Animal Emotions and That Icky Sticky Fear

animal emotions

 “Lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication. We can share our emotions, we can understand the language of feelings, and that’s why we form deep and enduring social bonds with many other beings. Emotions are the glue that binds.” ― Bekoff

 

Ants teach.  Earthworms make decisions.  Rats are ticklish.  Chimps grieve.  Horses understand and react to human facial expression.  Some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary.  Birds practice songs in their sleep.  Mice and rats show empathy.  Crows use tools.  Jays plan ahead.  Moths remember being caterpillars.  Cats are worlds wiser than your iPad.

What else will we learn about animals today?

 


In my last post I discussed how our personal and collective fears affect progress, success, and peace with our pets and within ourselves.  This follow up post is intended to help you to become aware of the range of emotions that animals can experience.  When we begin to see our pets as conscious beings who can experience deep and profound emotions we are better equipped with the knowledge and empathy to help them, when life challenges arise.  My hope is that you learn something here so you and your animal companions can live a more fulfilling and peaceful life together, no matter what comes your way.


Emotional Beings

Most people believe that animals have some emotions.  But there is a lot more happening within animals than most realize. Did you know that some animals, when faced with stressors, often respond in body and mind the way humans do? It’s really amazing.

Let’s take a look at what emotions are.

From the scientific perspective, emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal glands, etc.) that cause changes in expression (the animal’s external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them.  From the layman’s perspective, they are feelings one experiences in the mind that affect one’s mood and body.

Emotions have evolved as animal adaptations in many species.  Emotions serve as a “social glue” to bond animals together.  Emotions also regulate a wide range of social encounters among both friends and competitors.  Emotions allow animals to protect themselves by using numerous behavior patterns in a wide variety of settings.

To assume that animals are incapable of experiencing the same kinds of fears and stresses that we as humans experience is a common pitfall and misconception of pet parents.  Animals are very capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions!  Like us, many companion animals can and do experience a range of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, grief, and surprise.

“Common sense and intuition feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience pain and suffering.”


love hormone_animal emotions_conscious Companion


Sentient Beings

We are hearing more often these days that animals are “sentient beings”, but what is sentience? What does this mean?

“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.”

-CIWF

Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.

Animal Emotions_fear


Similar Brain Structures

Thanks to research with imaging studies we now know that some animals have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. Just like humans, animals have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Each region is connected in the same way. We’ve also learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, (known as the mammalian brain). We also know that emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger drive a lot of unwanted behaviors in animals (just like in people!)

Neuroscientific research has even shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus. This is a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.


Animals’ Advanced Abilities 

Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other species, but cetaceans have us beat. Cetaceans have several sound producing organs. They are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our ability to process sounds!  This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).

Research with cetaceans has even discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes (which are connected by their function in speech production and language processing) are capable of astounding abilities.  Communication is so spectacular in cetaceans that scientists believe there is a strong possibility that this species is able to project an “auditory image.” via sonar messages they receive.  The researches at MSU claim, “A dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Yeah.  So that’s happening in the ocean and in captivity.  Just let that sink in for a moment.

animal brain_intelligece_play_emotions


Pets, People, and the Mind’s Landscape

Could our pet’s mental map be similar to ours? According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of felines are very similar.  Cats have the same lobes as we do in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence).  And our brains function the same way, by conveying data via identical neurotransmitters.

In the region of the brain which controls emotion, they are similar as well.  Cats have a temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobe in their brains, just as we do.  Additionally, cat brains also contain gray and white matter and the connections within their brains seem to mirror those of humans.

We also know that cats’ brains release neurotransmitters in a similar pattern to that of humans when confronted with information from their five senses.  Cats also have a short-term and long-term memory, and are able to easily recall information from up to 16 hours in the past.  Researchers are even studying cats’ Brain structures and neurotransmitters that regulate aggression to learn more about the implications for human aggression.

