Whether you have a dog or are contemplating getting one, "Decoding Your Dog" is a great source of information about man’s best friend, from puppy hood to old age. Written by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and co-edited by Dr. Debra Horwitz, Dr. John Ciribassi and Steve Dale, the book goes inside the canine brain to explain why dogs behave the way they do, and how to change behaviors you don't like, while clearing up common misconceptions and offering practical solutions. Animal expert, speaker and author Ciribassi, who is also a past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, offers the rationale behind creating the book and what readers can glean from it.

Decoding Your Dog book coverMNN: How did the book come about, and what was the motivation behind it? What did you want to achieve?

John Ciribassi: Steve Dale suggested the book to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists about five years ago. The goal was to produce a source of accurate, scientifically based information on dog behavior that is targeted towards pet owners. There are many scientific texts targeting veterinarians but these tend to be very technical and act more as a reference. There are books for the public that are very readable, but we felt that these did not have solid information that reflected the current thoughts on animal behavior. 

You debunk many myths — that dogs are trying to dominate us, that they know when they've done wrong and feel guilty about it. Can you elaborate? What other widely held notions are untrue?

The concept of dominance refers to a hierarchy established between a group of dogs for the purpose of determining which animal has access to each resource in the environment they live in. In this way, a higher-ranking dog is able to acquire a resource from a lower-ranking dog. They may force a lower-ranking dog to relinquish a toy or move away from food or the attention of one of the owners. It does not refer to a dog using aggression to guard or possess an item they have taken. Remember that possession in 9/10ths of the law and this possession can supersede the hierarchy that is established. So, when we look at the relationship between dogs and people, the vast majority of the time we are dealing with dogs that use aggression to maintain control of items. Rarely do we see dogs forcing people to relinquish items or places. 

We do not know that dogs have a sense of guilt, but the behaviors that people used to "prove" that dogs are feeling guilty are actually what we call deference behaviors. These are behaviors that dogs use to inform each other that they are not a threat or they "defer" to another dog, thus allowing the other animal to take control of the situation. Behaviors that signal deference include lowered head, ears back, furrowed brow and tucked tail. So for a person to punish a dog in this situation because the dog is "obviously guilty" when in fact it is already asking for space and communicating to not be a threat. Punishment in this situation merely serves to increase confusion and can fuel the dog's future need to resort to aggression to defend itself. 

What are the biggest mistakes that dog owners make?

Behaviorally, the first I think of is not taking their 2- to 4-month-old puppy to a puppy class, thinking that they are too young to learn. The ability to learn actually begins in utero, so there is no need to wait on formal training and socialization until six months of age or later. Second, when they do decide on a training program, many seek out aversive, correction-based trainers. These methods are not only problematic for the average dog but for the fearful or anxious dog, this type of class can exacerbate existing problems such as fear-based aggression. There is also a misconception that all behavior issues are managed with training. The fact is that many more serious behavior problems (some forms of aggression, separation anxiety, noise phobia, etc.) have inherent anxiety as its cause and unless this is addressed, all the training in the world will not make a significant impact. 

Why do you recommend positive reinforcement vs. aversion and punishment?

By using positive reinforcement you are clearly demonstrating to the dog what behavior(s) you are wanting from the dog. Like getting paid when you do a specific job that your employer is asking for, you are then more likely to continue doing that job. Punishment creates a sense of apprehension in the dog as they often function with apprehension over concern of punishment being applied. Reinforcement, instead, allows the dog to be creative as they work to see what behavior triggers a reward. This results in a strengthening of the bond between dog and owner. 

I gather you don’t believe Cesar Millan’s methods. Why don’t they work?

Aversive methods can clearly suppress problem behavior ... temporarily, until the dog learns how to perform the behavior without getting punished or escalates an aggressive response to meet the punishment the trainer is inflicting. 

What are the most important things to consider before getting a dog? How should you decide?

The most important thing is evaluating your circumstances before getting a dog. Do you have young children? This can make managing a new dog, along with young children, very difficult. Look at how much room you have to match up with the size of the dog. Do you have time to spend walking your dog and not relying on the yard as a sort of "baby sitter?" Puppies can be fun and offer a sort of blank canvass but they are a lot of work and very active. Older dogs can be more sedate and match the life style of an older person but may have health issues as well as recognizing they will have a shorter life span. There are online sources of breed selection software. Pedigree.com has Select A Breed that works well in matching up needs to a breed. However, it is important to recognize that breed generalities are merely guidelines and individual variation can be more significant so actually spending time with the animal can give a better idea as well as seeing the parents, which is why going to a reputable breeder can be beneficial. 

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

All animals, including people, constantly learn from the interactions they have with the individuals and the environment they live in. While it is true that younger animals are more "plastic" — can more easily develop learning pathways — age is not an absolute barrier to learning as long as proper reward/reinforcement occurs along with consistency. 

Why do dogs behave aggressively? What should you do to fix it?

There are several reasons why dogs may use aggressive behaviors in order to manage situations they are in. Fear and anxiety are the most common reasons I see dogs presenting for aggression. The aggressive behaviors are used as tools in order to best deal with circumstances that create fear/anxiety. Aggression can also be used to control access to resources such as food, toys, resting areas or attention. Defending offspring, maternal aggression, can be another cause. Young dogs can also play aggressively, especially if they are a hyperactive personality or did not have adequate exposure to other dogs when going through puppy hood. Treatment options depend upon the diagnosis for the cause of the aggression. It can be managing access to resources, isolation from triggers of the aggression, teaching the dog alternate ways to respond in stressful situations and the use of anti-anxiety medication in dogs that have anxiety as the root cause of the aggression. 

How should you deal with separation anxiety, compulsive behavior, anger issues? When should you take dog to a behaviorist, and/or give medication?

While it is not possible to give specific recommendations to these behavior problems without a complete history, general approaches for separation anxiety, for example, include allowing the dog to have a period of time before departure to relax, as well as not interacting upon arrival until the dog is relaxed. Reinforcing relaxed behavior when the owner moves away from the dog when moving from room to room can also be helpful. Compulsive behavior is often managed behaviorally by redirecting the behavior to a more appropriate set of behaviors as well as giving the dog plenty of opportunity to engage in more productive activities (play, training and exercise). Any behaviors that are not in the realm of normal dog behavior should be addressed by a behaviorist, instead of primarily by a trainer. Behaviors best managed by a trainer involve normal, but inappropriate behaviors such as failure to walk at heel, sitting, recalling when called, housetraining, etc. Medication is used when the dog's level of anxiety, and tendency to overreact in benign situations, is contributing to the problem behavior and affecting the dog's quality of life. 

What exactly does a behaviorist do?

Think of a behaviorist as you would a psychiatrist. We take a history, make a diagnosis and then institute therapy, which may include medication. Veterinary behaviorists, like psychiatrists, are the only professionals that can prescribe medication. 

What are the biggest takeaways from the book that dog owners (or prospective owners) should know?

Dominance is rarely a motivating factor for a dog's behavior. Punishment frequently exacerbates problem behavior. It is important that we learn how dogs "speak" through their non-verbal body language. And that often problem behaviors stem from genetic deficiencies in how the brain functions and it is not always the owner's fault when problem behaviors occur. 

How many dogs do you have at home?

None. We lost our 14-year-old boxer in 2012. Right now our lifestyle is not right to have a dog in our home since we are not there very often. Sometimes it is the best decision to not get a dog until your circumstances best allow for it.

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'Decoding Your Dog' demystifies the canine mind
Animal expert Dr. John Ciribassi offers the rationale behind creating "Decoding Your Dog" and what readers can glean from it.