JUST TO BE SOCIAL
“Dogs love company. They place it first in their short list of needs.”
A human’s world is alien to a dog. Despite their ever-growing domesticated abilities, dogs do not come equipped with a handbook of how things operate in our realm. It is entirely incumbent upon us to teach them the ways of our world.
We cannot assume that it is normal for a dog to feel a leash around his neck; nor can we expect him to lose his desire to bark, mark territory, chew, and aggressively bite things he perceives as threats to his physical well-being. These are standard-issue canine behaviors that dogs instinctively perform. Unfortunately, a dog that bites can invoke society to institute a death penalty, and even lesser offenses can send owners scurrying for the nearest dog shelter. In such cases, a more socially acceptable response (by our standards, of course) for these behaviors is always missing, and this is our failure. Imagine what someone would look like eating linguine if no one ever showed them how to use utensils. It would not be pretty. The reality with dogs is far worse than a lack of teaching; it is our initial acceptance of these behaviors that can lead to a dog’s untimely demise. Owners everywhere slough off a biting puppy as cute—we call it “nipping,” which even sounds cute. As the dog grows and its bite becomes worse than its nip, it is now labeled a “bad dog.” Too often we treat problematic behaviors by attempting to wait them out. When these problems are not automatically outgrown, people treat dogs like lemons from a used-car lot and send them to the proverbial scrap heap.
Most dogs in shelters are roughly six to eighteen months old, adolescent dogs that were not properly socialized as puppies. Dogs enter adolescence at roughly six months, and depending on the size of the breed, the teen years can last until the dog is three years old. Adolescence is typically marked by some notable changes in behavior, and too often owners who have failed to socialize their dog properly end up deeming the dog’s issues intractable.
My mother will attest to the fact that it took a lot of work and no fewer than a couple of years for me to master “please” and “thank you,” despite the fact that we both speak English. She taught me with a gentle nudge and other times not so subtly. Despite the deliberate message and reminders, it took a few years before I was consistently willing to use these words in my interactions. By contrast, a dog can learn what to chew on, where to chew it, and even when to chew in a few hours, and with steady practice can master a behavior in days. The point is that a dog learns “please” and “thank you” far faster than I did but it still requires consistent work.
Dogs are social animals and quick studies that are very willing to learn manners, etiquettes, and protocols of behavior that make them all but perfect ladies and gentlemen in a domestic setting. If we do not take advantage of these abilities, dogs will be left to fend for themselves and try to determine what works on their own.
The dictionary defines socialization as “a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position.” The operable word is “continuing.” Although a dog is most teachable when it’s a puppy, even older dogs can shed their skin and refine their identity. Most training books are puppy-centric, rendering dogs over four months of age seemingly hopeless and unable to learn. This is not so. Similar principles apply, and though an older dog may be less malleable, all dogs can learn. In fact, the majority of dogs I train are adult dogs. Giving up on teaching dogs that have reached adolescence or adulthood is not only without basis but serves to multiply the shelter problem.
Dogs were not made for life in the city, but over one million dogs can be found thriving in the bustle of New York City alone. A dog misbehaving on an elevator is going to get called out in a hurry, but the good news is that same dog will get daily opportunities to amend and learn new behaviors. It will get conditioned to this environment by being commanded to sit during elevator rides, and will become desensitized to strangers coming and going in cramped quarters. Socialization is an ongoing process of conditioning and desensitization. We condition the response with commands and desensitize our dogs through incremental exposure to triggering stimuli in order to form positive associations.
For every behavioral problem there is a command that can fix it, but behind every behavioral problem is a socialization problem. Somewhere along the way, a dog did not learn how to properly interact with the environment. How do these problems manifest? They manifest every time a dog performs an experiment in its environment and makes associations based upon the results. This happens any number of times per day. If the sample size is small and the lone or few “snapshots” are negative, a negative association has been formed, and when this happens around the wrong thing, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”
I worked with a two-year-old golden retriever named Simon who had difficulties around children. No great surprise, as it’s been said that dogs are less comfortable around men, children, and strangers. This means their greatest comfort level is around familiar women. Though I feel the same way, life involves more than spending time with women familiar to us.
