Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Being Thankful for the Little Things

I got off the phone with a client yesterday who spent the first 10 minutes telling me about all of the things she "hated" about her dog.  She used that word, "hate." She hated that he jumped on people. That he yanked on the leash. That he chased squirrels and ducks.  That he got on her furniture.  That he didn't take treats nicely.  And that he vomited on long car rides.  She was getting ready to take him with her to a friend's house for the Thanksgiving holiday and she wanted immediate help.

Given that no one can change that many behaviors in a couple of hours, I thought it best to approach this situation differently.  I asked her to tell me all of the things she loved about her dog.  That gave her pause.  So, I suggested the following:  Don't you love the way he looks forward to you picking him up from daycare? Don't you love the way he nudges your hand for attention? Don't you love how happy he is to go for a walk?  Don't you love how nicely he gets along with other dogs?  Now she could see where I was headed with this.  While she was frustrated, she needed to see all of the good things about her dog as well.  His list of positive attributes far outweighed his negative ones and at this point, his owner was ready to have a rational discussion about what could be done in the short term to help with her immediate issues as they would effect her holiday plans this week.

First off, she needs to keep him on leash at all times so she can stand on his leash when he greets people, thus keeping him from jumping up.  She has to use the head halter we had already trained him to wear that helped greatly with the pulling as well as the chasing of squirrels and ducks.  She had quit using the head halter because she didn't keep it with the leash by the door, so just got out of the habit of using it.  By keeping him on leash, she could easily keep him off of furniture.  I suggested a portable crate and a nice dog bed to take with them on their trip for alternate nap spots.  Treats were to be given in a closed hand to discourage snapping and he was to be reminded to do a couple of "touch" behaviors before being given any treat as that got him thinking rather than simply reacting. Finally, I suggested not feeding him before they left for their road trip and instead giving him a couple of ginger snaps cookies to settle his stomach. She also needed to use his car harness and belt him into place so he stayed facing forward.  Rolling down his window would help as well.

Now she had some strategies to get her through this trip to her friend's house for Thanksgiving.  Plus, she had a much better appreciation of all of her dog's positive attributes and behaviors, no longer so focused on the negative.  And we set up an appointment to meet in person when she got back so we could "check in" and see how those basic solutions were working for both her and her dog.

So, I am thankful for clients who listen and their pets who appreciate my help. I am thankful for the opportunity to help pet owners and educate them about why animals think and behave the way they do.  Most of all, I am thankful for my family and friends who have supported me all these years even though my jeans are often dirty, I frequently have peanut butter in my hair, and I always smell like dog saliva and chicken jerky. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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

I am thankful for these four: my daughter, Jessica, and our collie collective!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thinking About Behavior Change

Almost every client I work with is interested in changing the behavior of their pet.  When you are thinking about changing your pet's behavior, however, you need to think very carefully about why they are behaving that way in the first place.  Love this quote from Dr. Susan Friedman:

"Changing behaviour is not something you do casually because that behaviour has value to the animal or it wouldn't be doing it." 

I spoke with a client this week who described her dog suddenly becoming avoidant of the dog park.  Previously, this dog loved the dog park and would hop out of the car happily and head for the park on her own.  Now, the dog doesn't want to get out of the car and needs a leash to even approach the park. Once there, she won't take treats or play with her ball, and she shakes anxiously until they leave the park.  Obviously, my client is concerned.  She wants to know what is wrong with her dog and she is sad herself as now they don't see their dog park friends any more. They can go to other parks without any issue, so it isn't that she doesn't want to go to a park anymore.  It's just this park that they've been going to several times a week for years. 

In this example, the dog's fear of this particular park has value for the dog.  Something obviously happened there from her point of view and she wants to avoid that park to protect herself (and possibly her owner as well). Perhaps she heard a noise or saw something and that's where her anxiety comes from. Nonetheless, her anxiety is real and must be addressed.  Making her "cowboy up" and go the park in an effort to show her that there is no reason to be anxious is not the solution.  Instead, they need to leave this park behind for a while, putting it and whatever the dog thinks happened there, behind them.  I suggested having some of their friends meet them at other parks so that it can be determined if her dog's fear has something to do with one of her dog friends, or if it is really just the park itself. After a couple of months, they can return to the original park and see if the anxiety still exists, or if time has made that particular memory fade.  If her avoidance is rooted in a sound or smell, for example, it is likely those things would no longer be an issue. If, however, her avoidance was built on something she simply felt inside of herself, then she is likely to still be scared and not want to visit that park. Her owner needs to be ready for that possibility as their days of visiting that park and hanging out with their friends there may be over.

And if this anxiety blooms, and her dog becomes even more anxious across other situations, then we need to address that as well.  It may not be the park at all, but symptomatic of something bigger going on inside of her dog's head.  If that's the case, I will be sending them to see their vet for a full workup to make sure there isn't some physical reason for the behavior change. If she checks out physically, then the task becomes figuring out how best to address her fear and anxiety before it takes over, changing her (and her owner's) quality of life.

Behavior is adaptive.  What we do, and what our animals do, has purpose.  Before you seek to change their behavior, try to understand why they chose that behavior in the first place.  That bit of insight may be just what it takes to help you better understand the mind and motivation of your beloved companion animal.

