Saturday, 3 November 2012

Trust – or Why You Should Spend Time Doing Stuff With Your Dog

Many people find that they have a perfectly good relationship with their dog – until they ask them to do something the dog really does not want to do. Neither cajoling nor threatening seems to work, eliciting only a response of fear or aggression, and the dog “digging its heals in”. It is difficult to advise what to do in these situations, because the quickest solution is not always the best in the long run.

Immediate results can be achieved by simply forcing the dog to do what you want it to do, using the lead, physically moving the dog or punishing it in some way, for example by spraying water on it to make it move. Certainly a stand-off involving aggression can be quickly diffused in this way.

However, in the long run applying only these quick-fix solutions may make things worse. Some dogs will give up future struggles if “overpowered” in this way, but to many this will simply be a confirmation of the negative associations that led them to refuse in the first place, worsening the problem the next time the situation arises.

If you ever get into a situation like this with your dog, it is time to consider the problem holistically, whether you decide to use a quick fix solution or not. The problem is essentially one of trust. If your dog trusts you enough, it will not refuse to do what you tell it to do. Indeed, building trust is central to a good relationship with all dogs, whether you have problems with them or not. Many problems will never occur if you have built a good relationship of trust with your dog.

Best way to build trust.

By trust I mean a lot of things that are difficult to put into words, but I will try. If a dog trusts you, it sees you not only as a leader, but as a friend. It is not simply a matter of dominance. A dog may be cowered into obeying, but at some point it will decide that a command is simply not in its interest to follow. A dog that trusts its owner, will be safe in the knowledge that commands issued are all in its best interests and will lead, ultimately, to good things. This, of course, cannot be simply explained to a dog. It must be demonstrated, again and again, for the dog to place its trust in you.

Trust is also a two-way street. You should also learn to trust your dog. If you trust your dog, your commands will carry so much more force for the dog. If you don’t, the dog will sense either that it can get away with it, or that there is something to be unsure or scared about in the situation. Neither will make it more likely to trust in you and do as you say.

So how do you build trust? What is absolutely imperative is to spend time with your dog. Doing stuff. Sitting on the sofa next to a sleeping dog does not count! (Although downtime is also good time, sometimes, more about this elsewhere) Trust cannot be declared, or bought, it has to be earned – by both you and the dog.

The very best place and time to build trust is when walking your dog. Games and play also help, but always staying at home in your garden will not cut it. In order to build trust you must experience the world with your dog. You must negotiate new and unusual, even unexpected situations together. Note my emphasis on with and together. Walking along oblivious to your dog because you are checking your mobile phone is not walking with your dog. Taking your dog to the same small park three times a day, every day, does not set you up for new experiences.

Of course we all do these things occasionally because of our busy, modern lives, but it is important to properly go out and walk with your dog, exploring new and exciting places, at least once in a while. The walks don’t have to be long, and the new places don’t have to be far away. The most important thing is to pay attention to your dog, and explore the world with him or her. The emphasis is on active walking with, and encountering the new, together.

Friends exploring together, Finisterre.

Talk to your dog when you are walking together. Tell him or her where you want them to go, tell them where you don’t want them to go. Use your voice and your body to guide them, first and foremost, then the leash. When your dog sticks with your or comes to you, praise them and pat them. Often give them a very tasty treat. Make sure listening to you, and sticking near you, is always rewarded. Don’t just call your dog when it is distracted or running away, but periodically call it back when you know it will come, then reward with praise, pats, play and treats. Do this every walk.

Calling the dog’s name and rewarding even just attention at short distance and recall at longer distances is vital to building trust, and which is why I tell people to keep on repeating this apparently easy and pointless exercise. Why keep on calling a dog that you know will come, rather trying to “teach” it to come when it is being naughty? First of all because you have no chance of recalling your dog when it is being naughty if you have not taught it well in advance to come when you call. Second, because it builds trust.

Every time your dog comes to you and gets a overwhelmingly positive response, it understands a little bit more that listening to you is a good thing, and that you are a friend. If you only ever offer your dog sausage when trying to lure it to the vet’s, it soon learns that your sweetest voice and your best treats are simply devices to trick it. Don’t “burn” your treats, by using them only in bad circumstances. Makes sure you train recall and attention in positive situations only for the vast majority of instances.

Figuring out some modern art in France

You don’t always have to control your dog’s every movement on a walk. Most of the time it isn’t looking for trouble, just for something interesting to sniff. A little bit of give and take is good in my opinion. Go and check what is behind that tree with your dog, then take two steps back and call its name and reward it with something very tasty when it comes. Make sure you don’t only ever call your dog when it is time to stop play, or put the leash on. Convince your dog that being with you does not mean doing something it doesn’t want, or being prevented from doing something it wants, all the time. Simply put, just spending a nice relaxed walk together with your dog will make it trust that you are a nice person to be around, not just someone that shouts commands, and berates it for having fun.

