Tail wagging, is it all that it seems to be?

Animal communication can be defined as the exchange of information between animals through various means that may have an effect on the immediate or future behaviour of another animal.
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A dog may wag its tail for a person or another animal, even a passing butterfly but when by itself will simply not wag its tail indicating that tail-wagging is meant as communication or language.  
However like any interpretation of communication behaviour you must be careful NEVER to take a small part of display in isolation.  Tail wagging in dogs is a simple behaviour (as regards neurological involvement) but from a functional point of view it is just so complex. Tail wagging could mean any of the following;

  • Contentment.
  • Playfulness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Acknowledgement.
  • Excitement.
  • Appeasement.
It has long been assumed that when dogs wag their tails that they are happy and friendly.  But approach a dog that is sending you warning signals to stay away and you just might get bitten!
Understanding more about the positioning of the tail can help understand what the dog is trying to communicate.  Movement of the tail is also important as dog’s tails have evolved to be seen, they can have bushy or white undersides or black tips at the end of the tail.  Dogs cannot see colour like humans do but they understand movement and it’s meaning.
A slow wag, held at half-mast can mean the dog is feeling insecure with a faster, broader wag being closer to ‘I’m friendly’ wag especially if the back end of the dog is moving as well.
A highly held tail slowly moving (possibly only the tip) can mean the dog is going to do one of two possible things; fight or flight. This tail held high can mean the dog is threatening or sending a warning to back off.
A middle height tends to depict relaxation and a lower tail can mean the dog is feeling anxious or worried.
It is important to understand that different dog breed may have different tail shapes such as spitz breeds that have their tails curled over their backs or even no tails at all.  This can make communication between dogs a bit more difficult but not impossible.
How dogs use meta-communication 

Gregory Bateson an anthropologist referred to meta-communication as “communication about communication.” It’s mainly used to depict a secondary form of communication so to differentiate the smaller subtleties in communication that can make a world of difference.

Meta-communication is an important factor in influencing the future and current actions of another dog.  You may see your dog pinning another dog to the ground, baring teeth or growling during play and some owners become worried and  may want to step in and stop the play. But most dogs with good social skills know that when they see meta-signals such as a play-bow and tail wag that subsequent ‘aggressive’ gestures are part of the game – social animals know when they are role playing rather than being serious.
Meta-signals such as the play-bow have also been described by Patrica McConnell as ‘A pause that refreshes’.  This pause allows the dogs to manage emotional arousal especially in dogs that have just met.
3 dogs
Vallortigara et al done a recent study into canine body language and discovered that when dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.  30 mixed breed pet dogs were shown various stimuli, including an aggressive dog and their owner.  When the dogs saw their owners, their tails all wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies. When the dogs looked at an aggressive, unfamiliar dog their tails all wagged with a bias to the left side of their bodies. Thus when dogs were attracted to something tails wagged right, and when they were fearful, their tails wagged left.  This left or right tail wag must be viewed from the point of view of the dog as if you were looking in the same direction as the dog.
 tail
However it is important not to become obsessed with the idea that tail wagging (or lack thereof) is the way to a dog’s soul.  Communication displays among social animals especially are full of detail and a wide range of actions for a reason – one being that this helps to change the meaning of a particular part of display when used in differing and changing situations so as to increase the animal’s ‘vocabularly’.

Is your puppy a blank page?

rupert and chita

New puppy care is vital.  Your new puppy is a wonderfully fresh blank page. This is your chance to shape your puppy into the dog you want him to be. Puppies don’t start out with separation anxiety or other behavioural problems, but it is usually in puppy hood that these problems arise. You have the chance here to help your puppy through training and socialisation to become a dog that can cope with most things he is going to encounter in his life and environment.

Socialisation with conspecifics is essential of course as well as socialisation with people of all ages, sizes and colours as well as other animals that he may have around him in his home such as cats.  Socialisation must be positive and never forced.  Only socialisation can prepare the dog for anything it may encounter in life and it is infinitely easier to socialise puppies than remedial socialisation with older dogs. Socialisation means getting used to environmental elements through exposure to them and making positive association.

