Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Misconceptions, Misinterpretations & Muddled Thinking

 This week has been a bit challenging.  For whatever reason (maybe it's the weather change here in California!), I've had several clients seeking help for their pets, yet reticent to give up on their outdated, misinformed, or misguided views on just how to do that.  Obviously, it's my job to be patient, kind, and firm, providing guidance, structure, and action plans to my clients based on the latest science as it relates to animal behavior, animal care, animal well-being, and animal cognition. I consider myself a scientist at heart; I study animals (and their humans) in an effort to better understand them and aid them in their quest for a harmonious relationship.  It isn't that I'm looking to vent necessarily here, nor am I bashing these clients for their resistance.  I know where all the misinformation comes from; the internet is not always your best source for accurate information.  Anyway,  just want to bring these issues to the forefront so we can, once and for all, move on and move forward.

Myth #1: You shouldn't be using treats to train dogs. This one has been around for years.  The idea that somehow using treats to reward your dog for good behavior, to reinforce learning, or to increase the likelihood that they retain what they've learned, is a bad thing or doing so makes you a lazy trainer or one who isn't being shown respect by their dog.  This is simply ridiculous.  My response to anyone who tells me that they don't want to use treats to train their dog is, "Oh, okay.  Just to clarify.  You work for free as well?  You feel that getting paid for your job is unnecessary?"  This is when folks feel like I've suckered them in.  Of course, you want to get paid for your job and receive raises, promotions and accolades for a job well-done,  Well, so does your dog.  There are several ways you can pay a dog for a job well-done.  All involve giving the dog something she wants: food, toys, play time, affirmation, affection, etc. For some dogs, receiving affection or play time might be their reward of choice. For many, however, a snack is the reward they desire.  A treat can be a motivator to keep your dog focused, and a well-timed treat can almost guarantee that they will exhibit that behavior again willingly. You notice I used the word "willingly." You could use force, intimidation, etc. to get your dog to begrudgingly do what you ask, but is that how you build a relationship based on respect? I think not.  Trainers who discourage the use of treats or tell dog owners that using treats is just a "crutch," are doing dogs and their owners a disservice.  I'll bet those trainers expect to get paid.  Maybe they should have just gotten a "Right on! You're the coolest person I know!" instead of a paycheck.  And of course I realize that there are some dogs for whom treats are just too distracting; they cannot focus on the training because they are too obsessed with the treats.  For those dogs, working on treat delivery and frequency is helpful.  And for the folks who tell me their dog isn't treat motivated, my response to that is "You just haven't found the right treat yet!"

Myth #2: Having a nice puppy is all about how you raise them. This one is quite pervasive as well.  The idea that the only important variable in determining whether a puppy will succeed or not is the environment in which she is raised is utter nonsense. I usually hear an owner telling me this as a way to excuse their rescue dog's aggressive behavior.  The dog is aggressive because the previous owner mistreated it. For some reason it is just so much easier for people to believe that other humans are horrible toward animals than it is to believe that some dogs are just wired wrong. Putting so much emphasis on how or where a dog is raised means you are discounting the role of genetics and heredity on behavior.  Genetics and heredity matter a lot.  We have selectively bred dogs for certain characteristics, both physical and behavioral.  We've selected for herding drive in our Collies, retrieving skills in our Labradors, and guarding prowess in our Great Pyrenees. Yes, we breed for things like coat color and conformation, but we also breed for temperament. We have selectively bred dogs in an attempt to produce dogs who are best suited to the jobs we are breeding them for. This is why border collies rarely make good couch potato dogs for sedentary families, and often end up chasing lights, snapping at flies, and herding little kids.  They are, by design, a working herding dog.  Couch potato isn't in their job description.  You can raise that border collie in a sedentary lifestyle and what you will end up with is a very unhappy, maladjusted dog.  Nature plays as much of a role as nurture in shaping the dogs we share our lives with.  Understanding what your dog breed of choice (or combination of breeds) was bred to do will help you decide if they are right for your home and if you are the person to best provide for their needs as well.

