Don’t hog the hug

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 9, 2016, 08.40 PM IST

Dogs don’t like being hugged

If you’ve been following any doggy news online, you must have come across the ongoing discussion about hugging dogs. For those of you who haven’t, here’s a gist.

Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher who has published award winning books regarding the intelligence and mental abilities of dogs recently wrote an article for Psychology Today. The article details a study he did on photographs of people hugging dogs. His study revealed that more than 80 per cent of these dogs were giving out ‘calming signals‘.

Calming signals are signals that dogs give out when they are trying to calm themselves or others down, often indicating that there is a stressor around. Easily identifiable calming signals include licking of the lips, yawning, turning the face away, squinting and whale eyes (whites of the eye showing prominently).

After Coren published his article, several people raised questions. These are valid questions in the academic field of research. It was pointed out that the study was not sufficient to be conclusive. It was also pointed out that findings like these need to be corroborated by multiple sources.

There is another study going on in Norway called ‘Dog Pulse‘ that studies the heart of dogs in different situations. That study reveals some very interesting facts that might offer some additional information to understand this issue at hand. The study shows that a dog’s heart rate increases significantly when we hover over a dog or bend over a dog. Now that might make intuitive sense to us. If there was a species much larger than us that hovered over us, it’s easy to imagine that our heart rate would also spike.

The Pulse Project also reveals that walking straight up to a dog spikes up the dog’s heart rate. Now that is a less intuitive fact. To understand this, we need to know how dogs approach each other. They never walk up to each other unless it’s confrontational. In a non-confrontational approach a dog curves slightly around another dog. So it makes sense that dogs are perhaps not designed for calm full-frontal approaches.

In addition to this, we also have studies that show that chances of bites are much higher when a dog is being hugged or kissed. There are also several videos online that show a dog’s body language in slow motion as it’s being hugged or petted. The videos reveal dogs giving out several calming signals, just the way Coren’s photo study revealed.

All of this information is repeatedly pointing in the same direction—dogs don’t always love hugs. That does not mean they don’t like touch. Sometimes dogs will come up to you and ask for contact. But such a dog will happily accept a nice massage on the neck or like to be stroked on the shoulders. Of course many dogs do love sitting on people’s laps. They will enjoy that far more if they can continue to sit, without having to be restricted by your hug. Puppies will ask to be picked up sometimes. Again, there are several guides on the internet about how you can pick one up, without making the puppy feel restricted and while also giving the puppy maximum sense of freedom and not trapping them in a hug.

Yes, we need a lot more validation of this idea. But some articles that object to this idea make an incorrect leap from asking for more validation to then dismissing the result of the study as incorrect. With dogs, is it not always better to be safe than sorry? Does it not make sense that the study suggests an animal needs it space? Should we not learn to respect that space and not impose? Learn to read Calming Signals to let your dog guide you on what he likes and does not like. I like this video that shows how to read these signs when petting a dog:

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By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 15, 2016, 06.33 PM IST

bangalore hundeskole
A good guide is to wait for your dog to come to you, pet for a few seconds and take your hand off. Wait for further instruction

Are we giving our dogs adequate attention? Are we giving our dogs enough space? Surprisingly, in the case of many hyper dogs, the answer is “no” to both questions. Sounds contradictory? Let me explain.

Clients with hyper dogs that are excessively vocal often complain that their dogs bark non-stop. I asked a client I was working with recently to maintain a diary of all the times her dog barked. She was also asked to record her opinion of why the dog was barking. She insisted that the dog barked “all the time” and for “no reason at all”. I insisted that she maintain a diary nevertheless and spare a day to make entries, even if it meant she was writing every five minutes. She returned with a surprising revelation – the dog barked only a few times in a day and most of those times, the dog seemed to have something valid to communicate.

One instance baffled her. She had put a bed out for her dog and towards evening he barked incessantly. She had fed him, walked him, brushed him and spent time with him. It just was not evident what he was upset about. Then we figured out that his favourite bed was damp. We had to replace the bed and he stopped barking. I went on to teach her what the appropriate response was for the remaining times when his reasons seemed valid. The dog needed her attention each of those times – not just attention, but appropriate attention that carefully observes the dog and addresses his concerns.

A few hyper dogs bark for attention. I was once in the company of such a dog and his human. As I observed, I noticed that the lady was constantly giving the dog negative attention. For the dog, this was highly rewarding as he was getting exactly what he was barking for – attention. He did not seem to mind that the attention was negative.

This was inappropriate attention the person was giving to the dog.

On another occasion a client was talking non-stop to the dog, giving him commands at all times, petting him several times and constantly getting him excited. Little surprise – the dog was hyper. The woman’s unrelenting, high-energy attention was making the dog happy, but overly excited. This dog could have done with a lot more space.