Recently through MRI research doctors have discovered that dogs and humans both house impulse control in the same area of the brain. Both human and dog brains by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size.  There is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. Dogs who have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, tend to have more self-control and are better able to control their behaviors, reactions, and responses to stimuli in their environment.

dog brain impulse control_MRI
Brain region in dog prefrontal cortex for impulse control.

The Workings of the Inner Clockwork

All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures: The amygdala and hippocampus and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings.  Let’s look at two areas of the brain to better understand the commonalities of the inner clockwork:

  • The Amygdala: The “Emotion Processing Center”:  There are two almond-shaped areas in the human brain that control emotional responses. The most common function of the amygdalae involves synthesizing fear responses from the environment. Animals also have amygdalae that initiate emotional responses such as fear.

 

  • The Hippocampus:  Where Memories Trigger Emotions: The hippocampus is the area in the brain where long-term memories are stored.  The hippocampus feeds directly to the amygdala.  Scientists believe that this is why a flood of strong emotions often follows after we recall a vivid memory.

Our companion animals also have a hippocampus.  If your pet had a fearful experience before, and the sight of something reminds her of that situation, the information from her sensory cortex triggers the memory in her hippocampus, which communicates with her amygdala, which then floods her with fear.princess Amidala_fear_cats_dogs_pet brains

They have found that with dogs who are experiencing the emotion of anger, the amygdala and hippocampus play key roles. When these systems become overactive, they cause the amygdala pathway to bypass the cortex entirely.  This results in an animal who will literally react without thinking.  Ahem, Hocus Pocus and King Albert can both attest to this.  And I know of a cockatoo who lives in this state during the peak hormonal months!

But don’t we all have the ability to react this way at some point in our lives?  I find it fascinating that our animal companions have this hard-wiring as well. 

animal brain
Primary amygdalar nuclei and basic circuit connections across species.

 


Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System At Work

When an animal looks at the world, he or she is confronted with an overwhelming amount of sensory information—sights, sounds, smells, and so on.  After being processed in the brain’s sensory areas, the information is relayed to the amygdala, which acts as a portal to the emotion-regulating limbic system.  Using input from the individual’s stored knowledge, the amygdala determines how they should respond emotionally—for example, with fear (at the sight of a predator or stranger), in affection or love (at the sight of their beloved person walking in the door) or indifference (when facing something trivial).

Messages cascade from the amygdala to the rest of the limbic system and eventually reach the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the body for action.  If the animal is confronting a threat, her heart rate will rise.  Her body might sweat in some areas to dissipate the heat from muscular exertion.  The autonomic arousal in turn, feeds back into the brain, amplifying the emotional response.  Over time, the amygdala creates a salience landscape, a map that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment.

This internal mind map is a reminder of how to stay safe and alive.

When a threat is perceived, the body’s brilliant sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. The body then releases hormones that are responsible for either Fight or Flight. The hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones serve a very important purpose: They increase chances of survival.

“Fight or flight is a body’s primal response to anything one perceives a threat, hazard or danger; it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, whether that threat is perceived or real.”

fofbraindiag


Fear Digs In Deep.

There are some fascinating facts when it comes to the subject of fear. We now know that negative experiences effect the brain more deeply than positive experiences.  Fear sinks in deep.  And it holds on tight.  Once a learner (us or an animal) learns that something is scary, should be avoided, or becomes a trigger, the negative effects can be long lasting and hard-wired in the brain.

Remember when that creep who wore a clown costume to your friend’s birthday party when you were a kid?  Or what about that roach that crawled on you once while you were sleeping as a child?  How do you feel about roaches and clowns today?  It just takes one negative experience and that fear sticks to our minds like super glue.

Animals are not unlike us when it comes to how fear can set in and grab a tight hold in their minds.


Fear from Watching

Did you know that both people and pets can learn to be fearful of something, someone, or somewhere just by watching another animal or person?  The amygdala plays a critical part in the physical expression of a fear response in humans as well as animals.  Scientists have shown that the amygdala responds when a person or animal exhibits fear through observing someone else experiencing a fearful experience. This means that the amygdala is involved in learning to fear something even without directly experiencing the aversive event. Animals can merely observe something fearful and learn to be afraid of that person, place, or event!

