Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Quarantine Anxiety: A Feline Perspective

I saw a meme this morning that basically said dogs are happy that their owners are home all the time now, while cats are wondering how much longer until the humans go back to work!  While funny, this definitely doesn't give a complete picture of how our pets are processing the changes in our behavior as we all shelter in place. Honestly, I think there are just as many dogs who are hoping they will be back to their regularly scheduled nap routine soon and cats who are thrilled to lay on the laps (or computers!) of their humans working from home. All joking aside though, we really do need to look more closely at how our feline companions are coping with having their humans home more and what we can do to reduce their stress and anxiety.

Cats enjoy routine just as much as dogs do.  Consistency on your part reduces their anxiety, meaning feeding times, play time, etc. should remain the same whether you are home or not.  I know that a lot of cat owners haven't given much thought to what their cats do during the day when they are off at work, assuming they just snooze the day away; the only time they worry is when their cats stop using the litter box, things are torn up, or fights start occurring in a multi-cat household. Problems can exist, however, even if they aren't that obvious.

First off, cats like fresh food.  Leaving a bowl out all day (or for several days) isn't their preference.  They like to eat little meals several times a day.  Where your cat eats is important too. Even though it may be more convenient for you, their food bowl shouldn't be anywhere near their litter box. And if you have multiple cats, they shouldn't have to share a bowl.  Cats have pecking orders too, so having bowls in separate areas eases potential stress between cats.  For particularly anxious cats, eating up high makes them feel safer, or in a room with the door closed. While putting food in a bowl works for most cat owners, cats themselves prefer to forage or work for their meals. Putting their food into an interactive puzzle toy allows them to work for their meals when they are hungry and keeps them mentally and physically stimulated. If you are home with your cat, you can play predator/prey games with them before feeding as that, too, is much more realistic for them.  So, for example, you can play with a fishing pole lure toy, letting your cat chase that feather around a bit, and then feed them their meal.  This simple activity simulates the way cats feed in the wild, they hunt for their food and kill it, before they eat.

Cats that live strictly indoors definitely need to have their environments enriched in order to reduce stress and boredom which can lead to behavior problems and health problems like weight gain.  Perches in windows or on walls and shelves are great, as are multiple cat trees with different textures.  Placing bird feeders outside windows can keep their interest, as can fish tanks indoors. Cats love to hide, so boxes and paper bags are fun, as well as providing a safe place to nap. While cats obviously groom themselves, many enjoy grooming from their owners.  Don't underestimate the power of brushing your cat or using a grooming mitt to solidify your bond. And while it's nice to be able to take your cat outdoors on a leash, many cats view harnesses and leashes as scary torture devices. For cats who can't acclimate to a leash and harness, why not build them an outdoor enclosure?  Outdoor enclosures give cats the opportunity to be outdoors, without the dangers of being loose in the neighborhood. The enclosure should include climbing and hiding areas and foraging toys to hunt for their food while outdoors. Adding in edibles like cat grass or catnip are fun as well.

Finally, I've had a couple of clients express concern over their cats aggressively seeking attention now, something they never did when the owners were only home in the evenings after work. Cats are social, some more than others.  If your cat is constantly soliciting attention and then getting frustrated and biting or scratching you when they don't get their way, this is something you can fix.  Play with your cat and then get them directed to a food puzzle or self-directed game before you begin your work at home.  Aim for two to three, 15 minute interactive play sessions with your cat each day to make sure that they are getting enough mental and physical exercise.  Rotate their independent toys so that their interest in those items is maintained. And while it's fine to give your cat treats, make sure they are getting those treats for behaviors you'd like to have them repeat like entertaining themselves, and not giving them treats as a distraction that will end up reinforcing their constant attention seeking and potentially lead to weight gain.

