Infant bitten in “unprovoked attack” by family dog: What can we learn?

In the news today is the report that a baby girl in Indiana was the victim of an unprovoked attack by the family dog.  It’s not unusual to hear this declaration from victims of bites, parents, animal control officers and the media. Even scientific literature lists a lack of provocation as a common reason for biting (sometimes an inference drawn by the authors, at other times simply a repetition of the available data).

Almost all bites are provoked. Dogs are social animals and respond to very subtle cues. We can work to figure out the reasons for a bite, including the likelihood that it was aggravated by anxiety around the baby. There is a danger in concluding that bites are random. If there isn’t a “real” stimulus triggering the aggression, how can it be prevented or managed?  The basic premise that bites occur in response to something is exactly what helps us understand dog and child behavior. Dog and child behavior work together to increase bite risk.

What about this particular story? The baby is 9 months old, and was placed on the floor “to play” while the family’s dog lay nearby. We’re not told just how close the two were to each other. According to the article, the dog had not shown aggression prior to this bite. So what can be the cause – what was the provocation?  Here are three possibilities, and of course there may be more:

1. Babies develop and grow very quickly. To the family dog a resting, cooing infant (which might have taken a little time to get used to) might suddenly start to reach, grab and — particularly frightening to dogs — crawl towards them. At 9 months, the baby in this story is likely to have started crawling and otherwise trying to move on her own. The previously “good” dog is now dealing with a potential threat, and bites defensively.

2. Resource-guarding, or aggression related to high-value items like food, toys and even the owner herself, is very common. Even in cases when it is not shown towards adults, it might certainly be triggered by young children. If there was a toy or rawhide nearby and the mother inadvertently placed the child too close for comfort, a resource-related bite would be provoked.

3. It is always important to consider poor health, pain or other medical problem led to irritability and biting. At the age of 7 years, this dog might have been aching or ill. Disease lowers the threshold for aggression and biting, and might have been involved in this case.

These three possibilities each could have led to prevention of the bite. If you have an infant and a dog, watch your dog carefully as your baby begins to vocalize, crawl, pull up and otherwise explore his or her world. If the dog is showing avoidance behavior (leaving the room) or signals of conflict and worry such as lip-licking, turning his head away, lowering his body, yawning or whining, intervene by separating the dog from the baby. Some dogs simply should not be in the room with a crawling baby. If they are both present, pick up rawhides and special toys, and be aware when the baby approaches the resting dog at your feet (you are an important resource!). Be sure to have your dog checked by a veterinarian at least once a year — and after the age of 7 years twice-yearly — to identify and treat arthritis or other problems. Seek the help of an experienced and educated dog professional for advice about safety.

A good mantra for parents,  dog owners, pediatricians and veterinarians is that bites are just about always provoked by something. By understanding the dog’s and child’s behavior and carefully monitoring their interactions, we can often prevent such bites. But assuming that dog bites are random events can lead only to more unfortunate surprises.

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Infant Swings and Dog Bite Risk: National Dog Bite Prevention Week, Post #1

“Newborn killed after dog attack at home” is the headline that came across my desktop today. As always, I read the media reports with care to understand what the circumstances were and to deduce, if possible, what risks those circumstances might present to others. This is an immeasurable tragedy and my heart goes out to the baby’s family, but maybe we can learn — truly changing parenting behavior and the way we manage dogs with children — as a result.

In this case, the 3-day-old infant, Makayla Darnell, was left in a swing while her mother and grandmother were in the kitchen preparing to feed her. According to the article, “The two women would only have been a few feet away” from the baby. Clearly, proximity alone was not enough. They heard the baby cry and found her severely injured. Details about the swing have not been provided, but I found it interesting to read – once again! – that an infant dog-bite fatality occurred while the baby was in a swing.

In 2006, Albert Y. Chu et al published a paper summarizing 3 case studies of infants killed by dogs while the infants were alone in mobile swings. (Please be warned that the article contains graphic images.) In the first, a 2.5-week-old baby was left in a swing while the parents stepped outside to smoke cigarettes. In the second, parents went to bed while their 3-month-old was left in a swing. The third case was hauntingly similar to today’s news story: a 2.5-week-old infant was left in a swing for a short time while the mother went to prepare a bottle.