Below is a link to a puppy socialisation checklist where you can tick off every time your puppy experiences unfamilar people and other dogs/animals.  All experience must be a positive experience.  Also included it a list of items that you can get your puppy habituated to. Habituation can be described as the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them.  These can include a variety of environments, sounds and surfaces. Dogs that experience different sights, sounds and textures learn how to adapt and how to bounce back from surprises.

http://info.drsophiayin.com/puppy-socialization-checklist

From the moment you bring him home your puppy is learning.  He is learning to practice as many naughty behaviours as he is  good behaviours and you the owner may be inadvertently rewarding those naughty behaviours such as inappropriate greeting, chewing on furniture and barking.  Because basically dogs do whatever works!  One example may be the dog that is jumping up on his owner. If the owner is pushing him off, saying “no” or “down boy”, the dog may actually think he is being rewarded with attention for jumping up and will continue to do so as long as he is receiving attention for jumping up. Teaching puppies to perform a good sit and asking for that instead of rewarding the jumping up can help teach puppy to offer a sit for polite greeting instead.

Teach puppy what to he needs to do to get attention and  rewards!  Rewards can include treats, kibble, toys, play, praise, attention, a scratch behind the ears and must be something that the dog wants.  Studies and personal experience have shown dogs learn VERY quickly when using a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is adding something (a motivator that your dog wants) in order to increase a behaviour you would like such as sitting when asked.

Negative punishment is all about removing something to decrease unwanted behaviour.  This can include turning your back (removing your attention) when puppy jumps up at you or removing eye contact when puppy barks at you for attention.  The word punishment should not be a word to be afraid of, in the case of dog training it simply means removing an expected reward in order that the puppy learns what he is doing is not working.

For best results you can combine both positive reinforcement and negative punishment; Ignore the behaviour (such as puppy jumping for attention) and follow up with positive reinforcement of the desired behaviour.  You can teach puppy what you want him to do using operant conditioning.  However try to avoid using positive punishment such as smacking a dog in the face with a newspaper as this is an aversive and very damaging to the bond with your dog.

quadrants of operant conditioning

How to Crate Train Puppies

Crating philosophy

bobbys eyesPuppy-hood is a time when good and bad habits are formed.  When puppy is left alone often they’ll find things to entertain themselves with,  things that involve mouthing and chewing, which are totally natural things for a puppy to do!

Crates are a very good management and training tool to use to prevent puppies from developing those naughty behaviour such as inappropriate greeting and chewing of  your precious furniture and shoes.

Crate training allows your dog to have a safe place to sleep and to relax in when stressed. It allows them a place of safety and security especially when there are lots to things going on around him or when she simply needs to sleep.  To a young puppy a crate should be a positive place where good things happen.

For owners crates can be used for safe transport of their dog in the car and can be used for management at home during short absences and  around toilet training puppies.

Cautions to take while crate training

  • Never use the crate as a punishment. Your puppy will come to fear it and refuse to go inside.  Instead teach her to enjoy going into her crate.  You can feed her in the crate or allow her to chew her kong in there while the family are having dinner.  You want her to have a positive association with her crate.  It should be her den.
  • Don’t leave your puppy in the crate too long.  A dog that’s crated day and night doesn’t get enough exercise or human interaction and can become depressed or anxious. Puppies under six months of age shouldn’t stay in a crate for more than three or four hours at a time other than night-time.  If you are going to be working long hours maybe employing a puppy walker would be a good idea.
  • Respect your puppies space.  If she is in the crate sleeping don’t allow children or family members to lift her out. How would you like to be dragged out of bed when asleep!
  • The living room or kitchen is a good place to have your crate so that puppy is close to the family and in a place where puppy can go in and out as they want.  Blankets and bedding can be placed inside to make it comfortable and welcoming to the puppy.

Using a crate for puppy time outs

Sometimes you may need to ‘time out’  your puppy  in certain situations such as when they get over-excited or nippy when playing with children, or get a little too physical with other dogs.  Timing out allows puppy to calm themselves down.

However it is important to note that you are not sending your puppy to the crate as a punishment, just for a 30 second to 2 minute time out.   Do not lock them away otherwise puppy will never learn which part of her behaviour was not acceptable!

Calmly speak with your puppy, take her to the crate gently and place her inside for just a few short minutes  If your puppy is whining and barking wait until she is calm before releasing her again.

What type of crate should I use for my Puppy?

Plastic_Crate    wire crate

The crate should not be so big that puppy can create one end for her bed and the other as her toilet.  It should be just big enough to move comfortably around.  If you decide to buy a big crate that a larger breed puppy could grow into use a divider until she has grown.  A wire crate or airline style crate are all good types that can be made comfortable as well as being safe.