A dog will come to you when he needs attention. Highly affectionate people sometimes forget this and keep going up to pet the dog, unknowingly violating the dog’s personal space very frequently. A good guide is to wait for a dog to come to you, pet the dog for a few seconds, take the hands off and wait to watch the dog’s reaction. If you look up ‘Calming Signals’ on Wikipedia, you will see the tiny signals dogs give at this point to indicate they are not interested in the petting. It can be as subtle as a quick lick of the lips. If he is asking for space, give him space.

At the same time, if your dog is trying to get your attention, either through barking or other means, try to give quality attention, which means don’t just ask the dog to keep quiet, but to carefully observe what he is drawing your attention to. Walk the fine line between being attentive to your dog and yet respecting his space.

Making “outdoor” dogs happy

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jan 25, 2016, 09.47 PM IST

wolf wars

I sometimes get to work with “outdoor” dogs – dogs that are largely kept outside the house, entering the home just for very short durations or never at all. The behavioural problems these dogs exhibit include excessive barking, digging, obsessive behaviours, depression and self-mutilation, among others. Almost all of these point towards a high level of stress brought on by some extreme frustration. The people in these houses are often perplexed, explaining to me that the dog is getting several walks a day and that dogs they have had earlier had similar lives but did not experience such behavioural problems.

First up, we need to understand that being social with humans was an integral part of a dog’s evolution. It is theorised that a few members of the now-extinct gray wolf species (who were more friendly with humans) were the predecessors of our modern day dogs. That means the friendlier the animals were to humans, the more dog-like they became. They even developed physical features that humans find endearing – floppy ears, large liquid eyes and curled waggy tails.

For a species whose identity is linked so closely with his social contact with humans, imagine how critical this social contact is to his very being and mental stability. A dog that is deprived of social contact can develop several emotional issues. Keeping a dog outside the home puts him in a place where he does not get as much contact with people as he needs.

You may ask – did our grandparents not have dogs outside their homes and fare much better? Yes. As do many pet parents in rural areas to this day do that too. However rural areas do not have confined compounds that limit a dogs movements. A dog has the freedom to range free. He compensates for his lack of social contact at home, by developing good contact with other dogs and other people in the village.

Tiny modern city homes today are a stark contrast to this. The roads are busy all the time. The traffic does not ever ease up, not giving the dog a moment of peace. Walks have gotten shorter, faster and busier, with very little space for a dog to relax and sniff. The Indian culture of delegating dog walking to disinterested domestic staff results in the dog being walked in complete indifference and even animosity in some cases. The only time the dog actually seems to get attention is when someone is yelling at him to stop the barking.

I can understand that there are times when moving a dog in is not an option. In such cases, be aware of the problems and try to address them actively. Make sure that some loving humans put aside some time every day to spend with the dog, talking lovingly and petting or massaging the dog. Make sure that the dog is walked by someone who actually cares for the dog. The dog needs to get a slow walk where he can sniff a lot. The dog needs a quiet soft bed to sleep in, a few objects to call his own and tasty food that he actually looks forward to, instead of dry dog food that tastes the same all the time.

Whatever be our reasons for bringing a dog home, we must acknowledge that he gives us a lot. He is in our home at our behest. So it is incumbent on us to make sure that, in the least, he has some sources of joy in his everyday life. As you can see, dog does not need much.

The mind of a two year old

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jan 4, 2016, 08.59 PM IST

day trend moving 1Let me tell you the story of clever Hans. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there was a horse called Hans. He was said to have magical powers. He could do math. Now for those of us who struggle with our regular curriculum, we know that having math ability is a bit magical. Hans could multiply and divide and tell dates. When asked a question he would tap his hooves to indicate the numeric value of the response. And people applauded in awe of Hans.

While this might sound like a fairytale, it’s actually a true story from the early 1900s. But let me placate the logical mind right here and reassure you that this was no magic. A psychologist sorted this whole mystery out by conducting a series of experiments. He demonstrated that Clever Hans was not really a mathematical genius, lest you despair that horses discovered zero. Here is the redeeming explanation: when the person presenting him with these mathematical puzzles did not know the answer Clever Hans did not seem so clever at all. He failed to answer the questions. It was eventually revealed that Clever Hans was tapping his hoof and keenly observing the person who posed the question to know when to stop tapping. The person who posed the question would give signals even without realising it – a slight stiffening of the muscles, some dilation of the pupils etc. Clever Hans was then proclaimed not to be so clever.
But that is not really the right conclusion. Was Clever Hans really not clever? In today’s age, when we don’t notice our co-worker, who works beside us day in and day out, having a nervous breakdown, is it not truly clever when one can notice such subtle body language? In an age where marketers and advertisers are tripping over each other to decode the nuances of human emotion, an animal, apparently of lower intellect, is cracking it with ease. Is that not beyond clever?
Well it is. That’s what animals are. They are hyper alert to us. Dogs in particular evolved to be that way. They learned to read their own kind. But for their own survival they learned to read us too. And they were good students and learned well. They get us, to the last detail. It’s not just your imagination when you think your dog knows that you are sad, even when you are still struggling to figure out what mood you are in. It’s not your imagination when your dog seems to slink away when your phone conversation is getting heated. Your dog is perhaps as clever, if not more, than Clever Hans, because the survival of his species depended on how well he understood YOU! But here’s the rub – a dog is a being with perception genius but the cognitive ability of a two-year-old child (because today we know that’s the neurological composition of a dog’s brain).

