Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Skittish Dog

Last week, my blog post addressed living with an anxious dog and when to seek help.  I received a lot of great feedback on that post, including someone with specific interest in what to do for a skittish dog.  Given that I referred to one of my own dogs, Ozzie, in my post as suffering from situational anxiety, this actually gives me a good lead in to a discussion on skittish dogs.

By definition, a skittish animal is one who is excitable or easily scared or startled.  Ozzie, for example, is a rock when it comes to sounds and noises inside and outside our house. A few barks, we tell him quiet, and it's back to business as usual.  While he does get excited when he sees cats or squirrels, he can be redirected.  Ozzie's kryptonite?  Skateboards and scooters. He HATES them.  He used to have full-blown panic attacks and bolt when he saw them.  With a great deal of behavior modification and a special handling technique, he is now to the point where he is vigilant when it comes to scooters and skateboards, but he doesn't panic.  Would I describe Ozzie as skittish?  Not all the time, no.  But he is certainly scared of those wheeled contraptions and the people who use them!

Oftentimes, dog owners describing their dogs as skittish are those that are dealing with a recent rescue.  It certainly isn't unusual to see a skittish recent rescue; they are new to you, new to your home, still learning the rules, etc.  If there was ever a reason for a dog to be easily scared or startled, not knowing what to expect in their new world is a good one!  Many recent rescue dogs are noise sensitive, easily sent over their comfort threshold by the sound of garbage trucks, motorcycles, honking horns, loud voices, etc.  These noises can cause skittish dogs to freeze, shake, whine, pant, etc., all obvious outward manifestations of their anxiety.  So what can you do for your skittish dog?

First and foremost, take them out in spite of their fears.  If they will take treats, bring treats. If they are really anxious, however, they won't be able to take even the highest value treats when they are scared. Slowly desensitize them by moving closer to those triggers.  Encourage sniffing as exploring their environments is a great way to learn the area, distract them from what scares them, and actually makes the walk more enjoyable overall from the dog's point of view. Use praise to reinforce even a modicum of calm behavior or self-control in the face of what makes them skittish.  For the recent rescue dog, once they settle in to their new routines, and learn the sights and sounds of their neighborhoods, the skittish behavior recedes and they become inquisitive and engaged.  If you've been working with your recent rescue dog for 6-8 weeks and they are still showing signs of fear or anxiety, appearing skittish with new situations, people, noises, etc., then it's time to take your training to the next level.  I can teach you the handling technique I use with Ozzie that has made all the difference in the world in resetting his brain when he becomes anxious.

While there is certainly a fearful or timid personality type when it comes to dogs, being skittish is often a transient state of being that can be corrected with time, desensitization, positive reinforcement, and patience. However, if those are not enough, you know where to find me.

The beach...Ozzie's happy place. And mine.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Living With an Anxious Dog

I see a lot of anxious dogs every day.  Some belong to neighbors and other people I see when I am out walking with my own dogs or running errands.  Many belong to my clients. Living day in and day out with an anxious dog can be stressful, frustrating, and maddening at times.  I've had clients question whether they were the right fit for their anxious dogs; that is, would the dog be better off (i.e. less anxious) living with someone else. When your dog seems anxious no matter what you do, I can easily see why you might question your fitness to be their caretaker.  So, what can and should you be doing for your anxious dog?

First off, don't take it personally.  While it is the case that anxious people can make their dogs anxious as well, there are a whole lot of dogs out there living with profoundly anxious people, helping them cope and adjust every day, who never display any anxiety themselves.  More likely than not, anxious dogs are a product of their genetics and/or early environmental influences.  Anxious parents can create anxious offspring.  It behooves breeders not to breed anxious dogs thereby potentially perpetuating the problem in future litters of puppies. In addition, puppies who experience fearful situations during critical periods in their development may manifest their anxiety into adulthood. For example, a puppy who was startled by firecrackers on the 4th of July may mature into an adult dog who is anxious with all loud noises.

Second, recognize your dog's anxiety, but don't reinforce it.  If you lavish an anxious dog with attention, you can make them even more upset. And punishment will only make it worse as well.  If instead, you take your anxious dog aside to a place where they feel safe, and stay with them until they calm down, you are helping them to cope.  If you know what triggers your dog, you can avoid those situations in an effort to keep your dog's stress level manageable.

Third, acknowledge that you may need help.  If your dog is anxious all the time, even in their own home and without any obvious triggers, it's time to get some professional help. Your first stop is your veterinarian's office.  There are several medical conditions that can manifest as behavioral changes.  So, if the anxiety had a sudden onset without any recognizable trigger, it's time for a check up to rule out medical problems. If your vet gives your dog a clean bill of health, then it is time to pursue treatment of the anxiety using a combination of behavioral modification, handling techniques, and maybe even drug therapy.  Don't just jump to the conclusion that your dog needs Prozac. While some anxious dogs certainly do benefit from that drug, there are many who don't need it.  Their anxiety can be managed and lessened by other, less invasive means.  The bottom line too is that more often than not, drug therapy alone is not enough to resolve the anxiety; dogs, like people, need to change their behavior as well to get relief.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My sweet collie, Ozzie, suffers from situational anxiety.  
Knowing his triggers is the key and behavioral modification 
has made all the difference in the world for his quality of life and ours.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Stay Safe Out There