Knox In His Box


The Scent of Fear

You know that phrase, “I can smell fear a mile away!”, or “They can smell your fear.”?  Well, it turns out there is some truth to that.  Researches in 2014 discovered that young animals have the ability to learn fear in the first days of life. Just by smelling the odor of their distressed mother.  And this doesn’t pertain to just “natural” fears; If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her offspring will quickly learn to fear it too. How? Through her odor when she feels fear.

When the odor of the frightened rat mother was piped in to a chamber where her offspring were located and the juvenile rats were exposed to peppermint smell, they developed a fear of the scent of peppermint. Their blood cortisol levels rose when they smelled it! I mean, come on! How incredible is that?!

“During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories,” says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.

“Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life,” he adds. “Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”

fear learned

Credit: Image courtesy of University of Michigan Health System

But wait. There’s more.  The scientists exposed the rat pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present.  Fear still occurred.

Using special brain imaging, studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells, and cortisol in the rat’s blood, they focused on the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. Note: Later in life this area is responsible for detecting and planning a response to threats; that’s why it would also be the “hub” for learning new fears.

“But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted during a time when the baby rat’s ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting”, says the lead scientist, Debiec.

Their research even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers’ fears even when the mothers weren’t present.  Merely the scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.


Fear In Pheromones

Fear can be passed through scent glands.  Not only can pheromones be used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals, but they can be used as alarms.  Our dogs and cats can smell when fear is present in these glands.  I refer to these as FEAR-amones When they smell fear, they instinctively know to Get The Heck Out of Dodge.

sniffing-butt
Butt Sniffing : Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”. It’s how dogs learn about another dog’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!

 

Our Similar Structures

In An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate Adrian Morrison provides a great description of just how mammalian and animal-like we humans are. As Morrison explains, we share common brain structures with other mammals:

My cat, Buster, and I both flinch and yowl or curse at a sudden painful stimulus, and our legs both jerk in response to a tap on the patellar tendon of the knee. The spinal organization of the neurons responsible for these activities is the same in cats as it is in humans.

Moving forward into the lowest part of the brain, in both Buster and me the same neurons control basic bodily functions, such as regulation of breathing, heart rate, and vomiting. Farther forward reside the nerve cells that regulate the behaviors of sleep and wakefulness, which are identical in humans and other mammals, and where dysfunction results in similar problems, such as narcolepsy … and REM sleep behavior disorder. In this brain region in all mammals are found the neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.

At the base of the cerebral hemispheres is the almond-shaped amygdala, where mechanisms leading to fear and anxiety in people and animals operate. Monkeys and rats have contributed much to our understanding of the amygdala. The overlying cerebral cortex is where all of us mammals analyze the sensations coming from the skin, muscles and joints via the spinal cord, or eyes and ears in the cases of vision and hearing.

Where we depart from our animal brethren is in the great development of the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, and the greater proportion of cerebral tissue, called association areas, which integrate the information obtained from the regions that directly receive sensory information. These latter regions are called the primary sensory and motor areas because they receive simple, pure sensations and direct the movement of the body. It is within the frontal lobes that we humans mull over the past, prepare for the future, and reflect on its implications. Animals do not have this last capability in particular, as far as we can discern. Animals prepare for the future in a limited, instinct-driven way: Think of squirrels gathering and burying nuts for the winter. …

His last three sentences get right to the point of why I am sharing with you:  If we have the ability to plan, predict, and prepare, and our pets are instinctively coping, adjusting, and surviving this rollercoaster (we put them on), then we have a lot of work to do as their guardians.

If fear is sticky and hard to remove, then as animal guardians we need to know how fear sets in, how we can minimize or prevent it, and how to effectively remove it.  We have serious business at hand if we want them to live in our human world with minimal stress and fear, and with a maximum sense of security and safety.  If we want them to thrive, rather than merely survive, then we need to get to work.


