An Interview with Dr. James Ha and Kathy Sdao

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From the Seattle Times.  Experts Dr. James Ha and Kathy Sdao. He is a research associate professor in the psychology department’s animal-behavior program at the University of Washington and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. She has a master’s in comparative cognition from the University of Hawaii, is a former zookeeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and owns Bright Spot Dog Training in Tacoma.

Go fetch:

Q: Why does my dog yank so hard on the leash when we go for a walk? Is it because I don’t go fast enough? Does she like choking herself? Is there any way to stop this? (We’ve used a Gentle Leader, which works, but we haven’t stuck with it because she got a bit better and because it’s annoying to put on.)

Sdao: Your dog yanks on the leash because it works. She’d prefer to walk faster and sees no reason to slow down. Walking politely (i.e., on a slack leash) next to a human is an unnatural, complex behavior for dogs. Because both you and the dog need to move in a coordinated way when you go for a walk, think of this as a cross-species dance that the dog has never learned.

Most dogs require a few “dance lessons”: training that specifically focuses on teaching them the skill of walking without pulling. Gentle Leaders (one brand of head halters) are a huge training aid for many people; they change the physics involved by attaching the leash to a dog’s muzzle rather than to his neck. This humane tool prevents choking and gives the dog much less leverage.

There is also a newer product that is becoming popular — a simple body harness that lets you attach the leash to the front of the dog’s chest. There are at least three different brands. Both head halters and front-attachment harnesses are training aids; in most cases, they don’t replace the necessity to do some actual step-by-step training.

Q: Why do some dogs, especially little ones with extremely annoying, LOUD barks, bark at every single thing that moves day or night — even things that don’t move? Do they ever get tired of it? Do they ever sleep? What is a bark, anyway? Related Q: Why does my dog bark nonstop when she’s excited — when I come home from work, when we go to the park?

Ha: Barking is communication for a dog. Think of children and that age when everything is new and perhaps even a little scary to them and they want you to know about it, too, constantly bringing everything to your attention. That’s what your dog is often doing. Dogs use a lot of body language, language that we often ignore. So bark loudly, and lo and behold, that gets a reaction. So now we shift to another phenomenon: inadvertent rewarding.

Their barking gets them a positive reward: your reaction, your attention. And now you have started a vicious cycle of barking and reward. Punishment doesn’t really work with dogs, it’s just another form of attention. So try leaving the room every time your dog barks and see what happens: they usually look around, stop barking, and trot off to find you. Or maybe to start barking again at something, anything, just to get attention.

Q: You often read that dogs need intellectual stimulation, but how exactly do you provide that?

Sdao: Great question! Here are some of the dozens of possibilities:

Teach them a new behavior. Have each member of the family pick a trick and see who can complete the training by the end of the month.

Throw out the food bowls. Instead, require them to hunt for their food. Stuff their daily ration in durable, hollow toys like Kongs, Twist-N-Treats, Buster Cubes, etc. Or else hide the kibble around the house, in empty cardboard food containers (e.g., cereal boxes) or in old rags.

Think of one or two daily tasks your dog can help you with. Service dogs who assist people with disabilities regularly fetch keys, phones and remotes, open doors and make beds. Though I’m not disabled, one of my dogs pulls each item of clean laundry out of the dryer and carries it to me at the folding table. These behaviors are useful, and they help give your dog a job.

Take your dog out into the world. Let him meet all types of people and dogs. Negotiating social interactions is an intellectually stimulating task for dogs (and humans!).

Invent a new game. Kids are great at this, and dogs seem to relish sincere, silly interactions with their people.

Q: I have a lifelong fear of dogs that has become a real problem because airport and border dogs seem to sense this fear. The more I sweat and squirm when they sniff me, the more suspicious I become to airport guards. Short of seeing Sigmund Freud, what can I do to keep from exciting the dogs?

Sdao: Actually, it’s Ivan Pavlov you should see. His discoveries about bells and dog drool (and more, of course) have given us behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counter-conditioning. These techniques can help you learn to be calm in the presence of dogs. When you are calm, you won’t display anxiety-induced behaviors such as increased breath rate, tense posture, trembling or sweating — all stimuli that the highly sensitive detection dogs can perceive. A therapist skilled at conducting behavior modification sessions with humans could help you conquer this common fear.