Myth #3: Dogs are pack animals and therefore you must be their alpha in order to gain their respect. I can't even begin to tell you how hard it is for me to keep my eyes from rolling up in my head when I hear this one. The implication is that you must dominate your dog (and not let them dominate you!) in order to establish and reinforce your control over them. Implying that a dog owner is weak or lacking in confidence because they let their dog jump up on them, share their bed, eat with them at the table, etc. means you are demeaning that dog owner and devaluing their choices.  It is their choice, not yours.  And to tell a dog owner to punish their dog for growling (because, obviously, a growl *must* mean your dog is trying to control you) is to set both that dog and owner up for failure.  A growl is a dog's way of telling you that they are uncomfortable or anxious.  Stepping away from that growling dog, both literally and figuratively, does not mean you are a weak owner or that you are letting your dog dominate and control you.  It means you are acknowledging their discomfort and making an effort to diffuse the situation so it doesn't escalate.  Your job then is to determine what triggered that growl in the first place and make adjustments so that your dog doesn't feel like they need to growl again or escalate beyond that warning; you understood their message the first time. It is certainly the case that when people use the "alpha mindset" or "dominance training" when working with their dogs that they are often relying on aversive methods to reinforce their agenda. This is the whole idea behind those old "alpha rollovers" that dog owners were taught to do in order to dominate their dogs and establish authority. These confrontational behaviors on our part often result in increased aggression toward us and toward other people, as well as obvious outward signs of excitability, stress, and mistrust on the part of our dogs. I'm not saying that it isn't important for dog owners to have control over their dogs, because obviously, I'm a firm believer in sharing my space with well-mannered canine companions. On the contrary, a dog can be better controlled and perceived as a more trustworthy companion through the use of rewards based training methods, rather than by trying to force behavioral change so that they fit into some archaic hierarchy.  Being a "pack leader" is not about exerting your control over your dogs. It's about showing them how to behave in order to achieve the results that they (and you) want.  

I feel better now that I've gotten these myths out in the open and debunked.  I know that there are a lot of people out there who still believe these myths to be true, but I hope that they will be willing to listen with open hearts and minds to the science behind modern methods of dog training, which focus on the relationship between you and your dog. A relationship that should be fulfilling, satisfying, and safe for everyone involved. 

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

Just because I allow Westley to relax in my favorite chair does not mean I am a pushover, a lazy dog owner, or allowing my dog to push me around. On the contrary: I am happy to share my chair with Westley.  Being in that chair means he can watch me while I work and look out the window (he's too short to see out that window otherwise!). And the bottom line is that if I want to sit in that chair, Westley will hop right down, no problem, and park himself on a nearby dog bed instead. No hurt feelings on the part of the dog and I get my chair warmed for me before I sit down! 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Is It Snack Time Yet?

 I've had several clients over the past year dealing with food issues and their dogs.  While some of these dogs had resource guarding with regard to their food/food bowls (see the video I posted last week on Facebook on the topic of resource guarding, if you missed it!), most actually had inherent issues with the food itself.  A couple were puppies who weren't thriving and would turn up their noses routinely at the food they were fed, a few others were adolescent dogs wolfing down their food and then vomiting it back up, and a handful of others were senior dogs who no longer seemed interested in eating. Issues around food/feeding time, food bowls, etc. can occur at any point in a dog's lifetime and you need to be prepared to deal with the issues in a timely fashion so that they don't become bigger problems.  Many a finicky eater has been created by a well-meaning owner switching dog foods every couple of days because their dog wouldn't eat what they were offered.

Let's start with a discussion of puppies.  Puppies, regardless of breed, should be fed at least three time daily until they are roughly 6 months of age.  Some puppies may require more than three meals a day; for example, small breed puppies like Chihuahuas do better with frequent small meals that keep their blood glucose levels even, than with three larger meals. Some puppies will give up on that third meal of the day (usually the midday lunch) all on their own, while others will need that third meal a bit longer.  Puppies should be fed puppy food; feeding a puppy adult food will result in your puppy not receiving adequate fats needed for proper brain development. Which is why you don't want your adult dogs eating puppy food; it may taste really good to them, but they don't need those extra fats!