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

These cat perches allow for the use of vertical space, and varying heights and textures help with physical and mental exercise requirements.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Living With an Anxious Dog During Quarantine

A client called this morning about her anxious dog.  He's 2 years old and always been nervous and reactive, particularly with sounds and strange noises.  Now that they are home together all day every day, she says he's driving her nuts and making her anxious too!  Anytime someone walks past their house, he goes ballistic, barking and running from window to window until whoever has walked by is out of his sight line.  She is also now noticing that the dishwasher and refrigerator noises seem to upset him as well.  She says she's gotten to the point now where she thinks she needs anti-anxiety medication too!

I love that she still has her sense of humor intact.  This client used to work 8-10 hour days, leaving her dog at home alone with a dog walker coming by once daily for a midday stroll since he can't do daycare (he isn't a fan of dogs he doesn't know).  She normally ran the dishwasher as she was leaving the house in the morning, so she literally had no idea that it made her dog anxious!  She'd seen him react to the refrigerator noises when she was home, on occasion, but never this much.  And the number of people walking past her house now?  She had no idea there were that many people in her neighborhood! The bottom line is this: her dog has always been anxious about these things, she just wasn't home to observe them. So, what should she do to relieve the tension?

First off, she needs to get her dog back on his schedule. Normally, he would be crated when she leaves for work and come out for his midday stroll with the dog walker.  He is crated in a back bedroom, away from the noises at the front of the house, so that's one reason he's so amped up now.  She thought she was doing her dog a favor by keeping him loose in the house since they are home all day. Now, she sees that her upending his usual routine has only exacerbated his problems.  She felt horrible; she admitted that she was keeping him out of his crate because she likes the company. I told her this doesn't have to be all or nothing, but again, getting her dog back to his normal routine is the first step.

When he isn't in his crate, she needs to have him occupied.  When he's chewing on a bone, working on his basic behaviors, or distracted by the TV or music playing, he is less agitated by what he hears outside. He will still bark, but can be quickly redirected.  Running the dishwasher while he is crated in her bedroom will easily solve that problem.  She can also move her computer back to her bedroom and work back there part of the day.  That way, they can both be in the quiet part of her house together and he can lay on the bed with her and stretch out rather than be in his crate. Finally, she has to resume that midday walk that he's used to.  She had been trying to walk him randomly at other times when she didn't see other dogs out in the neighborhood. I told her that people are walking at all times of day now, so avoiding other people walking their dogs isn't really feasible. Plus, her dog is really used to that midday walk since the dog walker has been coming and doing that his whole life!  It's fine if she wants to add a second walk during their day, but that predictable midday walk needs to resume.  I reminded her that social distancing means that people will be moving across the street from her and vice versa, so her dog's tension with unfamiliar dogs approaching him will be less of an issue. She can again use redirection to sniffing to get his attention off of other dogs and onto the whole reason he's out for the walk!

Sheltering in place is creating anxiety for a lot of people and their pets.  Cut yourself and your pets a little bit of slack.  These are uncertain times for sure.  Keeping to a schedule that includes exercise, both mental and physical, is good for everyone.  For anxious pets, keeping to their regular routines is critical for their well-being.

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

Westley doesn't like garbage day at all. The truck noises make him anxious.  When he is home, he will retreat to my daughter's bed, and make himself a little pillow fort to ease his own tension. This way, his anxiety doesn't create more stress for my daughter, and Westley has learned how to modulate his own anxiety without her intervention. When she is gone, Westley is in his crate with a white noise machine  and fan on to blot out some of the ambient, scary noises that are outside of their control living in a large apartment complex.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Playing Devil's Advocate: A Different Approach to Socialization

So, last week my blog post focused on ways to socialize puppies and keep up with their training while abiding by shelter in place guidelines across the country and around the world. I wanted to present these ideas as so many clients were sending me panicky emails about what to do since they can't attend their previously scheduled puppy classes.  The ideas I shared were things that I present during puppy classes and puppy-related training seminars.  While I love the ideas that I shared and I do think they are a great place to start with a lot of puppies, they aren't the only way to approach socialization.  I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the puppies for whom puppy classes are stressful; those fearful puppies, those hesitant puppies, those puppies who hide during class under chairs or lash out when other puppies approach them.  This post is for those puppies and their owners.

