One of the sessions I went to at the No Kill Conference was entitled "Rehabilitating and Adopting Dogs with Special Needs."
The presentation was given by Dr. Linda Wolf -- who is a veterinarian and animal behavior consultant who does a lot of consulting for Animal Ark -- a No kill Shelter in Minnesota. With Dr. Wolf's guidance (and a lot of work from a dedicated staff and volunteer group who are dedicated to the saving of animals' lives), Animal Ark has euthanized only 1 dog due to behavioral issues in the past 4 years. At a time when many people are using basic temperament tests as a way to kill dogs without consequence because they were "unadoptable."
While much of what Dr. Wolf talked about was not new to me, per se, there were a lot of new nuggets that tied a lot of different pieces together for me .
She began talking about what forms behavior, and signs of dog behavior. "If you don't recognize and understand signs of dog behavior, you won't know how to deal with it," she said.
She talked about when certain behaviors develop. Even during the prenatal period, behavior is affected a lot. Stressful situations before birth can have negative consequences for a dog. Dogs that are heavily petted during pregnancy will have puppies that tend to be more docile and desire more touching.*
From 0-14 days, puppies require touching to develop their motor development and nervous system. Dogs that are handled during the first 2 weeks after birth tend to be more confident.
From 3-12 weeks is a dog's main socialization period. This is when the puppy's brain develops rapidly and they learn to socialize with their littermates.
From 12 weeks to sexual maturity, this is when dogs learn aggressive behavior. They learn a lot by "play biting" -- especially bite inhibition. This is when a puppy learns to bite by not using their full strength so they don't cause injury. Many people inadvertantly cause two dogs from having proper bite inhibition by breaking up play-fighting -- by doing so, the puppy never learns what that 'max level' of biting is to when the other dog gets hurt.
"Without bite-inhibition, socialization, and habituation, you'll end up with a serious bite." If you have bite-inhibition, without the other two, you'll end up with a much less serious bite," said Wolf.
* None of this is really very supportive of the idea that nature is a bigger driver of behavior than nurture....in fact, in a 2 1/2 hour lecture on the topic, the topic of genetics never once came up as a driver of behavior.
So then Dr. Wolf talked about different gestures -- filled with all kinds of visual examples of such behaviors. She discussed Distance-reducing behaviors -- these are appeasement gestures that encourage approach. Often the dog has its head/neck lower, the dog will be twisted somewhat sideways, eyes will be looking slightly away, or often, the dog will lie down, with it's belly up. Other signs might include licking, tail wagging (but be aware of how high up the tail is, if the tail is nearer to vertical, that is a different sign), and a raised paw/shake-type gesture.
She also discussed Distance-increasing behaviors: Stiff body, ears up and forward*, tail up and staring directly at the target.
Dr. Wolf also discussed fear behaviors (cowering, head very low) and calming signals (Sitting, lying down, nose licking, looking away).
* Interestingly, she brought up her huge dislike of things like cropped ears and tail-docking. When a dog has cropped ears, the ears are always in an "up and forward" position. Other dogs will almost always interpret a dog with cropped ears as being in a distance-increasing posture, which can lead to the other dog mirroring that behavior -- which leads to two dogs in more aggressive-type positions. It is hard not to think that the popularity of ear-cropping in 'pit bull' breeds has actually caused some of the "dog aggression" issues that people perceive because it actually spurs other dogs to react less invitingly to the dog with cropped ears, which can spur a little more rivalry between a couple of dogs. I also wonder if ear-cropping had something to do with Randall Lockwood's initial thoughts on "pit bulls' back in the mid-80s when he said that pit bulls didn't give warning signs before attacking -- because one of the major "warning signs" would be ear position -- and I don't know how much we understood about canine behavior when it comes to body position subtleties in the 1980s.
After this, she discussed different temperament tests. It was Dr. Wolf's opinion (and one I share) that temperament tests should not be used as a pass/fail -- with "fails" being killed at the shelter.
She said there are many flaws in using temperament tests for the sole evaluation of a dog's behavior:
-- Environment -- if a dog is in a strange environment they are likely not going to behave in a natural way
-- Stressed -- a dog that is in a strange environment, around strangers, is likely going to feel stressed
-- Length of time - -many temp tests are only 5-10 minute tests -- and don't really give the dog ample time to show their very complex behavior. Let's face it, if someone met you for 5 minutes, they most likely wouldn't have a full understanding of your behavior.
-- Experience/skill of the evaluators -- many evaluators are not properly trained to do temperament evaluations
-- Testing only "potential problem dogs -- in many shelters, they only test dogs they perceive to be "potential problems". So evaluators realy don't get an understanding of how a "good dog" would do on the test, so they don't have a good comparison of how the dog should perform.
-- She also warned that testings assumes a one-size-fits all approach to dogs and that only one type of temperament is acceptable.
The end result: Most dogs fail, and failure = death.
Which is happening all to often in many of our shelters today.
Part 2 will come soon.