Emotions Matter. 

The willingness to recognize that animals have emotions is key.  Their feelings matter, their fear is real to them.  Animals are sentient beings who experience the lows and highs of their live with us. We must respect this.

To continue with the status quo, because that’s what as always been done isn’t enough anymore. Now that we know more, we do more. Now that we know better, we must do better. For them. For us. For all species.

All that we once believed about animals has changed, and so should our relationships with the animals we live with, care, for and are stewards for.  When it comes to what we can and cannot do for animals, it is their capacity to feel, experience complex emotions that can be a catalyst for how we change the way we view them, and how we act on their behalf.


“Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other
animals. We must never forget that”. ― Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter




My next post in this “Fear Series” will address both the causes and effects of of emotional and environmental stress on our pets, so stay tuned!

And the last post in this Fear Series will be chocked full of fun tips and techniques that you can implement to help your pets reduce their fears and live a fearless life!

Until then, I am going to plan, prepare, and be proactive about our upcoming Big Move with our animal companions!

All my love to you and yours.

-Amy & The Critter Krewe

 

Doin’ The Displacement

“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket

behavior

Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?

I do.  We all do.

We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on.  They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid.   When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.

To-Dos-List
I wish my To Do list looked like this.

What Is Displacement Behavior? 

Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:

In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.

Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.

Displacement Activity defined:

1. (Psychology)  behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time

Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.

Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object.  Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.

In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors.  You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered.  Men often scratch at, or touch their face.  Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe.  I call it fiddling and flirting!  Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men. 

Body-Language--Men-Flirting-8
Male displacement behavior when flirting

Mating and Conflict in Many Species

Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration.  There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom.  They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs.  Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:

If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.  

Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.

Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.

Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.

What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict.  They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.


Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones

Gulls are not unlike our pets at home.  If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions!  For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy).  During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight.  So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming.  Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!

displacement behavior cats
Grooming can be a displacement behavior.

“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior

Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:

  • yawning when not sleepy
  • grooming out of context
  • using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
  • shaking off when not wet
  • stretching deeply
  • Scent marking with their face
scratching post cats displacement behavior
Have you seen your cat suddenly run over to use his scratching post? What happened right before he did that?

“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen

parrot behavior
Beak wiping and scratching are common parrot displacement behaviors you will see when they are feeling conflicted.

Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure.  In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a behavior which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly.
Scratching can often be a dispacement behavior during training sessions and when other dogs or kids are getting too rowdy.

Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.


How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?

—-> We need to look at the FULL picture. We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”

The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context.  For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors.  Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.


Displacement In Action!

The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs.  See how many you recognize.  Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?


The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe


Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.


Cats and dogs aren’t the only companion animals who show displacement behaviors! Rabbits, rats, ferrets, horses, pigs, and parrots do too!  Check out the licking, yawning, sniffing, grooming, foot flicking, tail swishing, digging, scratching and more in this video!


Why do we need to be aware of these behaviors? 

These behaviors indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted.  Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.

What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe.  Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat.  If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on.  Remember to keep it upbeat and easy!  We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.

funny-awkward-cats-
Putting this random image in here is another form of displacement behavior for me; I would rather laugh at this kind of silliness instead of proof reading this blog post.

Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!


Recommended Reading

Displacement, Avoidance, and Other Stress Signals

CANINE BODY LANGUAGE

Calming Signals of Dogs

WHAT IS MY CAT SAYING? Feline Communication

Parrots and Behaviors

Dude, Can’t You Take a Hint?

Are you that kind of pet owner or animal lover that doesn’t know when to back off?  I used to be one of those people with my animal companions at home.

A few years ago I went to a workshop for Reactive / Fearful Dogs hosted by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training​. One of the many techniques she taught was the 5 Second Petting Rule.

How Do We Do It?

