This One is for the Littles

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Can we talk for just a few minutes about the littles? For those of you into children’s literature, I’m not talking about a diminutive sized mouse named Stuart. I’m talking about dogs who, due to decades upon decades of selective breeding by us human folk, come in small to sometimes tiny packages. I’m thinking of breeds such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Malteses, Dachshunds, and Yorkies among many other breeds, as well as any combination thereof. Usually, these pups weigh in under 20 pounds although many are significantly smaller than that. 

 

The Reason for This Post

Lately, I’ve been providing an abundance of behavior consultations to families with smaller-sized dogs exhibiting bigger-sized behavior concerns. These dogs’ owners contacted Pet Harmony for help with concerns about their small dogs who were snarling, growling, snapping, and in some cases, biting family members or guests in situations where the dog was most likely feeling uncomfortable but the family didn’t realize it. There was never any doubt in my mind about whether these families love their dogs but there had been a breakdown in the relationship due to the dog making behavioral choices that were upsetting and sometimes frightening to the owners. 

The owners were confused as to why their beloved pets were growling or snapping at them or delivering bites when they were just trying to show their dog love, affection, or pampering and care. The unwanted behaviors were oftentimes occurring when the owners were hugging or kissing their dog, or when they were trying to pick up their dog to embrace them or carry them around or move them from one place to another.  I’m not judging the owners for wanting to do this with their dogs. I mean, who could look at the face of a Shih Tzu or a French Bulldog and not want to give them love and affection when their faces are so very smoochable? I understand these feelings all too well as I am the proud pet parent of a small floof myself. But kissing and hugging and touching and embracing are all decidedly human ways of expressing affection and although some dogs can learn to enjoy it, many are simply tolerating it at best. It is this lack of understanding communication styles between two completely different species that can cause problems to come bubbling to the surface and take owners by surprise. 

 

It All Started When…

Much of the time, an owner will report that the snarling, snapping, growling, or biting behavior started out of nowhere. They will tell me that their dog “FiFi” always enjoyed or never had a problem with:

  • Being carried around or moved from place to place
  • Being hugged or kissed
  • Being physically restrained
  • Being touched, petted, or groomed
  • Being dressed in totes adorbs outfits
  • Being placed in someone’s lap

 

The Out of the Blue

And suddenly, out of nowhere, tiny “FiFi” started to bite mom, dad, the kids, or visitors to the home. Truthfully though, the behavior most likely didn’t come from out of the blue at all. The more likely explanation is that “FiFi” had been desperately trying to communicate her discomfort with all of the things listed above and the owners didn’t understand her way of saying it. And because they didn’t understand yet, she escalated to biting, which is a behavior that gets the attention of almost all humans, even when delivered by a dog with a smaller-sized mouth. 

 

Would You Do That to a St. Bernard?

Why is it that things we would never dream of doing to a dog weighing 80 plus pounds, are somehow perfectly acceptable to do to dogs who weigh only 10? Our little dogs often are asked to tolerate us doing so much more “stuff” to them simply because of their size and simply because we can. Can you imagine anyone swooping in to pick up their St. Bernard and whisking them off to another room even if they physically could?  What if the St. Bernard was to emit a warning growl as the person came swooping in?  Would they still proceed anyway? I imagine that growl would give most people pause about whether or not what they are doing is truly necessary. And yet, so often when small dogs emit a growl, people don’t take it seriously. Instead, they either continue to do what they were doing or they punish the dog for using the warning system nature provided. 

In some cases (hello social media, I’m talking to you) you’ll actually see people not only laugh at but actually encourage the little dog to exhibit behaviors that are deemed “aggressive.” All for the sake of some views, shares, and likes. Those types of posts make me cringe the most because they perpetuate the myth that small dogs are inherently laughable and that doing “stuff” to them to elicit a response is not only acceptable but all in good fun. That in turn maintains the misguided labels people use to describe small dogs who are only behaving in certain ways because they have learned that is the only thing that works. 

 

Unlabeling Our Littles

Aside from height and weight there really are not that many differences between the littles and the bigs (or the mediums for that matter.) They still have the same need to express species-typical behaviors such as sniffing, chewing, digging, and scavenging or foraging for food. They still have the same needs for social interactions, safety and security, health and hygiene, as well as the more obvious need for food, water, and shelter. And yet, so many times little dogs are given labels such as yappy or spoiled, or stereotyped as having “little dog syndrome” or a “Napoleon complex.” I say rubbish to all of that. 