Simon is the consummate happy golden retriever who became skittish and defensive when he got around children. He would send out a few warning barks and growl while backing up. It may have looked threatening enough, but it was clearly not an aggression problem. Simon simply had a very vocal desire not to engage kids. I asked the owner about her experience with Simon around children. When he was a pup, she refused to take the dog around children because she thought the neighborhood kids were too rough with other dogs. She may have been right but avoidance is rarely an advisable solution. When Simon was a little under a year old, she let her neighbor’s son play with him, and apparently, like a good neighbor, the kid flew a toy plane into the dog’s face and poked him in the eye. The dog scampered away, and the kid made flying sounds with his toy plane as he approached the dog again. Guess what the dog did? He growled and backed away. What did Simon’s owner do after that? She scolded the dog for growling and, from that moment on, avoided kids.
What was she doing when the dog first met the kid? She was chatting with her neighbor. Why? Because Simon had no particular reaction to kids from a safe distance and was now mostly grown. To that point, concern for her dog had her avoiding kids, and now she decided to turn Simon loose solely because he had reached physical maturity. Apparently, no introduction would be necessary, because Simon was a good dog.
In the wake of this incident, Simon’s owner now avoided children to the point where she would cross the street rather than walk past them. Simon’s interactions with children were limited to a trial sample of one. This solitary encounter resulted in a poke in the eye, and from this point on, Simon would be quick to avoid anyone who was not tall enough to ride a roller coaster. Reasonable to me. Every time she crossed the street to steer clear of those dang kids, Simon’s owner was sending a message that children posed a threat. Socialization is a “continuing process,” and she continually conditioned the dog to consider children dangerous. Simon was socialized to be wary of children, and the lone incident was proof enough for the dog. Had Simon ever been cornered by an unsuspecting child, he may well have bitten. Although it would have been purely a defensive maneuver, it could have not only injured a child but also endangered the dog’s life. The solution? Get some kids that are not armed with toy planes around the dog.
Over the course of a day, we carefully guided Simon through the land of children to gradually reduce his fear response. At first I brought Simon in the vicinity of kids and waited for his growl before redirecting his attention to me. All I needed was a few moments of eye contact to lower his anxiety to a manageable level. Once I got some calm from him, I would offer a treat. Pretty quickly the presence of kids was neutralized. With treats at the ready, I told some kids that the dog was very shy and asked if they could help my friend Simon overcome his shyness. The kids agreed and I made sure to handle the dog as the little people fed him a treat. Unlike his owner, I didn’t have a problem with Simon around kids, so the dog was a little less reactive. Simon clearly considered children a threat to him but may have also believed that his owner required his protection from them.
With me leading the introductions, Simon’s tune changed over the course of an hour but I kept at it for a day before I passed him back to his owner. (By the way, it’s amazing to see the caring concern of kids when they are doing something to help an animal. Even the boy who looked like he might scream, “Doggy!” and tackle Simon was suddenly gentle and focused.) Simon’s sample size grew to the point where he understood that not all kids come equipped with sharp-nosed toy planes that seek the nearest eye. I use this example not only to highlight the importance of proper socialization but also to illustrate how teachable an adolescent dog can be.
In order to socialize a dog, it does not have to meet all of your Facebook friends, but it needs to meet plenty of people: friends, acquaintances, and strangers. It needs to meet strangers doing strange things—picking up the garbage, dropping off the mail—and it needs to contend with strangers who will be handling the dog: groomers, dog walkers, vets, friends, family, and possibly trainers.
You need to listen with your eyes in order to detect and prevent the development of phobias, fears, and foibles. In short, you need to speak a little dog. In no time, you two will be like a longtime married couple that can finish each other’s sentences. The way you do this is by spending time with your dog and being social. Introduce your dog to people and other dogs, bring it to new places, and let your dog into your entire world (within reason).
