Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Why Can't I Get My Dog to Stop Barking?!

Just got off the phone with a new client.  She lives in a senior community and her 9 lb. barking dog is creating problems for her neighbors.  She's always had little dogs, but she's never had one that barked as much as this one.  She feels that the barking has gotten worse over time and at this point she's frustrated that nothing seems to be working to get the dog to settle down when people walk by their unit, knock on the door, etc. Turns out this dog also barks at the TV, when the phone rings, and sometimes in the middle of the night, waking up his human.  That's an awful lot of barking and several different triggers as well.  Here's what I told the client:

Dogs bark, that's a given. Some bark all the time, others rarely. Some bark only when someone is on their home turf, ringing the doorbell, knocking on the door, delivering mail, etc. For some dogs, it is other animals that set them off; the squirrel on the fence, the birds in the tree, the dog on the other side of the fence or the dreaded cat next door. I've met dogs who bark at the television and those that bark at the beeping microwave!  The one thing to keep in mind with respect to barking is can be controlled. Just as you can teach a dog to bark on command, you can also teach them to quiet.

When your dog barks, find out why. Go outside, go to the window, etc. Don't just holler at them to be quiet...find out what it is that is triggering them to bark. Acknowledge whatever it is and THEN ask for the quiet. For many dogs, once they see that you've validated what they've discovered, they stop barking. If, however, they don't stop barking once you've acknowledged them, then you must assign a consequence for them NOT heeding your request. The consequences assigned are NOT for barking  per se. Not only can we not completely get rid of dog barking, we really don't want to; dogs are here to alert us and that's a good thing. The consequences are there because the dog did not listen to what you told them to do. Just as you expect a "sit" when you ask for it, so it is with "quiet." So, what is an appropriate consequence for not quieting when asked? I am a big fan of time outs. Put your dog in their crate, in the laundry room, etc. and have them remain there for 3-5 minutes, or longer if they persist in barking. This will not make their crate (or the laundry room, for that matter) a negative. You are not grabbing your dog, swatting them, and shoving them into the crate or laundry room; you simply put them there without any fanfare at all. The idea here is to use social shunning (time away from you and their world) as a means of getting more compliant, attentive behavior from your dog.  For my senior client, catching her little dog to put him in a time out could also be challenging.  We decided that keeping a leash on the dog at all times would make catching him easier so he can be put in her bathroom for the time out.  We also agreed that turning on the fan in the bathroom will help to blot out any barking he does there in response to the time out!  I reminded her that he cannot be released from the time out until he is quiet, so the time out could end up being longer than 5 minutes.

If your dog is barking in your yard or on your porch, it is also important to interrupt your dog's barking with something other than the word "Come!" You don't want that command associated with anything negative, so calling them to come inside when they are barking in the yard will, by definition, make coming when called a negative for the dog. Instead, whistle, clap your hands, stomp your feet, or squeak a toy. When you have your dog's attention, use their name and ask for the quiet or redirect them to a toy, bone, etc. so that they have something else to do. Interrupting barking when it first occurs means it will be easier to redirect your dog to something else. The longer you let the barking persist before you interrupt it, the harder it is to get the dog to stop.  And remember that dogs who tend to bark incessantly/indiscriminately should not be left outdoors unattended as you won't be able to assign consequences to the behavior if you aren't home to do so.

So, while I agreed with my client that it is a real pain to get up at 3 a.m. to find out why her dog is barking, it is in her best interest to do so. It could be an opossum on her porch, but it could also be something more important like someone rattling the door knob or a fire in a nearby unit (that actually occurred which I think contributed to this dog's hyper-vigilant barking at night, in particular).  In the case of the fire, her barking dog was just doing his job. 

Given that this little dog also barks at sounds on the TV, the beeping microwave, and the phone ringing, we needed to discuss noise sensitivity and how to deal with that issue from a desensitization point of view. Just as some noise sensitive dogs become anxious and/or hide when they hear noises, some dogs (like my client's) are more reactive, barking at the offensive noise until it ceases.  My client is going to try some noise desensitization with her dog using sounds she can play on her computer at varying volumes, rewarding quiet behavior and redirecting the dog when he barks.  If this is not successful, we may move on to trying a drug called Sileo which has recently been found to help noise sensitive dogs become less anxious and reactive.  The drug is used short term, but can have long term effects in that within 1-6 doses, dogs no longer care about or react to noises they previously found triggering.  

I also reminded my client that it's important to communicate with her neighbors that she is aware her dog's barking is a nuisance and that she is actively trying to curb the behavior.  Not only will her neighbors appreciate knowing that she's aware of the problem, but that she is seeking help to get it under control as soon as possible.

