Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Spoonful of Sugar!

I met with a new client this week who told me that I was "magical."  Because I could tell that she had a sense of humor (and she had kids!), I said why, yes. I'm a regular Mary Poppins for dogs!  We both laughed, but it got me to thinking about Mary Poppins...and dogs...and learning.

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and SNAP. The job's a game." Mary Poppins

I couldn't agree more.  The reason the client felt today's session was so magical is because I try to make learning fun. Fun for the humans and for their pets, whenever possible. I still have a job to do, and I want my clients and their pets to be successful, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy doing it.

"And every task you undertake, becomes a piece of cake. A lark. A spree. It's very clear to see."
Mary Poppins

The more we played games that helped solidify the basic commands we were working on with her puppy, the more fun the puppy had showing what he'd learned. I worked with him for a full hour, which is a long time to hold the attention span of a 13 week old puppy, and he did it.  For him, it wasn't work, it was fun. Learning can be fun.

"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Mary Poppins

Work can be fun.  That's true for humans and for their pets.  Turning the mastering of basic commands like sit, down, stand, stay, come, etc. into a game makes it fun for everyone.  An upbeat tone of voice, clear hand signals, and yummy rewards make those rote behaviors easy to learn. Happy puppies make for happy owners.  And happy owners and well-behaved pets make for happy animal behaviorists.

So, what do you think?  Should my next box of business cards say "canine life coach" on them?  Or how about "Mary Poppins for dogs?"  Those are some mighty pointy shoes to fill.  But, I am up to the challenge. And I do speak dog too.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

To Come Or Not To Come...That's Your Dog's Question!

We are coming up on week 3 of puppy class and already I am seeing puppies who don't show much interest in coming when they are called.  I know this is frustrating for their owners, but coming when called isn't as much of a "no brainer" as many people might think.  Teaching your dog to come reliably when called is a skill and one that must be worked on from the start.

Young puppies want to please you, so bending down, patting your legs or clapping your hands, and making kissy sounds will likely have a puppy running in your direction.  Add in some love and a couple of treats and you are off to a good start.  Make it fun to come when called by hiding from your puppy and letting them find you.  Or you can toss treats their way and as they scamper off to get the treat, wait for their head to come up.  Then say their name and as they come back your way, toss another treat out for them to get. Be sure to use their name and the word "come!" in an upbeat, positive tone and ONLY WHEN YOU INTEND TO CALL YOUR PUPPY OR DOG FOR SOMETHING THEY WILL CONSIDER POSITIVE.  Thus, don't use the word "come" when you intend to bring your dog indoors when they've been enjoying the outside; when you need to give them a bath or clip their nails; when it's time to go to the vet; or when you are gathering them up to leave the park. Using the command "come" when the outcome for your dog is negative, only serves to make your dog NOT want to come when called!  Instead, just go collect your dog.  Don't waste the value of that "come" command.

And for those of you who take your dogs to off leash parks and areas, please don't let them off those leashes until their recall is foolproof.  If your dog still has a tendency to ignore you in favor of other dogs, other people, or other things, then keep them on leash until they learn the value of coming when called. You can use a long, lunge line (basically an extra long leash) to let them explore safely as you know you can always reel your dog back in if you have to.

Finally, if your dog has made negative associations with the word "come," then change the command you plan to use and teach them the behavior all over again, but this time as a positive. Never get frustrated or angry with a dog who is slow to come to you. Rather, get excited when they do and offer them payment for a job (sort of) well done. They will be much more likely to come the next time you call. And if you are still having trouble, let me know. I can teach you some games and give you some other tools to help get your dog back on track and happily coming when you call.

Ozzie and Desi like to play the "Pied Piper" game, one of many that improves recall!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Puppies, Classes, & Vaccines...Oh My!