For a dog to be fully socialized, it must be able to negotiate myriad environments, interactions, and objects, including but not limited to the following:
■ Locations: Home (inside and outside), other people’s homes, crates, doghouses, dog parks, dog kennels, parks, bodies of water, veterinarians’ offices, the groomer, etc.
■ People: Children, adults, the elderly, infants, handicapped people (wheelchairs, walkers—i.e., any and all who appear different will appear entirely different to a dog), people wearing big hats, sunglasses, carrying umbrellas; anything that alters appearance might make a dog think it’s happened upon a new, potentially threatening species.
■ Animals: Your dog will also encounter other dogs, cats, rodents, as well as indigenous animals.
■ Objects: Furniture, different flooring surfaces (hardwood, waxed wood, carpeting, etc.), glass doors, toys and balls of all varieties, noisemaking objects, wood, paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, clothing, metal items; the list goes on to cars, buses, motorcycles, loud trucks (garbage trucks!), skateboards (a common issue), Rollerblades, bicycles, lawn mowers, washer/dryers, blenders, boats, vacuums, etc.
■ Sounds: Doorbells, singing, stereos, carts, fireworks, ice cream trucks, screaming, vehicles of all varieties, aircrafts—any and all of the above can create an aural alarm for a dog.
Dogs also have to be able to move through these environments and deal with things like garage doors, electric sliding doors, glass doors, stairwells, elevators, escalators, closing and opening doors, bathtubs, etc. Without needed guidance, this is a daunting proposition for a dog.
Dogs will need to be bathed, get their nails clipped, be flea-combed, be brushed (fur and teeth), be picked up by loved ones, and be accosted by overfriendly strangers. A veterinarian will take their temperature, look in their ears and mouth and between their toes, and do whatever else is needed at a checkup or in performing a basic procedure.
Dogs will need to deal with many of these sights, sounds, and experiences on their own. How many people are with their dog more often than not? Most dogs are going to gain their greatest experience solo, so be ready to discover what they’ve picked up on in their travels.
Let’s get prepared. I am less of a proponent than many regarding the use of treats in teaching dogs the basic socialization techniques. I find they can be a distraction to the dog. Still, better safe than sorry, so keep some treats in your proverbial quiver, especially if working with a puppy. We’ll begin with the first rule of etiquette: the dog introduction.
MEET AND GREET
Dogs need to meet people, as well as other dogs, and form positive associations. Let me say that again. Dogs need to meet people, as well as other dogs, and form positive associations. Meeting new people is easier, so let’s start with meeting new dogs.
INTROS AND OUTROS
So, you’re taking a Sunday stroll on a narrow sidewalk, and along comes a fellow human walking a strange dog. You nod in acknowledgment, and this person slows down, but the dog keeps going, straight in the path of your pooch. It is your job to make the introduction to this potential new canine friend. A well-socialized dog may know how to introduce itself, but we never know with whom our furry friend is coming into contact. Be first and never let the dog lead. In such instances, always keep your dog behind you.
■ Justin keeps Buster safely behind him as Erin approaches with a curious Chiquita. Justin is standing at an ideal angle. He can keep an eye on Buster while meeting the approaching dog.
■ Justin uses the hand signal to have Buster sit. Erin has also asked Chiquita to sit. They are at a very comfortable distance to begin a great introduction.
■ Justin makes sure that Buster is giving him his attention. Once confident that Buster is in a good place, he gives him the hand signal for “stay.”
■ A Zen-like Buster exhibits masterful patience as Justin says hello to Chiquita. Note Justin’s introductory gesture is to put his hand under the chin of Chiquita. Erin dutifully watches on.
■ Both dogs were so good about their intros that they’re invited to say hello to each other. Note Justin’s good monitoring position and the slack on the leash (sorry, Erin).
■ This is an example of what not to do. With the dogs in the lead the humans can’t instruct and reactive behavior is a possibility. Why chance it?