I always feel a kindred spirit with clients whose dogs are barkers.  I have had collies for almost 15 years and as anyone who has had collies can attest to, they are a breed that likes to bark! Ozzie, in particular, is very "barky." He barks at squirrels, cats, when he plays, when he wants attention and thinks Desi is getting more than he is, when someone stares at him in the car, when you run with him, etc.  See? He's a barker.  I've spent a lot of time working with him, however, so he understands that while barking is allowed, he must quiet when told to do so.  For the most part, he's good about this.  When he persists and is defiant, he knows there will be consequences.  Ozzie is smart and doesn't usually push me to the point of a time out.  But if he does, you'll find him pouting in the laundry room.

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

Ozzie *quietly* keeping a watchful eye on the fence for squirrels.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Didn't I See You Walking Someone Else's Dog?

 Over the weekend, I posted a photo on Facebook of a client's dog.  This week for our appointment, I took him on a "field trip" into town so that we could work on his behavior out in public spaces.  You see, this is a pandemic pup.  He's been raised indoors and basically had all of his experiences limited to his own yard and neighborhood.  If these had been non-pandemic times, he would have attended a couple of rounds of puppy classes, met all of the friends of his kids while walking them to school, etc.  Since these are pandemic times, however, his experiences have been limited.  Now that we can be out in public more, it was time to put all of the training we've done at home in his yard to practical use, hence the field trip.  Here's what it looked like:

I put a car seat harness on my dog friend and loaded him into my car.  This means we worked on standing nicely to put the harness on, patience with being loaded into an unfamiliar vehicle, and even more patience while I connected his safety harness to my seatbelt.  Finally, we were off.  I was fortunate that he is a very quiet car companion. If he'd been barking or whining, we'd have worked on that as well.  When we got to town, patience was once again required as I got him out of the car, masked up, and removed his car harness, switching it out for his walking harness.  We walked all over town, up one street and down another.  Stopping at all crosswalks to practice sits and waiting to cross. We worked on not pulling on leash to meet other dogs and people.  If people wanted to greet him, I sent him out to the end of his 6 foot leash to say hi.  We'd already worked on not jumping on new people, so I crossed my fingers that he wouldn't jump when sent out on his own.  Whew!  No jumping.  People were lovely, telling him what a good boy he was, thus reinforcing his calm behavior.  Normally, I would have taken him into some of the dog-friendly stores, but given the limits on the number of people who could be in those stores at any given time, I didn't want to keep someone who was actually there to shop from being able to get in.  We stopped at several benches where I sat down and pretended to be working on my phone.  His job was to sit or lay quietly, not jumping on me for attention or whining to resume the walk.  This took a bit more practice as he really doesn't like it if I appear to be paying attention to anything but him!  By the 4th bench we stopped at, however, he had it figured out.  I treated it like a game; if he was quiet and didn't stare at me, he got a treat.  If he whined, jumped up, pawed me, or stared, he was ignored.  The hardest part of the lesson was walking past people sitting with their dogs.  My canine charge was fine; he knows better than to try to engage other dogs when on leash with me.  Those other dogs, however, often came flying at him to say hi.  I wasn't really worried about most of them as they were friendly. It was the two aggressive dogs, however, that gave me pause.  One actually dropped into a predatory posture, eyes dilated and frozen body before the pounce.  The owners were completely oblivious to their dog's behavior until he leaped up, nearly yanking one person's arm out of the socket and almost tipping over the cafe table! Yikes!  Luckily, I saw all of this before it happened and I scooped up my little buddy and gave the lunging/barking/snarling dog a wider berth as we went past.  While the other dog's owner did issue a small apology and indicated that his dog does this all the time, all I could think about was other dog owners who are likely less observant than me who just want to walk in town and window shop, and not have to be concerned about aggressive dogs coming at them.  While I firmly believe it is every dog owner's right to take their dogs in public, they do need to work with those dogs on good behavior in public spaces.  Probably would have been better to leave the dog we saw at home if they'd intended the trip out to lunch to be one without incident; they knew their dog had issues.  Or, if they couldn't leave him at home, how about humane muzzle training for him so that the general public would see the muzzled dog and naturally give them more space to keep the dog under threshold for aggression?  Food for thought.  The funniest part about all of this was the owner commented on my canine friend "shooting him stinkeye" after the incident as we were walking away.  I smiled behind my mask.  My little buddy knows good dog and human behavior when he sees it and that definitely wasn't it!