One of the laws of behavior is that behavior works. We all behave in our environments to get more of what we desire or less of something we wish to avoid. The weight or height of a dog doesn’t change that fact. The super “yappy” Yorkie is barking for a reason. The tiny chihuahua with the Napoleon complex? There is a reason for that behavior too and it hasn’t so much to do with the dog’s size but with the dog’s inability to have a say about things that are either being done to or around it. 

 

Giving Our Littles Agency

In their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define agency as “the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome.” (pg 27) This holds true for not only primates and canids but all of the animal kingdom. In the case of our small dogs, it is very easy to forget that they have the same need for agency as much as their larger counterparts do. Allowing all dogs, the small, the big, and the in-between, to have some say in what is being done to them or with them has a huge impact on their mental well-being.

 I think this is particularly true for small dogs as we have a tendency to treat them like portable playthings instead of individuals with their own need to express behavior in a way that works for them. If a little dog is growling at or biting their person when they are being lifted into the air or they snap at a family member when the family member is playing dress-up with them, then that is a signal from the dog that some help is needed to make them feel more comfortable. Like all dogs, I think the greatest gift we can give to our small dogs is to learn about who they are as a species and adapt our interactions with them to reflect that we genuinely get who they are and care enough to modify our behavior to make our relationship with them be the best it can be. It isn’t just on the dog. It’s on us too. 

 

Now What?

If  you want to help your little dog feel safe and secure and comfortable in your home but are not sure where to start, here are some actionable items to think about implementing: 

  • Learn all that you can about canine body language, paying especially close attention to signals that dogs exhibit when they are worried or stressed about something in their environment. 
  • Teach your dog how to say “yes” to things like grooming, dressing them up, or husbandry procedures.
  • Conduct a consent test to make sure your dog is enjoying a petting session. 
  • Teach your dog that being picked up will predict something yummy like a small piece of hotdog, cheese, or boiled chicken.
  • Use a verbal cue or a hand signal to let your little know that they are about to be lifted. I use “1, 2, 3, Up” for my dog. It warms my heart to see him sort of launch himself up when I say the “up” part because he knows what to expect each time. Other cues that can work for lifting are “up, up and away,” “super dog,” or “take off.” 
  • And finally, ask yourself if what you are doing to your little dog is really necessary and if the answer is no, find an activity you can enjoy doing together like scent work or trick training. You might be amazed at just how smart, athletic, and eager your little learner is! 

Happy training,

MaryKaye

November Training Challenge: “Yes, please!” vs. “No, thank you!”

If you’d prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

 

Happy November, everyone! 

As always, with the start of a new month, we have a new training challenge for you and your dog! (This also applies to different species, so if you have a bird, cat, turtle, or something else, you can also participate! You might just want to make a couple of adjustments.)


This month, the training challenge is to learn your dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

 

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that we really focus on learning body language and building observation skills in order to better support and navigate the world with your dog. Honestly, you won’t believe how much it will make a difference in your relationship with your dog. Communication is a two-way street, and as much as we expect our dog to learn our language, we need to learn theirs. 

This month, we are going to zoom in and talk about one small aspect of our communication with our dogs and that is the way we pet them. Humans are primates. We use our hands for everything, we hug and kiss and sometimes smother other beings. It’s the way that we show love and affection! 

But, when we look at other species that we might share our home with, that isn’t how they show love and affection. So, we need to bridge that gap. How do we do that? 

 

We learn our dog’s “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

Now, each dog is an individual, so it’s up to you to learn your dog’s language, but in general here are some examples of “Yes, please!” and “No, thank you!”

*Only try this if your dog does not have a history of problems when touched (including, but not limited to, snarling, growling, shivering, cowering, snapping, or biting). If your dog does have problems when touched, then work directly with a qualified behavior professional like Pet Harmony to address your dog’s concerns. 

 

“Yes, please!” might look like your dog…  “No, thank you!” might look like your dog…
Moving closer Shifting their weight away
Pushing into your hand  Walking away
Nudging you Freezing
Putting your hand on them Whale eye 
Doing a well-practiced behavior  Turning their head away
Getting soft eyes Not moving closer
Giving you a big, silly smile Holding their breath
Melting Ignoring you
Giving you no choice in the matter Anything short of a “yes, please!”

How do we go about learning this? We spend some time interacting with and observing our dogs. 

 

So what does this look like?

Wait for a time when your dog is soliciting attention. 

Very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward their shoulder. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause once you reach about halfway and observe your dog. 