Infants should not be left alone even when a dog is not in the home. But when there is a dog, whether one or several, the baby should never, under any circumstances, be left unwatched. This applies whether the baby is fast asleep in a carrier, in a mobile swing taking a nap, or sitting in a play yard (into which dogs can easily jump). And that supervision should be active, intimate and focused. If there is a distraction and that focus is disturbed, the baby should be taken along. This has little to do with breed, or even with size of the dog: even a Pomeranian is capable of doing great harm.

Infant swings are risky because they loll us into believing the babies they contain are safe for the moment. We, the rational, adult caregivers of both dogs and children, need to be more active participants in their safety.

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Behavioral Kindness to Dogs: 5 Tips

  1. Be patient and count to ten. In spite of the training you’ve done, and contrary to the expectations you might have, your dog is only human. If she picks up your shoe and plays “keep away” (by the way, a game that can easily be made more appropriate), if the meat for dinner is eaten from the counter, or even if she growls when you brush out a knot in her coat, take a second to think about it. These situations can be avoided or alternative behaviors can be trained. Impatience, however, is usually not productive and might frighten her.
  1. Help your dog to be successful. When training or working with your dog, it helps to be aware of his mood and energy level. If you’re teaching a particularly challenging cue, work on your own timing and use high value food or toys as positive reinforcement. If you sense that he’s distracted or tired, ask him for something familiar like a “sit”, reward, and end the session. It’s also important to set him up for success at home. Have you put some irresistible chicken bones in the trash? Take the trash out before leaving your dog alone. Keep your counters clean, and put remote controls and fancy shoes out of reach.
  1. Take your dog for a leash walk rather than just putting her out in the yard. The proverbial back yard is a great boon for dog parents, but dogs need to be walked as well. Single dogs and those who simply don’t play by running will not exercise themselves. More important, going for a walk with you has many benefits. It is quality time when you can interact directly, whether training or just pointing birds out to one another. And sniffing, watching, and listening to the world around them are deeply enriching activities for dogs – a well-deserved break from hanging around the house (or yard) all day.
  1. Don’t assume that what you hear on television or read on the internet is the best method for training your dog – whispering or not. There is misinformation, usually punishment-based, about dog behavior which can lead – being blunt here – to your dog biting you, being chronically fearful, and even being euthanized because of his escalating behavior problems. But there is great information out there, as well. Sit down with a cup of tea and read ethical sites such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Dogmantics, Welfare in Dog Training and the recently formed Pet Professional Guild, among many others.
  1. If your dog’s behavior has changed, take him to the veterinarian. There is no way to know for certain whether your dog has a headache, intestinal discomfort or joint pain, but unusual or new behavior can signal that your dog doesn’t feel well. Irritability, housetraining “accidents”, even excessive licking can result from illness. A good physical exam, along with laboratory tests if they’re needed, is a necessary first step in solving the problem behavior.



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Infant killed by the family dog; What can we learn?

Sadly, there is no lack of news stories about dogs that have killed infants. I try to sift through the media blasts to find any information about the reasons – behavioral, medical, environmental — for each tragic story. In most cases a rational explanation can be cobbled together. Understanding the reasons for such tragedies might help in their prevention.

Two days ago, a one-year old boy was killed by his grandmother’s dog on the evening of the baby’s first birthday. The dog was quite big, but otherwise, according to a published interview, he was good with people and had never shown signs of aggression. The baby had been given a bottle in the living room after an evening of opening presents, and crawled over to the dog who was lying nearby. It’s unclear whether the baby petted him or used the dog to pull himself up, but as the grandmother bent to pick up the baby, the dog bit his head and shook him.

What could have happened? The news reports, read with a behavioral grain of salt, would lead to speculation that:

1. The dog might have been food-aggressive (resource-guarding) with the milk nearby, especially if the baby had dropped the bottle as he was pulling himself up.

2. The pulling or holding might have triggered relatively new and significant pain in the dog, a 6-year-old giant mixed breed. (Giant breeds age earlier and may be more susceptible than average-sized dogs to orthopedic problems.)