Same thing goes with meeting other dogs. It is not just fine for your dog to meet other dogs, it is something that makes their lives richer and better and teaches them something about doggy interaction every time it happens. It is also an important experience that builds trust. You should guide all dogs, especially those with fearful or aggressive tendencies, through meeting other dogs. I will post at length about this elsewhere, but the most important thing is that you also greet the other owner and the dog, showing confidence and calm.

Going new places - Scotland.

My absolute favourite way to build trust, however, is exploring new places. Taking your dog away on holiday is a fantastic way of building trust, but even a trip to a different park will do. Faced with a new environment, you provide a constant and reassurance to your dog. With both my dogs, I felt that I reached a new level of trust after we went on our first holiday together.

It is often on holidays, or days out, that we have had our best “team-building” experiences. I remember some of these very clearly, and it is not by chance that they relate to situations where my dogs have had to face things they do not like or fear.

Eddie is not keen on getting his paws wet, so he was a little perturbed when we had to cross a stream during a forest walk on holiday in France. There was a narrow plank bridge, and he could quite happily wade across the small stream, if it wasn’t for his dislike for water. There was a narrower place slightly further upstream from the plank, too. We humans crossed swiftly via the plank, but Eddie hesitated. The plank was too narrow for his taste, and the water to cold. He paced to and fro and whined. After trying to cajole him over the plank or through the water for a while, all I achieved was increasing his agitation.

However, this was where I had a chance to solve the problem, not with pleas or with force, but with a little guidance. I went back across, and asked Eddie to follow me along the stream to the narrower place. There I jumped across, in effect showing Eddie the easy way. He quickly came after me, evidently relieved that he didn’t need to go any of the other scary ways.

A simple story, but one that I feel was crucial in our relationship. Now when we come across tricky bits of overgrown path, fallen logs or streams, Eddie looks to me to tell him where to go. If I tell him to come a particular way, he will follow closely behind me. He trusts that I will show him the easiest way. Obviously it wasn’t simply that one time that convinced him, but is a moment that sticks in my mind.

Together on quite a scary bridge!

With Cassie there wasn’t such a defining moment, rather I recall several encounters with gates, fences and similar obstacles. For some reason this extremely relaxed little girl can work herself into a real panic in the face of a low fence or a tight gate. Something about the sensation of being caged scares her. When walking in Scotland with my mother and both dogs, we had to cross the occasional gate. I soon realized that trying to drag or push Cassie through a kissing gate only made her panic. Rather I took it slow and made her walk next to me or very close behind me. Eddie also helped, by going first, with me, and showing Cassie that it wasn’t so bad after all, as long as you stuck with mum.

Cassie still needs to be guided closely through these gates. If I can I try to find her an alternative, like when we encountered a large log on the path, too high to jump over and too low for Cassie’s taste to squeeze under. She keenly followed me the long way around through gorse and shrub, just to avoid the log. She, too, trusts me to guide her, now.

What IS it?

If we walk somewhere unknown to the dogs, they keep much closer tabs on me and listen to me much more than when they are in the same old park. It is at times like these that I feel we have finally made a team, built on mutual trust. I trust them not to go to far away, they trust me to show them the best way around the new place.

However, we wouldn’t have got here without walking together, experiencing the world together, and facing some problems together. Because you can't stage these trust-building moments, the best way is simply to go out there and experience the world with your dog as often and as much as possible. Building a relationship with an animal takes time, just like getting to know a human. If you don’t give your dog and yourself ample time and opportunity to earn each other’s trust, the process will take a long time. Do your dog and yourself a favour and plan a good walk in a new exciting place for the weekend! 

Friday, 2 November 2012

In Memory of Cassie

This week we lost Cassie to bone cancer. She was only seven, and it is hard to accept that we were only allowed to enjoy her company for a brief two and a half years. I want to write more about her and our experience with the disease, but can't do it quite yet. Instead I want to post an extract from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The passage is not the least an excellent description of how to gain an animal's trust (a little closer every day, observing the proper "rites", "words are the source of misunderstandings"), and a reminder of our everlasting responsibility to that which we tame, but it also tells us, how and why out of thousands of people and thousands of dogs, our dog becomes unique to us, and we to them. And however brief our friendship is, and however much we cry when they depart, it has done us good, making us see the world a little differently, and appear a little more wonderful. 

Chapter 21

It was then that the fox appeared.

"Good morning," said the fox.

"Good morning," the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.

"I am right here," the voice said, "under the apple tree."

"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."

"I am a fox," the fox said.

"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."

"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."

"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

"What does that mean--'tame'?"

"You do not live here," said the fox. "What is it that you are looking for?"