I'm just going to say it.  Puppy class isn't for every puppy.  Are you shocked that I said that?  Well, don't be and here's why.  I know that puppies, like humans, are influenced by the environment and their genetics.  Everything I presented in last week's blog post was about environmental influences, not giving much consideration to how genetics plays a role in the way puppies learn.  Some puppies are born more tentative, timid, and hesitant.  While this might be considered a fault, it is nonetheless true.  I've met hesitant puppies that came from breeders, and hesitant puppies that came from the shelter or a rescue group. A dog's parents' behavior affects them; fearful moms can produce fearful puppies.  While we can certainly look at lineages and the genetics of behavioral traits in purebred dogs from breeders, this becomes much more difficult when puppies and dogs are acquired from shelters and rescues where we don't know the parent dogs, siblings, etc. Where it has been studied, however, we do see direct connections.  Litters of puppies born to shy moms are shy as well.  There may be one or more siblings who are a bit more "outgoing," but the litter as a whole is often described as "self contained" or "thoughtful."  You can use any words you want, but "self contained" and "thoughtful" are often just nice ways of saying shy or timid. And that's okay.  Not every human is outgoing and social either!  It just means that traditional training methods and big puppy classes may not work for every puppy. Not only may they not work, they may actually be harmful. If your puppy is a social butterfly, then those puppy classes and exercises I presented last week will work great. Even if they don't attend class and aren't meeting new people, they will still be social butterflies when SIP is all over because that's who they were born to be. If your puppy is timid, shy, or fearful, however, they likely won't, regardless of what you do in terms of this type of socialization.

For those of you with puppies who are more tentative and fearful, here's what you need to do.  You need to get your puppy focused on you.  You are their lifeline, the source of everything good and safe in the world.  When they are out in public, don't try to cajole them into seeking attention and validation from other people.  They should get their reinforcement from YOU!  If you make yourself the most valuable thing in their environment, they won't go looking to others, they will learn to ignore all of the noise and distractions as those things don't bring them comfort and  joy.  You do. Forcing a shy puppy to be petted, picked up, etc. by strangers can just reinforce their fear and make them trust you less for making them do it.  All that stranger handling can result in a puppy who is afraid to be handled by strangers (vets, groomers, etc.) and behaves aggressively to defend themselves.   Keep the focus on you.  You should be able to handle your dog effectively, and your puppy will learn that routine handling isn't something to be afraid of. And most importantly, play with your puppies!  So much learning happens during play. Play games of fetch, games of find, tracking games with a flirt pole, etc.

Those exercises I suggested with different surfaces, noises, etc.  can still be done with a timid puppy, but they might be done later in development once they've aged a bit and learned to trust that you will keep them safe. Some puppies might be closer to a year old before they can successfully navigate all of those textures without panicking.  Practice confidence building exercises with your puppy that focus on exploring, sniffing, etc. instead. You want learning to be fun for your puppy, timid or not.  Don't push them beyond their comfort level and ALWAYS make sure that they can see that you've got their back.

Training is not "one size fits all." If classes or exercises don't feel right for your puppy, don't do them.  Humans have learning differences and so do dogs.  We are all mammals, after all. You simply must take your puppy's genetics and personality into consideration when you are determining what is best for him.  Don't let other dog owners guilt you into doing things you know will scare your puppy and potentially ruin your bond.  I've seen enough dogs whose owners socialized them like crazy as puppies turn into aggressive dogs to know that pushing dogs to socialize who really don't want to, doesn't make them better at socializing. It can just make them more unpredictable because they don't trust their owners to keep them safe.

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

Ozzie was a timid puppy.  He trusted us, but he was wary of strangers.  While he loved other dogs, their people made him anxious.  We never forced him to socialize, but let him figure it out on his own terms.  To this day, we allow him to choose whether he wants to socialize with people or not. Not everyone gets to pet the "Lassie dog," but they can pet his companion, Desi, who loves all of that attention.  Needless to say, Ozzie is thriving during SIP and Desi is going through socialization withdrawals!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

More Help For Your Quarantined Puppies!