3. The baby was crawling but still not walking. Infants change so rapidly that each stage in their development can present new “threats” to dogs. It’s unclear whether the baby and dog lived together but even in the same household dogs can be fearful of infants that lie on their backs, then roll over, then sit up and reach, then crawl, pull up and begin to walk unsteadily. The dog might have been fearful and defending himself — a very common scenario even with otherwise nonaggressive family dogs.

4. Dogs do not love to be approached and touched while they are lying down. We don’t know if this dog was in a corner, under furniture or on his bed, any of which might have increased the risk. It might be that, over the dog’s six years of life with the family, he responded to approaches by walking away or, as many dogs do, exhibiting “calming signals” that indicate his discomfort about being approached. A baby’s approach might have triggered overt aggression instead of more passive body language.

Just a few speculations. It’s unlikely that we’ll learn more about this very sad situation, but I think we know enough to advise parents of infants to simply never allow a baby to approach a resting dog, and never, ever to allow the baby to pull up using the dog’s body – period. There is no need for nuance with this instruction. There are countless parents who continue to be unaware. Veterinarians, behaviorists, trainers and other dog professionals need to inform them of this risk.

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Is a behavior club enough for veterinary students?

In today’s news summaries was an article titled “Colorado State’s vet program strives to improve lives through valuable programs,” published in the Rocky Mountain Collegian. It’s impressive that the CSU Veterinary Behavior Club is sponsoring a free symposium for pet owners “offering a chance for the public to learn about animal behavior from CSU professors and clinicians.” One of the club’s goals is to increase awareness of improving the human/animal bond by increasing good behavior in companion animals. This is terrific and I hope they continue to be successful.

There is a disconnect here, though, which I think should be disturbing to anyone recognizing the importance of behavioral medicine in our lives with companion animals. Behavioral medicine is a critical specialty for vet students to experience, yet most veterinary schools either do not offer veterinary behavior as a clinical specialty to which primary care veterinarians refer cases (and I believe CSU is among these) or, perhaps more egregiously, they downgrade (for example by replacing board-certified faculty with residents) or close down existing veterinary behavior services.  With the exception of veterinary schools at University of California – Davis, University of Georgia, North Carolina State University, University of Minnesota, Purdue University, University of Tennessee and Tufts University — that is only 7 out of 28 U.S. veterinary schools —  there are no board-certified veterinary behaviorists in tenure- or clinician-educator track positions at most schools. Is behavioral medicine that much different from internal medicine, orthopedic surgery or cardiology?  Considering that behavior problems are reported to be the most frequently cited reason for relinquishment of dogs by their owners, it would seem that this specialty area would merit equal priority.

I am thankful that students can be motivated to sustain a behavior club, even in the absence of a behavioral medicine specialty, and I hope that at least some of these students will apply their interests in future clinical practice or research.  But schools should take this focus a step further and reevaluate their academic programs to include behavioral medicine by appointing board-certified veterinary behaviorists to more faculty positions.  Our future veterinarians — and clients — certainly deserve this.


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A Collection of Tuesday’s Pearls of Dog and Cat Behavior

Each Tuesday, a behavior-related “pearl” is posted on our Facebook page. Here is a collection of the pearls posted since August, 2011, when the page was launched. I will continue to post them here as well on each Tuesday, and hope you find them useful.

Keeping your cat indoors is lifesaving: it prevents injury from car accidents, injury or infections from other animals, and avoids the risk that your cat will get lost. But, because that indoor environment is your cat’s entire world, it is important to remember that cats need both physical and social enrichment, with places to hide, climb, scratch, and perch up high. Some cats also appreciate the option for quiet, alone time now and then.

If your fearful dog hesitates on a recall (“come”), there might be something about your body language intimidating her. If you are in a doorway calling your dog inside, try stepping aside to leave the doorway clear. It can also help to lower your body into a squat or to turn sideways so that you’re not facing your dog. Most important, have those high-value rewards ready.

A common misunderstanding is that dogs aggressive to strangers are protecting their owners. It’s more likely, though, that they are protecting themselves – and are more expressive about it when their owners are with them because the aggression is socially facilitated, as in “I’m more brave because you’re behind (or in front of) me!”.