Ha: Another point-of-view is to remember how well trained these dogs are. These are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill dogs in either intelligence or training. They are working professionals and spend hours every day in training about how to react around strangers. Their focus is on their job; that’s what they will be rewarded for. They have NEVER been rewarded for reacting to a person. You have significantly less to fear from these dogs than from dogs you happen across in a park or sidewalk! Perhaps remembering that might help.

Q: Why does my 10-year-old Siberian husky have such a bad case of separation anxiety? If we leave him alone for about three hours at night while we go to a concert or dinner, he might engage in destructive behavior, such as marking our rugs. When we return he greets us with a high-pitched anxious howl.

Sdao: It’s possible that your husky has some degree of separation anxiety, but we’d need more information to diagnose this specific disorder. What else does he do when he’s left alone — bark, whine, chew the furniture or walls, chew himself, drool, pace, defecate? Will he eat in your absence? Does he always shadow people around the house? Has he always been anxious when alone? Does he mark the rugs at any other time?

If it is a true case of separation anxiety (rather than a dog who needs some training in how to be home alone without getting into trouble), the disorder responds well to desensitization and counter-conditioning. A behaviorist can help you design a treatment plan specific to your situation.

Q: My Dalmatian, Lucy, is as sweet as pie. The thing that drives me crazy is she gets on my leather sofa and sleeps when we’re gone. She has a couple of nice little beds in the master and my son’s room. She never attempts to get on the furniture otherwise. But when we’re gone, she takes liberties.

Sdao: Over months and years of living with humans, dogs learn when it is safe and when it is dangerous to do specific behaviors. Often the rule is, “If a human is present, it’s dangerous (i.e., will result in punishment such as scolding) to get on the sofa or surf for tidbits on the kitchen counter or grab a sock from the laundry basket. But if no human is present, it’s safe to do these things.” This isn’t willful or devious. It’s a straightforward law of learning.

Dogs don’t have consciences; they don’t understand the concept of “good” vs. “bad” behavior. Make your comfy leather sofa less inviting when you’re gone by tipping the cushions up, by putting a big empty cardboard box on top, or by covering it with a strip of clear plastic floor runner (nubby side up).

Q: My 11-year-old Australian terrier is a nightmare. He doesn’t have any medical problems but insists on lifting his leg the minute we turn our heads. It doesn’t matter if he’s just come from outside or not — he’s constantly peeing on the furniture, laundry, even on his own bed. He’s been this way since we adopted him, but lately it seems to be getting worse. The vet says there’s nothing wrong with him. Help!

Sdao: I’m hoping your dog is neutered. That’s definitely the first step. But in any case, this dog has been practicing this inappropriate behavior for 11 years! Fixing this problem isn’t impossible, but it will take a long-term (likely at least 2 months) commitment from everyone in your family. Imagine trying to stop smoking after more than a decade of daily cigarettes.

The solution will involve a combination of teaching him to pee outside, on cue, with a human present to observe and reward each time, along with 100 percent prevention of peeing inside. This can be accomplished by various methods of confinement such as crates, dog “playpens” (known as exercise pens), tethers, leashing the dog to your waist (the “umbilical cord” technique), or holding the dog on your lap.

Ha: I would strongly suggest a second veterinarian opinion on this as well. It could have so many medical causes that you should be absolutely sure it is behavioral before committing to a behavior-modification program.

For instance, I would like to know something about hormone levels, and I might consider short-term hormone treatment in consultation with a veterinarian.

Q: Why does my dog jump on people when they come into the house — strangers and friends alike? He never jumps on me or my partner.

Sdao: Dogs are experts at discriminating the differences in various contexts. They are less adept at generalizing unnatural skills, such as “greet humans with front paws anchored to the ground.” The majority of dogs jump on people during greetings because they are aroused and because jumping up gives them olfactory information; they can sniff our mouths.

So my first guess is that your dog simply hasn’t generalized the skill of “polite greeting” to unfamiliar humans. It’s also possible that he’s a bit anxious when greeting nonfamily members. This anxiety can lead to puppylike behaviors, such as jumping up to lick the person’s mouth.

Ha: There are some very easy ways to modify this behavior, too. It’s been shown that dogs react to human hands with play behavior (pawing in dogs and wolves is a play solicitation). Yet what is the first reaction of many people to a dog jumping up on them? Push them off or down with their hands — a play response! Use your body, your leg or hip, to push them firmly away, never your hands. It works like magic in most cases! We actually put a note on the front door when we have a lot of people over to our house.