A few weeks back I talked about the importance of continuing to get your puppies out for walks and yard exploration during shelter in place.  They need the mental and physical exercise that outdoor exploration provides.  Plus, they still need to hear outdoor noises and see other people, even if those people are across the street from them.  They need to be outside when the trash trucks and street sweepers go by, so those don't scare them in the future, for example. There are lots of other experiences you can create for your growing puppies to help them thrive during these strange times we all find ourselves in.  Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:

1.  Play sounds on your phone and computer.  Traffic sounds, nature sounds, loud booming sounds like thunder, fireworks, backfiring cars.  Music...all kinds of music.  Start with the sounds very low and build them up louder and louder over time.  Play with your puppies while the sounds are on.  Feed them treats. Work on basic behaviors.  You want them to learn that unfamiliar sounds or novel sounds are no big deal.  Once they can handle all sorts of sounds, try using your TV to play fireworks (there's a great fireworks scene in "Meet Joe Black," for example!) or other loud sounds that have visuals as well. So many of us have HDTV's with surround sound that can really help a pup to experience things like fireworks long before July 4th.  If your puppy is a rock for all of this, you can even try banging pots and pans!

2.  Work on textures and surfaces with your puppies by putting bubble wrap, crumpled newspaper, wax paper, foil, etc. on the floor for them to walk across.  If you have weights, stability/balance balls, and yoga mats, have them stand and walk over those items.  Create a platform for your puppy to hop up on and shimmy under using a board on top of cinder blocks.

3.  Break out the bikes, skates, scooters and skateboards and get your puppy used to those things.  Even just moving them around in your yard or on your patio works, no need to head to a park or out in public. Got an old hula hoop?  Start with it on the ground first and have your puppy move around, over it, etc. You can have them eat in the hoop or work on their basic behaviors.  Now stand the hoop up and it's different!  Now they can walk through it or even jump.  Just keep the jumps low so you don't hurt those growing knees and elbows. Twirl the hoop on the ground for them to watch and then spin it on your arm or neck, or around your waist, for them to see it used it all sorts of different ways.  This is good exercise for you too, by the way!

4.  If you have kids, get them to dress up in costumes for your puppy to see.  Emphasis on masks, hats, crunchy fabrics, etc.  If you don't have kids, that's okay too.  You may have a costume laying around that you can use; even a cowboy hat, bike helmet, and sunglasses are good to try.  And we all should have our homemade masks and bandannas that we are using to go out in public!

5.  Look around for other novel items such as brooms, buckets, vacuum cleaners, rolling suitcases, wheelbarrows, etc. that you can introduce to your puppy.  Start with the items just in the room or near where you are working with your puppy. Build up to turning them on or moving them around.

6.  You should be working daily on handling exercises where you touch every part of your puppy's body.  Add in nail clippers or a nail dremmel nearby and work up to turning the dremmel on.  Use all kinds of brushes and combs on your puppy too. Especially make sure that you not only handle their feet, but clean their eyes and ears.  You can't take your puppy to the groomer, so now's the time to introduce baths, blow dryers, teeth brushing, and other grooming basics.

7.  Train every day just as you would do if you were attending puppy classes.  Practice all the basic behaviors. Do some tricks training.  Have your puppy work both on and off leash and with the distractions outlined above. If you have soccer cones, use those to practice your loose leash walking.  No cones?  Set up chairs to move your puppy around on leash obstacles.

While the shelter in place directives are likely to be lifted over the next couple of months, the social distancing guidelines are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.  Keeping up with your puppy's training and social experiences is going to require a bit of ingenuity, but it can be done.  And all of the activities outlined above can be done for adolescent and adult dogs as well to combat boredom and anxiety with being cooped up indoors.

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

When I first bought the grooming table, I had to introduce it slowly and with treats to get Ozzie used to it.  It's a weird surface to stand on and it's up off the floor. Desi is a retired show dog so he was an old pro at grooming tables.  Ozzie required a bit more convincing. Now they both get up their readily for their weekly grooming sessions. And the snacks!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Some Tips for Dealing with Your Anxiety & Your Pet's!

