Saturday, October 29, 2011

Patricia McConnell: Canine Behavior

First off, if you ever get the chance to see Patricia McConnell speak, do it. It takes an incredible speaker to keep people engaged and thinking for eight hours straight, and Trisha has got the gift. I could write an entire post on just what she had to say on dominance, wolves, relationship, emotion or any of the other topics she touched on, but I'll try to stick to the subjects that seemed most pertinent to reactive dogs.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me as the owner of reactive dogs was genetics and behavior. People often seem ambivalent to genetics and behavior, wanting the best of both with none of the disadvantages. Pit bull people in particular seem sensitive to the subject since so many people are trying to ban our dogs based on genetic generalizations. Fact: it's not all in how you raise them. That's just the way it is. But Trisha was also careful to repeat over and over again that environment plays a huge role. She used the analogy of cancer. In order to get most cancers, you need to have the genetic marker that allows various cells to mutate uncontrollably. However, on order to get cancer, you also need to have the right environmental trigger, like asbestos for lung cancer or HPV for cervical cancer. With canine behavior, not only do you need the right genetic markers and the right trigger, but that trigger must come at the right time developmentally. All of these factors need to come together in order to create a behavior, and that makes studying behavior really tricky.

Trisha divides genetic factors affect reactivity into five categories: shy/anxious, reactiveness, low frustration tolerance, predisposition to use mouth, and status seeking. Shy/anxious I think is fairly self-explanitory; it's neophobia. Reactiveness in this case is slightly different from what I mean when I talk about reactivity. In think context, we pretty much mean startle response. If you drop a book onto the floor, does the dog keep napping? Jump in surprise? Jump and start barking? Reactiveness is how extreme a dog's response to a stimulus is. Frustration tolerance is how calmly a dog is able to deal with not getting what it wants. Predisposition to use mouth is, of course, how likely a dog is to use it's teeth to solve a problem. Status seeking, according to Trisha in this situation, is not what most people refer to as dominance. Here, it means how controlling a dog is of the objects or living creature in his or her environment.

 So how do these factors impact unwanted behaviors? Let's look at my dogs, scoring the dogs on each of the five factors with 5 being a high level of the factor and 1 being almost no evidence (Trisha did not do this; this part is all me). Maus is very anxious; he gets a 5 on shy/anxious scale. He's also has a big startle reflex that is easily triggered, so let give him a 5 there as well. On the other hand, he's able to accept not getting what he wants easily, so he'll get a 2 there. He rarely uses his mouth to solve problems (his saving grace), so a 1 there. And he doesn't seek to control his environment too much, so there's another 1. These things come together to make a dog who is very neophobic, nervous, and neurotic. If you add all these numbers together, you get a 14 out of a possibly 25.

I've talked before about how different Maus and Rubi are although they both fall under the umbrella term "reactive dogs." You can see the differences clearly by mapping out the five factors. Rubi hits a 2 on the shyness scale; there are some new things that . . . confuse her, but for the most part, she takes new stimulus in stride. She also gets a 2 on the reactiveness. Aside from dogs and squirrels, there's really not many stimulus that she has an exaggerated response to. On the other hand, she has virtually no frustration tolerance - that a 5 for sure. She has a moderate predisposition to use her mouth: 3. I had to think for bit about status seeking, but I'm going to give her a 4 there; she tries to control her environment a lot, but I don't think she's as bad as she could be. So that's a total score of 16/25.

Next let's take the good one, Piper Ann. Shyness = 1, reactiveness = 2, low frustration tolerance = 1, mouthiness = 2, and status seeking = 1. That's a total score of 7/25. Does that mean that the lower the score, the less likely a dog is to be reactive?

Well, let's take a look at Allister: He's moderately neophobic, so he'll get a 3 for shyness. He always over reacts to things, so I don't have a problem giving him a 5 there. Frustration tolerance = 3, mouthiness = 3, and  status seeking = 2. That's a score of 16; the same total score as Rubi. And yet there aren't many places I don't feel comfortable taking him. New places, new people, new objects, he takes them all in stride. Aside from his inability to shut up, he's a pretty well-rounded, happy guy. How did this happen?

Answer: environment. Allister had an extremely different start that Rubi did. Rubi was left out on a chain for pretty much her first year of life. Allister came into my house at nine weeks - nine weeks that he spent with him litter mates learning valuable social and world-interaction skills. Environment is that important; so are genetic. Ideally, you would have dogs with good genetics and good environments. Luckily, though, a good environment can compensate to a degree for bad genetics. Conversely, good genetics can help make up for a bad environment. Dogs that have a bad environment and bad genetics are pretty much screwed (think puppy mill dogs that never make it out of the mill). The real variables are how bad/good of an environment and how bad/good are the genetics.

So what does this tell us about canine behavior? Well, not a whole hell of a lot. Us average dog owners don't have the ability to know if a behavior is occurring primarily because of genetics or because of environment. We don't know what a dog's genetics will allow it to do until we put the effort into changing the dog's environment. We know that pigs don't fly, but we don't know how high they can jump until we try. And as for me, I will keep falling in love with the mystery.

1 comment:

  1. What a treat to meet her! I absolutely adore her - she's helped me so much with my dogs. And a great post, too! I'd rate my pittie as a 13 (he's pretty solid for the most part but his frustration tolerance is nonexistent) and my Dalmatian as a 7. My Dal's much easier to live with but not nearly as much fun as my boy. :)