Grisha explains:

Here’s a way to ask your dog if he or she likes the way you are petting. I call it the 5-second rule. Every person who interacts with a dog, cat, or even a horse should know it, because it’s excellent bite prevention and also just basic polite manners!

1. Wait for the dog (or other animal) to interact with you, scratching the body part that is closest to you first, like the dog’s side.

2. Pet for no more than 5 seconds. (Pet less if the dog is shy or not a dog from your family.)

3. Stop and wait for the dog to turn or move toward you, asking you for more.

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, alternating between petting and waiting.

You also need a way to tell your dog to stop asking for petting.  If you are done and the dog is still interested, give an All Done hand signal.  In the video, the “All Done” signal is two flat hands, showing that both hands are empty. After you give the signal, ignore the dog for a little bit so that the meaning of the All Done signal is clear.

Watch how to do this technique here:

 “Take the Hint: How to Use the 5-Second Rule for Petting Dogs” 


Why Do We Need To Know This?

When you are interacting with any breed or species animal, it’s very important to know if they are enjoying it, or merely tolerating it.  (You can learn more about that here.)   It’s important for a number of reasons:  safety, respect, and maintaining a healthy relationship.  This is something that we can practice with many different kids of animals.

Try it out.  You will be surprised to see how often the furry, feathered, and scaly ones we love might not love the interaction as much as we do.  Once you become aware of this, you can teach your kids, spouse, and guests!   I teach this technique to my clients, friends, and other family members, and also in my public workshops. It’s especially important for children to learn!

I hope that this brings some awareness to how you or your family members interact with your companion animals, and the animals that we meet in other homes


Related Reading

Growls Are Better Than the Alternative

dog growls
Hocus Pocus is offering an appeasement behavior to both the camera in her face and Albert in her space.

Growls Are Good. 

Let me be clearer: Growling is good when compared to not growling, and biting instead.

In this post I will share with you what I have learned over the years concerning The Growl.

Why I Don’t Recommend Punishing a Dog for Growling.

When a dog growls he/she is asking for help.  They need an out.   Growls are a dog’s way of telling you, another dog, another person, child, or animal, I do not like this. I cannot handle this. Go away, or let me get away. NOW.

A dog that chooses to growl instead of bite, should not be punished.  Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t teach the dog that growling is unacceptable behavior.  It only suppresses the dog’s natural form of expressing their fear and discomfort.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away a very critical warning signal.  Dogs who are punished for growling learn to not growl anymore, to avoid being punished.  So if you have successfully managed to stop your dog from growling, you have only suppressed your dog’s behavior.  The fear and stress are still present within your dog!   You haven’t addressed the underlying cause for growling.  Now you have a dog who is just as stressed as before s/she growled, but the dog has no safe means of express his/her discomfort. The growl may be gone, but now you run the risk of having a dog who could bite without warning.

Instead of punishing a dog for growling, we must learn to see the growl for what it is – Communication.  

Growling is a valuable (and productive) form of canine communication.  There are many reasons dogs growl!  Growling is a behavior that more dog guardians should understand, appreciate, and respect rather than punish.


Give Your Dog a Mental High-Five for Growling.

I suggest giving our dogs a mental “high-paw” when they growl because our dogs haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, they did something right!   Growling is normal canine communication!   By choosing to growl your dog is clearly and appropriately expressing his/her fear, discomfort, anger, frustration, and stress level in that moment.  Without the growl, a bite can happen when we (or another animal) fails to recognize the dog’s warning signals.

Growling is a dog’s way of saying, Back Off! Go Away! I’m very uncomfortable!!

What many people don’t realize is that aggression is caused by stress. The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, and past association or anticipation of any of these things. An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he’s stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory. A fearful dog bites because he’s stressed by the approach of a human. An injured dog lacerates the hand of his rescuer because he’s stressed by pain. –Pat Miller


Is Your Dog In a Grumble Zone?