Any dog and cat (and bird, rabbit and rat), no matter its age or breed, can be trained. The trick – no pun intended – is to find the right positive reinforcer and pace the learning to the individual animal. If your dog (or hedgehog…) seems to have a limited attention span, try shortening the sessions and changing up what you’re teaching.

If your dog or cat is older than 11 years or so, cognitive decline, failing vision or hearing, and chronic pain can get in the way of behaviors that had always seemed “easy”. For example, dogs might need guidance (cues, rewards) with bathroom walks in the yard, and cats will appreciate a low-sided litter box on the same floor where they eat, sleep, and spend most of their time.

A wagging tail does not always indicate that a dog is willing to be touched or even that he is friendly. Stiff wagging might even be part of a threat signal. Tail-wagging means simply that the dog is “engaged” and aware of whatever is in front of him. In context, although your dog greets you with a “full body” wag, he might acknowledge an unfamiliar person or dog with a guarded, stiff posture and a more stiffly moving tail.

If your dog is nervous around unfamiliar people, don’t expect her to take food from them. In many cases it is not a positive experience, even if she accepts the food (dogs can be ambivalent, too!). Instead, offer food from your own hand and keep her at a comfortable distance.

If a muzzle is needed for any reason, a basket muzzle is preferred to a sleeve-type muzzle because (1) it is more secure for bite prevention, (2) if fitted well it allows the dog to pant (and regulate his body temperature) and (3) treats can be given in and through the muzzle while it is being put on, and during the time it is needed. No matter the type, muzzled dogs should never be left unsupervised, and a muzzle should not be used during strenuous exercise.

If you live with multiple dogs, be sure to provide multiple resting places for them. Ideally there should be more resting spots, including beds and dog-friendly furniture, than there are dogs. Be aware that corner beds might be difficult to access if other dogs are lying – and staring – nearby.

A potential drug interaction that comes up often in behavioral medicine is that between tramadol, a commonly used opioid pain drug, and SSRIs such as fluoxetine (Reconcile or Prozac). Using the two together can increase the risk of seizures or serotonin syndrome and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Close monitoring or alternative therapies might be needed.

Cats enjoy vertical space in which to explore, rest and supervise your activities. Encourage your cat(s) to explore vertically by placing furniture strategically so that they can easily jump up and down. Cat trees are lovely, but a simple (secured) blanket on top of a bookcase can be as valuable.

Sometimes it’s necessary to tether a dog in your yard, campsite or other unfenced area. But if you choose to tie your dog to a fixed spot outdoors, consider the fact that tethered dogs are among the most likely to bite, especially reactive to the pedestrians, children, bicycles and others who pass by. Chains and ropes can break, and the dogs themselves can be injured. The moral? Never tether your dog for more than a few moments, and never when you aren’t there to supervise.

It’s known that children are the most frequent victims of reported dog bites. But did you know that the most common behavioral reasons for bites by familiar dogs (family pets) in a recent study were resources (like food or toys) and “friendly” interactions such as petting, hugging or kissing?

Do you have a dog who views the cat’s litter box as his snack bar? Try propping the door to the litter box room open with a long hook-and-eye. Just enough for your cat to come and go, but small enough to thwart the marauder.

Two things to consider when using food as positive reinforcement. First, pieces should be small enough to be swallowed without much munching – biscuits are too big! A good choice for dogs is Cheerios. Second, foods can be sorted by their value to the dog or cat. For example, for many dogs kibble is a “C” food, breakfast cereal a “B” food, and chicken or cheese an “A” food. “C” foods might be fine as a routine, but bring out those “A” foods for fearful animals or challenging tasks.

Does your dog “mount” people, other dogs or pillows? Although it might look sexual, or you’re told it is yet another sign of dominance, mounting is most often simply a displacement of anxiety or stress. Best response? Redirect your dog’s attention to a more straightforward activity, such as a fetch game.

Positive reinforcement does not have to be food or toys. It can take the form of a “life reward” — the opportunity to do something the dog wants to do. For example, sitting at the back door is reinforced when the door is opened — an opportunity to run and play in the yard. Life rewards are excellent tools for anyone living with a dog.