Toilet Training puppies

Crate training can be an efficient and effective way to toilet train puppies. Dogs do not like to soil their resting/sleeping quarters if given adequate opportunity to eliminate elsewhere. Temporarily confining your dog to a small area strongly inhibits the tendency to urinate and defecate.

If your dog does not eliminate while she is confined, then she will need to eliminate when she is released.  This way you can reward and praise her when you see her toileting outside.  You may even put toileting on cue.  As you see her just about to go toilet say ‘go potty’ and make a big fuss of her and feed with a high value reward such as chicken or hot-dog.

Except at night, give your dog an opportunity to relieve herself every hour. Each time you let her out, put her on leash and immediately take her outside. Once outside, give her about three to five minutes to eliminate.

If she does not eliminate within the allotted time period, simply return her to her crate. If she does perform, then immediately reward her with praise, food treats, affection, play, an extended walk and permission to run around and play in your house for a couple of hours. For young pups, after 45 minutes to an hour, take her to her toilet area again. Never give your dog free run of your home unless you know without a doubt that her bowels and bladder are empty.

With your consistency and abundance of rewards and praise for eliminating outside, she will become more reliable about holding it until you take her out. Then the amount of time you confine her before her scheduled outing can be reduced, then eliminated.

Mistakes and Accidents During Training

If you ever find an accident in the house, just clean it up. Do not punish your dog. All this means is that you have given her unsupervised access to your house too soon. Until she can be trusted, don’t give her unsupervised free run of your house. If mistakes and accidents occur, it is best to go back to the crate training. You need to more accurately predict when your dog needs to eliminate and she needs more time to develop bladder and bowel control.

Teach your puppy to enjoy going into her crate

lilly and teddy

By taking the time to go through small incremental steps, from slowly introducing your puppy to the crate, to spending small but increasing amounts of time in there, they will learn to love it and you can both enjoy the enormous benefits it offers.

Step One

Set up crate close to you and have plenty of treats ready in your pocket or in a pouch. Ensure you are in a closed area so that the puppy cannot run out into danger. Sit or kneel somewhere you are comfortable with.  Leave the crate door open so that puppy can wander in and out.  

You can place some of the treats in the back of the crate so that puppy goes in to investigate. Do not lure her in, you want her to work  it out for herself and to start to associate the crate with wonderful things!

Step two

When puppy has gone into the crate you can then add more treats while she is in there.  If she comes out do not give her treats, you want her to learn that going into the crate earns her the rewards and that coming out gets her nothing not even attention.  And the longer she stays in the more you give her!  You can practice this over time so that she is getting more and more confident about going into the crate.  Have her sit at towards the back of the crate so that becomes the place where treats are given.

 Step three

When puppy has learnt to stay longer in the crate in order to get the rewards you can now practice closing over the door.  Give her more treats while you are doing this to help her remain calm and not to feel trapped in any way.  This stage of adding duration can take a few days to teach puppy to stay longer in her crate.  Ensure she has had adequate exercise and is tired so that she is learning to associate her crate with rest and being calm.

Be aware if she becomes anxious in any way as you don’t want her to stop enjoying being in the crate.  If she starts whining or barking don’t let her out immediately as she will learn to do this in order to get out.  As soon as she is quiet you can open the door and let her out.  Alternatively you can drop another treat into the crate so she has to go retrieve it and then open the door and let her out.  Once she is out don’t give her food rewards or attention so that she associates the crate with the rewards!

Step four

When puppy starts going into crate herself and lying down you can now start to add duration to stay in crate.  You can do a couple of things: you can put treats one by one into the crate or you can place puppie’s kong into the crate with her.  By allowing her to chew on her kong, you are giving her something to satisfy her need for chewing, teaching her to deal with frustration and she is learning that being apart from the owner is not something to be worried about at all!

At this stage also you can add a cue for going into the crate ‘into bed’ or ‘crate’.  She is already going willingly into her crate but you can repeat the verbal cue just as she is entering to help her make the association with the cue and rewards.

Step five

Continue to make crate training fun and increasing length of time puppy spends in the crate.  Crates are where the rewards are for puppy!

You can now also add the release cue, ‘enough’, ‘lets go’ or whatever suits you as an individual and once released from the crate you can reward puppy with lots of attention, play or toys for not leaving the crate until released.

In this youtube clip Donna Hill a Canadian dog training coach explains the importance of introducing the crate in such as way to puppies are comfortable with going into her crate and make a positive association with their crate.