When the dog goes first, problems can ensue. This is how leashes get tangled and dogs get riled. Things escalate in a hurry unless you lead and are in a position to remove your dog from the fray if necessary. In combustible situations, we all have the option of flight, fight, or freeze. When a dog is on a leash, flight is not an option, and in close proximity to another dog, freezing is not very viable, either. Fight is the only option. People who let their dog go first are now following their dog, which is precarious. This nonchalant approach often gives dogs the impression that they are the gatekeeper and protector, which appreciably ups the ante. Dogs do not relish the role of protector; rather, it makes them anxious, fearful, and aggressive. A dog in this position may think, “We’ve got incoming” every time it encounters another living thing around its owner.
Dogs react in many ways when they see one of their fellow brethren or sistren; excited, playful, fearful, aggressive, submissive, among the gamut of dog behaviors. They may crouch down, bark, or jump in playful or aggressive fashion, roll on their backs submissively, shake and cower in fear, or just stay cool as a cucumber. Irrespective of their reactions, it is our job to monitor the introduction.
■ Create space. About ten feet away from the unfamiliar dog, ask your dog to sit. This teaches patience and halts any rambunctious behavior.
■ Approach the new dog with your dog slightly behind you.
■ Be sure your dog is sitting as you reach out to allow the new dog to sniff your hand.
■ If your dog is calm and you like the new dog, invite your dog in.
■ Keep a close eye. If one dog plays too rough or goes under the hood to sniff with too much enthusiasm, the other dog may growl or snap to set a boundary. This is natural and no need to be alarmed. Some dogs need to learn the manners of sniffing. Although they may mean well, even well-behaved dogs will go on high alert or simply react when another dog gets up in their grill, so to speak. Any mild escalation can usually be dealt with by separating your dog and having him sit for a few moments. Such time-outs give dogs a chance to learn proper introductions and play. However, if either dog appears stiff in posture, excitable, or heads in for a face-to-face, use your leash to create space. In urgent situations, step in with your knee to create space.
In general, people are horrendous at dog introductions. They may ask if your dog is friendly, and, before you’ve even answered, their dog can be all over yours. Practice good etiquette by always being first so everyone can be comfortable. When a dog goes eye-to-eye with another dog, it can be a challenge. In this rare circumstance, use your leash to pull back and your knee to intercede between the dogs. Risking a bite on a bent knee is small potatoes compared to breaking up two dogs locked on each other.
People with friendly dogs often drop their leashes whenever their dog is sniffing another. They may appear to be off to a good start, but tensions can escalate, especially when only one dog is on leash. Be extremely mindful in monitoring.
For a dog that is shy or nervous with people, treats can actually go a long way. That said, they are not to be used in making dog introductions as problems can arise. The combination of treats and being petted is a potent way to form positive associations. Save for the treats, the principles in meeting strangers are the same as in meeting other dogs.
■ The key is to be first. Your dog will sense that it is safe.
For a couple of months:
■ Ask new people to introduce themselves with a treat.
■ Practice this technique on and off the leash.
■ Practice this inside and outside your home.
The goal is to socialize and expose your dog to a wide variety of people, places, and things. This is how dogs develop confidence and a sense of security. A dog that is wary of people, and even a dog that acts out aggressively, is generally lacking confidence, which can be traced to unfamiliarity. Let your dog meet people of all sizes, races, creeds, and kinds. I mean that. Fear of the unknown can wreak havoc, so please observe your dog in order to be a good chaperone.
■ Dog Greeting 1—The wrong way: Mara is literally over the top on this one. When meeting a dog, putting one’s head over their body can feel invasive and reaching one’s hand over their head to pet them can also alarm a dog.
■ Dog Greeting 2—The correct way: Dave turns sideways and makes his big self smaller. He also offers his hand for Pacino to sniff. This shows good manners and can put an apprehensive dog at ease.
■ Dog Greeting 3—Dave’s hands go under Pacino’s chin as he happily accepts Dave’s warm greetings.
By listening with your eyes, you will uncover the situations that your dog is particularly reactive to and then be able to focus on these “triggers.”
■ Triggers need to be addressed, not avoided.
■ Limiting a dog’s exposure to triggers exacerbates the behavior. Just ask Simon.