"I am looking for men," said the little prince. "What does that mean--'tame'?"

"Men," said the fox. "They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?"

"No," said the little prince. "I am looking for friends. What does that mean--'tame'?"

"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."

"'To establish ties'?"

"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."

"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . ."

"It is possible," said the fox. "On the Earth one sees all sorts of things."

"Oh, but this is not on the Earth!" said the little prince.

The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.

"On another planet?"


"Are there hunters on that planet?"


"Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?"


"Nothing is perfect," sighed the fox.

But he came back to his idea.

"My life is very monotonous," the fox said. "I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . ."

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

"Please--tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . ."

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . ."

"What is a rite?" asked the little prince.

"Those also are actions too often neglected," said the fox. "They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all." 

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It is your own fault," said the little prince. "I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . ."

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields."

Monday, 16 July 2012


It was only a matter of time before I posted on this topic. Most greyhound owners are at least aware of, if not well acquainted with the tricky affliction that is corns. Eddie has been spared this malady, but Cassie has had a couple of mild corns previously.

The first signs of a corn is usually lameness on hard, but not soft, surfaces. Corns appear as round, sometimes whitish, domes or discs on the paw surface. Although it is said that corn are often misdiagnosed as skeletomuscular problems, I have found that vets often are aware of the problem in greyhounds. It is worth considering corns when faced with otherwise unexplained lamenss, and dealing with them as soon as possible, since they can lead to secondary problems, as the dog modifies its gait due to the pain.

Examples of corns on
greyhound footpads.
Commonly thought only to occur only in greyhounds, corns, or circumscribed hyperkeratotic lesions, are found in other breeds too. However, it does seem that they are most problematic in greyhounds and lurchers, due to the lack of cushioning fatty tissue in their toe pads making the condition more painful. In fact, it is also suggested that this lack of fat is one of the reasons greyhounds tend to get corns far more often than other breeds.

Viral infection and foreign bodies in the pad are also cited as possible reasons, but mechanical pressure is likely to be if not a causal then at least a significant contributory factor in the formation of corns. Corns usually develop in the centre of the two middle, weight bearing, toes of the paw, and more commonly on the front paws, which take the most weight in a greyhound. This seems to indicate that pressure on the pad from the toe bone is crucial to the formation of corns in greyhounds. 

In humans, corns usually develop on feet due to mechanical pressure, such as ill-fitting shoes or protruding bones. The difference between corns and the simple thickening of the skin known as a callus, is that in a corn a hard plug of keratin (skin tissue) is formed, pressing into the skin and underlying nerves, making it potentially very painful when under pressure. Corns are fairly easy to remove in humans, but tend to recur. 

I have been previously been able to deal with corns on Cassie's paws myself. I soaked Cassie’s foot in epsom salt solution (traditionally used to “draw out” corns, foreign bodies and infections in humans as well as horses and dogs), and then filed down the skin on the pad until I could see the corn kernel clearly. When possible I then hulled the corn using a large gauge surgical needle (which works as a little sharp spade). Sometimes would have to soak and file the foot a few times, with a couple of days break in between, before being able to get the corn out. One corn came out on its own, during a walk, after a few times soaking and filing.

Many vets will use a similar technique, working the corn out with a scalpel or a dental root elevator. Often this can be done without much discomfort to the dog, but vets can and do sedate some dogs to make the procedure easier.

The dental root elevator technique. Click to enlarge. 

This time, however, my usual technique didn’t work. There was hardly any sign of the corn on the pad. This looked more like a lesion from a bit of glass or something. I managed to extract some corn tissue from the site, which did seem to alleviate Cassie’s lameness somewhat each time. I kept on having to repeat the procedure though, without being able to extract the whole corn kernel.

The vet advised that surgical removal would probably be necessary, but I chose to wait a couple of weeks, as I was going away and did not want to leave post-op care to the people looking after my dogs. When I came home, Cassie was much worse, however. She was almost constantly lame on the leg, even in protective booties, and even on soft ground.

Cassie was also getting pretty sensitive about me touching the foot. Usually she is quite patient and allows me to bother her corns with minimal grumbling. Now she was screaming and snapping. She was obviously in quite some pain. It seemed clear that surgical removal under general anesthetic was the way to go.

The operation was fairly quick – she was under for less than half an hour. However, the corn removed was a whopper, and deep. It had grown inside the pad, and trapped nerves against her toe bone. No wonder she was in pain. Her pad had to be stitched together with non-dissolvable suture, which will stay in for two whole weeks. She is on-leash only for this time, too, making sure the pad gets to heal.

The excised corn. Note how far below the
hard skin of the pad the corn extends.

The stiched pad. 