In our Family Paws Parent Education program, we refer to crowded, close quarters as “Grumble Zones.”  These areas in the home have an escape route, but a child, cat, or another dog may be blocking the escape route.  This can lead to a potential “grumble”.  Grumble zones are important for families to consider if you have multiple dogs, cats, or children in your home. You can see examples of these here.


Is Your Dog In Pain?

Growls can occur during a defensive reaction if a dog is in pain or any form of discomfort.  The growl can happen when a dog anticipates being moved or touched.  Questions that need to be asked? Could your dog have an upset stomach, tooth ache, stomach ache, or arthritis?  When is the last time my dog had a full check up, including blood and urine analysis?


Is Your Dog a DINO?

Some dogs need more space.  They are referred to as DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space).  We have a DINO dog.  In the past she would become reactive in certain circumstances if I did not properly manage her environment.  Dogs who need more space (and display this through various behaviors) are not “mean” dogs.  The have learned to communicate to people, dogs, cats, or other species that they either need some more space, a slower introduction to a newcomer, or a gentler interaction with another dog.  Growling is how dogs communicate this.  Growling is meant to avoid aggression.

In general, the more behaviorally healthy and mentally sound a dog is, the more relaxed that dog will be in varying situations. This means the dog is less likely to aggress quickly.   Since dogs are not able to verbalize their thoughts, they communicate through very specific and deliberate behaviors.  But we have to know how to read and recognize these behaviors.

Let’s look at the image below.  To the untrained eye, it looks like our dog and cat are just hanging out.  Ah, not so.  Hocus really does not want Albert in her space.  Albert just wants to be near Hocus. But she is tired, and wants to relax right where she is, without anyone (including me) in her space.  She IS communicating.  All of the canine clues that she’s sending out are not being heard.  This is a perfect opportunity for me to step in and  help Hocus by calmly calling Albert away from her.

Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
In the next image you will see another Canine Clue that is often overlooked; the stress yawn.  This behavior usually happens repeatedly in a situation that’s stressful to the dog.  This type of yawn is done with more intensity than a dog’s “sleepy” yawn.
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STRESS Yawn

Other Canine Clues 

When Hocus begins to emotionally respond to something that makes her feel threatened or uncomfortable, she will display physical signs of this.  I call these her Canine Clues.  It varies based on the situation, but these are some of her common canine clues:

First she will close her mouth.  Ears will fold back.  Then maybe she will close her eyes, or look away.  She then she gets very still (she freezes).  If she is standing, her tail will raise very high and start to wag vigorously.  If she is sitting her tail is motionless.  If I am unable to intervene at this point you would see her whiskers stiffen.  If I am not able to intervene quickly and positively at this point, her emotional response to the perceived threat will continue to escalate and present itself in more physical forms.  I will then see a slight forward or backward wrinkle of her lips, or the top of her muzzle will begin to twitch.  When I see any kind of stillness, flick of a whisker, or her lip wrinkle I am already behind the ball.  I am late to the “Help Me” Party, and I have failed to help her.  She is now screaming  BACK OFF.


The image below is a great example of what I call “The Perfect Storm” in our home.  I’ll share more on this in an upcoming post, but I for now I will quickly cover the factors involved here that are setting Hocus and the cats up to fail.
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl, or air snap.
The arrows in the above image are triggers, perceived threats, or circumstances in which she’s unable to cope effectively:
  • Beaux, the black cat creeping up behind Hocus
  • Albert the grey cat in Hocus’ space
  • Hocus is “pinned” to that spot, unable to back up because the stairs are behind her.
  • She is tired, and does not want to get up from her chosen place of rest.
  • She has just returned from a long romp in the woods; the stress hormones in her body are high.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.― Maya Angelou

I have no problem admitting that when our dog growls at one of our cats or another dog, it upsets me.  Thankfully, it rarely happens these days, because I have learned how to better manage Hocus, the cats, and also Hocus with new/unfamiliar dogs.  But life happens.  And growls can happen when the perfect storm creeps up.  If she does growl, I can feel the fear and anxiety hit me in the stomach immediately.  That’s how I know how easy it is to yell at a dog for growling.  But I don’t.  I know better now. 