Exposure therapy is a technique used by mental health professionals to treat people with phobias, fears, and some obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In this straightforward form of treatment, the client is slowly exposed to the source of his trouble and, little by little, the fear diminishes. Integrating your dog fully into your life is a preventative form of exposure therapy. For dogs that have triggers, exposure therapy is essential. It must be practiced very gradually. One can go too fast but not too slow. In the case of acute aggression or problems in the extreme, it is wise to speak with a professional first.
TRIPPING THE TRIGGER
The mailman is the archetypal trigger person for dogs. Fortunately, the fix can be easy. Should your dog terrorize the mail carrier, kindly ask her to feed your dog a treat or throw a ball and let the healing begin. Dogs can be redirected to form new associations, and redirection holds the key.
■ Chiquita has been alerted to something and has run ahead, desperately wanting to check it out. A concerned Justin weighs the situation.
■ Justin does not like Chiquita’s energy and immediately redirects her to head in the opposite direction of the stimulus.
■ Justin shuffles backward, calling Chiquita in a happy tone that motivates her to pay more attention to him rather than the triggering stimulus.
■ Justin keeps Chiquita’s attention by having her engage in the “sit” command.
■ He continues to redirect her impulsive desires onto something more productive by having her perform the “down” command.
■ Chiquita receives due praise for performing her commands so well in the face of urgent distraction. At this juncture, a calmer Chiquita can effectively navigate the road ahead.
The concept of redirection could go anywhere in the book, as it applies to all facets of dog husbandry, but I chose socialization because it is so clearly helpful in adjusting and molding how a dog interacts with the world.
The term “redirection” is often used in the case of dog aggression. When a dog is attacking another animal and someone tries to break it up, the dog may end up biting that person without realizing. It will be said that the dog redirected. The term is also used to mean transferring a negatively reacting dog’s attention onto a preferred alternative. A dog barking incessantly at the approaching mailman can be lured with a reward, directed to a destination spot, and taught to sit when the mailman arrives. I lure the dog with the promise of a treat but give the dog a choice, just like I did with Maya. In this case, the question would be: “Would you prefer to bark your lungs out, or would you like to play a game called ‘The Mailman’s Here’?” In this game, the dog gets to go to a spot, have a seat, and be rewarded and praised by a happy owner. Should it be a double-jackpot day, the dog can be introduced to the mailman and get yet another reward.
The actual redirection occurs just before the dog’s knee-jerk reaction. The moment the ears go up (because the mailman is coming) is the moment the game begins.
Even in relatively extreme cases, redirection can work wonders. It can even help with aggression issues. Dogs that appear to be aggressive are generally fearful, so they will let out a warning growl. A growl is something to take seriously enough but it’s usually a dog communicating discomfort with a given situation. Removing your dog from the situation is the first move if aggression is a possibility. In more innocuous scenarios, such as a whirring vacuum cleaner, try redirecting the dog’s attention to a reward. This simple method can be especially helpful with skateboards, loud trucks, and alarming noises in general. A dog that is fearful of a particular person should be kept at a safe distance while that person remains in sight.
My Chiquita was fearful of men in hats, particularly at night. Strange but true. When a man wearing any type of hat would walk by, she would lower her head and pin on them before breaking into a growl. To treat this issue, I began by exposing her to some fedora wearers (not hard to find) from a distance where she was concerned, but not reactive.
Right at the first tell—when she lowered her head—I’d say her name with excitement. When she looked at me, I’d show her a treat but would not give it to her. I did not want her to associate the reward as praise for lowering her head in fear. Instead, I’d playfully shuffle backward a few steps, call her to me, ask her to sit, and then lie down before giving her the reward. As her attention became divided, she calmed some and was able to sense that I did not consider the fedora-wearing passerby a threat. I didn’t tell her that men under age sixty wearing fedoras get on my nerves. My positive attitude helped considerably, so my next move was to ask a hat-wearing stranger to walk by Chiquita and me. One guy was nice enough to walk by a few times, getting closer and closer with each pass. This is an example of exposure and proximity training. Chiquita had gotten largely over the issue from a distance, so the proximity piece moved quickly.
