Dr. Emily Levine is a veterinarian who specializes in behavior problems at Animal Emergency & Referral Associates in Fairfield NJ and she will be blogging about pet behavior topics. www.animalerc.com
Recently someone asked a very good question about the use of punishment when dogs jump to greet people. The person made the analogy that if a dog were to interact with a porcupine, the dog would get hurt and therefore, not likely go near a porcupine again. Something unpleasant happened so the dog learned not to approach porcupines. An example that could apply to humans is that of a hot stove. When the stove top is red and we touch it, we get punished (burned) and therefore, we learn not to touch hot stoves. Why, if punishment works so well for the above examples, shouldn’t we use punishment to keep dogs from jumping on us? It seems very reasonable and rational that many people would come to the conclusion that the use of punishment would be the preferred method to use. Hopefully, after reading this, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of the use of punishment and behavior, and well…..our relationships with our pets.
First, when punishment is used, it only needs to be used once, perhaps twice (bottom line…very few times) and the unwanted behavior should stop. That’s the whole point of punishment after all. But how many times do you find yourself or see others repeating a punishment over and over again? I see people doing it quite literally for years!
Now, for arguments sake, lets just say a punishment technique worked for a greeting behavior ( i.e. dogs jumping up on people). Does that mean we should use it? Aren’t we ethically and morally obligated to use the least aversive techniques as possible? And if so, how does the example of the porcupine and the hot stove make any sense at all? Where does that fit into learning, behavior, and punishment?
First, when a dog/person approaches something that is unsafe or could cause significant harm to him/her, it makes sense ethologically that we only approach that item once and learn that the “item” is not safe and we should stay away. After all, those who don’t get hurt/harmed survive to pass on their genes. Here is the difference. Dogs do not have “relationships with porcupines”. They do not need to interact with them on a daily basis, depend upon them for shelter, food, and quite frankly, everything else in their life. Porcupines do not structure the dog’s day, activities, and meals. The same goes for a person and a stove. If porcupines and stoves were significant relationships in our lives, we would all be in trouble! What would happen if punishment was dolled out for the most benign actions such as an approach (as is the case with a dog and a porcupine) or touch (as is the case with a person and a stove), with a person whom we depend on to care for us, teach us, guide us, and protect us? Imagine a child being punished for trying to hug their parent, or going to tickle them? Family dynamics where punishment is used in inhumane ways leads to very dysfunctional relationships and puts the child in a very sad and harmful position that can quite literally, change who that child becomes. Can you imagine being a bystander and see a happy kid running to his parent’s arms outstretched for a hug and upon getting to the parent, the parent pushes/knees them in the chest or slaps them? A look of horror would likely cross your face. (This is why you might see those who know something about dog behavior cringe when they see people knee a dog for a greeting).
The relationship between a dog, or any other pet, and a person needs to be viewed more like a parent/child relationship in that the human needs to be viewed as kind, caring, loving, trusting, and of course being able to provide food, shelter, health care etc. Now, let’s go back to the jumping for greetings example. Why do dogs jump to greet? It’s simple – to get attention and say hello. The dog is as innocent and joyful when they go to do that as is the child who wants to hug or tickle. To punish this behavior is a misuse of punishment and can create a very confused, anxious pet. Can you just imagine a dog being so excited to see his or her person and enthusiastically go to say hi but ends up getting a big slap in the face? What must that dog be thinking? Do you think this helps build trust in his person as a guardian or good leader? Or do you think it is more likely that he would be confused, shocked, scared? How would this alter the overall relationship? To complicate things, bigger dogs may interpret being pushed back or kneed as their person’s way of “giving attention back or playing” so what does the dog do? They jump harder and longer to continue the fun and them BAM… a big punch to the face and being thrown on their back and screamed at. At this point, the poor dog surely believes his person is schizophrenic because his or her behavior makes no sense at all!! Ready to make it more complicated? Sometimes when a dog jumps up to greet because they want attention, many people will actually give them attention by petting them and looking at them or talking to them. So now that same greeting behavior is sometimes reinforced, sometimes punished, and sometimes greeted with more play behavior from the person (from the dog’s perspective). Sometimes I can’t believe there are any sane dogs out there given how we confuse them! So, if we shouldn’t use punishment, what are we suppose to do for dogs who jump to greet??
