Close encounters of the bovine kind

By Jeff Stallings

Yesterday I took Otis on a hike in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness area in the East Bay, in part to expand the section of my website dedicated to off-leash dog hikes in the Bay Area.  It was perhaps our last warm, sunny day for a while and I wanted to take full advantage.  I had no idea that Otis was in for a new and (for her) scary experience in the form of…cows.

I am not quite sure why this open space is deemed a “wilderness” because, while it is unpopulated by humans, it’s not far from farms, stables and subdivisions, and once you’ve hiked up high enough you can see all these things.  The Las Trampas brochure says that it is one of the least-visited public open spaces in the region—I did not see a single person on our 5-mile hike—but the plethora of horse hoof prints and bike tire tracks indicated to me that this park gets plenty of use, probably on weekends.

Training a dog to climb a tree

The beginning, lower elevations of our loop passed directly behind those stables, then up increasingly steep open fields interspersed with stunning groves of California Live Oaks.  We took advantage of low limbs on a massive old oak to work on Otis’s tree-climbing skills, and then proceeded towards the top of Rocky Ridge.  I was spacing out on the lovely views, with Otis was running a bit ahead of me, when I heard her loud warning barks.  I sped up to catch up with her, crested the top of the ridge and saw the object of her barking:  About 15 cows lazily grazing and gazing at my dog with no fear at all.

Now, Otis was by nature a fearful puppy.  We had implemented an intensive socialization program to quell her unfounded fears by exposing her to as much varied stimuli as possible, and while that included horses, until yesterday she had never experienced cows up-close and personal.  To us humans it might seem that a dog would correlate cows and horses since both are roughly the same size and shape.  But because dogs experience the world first and foremost through the sense of smell, and horses smell different than cows, to Otis these creatures were completely novel, reason enough to fear and avoid them.  But I was going to have none of her bovinophobia:  It was time for some remedial cow-based socialization.

At first I tried to coax Otis thought the small herd, but she held her ground and refused to budge.  Then I walked about 20 yards past the cows and called her to me.  Again, no movement on the part of my dog.  So I walked back and leashed her up, then without saying a word, lead her through the herd.  She was wary and somewhat reactive, but I ignored that, then turned around and walked back through the herd, again saying nothing.  We repeated this about six times, on each pass moving closer and closer to a mother and her calf.  Who could be afraid of such a sweet-looking baby?  Those eyes!  Finally, she stopped reacting and walked calmly through the herd, and then we continued on our hike.

Towards to end of the hike, we once again encountered a small herd of cattle.  I said nothing to Otis as we approached them, allowing her to surmise the threat.  Obviously our short bovine socialization session an hour earlier had done the trick:  She trotted through the middle of the cows, curious and alert, but showing no fear at all.  Which brings me to the moral of this story:  When your dog encounters something scary (to them), the last thing you should do is coddle the fear (“oh you poor baby!”), or pick her up, or even talk to her.  Your best bet is to set about desensitizing your dog by showing no emotion, saying nothing, and by your actions demonstrating that the fear is unfounded.

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The poop: Why dogs roll around in dung, carrion and other stinky stuff

By Jeff Stallings

Today we marked a milestone with our 21 month-old mongrel Otis, though one we hope to not repeat any time soon.

On our weekly hike at one of the more challenging off-leash trails in Marin County, the Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve, Otis reappeared after a quick detour up the incredibly steep hill, covered in a smell most foul. For the first time ever, Otis had rolled in some sort of crap, the origins of which were unclear. Coyote shit? Mountain lion scat? God forbid, that of the human variety? Regardless, when she reappeared happy as a pig in shit, to us she had suddenly reverted from awesomely well-trained canine companion to icky-smelling beast most foul.

After washing her off in a muddy puddle as best we could (the lesser of two evils at the time), I recounted to Jim how my very first dog Trixie had had a habit of digging up putrid fish heads and entrails from the backyard of the old fisherman who lived behind us. My mother had finally relented and got Trixie for me after a (child’s) lifetime of nagging, and everyone in the family had fallen in love with her. But … after a roll in rancid, rotting fish parts, I was always duly reminded that Trixie was my dog, and so we trotted off to the bathtub, my nose held shut, hers down in anticipation of a bath that could never, ever come close to measuring up to the joys of wallowing in death and decay.

