Posts tagged ‘Aggression’

Are We Having Fun?

Over at ScienceBlogs The Thoughtful Animal has a recent post on his excellent new blog on how to tell the difference between real aggression and play fighting in dogs. Thoughtful’s post follows Marc Bekoff’s lead and focuses primarily on play signals. He writes:

Actions called play signals have been observed in many species which appear to engage in play. It is generally accepted that these behaviors serve as signals to communicate the initiation (“I want to play”) of play. One behavior that is used a LOT by dogs (and their evolutionary cousins, wolves and coyotes) is the bow.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (who blogs at Psychology Today) from the University of Colorado, Boulder wondered if the bow was used as a play signal, and how it functioned. He hypothesized that the bow might serve an additional function beyond initiation; it might support the maintenance (“I still want to play”) of ongoing social play.

While I agree that the play bow is an important signal in canine communication, I don’t think it is the only – or even necessarily the most important – signal dogs use to communicate whether they intend their actions to be interpreted as friendly or aggressive.

A signal I see a lot between dogs who want to initiate or continue play is a slow, rolling, side-to-side head shake. The dog smiles as his head makes a smooth figure-eight motion. Sometimes the head roll accompanies a play bow, sometimes it doesn’t. Another play signal I’ve observed is a curving, prancing side-step away from the desired playmate. The step is accompanied by a smile and a toss of the head. A dog that really wants someone to play with him will sometimes make a series of these unmistakably flirtatious steps.

The things that tie the play bow, head roll and flirt step together are the shape and structure of the dog’s movements. A friendly, relaxed, non-aggressive dog (i.e. a dog that wants to play) interacts in smooth, flowing, arcing, rhythmic motions. His body is loose, his movements follow arcs and curves and his expression is soft and relaxed.

The rhythm and intensity of a dog’s movements also tell us a lot about his intent. When a dog is relaxed and ready to play one movement flows into another in smooth transitions. The dog rolls, he lopes, he bounds, he bends. His gestures are a polite blend of approach and retreat. His movements and emotions are in balance.

An over-stimulated, stressed, frightened or aggressive dog (i.e. the dog that isn’t going to play) interacts in more intense erratic and linear motions. His body is stiff, his gaze and expression are intense and he approaches in a direct line, not a polite curve. His legs thrust into the ground like pistons, they don’t sweep along the surface. He stares instead of making quick flirtatious glances.

The over-stimulated dog doesn’t move or react in a smooth, rhythmic way. And as he reaches increasing levels of arousal, the dog’s movements transition quickly from staring to pacing, from relaxing to freezing, or from trotting to bolting. These rapid changes in state are key indicators that a dog has exceeded a threshold in reactivity – and it’s important to be aware of them. A dog in a transitional state has moved from balance to instability.

He’s a hair-trigger just waiting to go off.

That is what I look for when I watch dogs interact. The transition from balance to instability. It’s an enormously important factor and one that a lot of people miss. I believe that this is one why so many people describe dog fights and dog attacks as ‘coming out of nowhere.’

And, while I agree that it is important in canine communication, I don’t believe that the play bow is the only, or even the most important, signal dogs use to indicate their desire to play. And I also disagree with Thoughtful’s notion that:

These findings suggest that the bow is not used to stretch the muscles, or because it is a good position from which to increase the range of movement. Instead, it seems to serve a particular social communicative function.

While in many young dogs the bow may be used most often to indicate a desire to play, sometimes dogs perform the motion simply to stretch their muscles. The lowered position of the stretching bow is generally held a little longer than it is in the play bow, the stretching dog’s neck is often extended upward instead of held loosely or cocked to one side and the dog will also sometimes sigh or groan as his body stretches.

Still – it’s an interesting post and a fine new blog. Go read it.

UPDATED links 4/20/10

April 19, 2010 at 11:58 am 8 comments

Hannibal Chuckter

Charlie had his first veterinary appointment today.  While he will cheerfully allow me to handle him any way I like, being handled by strangers is still a completely different story.  So I brought him in by himself (I usually bring the dogs in as a pack, as they’re all very easy to handle).  And I brought a muzzle.

The spectre of young Charlie wearing this lovely bit of apparel, along with the blinkless stare and completely even, 60 bpm pulse rate he maintained throughout the examination earned him the charming new nickname.