What do you see? Do you see something on the “yes, please!” Or “no, thank you!” list? 

If you see a “yes, please!” continue moving your hand and make contact with your dog. Softly pet or scratch your dog. 

After 3 seconds, lift your hand away a few inches, and pause. Again, we are asking “is this what you want?” 

Observe what your dog does. They may be finished and give you a “no, thank you!”. If you see a “yes, please!” continue for another 3 seconds and repeat. You may find that your dog will adjust so that you can scratch or pet their favorite spot, like behind the ears, or on their chest. 

If, at any time, you get a “no, thank you”, remove your hand and give your dog 3 seconds. You can ask again. You may present your hand in a different way, like toward their chest, or their chin. Again, very gently, slowly, and softly, reach your hand out toward them. Stop about halfway to their body. This is how we ask “is this what you want?” 

Pause halfway and observe your dog. 

You may find that, while your dog was asking for attention, scratches might not be what they want! It might be to play or to go outside. And that’s okay! We respect their “no, thank you!” 

 

Let’s simplify it!

You ask your dog “Is this what you want?” – Offer your hand halfway to your dog and pause.

Does your dog say “yes, please”? Then pet your dog for 3 seconds, remove your hand, and repeat! 

Does your dog say “no, thank you”? Then pull your hand back, if your dog stays, you can ask again, but maybe change your offer. 

If they walk away, then you have a very clear answer! 

 

The beauty in communication

Over time, you might start to see patterns develop in your dog’s preferences! 

For example, Laika loves her left armpit to be scratched. 

Griffey likes to be rubbed on the top of his face. 

Laika prefers morning scritches (much more “yes, please!”) and Griffey finds certain lotions to be horribly offensive (much more “no, thank you!”, well, to be honest, I’m not sure that “no” is that subtle). 

When we know our dog’s preferences, we can better meet our dog’s needs. If they need some time and attention from us, we can give them the type of social interaction they prefer. 

And, when we develop this system of communication, our dogs learn how to ASK for social interaction in the way that they need. It’s a beautiful thing when our dogs can request for their needs to be met. 

 

Now what?

  • Practice seeing subtle signs of communication. This blog on body language (includes cats too!) provides resources to learn more about body language! 
  • Determine what your dog’s “yes, please!’ and “no, thank you!” looks like. How do they communicate? 
  • Practice the routine with your pet: “is this what you want?” → “yes, please!” or “no, thank you!” → respond accordingly. 
  • As you find out your dog’s preferences, we’d love to hear about it over on our pet parent Instagram @petharmonytraining! Tag us in your videos, pictures, or stories. We’ll be sharing some of our own as well!

What Owning a Cat Teaches You About Agency

Why Cats?

I love cats. Cats are regal, majestic creatures. They defy the laws of science by filling any container they curl up into. They purr, and rub on you, and curl up on your lap to snuggle. I have had cats from the time I was small. I cannot remember meeting a cat I didn’t like, though I’m sure I have. 

I once saw a meme that made me laugh out loud. It said:
“What if the Internet is filled with cats because dog people go outside?”


So, if you’re here on our website, then you are obviously a cat person. 

 

While that may not be true, it is true that if you follow Pet Harmony, you probably care a lot about your pet. You might have a pet whose behavior puzzles you. You may feel frustrated by the behaviors your animal is displaying. I promise to relate my experience with cats to dogs- and to other species, as well.

Cats get a bad reputation. I have heard many people describe cats as jerks. They’re not loyal like dogs. They make their own decisions. They never consider what you need. They’re independent, and they don’t really need us. Cats are lazy and prefer humans to dote on them like the feline gods they are!           

After getting my first two dogs, and becoming a dog trainer, I’ve met many people and dogs. Often, people are happy with their dogs, only wanting to prevent future problems with a new dog. Just as often, however, I’ve run into people who are frustrated with their dog’s behaviors. Since I have been a dog trainer for quite a few years now, I’ve noticed a trend among people unhappy with their dogs. They tell me:

“He never listens to me.”

“She only minds when she wants to.”

“He won’t stop getting on the counter!”

“She nips at me when I try to make her do things.”

I understand those feelings. I know it is frustrating to think you got a man’s best friend, just to find they won’t listen to you, destroy your house, steal your food, or even hurt you. Those feelings are totally and completely valid. When I hear these things, what I understand from it is basically this:

Their dog is acting like a cat. Well, a stereotypical one, anyhow.

