Dog Behavior
April 4, 2004 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Why do dogs behave differently towards different people, and how can an owner adjust that behavior? (More inside)

We have an 8-month-old miniature pinscher mix (Keebler) who occasionally thinks he’s a tough guy, but more usually soaks up love. He’ll sit at the window and bark when people walk by, but whenever he’s around anyone – strange or familiar – he just wants attention. Until yesterday when my brother-in-law and his wife dropped by for a visit. She is terrified of dogs; he’s not crazy about them. My little cuddle-bug barked at them like I’ve never heard him bark before. Finally, he settled in enough to approach my brother-in-law, but did so with tail tucked and ears back, as if he was afraid. He accepted some petting, but differently than he normally does with other visitors. Any big movement from brother-in-law set off the barking again. I’m guessing Keebler was responding both to their uneasiness and my nervousness about their uneasiness, but since I’d like them to feel comfortable visiting without confining the dog, any suggestions as to how I can make everyone less tense?
posted by ferociouskitty to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Whenever they're over, have your nervous in-laws give him treats. Lots of treats. Try to build up positive associations with nervous strangers, so that Keebler thinks "Hey! Nervous people! TREEEEEAAAAAATS!" instead of "Aaah! They're going to make me into soup!"

...we're doing this now on a larger scale with our swedish vallhund, who is uncharacteristically a bit of a scaredy-dog. Oy.

'Course, it may also be that Keebler's been shifting into another fear period. They do that. In that case, broad desensitization might be a good thing to do too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 AM on April 4, 2004


No offense to your relatives, but in my experience dogs are pretty good judges of characters. It's not necessarily a trait you want to "adjust".

Then again, little dogs tend to bark and bark and bark (loud, high pitched, near constant--can you tell I was just awakened by my neighbors' supremely annoying miniature Dachshunds) for no reason.

I have a friend whose mom is an animal psychologist... She goes in depth about such things. She says to try and put yourself in the animals shoes. If your brother-in-law has a beard or wears a big hat, it might be unsettling to your dog. Maybe they walk or talk loudly. Perhaps their car makes an ultrasonic noise that is painful to your pal.
posted by maniactown at 9:47 AM on April 4, 2004


Thought I'd add some tidbits that might help a little for this specific problem. My brother-in-law looks A LOT like my husband. People often mistake them for each other. Also, Keebler didn't approach him until one of our cats spent some time in his lap.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:02 AM on April 4, 2004


My suggestion would be to have you introduce the new people to your dog. The dog will associate you being happy with the people if you do it right.

Also, dogs associate people by their smell mainly. So new people have to let the dogs sniff them thoroughly. Many people don't like this.

Why I meet a new dog, I let htem smell me while I pet them and scratch their chest. Making the association of your smell and being treated nice is important. You want to avoid someone yelling at them to be quiet while they are dealing with someone new.
posted by Argyle at 10:09 AM on April 4, 2004


Almost the same thing happened to me. My dog was fine with everyone until I brought my girlfriend round, who's scared of dogs. He went crazy and he'd bitten her within the hour. I'm pretty sure that's not a fluke because we got another new dog recently, and the same thing happened.

However, in both cases, it sorted itself out. If I have any advice, though, it'd be: don't focus on changing the dog's behaviour, focus on changing the people's behaviour. Find a way to make them behave less nervously around the dog. Perhaps you could all go for a walk together. Once the people are calm, the dog will be too.
posted by reklaw at 10:51 AM on April 4, 2004


I once had a relative with a yappy dog that didn't like strangers. When I was a kid, she would have us use the same hand lotion that she used, then approach the dog with our hands out. That way it would get something of a familiar smell from us and not be as nervous.
posted by bcwinters at 10:52 AM on April 4, 2004


I agree with reklaw. Try to change the bahaviour of the people. Dogs can sense nervousness and fear every time. Good things for anyone to do when approaching a new dog:

a. DON'T look them in the eye.
b. Crouch down so that you're not towering above (get down on your haunches, don't bend over so that you're hovering above the dog).
c. DON'T pat them on the head. If you're going to touch an unfamiliar dog, scratch under his or her chin or chest and only after offeriing an open palm for them to sniff for as long as they wish (usally 10 or 20 seconds max).
d. You can use treats but you also don't want your dog to think that this person is the candy man or he will expect it and turn into a pest. (There's a man in my neighborhood who gave my dog one treat almost 6 years ago and for whatever reason my dog has never forgotten. Now, whenever he sees that man he pulls like nobody's business--something he never does for any other reason.)

