Scratching. It may be the most common thing we see our dogs do, an entirely innocuous, normal behavior, right? Absolutely. Scratching is an innate to our canine companions. But does it go deeper than just having an itch?
You bet it does. Scratching is done by dogs for all sorts of reasons. I'm going to discuss a few of these today, in hopes that by the end of this blog, you have a better understanding of what your dog is communicating by scratching in certain situations.
Scratching as Displacement.
Sometimes, when a dog is feeling nervous, they will try to 'displace' that anxiety through scratching. Perhaps they have a camera pointed at them (which can often make a dog feel nervous), or they're in a new environment. Whatever the reason, one of the ways dogs show their anxiety is through scratching. You know your dog is scratching as a displacement behavior when you see "funny ears" (ears pointing in different directions), and when the orientation of your dog's eyes and nose are not directed at the cause of the concern (for example, the camera).
Scratching as a Calming Signal.
Sometimes scratching can indicate a dog that is displaying what we call a "calming signal." Often seen in the presence of some sort of conflict, scratching used as a calming signal communicates to other dogs, animals, and people that the scratching dog is not a threat. In fact, it demonstrates a dog that is non-confrontational, uninterested in being involved in any conflict, and intending to stay that way. Here again we see some "funny" ears, and a body orientation that is turned away from whatever is causing the scratching dog concern.
Scratching as Negotiation
Sometimes scratching can be used by dogs that are in close proximity to one another. When an approaching dog invades the personal space of another dog, the dog being approached scratches. This is what we call a negotiation signal, and informs the approaching dog that they have entered a zone of personal space. Negotiation signals are all about safe communication of boundaries between canines. When we start to understand how to read these cues ourselves, we gain a better understanding of how our dogs communicate with one another, and with us. Dogs are often remarkably transparent about what they are feeling and thinking - if only we know how to look and listen to what they are telling us.
For good self control in dogs, there are few exercises that beat a rock-solid "Leave It." Here's how we do it.
To prepare, have two treats ready. One that your dog really loves, and one that maybe your dog receives every day, like their kibble. That's all we need for this one.
Step One: Hold the high value (smelly, stinky, and yummy) treat in your left hand. Hold the lower value treat (kibble) in your right. Hold both hands behind your back. Offer your right hand (the hand with the lower value treat) to your dog, keeping the kibble inside your fist so that the dog cannot get it. The moment your dog moves her head away from the treat, say "Leave It!" and bring your left hand from behind your back (this is the smelly, stinky, yummy one) and open your palm. Let your dog have this treat while saying, "Take it".
Step Two: Repeat step one until your dog readily moves her head back from your right hand (the hand with the kibble) and waits to engage with you until the left hand (the hand with the stinky, smelly treat) appears. To help proof the work into a solid "leave it", switch which hand holds which treat and repeat the steps above.
Step Three: Put the higher value treat in your treat pouch or pocket and hold the kibble in one or the other of your hands. Do steps one and two as outlined above, but bring the valuable treat out of your pocket. What this does is create a distraction for your dog, ensuring that they can recognize and perform the cue even in the presence of something very reinforcing (valuable).
Practice this exercise a few times each day and you will have a great start to the "Leave it" command with your furry friend.
It's a lot more common than you might think. Dogs that bite are reported every day: to dog trainers, in hopes of some kind of solution or guarantee that this terror will never happen again; to city authorities by owners of dogs or humans at the receiving end of a dog bite event; and to loved ones, when an owner has to explain why their dog is no longer a part of the family.
Dog bite events can be as heartbreaking as they are concerning. These wonderful companions of ours are known for their friendliness, their loyalty, their love, and their tremendous abilities, both cognitive and physical. The reality is that, in addition to all of these traits, dogs are also capable of causing tremendous harm, both to other animals, and to the humans they co-exist with. They can be territorial, reactive, and possess a formidable set of teeth and jaws. They are also designed, at the genetic level, to have a "bite-or-flight" response to extremely unpleasant stimuli - even when the nature or cause of that stimuli is not readily apparent, or comprehensible, to us.
If we are going to live with these animals, it is important that we have a fundamental understanding of how they operate. For dogs, biting is a form of communication. It says any one or a number of; "I am not comfortable with this. This has gone too far. I do not accept these conditions. Give me space."
As dogs are incapable of understanding, on a cognitive level, that biting a human or another animal is unacceptable. What's more, punishing a dog for biting with aggression or threatening behaviors increase the likelihood of the dog biting again. This cannot be overstated. And the reaction can be unpredictable, meaning that the dog may bite a known or unknown entity at an entirely unpredictable time.
Only when we truly accept that biting is a natural function of the simple virtue of being a dog can we start to understand how to reduce a dog's propensity to bite. This requires a kind of humility on our parts. Seeing and respecting our dogs for what they are ultimately capable of does not come easily or naturally to us. We want to anticipate only the best, when this attitude is often not realistic when faced with the fundamental capabilities of a dog. Instead, let us prepare the tools and skills we need to condition and recondition our dogs to accept that which causes them distress.
What's more, let us do this work alongside our dogs in a preventative sense whenever we can, as a part of the contract of care we entered into the day we adopted our dogs. This contract is lifelong. Our dogs know it, and they honor it. Can we?
Last month I had the experience of working with my first Komondor, and I have become absolutely fascinated with the character of this breed of dog. On a superficial level, these are those dogs that when well groomed, look like giant moving mop heads. What lies beneath this striking appearance is an extremely unique, intelligent dog that captures both the heart and the imagination.
The Komondor, or Hungarian Sheepdog, is a big, powerful, stoic creature with an expert ability to guard flocks. As loyal as they are tough, the Komondor makes for a superb guard dog and loves nothing more than to take care of the family for which they live and breathe. They are affectionate, intensely loyal,
A sharp and independent thinker, the Komondor was raised and bred to ascertain threats to the flocks under his charge - with little training necessary. As working stock, this dog is more often than not quite matted and shaggy, allowing them to blend in with the sheep they guards. The groomed coat of a Komondor, on the other hand, takes the appearance of long, white cords, making them a pleasantly striking, unusual dog to look at.
While appearing bulky and ponderous, the Komondor is in fact extremely quick and agile, capable of reacting with sudden bursts of remarkable speed. Due to their protective nature, the Komondor requires thorough socialization at an early stage and throughout life, in terms of humans and other dogs/animals.
The Komondor is known for their loud, booming bark. In close settings, like apartments, particularly where there is a great deal of activity, training is usually needed to ensure less frequent, softer vocalizations.
If it sounds like the Komondor is a lot of dog for the average household, you're not at all wrong. With the right combination of having a job to do, the appropriate amount of physical and mental stimulation, appropriate and regular socialization, and good grooming practices, the Komondor is a wonderful animal companion. Tempered by a healthy dose of respect for their size and guardian temperament, and in the right environment, the Komondor is an excellent animal companion.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.