A Tale of Two Species

Author and animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., was recently hired to stop an aggressive dog from biting so much. When introduced to the chomp-happy pooch, Dr. McConnell was surprised to learn that the canine’s name was Baby. “His owner was treating him like a baby,” she says, explaining that the dog had a problematic sense of entitlement and needed a name change for a start.

In her latest book, A Tale of Two Species: Essays on Loving and Living With Dogs (Dogwise Publishing 2008), Dr. McConnell offers tips on strengthening the connection between you and your furry friend. She shared some of her best advice for loving and living with a dog.

Understand Your Common Experience
Dogs, humans and all mammals appear to share many basic feelings. “We share really primal emotions, like fear, anger and happiness, with dogs,” says Dr. McConnell. It’s important to make the emotional connection. For example, when your dog rushes to greet you on your return from the outside world, recognize and share its excitement and joy. If a knock at the door sends Rover into a fearful frenzy, soothe him like you would want to be soothed when afraid.

Walk on All Fours
Trying to imagine a dog’s perspective beyond basic emotions can be difficult. So much of a dog’s world is defined by smell, while we use that sense much less. While we can’t make our olfactory sense more powerful, we can adjust our perspective in another way. “Get down at your dog’s eye level. It’s shocking how different the world looks,” says Dr. McConnell.

Dr. McConnell also recommends using your nose a little more than usual. “When I was writing a chapter on smell, every time my dog would stop and sniff, I’d get down and sniff, too. You can smell a lot of things you didn’t know you could.” Keep in mind that dogs and humans have different ideas about what odors are aversive. Your dog feels the same way about aftershave that you do about rotten fish.

Learn Body Language
A common training problem is that often people are unaware of how they’re moving their body when communicating with their dog. They’ll say “lie down” but will move their own body in the same motion as asking the dog to come. “We rely so heavily on verbal language, we’re not conscious of our body movements,” adds Dr. McConnell.

A dog looks to body movements for cues on what its owner wants, she notes. It’s therefore important to be consistent and match your commands with the same movements.

Don’t Choose Domination
While dogs need consistency and order to feel safe and loved, they don’t need a marine drill sergeant for a caretaker. “There’s an old-fashioned concept that you have to establish dominance by eating first and things like that. However, if you look at the behavior of species with social hierarchies, like dogs, dominance is something designed to resolve conflicts without fighting because fighting is dangerous.” She believes that getting your dog to come when you call has nothing to do with dominance.

As another example, instead of insisting that you walk through the door before your pooch does, think of enforcing rules necessary for your dog’s safety. Your dog should be able to stop on command or not to take people food from the table.

Put Yourself in Your Dog’s Place
Your dog is essentially living with an alien. It doesn’t speak your language. It tries to figure you out, but if you are inconsistent and unclear, your dog has no idea what you want. “Dogs I see who suffer the most are those who live their lives confused and exhausted,” says Dr. McConnell. “It can break your heart.”

Keep in mind that dogs need to understand their environments, just like we do. Maintain consistent expectations for your dog and communicate them clearly and in the same way each and every time. She concludes, “That’s the most important thing that people can do: to create a world that makes sense to their dogs.”

Dog Friendships that Defy Nature

Animal shelters often try to adopt out "bonded pairs," dogs that have been living together or have a strong connection. But the Humane Society of Silicon Valley (HSSV) in California didn't quite know how to handle an unusual twosome that ended up in its care recently. Mama, a 7-year-old Shetland sheep dog mix, and her best buddy Kiki, a 7-year-old short-haired gray and white cat, had grown up together.

"They had been living together for seven years," says Beth Ward, vice president of animal and customer care at HSSV. "They slept together. They ate together. They played together. They were the perfect odd couple."

Mama and Kiki had to be separated initially because the shelter houses cats and dogs in different facilities. But they were eventually reunited when the shelter found a family willing to adopt a pair of pet friends that defies nature.

