Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately. An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions! A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat. I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3. I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.” “Back from where?” I asked. The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat! Nothing could be further from the truth. As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.
Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation. The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch. If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog. If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles. Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles. If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles.
A very few male dogs have had vasectomies. Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy. I had a dog that we chose to have this done for. He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body. This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him. Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle). Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy. For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.
Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male. Notice that I have qualified this with well trained. D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog. He was also intact. As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything. We were well matched in that regard! I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me. The first of these is the cued take it. As I like to say, the dog controls the dog! You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ . Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door. The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat.
I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home. This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat. She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall. He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested! Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on. The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!
There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat. While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog. I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not. This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.
Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet. This just isn’t true! Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is. I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights. I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male! If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully. The deal is pretty simple. In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution. Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win. This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce. The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights. Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched. This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens; it means that aggression is relatively rare. So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?
There are likely a number of answers to this. In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight. Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too. And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once. Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog! If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person. This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like. I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences! Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily. When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict. Rarely did I find this already in existence! Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be. If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen. Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together. I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.
Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this. If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help. The key is which one? This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered. Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem. If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this. The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training. In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.
So how do you live successfully with an intact male? Here are my top six suggestions.
1. START TRAINING EARLY
I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.
2. GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION
We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park. This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold. This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things. I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible. When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.
3. TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT
This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable. If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat. Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.
4. KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED
If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control. Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities. Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress. Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking. All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.
5. INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR
Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it. I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask. I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors. This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside. My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car. Self control is just part of polite manners in our house. On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.
6. BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS
The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch. Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male. Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night. If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room. I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs. When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training. Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.
As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter. If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely.
Coming up next…the girls! Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks! I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!