Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Truth About Dog Bites

Last week, I met with a lovely woman who was very worried about the 8 month old dog that her family had rescued 3 weeks ago.  They had been encouraged to adopt this 45 lb, mixed breed dog from a local rescue who stated the dog would be great with kids.  These folks have had dogs before and were specifically looking for a family dog.  Again, they were told this was the dog for them.  Within hours of taking the dog home, the dog was leaping at faces and snapping.  The dog was lunging at her children and grabbing them through their clothing.  The dog never made a sound, just darted and grabbed.  When they contacted the rescue, they were told by their "animal behaviorist" that the dog needed time to adjust and they just needed to be firm with the dog, set boundaries, make sure she got enough exercise, and nap time. They did all of this and the dog bit each of them and then a worker on their property. They didn't want to be quitters, but knew this just didn't seem right.  When they took the dog to the vet, the dog was perfectly calm and quiet in the exam room.  When the vet walked in, the dog glanced her way and then jumped up and leaped for her face/neck snapping, no warning, no sounds at all.  That's when I entered the picture.

We talked about all of this and then I asked the owner to open her laundry room door and let the dog out so I could meet her.  The dog took one look and ran at me, jumped up and snapped at my face, managing to grab my vest.  I blocked the dog and tried to defuse the situation, but the dog wasn't having any of that. She charged me again, grabbing my pants leg.  I shook her off and again tried to redirect her.  She ran at me one more time, this time getting my leg through my jeans.  This all happened in about a minute an a half. I had the owner coax the dog back into the laundry room and we were done.  Wow.  This dog was scary.  No warnings.  No hesitation.  She just went right for the bite.

Needless to say, I told the owner this dog needed to go back to the rescue immediately before one of her children or one of their friends was injured.  If this is how this dog is behaving during the honeymoon period of adoption, I can only imagine what will happen once that period is over. Not surprisingly, the rescue tried to lay blame on the owners, but I had coached them on how to respond to that kind of nonsense.  I had them use the legal term scienter with respect to them having knowledge that they owned an aggressive animal.  I had them mention liability and future bite risk.  Any dog who has bitten has a better than 90% chance of biting again.  This dog is 100% going to bite again.  The rescue has a copy of my report and all the details from the owners laid out in a letter.  Nonetheless, they asked the owners to state on the return form that the dog "just didn't work out for them/had adjustment issues."  This really upset me because that's a cop out.  If they place this dog again, she will bite again and as far as I'm concerned, the rescue is to blame when that happens.  They have all the info they need to make the right choice. The humane choice.  The safe choice.  This dog needs to be euthanized.

I am most certainly not an advocate of euthanasia as a solution for behavior problems, but dogs that bite people are dangerous, particularly in homes with young children. It will take some time for this family to move past this less than favorable experience and begin the process of finding their next dog. We've already talked about what to look for and I am happy to help them find just the right family dog. In the meantime, it's going to be a while before I forget the look on that dog's face as she charged me.  No fear.  No hesitation.  Just a lot of focus, confidence, and control.  The bruise on my leg still hurts, but the teeth marks are fading and changing color.  These outward marks will be gone in a few days, but the impression of this dog will last me a lot longer and will be difficult to forget.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Help! My Dog Pulls on the Leash!

Last Saturday, I started a new round of classes for older puppies.  The number one complaint among the participants was pulling on leash.  These puppies have all just completed their vaccines and been given the okay by their veterinarians to begin walking out in the real world.  That, actually, is part of the problem.  By waiting until their puppies were fully vaccinated to begin working on leash walking is a big mistake.  Learning to walk nicely on leash should begin the moment you bring your new puppy home.  You see, puppies don't have to be walked on leash out in public.  They benefit from being walked inside your house, in your yard, on your porch, in your garage, wherever and whenever you have time to safely work with them on polite leash walking.  Maybe an example will help.

I remember the first time I walked in high heeled shoes with the intent of wearing them out in public.  I walked in those shoes every day for a week inside the house. On carpet, on tile, on linoleum, on the cement patio. Then, I practiced dancing in those shoes.  I practiced walking and dancing in those shoes so I wouldn't fall on my face out in public at the middle school dance!  The same is true for teaching a puppy to walk on leash.  It's a new accessory for them.  You need to hook the leash on and let them get used to it first.  Start by walking them around, luring them with a treat, letting them drag that leash.  Once they can do that, pick up the leash, hold it loosely, and again lure them with your voice and a treat.  Don't yank the leash.  Lure the puppy.  Do frequent short sessions inside different areas of your house until your puppy is happily walking along with you there.  Once they can do that, you've graduated to a new setting. Maybe your porch, yard, or garage is next.  You do the same thing, keeping the leash loose and luring your puppy along.  By the time your puppy is old enough to be walked out in public, you will have practiced loose leashing walking so many times, that your puppy will already have an idea of what to do in spite of their excitement about being outside in a new place.  Walks should be kept short, the leash should be loose, you should have yummy treats to lure them along, and by all means, let them sniff!  Sniffing is the whole reason dogs are out there walking in the first place.  They aren't really in it for the cardio; they are along for the walk because they want to sniff and explore.  You can certainly put sniffing on command.  As your dog drops their head to sniff, say "go sniff!" in an upbeat tone of voice.  When they stop sniffing, or you are ready to move on, say "Let's go" or "that's enough" again in an upbeat voice. Sniffing is a way for them to learn about their world AND get rid of tension and anxiety. By all means, let them sniff!