When choosing a food for your puppy or your dog, there are several things to consider.  First off, your budget.  Pick a food for your canine family member that fits into your budget.  There are a wide range of dog foods on the market, all across price ranges, so finding one that fits your budget shouldn't be hard.  Basically, you want to pick the best food you can afford.  Keep in mind that there are a lot of high performance diets out there for dogs.  These diets tend to be quite high in protein, containing more protein than the average dog needs on a daily basis. If you have a working dog, that is one doing search and rescue daily, herding on your farm, etc., you will likely want to feed a performance diet.  For the average "weekend warrior" dog, however, those diets are more protein than your dog needs and more expensive for you.  Getting too much protein in their diet can lead to dogs who display agitation and hyperactivity as they have more fuel on board than they can burn off. Dogs are omnivores, not carnivores, so including vegetables, fruits, and grains in their diet is a good thing. Grain free diets for your puppy or your dog shouldn't be given unless your dog has a sensitivity to all grains; while some dogs have sensitivities to some grains, most aren't sensitive to them all, and a balanced canine diet includes good quality grains, as well as fruits and veggies.

Which brings me to my next point: If you are feeding a good quality diet and your dog is having loose stools regularly, is uninterested in eating, is vomiting after meals, or is itchy/licking himself all the time, then your dog may have a food sensitivity or food allergy. This is the time to talk to your veterinarian about allergy testing BEFORE you start changing from one food to another which can also create loose stools etc. in and of itself. If you prefer to do the testing yourself, you can get a test kit from  They have two panels that cover all proteins and grains and requires simply collecting saliva from your dog for the test. You will receive a detailed report once the saliva is analyzed allowing you to know once and for all what your dog can and cannot eat. I have one client who had been feeding her dog a duck and potato diet as she knew that to be "hypoallergenic," but her dog was routinely turning up his nose at the food and would often vomit after eating or have diarrhea.  Well, it turns out that he's sensitive to duck!  Once she changed him over to a fish and potato diet, he's doing great. 

Just as people can develop food aversions to foods that have made them sick (or that they associate with being sick), dogs can too. If your dog feels ill every time he eats from his bowl, he's going to resist doing so as long as possible.  You may even have to change the bowl when you change the food if their aversion is strong enough!  This is why many dogs are fine with the treats they receive and the "people food" they get; those aren't delivered in the dreaded bowl and are in such small amounts that they don't trigger the aversion.

Finally, for dogs on the other end of the spectrum who will eat anything and everything, slow them down.  It isn't good to wolf down their food as nutrient absorption will be compromised and eating food rapidly can lead to a large bolus of food in the stomach triggering bloat, stomach upset, or vomiting. Slow feeder bowls can help, as can interactive toys and snuffle mats. 

I know I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating.  People food isn't inherently bad for dogs.  In fact, occasionally getting a bit of people food means your dog has been exposed to those things so is less likely to get sick if he happens upon some unguarded or "free" people food out in the real world. And sharing things like blueberries, strawberries, bananas, apples and carrots are good for your dog.  Lean meats (as long as the protein source is one they aren't allergic to, of course) are good too.  A bit of cheese now and again is fine as well as long as your dog can tolerate dairy.  Just remember to limit cheeses as they are high in fat too.

It's been interesting for me to see the correlations between food sensitivities and certain dog breeds as well. Most of the recent "weird protein sensitivities" I've seen have been in Doodles, for example. And I have a client with a Labrador who has really intense food allergies, being allergic to almost everything you can imagine.  So odd as most people think of Labradors as being the canine equivalent of a garbage disposal, able to eat anything because of their "iron stomachs."  Go figure.

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

Westley helping himself to a cookie!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

So You Want Your Dog to Play Fetch

 At least once a week I get a message from someone who is having issues with "fetch."  For some dog owners, their dogs just don't seem to want to play fetch at all and that makes the humans sad.  For others, their dogs don't want to do anything else except play fetch, and will pester, push, nip, and bark to get games of fetch to go on endlessly.  And some dog owners can't get their dogs to bring the toy back; the dog happily runs out after the toy, but either doesn't pick it up or picks it up and takes off with it. A few dog owners I've talked to recently can get their dogs to bring the toys back, but they can't get them to drop the toys, with the dogs preferring a good game of tug-of-war or chase instead.  Everything I mentioned represents "normal" dog behavior; it isn't abnormal for a dog to do any of those things!  I mention that because one well-meaning dog owner told me he couldn't understand why his dog didn't fetch as that was what he wanted from the dog and was the "whole reason he got a dog in the first place!" While it may have been his dream to have a dog who plays fetch, not every dog will view this activity the same way.