Yelling “HEY! Cut it out! Stop it!” at the dog is our natural response when they’re doing something that makes us afraid or uncomfortable.  Growls and lunges make us feel awful!  We just want it to stop!

But if you step back and think about it, responding this way is really just telling the dog to shut up and stop doing what’s making us feel awful at the moment.   We don’t help them by yelling at them.  We only added MORE stress to a stressful situation.

And, if you are in the habit of hitting, yanking, poking, or “tttssst”-ing your dog, he/she will quickly learn to not growl in front of you.  Why continue to do a behavior that you are going to be punished for?  By punishing the growling behavior, you teach your dog to avoid doing that behavior.  Well done!   The next time your dog feels uncomfortable, he or she might skip the growl, and bite instead.

 Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. ~Nicole Wilde


The Fear Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. 

Our belief or personal opinion about what’s threatening the dog does not have to make sense to us.  The perceived threat is very real to the dog.   My fear of roaches is ridiculous to my entomologist friends, but the fear and my response to the perceived threat (The Roach) is totally appropriate to me.  Usually I flee, but under the perfect storm I will fight.  -Sorry bug friends, trigger stacking happens in people, too and we lash out.  Our dogs’ fears and perceived threats are not unlike my issues with the “R” word.

roach fear
Even googling “roach images” was hard for me.

Growls Work!

In the past our dog learned that growling and/or air snapping worked for her.  Each of these behavior increased distance between our dog and the perceived threat.  So today, if our dog is placed in a situation where she is unable to cope, I know that the growling and/or air snapping behaviors will happen again.  Why?  Behaviors that work (and were reinforced — the animal leaves her space) are likely to repeat.

 Growling and air snapping is a distance increasing behavior.  Dogs do what works for them. 

For example, let’s say Hocus is chewing a high value treat or bone and another animal (cat or dog) has the opportunity to get too close for Hocus’ comfort, a growl will most likely occur if The Perfect Storm is at hand.  (We refer to this as Trigger Stacking.)  When the growl or lunge happens, the other animal quickly leaves Hocus’ space.

What has happened here?  The growl has effectively increased the distance between Hocus, her prized possession, and the perceived “intruder” threat has left.  Growls work.  That’s why dogs choose to use them.


Growls Are Better Than the Alternative.

There are far worse things than a growl.  Think of it this way: Would you rather your dog warn you, a child, or another animal with a growl, or would you rather your dog skip the growl, and go straight to lunging or biting?

I’d prefer a lip curl or a growl, compared to a lunge, air snap, or bite.  But we ultimately want to help our dog to feel like he/she doesn’t need to growl, or lunge at whatever is making our dog feel threatened.

Clearly, no one wants their dog to growl, but we don’t want the dog to NOT growl if something makes her uncomfortable. Growling is communication. So it’s very important information that needs to be heard in a successful canine-human  canine-feline, or canine-canine relationship.


Thanks for the Head’s Up!

If we encounter an unplanned negative situation and Hocus growls or becomes tense, like the images above explain, I make a mental note along these lines, “Oh wow, so that really freaked you out and made you very upset.  Ok. Noted.  Looks like we have to work on how that (insert the perceived threat) makes you feel threatened.  Got it. Thanks for expressing that.  Now I know.  Next time I won’t put you in that situation or I’ll know what to avoid.”

Thank your dog for growling, then calmly remove your dog from the situation or remove the perceived threat away from your dog.


Shake It Off!

After I make the mental note and thank her, I then shake off the stress that I’m feeling, and I encourage her to shake it off too.  I encourage her to play, run, or be goofy!  Help your dog shake off that stress and switch gears in their mind.  We have to remember that seeing that kind of behavior does affect us; it’s alarming and scary to witness, but we don’t have to stay in that fearful place and neither does our dog.  Get out of that situation.  And Get Loose together!

shake it off _dog behavior
Encouraging Hocus to Shake It Off, be Loose, and have FUN after an awkward dog encounter

Set Them Up for Success!