Last week, I had dinner with a friend who works in the medical field.  She had treated a patient who came it with a horrendous wound on her arm.  The woman was walking her dog when two large, off leash dogs, rushed her and attacked her dog.  Without thinking, she reached in to grab a collar and both of the unfamiliar dogs grabbed her arm, one at the elbow and the other at the wrist.  They tore through flesh and muscle, damaging her ulnar artery, the main source of oxygenated blood to the hand and fingers.  She will survive her wounds, but there will be skin grafts in her future and permanent damage to her arm resulting in limited mobility.  So, why am I telling you this horrific tale?  Because she isn't the first person I've heard of to reach into a dog fight and get hurt.  I realize that this is human nature, a knee jerk reaction, so to speak, to want to stop a dog fight and protect our canine companions.  Doing so, however, can be incredibly dangerous.  You need to know what your other options are to protect yourself and your dog.

While most consider the "wheelbarrow method" to be the safest, most effective way to break up a dog fight, it won't do you much good if you are walking by yourself when the dog fight occurs, or if there are more than two dogs involved. With this method, two people each grab the back legs of one of the dogs and pull them up and backwards.  This throws the dogs off balance and causes them to release their hold.  Watch the dog's head as they may try to swing around and grab you!  Continue to pull the dogs away until you have created enough distance to feel safe letting go, re-grabbing the leash, etc. So, what should you do if you are alone or if multiple dogs are involved?

The one thing you shouldn't do is scream.  This will just exhaust you and potentially escalate the aggression.  The only time to yell is if there is a chance to attract other humans to your cause to help you break up the fight using the wheelbarrow method outlined above. If there is a hose nearby, you can try blasting the dogs.  Some dogs will respond to water, others will just continue to fight. And if you are out on a trail or walk with your dog, there is unlikely to be a hose available, and this is why I prefer deterrent methods.

If you are a trail walker, carry a walking stick with you.  The stick can be waved at an approaching aggressive dog to back them off.  If need be, the stick can be thrust into the side of the aggressor's mouth thus forcing him to let go of your dog as he bites down on the stick.  Don't be tempted to hit the aggressor with the stick; this has the potential to increase their aggression and have it directed toward you, instead of your dog.  You can also carry an air horn with you at all times.  Small enough to fit in a fanny pack, an air horn, by design, is loud and intrusive.  Blast the air horn once to see if just the noise is enough to stop the fight. If not, hold the air horn as close as safely possible to the aggressor's head and blast.  You may damage their ear drum, but you will disorient them and stop the fight.  While I know some of my clients carry mace on their walks, keep in mind that mace can cause permanent damage.  While it is certainly true that you were carrying the mace to protect yourself and your dog, the other dog's owner can sue you for property damage if mace blinds their dog etc.  Air horns cause no permanent damage and are therefore my deterrent of choice.

And what if the fight occurs inside your house?  Do not assume that you won't get bit just because the two dogs are your own.  When dogs are fighting, they aren't thinking about you. Mistakes will be made and you could get bit just as badly as the woman described above.  While water might work, that could make for a lot of clean up later. You can try throwing a blanket over one of the dogs and once disoriented, grabbing for those back legs to pull one dog away.  Again, however, an air horn may be your best bet.  And in a pinch, grab an umbrella and open it up right at the dogs.  Most dogs are wary of umbrellas, so it's worth trying.

While you may feel compelled to try to pull your leashed dog out of a fight, you really shouldn't.  Drop the leash to give your dog a chance to fight back and/or escape.  In addition, pulling dogs by their leashes during a fight often results in more physical damage to the dogs.

Bottom line: dog fights are serious.  While you want to protect your dog, you need to protect yourself as well.  Prepare in advance so that you won't be caught off guard.  An air horn is roughly $5 and thus an easy, inexpensive way to potentially protect your dog and yourself.  As always, if you have any questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Close up of a dog fight depicted in a famous painting
 from Flemish Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens (c 1600)

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Endless Summer

If you have school-aged kids at home, it may feel like an endless summer!  However, for many parents, August means it is time to ramp up and get ready for a new school year.  Whether you have an adult dog or a puppy at home, they've likely enjoyed having those kids around for the extra attention and frequently dropped snacks! So for your dogs, the kids heading back to school may be a sad occasion, or at least a bit confusing. It is even possible that your dogs may suffer from separation distress or even separation anxiety when everyone returns to school and work.  Because of this possibility, I will be teaching an extended seminar on identifying and dealing with separation anxiety, separation distress, and boredom.  Whether you would like to know what to do when you are gone for just a few hours, or what to do when you are gone all day, I will be making suggestions on how to keep your dogs content and constructively occupied in your absence.  Examples of interactive toys and games will be shared with the class and there will be time for discussion and individual problem solving.  Here is the class sign up link:

Hope to see you there!

As always, if you have questions regarding your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My daughter's puppy, Westley, is now 11 months old and can be
 left out of his crate for some of his daily naps without worry. As you can see, 
he is not anxious about this at all!