I am not sure why this corn grew – or moved? – inwards, into the flesh of her toe, when many grow outwards, in the harder outer layer of the pad, making them easy to remove. I wonder whether my interference had anything to do with how the corn developed. Ilaria Borghese, president of Thera-Paw and guru on corns, in her widely consulted article, also suspects intervention may be detrimental to the development of corns, especially if using salicylic acid products marketed for human corn removal. 

I have indeed considered but decided not to try these products, because I am worried I’d do more harm than good. There are also reports of a successful technique using duct tape, but I have not tried this. In my opinion, considering the that mechanical pressure seems to be the best contender for the cause of corns in greyhounds, perhaps prevention is better.

If the theory that the lack of fat in the greyhound foot pads causes corns is right, then we could say greyhounds have ill-fitting paw pads. Like in humans, corns will recur if the pressure that caused them in the first place is not dealt with. Unfortunately, unlike shoes, paws cannot be changed for a softer, more comfortable pair. The problem of corns, if a dog is afflicted by them, is therefore usually chronic or recurring. Whatever way you treat the corn, if the underlying mechanical cause is not addressed, they will most likely come back. The long term success of surgical removal is not very good - over half of excised corns return one to three years after surgery according to a study - so I am half expecting Cassie's corn to reappear at some point, although I will try to prevent it. 

The easiest way to prevent recurring corns is to use padded shoes on dogs with a history of the affliction. The best ones I have found are the Thera-Paw boots (for UK distributor click here). A more drastic measure is to partially or completely amputate the affected toe. Some studies have found this to be more successful than any surgical removal of corns, while others report that corns return on remaining toes (which presumably now take the pressure when the dog moves). An experimental treatment involving the implanting silicone gel cushions in the pad has been tried but doesn’t seem to have moved on to any clinical use in canines.
I expect the gait of individual greyhounds, which affects how weight is distributed on their pads, is relevant to whether any particular hound develops corns or not. I wonder, therefore if correcting other possible skeletomuscular issues, using pain relief, physiotherapy and other relevant therapies, may aid dogs with recurring corns. 

As Cassie has a history of corns, and the recently removed one is likely to recur, I am thinking of having her wear her Thera-Paws any time we walk for any length of time on hard surfaces, taking it off only when she has a run-about on grass (they don't tend to stay on when she reaches 5th gear!).

I know many greyhound are affected by corns, and would love to hear from you if you have any experience with corns. Any miracle cures? A novel way of preventing corns? Please leave a comment!

Sources and Links:

Carol L. Machery, William E. Feeman III, (2006) Using a dental root elevator to remove footpad corns in dogs: Two practitioners' experience, Veterinary Medicine, December 1, 2006. Access online:

M. J. Guilliard, I. Segboer, D. H. Shearer, (2010) Corns in dogs; signalment, possible aetiology and response to surgical treatment, Journal of Small Animal Practice 51, 162–168

S. F. Swaim, T. Amalsadvala, D. B. Marghitu, E. A. Sartin, J. A. Hudson, E. D. Stoenescu, Pressure Reduction Effects of Subdermal Silicone Block Gel Particle Implantation: A Preliminary Study, Wounds 16:10, 299-312.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

What the Deaf Puppy Taught Me

My parents got a little boston terrier girl, Bettina, a couple of months back. She came to them at seven weeks old. Soon they realized something wasn’t quite right, and a few weeks later she was diagnosed as probably completely deaf from birth. There was no question of returning her, but understandably my parents were a little upset, and concerned about the implications of her deafness.

Just kept on sleeping right through the bangs.

My intuition was that deafness in a dog is much less problematic than it may appear to us humans. Yes, the dog will probably never be able to be let off leash with as much freedom as a hearing dog: not only is recall difficult, but they can’t hear either the sounds of danger or our warning cries.

However, although their hearing is very acute, dogs don’t really use sound to communicate very much. Their hearing is mainly utilised to orient themselves and detect prey and dangers. Barks, growls and whines, although vocal, are always accompanied by expressions of the face and body. The vast bulk of canine communication takes place through the mediums of smell, touch and body language. Although it is impossible for us to understand their world of smells, we would benefit from paying a lot more attention to their use of the latter two.

I visited my parents for a week recently, and met Bettina for the fist time, aged four months. Indeed, my feeling about deaf dogs was confirmed. Not only was Bettina so easy to communicate with, and so fast to learn, but she also emphasized some important lessons for me about communicating with all dogs, deaf or hearing.

My mother still holds out some hope that Bettina can hear high-pitched sounds, and uses whistles when calling her together with the hand signals. Bettina is so attentive that it almost seems that she can hear us at times. I don’t think she can, and felt that accepting this was a relief and lesson in dog communication. I don’t think that one should stop talking to deaf dogs, mainly because of the reasons that I set out in my post about talking to dogs – as humans we need verbalizing to communicate, so talking shapes our body language. However, walking and playing with Bettina felt extraordinarily relaxing and calm, and our communication so intense, precisely because I accepted she couldn’t hear. Instead I completely focused on my non-verbal signals. It was somewhat of a revelation.