Do you suspect that your dog or cat is urinating in the house? An ultraviolet (UV) lamp, also known as a black light or Wood’s lamp, will reveal the glow of even dried urine spots. Wood’s lamps can be purchased at home supply or pet supply stores. (And while you’re cleaning and neutralizing those spots, consider the next step — figuring out why it’s happening!).

Pet owners committed to humane training methods should be aware of the euphemisms for shock collars. You might come across terms such as “training collar”, “e-collar”, “e-touch”, “stimulation”, “tap”, or even “clicker” used for these devices, now easily available on line or in large chain pet stores. Regardless of how they are marketed, shock collars work by causing pain and fear — and should be avoided. What are your thoughts?

Although the typical image of a urine-marking cat is of a male spraying urine against a vertical surface, keep in mind that even spayed female cats may urine mark, and marking by any cat may be on a flat surface (like a bed) rather than actual “spraying”. Urine marking in cats can be a frustrating problem, and often leads to rehoming or worse, but it is treatable!

Dog toys are often colored bright red. But did you know that dogs can’t see the color red? Contrary to the widespread belief that dogs are entirely colorblind, they do see colors, but their visual spectrum is limited to a “rainbow” of yellow, gray and blue. If your dog seems to run right past that new red, violet or green ball, this might explain why.

Many adult dogs are finding their new, forever homes through rescue from shelters or rescue groups. Being rehomed as adults, however, often means that they have special needs — and may be predisposed to separation anxiety or other kinds of social distress. Keeping this in mind can help ease the transition to their new home.

Have you heard someone suggest that low thyroid hormone levels are linked to aggression in dogs? It isn’t necessarily so. A recent study found no difference in thyroid hormone levels between aggressive (to owners) and non-aggressive dogs. More research is always needed, but this is a good example of the need for evidence to back claims. What are your thoughts?

Catnip has interesting effects on cats. But did you know that it rarely affects kittens under 3 months old, and that about 30% of cats are genetically insensitive to its active ingredient, Nepetalactone?

Is it unsafe to enroll puppies in training class? In a recent study, M.E. Stepita et al reported that appropriately vaccinated puppies attending socialization classes were at no greater risk of parvovirus infection than other puppies.

Have you tried to clicker-train your pet but found they are scared of the clicker sound? An i-Click is quieter than a regular clicker. Better still, try clicking inside a pocket.

Even though punishment might inhibit “bad” behavior for a moment, it is likely to make a dog or cat more worried — not less — in the long-term, especially if the behavior is based in anxiety.

When two dogs in the household fight with each other, injuries can be severe, especially with females. It is not a good idea, therefore, to let dogs “fight it out”.

Teaching simple “tricks” using positive reinforcement (food) is a great way to add mental enrichment to your dog’s or cat’s day. Try to set a goal for one new task each month, just to keep it interesting.

Let’s talk about cats. Cats respond to positive reinforcement as well as any other species (including human) — but first you have to discover what works as positive reinforcement for your cat. It might be food, but then cats are more cautious and tentative about their food preferences. Try something new and offer small bits several times.

There is no legal requirement to feed dogs food only from a bowl! Try feeding at least some of each day’s food in puzzle/food toys or as rewards for training. Why waste such an important resource?

Dr. Jacqui Neilson, a veterinary behaviorist in Portland, OR, reported at the recent ACVB/AVSAB scientific meeting that she found that cats were just as likely to use a scented cat litter as they were a non-scented litter.

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Should young children have their own service dogs?

Alida and Mr. Gibbs. Photo credit: MSNBC

The story of a 3-year-old girl born with a debilitating lung disease, neuroendocrine cell hyperplasia of infancy or NEHI, is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Although this brave, adorable little girl and her parents have to cope with so difficult a situation, she is thriving and is now a happy, silly and active 3-year-old. To help her maneuver around with the always-present oxygen tank, her parents obtained a service dog. Now the family and the service dog, a golden doodle (a mix of standard poodle and golden retriever) named Mr. Gibbs, are being profiled and interviewed on the news and social media.