So basically, when you walk into your home, burdened by your workday, and your dog perceives your mood, you have offloaded your office politics on a two-year-old child. So your dog does experience the anxiety of a child who watches her parent freaking out. This whole thing is hard to understand, partly because of its unfamiliarity to our species and partly due to the enormity of the emotional burden we are putting on the shoulders of another species. But we chose to include canines in our households and we hence cannot, in our true conscience, enjoy the luxury of not thinking about this.

Letting that love in

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jan 5, 2015, 10.56 PM IST

Happy New Year to all my readers. This year, I wish that each of you experiences love in its purest form. Each person will find that love from as unique a source as the person himself or herself. For us, it has been our dogs. The beauty of love is that our heart knows how to accept love in any means given to us. Is it not fascinating?

Dogs don’t speak English or Hindi or Kannada or French. Yet they seem to tell us easily that they love us. For the skeptics, I offer a simple test. Let’s start with a small test. Take a dog showered with love, change his diet to a veg diet. Dumpsters are now better sources of protein for a dog. The food you offer is lower grade. Now, will your dog, that you love so much, choose to live with you or turn into a street dog. The answer always is YOU! So if you are a skeptic, just get this into your head already…dogs do experience love and that unjudging, unconditional love is all in your name and your name alone.
See what it feels like to be loved like that. But to do that, you have to first accept your dog as an equal citizen of the world. As important as you are in the grand scheme of things. A dog’s emotional contribution to you should in no way feel less validating than the emotional contribution of a person. Love is love, remember!
Now when you have let go of the skepticism and the prejudice of gradation of love, there appears a fascinating love in all its slobbery glory, tail furiously wagging, fur flying all over the room. A being whose highlight of his entire day, regardless of his basic needs, is that you have come home. No matter how bad a day is, no matter how bad you messed your day at home and work, irrespective of how low you feel about yourself, you know there is one strong-willed animal/person saying “Nothing but love matters. That’s why I love you.

That’s why you will love me. And that’s why it works”. After this profound thought, you wonder who is the animal and who is the person.
You walk in that door and there is that profound message delivered with a punch. Could you ask for more. This message is literally being beaten into you each day. So how are you a skeptic?
So shall we look at this more scientifically. Broad strokes, of course. Wolves chose to walk away from us. Some wolves stayed behind and decided to build on their PR skills with humans. This group called itself the “Cool Dawgz” (joking. They just called it dogs). Then they became better and better at building and managing relationships with us. And thus here they are. Dogs have years and years of experience in making us feel great about ourselves from one of the finest universities – University of Evolution. And their thousands of years of training has taught them that the best ways to set up a great relationship with us is to fall madly, deeply and truly in love with us. So they kept that part of the brain and experience love just the way we do. That’s what dogs do best – fall in love with people.
So Mr Skeptic, believe it or know, the next time you feel no one likes you, you are factually wrong, if you have a dog. But for this time of the year, I wish for you Mr Skeptic and to everyone else around there, a year full of healthy loved ones to lean on and forge forward.

And for those who chose to add dogs to their family, I assure you they have been shaped by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years to be masters of giving us love and reassurance. Enrich your own lives by letting that love in.

Dominant Dog or Compassionate Person – Who are you?

I don’t believe in the “pack theory”, the “alpha theory” or the “dominance theory”. I make it quite clear too that I don’t. But I am not always very articulate when it comes to expressing why I just don’t buy this theory. Of late there are more and more articles appearing that explain the flaws in this theory and this is one of the good article. It’s written by Winkie Spires, a behaviourist from England and the Chairman of PDTE. This is an excerpt from her article in the PDTE Newsletter.

Firstly, what does “Dominant” mean? Controlling, commanding, prevailing over all others, very important, powerful, successful. For years, the word “dominant” has been used to describe dog behaviour. It seems to be used as a nice tidy blanket term to diagnose a large number of behaviours or actions that are deemed to be undesirable to the human. Once a “dominant” diagnosis has been made, it can, in some cases, lead to justification for harsh, inappropriate, cruel, ignorant, dangerous, painful and confusing training techniques being practiced on the dog. 