We simply need to teach them that in order to get attention, which is what they want in the first place, they must learn to say please. How do dogs say please? They sit. If they sit and stay seated, they get the attention they so desperately want.
We are so quick to recognize what we don’t want our dog friends to do that we often forget to teach them what we do want them to do. Unless you know something about basic training, there are valid reasons why this method appears not to work. There are different humane methods to teach dogs how to sit for greetings and having a trainer guide you through it is important. Some key concepts to know when teaching dogs to sit to get attention are positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and extinction bursts. If you are working with a trainer who is not familiar with these concepts, find another trainer.
I sincerely hope, this has helped shed some light on why we should not punish our dogs for jumping and I hope people continue to ask these very important questions.
*By the way, negative punishment is very different from positive punishment, which is the kind of punishment that was used in all the examples above.
Many of the dogs that I have the privilege of working with, suffer from anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorder, the inability to focus etc…Often times, part of an overall treatment plan involves teaching the dog cue words or teaching the dog’s family members how to give the cue word so the dog understands what is being asked in a way that the dog does not find threatening or anxiety provoking. Cue words are critical in providing our dogs with information on what we would like them to do OR how they should feel about something. It would make no sense at all to use cue words or commands in such a way that actually makes the dog more anxious or aggressive! This is counterproductive and inhumane! This is why an understanding of learning theory is so important. We often see people asking their dog to something in a tone of voice or with body language that scares or intimidates the dog. We often see people who are giving commands in a nice kind way but the techniques they are doing, without realizing it, leads to blocking or overshadowing ( important learning theory terms) which will prevent the dog from learning what we want him to learn, or confuse him because, we the humans, think we are teaching the dog one thing but he is actually learning something else! For example we think we are teaching the dog to sit by saying the verbal word sit, but at the exact same time we hold up a treat. We are not teaching the dog in a manner that is clear and concise and he may not be learning the verbal word to sit YET we think the dog does understand the word “sit”. Then what happens when we ask them to sit with just a verbal cue and they don’t do it? We get mad! How unfair is this to the dog??? Can you imagine trying to work with a dog who has any behavioral issues when the two species are unable to communicate effectively? Once we have established a line of communication between the species that is clear and not anxiety/fear provoking, we can then begin the real behavior modifications that are often necessary to deal with aggression and anxiety.
Please read the blog that my colleagues and I are doing. You will get great information about various behavioral topics. Pay particular attention to the post by Dr. Lore Haug on the Truth About Positive Reinforcement Training. It is imperative that veterinarians and dog owners become as educated as possible on training techniques so we can stop harming our canine companions in the name of so called “training”.
Most new dog owners have heard that they should socialize their puppy. The idea is simple. Bring your puppy everywhere you go so he or she gets used to different people, sounds, sights etc… Seems reasonable right? Well, like with most things in life, there is more than meets the eye here. There are several factors to consider when socializing a puppy or being instructed to socialize a dog with behavior problems to ensure we are helping and not hurting our canine companions.
Many people have heard of sensitive periods (formerly known as critical periods) in dogs. Sensitive periods are time frames in animals’ lives when experiences, or lack thereof, with certain stimuli (e.g. different people, animals, sounds etc.) can have a large effect on later behavior. One of these sensitive periods is called the socialization period. In dogs, this occurs roughly between 4-14 weeks of age. During this age range, puppies are learning about their environment (i.e. what is safe and good.) This is the reason people are encouraged to take their puppies everywhere with them and meet lots of different types of people and dogs. Here are some important details about socialization that every dog owner or pet professional should know:
- Socialization will only have a positive effect if the socialization experience is positive. If you expose a puppy to people who interact with the him/her incorrectly, or introduce a puppy to dogs who are aggressive to other dogs, you will likely be teaching the puppy that people and dogs are scary and dangerous. This is in fact the opposite of what we want socialization to achieve! A dog owner should strive to make socialization positive for a puppy. Have people toss treats, pet appropriately, allow close interactions with other dogs who have good social skills or at least are not aggressive to other dogs, and use trainers who do not use physical punishment as a form of training. When it comes to loud sounds in the environment such as storms or fireworks, or traffic noises, associate them with something positive such as a playing with a toy or giving a treat or attention.