First off, let's just clear the air. Just because you have a Golden Retriever, a Labrador Retriever, a Standard Poodle, etc. doesn't mean your dog will naturally fetch.  There is genetic variability even among the retrieving breeds, plus experience plays a role as well. For example, I met a Chesapeake Bay Retriever years ago who visibly cringed when her owner tried to play fetch with her.  It wasn't hard to figure out that she'd been punished for picking up items and thus figured that her owner tossing something for her to pick up was a trick of some kind and one for which she would be punished rather than praised. And even if your dog likes playing fetch, they may like the game for a few minutes at most before losing interest. For the client with the Chessie, I suggested different games that didn't trigger the negative emotions in his dog.  For the dogs who do like fetch, but don't play for very long, there are things you can do to extend the game.  Similarly, if your dog won't fetch at all, but you'd like them to, there are things you can do to get them a bit more interested in at least giving fetch a try. 

Let's start with how to teach fetch. While most people think of using a ball to teach fetch, I'm going to suggest that you let your dog make that choice.  What is your dog's favorite toy? If they like squeaky fluffy toys, then teach fetch with one of those. If they like tug toys or rubber bones, those will work too.  If your dog doesn't have much interest in toys at all, try taking a fluffy or funny textured zipper-style pencil case and fill it with little treats that your dog can smell inside and investigate when tossed.  Start with the toy in your hand and reward your dog with a "YES!" and a treat for touching the toy while you have it.  If they'll take it in their mouth say "YES!" and reward that.  Quickly get your hand under the toy so that when they drop it your hand is right there to catch it.  You can say "DROP IT" or "GIVE" if you like so that they make the connection with putting it in your hand.  Once they will do this, you can drop the toy near your feet and say "GET IT!" Even if your dog only touches his nose to the dropped toy, reward with "YES!" and a treat.  Gradually build up to only rewarding him for picking it up and giving it to you.  Once they have this down, you can gradually start tossing the toy further away from your feet.  The key factor here is immediate rewards for the dog.  Initially, those rewards will be the yeses and the treats; over time, the reward will be you quickly throwing the toy again.  This brings me to an important point: One of the reasons dogs don't like to bring toys to their owners during fetch is that the owners hold onto the toy too long before throwing again.  Say "YES!" as they bring the toy to you and throw it again immediately with a request to "GET IT" or "FETCH." Another way to keep the game going is to have two toys.  When your dog heads your way with one tell them "DROP IT" as you throw the other one.  If your dog will bring the toy back once and then loses interest in playing over and over again, reintroduce the treats; give your dog a treat when they bring the toy back and before throwing it again.  This gives the dog a tangible reward/motivator to keep the game going. Remember too to never chase a dog who isn't bringing the toy back.  Run the other way away from them and/or start playing with that second toy you have in your pocket.  Guaranteed they will want to chase after you if you are going the other way, and they will definitely want the toy you have more than the one they do!

For dogs who obsess over the game of fetch, you will need to take some precautions to insure that the game is safe and under your control.  Keep the toy used for fetch in a closet or drawer and only bring it out when it's time to play fetch.  Do not hype your dog up by saying, "DO YOU WANNA PLAY?!" as hyping up a fetch-obsessed dog will only hype them up faster. Instead, have them sit (or lay down, wave, touch, etc.) before you throw the toy.  When they return with the toy, they must drop it in your hand or at your feet and sit (or down etc.) before you will throw the toy again.  If they bark at you, grab at you, or nip you to play, take the toy back inside and put it away. Game over. Keep the games short with your fetch-obsessed dogs until they learn the rules and can keep themselves under threshold. You can extend the game based on good behavior. While some dogs find a good game of tug-of-war reinforcing between fetches, many fetch-obsessed dogs just find tug-of-war a chance to become even more agitated and over the top. Don't play tug-of-war during fetch with your dog unless or until your dog has mastered self-control.   Finally, don't end your games of fetch abruptly (unless the dog is over-stimulated, in which case you do need to end the game and redirect their attention to another task), rather direct their attention to another activity that runs counter to the energy of fetch.  A doggie massage, a brisk walk, or a sniff session are all good ways to end a game of fetch for a fetch-obsessed dog.