After an hour of walking around in town with all of those sights and smells and new people and things, my buddy was exhausted.  We headed back to the car where he was more than happy to trade his walking harness for the car harness and be lifted back into the vehicle and air-conditioned comfort for the ride back home.  Mission successful!

Turns out that someone I know saw us walking in town, but between the mask and the unfamiliar dog on the end of the leash (it wasn't one of my collies!), they figured they must be mistaken and didn't give me a shout out. When they saw the picture of the dog on Facebook, however, they knew it had been me after all and asked why I was walking someone else's dog.  Teaching your dog to be comfortable with friendly strangers and trust other people besides you is an important skill.  Dogs need to go to the vet's office and the groomer without us now, making this level of trust and good behavior in public even more important.  I am grateful to have clients who trust me with their canine family members and allow me to take them on these types of field trips where we can increase the distractions and teach life lessons in real world scenarios.  These sessions benefit everyone involved and result in happier families as a result.  Plus, my little buddy was exhausted when we returned home and took a much needed nap, thus giving his humans some additional time to themselves.

If your puppy or adolescent dog is ready for one-on-one field trips like this, let me know, and we can set one up in your area.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

ICYMI:  Here's my little Goldendoodle buddy waiting patiently 
for me to put my mask on so that we can begin our field trip!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Reality vs Social Media

I had a first appointment with a lovely new client and her Labrador mix this past weekend. She had a list of 12 things she wanted to address during our appointment and she sent me the list in advance which I greatly appreciated as it let me know how to help her get the most out of our time together. She did, however, end her list with a statement I found concerning.  She said, "I'm sorry this list is so long. I really am a good pet parent.  I hope you don't think I'm not taking good care of my sweet dog."  This really floored me for a couple of reasons.  First off, I don't judge the pet owners seeking my help.  It doesn't really matter how long it took for you to get to me; it just matters that you did and that you are ready for my help. It's interesting though. The more I thought about what she said, the more I realized that while I have had numerous female clients express some sort of apology for the state of their dog or cat's behavior, I don't think I've ever had a male client apologize for a pet. Ever.  When I brought this up to another business woman I know she said the same thing.  Women are constantly apologizing for everything, men, not so much.  We decided it was some sort of societal construct where women feel they need to explain or apologize anytime things go south.  Nonetheless, I told the client she had nothing to apologize for and that I was happy to be meeting her and her dog and working together to improve their relationship.

Funny thing was, she said something else at the end of our appointment that also struck me.  She said, "I'll bet your animals are perfect!  They probably do everything you say and you never have to repeat yourself or feel frustrated."  I literally burst out laughing!  As any of you who know me at all know, I'm all about transparency with regard to my dogs.  I have shared the ups and downs of all of my dogs' behavior in an effort to help people better understand their own dogs, but also to show that behavior issues can arise in ANYONE'S pets, including my own.  My dogs are separate beings from me.  I know I'm not perfect, and I certainly don't expect them to be either.  They aren't robots; they are living creatures with minds (and motivations) of their own which don't always sync perfectly with mine and that's okay.  We work on building relationships with our pets every day.  Rather than working toward perfection, I like to think we are all working toward symbiosis.  Sharing your world with pets means being willing to compromise and allow them to be individuals.  This doesn't mean letting them do whatever they want, it just means letting them be themselves while also being appropriately behaved members of their own species. I told my client that she definitely needed to follow my blog  and social media posts for more stories on the animals I share my home with and the reality of my life as an animal behaviorist.  I then told her that while some folks on social media only like to present themselves in the most positive light at all times, I myself embrace my faults, my scars, and my shortcomings. I'm human too and my pets are certainly not immune to behavior problems.  I like to think that they're just lucky to have me around to help them move through those issues and on to better things.  Basically, the same service I provide to my clients. No judging, just helping.  No need to apologize for your pet's behavior problem, let's just work on it so you can enjoy each other.

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

Ozzie and I are both works in progress, but we share a love of many of the same things: beaches, snacks, music in the car, and family.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Why is Fear so Frustrating?