At four months Bettina knew signs for attention (tap on shoulder), good girl (clap hands), no (wagging finger), sit (fist with thumb up), fetch (motion of pointing hand towards the object), gentle come here (beckoning hand), decisive come here (hand slapping thigh), and recall on a lead (two gentle tugs). I also taught her lie down (fist pointing to floor). There is certainly nothing wrong with the little pup’s brain. Having worked with older rescue dogs for so long it was a joy to spend time with such a quick and keen learner.

Even the seemingly impossible recall when she was off leash was mitigated by her obviously compensating for her lack of sound location by frequently turning to look at us. There was only one moment when Bettina’s deafness frustrated me. When she was doing something naughty at a distance and I could not shout “ah-ah!” the way I do to my dogs. You had to be very quick to get to her, push her away from and wag your finger at her. However, as she was quick to respond to being corrected in this way, it made me think about how often verbal reprimands are so very ineffectual.

Deaf but destructive! 

I hear so many owners shouting at their dogs, to come here, to do this, to stop that. Almost always the shouts are repeated – because, of course, the dog isn’t likely to do something just because you shout louder, if they weren’t going to in the first place. Yes, a sharp “No!” or “Ah-ah!” can have the effect of getting their attention, but if it doesn’t almost immediately, it is unlikely the dog will comply.

With a deaf dog there is no point in shouting. Rather you have to show them what you want them to do or not do, using your body. You need to prod and point, and gently or firmly bump and push. You need to make your body speak, through posture and signs.

As I said, touch and body posture is a massive part of doggy communication. Observe dogs interacting, and you will notice how much they use it – they are always posturing, and shoving and prodding each other. Even when they are looking away, or sniffing nearby, they are talking to one another!

If you use your body it is remarkable how quickly and well dogs respond. Often I need to show my clients that their commands of “come” need to be accompanied by gestures and posture that makes the dog interested and willing to come back, and their commands of “wait” or “stop”, with a posture that makes it clear where the line is drawn.

Only days before going to visit my parents my friend was playing with her dog Frank and my Eddie. She was giving them treats for simple obedience commands. She told Frank to sit and he quickly complied. She told Eddie to lay down, but he just stared at her uncomprehendingly. She tried again – nothing. Eddie is usually very good at lying down for a treat, so I tried to figure out why he wasn’t this time. I quickly realized that her hand signal for “lie down” was subtly different from mine. She holds her arm out, palm facing the floor. I point at the floor. As soon as I told her to change the signal, Eddie promptly lied down. It was so obvious that he responds much more to the hand signal than the words he hears!

When training dogs it is therefore imperative to remember to use consistent gestures as well as commands. Playing and working with Bettina was a lesson in speaking without words, a way of speaking that is closer to the dogs’ own way. It was so clear that words are really not necessary to communicate effectively with dogs, and although they can help us humans get to grips with what we mean, if we rely on them we forget the most important tool for talking to dogs: our bodies. 

Play needs no words.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Asiatic Wild Dogs

So you know I didn't post for a while - well this is something to show that I wasn't entirely idle during that time. I have been taking courses in animal behaviour and physiology, as well as doing an internship with my vet.

My first assignment for my behaviour course was to study the behaviour of an animal in captivity, and of course I chose a relative to the dog. It is a very limited study, but as a fist attempt at a bit of scientific writing I am quite pleased with it. So I am posting the whole thing here, perhaps it will be of some interest.

