When clients come to me with a dog with a “behavior problem” oftentimes what they’re looking for, as much as a solution, is understanding. Where did this behavior come from? Was it something they did? Is there something wrong with their dog? Is it because they let them sleep in the bed or share cheese doodles on the couch? And while fixing a behavior and making the dog’s and human’s life better is important, people often feel better just understanding how a behavior developed. This intersects with the Darwin’s Dogs project, because there are so many questions where sometimes, it seems like the answer is both Agree and Disagree.
Now, I’m not a pet psychic. I can’t actually sit down next to Fido and ask him why he’s barking at strangers, growling at the neighbor’s dog, or chewing through the door- but often I can make a pretty good guess. Because behavior has rules. Once all the information is on the table, a behavior consultant can often map out what the behavior means for the dog. Let’s take an example.
Adorable, scruffy little Laddie had always been a sweet puppy. When he was small he would shy away from larger dogs, but seemed to be ok most of the time. Mom and Dad took him to puppy class where he hid behind their legs, so they didn’t bother with basic manners. They took him to meet all their friend’s dogs. Laddie has always been great at the dog park, but he spends most of the time playing with his owners and ignoring the other dogs. Recently, though, Laddie turned into a beast on the leash. He hackles, growls, barks, and lunges at all the dogs that come near him. One day, Laddie’s owners sit down to answer their Darwin’s Dogs questions and stumble… is their dog friendly to other dogs or not?
This is an excellent question. If Laddie’s owners were to ask me- this is what I would glean from this history… Laddie sounds like he was a timid puppy- he wasn’t jumping into the middle with puppy class and he shied when introduced to other dogs on leash. But his owners, trying to do the right thing, brought him to lots of places to meet even more dogs. They likely did not reinforce for more confident behavior because they didn’t know to do that and didn’t see how fearful their little puppy was. They never would have thought to counter-condition their puppy’s response to other dogs. As time went on, as long as Laddie was off leash he could deter unwanted attention from other dogs using his body language. The leash, though, trapped him near rude dogs who would jump on him even if he turned away or sniffed the ground. His more subtle cues went unnoticed and so his owners kept letting him greet on leash. Eventually, he snarled at a dog. The other dog got the message and his owners heard him and pulled him back- giving him the space he wanted. For Laddie this type of behavior was far more successful than his polite and subtle signals. He went on to practice it dozens and then hundreds of more times- escalating when need be. Off-leash, the more subtle signals still sufficed and he could take space as needed.
So…. Is Laddie friendly with other dogs? Is this a flaw in his breeding? In his personality? In his training? Those are tough questions. My answer would be that it’s a product of a little bit of everything. He might have been born with the tendency towards shyness, exposure to forward dogs exacerbated it, lack of training and therefore lack of understanding from the owners resulted in its expression… BUT, I would likely say that Laddie is friendly with other dogs; some of the time, with some dogs. With the rest he is indifferent or fearful- and on-leash he can’t choose to avoid those ones.
This is an area of behavior where genetics and learning are so intertwined it will be nearly impossible to tease them apart. If anyone can do it, though, it will be Darwin’s Dogs- because they are talking to behavior people and finding out the questions to ask. They’re looking at these intricacies and complications and working with the people who know the dogs best- the owners- to understand the full range of dog behaviors. But next time you can’t figure your dog’s behavior out- ask someone! There are IAABC certified behavior consultants all over the country and the world. They would be happy to sit with you to puzzle out your dog’s behavior and come up with a solution to help your Laddie be more comfortable in every situation.
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