Do you have a great dog who is everything you’ve ever wanted in man’s or woman’s best friend – except for one really annoying problem? Some dogs wag when greeting their people, others may jump around and bark but your dog flops on her side and dribbles, and I don’t mean with a basketball.
It can get worse – much worse. A submissive peer with a furry tail quickly creates modern splatter art by flinging yellow droplets onto the walls, your shoes, legs, and if you’re leaning over to pet the kid, maybe even on your face. Are we having fun yet?
Oh you’ve tried everything but this odious habit only seems to worsen. Let’s start with a real dog and her flummoxed folks.
Jack was a 2 year old female dog (I know, wrong name for a girl), a Heinz 57. This kid was as sweet as they come, adapting pretty well to her second family. Her first had left her alone in the yard, paid little attention to her, and according to eye witness accounts, yelled at her often.
Jack’s new people loved her right away but they recognized a problem early. When they took their new dog to the veterinary clinic for her first visit her white coat syndrome was on full display; there was a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on. She never offered to bite; instead she hid behind Mom and even tried to climb up her back. Everybody was deeply embarrassed. But there was more.
Jack did fine at home in almost all situations even when she was the only warm blooded mammal on the premises – the only creature stirring. But when her folks walked in the door her emotions ran wild. Rather than an outpouring of histrionics Jack displayed her feelings by rolling onto her side, raising one rear leg, and draining her bladder. And then, of course, she wagged her tail in the urine.
When Jack’s family arrived at my office it was important that I not trigger their dog’s loss of control so I sat on the floor, with my back to the open door. As they entered the room Jack saw no one to fear, only a quiet, small (floor level) man with no visible face. She approached cautiously and sniffed. We became fast friends. No drama. Jack was fine because she saw nothing that caused her to feel overwhelmed.
Like us, puppies are conceived with brains that are genetically pre-wired with much of the programming that makes them who they are. Some will become confident, assertive adult dogs who tell the others in their canine group to stand down and make way. There are middle-of-the-road dogs who stick up for themselves but avoid most conflicts. And then we have individuals like Jack who are happy to snarf up the crumbs. They’re the underdogs. Don’t feel bad. Dogs are not like us postmodern Americans. We ego-driven capitalists all want to be president of the United States, don’t we? And even if we don’t aspire to high office we believe that everybody else is entitled to our opinions.
Dogs aren’t like us in that way. If they don’t have multiple stripes on their sleeves, or even one framed diploma on their wall, they’re just fine with it. They don’t set life goals. Dogs may compete with each other in-the-moment but they are not cursed with an ego like us humans. They’re lucky that way.
It was very likely that Jack’s shyness was genetically programmed. But like nearly all dogs she was also a social creature who wore her feelings on her sleeve. A highly communicative character she needed to make her low status clear – often. To remind her leaders just how powerful they were she demonstrated by falling apart in front of them, every time they came home. It was getting old.
Just because Jack let fly on a daily basis doesn’t mean she liked it. It happened because she became immediately overwhelmed by the towering behemoths who advanced toward her, albeit behemoths who loved her. The dreaded involuntary stab of panic that triggered her neurologic system to go into free-fall was no more enjoyable for her than the mop-up routine was for her folks.
Of course it would have been just perfect if Jack’s people arrived home much as I had positioned myself during our first meeting. They could have sat backwards on their front porch and scooted on their rear ends through their door each evening. I didn’t make that suggestion. They were well-dressed, dignified people who just didn’t seem like the type.
I explained just how submissive Jack was, a concept that can be difficult for a many people to grasp. How can you wrap your brain around the special needs of somebody who is so easily freaked-out that you, the compassionate leader, trigger a flood just by showing up?
I am not an MD psychiatrist; I’m a veterinary behaviorist. But I have lived the life of a human since as far back as I can remember. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two. One of those things is that people can be thoughtless without intending any harm. But somebody who carries the gift of empathy can make life better for those around them, regardless of species. They just need to learn how. Often, the teacher can benefit even more than the student.
I explained to Jack’s family that by reducing the fear-factor during their triumphal return home each day their dog’s submissiveness could be eased. Their new M.O. was to saunter through the door while completely ignoring – believing to the deepest reaches of their brains that there was “no dog”. After a minute or two they could sneak a peek at you-know-who. When they spied a significantly calmer Jack they were to reinforce her tranquility very quietly. I mean VERY quietly. No clapping, jumping, cart wheels, spiking the ball, or excessive celebration. Any emotional response from a leader would trigger a ramp-up for Jack, defeating the purpose of their well-choreographed charade.
Our emotional state is a huge influence on our dogs. They are our subordinates. It’s their job to watch us for behavioral cues. They are hardwired to be lower ranking than their superiors (us). You don’t want it that way? It doesn’t matter; it’s a canine reality. Your body signaling, however subtle or nuanced, is all the hint your dog needs. If you want a calmer pupster you must demonstrate calm.
It’s easy to make the wrong move. You drag your tail home from a long, tough day of foraging for resources and you step in dog urine. It can drive a normal person to cuss and shout. If that happens enough times your emotionally fragile dog will learn to anticipate your daily outrage, causing the problem to go from a neurologic failure to a classically conditioned response. Like Pavlov’s dogs who salivated when hearing a bell your dog can reflexively fall apart when recognizing your footfalls approaching your house. None of us, human or canine, wants to suffer a sudden and complete loss of confidence but it can become automatic.
Leadership can be tough but if you have a dog in your life you are stuck with that responsibility. In most cases it isn’t really hard. If you can feign absolutely no affect from your passive countenance you are already well on your way to becoming the inspiring grand poobah your dog needs you to be.
