The Best Laid Plans of Dogs, Men, Women & Children Often Go Awry

At the classroom the other night, we were talking about some of the issues mentioned in my earlier entries calling for the “dogmestication” of humans. How should humans interact with dogs? What type of interactions with humans do dogs enjoy? Dislike?

During the course of the conversation, we got to talking about my Saint Bernard, Monte.

Many of you are familiar with Monte’s story. If you’re not, you should read Dances with Dogs, my tribute to Monte and our training history (from dismal failures to unimagined successes). You can read it here: Dances with Dogs

I remember filling out the “Click to Calm” application at Clicking with Canines. I remember being asked if my dog had any aggression or reactivity issues toward humans. Confidently, I answered “no.” He had never displayed any aggression toward humans previously.

This changed one evening. I had friends over for dinner, wine, and movies. It was a chilly evening, so Jim had the fireplace in our living room roaring. Monte was lying on the carpet in front of the fireplace, next to my friend Julie. He had met Julie many times before. We had gone camping on camping trips with the dogs before, had many visits at our home, trips to the park together, even a few wine tours (my dogs are celebrities on the Cayuga wine trail in the Finger Lakes!). I would say that he “knew” Julie fairly well.

Monte rolled over, exposing his belly to Julie; optimistic that perhaps if he shows her his belly, she will scratch it. Julie obliged. He LIKES Julie. Monte’s tongue lolls out of his mouth, happily. Julie looked down at him, making eye contact while bent over him and smiling. To humans, making eye contact and smiling is generally a very friendly and inviting greeting. We were about to learn the hard way that dogs don’t like this.

FRIEND’S SKULL IN DOG’S MOUTH = PANIC ATTACK

I hear a low grumble. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Before the words “back off” could pass my lips, Julie’s skull was in Monte’s mouth.

The memory of the moment will stay with me forever. It’s almost palpable, all the smells, conversation, the type of wine, the crackling of the fire, the grumble, the goosebumps/raised hairs. The fear.

Why on earth would be snap at someone whose company he generally enjoyed?

Despite his behavior, I love this dog. I was afraid that he had just made a fatal mistake. My stomach flip flopped, my heart sank. I felt terrible for Julie. I couldn’t believe my dog had done that. I was both mad at him and afraid for him, not to mention the fact that despite the considerable trouble we’d been through, I was and am absolutely head-over-heels happy when I’m with my big, fuzzy, problem child. I adore him.

I’ll never be able to thank Julie enough for her forgiveness. She gave Monte a second chance, despite the unfortunate but inevitable fact that she was now, understandably, terrified of him.

I contacted Steve right away, crying. I had been working so hard with Monte. I had not thought of him as a “people aggressive” dog. I was discouraged, frightened, and crestfallen. Steve asked me lots of questions. What exactly was happening immediately proceeding the incident?

Remember that at this time I was very new to the world of positive reinforcement training. I didn’t know what I know now about canine body language and communication. A new cross-over handler, part of me still really felt that “he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that behavior” and that having someone’s skull in his mouth was a behavior worthy of correction.

Steve explained to me that a dog is in a very vulnerable position when he is belly up. He told me that bending over a dog and looking him in the eyes can be intimidating for a dog, and that smiling at a dog in that position can be seen as baring teeth. In doglish, these are threats; especially when the dog has voluntarily offered his belly by rolling on his back or side.

I felt like an idiot. If I had known this, I could have prevented the situation from happening. I am glad that nobody was hurt physically, but know that now Julie is fearful of Saint Bernards. Not surprisingly, this incident has caused her to be fearful of not only Monte but other Saints. I hope someday to get a beautiful Saint puppy and win her back over.

Steve said another thing about the incident which improved my sense of optimism. He said, “if he wanted to hurt Julie, he would have.”
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I thought about this. I feed a home-prepared prey model raw diet to both of my dogs. Not to “gross you out,” but I’ve seen what his teeth can do to bones. He could have crushed her skull, and yet he didn’t even break the skin.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Monte felt threatened. He had shown his vulnerability (going “belly up” is an appeasement gesture in doglish) by rolling over. This is offered as a communication, “I am no threat to you! See?” Neither Julie nor I, at the time, thought in any way that her looking at him in that manner would be threatening. Monte obviously felt differently.

