Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Frustration (and Danger!) With Off Leash Dogs

The holiday weekend was rough for several of my clients.  While out walking their dogs, they encountered other dogs, off leash, in areas that are clearly leashed dogs only.  A common theme seemed to be that the people whose dogs were off leash were under the impression that hollering "my dog is friendly" was good enough to make up for the fact that their off leash dogs were rushing at leashed dogs uninvited!  Added to this was the general consensus that the people whose dogs were off leash had zero voice control over their dogs.  When a couple of my clients hollered back "my dog ISN'T friendly," they were greeted with derision as the other dog's owner reluctantly approached and collected their dog.  And the story that really got me?  Another client was out in her car very early (before 6 a.m.) and saw a man walking two dogs, both off leash, on a sidewalk in her leashes only neighborhood.  As she drove by, one of the dogs lunged off the curb right at her car!  She slammed on her breaks and got out to make sure the dog was okay. The owner shrugged it off and said that the dog routinely chased cars!  Why in the world, if your dog chases cars, would you let that dog off leash near cars?  None of this made any sense to me and quite frankly, really annoyed the hell out of me.

I understand that everyone is a bit stir crazy right now and as the weather warms up, more and more people will be outdoors.  While many dog parks are reopening with social distancing guidelines in place for the humans there, that really is the only place other than your own property that your dogs should be off leash.  Every county here in the San Francisco Bay Area has leash laws; dogs must be on leash when out in public unless in a designated off leash area.  Period.  There aren't exceptions for "my dog likes everyone," or "my dog always come when I call," or "Gee whiz. He really needs to stretch his legs."  Leashed means leashed.  And as much as I hate retractable leashes, those are at least a bit better than no leash at all.

We all need to be good neighbors.  Leashing your dog is not just the right thing to do, it is the neighborly thing to do.  There are people afraid of dogs in your neighborhood for whom an off leash dog approaching them is terrifying.  Many of my clients have dogs who are aggressive and defensive around other dogs; they have every right to walk their dogs on leash and expect that their neighbors will do the same.  Social distancing guidelines of remaining 6 feet or more away from others has been the silver lining for many of my clients with aggressive dogs.  They've had to worry less about being approached on walks. Until they encounter one of these off leash dogs.

Interestingly enough, one of my clients with an aggressive dog was able to redirect her dog as we've worked on this quite a bit.  When that off leash dog, however, kept lunging at her dog barking, and the other owner couldn't recall the dog, lo and behold a fight broke out.  My client was forced to drop her dog's leash.  Finally, the other owner came over and they were then able to separate the dogs.  The kicker?  The other owner was furious that his dog had gotten hurt in the scuffle.  Excuse me?! Your dog would not have gotten hurt had you had the dog on leash like you were supposed to.  And now my client's dog's training has been severely set back because he has resumed his hyper-vigilance and protective stance.  Frustrating all around.

If you are having trouble with off leash dogs in your neighborhood too, there are a few things you can do.  You can let Animal Control know.  They will schedule drive bys where they will cite people whose dogs are off leash.  You can carry an air horn with you.  When that off leash dog approaches, blast the air horn right at them. It will certainly stop them in their tracks and let the other owner know they need to collect their dog promptly.  You can carry treats with you and throw the treats right at the off leash approaching dog.  Hopefully, he'll be so stunned by the treats raining down that he'll stop to snack allowing you and your leashed companion to safely move away. I know you shouldn't have to do any of these things when you aren't the one disregarding the rules.  However, I also know that people are people and there will still be those dog owners who consider their desires and wishes as more important than those of others in their community.  Selfish disregard for others isn't something new, for sure.  I just know that I, for one, had hoped that one of the things this pandemic would do was make us more conscientious with one another, resulting in more kindness and awareness of the needs of others and the spirit of community.

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

Westley out on a leashed walk and wearing his cooling jacket to beat the heat!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Help! My Dog Ignores Me when I am Wearing a Mask!

As many of you know, I started out working with exotic animals.  In those days, we were taught to never wear sunglasses when working with the animals because they needed to see your eyes and where you were looking, two things that sunglasses impeded. While it was often uncomfortable for us to be working with animals in the blazing sun without sunglasses (and I blame ALL of my crow's feet on this!), I know this was true.  If you wore sunglasses, you would often see the animals ignoring you, or becoming anxious and looking away or moving away. Even when visiting and observing captive animals at zoos, you will notice a difference in their behavior if you watch them with your uncovered eyes, or through sunglasses.  Which brings me to our topic this week of face masks and how wearing them might change your animal's behavior.