Unlikely Cronies
Friendships between dogs and cats -- and sometimes between dogs and other animals, such as ducks and birds and bunnies -- are seemingly unnatural. Let loose on a playground, a dog will give in to predatory instincts and give chase to a cat, squirrel or bird.

It's important for pet owners to understand the differences in the social order between species. Cats are more elusive and will approach others when they feel the need. Dogs are pack animals and want to be as close to people as possible. But things can change when domestic animals are brought up together, experts say.

"When you think of the domestic dog and cat, you're really talking about socialization," says Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association and a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University. "If, as a puppy and a kitten, they are around the opposite species, they usually do fine. It really has to do with how they're raised."

How to Encourage Friendships
If you have a 4-year-old dog that has never been around a cat before, the odds are that bringing a cat into the house will be an uphill battle. But nothing is impossible. Laura Fulda, another HSSV vice president, had three large dogs when she brought a stray cat from the shelter home. "Before I knew it, they were all sleeping on the bed together," Fulda laughs.

Fulda says she followed the guidelines developed by animal behaviorists and published on the shelter's website. Here are five ways to help your pets feel the love:

  • Felines make the first move Letting a big dog approach a small cat is a recipe for trouble. The cat is going to tolerate only a bit of sniffing before running away. That will only convince Rover to chase. Let the cat make the first move so it can learn to trust you and that strange, drooling beast.
  • Keep your dog on a leash During initial encounters, keep your dog on a tether -- especially if the dog isn't trained to come to a halt when you say, "No." The HSSV also suggests keeping a squirt bottle handy to spray the dog in the face lest it start annoying the kitty.
  • Provide an outlet for the "chase" instinct Make sure your dog fulfills its natural prey instinct and gets to chase something -- a ball, Frisbee, or a squirrel in the yard. Exercise can calm your pup and ensure better behavior indoors, especially with your cat.
  • Let the cat hide, if need be Dogs want to run up and sniff strange new creatures. Felines investigate more gradually. "Keep them separated with a baby gate," Ward suggests. "Make sure the cat always has an escape route."  Before you know it, the cat may be leaping over voluntarily to spend more time in the canine zone.
  • Praise positive interactions Make sure your pooch gets lots of positive feedback for good behavior. A happy, "Good dog," and a playful scratch might be just the encouragement a dog needs.

Making a Good Match
When teaching a dog a new trick -- such as learning to tolerate or even to like a new pet in the household -- ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is your home big enough for two pet species?
  • If you have a dog, was that dog raised with cats?
  • What type of temperament does your dog have?
  • Has the new cat been around dogs before?

"Not every dog is going to get along with cats and not every cat is going to get along with dogs," Ward says.

Sometimes other creatures are in the mix. The HSSV was presented with an even more difficult adoption situation a few years ago. "We had a dog, a cat and a duck that were bonded," Ward recalls. Unable to find one family willing to take all three, the unusual bedfellows had to be separated. Ward says, "We had to deal with depression in all three of these animals."

De-Stress with Your Dog

If dogs could speak, they would probably be barking up a storm about their human pet peeves. Being pack animals, however, dogs have survived over the ages by evolving a different means of communicating with one another. It's not like human language or facial expressions. In the wild, canines developed body language and behaviors that have a calming effect so the animals can cooperatively hunt for prey, raise their young, and resolve conflicts without violence.

Dogs continued to communicate this way as they became domesticated and moved into homes, becoming one of people's favorite pets. Unfortunately, oftentimes we misinterpret these signals, by punishing our dogs when we should comfort them and by giving off body language of our own that would be considered offensive in the dog world, such as bending over or staring at them.

Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (Dogwise Publishing, 2006), says that canines tend to have about 30 "calming" behaviors or signals. Since this is the only way that dogs know how to communicate, they use these signals with humans all the time -- but often we don't pick up on what they're saying.

"That is the dog's language. It can tell you how the dog is feeling, what its emotions are," Rugaas says. "You can misread the language if you do not see the signs. Then you can do a lot of damage. The dog will get frustrated. It feels that nobody understands."