One thing that's really important is that you should NOT scould your dog for growling or being on guard against people he or she doesn't like. Often you'll read news items or hear stories about dogs who "just snapped" and bit someone without warning. This is usually because that dog was scoulded whenever he showed agression. As a result, the dog learned not to show warning signs of his anger.

This analogy is simplistic, but imagine if you were never allowed to show some of your emotions. You'd just become more and more miserable until you snapped.

An excellent book on the not-so-obvious differences between humans and dogs and the way they think and behave is The Culture Clash.
posted by dobbs at 11:43 AM on April 4, 2004


A number of my friends are terrified of dogs. When they approach dogs, they find even the friendliest of dogs are nervous, defensive or angry. If I approach the same dog, I let the dog sniff my hand while I talk to it, generally in a loving or happy voice. With rare exception, the same dogs will respond happily, submissively or excitedly.

The trick isn't just with approaching the dog with your hand out, palm down. It's not even the talking or the tone of your voice. Dogs seem to know when people are afraid of them. The trick, of course, is not to be afraid.

This can be accomplished with treats, as ROU_Xenophobe suggested, for the dog. This is also good for building the confidence of your nervous guests. Start by coaxing the dog to the guests with treats. Then let the guests try a treat or two. If the dog reacts badly, try encouraging him with a treat, petting or other forms of positive reinforcement. Scolding the dog will only further reinforce the bad behavior, so you might want to take things slowly, over multiple visits, if he continues to act badly.

You can also allow your guests to fill the dogs food and water bowls if they are over for an extended period of time. This was a great way to get a number of friends to be less terrified of my families loony but harmless maltese.

On preview, dobbs, I have found changing the fear of dogs to be on par with changing the fear of heights or the fear of the dark. The dog, however, can be taught to salivate when hearing the ringing of a bell. If your dog has a favorite toy, try that instead of treats. With my parents maltese, if anyone touched his boyfriend, a stuffed teddy bear about 10x his size, the dog immediately became playful and interested.

As a child, I was taught open hand, face down. It's always worked for me, but I've never feared dogs in any way.
posted by sequential at 11:59 AM on April 4, 2004


Sorry, I'm gonna disagree with a few posts here.

DO concentrate on changing the dog's behaviour, one of our jobs as good dog owners is to teach them how to be good pets, and how to adapt to living happily in human society, they will encounter all manner of people and you cannot always control how those people act, so you adjust the variable you have some control over, namely, the dog. Nervous people make dogs nervous (it's not really "smelling fear", it's that dogs are experts at picking up on body language), employing Calming Signals that dogs use with each other to defuse tension (yawning, turning sideways, approaching in a wide arc instead of directly, adopting a relaxed, seated posture) can help a lot. It's unreasonable to expect strangers to adapt to your dog, if you have people in the house who fear dogs or don't like them, put the dog elsewhere, do not force interaction, it's not fair to anyone concerned (and things should NEVER escalate to the point where your dog bites someone, this is a very serious thing and can result in your dog's death. You need to learn to read your dog and recognize when its stress level is increasing and take steps to defuse the situation and remove the dog, stable dogs with good bite inhibition treat actual biting (by which I mean breaking the skin and doing some damage) as an extreme measure only employed at times of real fear for life and limb or extreme pain, it is not something a stable, well-socialized dog who has learned bite inhibition ever does under any other circumstance). Never force a dog to accept pats, let the dog approach the people, have them toss treats to it from a distance at first (ideally, start feeding the dog extra-good treats BEFORE the people arrive, so that it eventually learns good associations), then from their hands. When they dog has settled enough to allow touching, ask them to pat the dog's chest or sides, never the top of the head (people always want to pat the top of the head, and this can be interpreted as very threatening by a dog). Getting the people to crouch or sit down is also helpful, and they should try to avoid facing the dog head-on, dogs turn sideways to each other to indicate non-threat, we can use this method as well. Also ask them to look at the floor or the side, not directly at the dog's face, dogs look away from each other to indicate non-threat and defuse tension, it works with humans too.

Finally, dogs are NOT good judges of human character, or rather, the decision about who is friend and who is not is not one the dog should be making. If you are truly a benevolent leader whom your dog trusts to make good decisions, the dog will look to you for guidance about how to feel about strangers. If you're nervous of someone, odds are your dog will be too. Relying on your dog to decide who's okay and who's not is a recipe for disaster, and it puts the dog in an extremely unfair situation. Dogs are of course allowed to like some people and not like others, but this should be expressed as preference (not wanting to be patted by some people), not as fear or aggression (which are closely related emotions).