Pack cohesion behaviour in the Dhole (Cuon alpinus) in captivity

The dhole (Cuon alpinus), or Asiatic Wild Dog, is the only extant species of the Cuon genus of the Canidae family. Widespread in Central, Southern and Eastern Asia in prehistoric times, it is currently found mainly on the Indian subcontinent and in smaller numbers across South-East Asia (Durbin et al. 2004). The species is found in a range of habitats from tropical forest to high mountainous regions (Maisch 2010). However, the dhole is now on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, because loss of habitat and prey animals to human activity, and persecution by humans in the past (IUCN 2011, Fox 1984).
The dwindling numbers of dholes in the last century, and the fact that dholes are very wary of humans, means that the study of their behaviour in the wild has been difficult (Johnsingh 1982, Cohen 1982, Fox 1984). Early problems with breeding in captivity has also limited the number of observations of dhole behaviour in captivity (Cohen 1982, Maisch 2010). However, in the last decade the numbers of captive dholes has increased, as have studies of their behaviour (Maisch 2010).
Dholes are medium-sized canids (12-20kg) with a red or brown, thick coat and a darker bushy tail (Durbin et al. 2004). Taxonomically the dhole has been placed together with the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) and the South American bush dog (Speothos venaticus) due to the lesser number of post-carnassial molars found in these species, distinguishing them from the genus Canis  (including the wolf and the domestic dog) (Davidar 1975, Durbin et al. 2004). This classification has been questioned, however, attributing these similarities in dentition to convergent evolution due to diet (Durbin et al. 2004). Recent genetic studies confirm that the dhole is in fact more closely related to the genus Canis than previously believed (Durbin et al. 2004, Graphodatsky et al. 2008, Zhang and Chen 2010).
The dhole is a highly social animal, living in packs of up to 40 animals, although the average pack size is between 8-12 (Davidar 1975, Johnsingh 1982, Fox 1984). Dholes are highly co-operative, undertaking both hunting and breeding as a group (Kleiman 1967, Venkatamaran et al. 1995, Fox 1984). They use a wide range of vocalizations for individual recognition and pack co-ordination (Johnsingh 1982, Volodin et al. 2001, Durbin et al. 2004, Volodina et al. 2006).
The dhole displays a notably wide range of behaviours relating to pack cohesion and hierarchy (Cohen 1982, Johnsingh 1982). From early studies onward the predominance of socio-positive and submissive behaviours in establishing and maintaining dhole pack hierarchy has been noted (Kleiman 1967, Davidar 1975, Cohen 1982, Johnsingh 1982, Fox 1984). This has been more recently contrasted to the more fractious, dominance driven dynamics of the wolf pack (Durbin et al. 2004, Maisch 2010).
As the hegemony of interpreting the behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) as an evolution from the rigid pack structure of the wolf (Canis lupus) is being reappraised (Koler-Matznick 2002, Bradshaw 2011), studies of the behaviour of the dhole are ever more pertinent to an understanding of the evolution of the Canidae. Bradshaw has suggested that the behaviour of the common ancestor of both the domestic dog and the wolf would have been different to that which has evolved in the current living wolf, which is not easily domesticated (Bradshaw 2011). Indeed, the dhole has been mentioned along other species of wild dogs as a more likely behavioural analogue for an early ancestor of the Canis genus (Koler-Matznick 2002). An ancestor animal with a predisposition to cementing social relationships with submissive or playful interaction would have not only been more easily domesticated, but would explain the relative placidity and lack of aggression in the domestic dog as opposed to the wolf.
The aim of this study was to obeserve the social interaction of dholes in captivity, to test the hypothesis that this interaction relies heavily on socio-positive and co-operative behaviour rather than socio-negative and antagonistic behaviour.

Animals and Study Area
The animals studied were in captivity in Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, United Kingdom. The group studied consisted of twelve females, ranging in age from one to eight years, including two sibling yearlings. All dholes had been bred at Howletts.
The animals were housed in a roughly square enclosure measuring approximately 50m x 50m. The enclosure consisted of level grassy terrain, enriched with a number of trees and bushes, a small pond, two wooden platforms, a group of concrete pipes, and a wooden shelter. Within the enclosure there was a smaller fenced-off area of 20m x 20m, to which the doles had free access via a small opening. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Dhole enclosure

The animals were observed from the accessible northwest and northeast sides of the enclosure, primarily from the small viewing area at the western corner.
Individual dholes are notoriously difficult to distinguish (Fox 1984, Johnsingh 1982), and the animals were thus studied as a group. Thirty minutes of initial ad libitum observation was undertaken between 3.30pm and 4.00pm on 21 November 2011, noting the full range of behaviours seen. The weather was misty but dry, and visibility was fairly good on this day.
An ethogram was devised following these observations in conjunction with previous studies of dhole behaviour (see Appendix I: Ethogram). From of this ethogram, eleven categories of behaviour were chosen for the main scan sampling study. All data gathering on vocalizations was abandoned, since it was not possible to ascertain how many animals were producing sounds at any one time. In addition, categories that were deemed less defined and/or more difficult to observe reliably, such as sniffing and moving away from conspecifics were dropped. During the main study it also became clear that the category of approaching a conspecific was too difficult to observe in a number of individuals at the same time, and it was effectively abandoned.
Data was then gathered for this selection of behaviours using the scan sampling method, recording the number of animals performing each behaviour at 5 minute intervals. The data gathering session lasted two hours between 1.00pm and 3.00pm on the 24 November 2011. The weather went from overcast to sunny spells, with good visibility.
There are several limitations to this study, notably the fact that the group of dholes consisted exclusively of females. An all-male group of a similar size exists at Howletts, however, so there is scope for a comparative study across the sexes.
The visibility of the female dhole group was sometimes partial, due to the amount of vegetation in the enclosure, and the limited area and elevation from which observations could be made. Also, the observer was clearly visible to the dholes, and they were aware of her presence, acknowledging it with curiosity and sometimes fear and aggression. These facts, as well as the relatively small enclosure available to the captive dholes, who have a range in the wild of 40km squared (Johnsingh 1982), has to be kept in mind when considering the results of this study.
In addition, the preliminary observations were made on a day on which the dholes had been fed in the morning. The dholes are fed every other day, and the scan sampling was thus undertaken on a day when the dholes were not fed. It has to be assumed that this will have had some impact on the animals’ behaviour, although the keepers at Howletts suggested that their behaviour was fairly uniform over the feeding and non-feeding days (pers. comm.).