Here's how to read the signs that your dog is stressed:

From Yawning to Scratching
A dog may not be saying what you think it is saying with its behavior. Take yawning, for example. Yawning to humans means boredom or tiredness. In the canine world, however, yawning "means that a dog is a little stressed or, for some reason, a little bit excited or starting to get worried," Rugaas says. Another signal of stress may be lip licking -- "like they just ate something yummy," says Nan Arthur, a trainer and behaviorist in El Cajon, Calif., and author of the forthcoming Relax Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing, 2008)

While every dog -- like every person -- will have slightly individual ways of communicating stress, experts say that most canines tend to use some of the following techniques to calm themselves or others in certain situations:

  • Turning away When a stranger approaches from the front, the dog will either turn away or turn its head. The same reaction is likely if the dog is taken by surprise by a person or other dog. The turning has a calming effect on the dog and the approaching dog, Rugaas says.
  • Bowing A dog that lowers its front paws is often extending an invitation to play. This, in and of itself, is a calming technique designed to diffuse situations, Rugaas says. The dog also may use this signal when it is afraid of other dogs, or people, but wants to be included.
  • Walking slowly When hunting prey, dogs tend to chase at high speed. Conversely, a dog that is feeling scared or timid will walk slowly, Rugaas says.
  • Sniffing the ground If you are walking your dog on a leash and it hears a loud noise, the dog may try to relax by engaging its sense of smell. "All of a sudden, the nose hits the ground," Arthur says. "The dog is trying to calm itself down after hearing the noise."

How Dogs Interpret Human Behavior
Many things that humans do can send the wrong signals to their dogs. You can create anxiety when you really just mean to be friendly. If your dog walks slowly in response to your call, think about whether or not your tone of voice is angry. If you bark out a command, your dog may lick its lips or yawn. Don't respond with a scolding, as if a child just disrespected you, but try to understand that your actions may have created stress. In order to help our pets calm themselves, Rugaas says we need to better understand the effect that our actions have on our canine friends. Here are some human actions that might stress your dog:

  • Staring Staring into a dog's eyes can be interpreted as threatening behavior, Rugaas says. Look away when approaching.
  • Bending over them Even if you just mean to stroke your dog's coat, this may be considered menacing. Approach from the side, Rugaas says.
  • Approaching head on Your dog may see a frontal approach as aggressive. Dogs tend to walk in curves when approaching one another. You should try this, too.
  • Rapid movements This, too, can cause your dog alarm -- even if you were just going to give it a hug. Try moving more slowly and calmly.

A dog must ultimately calm itself down, but an owner can mimic the calming signals of the dog world and stop the offensive behavior. "You can give off calming signals to show that you are friendly," Rugaas says. "But you also have to take away the reason for the dog to react to you. That's the most important thing. The dog is telling you that you are being impolite. You are not nice. You need to stop what you are doing and do it differently."

Activities to Help De-Stress
While doggie yoga classes and acupuncture sessions are all the rage, pet experts caution that those activities may ultimately backfire. Instead of relaxing your pet, classes and office visits may create stress. At the same time, while some exercise is healthy for your pup, too much non-stop exercise -- such as jogging with your dog -- may relax you, but stress out your pet.

For de-stressing that can work for pet and owner alike, Rugaas recommends taking short walks with your dog during which it can act naturally and stop and sniff around. Dogs enjoy using their senses to search and explore. Being together with other dogs to get acquainted, or to take a walk, can also be relaxing for your pup.

Arthur suggests that, instead of over-scheduling your dog with outside activities, you can provide it with some mental stimulation at home. A variety of chew toys, bones, and "food puzzles" -- toys that they have to move around to make food come out -- can be entertaining and relaxing for your dog.

"We're too busy trying to fit our dogs into our lifestyle with all this strange and unnatural stuff," Rugaas says. It's better to stick with what comes naturally to calm your dog down.

