Friday, March 31, 2017

Dealing With Aggression

I am seeing two clients tomorrow dealing with aggression. Both clients have dogs who have bitten people. These cases are sad....for the dogs and for the people. Dogs who bite once, bite again if triggered. Figuring out the triggers and if they can be managed is the key. Dogs who have bitten their owners are particularly difficult to work with. How do you attempt to fix a relationship that is broken?  Especially when the owner is asking, "I do everything for my dog...why would she bite me? What did I do wrong?" It seems so natural for people to assume that they did something wrong when the truth of the matter is this....they didn't do anything to provoke the dog. Some dogs simply have lower thresholds, lack bite inhibition, were improperly socialized to people, etc. And when I tell people that dogs have a choice with respect to biting. They CHOOSE TO BITE. Many dogs experience the same triggers day in and day out and NEVER CHOOSE TO BITE. It is a choice though. A choice that can have very serious consequences for us all.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Let's Talk!

Communication is so important. Communication with each other and with our companion animals. While English may be a second (or third!) language for your pets, it remains important to be clear with what you want and expect. Perhaps an example will help!

I once taught a puppy class where I had an older, ex-military gentleman attending with his beautiful German Shepherd puppy, Max. As I was talking about clear communication, getting and keeping a puppy's attention, etc. and demonstrating this with a little Retriever mix in the class,  this man started shaking his head. Never one to shy away from a question, I asked what was going through his head. He told me he wanted to use all hand signals, did not want to use treats, and had no intention of "making an ass out of himself." When I asked that he show me what he meant, he did, and to say it was less than successful is probably not much of a surprise. I began clapping my hands and using my silly/happy/let's play voice, and called Max to me. Max whipped around from where he was sniffing another puppy, began wagging his whole body, and trotted my way. I petted him and told him what a fabulous puppy he truly was!  Then I gave him a hand signal for sit, he complied, and I gave him a yummy little treat. When the class broke out in applause, I knew they understood. Max's dad? He smiled and said "OK...I'll try. But I am still not making that silly voice." Mission accomplished.

What Max's dad learned that evening was that when it comes to communicating with your dog, no one thing will work every time. For puppies, you need to step up your game. But even with adult dogs...if they are distracted or otherwise engaged, you have to be bigger, better, and more interesting if you want them to listen to you. Get their attention focused on you by whistling, clapping, stomping your feet. When they look at you, mark it with a "Yes!" and then ask them for what you want. Or try something fun...when they look your way, take off at a trot, look back over your shoulder and say, "you coming too?" Not too many dogs can resist chasing after an owner who might be off on a fun adventure. Hand signals are great, but only if your dog can see them. Don't waste your breath (or the value of any commands) if your dog isn't looking at you. If he isn't looking at you, he isn't listening to you. And, yes, never doubt the value of a well-timed, yummy treat. I always carry some with me as I never know when I might need them.

Communication is about information exchange. Listen to what your pets are telling you. Be clear with them as to what you want. Have fun doing it...and don't forget the treats. We all like to get paid every now and then.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Oldie But Goodie...Nature versus Nurture

One of my favorite authors, is also one of my favorite speakers and he's a professor at Stanford to boot. His name is Robert M. Sapolsky and if you've never read any of his books, you really should. Particularly, if you have an interest in behavioral evolution. His books are not overly science-y, but they do include research amid fascinating anecdotes as he is a fan of using humor to keep his readers engaged.  I loved "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" and "A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons."

His new book coming out in May is titled, "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst." This time around, he is trying to help us better understand our own contradictory behavior with an eye to aggression and competition. When he addresses genetic influences on behavior he suggests that we, "don't ask what a gene does; ask what it does in a particular context." I found this to be worth thinking about with respect to dogs as well with all this talk about breed-specific legislation. So, the fact that bully breeds were bred initially to be fearless when bull-baiting (thus their genetics) means that was what worked in that context. Now, these breeds are existing in a different context, families and home environments. We need to think about how those genetics have been and can continue to be altered to fit their current situation. It shouldn't be about banning any particular breed, but about selecting out those individual dogs whose disposition, temperament, and behavior don't fit with family life.

As Sapolsky states, "You don't have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate." By using a more scientific approach to the issue of dog aggression and the safety of the general public, we will ultimately be a more compassionate and caring society with dogs whose behavior is adaptive and helps them to thrive in our world, regardless of their breed.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wish I'd Thought of That....

Well, to be perfectly honest, I did...think of that, that is. The idea that we can assess the personalities of dogs, and use those assessments to guide their training, care, and psychological well-being is something I thought about as a graduate student at U.C. Davis. Much as we would assess the personalities of people to help guide their education, decision-making processes, etc., I thought we could use similar parameters to assess dogs. I got as far as a proposal on this subject...and received an "A" when I presented it in the animal cognition seminar I was attending. Seeing what the folks at Dognition have done with this idea makes me really wish I had taken that proposal to fruition!

Have any of you looked at their website? It's  Anything that helps dog owners make a more meaningful connection is a plus in my mind. Here's a better question...have any of you pursued a profile on your dog? Apparently, you can even gift a profile to the hard-to-buy-for dog lover on your gift list.