With everyone sheltering in place, anxiety is running high. People are anxious and consequently, their beloved pets are anxious as well.  Our pets are wonderful observers of our moods and our behavior; with all of us home, they are watching us constantly and trying to process our anxiety and uncertainty. A couple of clients have actually told me that they are embarrassed that their pets seem to move away from them at times during the day, seeking refuge under the bed, in their crates, or simply in other rooms, rather than staying close by.  Most of our pets are used to having more "alone time" during the day than they are getting now.  While this may seem like it should be a dream come true for our pets, that's really not the case at all.  We all need time together and time alone.  And if you are trying to mitigate your own anxiety by holding your pets, stroking their fur, etc., please keep in mind that while they may enjoy that contact for the most part, if we are constantly seeking solace in contact with our pets, we may make them more anxious.  So what can you do to be more mindful while petting your beloved cats and dogs?  How about trying T-Touch!

T-Touch was created by Linda Tellington over 30 years ago.  While she began using the technique with horses, it is now recognized as being therapeutic for other animals (and humans) as well. T-Touch is gentle, mindful, and respectful. It clearly demonstrates how non-habitual movements can bring about changes in behavior patterns.  It builds trust through touch for both the practitioner and the animal. While there are three components to T-Touch, the primary one for pet owners to focus on doing for their pets themselves is "body work." The movements associated with body work help to reduce anxiety and fear while promoting healing throughout the body and mind. Think of body work as a more mindful form of petting your dog or cat.  Here are a couple of easy body work techniques to try with your pets.  Begin with very short sessions, observing your pet for signs that they are enjoying what you are doing.  If they move away, let them.  As they begin to feel the connection with you through the techniques, you will see them relax into the movements which will provide you with positive feedback and decrease your own anxiety.  Try to focus completely on what your hands are doing and breath deeply.  Your relaxation will result in better relaxation for your pets.  So, here goes!

Noah's March:  Run one open hand gently down your pet's body, beginning at the neck and stroking lightly toward their butt.  Use the back of your hand to stroke down their shoulders.

Noah's March with Zig-Zag:  Do as outlined above, but after your open hand reaches the butt, close your hand and move up the dog's body back toward the neck.  You should notice that you have your pet's undivided attention now!

Circular Touch: Gently move the skin in a circular motion using 1/4 turns.  Use just the tips of your fingers at first. Over time, you can build up to doing the circular motion with all of your fingers and then even the palm of your hand. 90% of animals prefer that you do these circular motions in a clockwise direction!

The Abalone:  This is the circular touch using all of your hand moving in a 1/4 turn clockwise fashion.

Spring Bok:  If you are trying to stimulate your pet, say an older pet that you'd like to ease into some exercise, you can try this move.  Move your hand in a pinching up movement, beginning at the shoulders and working toward the butt.

The Lift: Like the Spring Bok, this movement awakens the nervous system.  Take the palm of your hand and move your pet's skin upward until you feel slight resistance, then move your hand downward with gravity to the starting point.

With all of these techniques, you want to begin with very light pressure to see how your pet responds.  You will always use just one hand on your pet; this is your working hand.  Your other hand is your grounding hand that you will keep on yourself, or if need be, keep in place on one spot on your pet.  For example, you might rest your grounding hand on your dog's chest while your working hand does the Noah's March from their neck to their butt.

If you'd like to explore T-Touch further, here are a couple of links to my favorite T-Touch products:

Touch is so important for us all.  Being mindful of the ways we touch each other insures that everyone feels safe and cared for.  So important to keep in mind as we are all practicing social distancing.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

I've been doing T-Touch with Ozzie since he was a puppy to help with his anxiety.  He now will solicit it on his own and will often lay down and look off in the distance, or close his eyes, while I touch him.  This is a still image while I was doing Noah's March down his foreleg. What I love most about Ozzie is the feedback he gives me while I'm doing this. He will sigh or moan and his breathing becomes deeper. Doggie bliss!