Even if you do all of this, some puppies will still pull relentlessly on leash.  The pull to get to see new people or they pull to meet other dogs. Or they pull to chase squirrels.  Or all of the above.  Some dog breeds pull more than others because they are genetically wired to do so.  However, even dogs genetically wired for pulling like Huskies or Samoyeds, can learn to walk nicely on a leash.  It's all about practice, short sessions, big rewards, and setting appropriate expectations. Ultimately, you may need to use a different kind of leash, a different type of collar, or some sort of harness, but first you need to teach the basics of loose leash walking.

As always, if you are having trouble with this, let me know. I am here to help!

Ozzie as a pup learning to loose leash walk on the sidewalk in front of our house!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

ADHD in Dogs is a Real Thing!

While I do try to discourage clients from anthropomorphizing with respect to their pets or using labels that do more harm than good, it is important to remember that we are both mammals and as mammals we can and do suffer from similar problems. Case in point, ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. While many a client has described their dog to me as "having ADD," "hyperactive," "unfocused," and "out of control," only a very few had dogs with true ADHD.  Most people whose dogs appear to have trouble focusing, behave in an out of control manner, etc. aren't suffering from ADHD, but rather are suffering from a lack of physical exercise, lack of mental stimulation, the wrong diet, or all three!  However, for those dogs (and dog owners) who are truly suffering from ADHD, relief is available.

While most of the research on ADHD has been done on human children, there is some research out there on dogs, most notably by Dr. Nicholas Dodman. His research indicates that while ADHD isn't a common problem in dogs, it does exist, and seems to be more prevalent among working dog breeds like German Shepherds, for example. And while many of us might jokingly say that all terriers suffer from ADHD to a certain extent, the truth of the matter is that some dog breeds are just more active, busy, and in need of stimulation than others. Oftentimes a definitive diagnosis of ADHD comes only after one has ruled out all other causes for a dog's lack of focus, agitation, inability to learn, hyperactivity, etc. Meaning, the dog is getting appropriate exercise both mental and physical, has been through training classes, and the dog's diet and overall health have been evaluated by a veterinarian.  At this point, many dog owners are at their wit's end and ask their veterinarians for drug therapy for their dogs.  Unfortunately, many veterinarians default to giving something like Prozac or Trazodone which not only don't help the dog, but can make the dog's symptoms worse, creating more agitation and even aggression.  Instead, the drug to try is Ritalin.  Yes, that Ritalin.  Ritalin is a stimulant and if you give it to a dog who doesn't have ADHD, they will have rapid respiration, rapid heart rate, etc. However, if you give it to a dog with ADHD, they calm down, their respiration decreases as does their heart rate.  Dogs with ADHD who take Ritalin twice daily can settle down and learn appropriate behavioral responses.

Recently, I saw a client who had rescued an older puppy this Spring.  His previous owners had gotten fed up with his relentless barking and activity so they gave him up to breed rescue.  My client is an experienced dog owner.  She immediately started classes with this young dog in order to bond with him and establish good habits.  When he couldn't focus in class, she figured she just needed to work harder at home, which she did, establishing boundaries, setting up scheduled exercise, etc.  When that didn't work, she sent her dog to a "boot camp" where the instructors told her that she was doing everything right, but this dog needed medication.  Unfortunately, the meds that they started this dog on didn't help and actually ended up making him worse. By the time I saw him, he literally couldn't sit still for more than 5 seconds.  He quite literally bounced off of the walls (and people), grabbing anything he could get his mouth on.  The only time he seemed somewhat calm was when he was sniffing on a walk, but even then he couldn't seem to sniff long enough to release tension.  His behavior was creating immense stress for the humans who couldn't get any sleep with this dog in the house.  I suggested starting Ritalin and within 2 days of being taken off of the previous meds and starting Ritalin, the dog calmed down. He could focus and learn.  His owner was heaving a huge sigh of relief as now she knows that she can teach him what he needs to know to be happy and well-adjusted.  Problem solved by seeing our similarities to dogs, rather than our differences.  And not by being anthropomorphic, but by being a good observer and seeking help without labeling the dog. I am really looking forward to this owner's next progress report!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Pet Health Insurance

Earlier this week, my friend and favorite dog trainer, Trish Wamsat, posted a piece on Facebook about pet health insurance. It seems that some of the pet insurance companies are FINALLY willing to recognize behavior problems and their treatment as something they will cover in their health plans.  This is something new and, frankly, quite amazing!