I started a new round of puppy classes last week.  Before the class even began, I received more than one text and/or email from a new puppy owner saying that they wanted to take my class, but they couldn't because their puppy wasn't fully vaccinated yet. I had to count to ten before I could respond to these messages as I, quite frankly, thought we dog owners were past this. I find it incredibly frustrating that this issue seems to persist.  Why are new puppy owners still thinking that they have to wait until their puppies are 4 months old (or older if they have some of the immune compromised breeds like Rottweilers, for example) to start puppy classes? 

In an effort to calm myself, and provide these well-meaning new puppy owners with solid information, I did some more research on the topic of puppies, vaccines, and puppy socialization classes.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has published on this topic several times. Their membership is comprised of veterinarians who specialize in or have a unique interest in animal behavior.  Because they are veterinarians, they can speak knowledgeably and with authority on issues regarding vaccines.  As such, their official position is that it is important for puppies to attend puppy training and socialization classes BEFORE 12 weeks of age, and preferably as soon as they take up residence in their new homes, thus at 8-10 weeks of age. Yes, this means that puppies attending puppy classes will not be fully vaccinated; all attendees will have roughly the same vaccine history when they begin their classes.

Here are what veterinarians in the AVSAB are saying:

"Well-run puppy classes undoubtedly provide the basis for happy, healthy dogs and happy owners. The risks of a puppy's exposure to infectious agents always need to be considered, but the risk of being euthanized or surrendered is much greater in unsocialized, untrained dogs than the risk of dying from infectious diseases." Kersti Seksel, DVM

"For puppies, the single most important part of a behavioral wellness program is proper socialization during their critical developmental period, which ends by 16 weeks. Owners must begin socialization the day they bring their new puppies home, and the clock is ticking."  Brenda Griffin, DVM

"The risks associated with attending puppy classes are minimal to nonexistent and the benefits are positively huge: Puppies learn 1) bite inhibition through puppy play and 2) proper interaction with people during off-leash play and while being handled by strangers. And owners learn to train their puppies in a controlled setting in which training is integrated with play. In this setting, a puppy's reward for training is play with other dogs." Ian Dunbar, DVM

"Relatively few risks and enormous benefits exist in allowing puppies to interact in a well-run puppy class before they've completed their vaccination series. Canine parvovirus transmission is the main risk, as the other infectious agents we vaccinate against are either comparatively rare in prevalence and the vaccines are highly effective, or the agents cause relatively minor illness in otherwise healthy puppies. The risk is relatively small, but it can't be ignored, and it must be balanced against the serious behavioral risks of holding puppies back from class until they are fully vaccinated. Specifically, poorly socialized puppies are at greater risk of behavior problems." Jennifer Messer, DVM

I am hoping that this post generates some good discussion among the behaviorists, dog trainers, and veterinarians that I know.  I wholeheartedly believe that puppy classes, held in a safe, clean, controlled, well-maintained environment for puppies 8 weeks of age and up are incredibly important and should be available to every new puppy owner so that they can know that they are doing what is best for their family's newest addition. No guilt. No fear.  Just good science.

Ozzie had the hardest time staying awake for all of puppy class!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Your Dog's Pearly Whites!

Recently, I posted a picture on Facebook of a dog having his teeth brushed.  What spurred me to make that post was the fact that I had just brushed teeth for three dogs, my two collies, and a visiting Cavalier!  While all three dogs are pretty good about having their teeth brushed (they are not afraid, they don't try to escape, bite, or clench so hard that you can't actually brush their teeth), I wouldn't say that it is their favorite thing.  I have met dogs who love having their teeth brushed. Years ago, I house-sat for a client whose Golden Retriever would run to the bathroom and grab his toothbrush off the counter and wait for you to brush his teeth when you did your own! His owner had made it fun as a puppy by brushing her teeth and his at the same time of day. I have to say, her dog had the best teeth I've ever seen; brushing twice a day really works!  For my dogs, brushing their teeth is hit or miss. Meaning, if I remember to do it, it gets done. If I forget, it won't happen. And I know that there are plenty of dogs out there who hate having their teeth brushed, some going so far as to bite their owners if they even try it.  I am always asked if there are viable alternatives to brushing.  There are indeed, but how you use these products makes all the difference in the world with regard to how successful they will be in maintaining your dog's oral health.  The take home message is this: Anything you do to help prevent plaque and tartar accumulating on your dog's teeth is beneficial. The key factor is doing whatever it is that you do consistently and daily to reap those long term benefits.  And combining more than one method will help you to get the best results.

