Monday, January 30, 2012

Deciphering the Difference Between Depression and Dog Issues

Lately a lot of press has been given to the story of Nick Santino's suicide. Santino was an unemployed soap actor and relatively unknown to anyone who hasn't watched All My Children or Guiding Light.

The story according to news media begins when his apartment building's board passed a breed-specific rule banning pit bull-type dogs. Santino's dog Rocco was grandfathered in and was excluded from the ban. The board began getting complaints about Rocco barking and behaving badly that friend and family sources say were unfounded. (The Daily Mail reported that a veterinarian told Santino that Rocco was displaying an increase in aggressive behavior.) Santino felt harassed by building management. His solution was to visit his vet and have Rocco euthanized last Tuesday.

Over the next few hours after putting Rocco to sleep, Santino became more despondent and on Wednesday of last week was found dead in his apartment. He had committed suicide, leaving behind a note that read,

"Today I betrayed my best friend. Rocco trusted me and I failed him. He didn't deserve this."

Animal advocates and anti-Breed Specific Legislation groups all over the nation have grabbed this story as an example of the enormous impact BSL has on the human-animal bond. What many fail to see is that BSL is only a minor factor in this tragedy. Santino was suffering from depression with suicidal tendencies. The real issue behind this story that is not being addressed is the serious issue of suicide and depression.

Major Depression Disorder (or Clinical Depression) is a serious mental illness that affects the way someone perceives their world. It affects a person's health, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This year alone, approximately 15 million will be diagnosed with MDD. Symptoms include depressed mood or sadness, poor concentration, sleep disturbances, fatigue, appetite disturbances, excessive guilt and suicidal ideation or preparations. Left untreated, episodes can last a few months or even years. Prolonged episodes of depression can severely impact the ability of a person to function in their daily life, leading to isolation, thought distortion, and in some cases suicide. Suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death for men and the fifteenth cause of death for women in the United States.

The first casualty of depression is often rational thought and perceptions about daily interactions. Santino's feelings of harassment may have been legitimate, but through the lens of depression were magnified so greatly that he no doubt felt paranoid. His problem solving skills and belief that he had any ability to impact what was happening to him made him seek a solution that seems unthinkable to most dog lovers. Many wonder why Santino didn't consider all the other options. Why not rehome his dog? Find a rescue group that might help with training or placement? Or even contact a bully-breed advocacy group to help him educate his apartment's board of directors on their discriminatory policy. The simple explanation is Santino would not have seen any of these possibilities.

One of the hallmark signs of suicide preparation is the dispersement of valuables items and possessions. Euthanizing Rocco could have also been an irrational way of saying goodbye in preparation for his plan. Or maybe even Santino felt he was protecting his dog from the hurt and mental anguish he was living with. After returning from the veterinarian's office, Santino even began dispersing Rocco's valuables, giving rawhides and treats to other animal lovers in his building.

People suffering from depression are often burdened with a tremendous sense of guilt. To an outside observer, this guilt often seems unwarranted, but to the depressed person, it feels intensely real. In the case where his decisions did leave him as the one who was solely responsible for Rocco's death, his guilt would be severe. Combined with the havoc depression plays with the ability to think clearly, possible suicide ideation leading up to this event, it is not surprising Santino's declaration of guilt was the last message left to his family and friends.

It is a lot easier to blame Santino's suicide on the breed specific policies that played a part in his decision to euthanize his best friend rather than look at suicide and depression. The BSL angle of this story lets us feel like there was "a reason" behind Santino's death. Addressing the issue of depression and suicide is far more complicated, nuanced, and scary. Depression is an invisible illness that we as outsiders can't control or completely understand. Focusing on the apartment board's no pit bull policy gives us a false sense of control, as if Santino would not have committed suicide had this policy not been in effect. Sadly, had this policy not been enacted, Santino would have just been one of the nearly 39,000 people who die from suicide each year.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of suicidal behavior , please call the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website for resources in your area.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Remedial Puppy 12 x 12 x12

There are a lot of different theories about how much a puppy should be socialized to by different time periods. A number of dog trainers have come up with great advice about socialization of normal puppies that we have the opportunity to work with from birth or a very young age. Seven things a puppy should know by 7 weeks and Meet 100 people by the 100th day of life are some of them. These are great tools to use with new pups, but can be overwhelming and even detrimental for special needs dogs from feral, neglect, or sensory deprived situations. To understand the thought process behind these guides, it is helpful to know a little about critical periods in puppy development.