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

My sweet granddog, Westley, is scared of garbage trucks.  Just hearing them rumble from miles away causes him to retreat.  While we continue to work with him on desensitization to garbage trucks, the bottom line is that he perceives them as scary; they're big, noisy, and threatening.  Walking him at times of day and away from areas being serviced by garbage trucks is the key to helping him feel safe and comfortable on his walks. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Stress and Your Dog

A common theme of the conference I recently attended was stress.  We heard about stress in the shelter environment, stress in the home, and even stress in utero; that is puppies born to stressed mothers are inherently different than those whose mothers aren't subjected to stress. Stress can be good, it can be tolerable, and it can be toxic.  We need to understand the differences between these three types of stress and their effects on the bodies and the brains of our beloved companion dogs.

Good stress is basically just a challenging experience that is rewarding for your dog in the long run.  So, if your dog competes in agility or dock diving, for example, they are under stress while competing, but if they get a rush from that challenge, then that ultimately is good stress.

Tolerable stress is a negative experience that your dog is able to adjust to and move beyond with the aid of social support. Events that result in tolerable stress are still inherently distressing, but the effects are transient. Thus, for most of our dogs, a trip to the vet falls in the category of tolerable stress.

Toxic stress is also a negative experience, but it is one from which an animal is unable to escape or cope. It isn't the stressor itself necessarily that matters here, it is the animal's inability to cope with that stressor that is the crux of the matter.  For many shelter dogs, confined to cement cages and subjected to constant noise and tension is a form of toxic stress.While acute stress can be beneficial to an animal and help them learn to cope, chronic or toxic stress can have a serious negative impact on health and well-being.  Toxic stress leads to physiological changes and changes in the brain in ways that are long-lasting.

Puppies born to stressed mothers grow up to be dogs who are hyper-responsive to stress, with increased anxiety and a higher incidence of depression.  Their negative reactions last longer meaning they lack the coping mechanisms to move through their stress. Literally, these puppies are sensitized to stress having long-term repercussions making them vulnerable to anxiety based issues as adolescents and in adulthood.  And these changes can last forever.

Many of my clients share their homes with rescue dogs.  Often these dogs have poor coping strategies and suffer from a variety of behavioral problems rooted in anxiety.  It is likely that many of them had stressed mothers.  Others were raised as singleton puppies and/or in shelter environments will little enrichment or opportunity to gain the social experiences necessary to develop coping strategies and build resilience. By the time these puppies and dogs find their way to my clients' homes, they are already behind the eight ball, so to speak. Their brains and bodies are different and accommodations will need to be made in order to help them succeed and thrive to the best of their abilities.

While this all may seem quite depressing, it is just an overview or foundation from which we can build our strategy for helping these dogs who suffer from toxic stress.  I definitely have some ideas on that front!

For now, if your pet is experiencing a behavior problem, you know where to find me.

This sweet little one was raised by her mother and with all of her siblings in a rich social environment filled with the sights and sounds of normal family life. She is well-adjusted and displays appropriate coping mechanisms in response to transient stressors in her environment such as strange noises...and the occasional correction of the resident adult female dog in her new home!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

What is ASMR ?

So the internet is abuzz and the topic is ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.  Basically, this is a tingling feeling someone might get that is triggered  by a certain sound they find soothing, relaxing, or appealing. There are literally videos going viral for their ASMR properties for large populations of people.  My daughter told me that I'm kind of a weirdo because for me, the sound of her puppy chewing his veggies makes me tingly-happy.  That "crunch crunch crunch" to me is soothing.  Go figure.  So what did she do?  She sent me a half dozen videos of her puppy catching (and not catching!) baby carrots and apple pieces and crunch crunch crunching them on camera for me.  I am literally blissed out.  But you know me.  I'm a dog nut.

This got me to thinking about dogs, however, and the sounds that trigger them. The good sounds, not the ones that trigger them in a negative way. And wondering if there are certain sounds that give them an ASMR reaction too? And could supplying these "good" sound triggers purposefully for your dog elicit a reduction in their anxiety?  The short answer is YES! The long answer is that a lot more research is needed, but you can start your own research now.

First, you need to figure out what sounds your dog finds relaxing.  These are the sounds that elicit stretching, bowing, happy lip-licking, and for some dogs a little moaning and groaning or happy chomping sounds right before they nod off.  For most dogs, the sound of a plastic bag opening, the refrigerator door opening, the rustle of a food wrapper, etc. elicits a happy response, but they are alert, not necessarily relaxed.  For others, even the sound of a knife slicing something on a cutting board will get that happy response.  Others show these responses to music, white noise, fans, etc.  That is they are happily alert to the sound and then wind down and relax in its presence. Basically, trying to find your dog's ASMR means being a good observer and watching their responses to different sounds and stimuli.

We know that for people, watching and listening to these ASMR videos can reduce their anxiety and help treat their depression.  I find that hopeful as finding creative ways to reduce anxiety in dogs is part of my job.  So, if you find a piece of music, or a certain sound that induces relaxation in your pet, calming and soothing them, maybe even making them happily nod off, please share it with me.

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

One of the videos of my daughter's puppy, Westley, eating his veggies. 
 ASMR for me all the way!