Third in a series
Which of these statements is true? (a) Some dogs try to dominate their people and need us to keep them in line. (b) Dominance behavior among dogs happens but is sexual in nature. (c) It is a rare dog who tries to bully a human. (d) Alpha rolls work on dogs because they are innately knowledgeable in the Greek alphabet. (e) None of the above.
Stimpy, the alpha-rolled heel nipper, feared annihilation by anybody other than his person. In his anxious mind, they could all be mass murderers. What started as trembling and hiding from strangers, had advanced to barking and then chasing and biting. Nothing Amy tried made a difference. If anything, the problem had worsened.
The brain is considered the most complex organ in the body. Neuroplasticity – the ability to change its function and structure– can bring hope. As Stimpy repeatedly freaked-out toward unfamiliar people the responsible nerve pathways strengthened, leading to faster, stronger reactions. (Practice makes perfect.) On the other hand, if those unhealthy circuits were abandoned they could weaken from disuse. (If you don’t use it you lose it.) We wanted this for Stimpy.
Amy had believed that her wigged-out dog needed socialization but that process applies to immature canine brains, aged 7-12 weeks, when neural connections are still forming. That ship had sailed for grown-up Stimpy. He needed a break.
To help this boy gradually lose his stranger-danger mindset I told Amy to put him in another room, door closed, with a loaded food-toy before visitors arrived. If she delayed his feeding before these events he’d be hungry and motivated to engage his innate survival behavior of scavenging. At the same time, she could help him strengthen other brain pathways. Stimpy would hear the muted voices of Amy’s friends from elsewhere in the house but he’d be busy fiendishly extracting food.
His good leader’s job was to repeat this ritual every time she had guests. Stimpy no longer regarded them as threats. Instead he very gradually developed a positive association with hearing folks nearby. Food always happened.
The correct answer is (c). (If you got it wrong, it’s OK. I won’t breathe a word.)
Next week: Maybe Stimpy could learn to behave with Amy’s friends.
For help with behavior problems, you can sign-up for a Zoom Group Conference on my website, drjeffnichol.com.
Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He provides consultations in-person and in groups by Zoom (drjeffnichol.com). Each week he shares a blog and a video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Email pet behavior or physical questions to or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.