My daughter is home for a short visit with her two year old smooth collie, Westley.  Westley is a delightful, intuitive, outgoing, playful young dog.  He is also, on occasion, a very fearful dog.  Westley doesn't like garbage trucks (we've talked about those monsters before!), but lately, it seems, he's afraid of a lot of other noises as well.  This isn't unusual; I've had many clients whose noise-sensitive dogs have multiple anxiety producing triggers.  The problem is that Westley's new fears are keeping him from going on his morning walks.  He will sometimes even choose not to eat his breakfast in favor of hiding out in his crate until "the coast is clear."  The bigger issue is that they live in a large, busy apartment complex where there is currently construction going on.  And they live off of a major street where you can hear trucks going by all the time.  Noises are a way of life in the suburbs and Westley seems to be overwhelmed.  This is creating frustration and stress for my daughter as well since she worries about Westley's well-being; she knows he needs his walks, but she doesn't want to force him to go if he's just going to be terrified for the whole walk.  Now that they are home, I decided to work with Westley myself to see if I could help him move past his latest fears with those noises in the environment he now associates with morning activities.

Westley ate breakfast with my two collies just fine, ran around in the yard playing with toys etc. in the morning, so we seemed to be off to a good start.  As I began to leash up the older collies, however, I noticed Westley beginning to pant and quiver.  When I hooked on his leash, he scampered off to hide in his crate!  Ozzie and I coaxed him out of his crate and we headed out on the walk. Mind you, there were no trucks, garbage or otherwise, in the neighborhood when we left for our walk. I talked to Westley using an upbeat voice and reinforced him for being out there.  I encouraged him to sniff and offered treats when he did so.  He was hesitant at first, but then started to be easily distracted by sniffing and the treats became more reinforcing.  He showed interest in another friendly dog we saw on the walk, took treats from a neighbor, and seemed to be doing better overall.  Then we saw a moving truck and he started to pull towards home. I used a calming handling technique to reset him and lower his anxiety so that we didn't have to rush home and he didn't have to be overly anxious.  Westley was fine on his evening walk, but was right back to anxious again the next morning so we chose to load the dogs in the car and take them on a hike instead.  I have high hopes for Westley as he is bright and he wants to please.  I also know that my daughter will put in the time and work to help him move past this.  With clients, however, I like to give them real world examples like this one and then try to summarize their "game plan" so that they feel less frustrated and better able to cope with their dog's fears, regardless of where those fears originate.  Here's the game plan if you, too share your home with a fearful dog:

First off, don't get mad at them. It's not their fault that they are afraid.  If you're frustrated, take a couple of deep breathes and try to empathize with your dog.  Telling them they are a good dog, petting them, rubbing their favorite spots, etc. does NOT reinforce their anxiety.  This is a common misconception that somehow you petting your anxious or fearful dog will result in more anxiety. On the contrary, being supportive and loving will help your dog to see you for who you are...their champion and protector, there to make sure it's all really okay. So, go ahead and comfort your dog.  One thing you don't want to do is punish them for their fear.  If you are their safe space and you dish out punishment all that results in is your dog seeing you as unreliable and misleading.  You want your dog to trust you even when they are scared.  Provide your dog with what they need to feel safer. For some dogs, that's close contact with their owners. For others, like Westley, it's access to their crates.  For some fearful dogs, it means walking at off peak times or in less populated areas so that they can relax and enjoy those walks and sniff time.  If treats help, use them.  If your dog won't take treats, that's fine too.  They may be able to take treats eventually, so do keep trying.  While we may tell ourselves and other humans that facing your fears is the way to overcome them, this is decidedly untrue with our dogs.  Repeatedly putting a fearful dog into a situation where they are experiencing heightened arousal can result in a dog who feels so overwhelmed that they have no choice but to act out aggressively to get away or move away from what is causing their fear. Slow desensitization to what they find fearful and counter-conditioning them to find those things less provocative over time is the key.  And the bottom line is this: your dog who is afraid of strangers may never be okay with strangers approaching and petting them and that's okay.  It isn't a requirement that every dog be approachable and pettable.  Instead, educate the people around you. Tell them your dog isn't comfortable with strangers (even the ones who are self-proclaimed dog people!) and discourage them from approaching your dog.  Having strangers ignore your dog allows them to decide who they want to approach and when to do so.  This isn't a "cure" for your dog's fear, but it is a safe and ethical way to deal with it so that you may take your dog out in public and have them be as relaxed as possible in those situations.

Dogs who are afraid are usually not afraid all of the time.  Be sure and celebrate those small victories for your fearful dogs and find other ways to build their confidence. For now, this means walking Westley in the evenings and playing with a flirt pole and working on trick training in the morning instead of going for walks when they return to Southern California.  While he is home, I will continue to work with him on morning walks where he has not just me, but the two older collies there to support him and cheer him on.  And they do.  They walk on either side of him as if to say, "We got you little buddy.  Don't worry."  Yes, I do think this helps.  Observational learning is huge in dogs; Westley sees that Desi and Ozzie are not afraid and he does relax and sniff.  That's something to celebrate.

