begin with our story. My wife’s service dog was a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard. We named her with the beautiful name, Nekayah. We got her at 8 weeks old and she was trained as a Hearing-Impaired Service Dog. She learned all her tasks, about 7 different buzzers in the house she was to alert to, each being a different sound. She was never wrong. She was perfect in her outdoor and traffic alerts. Twice she protected Linda from serious injury as she would have stepped in front of an on-coming car. One time she jumped into Linda, pushing her out of harms way, then stood between her and the on-coming car. I might mention, this “just a dog” was never specifically trained for that behavior. Mmm? That could suggest Nekayah was a thinking dog that could assess a situation, conclude the danger, and act protectively. To me, that suggests a fairly high level of cognition.
Nekayah, for 11 years, was a perfect Service Dog. Her last 6 months was a slow deterioration due to kidney failure. The loss of Nekayah on Good Friday of this year was a traumatic loss. Her death was our Katrina. Emily Dickenson wrote, “There are those storms that lay the trees low.” This was one of those storms that brought us to our knees. Here it is, more than two months, and we still cry every day. She had been with us every day, 24 hours, and always on duty. She would go outside for potty breaks and come right back in. If she was playing outside with another dog, she took self-breaks (Mmm. I think that is thinking and concluding), run in, check on us and go back out. If she was playing outside and heard a buzzer, in she came, through her doggy door, to make her alert. If in the house, sleeping, she never failed to jump up or off the couch and run to alert, then she would go back to lie down. Nekayah went to every store and every restaurant with us. She knew every Rest Stop between Muncie and Iowa, Muncie and Columbus, Ohio. There is no place we can go that she is not there, in the car, between us or beside me. She was always tuned in. Her abilities and her forward thinking was uncanny, mysterious, unexplainable.
So, with that little bit of history, you can better understand where I am coming from as I write this. To be honest with whoever reads this, I am a bit indignant and offended when I hear individuals make the thoughtless comment, “It’s just a dog.” If one thinks, “it’s just a dog,” he or she will probably understand phrases like “he’s just a friend,” “she’s just a wife,” “it’s just a baby,” or “it’s just a promise.” This “just a dog” brought into our lives the devoted friendship, trust, and pure, unconditional love every human needs to experience. Waking up to this “just a dog” was a daily joy as was her waking up to us.
I wonder if these “just a dog’ people ever really looked at a dog beyond its biology. Some turn to what Alexandra Horowitz describes as, “unsympathetic biology, free from subjectivity or such messy considerations as consciousness, preferences, sentiment, or personal experiences.” Have these persons ever been the recipient of the unconditional love that the dog bestows on its owner? I don’t mean “owner” in the sense that the dog is property. I mean “owner” in the sense of a responsible caregiver. The dog doesn’t care about one’s handicap, inabilities or for that matter, if one is uneducated or a doctor. Ethnicity matters not, income is immaterial and how one looks is insignificant. Dogs are equal opportunity beings. The capacity to love, for a dog, far exceeds the human reservoir. To a soldier far from home, alone, lonely, the dog is something real that helps ground him from sinking into despair. There are those who will say a dog hasn’t the capacity to love. It just acts out of instincts. But that is not true. These simply do not know what they are talking about. Because a dog’s brain is developed closely to the human brain scientists have placed electrodes on those areas of the brain that express feelings and affection. When tested they found the responses of the dog are similar to the responses of a human. Dogs do feel, express affection and love. In fact, there are those children and adults, because of the deprivation in their lives, are unable to trust giving or receiving love. In my field, the field of psychology, we call this an attachment disorder. One of the most successful treatments for these individuals is to bring a dog, specially trained, into the healing process with remarkable success, overcoming the deprivations of childhood. I’ll wager, to these people, it is not “just a dog.” I have treated many with PTSD and I have trained dogs as PTSD Service Dogs. I have been on both ends of this spectrum and I can tell you, those who deal every day with PTSD will never say of their Service Dog, “It’s just a dog.” As a therapist I often wonder how shriveled one’s life must be, how impoverished one’s soul must be when they see the impact dogs have on the lives of children and adults with special needs, often their own children, and still say, “It’s just a dog.” I actually have pathos for them, because I think it indicates one’s inability to form deep bonds, certainly not deep bonds with that which is or has saved the emotional, often the physical, life of their own child, family member or friend.
The dog is the most amazing creature next to humans that God created. One person said, “God didn’t create the dog. He already had one.” (That one will drive a theologian crazy.) I won’t even talk about the one noting, “God spelled backwards…” But, there is no other animal next to man that has the capacity to bond with, love, and protect its human partner. No other animal has been able to be fully domesticated. None. It is as though God wanted something to be on earth that could give to us pure love, the pure love He has for us (“on earth as it is in heaven”). The capacity of a dog to forgive is only rivaled by the forgiveness Christ offers us. Proverbs 12:10 states this, “A righteous man regards the life of his animal:”
When someone says, “It’s just a dog.” What does that mean anyway? It is a dog. That’s not insightful. What do they mean? “Just” is an adverb that, in this context, is meant in a diminutive sense. “It’s just an old cup.” It isn’t worth much. It’s of little value. Do people really believe that? Now, a person may not be a dog person. I don’t expect people to be like me, but to diminish something that is meaningful to another, or something that has saved another’s life, seems to be callous at best, cruel at worst. People who love their pet dog and special needs people with a Service Dog cannot imagine life without that dog. Their dog holds all that person’s feelings and secrets in the strictest confidence. Their deepest feelings and love have been poured into their dog. That dog has loved them at their best and their worst. A person never considers him/her as “just a dog.” One can never let go easily of something that, to him or her, has been all of this and more. The grief is deep, often overwhelming. We in the field of psychology know losing a pet can be akin to losing a child. For the special needs person with a Service Dog it is like an amputation. The loss is catastrophic, and the inner healing can take months, even years. It would be and is unfeeling to say to this person, “It’s just a dog.” Please, if this is what you have to say, don’t say anything.
Dogs have consciousness, they are self-aware, they are other-aware. They don’t speak audible words, but neither do deaf-mutes, but they do have a language. (I am fluent in sign language.) However, dogs also have a language and do speak if we will take time and develop the skills to interpret their language, as I did in the language of the deaf. Dogs have feelings, they can think, and they can act on those accordingly. Dogs are great judges of people and their intent. I always trusted Nekayah in what she was telling me about a stranger nearby. Only one-time in her life did she growl at a person nearby. I removed her and myself not knowing what that person had in mind. Stupid? No. Smart. I know Nekayah was not a person in fur, but she was every bit as feeling, smart, loyal and loving as any person in my life.
I close with this. If you think a wife is “just a wife,” please don’t get married. You’ll both be miserable. If you think a dog is “just a dog,” please don’t do a dog the injustice of getting one. A dog is called man’s best friend for a reason. No friend can be a friend if he is “just a friend.” At least, I couldn’t.