Q: Our usually-shy Boston terrier lashes out at huge dogs, both at the off-leash park and just passing by on the sidewalk. Afterward, the hair on his back is up, and he’s trembling in fear. If it happens, we say, “No! Bad!” and march him home. Apparently that’s not very effective. How can we get him to ignore or avoid if he’s scared, instead of attack?

Sdao: This is a common and embarrassing problem. Fortunately, it’s also one of the most easily modified. As you note, your reprimands are ineffective — your dog can’t voluntarily turn off his fear (and, counterproductive, the reprimands will increase his overall anxiety). The long-term solution is to teach your terrier that the approach of big dogs is a reliable signal that fabulous food is about to appear. In other words, your terrier (on leash during the initial lessons) will see a big dog and you will immediately feed him the most decadent treats you can imagine (roast beef bits, pureed liver baby food, tiny pieces of bacon). If he won’t eat, move farther away from the approaching dog.

Over many repetitions, a big dog will come to equal awesome food. Your dog will begin looking toward you as soon as he sees a big dog in the distance; he may even drool. This expectation of impending food is mutually exclusive with your terrier’s initial feeling of fear. You are replacing the fear with a “Yippee, food is coming!” response.

Q: My German shepherd walks into my bathroom every evening, takes the washcloth, brings it into the living room and drops it. She doesn’t chew it. She doesn’t do anything else with it. She simply relocates it … EVERY DAY, once a day, and only my washcloth. Sometimes she just glances at me as she walks past with it in her teeth as if to say, “Sorry, but I have to do this.” Why?

Sdao: I don’t know why. It reminds me of my dog Nick who has to relocate one throw pillow when I’m gone. No chewing, just a bit of redecorating. My suspicion is that this behavior has been intermittently reinforced by attention from family members. But we’ll never really know.

Ha: Yup, most likely inadvertent rewarding at one time (attention-seeking).

Q: Is it even possible to get a Dalmatian to come when called? Our 3-year-old female (like two other Dalmatians we’ve had) comes only when she wants to. If she thinks there’s a treat involved, she’ll definitely come. But otherwise, it’s hit and miss.

Sdao: Yes, it’s certainly possible to teach a Dalmatian, or any dog, to reliably come when called. You actually pointed out how to do it: Convince them it’s in their best interest. That means practicing the behavior “Spot, come!” hundreds of times in easy, distraction-free situations. Every correct response is rewarded with food or play, but you must never show the food or toy up front. In other words, no bribing!

The sequence: Call the dog with the agreed upon cue, dog responds, you click (if you’re using a clicker as a training tool) and then reward the dog profusely. If your dog has a history of ignoring the word “Come,” pick a new cue word and start with a clean slate. Try to get in at least 50 practice repetitions every day; this takes only 10 minutes.

Once your dog is performing well around the house, try it in a fenced yard. Then try it at a fenced tennis court or parking lot. While the dog is learning the behavior, every correct response should be rewarded. Later, after she is fluent at this recall behavior, you can occasionally reward her with food, toys, and praise.

Ha: Yup, I would strongly recommend a good trainer or training class, just to teach the owner some basic training techniques, like Kathy has described. Very helpful techniques that can be applied to any kind of problem or task!

Q: My dog doesn’t care at all when I get mad at him. There’s not a bone in his body that wants to please me. If I say good dog, he thinks it’s a sign that he can do whatever it is I just got him to stop doing.

Sdao: Oh my. It sounds like you have, gasp, a normal dog!! Despite all our human imaginings, dogs don’t desire to please us. They do what works for them. If pleasing us results in food, freedom, attention or play, then dogs will appear to behave in that altruistic way.

Try spending a lot less time trying to stop your dog’s “bad” behaviors and a lot more time rewarding his good ones. Discover the things that thrill him — hot dogs, rabbit pelts, swimming, belly rubs, Frisbees — and make access to these things contingent on behaviors you like. Bottom line: Dogs don’t care about our internal emotional states unless they manifest in the production of rewards for them to collect or aversives (something negative) for them to avoid.

Ha: Yes, punishment (“getting mad”) doesn’t really work well with dogs. Positive reinforcement is so much more powerful. Rewarding the good behaviors is much more effective. Again, a good training class for both owner and dog would provide the tools that an owner needs to communicate effectively with their dog.

Dogs don’t communicate like we do, and they don’t see the world like we do. That is something that is very difficult for humans to understand. A behavior specialist is someone who understands how dogs (or cats, or parrots) see the world and can communicate that to the owner.