We know that dogs, in particular, are meta-communicators, using sounds as well body language to communicate with each other and with us.  Humans, not coincidentally, use meta-communication as well.  So, for example, a dog might growl while doing a play bow and then pounce on another dog. The play bow lets the other dog know "hey, everything after this is just play and meant to be fun!" even though there was a growl and a pounce. Without the play bow, the growl and pounce could have been interpreted quite differently. Meta-communication is all of the nonverbal cues used in communication, so tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions.  All of these things add (or take away) from the message given by what we are strictly saying with our words.  Even with their limited range of facial expressions, dogs are able to use meta-communication as part of their "conversation" with us and with other dogs.

When humans wear face masks, we are blocking the lower halves of our faces.  We can still be heard, but our message is often muffled and not as clear.  While we can raise our voices to be better heard, that change in pitch or tone can have unintended consequences for our dogs.  In addition, if you are wearing both a mask AND sunglasses on a walk or during an outdoor training session, you are really making it difficult for your dog to understand your message.  If they can't see your eyes, and they can't see your facial expressions, they may be unsure or ambivalent about your message.  This is one reason I always advise my clients with puppies to work on verbal commands in combination with clear hand signals.  That way, if you ever lose your voice (or have your voice muted as we do with our masks), you can get your dog's attention and have him comply simply through the use of hand signals. This is also important for older dogs whose hearing may be impaired, meaning they must rely more on what they see to determine what you want from them.

Initially, clients were telling me that they thought their dogs might be afraid of the face masks.  I told them that I thought fear was a much less likely response than ambivalence.  If dogs don't see your mouth moving or your facial expressions when you say things to them, they may just discount what was said as unimportant or not worthy of their attention. Pulling your mask away from your mouth to communicate with your dog when outside on walks defeats the purpose of wearing the mask, so what should you be doing?

First off, practice with the mask on at home, in a quiet room, with one dog at a time, if you have multiple dogs. Use your hand signals AND verbal commands and reinforce the behaviors with treats. Even if you are asking for simple behaviors that your dog already knows like "sit," "down," "watch me," etc., you will still want to reinforce those behaviors with treats while you are wearing your mask.  This makes "working harder to listen to you while wearing a mask" a reinforceable behavioral task for your dog.  Once your dog is watching for the hand signals and better listening to your voice through the mask, you can move to working outside in your yard or on your porch where ambient outdoor noises may interfere with what your dog hears and/or distract him. Once you've got them working for you there, you are ready to head out into the real world, mask securely in place, with the confidence that your dog will listen to you, watch for your hand signals, and respond appropriately. Just make sure that your hand signals, gestures and body language are clear to your dog since your verbal message may be muted.

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

Ozzie is undeterred by masks.  He will respond to what he's asked to do even with the muted tone or volume due to my mask.  He wants to chase the squirrels, however, no matter what you say, mask or no mask!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

As the shelter in place restrictions begin to relax, more people are reaching out about scheduling in-person appointments with me.  While grateful for the business, I am still thinking ahead and planning what that will look like for what I do.  I truly believe that it is in everyone's best interest to continue to social distance and utilize masks in public places.  I think this is simple to do and something that I can easily ask my clients to do as well.  I am fortunate that the weather is lovely here in California, so I can meet with clients outdoors making social distancing even easier as we move into Summer.  But what about classes?

It's looking like it will be quite a while before typical classroom settings will be approved.  Given that, it may be possible to teach some, smaller classes in outdoor settings with healthy participants who remain 6-10 feet apart and wear masks.  The silver lining will be that my seminar classes on topics such as separation anxiety, canine body language, and aggression can be taught via Zoom.  Students around the world would be able to attend, and best of all, my clients who are immune compromised or otherwise at a higher risk, can still participate from the safety of their own homes.  That brings me a great deal of peace of mind too.  Still being able to teach, answer questions, and have students interact with one another in the digital classroom is my goal.  As I work to get these online seminar classes set up, let me know if there are specific topics you'd like to see covered as well.