The scan sample data can be found in Appendix II. The results are represented graphically in Chart 1. Note that behaviours which were not observed at all during the scan sampling were excluded from the chart.

It has to be noted that from minute 75 onwards, the active period, at several sample points not all dholes were visible to the observer.
During the first hour of observation the group was resting and immobile the vast majority of the time. There was one case of an animal defecating away from but near its sleeping site, and there were some movement to rearrange resting positions in the other animals. On the whole, the animals remained in the same places, in two groups of three, one group of two and four solitary animals. The group of two appeared to be the two yearlings, judging by their size, and were partially hidden in the wooden shelter.
Two of the four solitary animals appeared to have look-out or guarding roles. Guarding in the dhole pack has indeed been reported by previous observers (Johnsingh 1982, Fox 1984). They were placed on the extremes of the area occupied by the resting pack, and showed more movement and alertness than the other animals. However, as they were also intermittently resting they were not counted as guarding on the scan sampling data chart. The resting positions of the animals from 0-60 minutes are recorded in  Figure 2.

Figure 2: Resting positions of Dholes

At the interval 65-70 minutes into the study, one of the yearlings emerged from the shelter. After a few minutes of stretching and looking around it rushed towards Group 1, three adults, making the characteristic repeated yipping sounds of the dholes. It engaged in begging behaviour towards one of the larger animals. This raised the whole group into intense activity, and multiple cases of begging behaviour took place. At any time in this interval there were three or four groups of two or three animals engaged in begging behaviour directed towards one individual in each group.
From this time and for the rest of the study, 70-120 minutes, the dholes remained relatively active. Apart from multiple instances of begging, guarding and patrolling recorded, and the frequent reorganization of small groups of sitting and lying dholes, the animals engaged in some brief chase games and play fighting. During this period of activity the dholes frequently vocalized, making a repeated yipping sound. It appeared to be made by several if not all individuals, at intervals of a few seconds, lasting from ten seconds to several minutes at a time.
There was an instance of communal defecation. Initially three to four individuals defecated on the same spot, in the interval 80-85 minutes into the study. The place was later repeatedly visited, sniffed and defecated on by other individuals throughout the rest of the observation period.
Apart from one staring match observed during the preliminary study, no fights or threat behaviour was observed among the dholes, although some begging behaviour was met with brief inhibited biting. In contrast, the dholes growled at the observer on a couple of occasions. This was usually performed by a single animal, in one case reminiscent to the “grumble on hind legs” decribed by Volodin et al. 2005 (See ethogram in Appendix II). Towards the end of the observation time, between 110-115 minutes, almost the whole group approached the fence in front of the observer, apparently led by a one of the larger animals. The group was yipping excitedly and two of the larger animals reared up, growled and bit at the fence. After a few minutes the group seemed to lose interest and carried on with their other activities.

All behaviour observed was of a neutral or socio-positive kind. Two characteristics of the behavioural data gathered stand out:
1) Approach and interaction between dholes was mainly performed through begging behaviour, which, as there was no food present at the day of the main observation, must be interpreted as a submissive greeting and social bonding ritual (Maisch 2005). In the active period, begging was frequent (6 out of 11 sample points) and undertaken by a significant proportion (10-25%) of the individuals observed. In addition to this some play was observed, although not sampled.
Also, the over-marking of feaces by the group was observed, effectively producing a communal latrine. It has been suggested that this behaviour serves an intra-group communicative function, rather than being a territorial marking (Cohen 1982, Johnsingh 1982, Durbin et al. 2004). However, it has to be noted that the latrine was placed on the edge of the dhole enclosure, bordering that of the African wild dogs (see Figure 1 and 2). There may therefore also have been a territorial element to this behaviour in this case.
2) Throughout the observation period a significant proportion of the dholes were engaged in behaviours undertaken in a group, either passively sitting or lying together, or actively interacting in the begging ritual. On average, these behaviours together accounted for 55% of individuals at any one time. If patrolling is included as a group behaviour, the average rises to 62% of individuals at any one time.
The yipping noise made by many dholes while patrolling has been interpreted as a way of coordinating the group’s movement (Johnsingh 1982, Fox 1884, Durbin et al. 2004, Volodina et al. 2006, Maisch 2010), suggesting that patrolling can be seen as a group behaviour, although the data gathered by this study is not sufficient to distinguish between group and solitary patrolling.
It was also notable that throughout the initial period of inactivity, the dholes were resting in well-defined groups, as seen in Figure 2. It was clear that Group 1 (see Figure 3.), which included the largest animals, as well as Group 2, were composed of higher ranking animals. These two groups occupied the highest points in the enclosure, the two wooden platforms. Indeed, these animals seemed to be among the ones mostly at the receiving end of begging behaviour, although as mentioned, the reliable distinction of individuals was not possible. The smaller group of two yearlings that were hiding in the shelter, on the other hand, appeared to be the instigators of much begging.