According to the American Veterinary Dental College, brushing your dog's teeth with toothpaste formulated specifically for dogs is the single best way to maintain your dog's oral health.  This does make sense even in humans; when you brush your teeth, the scrubbing action in combination with the abrasive texture of the toothpaste helps to knock tartar off of teeth and cut through plaque on the surface. The key is to brush the teeth daily, ideally twice daily, following meals. For dogs, there are multiple styles of toothbrush available, most are slanted so that you can reach a dog's back teeth.  However, there are also finger brushes that you can slide on one of your fingers to reach into a smaller mouth.  It is also fine to use a pediatric tooth brush.  Just remember you need to use dog toothpaste. Human toothpaste isn't designed to be swallowed and is therefore dangerous to dogs. If you have never brushed your dog's teeth before, or you are teaching your puppy, take it slow.  Let them sniff the wet brush.  Add the toothpaste and let them simply lick it off. Begin tipping the brush sideways and try to gently rub those front teeth (incisors).  If they are accepting of this, begin working on the cheek teeth.  Once you can do this, you are ready to open your dog's mouth so you can get to the inside surfaces of their teeth closest to their tongue. Take it slow.  Benefits can even be gained by using a finger to rub dog toothpaste on the tooth surfaces you can easily reach. While I know that dogs can be trained to allow you to use an electric toothbrush on their teeth, this isn't where you start the process!  Take it easy and build up to being more invasive in your cleaning.

For dogs who just won't let you use a brush, think about trying dental wipes, dental gels, or oral rinses. These products usually contain something called "Chlorhexidine"which is an effective anti-plaque antiseptic.  It tastes icky, however, so you will want to choose a product that is flavored to mask that bitter taste. Dental wipes and dental gels are pretty self explanatory; you rub them on the teeth, hoping to reach them all.  The oral rinses come in two types, one that you squeeze into your pet's mouth and it will get swished around and then drooled out or swallowed (definitely do this outside!) or a type that can be added to their water bowl.  If your dog is picky about his water bowl, however, don't use the type that is added to water as you would never want to discourage your dog from drinking water regularly. These products, except for the water additive, require that you be able to get into your dog's mouth successfully. What can you use if you can't get your dog to let you into his mouth?

There are several dental diets on the market. Some have the food shaped to help provide an abrasive surface on the teeth while others are diets coated in cleaning agents to scrub your dog's teeth as they eat.  There are also quite a few different types of chews out there that also combine an odd surface and treated coating to tackle plaque on the teeth. I have always been a fan of real bones too, but many veterinary dentists discourage the use of real bones as they can chip or fracture teeth.  Any chew or bone given to your dogs should be given when you can observe them to keep things safe.

It can be difficult, however, to decide which of these products will really do what they claim to do.  Your best bet is to choose products with the "VOHC Accepted Product" label.  The VOHC is the Veterinary Oral Health Counsel. Basically, the equivalent of the "American Dental Association" for our pets.  You can visit their website at and click on the link for accepted products for dogs. They also have a list of accepted products for cats. This list also provides you with information on where the product can be purchased as some are only available through your veterinarian. Here is the direct link to that list:

Finally, some of you asked what I give to my dogs since, obviously, I am not brushing their teeth every day. I don't give real bones any more as they aren't good for Desi who has some teeth issues. I do give the collies Nutri Dent Dental Chew Treats daily.  These look like "Greenies," but I've found they don't upset my dogs' stomachs like Greenies do and they only contain 8 ingredients total. Ozzie and Desi like the filet mignon flavor, in case you were wondering!  Nutri dent chews come in several sizes so there is one for ever sized dog. My dogs also enjoy CET Chews from the Virbac company.  CET chews come in several varieties including flips, sticks, and rawhide-like chews. These products are all coated in Chlorhexidine, so they provide an enzymatic cleaning action.