So why do dogs do this? One theory is that dogs (and their genetic near-twins, wolves) roll in the rotting remains of dead animals to get the attention of their pack so that they can all return to feast thereon. Another is that dogs are not so much trying to pick up the rank scent as to deposit their own in the pile of whatever-it-is.

But the explanation that makes the most evolutionary and adaptive sense is that this ritual is an attempt at disguising the dog’s own scent, a leftover behavior from when our domestic dogs were still wild and hunted for a living. If, for instance, an antelope smelled the scent of a wild dog, jackal or wolf, it would likely bolt and run for safety. But prey animals are quite used to the smell of their own droppings, so canines learned to roll in antelope dung or carrion to mask their scent and thereby increase the likelihood of a successful hunt.

Of course knowing that did not make the odiferous drive home more enjoyable. But it kept me from getting upset at Otis for doing something that could not be more deeply rooted in the genes driving her behavior. It is always counter-productive to show anger towards your dog, so if yours rolls in something ripe and smelly, calmly take her home and give her a bath, then vow to watch her more closely next time to avoid a rancid repeat performance.

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Leaving Cincinnati: Thoughts on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference

Dog training conference in Cincinnati

By Jeff Stallings

I write this en route back to San Francisco from Cincinnati, having attended the 19th annual education conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.  It’s going to take time pouring over my notes to wrap my head around this astounding exchange of knowledge and ideas.  This conference is an incomparable opportunity to meet and listen to talks from the most accomplished dog trainers and behaviorists from around the globe.  Some highlights:

  • Both talks by Steve White, master trainer for the Washington State Police Canine Association.  Steve has been training law enforcement dogs for over three decades and early on switched from coercive training methods to a more positive-focused approach.  His overview of how clicker-centric marine mammal training blazed the trail for today’s dog trainers was superb, as was his view on implementing the Hippocratic model (“Do no harm”).  I was particularly grateful for his thoughts about drawing from many techniques in addressing specific issues, even when such tools fall outside of realm of pure positive reinforcement.
  • Dr. Laura Sharkey’s seminar, “Stop Talking and Start Training” about how training becomes more effective the less we talk to our dogs.
  • Dr. Clive Wynne’s talk entitled “The Lost History of the Dog” about his research on the origins of Canis lupus familiaris.  Dr. Wynne’s work has taken him to Novosibirsk, Russia, home of the now-famous experiment started in 1948 to domesticate Silver foxes.  In this experiment the least aggressive and most human-friendly pups from each generation were bred, which over the course of 60+ years has resulted in foxes with physical and behavioral traits much like modern dogs. This unique experiment provides insight into how a species can become domesticated, or as is more likely the case with dogs, domesticate themselves.
  • Katenna Jones’ talk about clicker training for cats (yes, cats!) which I attended in preparation for work I will soon begin with a cat owner in San Francisco.

Next October’s conference is in Spokane, Washington. I will definitely be there, perhaps combining it with a road trip through the Pacific Northwest.  I can hardly wait!

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Why it’s better to socialize a young pup than to wait for all vaccines

By Jeff Stallings

I realize that many of my blog posts concern puppy socialization. This is in part because so many of the problem behaviors I am hired to address could have been avoided or mitigated had a rich socialization program been provided for the dog. (Incidentally, I came across an informative and readable chart outlining the stages of socialization, which you can read here.)

Puppy immunization

Recently, several clients have adopted puppies towards the end of or beyond the crucial first 12-week period, during which rapid learning occurs that will have significant impact on future social behaviors. Puppies that are at or over 12-weeks of age are nearing the end of the window of opportunity for easily becoming comfortable with new things, including other dogs. Here’s what I tell them: If your puppy has had at least the first set of shots, by all means, immediately get him into socialization groups. The risk of your puppy maturing into a dog with stunted social skills due to the lack of early socialization far exceeds the risk of him contracting a communicable disease because of it.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) concurs with this practice. Their official statement on the subject reads: “…the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” You can read the entire statement here.

Unfortunately for the puppies and their owners alike, and despite the position of the AVSAB, I am sometimes at odds with veterinarians who continue to insist on all three sets of shots before starting socialization, even though a late adoption sometimes means no interaction with other puppies until 16 weeks of age or later, after which him becoming comfortable with other members of his own species is more problematic.

I do not at all mean to downplay the risk of canine parvovirus (CPV) infection; I believe every possible step should be taken to otherwise reduce the risk of infection, including not taking your puppy to grassy areas and ensuring that he only interact with other canines known to be (at least partially) vaccinated. But if your puppy has had at least one set of shots, seek out and attend as many indoor socialization groups as you can!