I’ll admit that the little shit looked astonishingly evil, even to me.  When I took him back out to the van I left the muzzle on until I got him into the crate.  Once he was safely inside, I slipped the muzzle off and shut the crate door in a single swift move (I may be a gimp, but I can still move pretty darn quickly when I need to).  Once the door was closed, I was surprised – and quite pleased – to see a soft, happy, wiggly puppy on the other side.  I opened the door back up and the vicious killer my happy puppy greeted me with a wagging tail and a flurry of soft, sloppy kisses.

I am so glad I spent all that time getting him used to wearing the muzzle.

Once we returned home, Charlie released his stress by viciously attacking wrestling with Audie.

November 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm 5 comments

Vicious Bitch

From the very excellent webcomic PartiallyClips  (click here to embiggen)

ViciousBitch

H/T to Natureblog for the link to this wonderful little time sink

November 5, 2009 at 1:44 am Leave a comment

Watching Paint Dry

Or… Why I’ll never be a teevee star.

If you believe what you see on television, dog training is a thrilling profession where remarkably photogenic people with exotic accents spend their days hugging puppies and going mano-a-mano with potentially lethal red-zone killers. The action is like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where, as kids, we watched breathlessly as Jim Fowler wrestled deadly cobras, grizzly bears and piranhas while Marlin Perkins stood safely in the background and provided golf tournament style commentary, “We’ll wait here while Jim wrestles the angry pit viper rat terrier with his bare hands.”

Unfortunately I’ve moved around the country enough that I have a television newscaster’s generic accent and I’m only slightly more photogenic than Steve Buscemi.  Most importantly, when it comes to working with dogs I’m more Marlin Perkins than Jim Fowler.

Being a dog trainer is more like defusing bombs than wrestling alligators. Working calmly and carefully, I want to avoid explosions, not create them.  As a spectator sport, it’s about as exciting watching paint dry.

CB033426

My foster dog Charlie is a volatile little fellow so it’s important to defuse him.  Practice really does make perfect. The more times a dog is allowed to practice the wrong kinds of reactions to stressful situations,  the better he gets at it.  This is why when I’m working with a reactive dog (one that is extremely excitable, fearful and /or aggressive) I work very hard to prevent the dog from having bad reactions in the first month or two of his training and rehabilitation.

While I’m keeping the dog away from triggers to the extent I can, I also work on building his self control.  With young Charlie this means we practice “sit to get”; long sit-stays; sits at a distance; “leave-it” with food and his favorite toys; “wait” at all doors; polite walking on the leash and to accept being in a crate.

In this program I am attacking Charlie’s reactivity in two ways:

First – I’m doing all I can to keep him from practicing bad reactions.  This means that Charlie gets a whole lot less freedom, attention, exercise and time with my family than a less reactive dog would get. Limiting these things now will help him earn a lifetime of privileges, so I don’t feel the teensiest bit bad about it. He’ll enjoy privileges more after he’s earned them.

Second – I’m teaching Charlie how to exercise his own self-control in situations that are carefully calibrated for success. I started with simple things like having him sit very briefly before I threw his toy and making him move back away from the kennel door (instead of leaping up on it) before I’d open it.  In a little over a week, we’ve progressed to one minute sit-stays (on leash), a stop and sit at 15 feet, a sit-stay while I pretend to throw the frisbee, sit before I open the kennel door, down for treats, and “leave-it” exercises with food in my open hand or on the floor.

As Charlie learned how to exercise self-control in moderately stimulating situations I introduced him to new dogs and new people.  I did this with him on a leash and each situation was carefully structured to help him maintain his composure.  So far there’s been no snarkiness and no drama*.  This is exactly what I want.  As Charlie’s skills improve, I’ll introduce him to increasingly challenging situations and if I go too far and he reacts aggressively, I’ll smack myself upside the head with a rolled up newspaper (bad trainer!) and move a couple of steps back in the program.

* SMACK – Ok, since I started this post we did have a bit of drama.  Since Charlie cheerfully lets me touch any part of his body and because he’s started to shed profusely I decided to brush him.  Touching him with any thing but my hand or the leash is apparently a Big Deal to Charlie. Stay tuned for updates on how we handle this.

September 10, 2009 at 1:58 am 2 comments

I Did a Terrible Thing

I did an unspeakably terrible thing today [hangs head in abject shame].

I wore a hat.

A tan baseball cap with a dog embroidered on it to be exact. It was a cool morning (52F) and along with the warmth the cap provided, I needed something to cover my unwashed hair. I put it on without a thought and I went out to the kennel where Charlie is staying.