Take away: Socializing a puppy requires positive experiences when introduced to new stimuli AND the avoidance of negative experiences.
- Some puppies and young dogs, for a variety of reasons, may show anxiety and or aggression towards many stimuli at a very young age in which case these are not the right candidates to take everywhere and expose them to many stimuli. If you take an already anxious or aggressive puppy/young dog and force them into situations that they find scary you are doing something called “flooding”. This is a high risk technique that could make a puppy more anxious or aggressive. For example, if there is puppy who is fearful of people and hides behind the owner when strangers try to pet the puppy and that owner decides to take the puppy into town and have everyone come up to the puppy and pet him even when he is hiding behind the owner, that owner is not helping the puppy feel less anxious if he is still clearly hiding while people are petting. This is a perfect recipe to teach a puppy to be more anxious or teach a puppy they may have to use a different strategy, such as aggression, to get people to stop approaching and petting. (We can not blame the dog because the humans were clearly not listening to the puppy’s behaviors that were screaming…”stay away from me, I am scared!”). If you have a puppy /young dog showing anxiety or aggression, there are lots of methods to helping your puppy feel less anxious. Reach out to a qualified professional for help.
- Socialization is not a treatment for dogs with aggressive or anxiety disorders. Too often, owners of aggressive/anxious dogs are being told, “you just need to socialize your dog more.” This translates into, “take your dog who lunges at children to a children’s park and have him meet the kids.,” or “ take your dog who is scared of other dogs and take him to a dog park.” This advice is fraught with risk for both people and the dogs. There are many options to modify a dog’s anxious or aggressive issues but flooding them to the stimuli they are scared of, under the guise of socialization, is not one of them.
Take away: Socialization is not a treatment for dogs with existing behavioral issues.
- Don’t stop socializing at 14 weeks. Although the socialization sensitive period ends at approximately 14 weeks, this does not mean you can hang up your dog leash, hang up your treat pouch, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It is critical that we continue to reinforce that people, dogs, sounds etc., are good and safe. Think of it like this: Parents of human children do not stop feeding their kids protein after their maximal growth spurts. We know the body at certain developmental times needs more protein to avoid serious health problems; however, this does not mean parents stop feeding protein just because their child has passed that maximal growth period. Along those same lines, doggy parents shouldn’t stop reinforcing and teaching their dog that various stimuli are safe even though they have passed that maximal “growth spurt” . Perhaps the best way to look at socialization is to look at it like a behavioral vaccine. You are doing everything you can to protect your dog from developing behavioral problems. Like vaccines, nothing is 100%. Some dogs will develop behavioral problems despite the best attempts of socializing but the odds of developing a behavioral problem increase dramatically, if socialization is not done or is done incorrectly.
Take away: Vaccinate your dog against behavior problems by responsibly socializing your puppy but don’t stop your efforts simply because your puppy has outgrown puppyhood.
I recently met with a family who adopted a dog from a foster situation. The new owners were that the dog did “fine” in a crate. Very shortly after adoption, it became clear that the dog had separation anxiety. The dog’s new owner videotaped the dog’s behavior in the crate when left alone and were horrified at what they saw. I watched that video and this dog was panting, barking, drooling, pawing at the crate, and getting his head halfway out of the door and pulling it back in ( this is the very scary part).