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The Science of Dog Shaking

I found this article about the science of dog shaking on the Atlantic Monthly’s website. Fascinating!

“Anyone who has ever had or been near a dog or seen a movie in which there is a dog knows this familiar sequence of events. It seems simple. But it is not.

It turns out that we didn’t really know how such shakes worked until Andrew Dickerson, Zachary Mills, and David Hu of Georgia Tech began to figure it out with the help of ultra high-speed footage of animals drying themselves.

“Engineers are interested in new kinds of ideas and any type of animal that is a champion of something,” Hu told me. “Dogs are good at getting dry. Any time an animal is really good at something, there is an idea there that can be used.”

Continue reading this article

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How socialization works: Dogs (and only dogs) can truly bond to multiple species

By Jeff Stallings

My favorite behavior book of the past year or so is John Bradshaw’s “Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet”. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to better understand their dogs’ minds, especially if you’re a bit of a science geek. Which of course I am; I could hardly put this book down.

“Dog Sense” includes the best explanation I have yet read about when, how and why socialization is important. Specifically, Bradshaw used the results of many studies to determine the mechanisms that allow puppies to become familiar with—and attached to—dogs, humans and other species.

Puppy Socialization

Early work in this field was conducted by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s. Lorenz discovered the process (now known as filial imprinting) whereby young animals learn the characteristics of their parents. Goslings, for example, will imprint onto the first moving object of about the right size that they encounter between twelve and sixteen hours after hatching. In the wild the chance of this first object not being the mother is remote, so imprinting is a highly-effective means for a newborn chick to become attached to its actual mother. Lorenz called this the “critical period”; we now use the term “sensitive period”, and it changes from species to species, but works the same in each.

The sensitive period in puppies runs from age three weeks until about sixteen weeks. What separates puppies from the young of every other known species is that they can imprint with multiple individuals across multiple species. Thousands of years of domestication has led to the modern dog’s unique ability to bond with not only their own species, but also with humans, cats, sheep and any other species they spend time with during those crucial first months of life. Some traditional uses of dogs exploit this flexibility. For example, sheep-guarding breeds, if raised with sheep, grow up to behave as if the flock is their family. The amazing thing is that these dogs do not at the same time lose species identity; they know they are dogs and not sheep.

To quote Bradshaw, “The domestic dog puppy’s unusual capacity for multiple socialization is the mechanism whereby we can insert ourselves into their social milieu and substitute ourselves into a role that, in the wild, would be served by their parents.” Conversely, if young pups are not familiarized with humans during this period, they will not learn to trust, love and live peacefully with humans.

In addition to this sensitive period being the time in which puppies learn to not fear humans, it also is the period in which they learn to live with and not be frightened of other aspects of our man-made world, such as cars, buses, skateboards, bicycles, loud noises, etc. Many times, the behavioral problems I work with my clients to address could have been avoided with a well-planned and concerted effort to expose their puppies to many people, many dogs, and a large range of outside stimuli during those three or so months.

“The first three or four months of life”, says Bradshaw, “are arguably the most important time in a dog’s life. Born with a powerful urge to learn about the world around them, dogs adjust during this period to whatever type of environment they find themselves born into, from the back streets of a village in Punjab to a New York high-rise. As with most animals, their default reaction to the unknown is fear. But for dogs, unlike most other animals, that fearful reaction is easily nullified by the right kind of experience.”

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Babies with dogs are less susceptible to illness

I have seen this news report popping up all over the place the last few days, so I had to pass it on.   A number of my clients have small children or are expecting.  This is absolutely fascinating:

New parents with dogs and cats sometimes consider giving pets away when a baby arrives, but a new study finds keeping the furry family members in tow may boost a child’s health benefits.

A Finnish study finds babies who grow up with pets – especially dogs – are less likely to develop colds and other respiratory infections by the time they’re toddlers.

The study, published online July 9 in Pediatrics, tracked 397 kids in Finland from before they were born until they turned 1-year-old. Weekly questionnaires were given to parents that asked about their child’s health and whether they owned a pet.

The researchers determined that 245 of the babies had a dog in the home (62 percent) and 136 babies (34 percent) had cat contact. By study’s end, 65 percent of children lived in homes without a dog and almost 76 percent lived in a cat-free home, so not everyone with a pet had it throughout the entire study.

Click here to read the entire story

 

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