Charlie likes me. In fact, he seems to like me a lot. But when I walked into the room wearing that baseball cap he saw me as some kind of ungodly, depraved beast. And he reacted accordingly.

Because he’s small and in a sturdy kennel and I’ve been around a rather large number of staring, snarling, slavering beasts I reacted to his castigation by calling his name out sweetly.  He paused briefly, obviously recognizing my voice – then continued his tirade. ‘Cause, you know – I had done this terrible thing.

I took the hat off and calmly, quietly walked to the kennel door. I didn’t affect a passive or assertive posture. I was as completely neutral as I could be. When I got to the door I turned sideways and crouched down. I spoke softly to Charlie and let him decide when he was ready to approach and sniff me. In seconds he was the soft, happy, wagging teenager I know once again.

I stood up and gauged his reaction to my change in posture. Soft and welcoming. So I opened the door, went in, petted and leashed him and walked him out. When we were out of the kennel I made of show of picking up the Hat From Hell and presented it to Charlie. He stood quietly – but suspiciously – at my side and I calmly held it out to him.  He slowly stretched his nose forward, feet still locked in place, and tentatively sniffed the rim of the hat. I remained motionless and said nothing. He sniffed The Evil Thing again, then sniffed my hand.

I saw wheels inside his pretty little head click into place as Charlie realized that the hat smelled like me.  His posture softened and he grinned up at me with a look that said “Okay, I get it”.  So I put the hat, which was now just an ordinary hat, back on my head and took Charlie for a walk.

August 29, 2009 at 6:36 pm 9 comments

Parsing a Sneeze

In The Feeling of What Happens Antonio Damasio writes, “We are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze.”  Like sneezes, emotional states are induced through classical conditioning processes where an innate, involuntary behavior (like an emotion or a reflex) becomes associated with a specific event or context. Their basis in these involuntary processes helps explain why emotional reactions are unpredictable and difficult to control.

In his book, Damasio introduces us to a man with extensive damage to his temporal lobes, hippocampus and amygdula.  “David” suffers from some of the most severe learning and memory deficits ever recorded – he is unable to learn anynew fact. Despite this and in spite of the fact that he’s surrounded by people he is completely unable to recognize, David displays consistent preferences and avoidances in his day-to-day interactions with staff and patients.  Intrigued by David’s behavior, Damasio designed a good guy/bad guy experiment to examine how David might develop these preferences under controlled circumstances:

Over a period of a week, we were able to engage David, under entirely controlled circumstances, in three distinct types of human interaction. One type of interaction was with someone who was extremely pleasant and welcoming and who always rewarded David whether he requested something or not (this was the good guy). Another interaction involved somebody who was emotionally neutral and who engaged David in activities that were neither pleasant nor unpleasant (this was the neutral guy). A third type of interaction involved an individual whose manner was brusque, who would say no to any request, and who engaged David in a very tedious psychological task designed to bring boredom to a saint (this was the bad guy).

After the week of controlled conditioning David was not able to recognize any of the ‘guys’ from photographs or in person.  Yet, when he was presented with photographs of them and asked questions regarding hypothetical situations such as “Which one of these people would you ask for help?”  or “Who is your friend,” David chose the ‘good guy’ over 80% of the time. While David’s conscious mind may no longer be equipped to give him an overt reason to recognize, much less choose, one person over another, he is still able to learn to correctly choose the person most likely to react positively with him with an accuracy far exceeding that of pure chance.

So it appears that we can develop preferences and aversions in a completely unconscious manner.  This is fascinating and it may help explain why two- and four-legged creatures so often react in apparently inexplicable ways. While we are aware of the emotions we feel, we sometimes have no idea why we feel them. And this can make emotional reactions incredibly difficult to control – even for us allegedly big-brained humans. Because our emotions can be rooted in factors as diverse as previous experiences, health and our base line emotional state – and because many of these factors lie outside our conscious control – our emotions don’t always make sense to us.  Or to those around us.

Dogs with emotion-based problems like fear of thunderstorms, fear-based aggression and separation anxiety are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. The dog has no idea why it’s behaving the way it does. He’s much like David, classically conditioned to react to a situation – and utterly unaware of why he behaves the way he does.

This is why the popular idea of ‘psychoanalyzing dogs’ – collecting obsessively detailed case histories in an effort to discover exactly what events in the dog’s past led to the development of it’s emotion-based problems – drives me crazy.  Because these kinds of problems arise from classical conditioning processes – there is likely no single event or simple chain of events that led to the dog’s problem. And, like David, the dog likely has absolutely no idea why he feels the way he does.

