Raising Good Canine Citizens

By Ryan Westlund

We all want a Cairn Terrier who exudes confidence, especially in the conformation ring and especially in males. But often in the breed ring, what we think is confidence is a sign of weak nerves, and as dog behaviorism permeates a new generation of judges, it’s going to start being seen that way and start being faulted as such.

A dog that fires off in angered barking is not actually showing confidence, especially if the dog continues to fire off barks while the handler is actively trying to stop or distract it. That dog is showing either fear or over-assertiveness. In this article I will explain why the rapid-fire barking behavior is harmful to the dog and offer advice for raising the next generation of Cairns to show true confidence--to not join in when other dogs fire off in a barking fit, to not “start things” toward a dog whose only fault was to not be another Cairn.

While this article is written for puppies and young dogs (of both sexes) who haven’t yet developed habits around rapid-fire barking, some of it may be applied to dogs who already have these habits. However if you are worried about aggression issues in your dogs, I urge you to seek professional behaviorist help because no article can cover the correct restructuring of a dog showing aggression.

The Science of Angered Barking

The pathways in a brain that connect neurons are called dendrites. Contrary to the adage about old dogs and new tricks, dendrites can and do form throughout a dog’s life, although at a slower rate at middle age and above. Dendrites form where they are needed--between neurons that activate the most often, creating shortcuts in the brain to make repeating those paths easier in the future.

When a dog sets off in the rapid-fire angered barking so often heard from terriers at shows (and home, and parks….), they go through a physiological shift into the sympathetic nervous system. In this state of fight, flight, or freeze, the dog’s heart rate and respiratory rate go up, blood pressure goes down, digestion stops and cortisol production goes up, among other things. Each of these things can have health consequences when they occur repeatedly and for long periods of time.

The more often a dog fires off (and has the physical stress response that goes with it), the easier it is in the future to follow that same electrical path in the brain, making it more likely to occur again, and again, and again. A dog who is constantly flooded with the stress hormone cortisol doesn’t sleep as well as a dog with lower cortisol, is more prone to obesity and may have a higher risk of cancer and other disease (although cause and effect is still being studied in dogs). This is why preventing the behaviors that we don’t want and that aren’t healthy for our dogs is so important.

What To Do When Others Start It

As children, most of us had grown-ups in our lives who taught us, “Just because your friends do it doesn’t mean you should too.” We can raise our puppies to know this also, which is certainly better than the alternative--allowing years of adrenaline spikes that can lead to health problems and other behavioral issues.

The first step is to be aware of what is happening around you and your puppy. Whether at a show, a dog class, or out in public, noticing when other dogs are escalating is necessary in order to tell your pup it’s okay to not engage. Noticing and reacting early is best, such as when the dogs crated next to you at a show start a low growl, but reacting late, after other dogs have already started or even started and ended barking, is better than not at all. Sometimes when people realize after the other dogs have stopped barking that they had a chance to help their own dog, they feel they’ve missed it, and say, “Well, he didn’t notice anyway.” I guarantee you that if the dogs next to your puppy barked at something, your puppy noticed them barking, and this is a great time to reward his behavior of not joining in.

Whenever other dogs around your puppy engage in behavior you don’t want him to copy, ask for his attention and then reward him with food. Eating is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” as opposed to “fight or flight”) so in addition to being a behavioral reward, it does the physiological task of keeping your dog in a calm state.

While it may sound too simple to work, it sometimes doesn’t play out as a simple matter. Your dog needs an attention cue, and needs to find value in the food reward, which has to be present at a nearly-100% rate early on and can fade to less over time.

For most dogs, their attention cue is their name. Starting from puppyhood and with every new dog (of any age) that comes to me, I play name-games on a daily basis. “Doogie!” followed by a cookie when his head turns toward me. This graduates from being a close-in, no distractions few minutes for baby puppies (such as in the bedroom, no toys available, sitting on the floor) to having distance (myself standing, graduating to a few feet away, to across the room, to another room) and distractions around (toys on the floor, other dogs, open space, new environments). Your puppy doesn’t need to be perfect at this to use it while other dogs are barking, but the puppy and you should have some understanding of it in order to be able to do efficiently during other dog’s barking fits.

The food reward should come instantly, and should be of the best value available, at least in early stages. Ringside, use your best bait if the dogs next to you fire off barking, and you successfully say your puppy’s name and prevent her from joining. If you are in a place where you don’t have highly tempting bait, using anything available is fine sometimes, even quick play with a toy, as the puppy will hopefully generalize that sometimes the treat is great and only sometimes it’s mediocre.

This refocusing of the puppy should be done with high consistently at first and can taper off over time. With a youngster at their first show, my goal would be to notice and reward the puppy with high-value meat treats 100% of the times they are near a barking dog; by the time the pup is around a year old or at their fourth or fifth show, I might be rewarding 75% of the time, and by the time they are mature and experienced at shows it might be only 25% of the time. This is keeping in mind that I’m not always at the puppy’s crate at a show, so I will still miss some training opportunities, making it more important that I respond to the ones I see. Even with my adult dog, in highly stressful situations such as a crowded BOB ring with multiple dogs who are likely to set each other off, I’ll reward him each time another dog vocalizes to help ensure he doesn’t start getting involved.

