Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Headed Back to Work: Are You Worried Your Dog Will Miss You?

Well, for better or for worse, shelter in place restrictions are being lifted and folks are headed out in public again.  As businesses begin reopening, many people will be heading back to work.  For those dog owners who had their canine companions before the pandemic hit, you already know if your dog has issues with you being gone to work.  For anyone who picked up a puppy or dog during quarantine, however, you may not have any idea how your dog will be when you go back to work full-time. I know a lot of folks are really worried about this, but the truth of the matter is, there is no need to panic AND you can begin training your dog to be okay with your absence now, before you head back to work.

First off, I'm just going to say it.  Yes, your dog will miss you and you will miss him.  And that's awesome!  It means you are bonded and invested in the relationship you have with each other.  But just because you miss one another does not mean that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety in your absence.  Even if your dog whines a bit or barks a few times when you leave for work, that doesn't necessarily mean he's suffering from separation anxiety.  He may simply be frustrated that he didn't get to go too!  And just because your dog loves to follow you around all the time when you are home does not necessarily mean he's predisposed to separation anxiety.  It may simply be he likes your company. So, how can you figure out the difference? 

Set up a camera to observe your dog in your absence.  You can go high tech with a nanny cam or home monitoring system, or you can simply set up a computer, tablet, or old phone with a camera function so that you can observe your dog.  Set up the camera and leave your dog for short periods of time.  I mean very short periods of time such as for a trip to your mailbox, a walk around the block, bringing in or taking out the trash cans, etc.  If your dog is alert to your absence but not in distress, great. Move on to leaving your house for a longer walk.  No problem? Get in your car and go for a short drive or run errands.  Observe your dog while you are out so you know if he's in distress.  So what does distress look like?

If your dog is profusely panting, pacing, drooling, barking, whining, scratching at the door, or being destructive, he's in distress. If you crate your dog when you are gone, then look for vocalizations, panting, drooling, digging at the crate, gnawing on the door, scratching to get out, or tearing up bedding. Again, if your dog whines a bit when you leave, but then trots off to nap on the couch or watch birds out the window, he's fine.  Keep an eye on him while you are gone and see if he goes to sleep or remains awake and vigilant the whole time you are gone.  Dogs spend the great majority of their day resting, so they should be doing that whether you are home or not. If your dog shows any of the signs of distress noted above, then he may have separation anxiety.  If he doesn't show any of these signs, he's fine, BUT you still need to think about what you'd like your dog to be doing all day when you are gone.  By pairing your departures with fun activities like interactive, food-based toys, you not only make your departures less of a big deal for your dog, but you make your dog actually look forward to you being gone as they get something special then! Plus, a dog who has spent a half hour working on a frozen Kong toy, for example, is tired and ready for a nap.  Your dog should have a few things to do while you are gone, but spend the majority of that time resting and patrolling their home turf to keep it safe.  It's what dogs do.

It's best to prepare your pets now for your ultimate return to your job outside your home.  Get your pet onto the schedule that you will be following on your work days.  Set an alarm, get dressed and get ready for work even if you aren't going off to work quite yet.  When you are working from home, make those work hours count; spend your time working and not focusing on your dog.  You can pay attention to them on your breaks!  That way, they won't be expecting attention and interaction all day long when you aren't there to do so. When you do leave your house for brief periods of time, don't make a big deal of it; leave the house with zero fanfare and don't go over the top when you get back home.  Reinforce your dog for being calm, not jumping up, spinning, barking, etc.  While you are both excited to see one another, it shouldn't be a three ring circus when you get home!

Separation anxiety is a completely treatable problem, so if you need help, let me know.  As always, you know where to find me.

I'm sure Westley is sad that my daughter has gone back to work this summer and isn't taking remote classes at home as she did for the last couple of months.  I'm sure my daughter is sad to leave him home as well!  Westley is, however, happy to chew on his interactive toys and nap all day until she returns. No separation anxiety here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Pandemic Problems: Is My Dog Afraid of Strangers Now?

I've received about a dozen calls in the last few days from owners concerned about their dogs' reactions to strangers.  Now that shelter in place restrictions are relaxing here in the San Francisco Bay Area, dogs are seeing more people on their walks.  People are starting to have friends and family over to their homes and in their yards to visit. Dogs are noticing all of this.  Even dogs that were well-socialized before the pandemic had us all housebound seem to be a bit more vigilant when meeting new people both at home and out in public.  And for dogs acquired during the shelter in place restrictions all of these new people getting close to them is a potential cause for concern. And the pandemic puppies?  They seem to fall into two groups, those that are timid with these new people and those that are so desperate for attention from the new people they see that they are jumping up, barking, spinning, and pulling on leash to get to them! Whether your dog is excited to meet all of these new people or wary about it, both are issues you will want to address right away as neither problem will go away on its own.