In a recent segment on NBC’s Today Show, little Alida was seen climbing, swinging and in the studio for an interview with her parents, Aaron and Debbie Knobloch. In each shot and in the studio, the young Mr. Gibbs was present. In a small voice, Alida tells him (complete with an impressive hand signal) to “down”.  In the video and, especially, in the studio, Alida pulled on Mr. Gibbs’ leash and teased him a bit with a bandana (which he gamely tried to catch). All of which seems harmless enough — and, for most viewers, easily outweighed by the benefits of the bond between a great kid and an amazing dog.

From a behavioral  perspective, though, it seemed more complicated. Perhaps not exactly spine-chilling, but at least a little spine-cooling. I thought the pup showed some conflict behavior….conflict in the sense of “I’m a bit overwhelmed but have to stay put”.  He begins, several times, to move away but is restrained. At about 5:00 in the video, he yawns. Yawning is, thankfully, one of the clearer signals that a dog is less than comfortable. Dogs yawn when they are told to “stay”, when they have to wait a little too long for a treat, and other situations of mild frustration or discomfort. But when yawning is seen during an interaction with a little girl, and that little girl has been encouraged to be, basically, in the dog’s space at all times, there might be a problem.

What problem, you might wonder? I can think of two. First, it is not in the dog’s best interest to be persistently tethered, literally, to a small and active child. Second, and more important, dog bites are common, and children are the victims most often presented to emergency rooms for dog bite injuries. Sadly, the relationship featured here is a risky one. Mr. Biggs cannot get away, even if it might be his first choice during a difficult interaction and Alida, a typical 3-year-old, cannot be expected to recognize his stress. If he moves his head away, she might pull it back (as she did on the Today show segment). If he stands to walk away, she might tug his leash and insist, when he is stressed, that he lie “down”. Children are impulsive, physically demonstrative, unpredictable, and generally challenging for even the most tolerant dog. The kids don’t know any better — which is why their safety is entirely and solely, all 100% of it, in the hands of their adult caregivers.

The use of service dogs for young children is, unfortunately, increasing in popularity.  There are service dogs assigned to children with autism and other special needs. From the perspectives of veterinary behavioral medicine and dog bite safety for children, this trend deserves a second look. Until children are old enough to understand the limitations of their canine charges, and to realize dependence is mutual, they should not be given “control” over their service dogs. It is certainly a potential risk for the dog to accompany them to school.  It is up to parents and other caregivers to take responsibility for the needs and welfare of both child and dog. In that world, Alida and Mr. Gibbs would enhance each other’s quality of life much more safely.

Alida and Mr. Gibbs. Photo credit: MSNBC

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Omitting “NO” From Your Vocabulary

On New Year’s Eve I posted a list of ten resolutions for dog owners and said I’d be elaborating on some of these in future blogs.  One of the resolutions was to omit the word “no” from our vocabularies as dog trainers, stating that “When a motivated dog is inhibited by an exclamation of “no”, he may become frustrated and then redouble his efforts behind your back. Most important, yelling at your dog may make him nervous around you. Instead of telling him what you don’t want him to do, try telling him what you’d like him to do, and reward him for it.”

Why is “NO” not a useful or desirable training tool? Here are a few reasons. I’m sure you can think of more (and please comment if you do).

1. Saying “NO” might inhibit your dog’s behavior for that moment, but it gives your dog no instructions about the correct thing to do.  Without knowing the correct thing to do, another undesirable behavior might simply follow the first. If you are interested in a persistently offered, appropriate behavior, it must be taught and reinforced.

2. In some cases, the behavior you are trying to stop is a strongly driven or excited behavior. By saying only “NO” you’re offering no alternative outlet for that energy. Highly aroused dogs easily channel that energy into other behaviors such as barking, mounting or aggression.

3. Even punishment has its rules. “Corrections” or punishment must be aversive, they must be associated 100% of the time with the target behavior, and they must happen during or immediately following a behavior — think of “immediate” as being the time it takes for a set of keys to drop from your hand to the floor. Responding to your dog’s behavior with “NO” probably doesn’t follow the first two rules. First, saying “NO” is not really aversive to many dogs (keep in mind that each dog is an individual, and what is unpleasant to one might be meaningless to another). It’s a soft word. This doesn’t mean that you should shout phonetically sharper words at your dog. It is simply a reminder that “no” is not really an informative word for many dogs. Second, and more important, you might not always be there to deliver “NO” to your dog’s ears. If it is only a “sometimes” consequence of misbehavior, it will not work.