Oh, and "closed hand, face down" is actually the best way to extend a hand to a strange dog. On the off-chance that the dog snaps at you, you will sustain far less damage if it bites a knuckle, than if it bites a finger.
posted by biscotti at 12:46 PM on April 4, 2004


On preview, dobbs, I have found changing the fear of dogs to be on par with changing the fear of heights or the fear of the dark.

That depends on the fear. Some people are phobic about their fear of dogs. You're not gonna change those people. I took a guess that FK's friends weren't phobic as, in my experience, those people won't even enter a house with a dog in it. However, other people are afraid because of a past experience. These people can change their attitudes and often when they see that the dog's behaviour changes as their own does, they get better at it.

As a 7-year old kid, I was bit through both hands by a Maltese. 29 years later, I still have scars on the tops and bottoms of both hands. For a long while I was terrified of dogs but I've overcome that and have since owned Bull Dogs, a few Pit Bulls (still have one), and other large breeds. My mom still has 2 Maltese.

Having a Pit Bull, I encounter many people who are hesitant to approach the dog. However, he's extremely friendly and has only ever growled at one person (and it was the right time). When strangers are coming over I ask them prior if they are afraid of dogs. If they are (and aren't phobic) I tell them the above steps and it works every time for them overcoming their fear.

Your suggestion for using a favorite toy has two sides, however. A dog can be very possessive about a toy and if the wrong person has it, it could mean trouble. I've seen this happen a few times in the dog park when a stranger picks up a ball or other item to throw for the dog. If the dog doesn't like that person already and then all of a sudden that person has their fave toy...? Not a good idea, imo. Will depend on the dog and the toy of course.

On preview, I agree with much of biscotti's post even though it looks like we're saying opposite things. If my dog were to growl at someone who comes in the house, I would move him to another room of the house and leave him there till that person leaves. However, I would not scould or try to discourage my dog from displaying these warning signs. They're the only clue I have to how my dog is feeling. Were I to convince him to not growl at people who come over, the next "'bad" stranger that comes over will not have the advantage of that warning. Not a good thing.
posted by dobbs at 12:55 PM on April 4, 2004


I agree with much of biscotti's post even though it looks like we're saying opposite things. If my dog were to growl at someone who comes in the house, I would move him to another room of the house and leave him there till that person leaves. However, I would not scould or try to discourage my dog from displaying these warning signs. They're the only clue I have to how my dog is feeling. Were I to convince him to not growl at people who come over, the next "'bad" stranger that comes over will not have the advantage of that warning. Not a good thing.

No, we're not saying opposite things. I too would not discourage the growling, since I completely agree that it's an important means of communication, and also since scolding is more likely to INCREASE the dog's negative associations with the person they're having a problem with ("that bad person comes here, my owner gets mad at me, they must REALLY be a bad person"). I might work on the REASON for the growling (lack of socialization with certain people, impolite guest behaviour, whatever), in order to help the dog reduce its need to growl (dogs don't have to love everyone, but they should be able to peacefully coexist with everyone who shows them the same courtesy) but the growling is a symptom which we can use to diagnose and treat the disease, treating the symptom only is a very bad idea, since it takes away vital information. Also, a dog who's discouraged from showing normal dog behaviour to indicate an emotion may be quicker to move to the next level of communication, which may be physical (like a bite).
posted by biscotti at 1:31 PM on April 4, 2004


Finally, dogs are NOT good judges of human character, or rather, the decision about who is friend and who is not is not one the dog should be making.

That's a myth, yes, but how people interact with animals and children has taught me numerous things about people I associate with.

closed hand, face down" is actually the best way to extend

That makes a lot of sense. I've handled a number of dogs who have been abused. Approaching them with a fist in any manner seemed like a bad idea. If you believe it's possible to be bitten, this is an excellent suggestion to decrease the odds of injury.

This thread is an excellent example of how multiple people handle animals successfully, yet differently. The truth is, dogs have their own individual personalities and different things, some even counter intuitive, work with different dogs. It is my opinion and experience that no one rule is perfect with handling animals.

Try numerous things, but carefully watch and react to both the dog and the individuals.