Figure 3: Group 1 consisting of three large adult dholes on Platform 1.

Thus, even the sleeping formation of the dhole pack seems to be related to the social relationships within the group, and must be seen as a behaviour that positively aids social cohesion. 

The prolonged period of inactivity at the beginning of the observed period may be explained by two factors. 1) The dholes had no food in the enclosure, the presence of which had been a reason for some activity seen during preliminary observations. 2) Dholes are often, although not exclusively, crepuscular (Johnsingh 1982, Durbin et al. 2004), and the period of activity seemed to correlate with approaching dusk. Indeed the preliminary observations, in which the dholes were more active, were undertaken later in the day. 
The data gathered in this brief study does seem to indicate a mainly socio-positive and co-operative behavioural pattern in the dhole pack. This result correlates with earlier observations of the pack-cohesion of the dhole (Kleiman 1967, Cohen 1982, Johnsingh 1982, Fox 1984). The predominance of submissive displays and play behaviour in the Cuon alpinus is particularly interesting in the context of the Canidae family and the evolution of the Canis genus. The majority of canids are far less socially co-operative (Kleiman 1967, Fox 1976, Bradshaw 2011) than the Canis genus and its precursors. In addition, the placidity and predisposition to submissive social bonding of the domestic dog contrasts with the dominance displays of the current wolf. The similarities between the socio-cohesive behaviour of the dhole and the domestic dog (Davidar 1975) suggests and interesting avenue of investigation of the Cuon alpinus as a more apt behavioural analogue of the ancestors of the Canis genus, and precursors to the domestic dog.


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Appendix I: Ethogram
Observation ad libitum of all-female group of twelve individuals aged 1-8 years, captive in Howletts Widlife Park, 3.30pm -4.00pm on 21 November 2011.
Behaviour observed by Volodin 2001, and Maisch 2005.

Behaviour selected to be studied by scan sampling in the main data gathering session of this study are indicated in bold.

Short squeaking noise.
Responses: yips / no response.
Longer growling noise.
Responses: quick retreat / no response.
Grumble on hind legs
Longer growling noise, standing on hind legs facing the “threat”.

Individual  sitting or standing near perimeter of enclosure, paying attention to the outside.
Moving at a moderate pace, without a specific goal. Alert and attentive to other dholes. Often accompanied by repeated “yip” vocalization.
Approaching other dhole
Walking or running towards another dhole and coming within 1 meter of other individual.
Moving away from other dhole
Purposefully walking or running away from other individual, increasing distance to over 5 feet. Not a chase game.
Sniffing ground
Stationary or walking, nose to the ground.
Sniffing conspecific
Stationary or walking, nose close to conspecific.
Sitting or lying down – solitary
Animal sitting or lying further than 1 meter away from other animal.

Positive social interactions:
Sitting or lying down – group
Animal sitting or lying within 1 meter of other animal.
Approach to conspecific, with head held low, ears lying back. Tail wagging and/or coiled on the side. Contact made with snout, often licking conspecific’s muzzle.
May be accompanied by pawing, circling of the conspecific, and whining.
Responses: snarling, inhibited muzzle biting, reciprocating, playing, giving food (if food is around), denying food, moving away, passive.
Chase game
Enticing chase by approaching and then quickly running away from conspecific, which follows. Roles may be swapped. May lead to play fight.
Play fight
Enticed by play bowing, nudging or muzzle nipping. Involves one individual playing submissive, head held low, rolling over, and other individual standing over or jumping over, nudging, bumping and playfully biting neck of “submissive” animal. Roles frequently reversed. May be combined with chase game.

Negative social interactions:
Staring match
Both parties head held low, ears back, eyes almost closed. Stare at each other and try to wait each other out. May be accompanied by growling.
Wrestling fight
Standing on hind legs, trying to press opponent to the ground. The loser runs away. Growling and “miii” sounds may be made.
No physical contact. Tail held horizontal, u-shaped or up. Hackles raised. Ears and eyes pointing at opponent.
Back may be arched, legs may be stiff and pushing into ground.

Appendix II: Scan Sample Data and Calculations