THE RIGHT TOUCH
Thus far we’ve addressed introductions, the importance of having your dog meet all types of people, and the concept of redirection in cases where a dog has triggers that cause unpleasant reactions. Now we have to consider something that any creature in the animal kingdom would be uncomfortable with, without some practice.
■ Justin uses treats and inspects Kennedy’s paw. By making positive associations with being handled, Kennedy will be far happier visiting the vet and groomer.
All dogs need to get used to being handled. Dogs will be groomed, have their teeth brushed, visit the veterinarian for an examination, and perhaps have to deal with a child tugging its leg or pulling its tail. This is not something dogs are automatically prepared for (to this day, I hate when people pull my tail).
To form sound associations with being handled, a dog must be touched, mushed, petted, and basically massaged everywhere. This includes some sensitive places like its mouth, ears, paws, gums, and teeth. For a dog to be vet-friendly and childproof, the best thing to do is start having those closest to the dog handle them. Give him a lengthy petting, beginning with the foolproof belly rub, before you move on to more sensitive areas. Should a dog doth protest too much, go back to the belly or a favorite spot and begin again. Treats will again come in handy as a dog catches on quickly to the fact that being petted and fed simultaneously is nothing short of awesome. Have others do the same, and with practice, even a touchy dog can be lulled and persuaded into being examined. This technique is also helpful in getting dogs to submit to dreaded activities like teeth brushing and nail clipping.
Having someone who can keep an eye on your pooch and provide a playdate is invaluable. Dogs need to be around other dogs and people on a regular basis. In some areas, this can be challenging, but for the most part, there are local dog parks and fellow dog owners close by.
Dogs unfortunately do not get along with every dog; nor should they be expected to. I don’t expect a dog to happily interact with every other dog at the local dog run. A well-balanced dog can find friends but also play on its own, even in a park full of fellow canines.
MY DOG IS TROUBLE
This specifically refers to dogs that have shown signs of aggression toward other dogs or been in a fight and have subsequently become more aggressive. I will address general aggression in Chapter 9, “Living in the Solution,” under the heading Aggression/Territorial Behavior.
People are rightly concerned if their dog has been in an altercation before. It is nothing short of scary to see dogs going medieval on one another. While a fight can affect a dog, people tend to take it much harder. I’ve seen so many dogs that are poorly socialized because, at one point or another, they got into a fight, and their owners have since kept them relatively isolated. It is difficult to get good information on this subject, as aggression is a scenario that no one wants to tackle sight unseen. While I agree, I can say that if your dog got off to a bad start with a neighbor’s dog or got into it at the dog run, there is hope.
Dogs that are unpredictably aggressive with other dogs, or dogs that have become aggressive since being in a fight, need lengthier introductions. Gradual exposure is the ticket, with the emphasis on “gradual.” Cooperation from fellow dog owners is required, so don’t be too proud to beg, borrow, or bribe a willing dog owner.
Begin by using a short lead; no more than six feet in length and ideally four. Make sure the leash is super secure in your hand but not taut (we do not want to communicate tension).
■ With both dogs on leash, calmly say hello from roughly twenty feet.
■ Slowly move closer but stay at a distance where the dogs are not reactive.
■ Use a treat to redirect the dog should it begin to act up.
■ Also use your leash to redirect—remain calm so you don’t put unnecessary pressure on the lead as you break your dog’s fixation on the other dog.
■ Look for stress clues, such as hackling (in which the hairs on the neck are raised) or pinning (fixating on the other dog or stiffness in the body).
■ At any sign of stress, get more space.
■ When the dog is calm, very slowly make your way over to your friend.
■ Keep dogs separated by both owners—two humans apart.
■ With the leash short but not taut, shake hands with your fellow human while continuing to keep the dogs at a distance.
■ With the dogs on the outside of both parties, walk together and make sure the dogs aren’t glowering at each other.
It is up to the owners not to stress the dogs by holding the leash too tightly. A short leash can still have slack. After ten minutes of walking together, the dogs should be close to accustomed to each other’s presence.
Signs to look for:
■ The dog’s looking away or sniffing objects.
■ The dog attempts to engage its owner.