0 to 7 Weeks: Neonatal, Transition, Awareness, and Canine Socialization.

During this period, puppy learns about social interaction, play, and inhibiting aggression from its mother and littermates. Puppies must stay with their mother and siblings through this critical period because this is when they learn to accept discipline and basic bite inhibition.

5 to 14 Weeks: Interspecies Socialization Period.

The puppy now has the brain waves of an adult dog, but his attention span is short. This period is when the most rapid learning occurs and socialization to sounds, people, objects, and textures is vital. Dogs that miss out on human socialization during this period tend to be on a spectrum from aloof ----> fearful -----> reactive to humans. Dogs that are removed from litter mates before 7 weeks are at increased risk of reactivity to unknown dogs.

8 to 10 Weeks: Fear Imprint Period

Any traumatic, frightening or painful experience will have a more lasting effect on the puppy than if it occurred at any other time in its life.

11 to 16 Weeks: Seniority Classification Period.

Puppy starts to cut teeth and apron strings and by the end of this period the puppy begins testing its position in the family unit. He will learn more about leadership during this time than at any other time in his lifetime. Dogs who have not been around humans but were around dogs at this time will need additional work on accepting and understanding leadership and guidance from humans and are more likely to take environmental cues about rules from dogs.

4 to 8 Months: Play, Fight, and Flight Instinct Period.

Puppy also starts actively deciding how to respond to uncertainty, startling events, and fear. By 20 weeks of age, the basic development of "being a dog" is set. Any puppy not socialized to humans at this point will be a remedial learner and require a behavioral modification program. This is also when adult males begin to correct adolescent males in a more direct, rough manner.

6 to 14 Months: Second Fear Imprint Period

Puppy again shows fear of new situations and even familiar situations. He may be reluctant to approach someone or something new. It is important that you are patient and act very matter of fact in these situations. Never force the dog to face the situation. This fear period is normally more marked in male dogs.


A feral, severely neglected, or sensory deprived dog has not had the benefit of being purposely exposed to people and novel items. Feral dogs might possibly be the most adept at responding appropriately to new objects as they have survived life on the streets and been exposed to any number of objects in their environment. However, they have not had the human contact or exposure to multiple humans. Dogs from sensory deprived environments (puppy mills, spent an entire lifetime in a kennel or on a chain) will have a very challenging time responding to novel stimulus. With that in mind, this is a modified version of the Puppy Rule of Twelve I have developed for remedial dog training for dogs like Shawn This is designed primarily for feral, severely neglected, or sensory deprived dogs.

It is important to remember when dealing with these dogs to go slowly and refrain from touch, talk, or treats when they show they are uncomfortable or scared. Be sure to reinforce "return to calm" behavior if they are fearful or uncertain. And, while a certain degree of challenging is appropriate, never force a dog to interact with a new object or person. Instead, make a note of the object and the dog's response and refer to a qualified trainer on desensitizing the dog to that object.

Because we should be flexible and patient with the needs of the dog, I am reluctant to put a time limit on when these special needs dogs should have experienced all these new things. I would say that exposure to a majority of these items and activities by twelve weeks in foster would be a good goal, but by no means should be a rule.

1. Experienced 12 different surfaces: wood flooring, carpet, tile, cement, linoleum, grass, wet grass, dirt, mud, puddles, deep pea gravel, wood chips, grates, uneven surfaces.

2. Experienced 12 different objects as enrichment: Kong, stuffed/fuzzy toys, hard toys, funny sounding toys, small tennis size ball, larger bowling ball-sized ball, wooden items, crumpled paper, cardboard items, milk jugs, pop bottles, metal bowls or pans, aluminum pie plates.

3. Experienced 12 different locations: kennel or crate, kitchen, living room, bathroom, basement, garage, laundry room with washer/dryer running, car (not moving, just get in), car (moving), veterinarian hospital (just to say hi & visit, lots of cookies, no vaccinations), walk in neighborhood.

4. Met and played with 12 new people (outside of family): adults (mostly men), elderly adults, people in wheelchairs, people who walk differently. Children and teenagers as appropriate for the dog and safety of the minor.

5. Experienced 12 different people movements: jumping up and down or jumping jacks, touching toes, twirling, reaching up high, reaching over dog, balancing on one leg, two people dancing, running in place, windmill arms, two people tossing a ball, people hugging, people tickling and laughing.

6. Exposed to 12 different noises (ALWAYS keep positive and watch dog's comfort leveled): cd of life sounds gradually on increasing volume, clapping, snapping, adults talking loudly at each other, children playing outside, doorbell, knocking, garage door opening, door slamming, dropping pie pan or cookie sheet, garage door opening, doorbell, children playing, vacuum.