4. Punishment — whether it is called “discipline”, “correction” or any other euphemism — can be frightening for your dog. In fact, in order for it to be effective (see #3), it has to be, by definition, nasty. This is why a verbal “No” is often followed by leash popping or using a shock collar. Assuming that you live with a dog because of love and attachment, it makes more sense and is kinder to give the dog instructions about appropriate behavior than to be punitive about inappropriate behavior. And if there are children in your family it is reassuring to know that they are interacting in gentle and safe (for all parties) ways with the family dog. Frightened dogs become hand-shy, fearfully aggressive and reluctant learners.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Fine, but aren’t you doing what you’re telling me NOT to do — discouraging me from saying “NO” without giving me instructions about the alternative?  In that light, here is a video by Emily Larlham in Sweden, whose youtube channel “kikopup”, is inspiring (for more information see

The Positive Interruptor

In future posts we’ll talk more about what “to” do, rather than what not to do. There are a great many positive, reinforcing words and actions that will make our dogs happy to work with us.


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Shelter sued after adopted dog bites

A recently adopted dog, breed unknown (and unimportant), bit the nephew of the new owner, and the nephew is now suing the Yonkers, New York, shelter where the dog was obtained. There is some risk assumed when a dog or cat is brought into the home, but the shelter is not necessarily able to identify all such risks. In this case, the dog had been taken to a pet store for collar-shopping (and fitting?). Public settings like pet stores can be threatening for any dog, but perhaps especially for a dog who recently experienced the stress of a shelter and then rehoming. There is noise, food, shopping carts, other dogs, children and all kinds of well-meaning people reaching out hands to greet the dog.

Although the Yonkers shelter’s temperament assessments were not described in the article, it is assumed that in-shelter tests with food, cats or handling cannot exhaustively predict the dog’s behavior after adoption.  This lawsuit might set a series of precedents for holding shelters responsible for behavior they can’t control; this might lead to further constraints on adoption of dogs with certain traits or appearances.

What are your thoughts?

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What defines animal abuse?

The Colorado legislature has rejected a bill that would require a public registry of convicted animal abusers, similar to sex-offender registries. Such a registry already exists in Suffolk County, NY and makes it possible for the public to view convicted offenders.

In spite of the controversy generated by such bills currently being considered in other states as well, there is justification for an animal cruelty database. For animal lovers, it is — one hopes — a no-brainer that burning, shooting or other wretched treatment of animals is unacceptable and might prophesy an individual’s future violence to people. It can be argued that we have a right to know the identities of convicted offenders, for the protection of both our animals and, ultimately, our human families.

There is, however, a more insidious kind of mistreatment which escapes the notice of legislatures, and which is suffered by the animals we live with. In behavior practice I encounter families who are certainly well-intentioned, but who are sometimes influenced by unethical professionals.  Through books, neighbors and friends, a pet store cashier, local dog trainers or nationally syndicated television programs, they have learned that it is acceptable to shape and control animals through force. Force itself is ambiguous, though. Next time you find yourself in a pet supply store, take a critical look at the devices for sale (and at their packaging and marketing) and perhaps ask yourself, are choke or training collars cruel? What about prong or, to up the ante, shock collars? If your trainer recommends them, should they be used? Is one tolerable, but the other cruel? Is any technique justifiable if the behavior is “disobedient” enough? Maybe we reject such tools but use our own hands to “alpha roll” or “dominance down” our dogs as an assertion of our leadership.

There are well-intentioned people who argue that such decisions are ours to make or reject, and that we have the right to do what we wish with the animals we purchase, adopt, breed or rescue. It would be good to step back and reflect about these choices through the lens of animal abuse. Dogs and cats are relatively powerless; they do feel fear and pain, and abuse can be an ambiguous concept. Whether or not animal cruelty databases are approved by lawmakers, such laws are trumped by the individual choices we make.


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