Finally, regularly playing with hard-surfaced toys like Nylabones or ones made of braided rope ("flossies") *may* help with oral health maintenance. However, your dogs need to play with these toys regularly and vigorously to gain any traction with plaque and tartar build up. And some dogs have been known to lose teeth playing with these toys, or chip teeth, so you will still need to supervise them.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Does Your Pet Qualify as a Senior?

One of my collies, Desi, turns 8 years old in October.  I have to admit that this is kind of freaking me out.  My previous tri-color rough coat Collie, Cooper, passed away suddenly just before he turned 9 years old.  I never thought of Cooper as an "old dog," nor do I think of Desi that way.  However, collies are big dogs and it's a fact of life that large breed dogs have shorter life spans than smaller breed dogs.  Still, 8 years old doesn't seem that old really, especially given how well cared for my dogs are.  Okay. Yes, they are spoiled.  Nonetheless, I want to make sure I am doing everything I can to not just increase my dog's life expectancy, but increase his quality of life.  So, how old is old?

First of all, it's a total myth that one human year is the equivalent of 7 dog or cat years. This is just too much of an over-simplification as this popular notion was based on the "average sized dog." What in the world is an "average sized dog?" And cats vary little in size and yet this same reference point was used for them as well. Not too long ago, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) came up with a new way to measure the age of our pets using something called the "Canine Life Stages Guidelines" and the "Feline Life Stages Guidelines." These guidelines make a lot of sense and help pet owners and their veterinarians to better determine the needs of these animals.  AAHA divided dogs into six categories: Puppy, birth-6 months of age; Junior, 6-9 months of age; Adult, 9 months to 6.5 years, Mature, 6.5 years to 9.75 years; Senior, 9.75 years to 13 years; and Geriatric, over 13 years old. Here are the guidelines they came up with for cats: Kitten, birth to 9 months of age; Junior, 9 months of age to 3 years; Prime, 3 years to 7 years; Mature, 7 years to 11 years of age; Senior, 11 years to 15 years of age; and Geriatric, over 15 years of age.

So, looking at Desi coming up on his 8th birthday, he is considered a mature dog; he is in the middle to last 25% of his life expectancy, and he certainly isn't a senior! And while he is a large dog based on his breed, this isn't the only determinant of his life span.  His nutrition and associated weight play a significant role as well. And his diet affects his teeth and the health of his teeth affects his life expectancy, and so on.  So, basically, me doting on my dogs with healthy snacks, bones to clean their teeth, a high quality diet, daily walks, daily grooming, interactive toys, and new daily experiences is not only enhancing their quality of life, but helping to insure that they live longer as well. That's a huge relief!

Many of my clients focus a lot on the physical exercise their dogs receive, as well as the diet they feed their dogs.  As an animal behaviorist, I also try to get them to focus on the mental exercise and psychological well-being component.  Those interactive toys and games, letting their dogs sniff and explore on walks, and moving away from free-feeding are key factors in stimulating the brain.  Older dogs (and cats!) can't do the New York Times crossword puzzle, but they can forage for their meals, play with interactive toys, and have their daily environments enriched.  Keeping those older minds active will extend their life expectancy too.

The bottom line is this: Work with your veterinarian to determine what your pet needs based on these guidelines.  Enroll your dogs of all ages in classes to keep them active or try a new sport or activity.  Even pet assisted therapy qualifies as a brain-building job and is one that can be performed by a pet of any age.  That is definitely Desi's favorite job!

I am looking forward to many more birthdays with Desi and intend to make every one of his remaining years count...because he is family.