There have been a few clients who have said they really hate remote learning and video consultations.  I understand their frustration, but the bottom line is this: we all need to get creative in the way we do business.  While it may not be optimal to have your pet behavior questions answered and addressed through a computer screen, it is possible.  I've already worked with a couple of clients with aggressive dogs who were sure there was no way to do this if I couldn't see their dog in person.  I had them send video ahead of time, and then set up my phone on a tripod so they could see me moving around and using my own dogs to demonstrate the techniques they needed to use with their own dogs to achieve success.  Is this my favorite way to work with dogs and their owners? Not in the least. I will, however, continue to do things this way until our governor deems it safe and prudent to do otherwise.  I don't want to be part of the problem, but I do want to be on the cutting edge of the solutions.

Don't wait to treat the behavior problems you are seeing now.  Let's work together to figure out the best strategy for your success and the mental health and well-being of your pets.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie and Desi now follow me when they see me grab the tripod and head out to the yard.  They know that one or both of them will be helping me with a client's dog...and that there will be treats for doing so!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Anxiety and Stress: The New Normal?

It seems like I have a couple of conversations every day now with pet owners concerned about stress and anxiety in their pets during SIP.  For some pet owners, this is a new thing as their pets always seemed well-adjusted before. For others, their pets have always been anxious, but the anxiety is worsening now or simply more pronounced with everyone home all the time.

One big concern has been the added stress of kids home on the family pets.  Numerous clients have reported their cats hiding in closets and under beds, avoiding contact, as well as dogs that don't want to come in the house or want to stay in their crates.  The metro Denver area actually reported a substantial increase in reported, child-directed dog bite cases for the end of March and beginning of April, right when SIP orders went into effect and kids were doing remote learning from home.  It's always important to be there to watch your children when they are interacting with your pets, but as more than one parent has told me, they can't be there every second.  Given that, parents need to spend extra time working with their children on understanding what stress, anxiety, and agitation look like in dogs and cats.  Most pets actually do give a warning before they bite, but those warnings are often ignored and the pets escalate their aggression in frustration.  Remind your children and grandchildren that a dog under a chair or table, in its crate, sleeping in the yard, or on its dog bed does not want to be disturbed.  If the child really wants to interact, they can call the dog to them. If the dog readily comes over, he wants to interact. If he ignores the child, the child must accept this and walk away.  Same for cats hiding in closets and under beds; kids need to leave them alone.  They can get a cat toy and see if the cat might want to come out and play, but they shouldn't reach for or otherwise disturb the cat.  And no climbing up on chairs to "rescue" the cat from the top of the refrigerator!  If your cat has taken refuge up on top of the fridge, leave them be!

While it may seem like I am "calling out" kids, these same guidelines apply to adults too. I had one client ask her husband to video her with their cat. In the video, you can see the cat trying to casually move away as she approached him. When she scooped him up, the cat was arching away and pushing off from her to get down.  When she insisted on holding him, you could hear really loud purring.  She felt that meant the cat had been "playing hard to get." Her husband felt the cat was really stressed out and they were calling me for my opinion.  I said the purring wasn't a happy sound in this case, but a cat who was stressed and irritated, trying to self-regulate with a human who had heeded none of his obvious signs of distress. Needless to say, the woman felt really bad that she didn't see this for what it was. I told her she wasn't alone; many of my adult clients are anxious themselves and seeking out their pets for comfort.  Doing so, however, can increase their pets discomfort overall.  Pets need their down time, their "me time," their alone time just like people.  Keeping your pets to their regular schedules for feeding, exercise, and engagement helps to reduce their stress and anxiety and understand what is expected of them.

Look at it this way:  most of us enjoy contact with other people (in non-pandemic times!), but on our own terms.  People who stand too close to us when speaking, hug us without being invited to do so, or hold our hand too long in a handshake make us uneasy at best and even angry at worst.  Hugging your dog, squeezing your cat, forcing them to receive attention from you on a whim/when they are resting etc., makes them uneasy at best and angry at worst.  While some cats and dogs seek out close contact all the time, others need more alone time to feel comfortable and recharge their social batteries, so to speak.  Knowing which of those pets you share your home with is key.  And respecting those boundaries makes for a more peaceful quarantine, with less anxiety all around.

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

Let grooming cats be!  Nacho has chosen an outdoor chair in the sunshine where he can groom and nap without interruptions!