Back in the early 90's when pet health insurance first became a thing, the primary company out there made a presentation at the veterinary hospital where I was working as a practice manager. As a behaviorist, one of my first questions was, "do you cover the treatment of behavior problems?"  The company rep looked at me with what I can only describe as derision. "Of course not," he said. "Our health plans cover real medical and health concerns."  That did it for me. He was basically devaluing what I do AND telling me that my clients whose pets had behavior problems that they were on their own.  Consequently, I've never been a big fan of pet health insurance plans.

Now, I see that the marketplace has changed quite a bit. First of all, there are several different companies out there offering pet health care plans with a wide variety of coverage, some even including the diagnosis and treatment of behavior problems.  Unlike the catastrophic health care that previous pet health plans offered, these new plans seem to offer assistance with preventative care, much like health plans for humans do.  This seems like a really good thing and a step in the right direction for pet owners.

I have had a couple of clients over the years ask me to complete paperwork and sign forms to submit to their pet health insurance carriers for reimbursement, and I am always happy to do so.  Still was a little frustrated, however, when one carrier told my client that they couldn't be reimbursed for my services because I wasn't a "real behavior specialist."  The implication being, of course, that one needs to be a veterinarian to be a behavior specialist. Needless to say, I contacted the health insurance company and read them the riot act, even faxing them a copy of my diploma for good measure. I was the behavior specialist that my client's veterinarian had sent them to, therefore insurance should recognize the service.  They did.  And they apologized for their ignorance.

The bottom line is that while none of us wants to think our pets will have any major medical issues, and no one anticipates having behavior problems, they do still occur.  Pet health insurance most likely won't cover your rounds of training classes, but some will cover at least a portion of your cost if you need to enlist the services of a behavior specialist like myself for something bigger like separation anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, ADHD, aggression, etc.  You will definitely want to do your homework, however, when choosing a pet insurance company.  Some have breed restrictions. Some don't cover preventative care.  Some cover dental expenses while many do not.  As with any health plan, including the one for the humans in your family, you need to do your homework before you decide.

And if you do have pet health insurance and your pet does have a behavior problem, don't hesitate to reach out to the company for details on what they might cover in terms of treatment.  I am happy to work with your veterinarian to devise a plan that will help your pet and help you soften the blow to your pocketbook if your pet's health plan takes behavior problems seriously.

These three amigos are happy to report that 
they don't have any issues, behavioral or otherwise!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Afraid of Everything

I met with a new client this week who recently rescued a dog from a hoarding situation.  This is a senior dog who has lived her entire life with other dogs and little human input or stimulation.  Not surprisingly, this dog is incredibly fearful.  She is afraid to go outside, afraid of the leash and harness, afraid to be picked up, afraid to touch toys, and terrified to ride in the car.  New people scare her so much that she hides.  Unfamiliar noises cause her to startle and tremble.  All of this was the state of affairs for this little dog last week.

This week, however, she's already showing improvements.  She's starting to sniff a bit outside and has figured out how to lay on her owner's lap.  Noises aren't as big of a deal now, and she's showing some curiosity. Best of all, she actually wagged her tail this week and happily put her mouth on her owner's hand in greeting.  Dogs really are amazingly resilient creatures.  While this dog still has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), she is already improving.  With time, patience, and positive training methods, she will continue to improve, slowly building her confidence and resilience in the face of life's challenges.  Her owners are committed to her which makes this all the better.

We've put this little dog onto a schedule so that she can better predict her world.  Her anxiety is being ignored and we are rewarding all calm behavior.  Her daily exercise is being gradually increased as she builds stamina.  Luckily, she is food motivated, so a few easy interactive toys for feeding will stimulate her brain and introduce her to the joys of play. We will be adding in some type of thunder shirt/anxiety wrap as I think the gentle pressure they provide will be comforting to this little dog and she can certainly benefit from the endorphin release.

Introducing friendly new people and learning to accept car rides are next on the agenda.  At some point, we may need to add in drug therapy, but for now we remain hopeful that she will continue to make progress with attention, love, and a predictable home environment.

For this little dog, fear will not be debilitating.  Rather, it will be something she experienced in the past.  And the rest of her life will be warm, safe, friendly, and enriching.  I love a happy ending.