The growl he gave was a warning. His own way of saying “back off, you’re making me nervous!” When that didn’t work, he escalated his warning – teeth on skin. This worked – Julie backed off.

I think that dogs use the least amount of force necessary to communicate their feelings of discomfort. Doglish can be surprisingly subtle. If you really watch dogs closely, often brief eye contact is all it takes for one dog to tell another “back off.” If this works, the situation escalates no further. Problem solved.

If this does not work, the warning escalates. Maybe a growl. A harder stare. The corners of the mouth push forward. Hackles raise.

In well-socialized dogs, this pretty much ends the conflict. A dog less adapt at reading and responding to these signals may keep pushing the boundary. The dog snaps, but makes no contact with teeth. Did the approaching dog learn his lesson yet? If not, physical contact may be the next stage of communication.

(Interestingly, those that justify the use of “corrections” because it is “natural” and “how dogs communicate” too frequently jump to the last stage of the correction sequence – physical aversives; because they cannot accurately mimic the subtle escalations of warning that dogs are naturally masters of.)

SO WHAT’S THE POINT?

I can look down at Monte like that, and his tongue will keep lolling, his legs will get thumping, and he’s all smiles. Monte and I have been through a lot together, and through crossing over to positive training as a team, he has come to trust me. I can do pretty much whatever I want to him and his tail thumps happily, the entire weight of his body leaning into me (and often nearly knocking me over).

Why can I do these things to Monte without repercussion, while Julie was “corrected” for that same behavior?

Because he’s my dog.

THE STORY OF SEAMUS

I have two clients currently who are best friends. Their wives are best friends. They live next door to each other.

Don’s dog Seamus is currently a student in my advanced class, Jeff’s dog is in foundation class.

Seamus has been very well socialized to children since infancy, as Don’s wife is a baby-sitter. One day, Seamus was taking a nap on his bed. One of the children approached as Seamus slept and tried to pet him. Seamus woke and put his teeth on the child’s hand. Quick, light contact with the skin – no tearing, no bruising, no pressure. (Jean Donaldson, an internationally respected behaviorist, frequently emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between maiming bites and what she terms “kitchen accidents,” where dogs use their mouth to communicate without causing severe damage, lacerations, or bruising.)

Again, what happened? Don and Sherry can approach Seamus at any time, whether he is awake or asleep, and touch him, scratch him, with no repercussions. What went wrong with this kid touching him, a child who had knew well and even played with?

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Don and Sherry were frightened by Seamus’ behavior. As a child care provider, Sherry was worried about his safety around young children, despite the fact that he had always been “perfect” around her charges previously. She was now Seamus, who had been so previously reliable with children.

Monte had never exhibited “aggression” to people prior to the incident in front of the fireplace. Seamus had never exhibited “aggression” to children. And yet, Sherry and Don found themselves asking the same questions I’d asked about Monte; the same sinking feeling that the dog they loved was on his way to a shelter, or worse.

The moral of both stories is: I can do things to my dog that nobody else can do without making him nervous. You can do things to your dog that nobody else can do without making her nervous. Sherry and Don can do things to Seamus that nobody else can do without making him feel nervous.

I wrote in my recent Dog Star Daily blog entry about the “entitlement complex.” Humans feel that they should be able to greet any dog they want, whenever they want, however they want, and do whatever they want to any dog in any circumstance without consideration for how the dog feels about their behavior. It’s what people do, and is the reason for probably 99% of dog bites.

People have a hard time understanding why this is not o.k. We assume Fido Q. Everydog is Lassie in disguise without knowing anything about him. Of course he wants to greet me, I love dogs!

What I needed was a good analogy to drive home the message of why this is so problematic.