It's unreasonable to expect strangers to adapt to your dog, if you have people in the house who fear dogs or don't like them, put the dog elsewhere, do not force interaction, it's not fair to anyone concerned

Though this is good advice, many people believe their pets are family members. In some cases, it's the dogs house as much as the dogs owners house. If the visitor is frequently in the house, I personally would address it sooner rather than later. I find changing behavior that has been reinforced over time much harder than changing new behaviors. Ultimately, the decision to do something or not to do something should be considered against the ultimate outcome.
posted by sequential at 1:38 PM on April 4, 2004


Though this is good advice, many people believe their pets are family members. In some cases, it's the dogs house as much as the dogs owners house. If the visitor is frequently in the house, I personally would address it sooner rather than later. I find changing behavior that has been reinforced over time much harder than changing new behaviors. Ultimately, the decision to do something or not to do something should be considered against the ultimate outcome.

I completely agree. It is never a bad idea to desensitize a dog, especially if they have a problem with a frequent visitor. Good old classical conditioning (getting the dog to associate that person with good things will eventually override fear) works like a charm if given enough time. But overwhelming a dog (three visitors in the house at once, all of whom frighten the dog) is counterproductive, and desensitization should be approached from well within the dog's tolerances, as such, sometimes it is better to wait for another time and put the dog elsewhere, rather than risk overstressing it and making the problem worse.
posted by biscotti at 1:51 PM on April 4, 2004


i don't own a dog, but none of the explanations above seem to explain the following. when i go running, i have no problem with stray dogs. they either ignore me or, if they're bored, come run along for a while. dogs that belong to people, however, are almost invariable agressive - if they're out with their owners they snap at my heels, bark, and generally annoy me.

from that, i tend to draw the lesson that it's something that dog owners do - probably unconsciously or indirectly - that makes dogs agressive, when, in their more "natural" state, they're pretty cool animals.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:52 PM on April 4, 2004


andrew cooke: a bit part of it is likely socialization. The strays you encounter have probably had enough good experiences with people (like people feeding them) to have developed good associations, and/or were/are pets who are allowed to wander, and are not feral (feral dogs are normally very cautious of people or even outright aggressive toward them (because they have the bad combination of bred-in reduced fear of humans combined with no socialization with humans), and wild canids of almost every variety are extremely cautious of humans). That said, your experience is not usual by any means, and if every single owned dog you encounter is aggressive, you must live in an area with some seriously ignorant dog owners who do not socialize or train their dogs properly.
posted by biscotti at 2:11 PM on April 4, 2004


by stray i mean the dogs that run around in groups, sleep on the streets, get run over, etc. i guess they are usually escaped pets. they are very common here (s america) and they don't sound at all like your feral dogs. they generally look very happy, unless they are ill.

i don't really see why those dogs should be more socialised than a domestic dog. surely a domestic dog is more used to living with people?

but i agree that there are seriously ignorant owners here - there's no culture of a dog being a responsibility and many are simply dumped in the yard as guard dogs. no-one thinks of training them in any way, as far as i can tell.

despite all that, however, it still strikes me as odd that "owned" dogs are significantly less friendly than "unowned" ones (as far as i'm aware this isn't just my opinion - it seems to be common knowledge - though i think it's maybe more striking to me because i'm more used to the uk where stray dogs hardly exist).
posted by andrew cooke at 2:33 PM on April 4, 2004


How much of what's said here would go for other animals (say, horses)?
posted by weston at 2:50 PM on April 4, 2004


i don't really see why those dogs should be more socialised than a domestic dog. surely a domestic dog is more used to living with people?

Well, my point was that a dog living on the street meets a lot of different people, whereas a dog in a home doesn't necessarily meet anyone but the family. This is why socialization with strangers is so important. I do wonder if maybe you have really bad dog breeders where you are or something, and as such the majority of dogs all have bred-in temperament problems. Because it's certainly not universally the case that stray dogs are friendly and pet dogs are not.

weston: classical and operant conditioning apply to any animal with a nervous system. Operant conditioning is the basis of clicker training, which is done with all kinds of animals from dogs to horses to cats to birds, and is also what's used to train sea mammals and zoo animals (only not called clicker training) - operant conditioning is basically teaching the animal to associate a behaviour with a consequence (like getting food) - the dolphin happens to jump, you blow a whistle and feed him a fish, he learns eventually that the whistle is a behaviour marker that means "the behaviour you performed when you heard the whistle earned you a reward". Since animals are logical creatures, behaviour which "works" (i.e. gets them something they want, or removes something they don't want) is likely to repeat, and behaviour which doesn't work (i.e. has no reward, or has unpleasant consequences) is likely to extinguish (one big problem is unwanted behaviour which has built-in reinforcement, like a dog chewing a shoe - the dog wanted to chew, the shoe was available, the dog just got rewarded for chewing shoes). Eventually, you can add a cue to the behaviour.