I really believe that dogs are wrongly diagnosed as dominant and that more needs to be done by professionals and owners to understand the true motivation for the unwanted behaviour. The only truly dominant behaviour seems to be practised by humans and unfortunately for animals and the planet no-one has come up with a dominance reduction plan for us!!

Who originally came up with this term “dominant”? It may have orginated with studies done on wolf packs which may not be hugely relevant when we are actually dealing with domesticated dogs who have undergone 10-15,000 years of selective breeding.  Although dogs share many characteristics with wolves we will only really learn about domesticated dogs if we observe and learn about domesticated dogs. 

The fact is that many dogs now live in social isolation from their own kind and their humans, often for long periods of time, which will obviously have a bearing on their behaviours. 

This theory of hierarchy was popularized by David Mech. It was based on observing wolves in captivity and then extrapolating that behavior to dogs in our homes. That would be like observing apes in a concentration camp and generalizing that humans in normal lives behave the same way. Now finally after years of pushing the alpha theory, David Mech himself questions his own theory. It takes a lot of evidence, not to mention immense humility to debunk ones own theory.
But there it is…that theory is out dated. We really need to get past it, put it behind us and start looking deeper. Look for the real issues and not just shroud everything under the “be the alpha” approach. Pretending to be a furless 2-legged overbearing dog is not going to fix all of our problems. In fact it’s not going to fix any. Instead of trying to be a dominant dog, perhaps being a compassionate human being, might just start fixing a few things. Wny not give that approach a try?

Sacrosanct Meal Times

I often get the question of what kind of “training” once needs to do when feeding a puppy. Some trainers recommend taking away a puppies food to teach a puppy not to guard. I believe that taking a food away from a dog actually teaches the dog to guard food. Turid Rugaas, International Behaviourist and President of PDTE puts it quite articulately:

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A streetie dog sporting a TYD reflective collar and enjoying a meal. Everyone deserves to enjoy peace during meal times

What we see is that at about the age of 4 – 6 weeks, puppies learn to respect teach other. In fact, they learn this so well that it
sticks with them for the rest of their lives if we do not disrupt it. That’s when we will see the mother leaves food for the puppy to take and she will never claim it back. That means that by the time you get your new puppy, he has already learnt that when he’s got food, nobody will take it from him. Now you know why they get so scared and frustrated when people start grabbing their food. Never, ever, take a puppy’s food away – or an adult dog’s for that matter – because that is how you teach them to be food aggressive.

When Tigger came home she had severe resource guarding – food guarding being one of them. When she was eating if any of us so much as looked in her direction, she growled visciously. We let her keep her food and stayed as far away as possible. We watched how Nishi dealt with her. Nishi did the same. She figured out the distance that Tigger was comfortable with and stayed at that distance at all times. As the days passed, this distance gradually reduced. Tigger tolerated more and more proximity. Nishi gradually approached, always mindful of respecting Tigger’s need for space. Today the food guarding has disappeared. She no more sees the need to guard her food from Nishi or from us.
Often I hear clients say this to me. Many complain that their dogs are fussy eaters and take forever to finish their meal. But the fussiest of eaters polish off their meal when in the the company of other dogs. Why is that? Because the presence of another dog often poses a threat to the food. I have seen one thing common among all shelter dogs – they polish off their meal in a jiffy. No fussy dog whatsoever. So, what’s going on here? The dog is stressed out and gobbles up the meal in an attempt to consume what she perceives to be her share.

The insecurity around food is the worst form of insecurity, is it not? I often wonder how it must feel for one to fear loss of food. Sounds terrible. And to inflict fear of such nature on another sounds barbaric, to say the least. I once read an article that rightly posed this question “Is it really too much for a dog to ask for some personal space and time each day to eat his meal in peace, away from other dogs, away from children, away from guests – in his own private corner?”.

So, I ask you this. Why not make that a little ritual. One little corner and a tiny slice of time dedicated for our companion’s meal. I am sure it’s not impossible to dedicate a spot on the balcony or kitchen or even an unused bathroom where a dog can go in, enjoy his meal and not have people or dogs walking around him and for us to guarantee that he will NOT be disturbed as long as he is eating. Of course, if my dogs chose to walk out, without finishing their meal, then I clear the food up, so that there are no literal bones of contention lying around. But as long as they are chowing down, I consider their meal time as sacrosanct as mine. I don’t like to be disturbed and I don’t like my plate to be taken away from me while I am eating. I am sure they don’t like it. And I see no wisdom in doing it. Watching Nishi with Tigger told me that dogs don’t believe in such rude behaviour either. So…how is meal time going to be?

Thanks to the members of Bombat Dawgz for the generous contribution of images. 

Image credits

  • Anusha J Karnad for image of boy sporting a TYD collar
  • Sohamjita Roy for the image of the lovely dog being a bunny for a day
  • Tejaswi Poorva for the image for the squirrel. Hey EVERYONE deserves some privacy no?