For the dogs who are super-excited to be meeting new people, you will want to embrace their joy (I mean, really, isn't it nice to see people again?!) but make sure it isn't infringing on other people's rights not to be jumped up on or mouthed by your dog.  While I agree it would be nice if every dog sat down when they wanted to meet someone new, this just isn't always possible.  It IS reasonable, however, to expect that even if they aren't sitting, they are doing something that makes greeting them a positive experience for everyone involved. If you are out on a walk, acknowledge to your dog how nice it would be to meet that new person.  Stand on your dog's leash so that all he can do is sit or stand in place for greeting.  Encourage people to pet your dog under his chin and along the front of his chest rather than ruffling his ears, patting his head, rubbing his back, or worse yet leaning in for a kiss or hug.  That under chin stroke or chest rub is perceived as non-threatening by your dog and is less likely to result in your dog trying to jump up to reach that outstretched hand; the hand is already low and aimed at a neutral spot on your dog's body.  If you know your dog will still try to lick that approaching hand, simply warn the new person that they might get their hand licked. That allows them to decide what they want to do rather than have them behave in a way that leaves your dog wondering what they did wrong!  Licking someone's hand is not bad, it's just not for everyone.  And if your dog mouths people's hands in greeting, be ready to have your dog's mouth busy doing something else; you can have treats to reward your dog or carry a toy for them to hold in their mouth during greetings. The last thing you want is someone to misinterpret your dog using its mouth to  hold their hand as something aggressive.

For visitors to your home, remember you can still use your leash!  Have your dog leashed for arrivals of guests so that they continue to display good behavior and get reinforced for being calm.  You can coach your guests to ignore the dog until he is calm and then reward him for it.  Tossing a toy, or even tossing treats for a dog to chase as they move away from guests works well. For outdoor parties, be ready to have your dog engaged in an activity that will keep them busy for a while.  As long as your dog isn't a resource guarder, you can give them a bone or a chew to work on while people visit with each other.  If you have a puppy or adolescent dog, it might be time for a nap in their crate after the first rush of greetings is over.  And if your guests include children, you must supervise.  Children who run will get chased, so you want to be right there to make sure that doesn't happen.  Let children work with your dog on their basic behaviors and give your dog treats, all while being supervised. This will help your dog view kids in a more favorable light.

For dogs who are wary or timid about meeting new people, don't force them.  Rather, try to make those experiences as positive as possible.  Make sure that you aren't making it worse by panicking and racing across the street away from approaching humans!  Don't death grip your leash or ball it up so that your dog is struggling to walk on the shortest leash ever.  Instead, keep your leash firmly in your grasp, but left loose and drapey so that you're not cuing your dog to react.  Happily acknowledge the people you see.  Keep your dog at a distance that you know keeps them alert and comfortable.  You can use treats to reinforce calm behavior, but don't use treats to distract them or bribe them to look at you.  Rather, give them treats when they see new people and stop giving treats when those people are out of view. If your dog is too anxious to take treats on walks, that's okay too.  Use your voice and your attention to reward them for calm behavior until they relax to the point where they are able to take treats on your walks. Adjust your walking route or the time of day you walk to help deal with the number of new people your dog will be seeing.  As they get better with seeing  a few new people, you can again alter your walking time or route so that you see a few more new people and so on.  You can also take a lawn chair to the park and sit with your dog there, handing out treats and/or attention for calm behavior when they see strangers in and around the park. For visitors to your home, remind folks to ignore your dog. Let your dog decide when and if they want to interact with that new person. It's perfectly fine if your dog chooses not to interact with your guests at all.  It isn't a requirement that dogs like everyone that you like; they just can't behave aggressively!  If your dog just can't settle down in the presence of guests in your home, even when he is being ignored, try redirection.  Offer your dog the opportunity to go in another room or into their crate to chew on a bone.  A lot of timid dogs are relieved to know that they don't have to stay and hang out with people they don't know.  If your dog knows he has a safe haven, he can choose that himself when overwhelmed.  And if your dog always gets something fun to chew on in his safe place when guests are in your home visiting, he will start viewing them a bit more positively.