Trying to analyze the basis of an emotionally-based behavior problem in a non-verbal species like a dog makes no sense.  It’s like parsing a sneeze.

August 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm 1 comment

Sea Kittens and Getting Bitten

Via AtomicNerds, a bit of entertaining and insightful commentary on the latest bit of pointless ranting PR from the morons our friends at PETA courtesy of BluntObject (go – read it now):

The clever folks at PETA decided that the best way to convince people to stop eating fish was to RENAME THEM AFTER A CARNIVORE.  (Not only that, but a carnivore famous in popular culture for eating fish.  Gosh, that was clever.)

With apologies to BluntObject I’m going to argue that PETA’s idea was clever.  Our culture has, to a frightening extent, succeeded in romantically recasting cats and dogs as harmless, helpless, Disneyesque caricatures instead of the living, breathing, complex (and sometimes flawed) animals they really are.  Like Rousseau’s noble savage they’re increasingly seen as more innocent, more noble – and to some – more worthy – than we humans are.

And when they inevitably ‘betray’ our romantic image by, well, simply behaving as animals instead of noble savages, we tend to react in fear and avoidance just like we did when presented with that other famous character from romantic fiction – Frankenstein’s creature.  And when, like Frankenstein’s creature – who started out as an innocent, loving being; then turned into a monster from torture and neglect – our pets behave aggressively… we demonize them.

An interesting example of this kind of cognitive dissonance was reported in last week’s news when Barney the Whitehouse dog “attacked” Reuters reporter Jon Decker.  Check out the video clip below and carefully watch Barney’s posture and demeanor in the beginning of this little misadventure:

In the seconds before he bit Decker Barney laid his ears back, tucked his tail, lowered the front part of his body, partly averted his gaze, held his mouth closed — and probably threw other fearful and distance-increasing gestures easy to miss when viewing a black dog in poor quality video.  In other words, he did everything in his power to tell the reporter “I’m stressed out, stay away from me!”  Decker, obviously clueless when it came to recognizing and reading those important signals, moved into the danger zone anyway because “he just wanted to pet Barney.”  And, very predictably – the dog bit him. 

More interesting information can be seen in the still shot below, captured from the video immediately before the dog bit:

 barneybitesafp

Note the dog’s expression.  His eyes are wide open with the sclera (white) showing, the corners of mouth pushed forward, upper lips pursed, and ears still pinned back. These are classic signs of the fear-biter.

And all of this because a clueless reporter “just wanted to pet the dog.”

All too often today people see a dog as a sort of adorable, animated stuffed animal that can be approached and handled at will.  And where did that come from?  I mean – do the same people who treat dogs like this go out and grab strange children so they can fondle them?  I think not (and if they do, they usually get ‘removed’ from society).  So why then do they assume that they are entitled to behave this way with dogs?

We have somehow created a cultural ideal where we believe that ‘good’ dogs are incapable of violence.  Because we can’t imagine that they’ll hurt us, we don’t take take precautions to prevent bites. And when – inevitably – they do bite, we are utterly unprepared for it.  We blame them for our ignorance and mistakes instead of taking responsibility for our own actions.

Dogs are wonderful, social creatures. They make excellent companions – and I believe that the social lives of both of our species are more complete when we spend them together. But a vital part of that shared life needs to be an awareness and respect for what they really are – animals.  And as the nut-jobs at PETA have so annoyingly (but accurately) pointed out – in our Rousseauesque desire for purity or Disneyesque search for innocence – this is something that we have managed to lose track of.

To gain an important – and somewhat sobering – bit of perspective it might be wise to consider the words of ethologist Konrad Lorenz:

“One day, during a hard winter, a deer crossed our snowed-up garden fence and was torn to pieces by my three dogs. As I stood horror-stricken by the mutilated corpse I became conscious of the unconditional faith which I placed in the social inhibition of these blood-thirsty beasts, for my children were at that time smaller and more defenceless than the deer whose gory remains lay before me in the snow. I was myself astonished at the absolute fearlessness with which I daily entrusted the fragile limbs of my children to the wolf-like jaws.”

Konrad Lorenz – Man and Dog          

And, oh yeah – “sea kittens” don’t just eat fish, they kill them too.  Even in the wonderful world of Disney.

aristocatsfish

November 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm 6 comments

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