For some dogs, fetch is a game they enjoy daily and continue to enjoy well into their senior years. For other dogs, health issues such as arthritis and/or dental disease can make playing fetch less rewarding.  Try shortening your fetch sessions with your senior dogs, change out the toys they play fetch with so that they are lighter in weight/easier to pick up/softer on the mouth making it more enjoyable for senior pets. And for dogs who just don't like fetch at all, don't despair. There are plenty of other games you can do together to strengthen your bond and bring you both joy.  Nose work games, hide and seek, chasing a flirt pole lure, and good old tug-of-war are all fun as well. 

Years ago, we had a Labrador named Cinderella.  She was a wonderful dog (most of the time!) but she didn't fetch and she hated water.  We often jokingly referred to her as a broken retriever.  What she was very good at was hunting.  She could find a bird, rodent, or snake in our yard every time.  She loved to forage around so hiding treats for her to find was a game she really enjoyed.. We also had a Pug at the same time we had the Lab. He loved to play fetch and do backyard agility. Go figure; he was the natural athlete between those two dogs.  Now I share my home with collies.  While Desi has never been interested in fetch, he does like foraging games so that's what I play with him. Ozzie loves a good game of fetch, with a tug-of-war component added in. He is one of those dogs, however, who can easily go over threshold if you play fetch for too long or he gets too excited playing tug-of-war.  Once Ozzie starts spinning in circles, barking and air-snapping, the game stops and he's redirected to something more soothing like a good butt scratch or a massage, two things he enjoys immensely.  

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

Westley loves to play fetch and his toys of choice are always "stuffy fluffies," 
what we call his stuffed, squeaky toys.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

When Your Young Pup Tries To Get The Upper Paw With Your Older Dog!

 Not surprisingly, I suppose, I have several clients who share their homes with collies. As is often the case in homes with multiple dogs, many of these clients like to get a second dog when their first dog is young or middle-aged, but sometimes don't end up finding that second dog until their first dog is more of a senior. One of these collie clients has a 9 year old male collie and got a collie puppy back in March.  The puppy is now a rambunctious adolescent who is challenging her older dog in every way possible.  There have been skirmishes over everything from dog beds to toys to food to getting attention from the humans.  My client is running out of patience and tired of refereeing these "confrontations" between her two dogs.  This is not an uncommon problem but it is one that doesn't have a simple answer.  What you will need to do in this situation will depend on several factors. Let's take a look at those factors one by one.

First thing to consider is the age gap between the two dogs.  If there is a significant age gap as with my client's 9 year old dog and the now 10 month old puppy, the humans may have to step in and set the boundaries.  If the older dog is still interested in being in control of resources like beds, food bowls, toys, etc. and willing to defend their access to those resources, then it may be time to back them up on their position, meaning help them hold onto their place as the "top dog." When they are being challenged by the pup, let the older dog growl, bark, snap, even put the pup in their place, so to speak.  If the pup continues to push back, step in on your older dog's behalf and remove the pup for a time out.  This let's the puppy know that the older dog "has backup" and trying to push him too hard will result in consequences for the puppy that serve to remind him that he is still "second in command." If, however, your older dog is really mellow and easily pushed around by the younger dog, it is often better to just let that play out; letting the younger dog take over as the "top dog" in some households restores the peace faster than constantly trying to prop up the older dog's position. Finally, while it is true that adult dogs cut puppies a lot of slack with regard to their behavior, those same adult dogs will begin correcting puppies as they get older and puppies need to respect those rules that are being enforced.  Letting dogs sort out their differences on their own does work best IF letting them sort it out does not result in injury.  In most cases, dogs who get into skirmishes with other dogs in their own home aren't out for blood; they are trying to establish (or re-establish) boundaries.  If the humans step in too often, they can actually make fighting worse as the dogs have not been allowed to resolve their issues on their own.  I am not endorsing dog fights here, I am simply saying be a good observer of what your dogs are arguing about.  And understand your role in those skirmishes as well.