7. Exposed to 12 fast moving objects (don’t allow to chase): rolling a ball or toy truck across the room, kids on skateboards, people on rollerblades, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, people jogging, scooters, vacuums, children running, children playing soccer, squirrels, cats (with dog on training tether), wheelchairs

8. Handled by owner & family 12 times a week, increasing touch as

9. Eaten from 12 different shaped containers: hand fed, wobbly bowl, metal, cardboard box, paper plate, coffee cup, coffee filter, china, pie plate, plastic, frying pan, Kong, spoon fed, paper bag,

10. Eaten in 12 different locations: back yard, front yard, crate, kitchen, living room, basement, laundry room, bathroom, friend’s house, car, school yard or park, bathtub.

11. Played with 12 different dogs as much as possible depending on dog reactivity and social needs.

12. Left alone (safely crated if needed) away from family and all other animals for increasing time periods 12 times a week.


This is modified from the "Puppy Rule of Twelve" behavior handout by Upper Valley Humane Society.

The concept for that handout was adapted from

Margret Hughes'

The Puppy’s Rule of Twelve Positive Paws Dog Training ©2002

The concept for that handout was adapted

with permission from Pat Schaap’s “RULE OF 7” for seven week old puppies

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dudes Are Scary!

I had three phone calls last Thursday about dogs that cringe, growl, or bark at men. As I ended the last phone call, I started thinking.

Have I ever gotten a call from a man telling me his dog cringes or hides when it sees a woman? No.

Have I ever gotten a call from a man telling me his dog aggressively barks or lunges at women only? No.

Even in confirmed cases of animal abuse and cruelty where the aggressor was a woman, have I observed dogs that react in a tense, frightened way to only women? No, not that I can think of. These dogs are almost uniformly afraid of all strange people.

So, what is it with dudes?

Often people see a dog cringe at the sight of a guy and assume that the dog was "beaten by a man". In some cases, that may be true. More likely, however, the dog was not socialized to men (or different types of men) during their critical fear period of 7-14 weeks of age. It may mean that they had a startling or scary experience with a man during that time, specifically during their fear imprint period on weeks 8-10.

Maybe it is the way men move. Or the way they smell. Or their facial hair or wardrobe choices. Dogs do not understand our ability to change our silhouette and are often suspicious of people in hats, puffy coats, sunglasses, or ponchos until they have been exposed to different types of clothing. Because of this, I routinely advise women who foster puppies to make sure their male family members and friends visit often and interact with the dog in a positive way. Keeping a box of goofy dollar store items and playing 'dress up' before starting a game can do wonders for a pup's socialization.

Another theory is that women's body movements appear to move away from the observer.

Patricia McConnell explains in her blog that

"Research published in Current Biology asked volunteers to guess the direction of motion of figures that were represented only by points of light placed at critical joints. (Similar to the motion capture process used to make movies like Avatar in which a real person moves around with points of light attached to hips, elbows, shoulders, knees etc, and a computer records the movement of the lights.)

When watching the points of light that represented a moving figure, the volunteers said that the figures made by men were approaching, while the figures made by woman were retreating."

I have looked all over the internet to read the actual study and have only been able to find articles that reference it. And I am always looking for research that can help me understand the 'why' behind this question. If you have resources or research on this topic, please include it in the comments.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

It's all Talk, Talk, Talk

The last few weeks, the majority of my posts have been inspired by the socialization and behavior modification plan for Shawn, a 6-8 month old shepherd mix found in a junkyard in Detroit. Shawn was born in the junkyard and has not had close-quarters interactions humans before December 28th, 2011.

So far in discussing the human instincts that are in conflict with dog behavior, we've talked about hugging and touch, and eye contact. These posts are relevant to all dogs, but are especially important to be aware of when dealing with feral, unsocialized, or neglect dogs. Next, I'd like to look at the implications of human speech when interacting with special-needs dog populations.

When I was first beginning to make dog training a hobby, I read a book by the Monks of New Skete. As I learned more about the science of dog training, I dismissed a lot of the book as based in dominance theory. There were parts of the book I have always taken with me, however. From a spiritual perspective, I loved the New Skete practice when new monks joined the order. The new monks were given a German Shepard Dog pup to train. The dog went with them everywhere, participated in prayers and work and rest along with a human partner. This all occurs during the monk's vow of silence. Commands are learned through hand signals and other body language. The bond between monk and pup is intense and they learn to communicate on a deep level.