Understanding the mind of a dog is fascinating. I think just doing the tasks that the folks at Dognition have you do as part of the assessment process are valuable in an of themselves, regardless of the outcome. You are spending time working with your dog, observing how they approach novel tasks, and recording your results. I think I am going to incorporate this exercise into an upcoming seminar in an effort to help people better understand the dog mind. Who wants to join me?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Few Good Books

People who know me, know how much I love to read. It's a passion I inherited from my mother and my grandmother, both avid readers. While I enjoy a wide variety of books, I think my friends are most interested in what dog-themed books I like best. My last blog was about my favorite new training book from Denise McLeod which spurred a couple of readers of the blog to ask what else I have enjoyed. So here you go!

"Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell," by Alexandra Horowitz. I loved her previous book as well, "Inside of a Dog." She brings solid research on our canine companions into the realm of entertaining reading. This time around she is addressing how humans can reconnect with their sense of smell by following the lead of their dogs. Fascinating!

"Free Days With George," by Colin Campbell. The story of a man whose personal life is turned upside down and he falls into a deep depression. Enter George, a 140 lb rescue Newfoundland Dog. The two frequent the beach together and take up surfing. The rest is So Cal history.

"A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home," by Sue Halpern. The true story of a woman who sought out a dog with the express purpose of training the dog for pet assisted therapy. The dog does that and so much more, becoming her devoted companion and a bridge for the author, visiting veterans hospitals in her community.

And if you are looking for a gift book, look no further than, "The Dogist." This is a gorgeous book of photographs of regular dogs out doing regular stuff. The author/photographer captured the images of 1000 dogs out and about in their neighborhoods. Little captions with the photos really add to the whimsy of this book.

I truly could go on and on and on. And don't get me started on great animal-themed books for kids. I could talk about that for hours!  Happy reading everyone.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Trying Something New Can Be Daunting...But Worth It!

My dear friend and favorite dog trainer, Trish Wamsat , brought a new method to my attention...and it's really fascinating. I followed up online with the creator of the method...only to see that she'd been getting a ton of negative press, backlash, and negativity from the very community she was trying to owners, their trainers, etc. It was very disturbing to me that folks would be so opposed to a new method that could truly help dogs. I know learning new things can be hard for some people, but seriously? The biggest fallacy seemed to be that somehow this method was unkind/cruel/unthinkable for a dog. So, being me, I tried it myself. really works. Want to know more?

If you have a reactive dog, meaning a dog who acts out on leash, barking, lunging, and basically carrying on, then TAF, Turn and Face, could be for you too. Reactive could mean reactive to passing cars, or bikes, or skateboards, or joggers. It could mean a dog who reacts to other dogs. Could be a dog who is simply over threshold and very excited about the prospect of a new dog friend. It can also mean a dog who is ambivalent or aggressive toward other dogs. As long as the dog isn't a risk for the owner (meaning the dog isn't going to turn and bite his owner), then this method requires NO EXTRA EQUIPMENT. An owner, under the guidance of a trained TAF practitioner, can begin training. If a dog might redirect aggression toward its owner, then muzzle training should happen first before using the TAF method.

So, why was I using this method on one of my own dogs? Well, my beloved youngest Collie, Ozzie, had a bad experience with skateboards and scooters as a pup (something I tried SO hard to protect him from, but it happened nonetheless) and is now reactive when things move quickly by him. On occasion, he will also bark at other dogs, particularly if they bark at him first. From the first time I used TAF with Ozzie, I saw immediate results. He was calmer. He was centered. He was happy. How could anyone see this method as a bad thing? For me, using this method was much like turning one of my kids to face me, guiding them toward my body, with a comforting hand on their backs when they were little. They too would calm quickly, knowing they were shielded from what bothered them.

If you have a reactive dog on leash, I encourage you to purchase a copy of Denise McLeod's book, "A Dog Behaviourist's Diary and learn more about the TAF method. I am hoping that Trish will hold a seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area soon so we can all benefit from the research she has been conducting with this method and share her experiences with it. In the meantime, thank you Denise for your creativity, enthusiasm, and refusal to buck under when challenged. You are on the right track.

Now, back to my cup of coffee and Denise's book.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Connecting With Your Dog

Our lives are very busy. Many of my clients work 10-12 hour days, leaving them with little time for anything fun, let alone time to connect on a meaningful level with their dogs. However, taking the time to make that connection has huge payoffs, for you and for your dog.

Petting your dog lowers your blood pressure, evens out your breathing, causes the release of endorphins, thus making you feel better. You know what? Your dog reaps those same benefits. Have an older pet? Consider T-Touch, a method of massage for animals that is gentle and effective in making them feel more comfortable.

Sit on the floor with your dog, or invite them up onto the chair or couch with you. Share time and space. They won't mind if you read a book or watch TV...just invite them to share your space. This is what dogs do with each other. Share space. They don't have to be doing anything necessarily.

Obviously, exercise is important for you and your canine companion. Why not exercise together? Walking is a terrific form of exercise. Maybe work up to jogging or running if your canine companion is built for such endeavors. Maybe a little agility work would be fun. You don't need expensive equipment for this. Have your dog walk on a park bench, jump over rocks, weave in and out of trees. Even an empty children's playground can be used to exercise your dog.  Get creative.

Sleep with your dogs. Yes, you heard me. Let them sleep in your bedroom. You don't have to have them on the bed if you don't want to. But keep them in your bedroom. A dog sleeping in the same room as you is actually getting a social benefit in just being near to you. See, you don't even have to be awake to be spending quality time with your dog!

Share with your dogs. Share your love. Share your snacks. Share your time. The benefits for you both are immeasurable.