New Proof Dogs Can Imitate

That "aha" moment, when an idea suddenly clicks, isn't just reserved for people. Dogs also observe and learn, particularly from one another. Ana T. Pieruccetti, president and CEO of Dallas-based Lucca Bella Doggie Spa & Boutique, has witnessed this dog curiosity on a number of occasions. For example, Bailey, one of the dogs that visits Pieruccetti's spa, watched as another dog, Katie, ran through a play tunnel and received a treat. Recognizing the connection, Bailey quickly followed suit. For Pieruccetti and others with expertise in dog behavior, this ability is not surprising. But until recently, there wasn't definitive proof of what most dog owners know -- canines are canny.

Researchers from the University of Vienna in Austria demonstrated that dogs don't just blindly imitate an action, but rather use reason to assess the usefulness of the action. In the study, conducted between March 2006 and February 2007, the canines watched a dog that was trained to use its paw to open a food container, rather than its mouth, as is the norm. In one test, the demonstrating dog had a ball in its mouth while, in a second test, its mouth was free. After witnessing the demonstrating dog perform the task, the other dogs followed suit in both the mouth-occupied and mouth-free test, indicating what the report refers to as "an imitative form of social learning."

New Tricks
Dog behavior and training classes, or even simple tricks taught at home with the aid of a few tasty treats, reveal just how rapidly dogs can learn. "Studies have shown that dogs have relatively high cognitive skills and are supremely sensitive to human cues," Pieruccetti says. "It is believed they also have some predictive abilities."

But the University of Vienna study also shows that dogs take their cues from their fellow canines, not just from us. Marc Bekoff, PhD, professor of biology at the University of Colorado, animal behaviorist and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals (New World Library, 2007) has observed that dogs adopt different play styles with different dogs, suggesting they are flexible and creative learners. So, with the right approach, if you are bringing a new dog into a household with other dogs, you may be able to enlist the help of the long-term residents in teaching the newcomer some ground rules.

"To teach our dogs not to crowd the front door when visitors come over, we set a boundary back from our front door: a thick white rope on the floor that means respect this boundary, don't cross the line," says Jim Burwell, owner of the professional dog training franchise Petiquette. "When we adopted Cooper, he learned very quickly, by observing the other dogs, not to cross the rope."

Cautionary Tales
It's not always good news, though. Just as children tend to pick up one another's bad habits or to latch onto the first utterance of a swear word, dogs also learn unwanted behavior from one another.

"One backyard dog barking at the mailman will cause the other dog in the same yard to also bark at the mailman," Burwell says. "If dogs are allowed to rehearse this behavior, it can lead to territorial aggression, which could transfer inside to territorial greetings at the front door, leading to more serious problems to sort out."

Of equal concern is how owners act around their dogs.

"Dogs are extremely sensitive to their environment and we need to be very careful what we do and say in front of them," Dr. Bekoff says. Burwell adds that, like children, dogs demonstrate be-like-act-like behavior and therefore an owner could, unwittingly, exacerbate his or her dog's problems.

"If an owner gets angry and scolds a child quite often, the dog may start getting edgy when the child is around it," he warns. "On the other hand, if the owner punishes the dog often, the child may start punishing the dog and may get into trouble when the dog defends itself."

Calming Effect
Despite the caution warning, inter-dog relationships are both healthy and beneficial. If your dog is young, undisciplined or just plain difficult, another calm, well-behaved dog can work wonders in teaching good behavior. "Owners can maximize training their animals by placing them in the presence of other trained animals and being able to better understand their pets' behaviors, responses and/or change in behavior depending on the presence of other animals," Pieruccetti says. 

If you have taken on a rescue animal, the problem of calming an abused and terrified dog can be overwhelming. Again, bringing other socialized dogs into the mix may help.

To approach a fearful rescue dog named Jack, Burwell used his 10-year-old husky/golden retriever mix, Boo. "Jack spent the first 18 months of his life in a crate -- 23 hours out of a 24-hour day," Burwell explains. "He was scared to death of being approached by strangers, especially men. My intent was to trigger an acceptance of me by Jack because of my very close proximity to Boo; a kind of, 'if it's okay for him, it's okay for me.' It worked."