 

Cats Are a Lesson in Consent. (And Agency)

What I mean when I say that their dog is acting like a cat is really that their dog has opinions. Their dog has things they like and things they dislike. Their dog likes some things better than listening, especially if they don’t understand why they should listen. Dogs are very social creatures. They descend from creatures that worked together to bring down large prey. Wild felines, however, are usually pretty solitary. What that means is though both wild canids and wild felines are individuals with wants and needs, our concept of “dog-ness” includes a certain level of “clinginess” and working for its “master” (which is a strange use of words we can get into another time). We expect dogs to appease us. However, our society’s concept of “cat-ness” is usually aloof and independent.

What a cat really needs, as well as any pet, is agency and consent. Agency is the ability to have control over certain outcomes in your life. This can usually come in the form of choices given to an individual. Consent is the ability to assent to or approve of something, especially something that is happening to oneself. Each of these creates a sense of freedom in the animal. Trapped animals lash out, bite, and scratch. An animal that is given agency will feel more secure, and less likely to lash out. 

Why Agency? Check out Allie’s excellent post about it, here, or read about it in Emily and Allie’s book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World.

How do I give my pet a sense of Agency?

Give them choices. That doesn’t mean that you open every door and window and take out any safety measure for your pet. It means you offer them choices that don’t endanger your pet or anyone in your home. If your cat (or dog) doesn’t like to be out when new people are over, make them a safe place to hide away from people until they leave. They may surprise you and come to observe the new person. Don’t pick them up and force them to interact. This is removing their ability to control the situation and thus limiting their choices. If you let them choose when, how, and if they want to interact, don’t be surprised if you find they are more willing to come out in the future. Conversely, if you force them to interact with someone, they may become more reclusive in the future.

When we brought home my cat, Sylphrena, she was 6 months old. My husband and daughter had limited experiences with cats, and were upset that she didn’t want to be held by them, but would (often) allow me to hold her. At first, I wasn’t sure why. After watching the way they held her, I realized why. My daughter and husband would often hold her tighter if she struggled to get away. This would result in a teenage kitty tantrum: scratches, bites, and occasionally growling. Obviously, she didn’t like it, but they couldn’t understand why she would let me hold her.

When an animal allows me to pick them up, I give them the choice to leave, by pulling my hands away, while still on level with the animal. If the animal runs away, so be it. Should they choose to stay, I try petting them and see if they settle down to snuggle. Then I can put my arms back around them. If they start to struggle again, I let them go. In this circumstance, I am both giving my pet choices, and allowing them to consent to being held (or not).

Allowing Sylphrena to feel safe by giving her the choice to leave really built her relationship with me. She knew I would let her go if she wanted, and knew she had agency if I tried to hold her. She wasn’t trapped.

 I taught my family how to help her feel secure and safe by allowing her to make the choice whether she wanted to stay (or not), and over time she has become more trusting of my husband and daughter.

 

There are little things you can do every day to give your pet agency and let them consent:

  • Petting consent tests (for any species)
  • Making different textures and types of chews and toys available (for many animals)
  • Sensory areas with pet-safe plants and textures your pet loves. (I will likely be making another blog specifically about this after I make one for my pets!)
  • Allowing your pet the choice to move away from other people or animals (do not force them to say hello!)
  • Making different textures available to scratch on for kitties
  • Having multiple litter boxes available in different areas for your cat (you can even provide different litter options to see what they prefer)

Many times, if we just look at what our pet is telling us with their body language, we can see what they really need or want– and if we can safely provide them with the agency to do that thing, we can improve their quality of life– and, in most cases, our own as well. Because a content and healthy creature doesn’t feel the need to lash out.

 

Now What?

  • Learn more about your pet’s species-specific body language, so you can tell if they like something or not.
  • Find one way to allow your pet more agency in their life
  • Research and prepare your home with appropriate furniture or enclosure requirements unique to your pet 
  • If you’re not sure where to start, try our free Facebook group, Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community.
  • If you now want to own a kitty, or are just looking for another, check out this article on how to prepare your home for a new kitty!

Here’s an excerpt:

Bringing home a cat is an exciting time for the family. They provide laughter, companionship, and can even teach little ones about responsibility. However, preparing your home for a kitty can bring about some uncertainties and renovations to ensure your cat is well taken care of and comfortable in your home.

To help you get started, Redfin reached out to 14 cat experts, from Seattle, WA to Ottawa, ON, including us. Here is our best advice on how to prepare your home for a kitty. Check out How to Prepare Your Home for a Kitty: 14 Tips from the Pros.