THE STORY OF DON AND JEFF

We’re in class, we’ve talked about Monte and Seamus, the incidents, and why they may have occurred. Having felt what Don and Sherry are feeling, I know it’s hard to think past the concept “that dog should be punished, is dangerous, and should never be allowed to get away with that!”

I asked Don to picture himself after a long day at work. A fifteen hour day, and you’re exhausted. You come home, have dinner with your wife, and turn in to bed fairly early. You fall asleep watching your favorite movie or television show.

Later, you wake to find Sherry in bed next to you. No big deal, right? In fact, you’re probably happy to have her around. She is, after all, your lovely wife.

Now picture the same context, long day, tired, early bed. You are totally passed out, sleeping in your skivvies or pajamas. You wake up, and find Jeff lying next to you. How do you react?

“Whoa. Wait a second, Casey. Jeff’s my best friend, but I DO NOT want him lying in bed next to me, both of us in our underwear. Not cool. Even if we’ve known each other for twenty five years. Awkward.”

Exactly my point. You may like hugging your friends, but what if some random stranger came running up behind you in a dark alley as you walked alone late at night and threw his arms around you in a tight embrace. Terrifying, no?

See where I’m coming from with this? There is a certain level of intimacy you have with your wife that you don’t have with anyone else you know. There is a certain level of intimacy between dog and owner fostered through a hundred shared experiences, lots of treats and belly scratches, walks, games of fetch.

If you are a compassionate dog owner, a bond will naturally develop through training and myriad exciting experiences together. Just like Don will welcome Sherry to snuggle up and fall asleep watching a movie but would not welcome his best male friend over for a slumber party and a snuggle, your dog may solicit and enjoy types of attention from you that he neither seeks nor enjoys from strangers.

THE MORAL OF THE STORIES

The moral of the story is, an otherwise friendly dog can “turn against” someone, even someone he generally really enjoys, if they attempt levels of interaction which surpass the level of relationship they have with the dogs.

There is only one other friend, besides Jim and I, that I allow to make eye contact with Monte. Of all the many visitors we have in the Lomonaco home, just one person is ever allowed to look into Monte’s face at all.

This person is one of my best friends, Brenda. She made the road trip with me to pick up Monte from the rescue. Besides me, she was his very first friend. He adores her. Is absolutely, positively mad about her and seeks interaction with her the same way he does to me or Jim. He trusts Brenda. If anything ever happened to Jim and me, I would only send Monte to Brenda. He’s putty in her hands.

With everyone in the world besides Brenda and Jim, I need to carefully manage the situation. I am always focused on Monte, while simultaneously training the people. “Yes, you can greet Monte, but only if you don’t look in his face, and only if he seeks interaction with you. No bending over him, eye contact, and always pet under his chin and on his chest (his favorite spots).”

He has never put his teeth on another human, not since I learned from my mistakes. I am very thankful for the trust Monte gives me, and the opportunity that allows me to interact with him in a way that is neither threatening nor oppositional.

I am also thankful that I now understand that dogs, like people, have various levels of comfort in new social situations. They won’t want to snuggle every dog or person they meet, and that’s ok. Some people are hand-shakers, some people are huggers. Some people are made really uncomfortable by hugs when greeting new people and feel as awkward as Don might feel to wake up with Jeff under the covers in his skivvies at 3 a.m.

As I finish this piece, I’m ready to stretch out with Monte on the floor. We “spoon”, his back pressed against my belly as I scratch his stomach. It’s fun to snuggle a dog who is as big as you. However, despite the fact that many of my clients’ dogs have known me for years and received hundreds of reinforcements from me, despite the fact that I love snuggling and scratching dog bellies, I don’t do this with them.

Why? Because they’re not my dogs.  The easiest way to lose a dog’s trust is to tread beyond the boundaries of the level of trust you’ve earned.  I can’t assume that because Mokie or Monte like a certain type of interaction that every dog I come across will seek or enjoy that type of interaction with me.  Similarly, I cannot assume that because Mokie and Monte enjoy a certain type of interaction with Jim and me, that they will seek or enjoy that type of interaction with a stranger.

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