A Meditation on Dog Training

Celebrity dog trainers come and go. But a group of upstate New York monks, who have been training dogs for 35 years, are experiencing a growing, international popularity.

The Monks of New Skete -- nine men living a monastic life in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition -- support their community through dog breeding, boarding and training. They are most famous for their obedience training, which combines a positive attitude with basic exercises.

The monks were recently featured on the "Animal Planet" network. Their methods are described in the widely read book, How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend (Little, Brown), which inspired a recent follow-up, Divine Canine: The Monks' Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog. One reason for their popularity might be that they acknowledge the spiritual connection between dog and owner.

Build Deep Bonds
"Training creates the condition in which a deep bond between the dog and owner can take place," says Brother Christopher, who is in charge of dog training at New Skete. "Whenever I ask people about their favorite dog, they go into a whole different consciousness as they describe how deeply that dog reached into their lives." Brother Christopher especially enjoys watching unruly and obstreperous dogs transform through training to reaching their full potential, enriching the lives of their owners.

Praise Pays
Learning the basics of heel, sit, stay, come and lie down are essential, but Brother Christopher emphasizes that this be done with an enthusiastic attitude and well-timed praise. The key is to link your reward, be it verbal, physical or both, to your dog's accomplishment. Brother Christopher adds that your overall goal should be to develop a cheerful dog companion who enjoys being with you, rather than molding a pet who robotically responds to your commands.

Putting Training to the Test
These basics come in handy when behavior problems crop up. For instance, your dog may erupt in a barking frenzy if it sees another dog while riding with you in your car. The din might then cause you to lose your cool as well. Screaming at your dog will have little effect, according to Brother Christopher. If you wind up screaming, it is an indication "that your dog needs a little bit more conventional training, so that the relationship between you and your dog is stronger, and your dog is more responsive." He suggests this four-step process:

1. Make sure your dog will follow the sit, stay and down commands in a neutral setting with few distractions, like a room in the house or a spot outdoors, before moving to a vehicle.

2. Practice in a car that is not moving. Give a few commands such as down or sit. Then have a friend walk by with another dog on a leash. When your dog starts to go bananas, say sit, stay! Your canine could be on a leash that's draped over the front seat, so you can give a quick correction with the command.

3. Now, get a companion to sit with you while you drive your car around the neighborhood with your dog in the back seat. Bring an air horn -- pointed away from your dog -- or an empty plastic container (like a bleach bottle) filled with some small stones. When the dog starts going ballistic, your friend should give a shake of the bottle or a quick blast on the air horn. Then you give the command of sit, down! The sound will break your dog's focus on the other pooch, and it will hear you.

4. Praise your dog when it successfully responds to your commands. According to the monks, plenty of playtime, exercise, quiet and good nutrition are important in maintaining dogs that relate happily with their owners. They even believe it is important to keep your dog with you as much as possible. For example, the monks advise that you should allow your dog to sleep in your bedroom -- but not on the bed -- because it helps to develop your dog's trust and confidence.

Reaping the Rewards
The rewards of following the wise advice of the monks are both practical and personal. Eric Bogardus, of Jamaica Plains, Mass., sent his high-energy 10-month-old lab Nella to Brother Christopher for training because she would go crazy with excitement at dog parks and was insanely food-oriented. "She wouldn't pay attention to me unless I had food," says Eric.

When he picked her up nearly a month later, "the difference was huge," he says. "She was very calm and focused and there were no treats. She was able to heel off-leash and maintain a down-stay from 50 feet away!" Similar to how the monks solved the car-riding problem, they trained Nella to respond more to the command giver than to any food reward. Eric and his girlfriend continue to include training exercises with Nella in their daily routine. "Now when we take her to the park, people can't believe that she can be so focused at 13 months," says Eric, who credits the monks for Nella's transformation.