Classical conditioning is forming an association between two stimuli. What Pavlov did was classical conditioning, he taught his dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with being fed, and eventually the sound of the bell would cause salivation and increased gastric juices, wven without the presence of food.

I have seen people clicker train horses to do all manner of things. As more than one good animal trainer has said: animals are not obedient to commands, they are obedient to the laws of learning and behaviour. Operant conditioning and classical conditioning "work" on every animal with a nervous system, because they follow the laws of learning and behaviour. By the way, classical conditioning is "stronger" than operant conditioning, which is why feeding your dog or horse treats around strangers when he's scared isn't teaching him that being scared is rewarding, but is instead teaching him that strangers mean good things for him - the former is operant, the latter is classical.

That said, horses are fundamentally different from dogs in terms of how their brains are wired. Horses are prey animals, dogs are predators (and scavengers). So a dog's reaction to the unexpected is normally: "can I eat that, or will that eat me?", whereas a horse's reaction is normally "get away now! That might eat me!". This is useful for predicting behaviour (you can safely assume that the issues you may need to deal with with a horse will be more often related to fight or flight responses than they will to prey drive responses, for example, since horses aren't predators), but the fundamentals of learning and behaviour apply to horses just as much as for dogs, and the principles of operant and classical conditioning are the same regardless of species (BTW, you must find a reward which the animal finds rewarding - so fetch or tug might be a great reward for a dog who likes to fetch or tug, but a carrot is probably going to work better with a horse).

*phew* That was probably way more than you wanted to know... ;)
posted by biscotti at 3:23 PM on April 4, 2004


How much of what's said here would go for other animals (say, horses)?

biscotti's explanation above is quite good. However there's another difference in handling animals. Cats, for example, are profoundly impacted early in their life by handling by humans. Though there behavior can be changed later in life, if a cat is handled at a young age, they handle much differently than cats that are essentially wild. This is in no way contrary to what biscotti has said, but is quite practical.

While at your local animal shelter, it's reasonably easy to tell the difference between a cat who was handled at a young age and a cat who was stray from birth. The strays I've taken in over time have ranged in their comfort with human contact, but even after years they are noticeably different than kittens I have raised. Additionally, cats that live in groups, even with humans, will react differently than a single cat nursed from near birth by a human, though less noticeably.

For example, the last stray I took in could not be picked up unless he was sleeping. After much trial and error, I found approaching him slowly, while hunched and with an outreached hand, all while talking quietly and calmly allowed me to capture him. Over time, he would come to me and sit on my lap and allow me to pick him up. However, the slightest startling noise or movement would find him darting to safety under a couch or bed.

On the other hand, another cat that had been handled by humans his whole life would hardly notice a noise or a sudden movement if he was in my lap. His ears would focus on the noise or his eyes would train on the object, but if his belly was being rubbed or his ears were being scratched, he wasn't gonna budge.

There is a science to it all (see biscotti's post) and specialists for just about every animal big and small. Most of my experience is practical. I was fortunate to be born on a working family farm.
posted by sequential at 4:26 PM on April 4, 2004


Dogs don't like continueous tones of color, its threatens them. Since dogs are color blind, they cannot tell a difference. My vets claim its true. Might be of some help...
posted by Macboy at 6:39 PM on April 4, 2004


For a good introduction to operant conditioning, check out Don't Shoot the Dog. Good for training all animals from Dogs to Roommates.
posted by dobbs at 7:26 PM on April 4, 2004


A note on approaching a submissive dog (tucked tail, rolling on back, etc.)--a squatting human can actually be very intimidating for them. A person who lay down flat in the grass to approach my dog freaked her out the most. What gets her to bounce up to a sitting or standing position? If the person turns to present their side, averts their gaze, or turns and steps away, but continues to speak to her. Also don't touch the top of the dog's head. Just by employing these tactics for a few days, we were able to teach our dog she didn't have to grovel with us. Now we can squat down to her without her becoming overly submissive.
posted by lobakgo at 8:49 AM on April 5, 2004


« Older Tracking Down a Job   |   I "hear" my voice when I read ot think Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.