Which brings me to the second issue to consider which is you, the human.  If dogs scrambling with each other makes you uncomfortable, then maybe a multidog household isn't for you.  Dogs get into it with each other and that's normal, much as human siblings don't always agree either. Determine if there is something you could have done differently to keep the situation from escalating.  Did you try to give out cookies in a "fair manner?" Meaning, did you give cookies to everyone at the same time?  That was your mistake.  Whichever dog is your "top dog" should get the bigger cookie and get it first.  Cookies (and food bowls) should be given out in pecking order.  Dogs don't believe in fair and equitable; they believe in getting what is rightfully theirs.  A puppy might be allowed to push her way in and get a treat before the adult dogs when she is under 12 weeks of age, but guaranteed she will be corrected by those adult dogs for that kind of pushy nonsense when she's an adolescent who should know better.  And as the human handing out the cookies, or putting down the food bowls, you have control over this.  Don't give the puppy the cookie before the adult dog.  Make the puppy work a bit harder for it.  This relaxes the adult dogs and lets the puppy know exactly where they stand. Same goes with giving attention.  Everyone loves puppies and wants to hold them, love on them, etc.  That's all fine and well and good, but your adult dogs need attention too.  They need to know that they still have value.  When your adult dog pushes the puppy out of the way to get attention, LET THEM.  They are telling that puppy, "Hey, you got your attention, now it's my turn." Don't punish your older dog for teaching the puppy any of those important lessons.  Maybe it's in everyone's best interest if only your adult dog is allowed on the furniture and the puppy has to stay on the floor. Or maybe the adult dog gets the spot next to you while the puppy has to lay in a less optimal spot.  These are all things that dogs think about.

A third thing to consider is size/breed of the dogs involved. If your new puppy is a Bernese Mountain Dog and your older resident dog is a Shih Tzu, then it is likely that the Berner is going to become "top dog" in any situation that arises where size will play a deciding role.  Meaning, your little dog may have to let that big puppy go through the door first in order to avoid getting trampled in the process.  You can, however, control the food, toys, etc. in that relationship and you should do so as needed to maintain the status quo.  

A final thing to consider is temperament and personality.  If your younger dog is pushy and demonstrating resource guarding behaviors, you will need to determine what is in the best interest of both dogs long term.  If your resource guarding younger dog is putting your older dog at risk, you may need to step in and remove those resources to even the playing field. You may need to feed your younger dog in a crate or pen, for example.  Or maybe that younger dog can only have bones and bully sticks when confined for the safety of the older dog.  If, however, your younger dog is an opportunistic resource guarder, meaning they are willing to guard just about anything (including the air around them!) at any given time, you may need to reconsider whether this second dog is a good match for your home.  

When Ozzie first came home, he was an 8 week old spitfire of a pup who loved to pull on Desi's ears and tail, following Desi around everywhere, always in Desi's business.  We confined Ozzie to give Desi a break from his little shadow. It wasn't long, however, until Ozzie started trying to take things from Desi and Desi would let him. I watched this situation carefully to see how Desi felt about this.  Desi seemed to be fine with the stealing until Ozzie was about 6 months old at which point Desi would holler at Ozzie and chase him a bit if he tried to take a toy or bone that Desi had. Ozzie respected this, albeit begrudgingly, and they now lay near one another eating bones, no problem.  When Westley is here, however, they both try to eat their bones in places where Westley won't try to take them away!  It appears we've come full circle. I am there to monitor these interactions and make sure Westley doesn't overstep his boundaries; he can watch the older dogs eat their bones, but he can't take them away for himself.  He can certainly clean up the crumbs, however, when Ozzie and Desi move away!

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

Ozzie and Desi choosing to share a peanut butter bone while Westley has his own. Soon after this photo was taken, they switched bones, and then Desi moved outside to get a drink of water and Ozzie and Westley finished the bones side by side.