The bottom line is this:  we don't like everyone we meet, and there is no reason to expect our dogs to do something we can't even do ourselves. It is reasonable, however, to expect our dogs to behave properly around new people.  No jumping. No mouthing.  No lunging. No incessant barking.  Observe your dogs.  Are there particular people who trigger their anxiety? Is it kids?  Elderly people with walkers or canes?  Teenagers on skateboards?  People in sunhats?  If you can narrow down your dogs' triggers, you will be better able to help them to see those things as not threatening in the future.

I know that a lot of dog owners think of stranger anxiety or over-exuberance with strangers as being the result of a lack of socialization or training.  While that may sometimes be true, it isn't always the case.  Some dogs are just wired to be timid; it's their personality, it's in their DNA.  Much as with shy or introverted people, this isn't a bad thing, it's just a personality thing.  We all make accommodations for our introverted friends and family.  Let's do the same for less than social dogs.

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

These three all approach strangers differently.  Ozzie is aloof.  He doesn't really want to meet new people; sometimes he doesn't even want to engage people he knows!  He is allowed to be an introvert.  Westley is extremely social.  He treats everyone like they are his best friend in the whole world.  He jumps and practically turns himself inside out showing strangers just how happy he is to meet them.  We stand on his leash and encourage controlled greetings.  Desi is a social butterfly too, but he is gentle, although still persistent. He, too, assumes everyone is his friend and wants to meet him (and he's usually right!). He will nuzzle your hand, lean in for love and be completely forgiving if someone forgets good dog etiquette and ruffles his ears or pats his head hard.  That's why he's perfect for pet assisted therapy.  I appreciate each of these dogs, introvert or extrovert,  as they all have something to teach me and a lot of love to give.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Keeping Your Kids & Your Dogs Busy!

School's out for summer!  Did you just sing that line? I know I did!  This summer will likely be unlike any other given that social distancing is still in place, masks are recommended in public, and many of the summer activities we all normally look forward to (county fairs and state fairs, public swimming pools, summer school classes, etc.) have been canceled. Every summer, I teach at least one, if not two, sessions of my Kids & Dogs class.  This class is a blast to teach and I've had kids return to take it multiple times with their siblings and their friends from school. I will miss not teaching this summer class, but I have had fun modifying some of the games so that my clients' children can do them at home as part of their training.  So, for those of you with kids (or grandkids!) home this summer with the dogs, here are some games and activities they can do together:

1. Teach a new trick every week:  In class, I teach the kids to group tricks together by the body part the dog uses.  So, for example, shake, wave, and high five all use a dog's paws.  Start with the most basic trick, shake, and build up to the more difficult tricks like high 5 and high 10. If we were working with a dog that didn't even know shake yet, we'd have a month's worth of activities to build on to get all of those paw-based behaviors!

2.  Agility for kids and dogs:  Have your kids set up an obstacle course with things they already have. Gather hula hoops, soccer cones, crawl through tubes, baby slides, kiddie pools, bike tires, etc. for your course.  Parents can help with cement blocks and 2 x 4 boards to create harder obstacles as well. Set up your course so that you child and the dog can weave between the cones, crawl through the tubes, slide down the slides, jump over the pools, dodge the bike tires, and crawl under and jump over the 2 x 4 boards.  Set the hula hoops at the beginning and end of the course and have the dog sit and stay to start the course and end the course.  Have the kids work as a team with the dog on leash and take turns seeing who can help the dog to do the course the best with the fewest mistakes. They can time themselves with a stopwatch.  Junior agility kids can teach their dogs to run the course without a leash and running alongside the dog!  Just remember to keep any jumps at the dog's shoulder height or lower for safety.

3.Red light, green light:  This is a game for homes with multiple kids and even multiple dogs.  When someone says "red light" all dogs and kids must stop, and the dogs must sit.  "Green light" means moving together as quickly as possible, and "yellow light" means slowing down.  The dog and kid who gets to the person calling out the signals first, wins!

4.  Tic-tac-toe:  Another game for home with multiple kids and more that one dog.  Have the kids use chalk to draw a large tic-tac-toe board on the ground.  The kids divide into teams with one to two kids on each team and one dog on each team.  If you only have one dog, that's fine too, then one team is kids only! The rules of tic-tac-toe apply and the dog must sit or lay down and stay in the square where assigned.  If the dog moves out of the square, then that team loses the game. If there aren't enough kids or dogs to fill a team's squares for every move on the tic-tac-toe board, then each team can use small bean bags to toss into the squares on their moves.  Once again, if the dog moves from its square to chase a tossed bean bag, then that team loses.  This game is fun to watch as kids will often get so focused on keeping their dogs in the stay that they forget how to play tic-tac-toe!