Of course we don’t want dogs to continue to growl all the time.  We want to change the way they feel about a perceived threat.  We do this by setting them up for success.  We do this through positive training techniques.   We do this by managing the environment very carefully.  We do this by using counter conditioning / active desensitization techniques.

How I Set Our Dog Up for Success

I practice full, awake supervision when she is around other animals that might trigger her.  I am aware of the possibility of Trigger Stacking, so I work around that and prevent that from happening.  I am proactive when I know there could be potential triggers for my dog.   Now that I know better, I never put my dog in situations where she is unable to cope.   She now makes better choices that work for her, and the perceived threats are diminished because we helped to change the way she feels about them!


Learn Your Dog’s Canine Clues.

If you can learn to recognize the Canine Clues you will understand your dog’s language, and be able recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and unable to cope.  Set your dog up for success by preventing those circumstances.  Positively respond to the message your dog is sending.  Thank your dog for the message.  Then work with a force-free, science based trainer or behaviorist to work on changing the way your dog feels about that perceived threat.  Rule out any medical issues, and ensure your dog is healthy and free of pain or discomfort.


This week is National Dog Bite prevention week.  We are focused on increasing the safety and harmony of kids and dogs, but I would also love to see an increase in the safety and harmony of all animal companion species in the home.  Cats and dogs, canine companions, and dogs and other pets can become harmonious house mates if we know what to look for, manage them appropriately, and set them all up for success.  This is how be become Conscious Companions.

We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
Success

Recommended Reads:

Why Training Is Essential

Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.

Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with "Flat Stanley" at the Audubon Zoo
Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with “Flat Stanley” at the Audubon Zoo

There are many reasons people choose to train an animal.  Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them.  Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal.  Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.

Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.

I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together!  I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship.  I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win!   I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them.  I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process.  Training became one of my favorite forms of communication.  Training became an essential part of my life.  Training was an essential part of their life.

Something else I learned while training animals:  If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.

I am not special.  I merely took the time to learn the techniques.  I practiced the skills.  I learned patience.  I made mistakes.  And I tried again and again.

That’s why I want to talk with you about training.  You can train animals the force-free way, too!  But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.


What Is Training?

 

Training is “teaching”.

When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal.  However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them.  We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.

That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.

Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns.  You are their teacher.  As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day!  Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?

ALL ZOO PICS FROM WORK PC 026
When Menari, the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) was born, we made sure that every interaction she had with us was a positive one. She was gradually exposed to people, places, and things that would help her to feel safe and secure in our human world.

Training is all about associations.

The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being.   Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day.   As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).

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Dedicated animal trainers teaching one of our giraffe that people = only Good Things!

Training is about building a relationship.

When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust.  Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon.   Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime.  Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime!  Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.

 

Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!
Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!

Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan.  What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.

 


Why Training Is Essential

Training is a key component to an animal’s well being.  Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes!  A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful.  Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan.  From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.

This Rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our zoo guests to interact with her.
This rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our guests to interact with her on a daily basis. She could choose if she wanted to interact with them, or not. These same methods of learning can be used on your pets at home!

 

Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care.  Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez

 


Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field.  Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training.  Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!

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CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO WATCH the VIDEO!

We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible.  When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible.  Of course, there are limits to what we can train.  But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.  

~Ken Ramirez, Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Animal Training at the world-renowned Shedd Aquarium; Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT)


Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!

In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity!  He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets.  Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting.  See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:

My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact.  Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets.  It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick.  Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.  ~Ken Ramirez

 

hocus pocus
Positive, reward-based training has transformed my relationship with Hocus Pocus, and it has helped her to live in our human more safely and securely.

 

Animal training should be about mutual respect.  The goal is to build a relationship based on trust.  When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human.  The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion

Coming Up Next:  How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!


Recommended Reading:

Thinking Beyond the Cue: Ken Ramirez Takes Animal Training to a New Level

Shedd Aquarium Participates in Beluga Conservation Research Program