This month features an interview with Mary P. Klinck DVM, DACVB, author of “All Dogs Need a Job: How to Keep Your Dog Happy and Mentally Healthy,” from “Decoding Your Dog,” a highly acclaimed book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.
Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinary behaviorist?
I became a veterinarian because I loved animals and couldn’t think of another career that would be as rewarding. I developed an interest in the science of animal behavior and learning as a student, and then as a veterinarian, I observed that many of my patients had behavior problems or could at least benefit from behavioral management. When left unaddressed, and/or mismanaged (even by people with the best of intentions), behavior problems worsened, damaging the relationship with the owner. This really drove home to me the importance of the field of veterinary behavior.
What do new owners overlook most before purchasing a puppy that later leads to destruction in the home?
Many puppy purchases are impulse buys. A buyer can be carried away by how cute the puppy seems and forget to think about what it will be like when it grows up (bigger, stronger, more active, etc.). Behaviors that are cute in a puppy (chewing, jumping up, barking, pulling on a leash, etc.) are often unacceptable in a grown dog. People also may not consider the depth of the commitment when getting a dog or puppy. Dogs can live well into their teens, and an owner needs to know that they will have the time, physical and financial resources, etc., to take care of a dog for his entire life.
All dogs have physical needs (for exercise, toileting, eating, drinking, etc.), but people sometimes forget that they also have behavioral needs (for social interaction, mental stimulation, etc.). A dog also needs help learning how to behave in and out of his human home and what is safe and what isn’t in his environment. If the owner isn’t meeting the dog’s behavioral needs, he will find an outlet for them on his own. The result may be pretty undesirable!
People also often choose a puppy or dog based on the look of the breed or on a romanticized idea of what the breed/dog will be like. Consider that:
(a) The way a dog of a given breed is shown on TV, in the movies or in books is not necessarily the way that breed (or any real dog) will be;
(b) Breed fanciers, books or web sites may highlight the positive qualities of the breed, but may not mention temperament, activity level, or other characteristics that could be challenging for an average owner;
(c) Dogs of a given breed can vary markedly. For example, dogs bred to work (hunt, herd, do military/police-type activities, etc.) are usually very active and require considerable exercise and mental stimulation. Dogs of the same breed, bred for conformation or pet purposes, may be much less work for an owner. Dogs bred carefully and selectively for particular traits of the breed also differ from those bred by so-called “backyard breeders” or puppy mills. Nonselective breeding makes for more variability and means you may not get what you expect!
Keeping in mind activity level, can you suggest a few breeds you would recommend for a retired couple who want to travel and take their dog along?
One should be careful making assumptions about a dog based on its breed, since the individual may not be typical of the breed. It is probably most important that the dog be comfortable in changing environments and meeting different people and animals. These characteristics are not specific to particular breeds but could be determined by getting an adult dog whose personality is somewhat known or a puppy whose relatives’ personalities are known. If the retired couple is looking for a quiet dog with limited exercise needs, they probably want to avoid terrier types (which are often very active), and other breeds with high work drive, such as herding (e.g., border collie) or some sporting dogs (e.g., German short-haired pointer), or any dog from working lines.
When one adopts a rescue dog what kind of socialization pattern do you recommend initially?
Puppies go through a sensitive period for socialization when they are developmentally primed to learn about what is safe and what isn’t in their world. This is between about 3 and 12 weeks of age. If one gets a puppy, the owner should take advantage of that period. If one adopts a dog that has passed this age, socialization will not have the same impact on the dog’s behavior. An older puppy or adult dog can still learn from his experiences but he is less of a “blank slate.” Attempts to socialize a dog may not be appropriate if he is already fearful of, or aggressive toward, certain individuals or animals. In that case, it would be best to seek the advice of a veterinary behaviorist.
Socialization refers to controlled positive (not neutral, and definitely not unpleasant) exposure to various people, animals and environments, so that the puppy learns that meeting new individuals and going to new places is nice, not scary. It also means avoiding anything that might make the puppy feel nervous or frightened. These principles can also be applied to introducing an older puppy or adult dog to new people and dogs.