5.  Limbo:  Have two kids hold a pool noodle, broom, or large wooden dowel at shoulder height as other kids and their leashed dogs move under the pole, limbo style.  As the pole gets lower, kids will have to crawl under the pole and coax their dogs under too. No touching the pole!

6.  Set it all to music:  Have the kids add music to their training.  All of the tricks and behaviors they've taught the dog can be timed with music, and extra credit for matching costumes IF the dog doesn't mind playing dress-up.

Encourage your kids to be involved in the day-to-day needs of the family dog.  They can fill water bowls, help with feeding, and learn how to brush teeth, groom, etc. Dogs show more respect for kids who take an active role in their care and training.  Supervise your kids as they build lasting relationships with the family dog.  And always remember the importance of "down time" for everyone.  Family dogs need a quiet place to rest and recharge and everyone should respect that to ensure the safety and sanity of all family members.

I hope everyone has a terrific summer!  If you want my help to work together, outdoors and with social distancing, on any of these games with your family, please let me know.  As always, you know where to find me.

Flying touch is one of Ozzie's favorite tricks!  Any game or trick that allows him to jump up is on his personal list of favorites!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Dog Who Licked Too Much

A client called me on Monday regarding her dog.  We'd worked together a few years ago to help her resident cat acclimate to the arrival of this new dog.  Apparently, her college-aged kids are all home for the summer now and two brought home roommates who couldn't return home due to travel restrictions.  The household dynamic previously was just my client, her husband, and their high school aged daughter.  Over the weekend, the college kids were all sitting on the couch playing some sort of game on the TV.  There were a lot of loud voices and excitement!  The dog had been running around the house yipping and barking, jumping up on people and mouthing, something he'd not done since he was a puppy.  They chalked it up to all the excitement and added people in the house.  When he jumped up on the couch, however, he ran across laps and began to aggressively (her word) lick faces.  The kids were swatting him away trying to get him to stop licking and get off of the couch where he was trampling them and ruining their game.  This is when everything changed.  The dog stopped licking and started to growl. Everyone froze and they weren't sure what to do.  My client diffused the situation by clapping her hands and saying "Cookie time!" to which the dog responded by hopping off the couch and racing for the kitchen.  She was calling me because she wanted to better understand how the dog could go from "happily licking all the kids" to growling at them.  I told her the simple answer is because he wasn't actually happy.  Let's look at this a bit closer.

Licking is one of those behaviors that dog do.  They lick themselves, they lick each other, and they lick us.  Some people love it, others hate it; no one really seems to be ambivalent about being licked by a dog!  Dogs lick to appease (release tension) and attempt to self-calm.  Anxious dogs may even compulsively lick themselves or objects in their environment.  I even know a dog who licks his owner's hands while she is clipping his nails!  As with the dog who moved from licking faces to growling, the dog licking hands while his nails are being cut are both very anxious and showing their discomfort.  Neither dog wants to escalate to a bite, but they are trying to tell the humans that they are very uncomfortable, anxious, and stressed out.  Frantic or compulsive licking must be recognized as anxiety and treated accordingly.

My client's dog should have been redirected at the first sign of agitation, when he was racing around the house barking, jumping and mouthing.  He could have been taken for a walk, redirected to a toy or bone, or simply put in his crate (his safe haven) to relax away from all the excitement.  Just as I instructed my client whose dog licks her hands while she is doing his nails...the energy and anxiety fueling that displacement behavior needs to be redirected appropriately to reduce the dog's overall tension.

I'm really glad my client didn't punish the growl as that growl was the only way, short of a bite, that the dog could tell them how he really felt.  The growl was information that the humans could act on.  Now they know that when all the young adults are gaming in the family room, the dog needs to be elsewhere, happily removed from that energy level that causes him stress. Rather than seeing all that bouncing, mouthing, and licking as affection, my client will now recognize that those are signs of agitation, ambivalence, and stress and act accordingly.  Good news for her family and great news for her dog.

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

When Ozzie is anxious he will often seek out my attention and lay with some part of his body touching mine. If I acknowledge him too much when he's doing this, however, he will begin to obsessively lick my hands or feet, or his own feet.  I've learned to simply pet him once gently and then look away.  When I do that, he relaxes faster, self soothes, and more quickly bounces back to his usual, happy self.