With no research-based understanding of their dog’s behavior pet parents screw this up all the time. Jack’s folks wanted nothing more than to engage their girl in a joyous reunion as they arrived home. That would have been fine if it didn’t reliably trigger an emotional catharsis. These people needed to enter their house as though there was nobody with a pulse waiting for them. Nobody.
Jack could only improve if she was set-up for success by people who modeled canine leadership. Their daily homecoming had to be just like the return of a canine honcho to the territory: no drama. The innate behavior of dogs is clear: leaving and returning are non-events. Jack badly needed that species-specific construct.
If you have a dog who fits into your home like a hand in a glove you are blessed with an adaptable, well-adjusted companion. If these pets are treated like little people in furry suits they do just fine anyway. It’s not because their person has some gift for canine communication. These dogs know their leaders are clueless. They just have the ability to adjust. Easily wigged-out dogs can’t do that.
Nervous wrecks like Jack need special care. In order to succeed they must treated like dogs, not people, which they aren’t anyway. So, as long as you’re willing to flex your attitude for somebody who really needs individual help, I’ll share a few more nuggets of canine particulars.
Dogs regard any response from their leaders as an earned privilege. Unlike us, they do not believe that they’re entitled to a response. Any acknowledgement is regarded as a validation of their behavior and their emotional state of the moment. If Jack’s people responded during her emotional implosions they would be communicating very clearly that rolling over and urinating was exactly what they wanted, which it wasn’t.
The key difference between us and our dogs is that they regard anything from us, any subtle hint or body shift, as a paycheck. If you don’t like a behavior it must be completely ignored. At that moment you have to believe to the bottom of your soul that there is no D-O-G. Become a believer.
There are similarities between our species: What gets rewarded gets repeated. Here’s another one we’ve all learned from parenting books and leadership seminars: Catch them doing something right. These platitudes work for everybody, no matter the species.
Following this structure helped Jack. She clearly wasn’t as wiggy when her exalted rulers made their entrance less theatrical but she still rolled over and dribbled too often, although expelling somewhat less volume. These were truly patient people but they deserved a better result. So we addressed the anxiety component.
Jack’s submissive gestures made it abundantly clear that she knew her rank was lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon track, a perfectly legitimate mindset for a dog. But she also showed signs of anxiety. It took this sweet girl way too long to settle down following these life-changing events. Anytime her male person, in particular, stood up she flopped over and often christened the rug.
Why does this happen to some dogs? Well, I thought you’d never ask. In many cases anxiety is influenced by genetics. Jack’s problem may also have harkened back to her early puppyhood. Canine youngsters frequently urinate when their mother, a much bigger creature, looms over them. Her job is to then stimulate elimination by licking her puppies’ rear ends. As the kids mature they become capable of managing their own bathroom needs. A behaviorally normal puppy outgrows the impulse to let fly when somebody much bigger approaches. But stuck in her own little time warp, this developmental shift didn’t happen for Jack.
For dogs who are born to be shy the stimulus of a significantly taller being reaching over to pet or to even say hello can trigger that early, innate memory. And so I made it clear to Jack’s folks that no one should ever approach, reach for, lean over, or stare at their dog. Whenever they wanted to interact for fun, affection or anything they were to squat, turn their side to their girl, avoid direct eye contact, and call her to them. The incentive of a tasty tid bit would be an excellent counter conditioning element because eating and dribbling urine are physiologically incompatible. The brain just can’t handle both activities at the same time.
Anxiety is a physical, although microscopic and chemical, disorder of the brain. Creatures of any species who are blessed to not be stuck with this malady have neural circuits upstairs that hum right along, never too much or too little of the correct neurotransmitters telling the proper wiring when and when not to fire. Jack’s brain, on the other hand, was on hyper-drive when triggered by the movements of her big people. Their canine-specific leadership was an essential start but more help was needed to fully control the spigot.
Modern medicine, while not perfect, is a very good thing. Research continues to advance our understanding of the receptors in the brain and how we can make just the right adjustments when behavior modification alone isn’t enough. We are fortunate to have a safe antianxiety medication for urine gushers that, beyond its ability to calm a nervous Nelly, has a side effect that is just what this doctor ordered. Dosed right, the tricyclic antidepressant imipramine causes a bit of urine retention. In other words, the bladder is under better control. We added one 25 mg imipramine tablet to Jack’s life every 12 hours. She and her family have been dry, happy campers ever since.
Jack felt better and her people were ready for the next step. After quietly entering their house (while completely ignoring their “nonexistent” dog) they would stop, turn their side to Jack and give a command like sit or down. When their good girl, having abandoned her old dysfunctional flopping over and peeing, complied she was rewarded with a very quiet kind word and a tiny snack. After a few dozen repetitions she anticipated these opportunities to earn resources. Looking forward to this daily ritual became her default emotional state when she heard them approaching the front door.
Jack did well in part because her people implemented sound, evidence-based veterinary behavior medicine. They avoided the all-too-common mistake of human private logic. If they had believed, as too many people do, that a dog is a dumb-downed person, embodying only basic human traits, they may have assumed that punishment was called for. Entirely misdiagnosed, low-status dogs have been dominated, alpha-rolled, pinned to the ground, reprimanded, and some even hurt physically.
No one intentionally tries to worsen their dog’s behavior but applying the wrong treatment usually results in bigger problems. Shelters are full of dogs whose mistakes didn’t respond as their ill-informed first owners had hoped. That’s pretty sad. We can do much better. With modern knowledge of the causes and treatments of unhealthy behaviors we can make a difference for almost everybody.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every human with an emotional handicap or challenge was gifted with the consideration that Jack received? What if you and I assumed that literally everybody we met, man, woman, or beast, needed for us to listen first and then choose a charitable response? That would certainly help others. Unconditional kindness improves the wellbeing of the giver too. By virtue of her challenges Jack taught a couple of humans some mighty good life lessons.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.