■ The dog appears interested in something besides the other dog.
■ If you come to a stop, the dog sits.
■ Any sign that communicates disinterest or lack of concern.
Go slow, be patient, and when you’re confident, allow the dogs to sniff each other from the back and then separate them once more. Dogs will rarely attack from the back. Let them trail each other by a few feet. When you are comfortable, use the steps described in “Intros and Outros” to let the dogs briefly into each other’s space (but not nose to nose), and build up the time until they can freely socialize. Should an aggressive dog have to meet another dog indoors, keep both dogs on leash and monitor closely. Enclosed spaces can heighten tensions. To fight-proof the environment, keep toys, chew sticks, food, and food bowls away because spats over play objects or food are not uncommon. Once the dog is getting on better with others of his kind, an abbreviated version of this ritual can be performed.
Mouthing is natural for dogs, as a dog’s mouth acts as its hands. Mother dogs use the same jaws to pick up their puppies as they do to hunt prey, while dogs at play mouth each other around the scruff of the neck and playfully nip at each other’s limbs. It is through this social play that dogs, especially puppies, learn bite inhibition and appropriate bite pressure. A dog will yelp when bitten too hard, at which time the other dog should back off. Puppies don’t know the difference between mouthing canines or humans until we show them.
Observe the difference between play mouthing and true aggression. Families with young children and puppies become alarmed that the dog is aggressive when mouthing and nipping occur.
It is an absolute must that dogs learn bite pressure through socialization. Fellow dogs will do a far better job teaching appropriate bite pressure, as this is an instinctive need. Socializing with other dogs will do wonders to limit a young dog’s need to mouth/nip on humans.
The most common mistake is the overcorrection of this instinctual behavior. While corrections in general are to be used sparingly, a mouthing dog is in an excited state, so any type of reactive reprimanding will not help the issue. Worse yet, such histrionics will engender defensive behavior, which can come in the form of biting as play mouthing turns to aggression.
To teach bite inhibition, one can allow gentle mouthing of the skin or not permit any skin contact whatsoever. This is a personal choice.
■ Let your dog mouth toys or tug items as you hold them.
■ When the dog makes contact with your skin, an “ehh- ehh!” or “ouch!,” followed by turning away from the dog for five to ten seconds, is a time-honored technique. The dog will figure out that humans have pretty fragile skin and don’t appreciate when their pup practices mouthing on them.
■ Resume play. If the dog is not getting it, give a big “ouch!” and stand up.
■ Walk out of the room in a huff: The dog can sense that someone isn’t happy and that play may be in jeopardy. Wait five minutes and go back.
■ Use the “gentle mouth,” “leave it,” and “drop it” commands. These are all excellent commands that can help with impulse control.
■ Redirect mouthing of the inappropriate object or people onto chew items.
■ Dog mouths a wrist or hand: say, “ehh-ehh!” and introduce the tug toy instead.
It may seem counterintuitive to introduce a chew toy to an animal with a mouthing problem, but it is a constructive outlet for the behavior. Be sure to keep the chew toys in rotation so they remain novel and, for an added attraction, soak a rope toy or rubber bone in chicken stock.
BETTER TO GIVE
There is no redeeming value in having a dog that is ornery and on edge or fearful and submissive. The dog is certainly not having any fun. When our relationship with dogs got under way, there were a lot less people on the planet. Their roles were very different and given their genetic makeup, a lot easier to fill. Meeting these difficulties should be part of the continuing process that is socialization for both man and dog.
I would have to say the most enduring role that we still share with dogs is our desire for affection from each other. Studies have shown that petting a dog lowers levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine (relaxes and reduces anxiety and depression), lowers blood pressure, increases endorphins as well as oxytocin levels (oxytocin is known as the “love hormone”). I can’t sell being affectionate toward your dog better than that.
Socialize your dog so it may healthily interact with friends and strangers alike, and teach the dog that it is safe to be handled by health care professionals and groomers. A little affection goes a long way. Take dogs to the usual places, and let them venture with you into more challenging environments so they may gain needed confidence and security.