I wish I could say that this dog’s behavior in the crate was unusual but I have seen many videotapes of dogs trying to escape their crate. This is not safe! I know of one dog who died due to asphyxiation as he got his neck stuck in the crate door while trying to get out of the crate. Many other dogs have torn nails, paw pads, and broken teeth, and had injuries on their noses from trying to escape a crate.
Anyone who uses a crate to confine their dog when left alone, dog should videotape their dog to see how their dog behaves. Videotaping is the gold standard and the only way to really know what happens when you are not there. If you are like me and not technically savvy, you may wish to start by doing a search for inexpensive nanny cams. I am hoping that readers of this blog will post ways they videotaped their dog when left alone.
If you do videotape your dog and find he or she is trying to get out, the answer is not to put on padlocks and make it more difficult for the dog to get out. The answer is to understand why the dog is trying to get out and treat that issue!
Meet Cairo! This is just one my patients for whom pain played a significant role in his behavior problems. Pain is one of the most common medical conditions that can cause or exacerbate behavior problems (e.g. aggression, anxiety, or house soiling).
Keep in mind that if an animal is in severe pain and holding up a limb and or limping around, I would not be seeing those patients. They would be at their veterinarian’s office with clear indicators that there is something physically wrong with their pet. I am often looking for more subtle indicators of pain by watching the pet walk around the room, jogging them, trotting them, and then following up with a physical exam while taking into consideration their behavioral and medical history.
In two recent cases, one for aggression and one for anxiety, both animals did well for the physical exam until I reached a certain muscle (i.e. illiopsoas muscle). When I examined this region directly or indirectly, one animal cried out in pain and the other became so aggressive I could not continue with the exam. Once these animals received proper treatment for a muscle strain/sprain their behavior issues improved considerably.
Pain can be very difficult to assess in other species. Dogs and cats will not always show pain in “obvious” ways. So we should not assume pain isn’t a component simply because they still walk, play, go up and down the stairs etc. Most of the patients I diagnose as having an issue causing pain, have been walking, jogging, playing etc…..After all, sometimes WE are in discomfort yet push through with an activity if we are motivated enough to do so. I will walk through my chronic foot pain (i.e. neuromas and plantar fasciitis) to get to a plate full of chocolate! However, if someone were to walk too close to my feet and I feared they might step on them, I might just growl and snap to keep them away!
For dogs who are hesitant to get on the scale at the veterinary office or to get your dog started off on the right foot so he/she is easy to get onto the scale…implement the following tip:
1. Use an old yoga mat and teach you dog to go to that mat on command to get a treat or to play tug ( whatever your dog likes). Lets assume you use the word cue/command ” go to mat”
2. Once he knows the word cue “go to mat” place the mat on different floor types in the house ( wood floors, carpet, linoleum etc….) and practice the command on these floors. If he does well, take the mat outside and practice on grass, cement etc…
3. Set the yoga mat up on some bricks, books, or a somewhat elevated surface so the dog can practice stepping up onto the mat. Give the command, and reward.
4. Take the yoga mat with you to the vet clinic when you DONT have an appointment and practice getting on the scale ( make sure to give him or her the reward he is expecting!)
5. For your next real vet visit, roll up that yoga mat and take it with you and put in on the scale, give the command and reward your dog as the veterinary tech write down the weight.
If you are a veterinarian or anyone who works in a veterinary office, type this up and make a handout and give it to all of your clients!
A retrospective study looking at problematic behaviors and the age at which the puppy was taken from the litter, found that puppies taken earlier then 8 weeks displayed more behavioral problems that those who remained with the litter for the whole 8 weeks.
In addition, the authors found that puppies in pet stores exhibited more problematic behaviors than puppies from other sources even when they were kept with their litters for the 8 weeks!
Does this mean puppies should remain with their littermates for 8 weeks? It means that they should remain with their littermates for at least 8 weeks! More studies need to be done to really answer this questions but at this time it seems reasonable that no one should remove a puppy from his or her litter until at least 8 weeks and puppies should not be purchased at pet stores.