Talking is one of those primate instincts that we rarely think about. It is so much a part of "who we are" that many religions require some kind of vow of silence as part of the spiritual quest of those in leadership positions. Whether that comes in the form of meditation, silent prayer, or prolonged periods of not talking, the act of being silent often leads to profound realizations about our spiritual nature and the world around us.

Through experience with their people, pet dogs learn the signals that show our talking is directed at them. It could be body language or a change in pitch and tone of our voice. Outside of that connection, dogs ignore most of what we talk about and deem it irrelevant to their day. We tend to process what we feel, see, and experience through speech. We talk to each other, some of us talked to our plants, most of us chatter at our animals, and I'd bet I'm not the only one who has been caught cussing at inanimate objects. (Stupid bagel stuck in the stupid toaster...) Really, when you think about it, dogs have no choice but to zone out all this verbalization purely for the preservation of their sanity.

Unsocialized dogs are unfamiliar with human behavior, and as such are overwhelmed by our incessant gabbing. They are trying to read our body language and figure out what it means to them. Imagine their impression when they see face-to-face positioning, sustained eye contact, a human reaching out to restrain them and making weird noises that have no context. This is a scary combination of body language for an unsocialized dog. Fear makes them believe everything is relevant to survival and they are unable to process all this novel stimuli. They become too overcome with fear to experiment with the implications of human speech and will make false conclusions that talking means the same thing as all the other in-your-face, threatening body language we are showing.

An important part of rehabilitation for dogs like Shaun is giving an unsocialized dog a set period of time where talking is kept to a minimum. It allows for a routine to be established and for the dog to become comfortable in the environment. When a dog hears talking, it is best first observed between two humans interacting (benign event), as opposed to human talking to a dog (eye contact can make this a confusing event). This gives the dog an understanding that not all human speech is relevant. After a period when the dog is relaxed and calm when observing humans talking with each other, then we can start talking to the dog. (While being mindful of our body language and eye contact, of course.)

The dog has an opportunity after this point to learn when human speech is a cue about their environment without being overwhelmed with other stimuli. By this point, these dogs have had ample time to observe human body language, learned to experiment within their environment, and learned that taking risks with their individual space often pays off with a positive (treats). They have learned that their primary caretaker will respect their space and is the bearer of all good things (food, treats, water, mental stimulation.) And soon they will learn, like our pet dogs, that most of the time it's all just talk, talk, talk.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Look into My Eyes (Actually... Don't.)

In Western cultures, we value eye contact as one of the most important parts of communication. In our culture, eye contact shows we are paying attention, it is how we judge someone's character, it is the way we show how we are processing thought. We have a plethora of sayings about eyes, "Eyes are the window to the soul." "Don't believe it until you see it with your own eyes." "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

The meaning of eye contact changes in different cultures, but one thing is for sure: humans value eye contact when it comes to bonding and affection. This is something that happens from a young age. In a 1977 study, scientists found that babies shift focus to the eyes upon hearing verbalizations as early as 5 weeks. As babies got older, eye contact intensified. A 2002 study showed that babies followed the direction of gaze rather than head direction. Long, loving gazes between people show an increase in levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and dopamine (released when we engage in pleasurable activity). And this does not change with cultures -- eye contact between loved-ones is immediately rewarded in our brains with a rush of feel-good chemicals.

Dogs, however, do not share this affinity for eye contact. Unless they have been conditioned from a young age to accept eye contact, they quickly grow uncomfortable with prolonged periods of staring. For example, Ollie has learned through our training that eye contact is valuable to me and is important for him to make humans pay attention. Tonight, he shoved his nose in my face exactly 3 minutes past normal dinnertime and looked me in the eye. While he was looking at me for a total of fifteen seconds, he never held direct gaze longer than a second. He instead made direct contact in little flashes but mostly looked slightly to my right at my cheekbones.

Dogs that are friends will make quick eye contact to signal interest, excitement, or initiation of play combined with corresponding body language. For dogs, prolonged eye contact only comes as a hard stare. Combined with various other body movements, this hard stare can communicate:

I'm the boss.
I'm challenging you.
Don't test me on this.
You are a threat and I am deciding what to do about it.
You need to back off.

This is why, when dealing with all dogs but especially unsocialized dogs, we must be aware of what our eye communication says. This is exceptionally important when we are talking to a dog. Dogs are unsure of what our noises mean. Combine an unfamiliar action a with body language a dog believes has context of a threat, and you have a recipe for a miscommunication. At the minimum, a dog feels threatened. At the worst, you have a dog lunging at your face.