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

We loaded Westley and Ozzie in the car and took them on a morning hike at Mt. Davidson in San Francisco to change up the morning walk routine.  Westley wasn't a bit afraid here as there were no city noises, no trucks, and plenty of distracting sights and smells.  Plus, he had all of his favorite people with him.  Definitely a successful trip to an "off peak place" which is one of the steps in treating a dog with noise sensitivity to city sounds.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Thinking Ahead: Post-Pandemic Plans for Your Dogs

I've been getting a lot of questions of late about how to help prepare dogs for post pandemic times, when they will most likely be engaging with other dogs and people on a more regular basis again. Will this be difficult for dogs who've been kept 6 feet or more apart from strangers now for months on end?  How about the puppies who've grown up during this time and don't know anything but keeping their distance?  How about the therapy dogs who've been away from visits now for months? Will they need retraining to get them back on track to resume visits? While no one has a crystal ball where they can see what our "new normal" will be with regard to interactions with strangers in the near future, we can hypothesize what is likely to occur and how to prepare our dogs for that eventuality.

First off, let's go back to that post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about consent.  Covid-19 or not, our dogs need to indicate that they want to meet those new people or dogs.  If your dog is happily steering you toward someone, they likely do want to meet them!  Even now, it's safe for your dogs to meet new people on leash, as long as everyone is masked and remaining at a distance.  Six foot leashes can come in really handy now!  For example, Desi is my social butterfly.  He loves being petted by anyone, but really loves one of our elderly neighbors.  I will tell Desi, "Go say hi!" and then give him the length of his six foot leash to go visit.  According to the CDC, letting people pet our dogs is a low Covid-19 risk given that the virus cannot remain active on porous surfaces like animal fur. This is good news for therapy dogs as well; hopefully, outdoor visits can soon resume with everyone wearing masks and allowing the dogs to approach people on their longer leashes thus making it safer for all involved.

For puppies and adolescent dogs, however, this situation becomes more complicated.  Oftentimes, puppies and adolescent dogs require more management on our part to have successful introductions with new people.  If we aren't right there with them, they might jump up on someone, mouth someone inappropriately, etc.  Because of this, you will need to help your puppies and younger dogs get some practice with greetings on a long leash first.  Start with family members and others in your "covid bubble" to train your dogs now.  Spend a few minutes every day having people walk up, ask if they can pet/meet your dog, and then having you loosen up on the leash and give a command like, "Go say hi!" As your dog approaches the person to greet, they should discourage jumping up by moving away when the dog does so.  In this way, your dog learns that jumping up causes people to move away.  This works better than any "correction" on your part would have on discouraging the jumping up behavior. Once your dog has four feet on the ground, they can try approaching again.  Encourage people to pet your dog across the chest and under the chin versus on top of or above the head which can also lead to a dog jumping up to reach the hand.  When training the "Go say hi" command, it's fine to use treats.  Have the person pet your dog and give them treats for approaching appropriately.  Even if you ultimately will not be having strangers give your dogs treats, giving them during the learning phase will make the process go much faster and stick in your dog's mind as something pleasurable.  Once you feel confident that your dog won't jump up or mouth the people you've been practicing with, you are ready to try it in public IF those people are appropriately masked and approach you to ask about petting your dog.

Right now, people are starved for interaction. This morning on our walk, a grandparent was walking with two grandchildren and they commented excitedly about the "pretty doggies."  They were all wearing masks, so I asked if they'd like to pet Desi.  They were surprised but quite pleased, so I sent him to the end of his 6 foot leash to say hi, just like he does with our neighbor.  They loved on him and spoke to him so kindly, making me pleased that I had stopped my walk to allow this to occur.  And for those of you wondering what Ozzie was doing while this was happening?  He was behind me sniffing the bushes and decidedly uninterested in meeting anyone new, particularly little kids!  And that's fine, if he doesn't consent to the interaction, I don't push him to do it.

I will continue to help my clients and their dogs practice these "covid-19 greetings" on leash so that their dogs will at least be able to meet some new people in the future.  It may be quite a while before we can allow people to come up close to meet our dogs and we do need to be prepared for that.  Not allowing our dogs to socialize at all, however, is not necessarily good for them, nor good for those dog-loving people we encounter in public who are craving some kind of connection. We can't hug each other, but we can let them pet our dogs from a safe distance.

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

Desi and Ozzie on the lookout from our front porch for other walkers and dogs in their neighborhood!