With a new dog, introduce people, animals and experiences gradually and in a controlled way, to see how the dog handles them. Examples of things to avoid, at least initially (because they might be overwhelming for your dog, and therefore a bad experience), are: taking him to the dog park (too many excited dogs may converge on him) and taking him to a block party (too many adults and children for you to control his meetings with them).
To avoid forcing a preconceived protocol on your newly adopted rescue dog, how much time should you give it before determining a course of socialization?
Part of maintaining good social behavior is planning interactions with people and animals, and monitoring them, to promote positive experiences and avoid bad ones. That means introducing the dog to people and to animals that you know will not hurt or scare him. With a new dog, one may not have to wait long to have him meet people and animals outside the household. When he seems pretty settled in his new home (which may be as soon as the day after he arrives), you can begin arranging for him to meet some of your friends and their (dog-friendly) dogs.
When family members work or are in school all day, do you recommend hiring a dog walker during the day to keep a puppy stimulated? And, if so, is it best to hire a walker who might be bringing other dogs along or should he/she go it alone with your puppy?
This will depend on the dog’s age and toileting needs, as well as his temperament. A young puppy will need to have frequent toileting opportunities (because he can’t be expected to “hold it” for longer than the number of hours equal to the number of months of age, plus one). If you are considering a dog walker for an older puppy or dog, that person should be carefully interviewed to determine what he/she will do with your dog. For example, will he/she walk him or let him out to relieve himself and then play with him in the yard? Will he/she bring other animals with them? How many, and will they be the same individuals? Consider whether this will be a positive experience for your dog. Keep in mind that multiple dogs mean a higher risk of fights/injury and that your dog walker won’t be able to devote as much individual attention to your dog. It is also important to find out the dog walker’s training strategy and to make certain he/she is not going to be disciplining (punishing) him inappropriately.
If you were to invent one dog toy that would address multiple behavioral issues what would it be?
There is no single dog toy that can provide a quick fix for most behavior problems. However, interactive toys (such as food puzzle toys that make the dog work to get his treats) can definitely help to use up excess energy or occupy your dog when you are busy. Many types of such toys exist, and dogs have individual preferences (one toy does not fit all).
Retired racing greyhounds make great pets and many become consummate couch potatoes. Is there an activity and environment you recommend for new owners to socialize and interact with them in the general public?
Groups that adopt out retired racing greyhounds often require that the dog not be off-leash except in a fenced-in area (to prevent the dogs from being injured or lost if they take off after something they see). Otherwise, owners can do the same things they would with any other type of dog, depending on the individual dog’s personality. Owners of retired racing greyhounds may also be able to network with other greyhound owners for group activities. Play dates with dog friends in a fenced yard or other area, are great. Walking on leash or more structured dog activities such as agility or nose work are other options.
Because some owners are fair-weather types, what do you recommend when their highly sociable dog that has been walked daily in spring, summer and fall, suddenly finds itself relegated to the house for long hours, becomes bored and begins destructive behavior?
It is important to pre-empt this type of situation by foreseeing that the dog will need something to do. On days when the weather prevents the owner from taking the dog out for exercise, interactive activities with the owner(s) are a good substitute. You can think of it as taking the time you would normally spend on the walk and spending it on play or reward-based training in the house (for instance, you could try trick training). This provides exercise, mental stimulation and interaction with you, just in a different context. You can also provide independent activities for the dog (such as giving him food puzzle toys). And there is also the option of classes in a doggy activity that interests both of you.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
When getting a dog do plenty of research to be certain you are getting one that will complement your lifestyle. Set him up for success by planning ahead to fulfill his behavioral needs. This means offering him acceptable ways to use his mental and physical energy and helping him to grasp how to behave correctly by showing him what to do and rewarding him for his efforts.
The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or Goodnewsforpets.com for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.