I know my training is successful when my leashed dog sees the start of a dogfight and turns around to look at me for a cookie, or when my crated dog watches a show trolley shake as every occupant in it barks and hits the front doors and mine doesn’t even stand up. In those cases my dog is showing confidence and a stable temperament.

How to Not Start It

Again, this entire article is written for a puppy or young dog who hasn’t yet developed the habit of angered, rapid-fire barking at others. Some of the advice in this section may be useful for dogs who do have that habit, and I urge those owners to seek in-person advice for their particular dog. This section is about noticing and responding to the precursors to those behaviors.

The things I have heard over the years from Cairn people is that their Cairns don’t like big dogs, fluffy dogs, big black dogs, or any non-Cairns. I’ve heard the same things from other terrier people--however we don’t get to choose or regulate who walks where, who grooms where, or who shows where. We can choose how we allow our Cairns to interact at shows and as citizens.

Think of a dog’s reactions as a line from 1 to 10; at the number 1 we have a dog who actually hasn’t noticed the trigger. At 2, we have the dog that has noticed the trigger but we don’t know they’ve noticed it because they haven’t changed their behavior in any perceptible way. At 3, the dog is looking at the trigger in a relaxed manner; at 4, looking with a hard stare or hyper-focused (not noticing other stimuli nearby). Somewhere at 7 or 8 is the dog who is hard barking at the trigger; at 10, the dog is either fleeing or biting the trigger.

While not every trigger causes every dog to move in a linear fashion through the stages, and not every numbered stage looks the same for every dog, a dog will never go right to 10 on any trigger, although in some cases may move through the stages faster than we can notice each one happening. We want to interrupt these behaviors earlier on to prevent the growth of dendrites that help the dog skip ahead to the higher numbers.

We want to catch our dogs no later than level 3 and help them stay there or even come down. Once the dog is past level 3, we want to bring them back down to it.

For a dog at level 3 or below, try using your attention cue and rewarding a head turn, as described in the above section. If this works, it’s a great way to engage. The higher up the scale the dog is, the less likely it is to work, and we would shift to a more concrete way of refocusing our dog’s mind--through the stomach.

Take a piece of high-value bait, put it on the dog’s nose, and lure to turn the dog away from the trigger by following the food. Once the dog is facing away from the trigger, feed them the bait. If possible, feed it slowly or in several pieces, to extend the time the dog spends facing away-- the longer the dog is distracted and in a lower state of arousal, the less likely they will spin back around and escalate back to the same level. If they do though, no worries, simply recognize the chance to practice again and repeat the lured turn.

If the dog was “only” at level 4, they might easily follow the bait through the turn and happily eat it and then look to you for more, forgetting the trigger behind them. If the dog was higher on the scale, perhaps stiff-bodied, leaning toward the other dog, hackles raised, maybe around a 6, the dog might have more trouble following the bait around. Feed a TINY portion, turn the dog few degrees and feed a small amount more to help start the movement from the dog. You might need to feed when the dog has turned only 45 degrees away instead of the ideal of 180 degrees, working on getting a bit more of a turn each time.

If it is consistently hard to lure the dog off the trigger at these higher levels of stimulation, that’s a very motivating situation to learn to recognize when the dog is at a lower level! Take more notice of what the triggers are (big dogs? fluffy dogs? kids on bikes?) and increase your situational awareness so that you see them sooner, and watch your dog--start the luring process BEFORE or AS your dog starts to react, not after you see hackles or stiff legs.

In summary

Back when we only had operant conditioning and anthropomorphism as ways to understand animal behavior, we might have thought these techniques were akin to rewarding a dog for undesirable behavior. I can certainly remember a time in my career where I believed that. However now that I’ve studied (and continue to study) animal behavior and neurology, I can see from a physical standpoint how an animal’s brain isn’t wired for the same level of reasoning as ours is and how that prevents them from interpreting these types of food lures and chained behaviors as rewards for undesirable behavior. And in the time that I’ve understood that, I’ve raised, trained, or retrained literally hundreds of dogs using these techniques with great success.

When your puppies or young dogs are exposed to other dogs behaving in ways that might overstimulate or frighten them (aggressive barking), you can reward them for attention on you- even if (ESPECIALLY if) your dog didn’t have a reaction to the other dogs.

If your dog does anything more than looks toward other dogs (or other stimuli that are likely to cause Cairns to bark aggressively), use a food lure on the nose to turn the dog away and then feed in the new position.

These practices will help your dog to consistently stay down in the level 1-2 area of behavior, which keeps physical stress on your dog low and grows the dendrites that support calm, confident dogs that can go to shows and be in the ring as good representatives of the breed.