A soft gaze directed at the forehead space in-between a dog's ears is a good place to train your gaze when observing behavior. Any accidental eye contact you make will be contextually accurate to the dog. It will be "checking in" rather than a threat or stare.

Monkey Love

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow's experiment with infant macaques performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison forever changed our ideas on animal emotions. One group of macaques infants were raise with a surrogate mother made of cloth. The other group was raise with surrogate mothers made of wire. Monkeys with the cloth mothers grew up to be fairly normal. Monkeys raised with the wire mothers grew up fearful and desperate. It was concluded at that point that there was something more than simply nutrition that was required for baby animals to be well-adjusted adults.

In primates, identifying the biological need to hug and to be hugged was reproduced during the most rigorous scientific experiments, over and over during the next 60 years. Eventually the study went beyond observable behavior and into the inner workings of the brain. Oxytocin (responsible for bonding, attachment) and dopamine (released in pleasurable activities) are the hormones behind these set actions. They are released when we hug and then are released again whenever we are around something or someone that we are attached to.

Animals that have higher social structures produce more oxytocin. This includes dogs. Studies show that dogs produce oxytocin when interacting with their humans: playing, petting, engaging in a group activity. However, in terms of oxytocin production, dogs respond either neutrally or negatively to any sort of physical restraint: hugging, reaching over a dog's head to pet, or collar restraint unless they are conditioned to accept this type of physical contact from an early age. These movements activate their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and huge levels of cortisol are pumped out. Cortisol, the major indicator of a response to stress, can remain in the dog's blood for hours in socialized dogs and days in dogs unfamiliar with human behavior.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to hold back when we interact with dogs is our primate need to hug because it is a highly rewarded instinct. We crave it from birth, it is necessary for proper brain development, and we are rewarded for it with the production of all the feel-good neurotransmitters that happen when we bond. But it is our responsibility to control that impulse, especially when dealing with dogs that are feral, neglected, or from sensory deprived environments like puppy mills. We can get them to start bonding and having significant emotional attachment by engaging them in problem solving activities, being a source of predictable interactions, and providing them with routines to help them explore and understand their environment, and eventually petting and non-restraining snuggles.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Power of Routine

What do we know to help Shawn on her journey?

We know that Shawn was born in the junkyard about seven months ago. Up until last week, there is no indication she had ever been touched by a human. By all accounts, she had spent her life as a feral puppy.

This means experiences with human behavior, body language, and movement has been unpredictable and limited. Shawn has never experienced pet dog comforts like regular food, clean water, daily walks, novel stimuli in the context of a home, play, socialization, training, or toys.

This means Shawn will be overstimulated by small changes in her routine and environment, which in turn means it is our responsibility to create a stable and controlled set of actions to show her that human behavior is predictable. This also means she is a novice learner. The act of "set activity + experiment + practice = learning" is new to her. We will have to 'teach her how to learn' by creating a predictable environment where she feels safe to take risks.

We can expect Shawn to begin interacting with her environment around days 3-5. We can expect that shortly thereafter, she will begin experimenting with vocalizations and body language to learn "what works" to get what she wants: excessive barking, jumping, body blocking, licking, mouthing, and nipping.

We know our plan to help Shawn will consist of contact only that is part of daily care routine: feeding, cleaning, and quiet sitting. We know to avoid high-energy body language and verbalizations such as fast walking, exaggerated arm movements, shouting, high-pitched voices. We know that forcing interaction with Shawn if she cowers, moves with head down, or changes positions to remain the farthest distance from the caretaker will break what little bond of trust we have achieved.

We also know we must keep our own human emotions in check. We need to recognize our tendency to empathize and put human emotions on a dog. We have to realize our human want to touch, hold, and maintain eye contact and understand that this is the opposite of what a dog naturally wants. This means being aware that dogs often see hugs as restraint, touches from above as a sign of aggression or dominance, and direct eye contact as "staring down". As difficult as it can be to restrain ourselves from putting our human emotions on Shawn, we have to meet our need to show her affection in ways she will understand: establish a routine, provide daily care, allow her to observe normal human behavior, and share the same space without touch unless she initiates it.

It all goes back to the most important piece of training advice ever given to me. "Do not underestimate the power of routine."-- Julie Castaneda, CPDT-KA

Monday, January 2, 2012

Shawn's Journey Video (Part I)

Here is a link chronicling the first week of Shawn's Journey.