Wednesday, March 31, 2021

You've Got A Friend

Once a week, I stop by my post office box to pick up my mail.  This week, there was a lovely purple envelope in my box.  All I can say is that it was a good idea I didn't open that envelope until I got home.  Crying in the parking lot of the post office is probably frowned upon by somebody! 

The envelope contained a card from a woman I've never met.  She is the daughter of someone I've spoken to a number of times over the last year.  I keep a phone log of everyone I talk to, along with a summary of what we discuss so that if they call again, I'll know what we covered in our previous conversation. I've had many conversations with pet owners over the years that rarely turned into anything beyond just that...a conversation.  This woman's mother had written down her conversations with me in her journal.  You see, what I didn't know was that she had terminal cancer.  Thanks to COVID-19, she'd been basically living alone with her elderly dog, having supplies delivered, and visiting virtually with her daughter who lived out of state.  I knew about the elderly dog and the daughter out of state, and we'd talked about keeping her elderly dog active and engaged when they couldn't leave their house.  We'd talked about how she could keep busy as well.  At some point, we even talked about my grandmother as that was written in her journal, though I hadn't noted it in my own call summary! I had never charged this woman for my time as it always felt different talking to her.  She sounded lonely to me and I really wanted both her and her elderly dog to know that there were people out there willing to listen and help.  Turns out, I was one of the few people this woman trusted and her conversations with me were cherished.  I truly had no idea.  So, why am I telling you this?

I'm telling you this so you'll stop for just a moment today and reach out to someone you know. Maybe they live alone, maybe their kids live far away, or maybe they are just someone you know casually from Facebook, church, school, etc. I'm asking you to reach out because you don't know what that person is going through.  Maybe they need to hear a friendly voice, a funny story, or share something that their dog or cat did that made them smile.  We have to be here for one another, now more than ever.  If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught me it's that we need to be here for each other.  We may not be able to hug one another, but we can sure as heck take the time to listen.  Taking the time to listen to this woman had made all the difference in the world to her quality of life.  Those aren't my words, those are the words her daughter wrote in her note to me. She said each of the journal entries following my calls with her mother said how much her mother appreciated my kindness, taking time out of my busy day to listen to a "rambling old lady," and how I'd made her smile and laugh as she learned something about elderly dogs and their behavior.

I've updated my phone log summary to reflect the fact that this owner has passed away.  Her elderly dog will be going to live with the daughter for whatever time they have left together.  She says she knows what to do for the dog since it's all outlined in the journal with comments like "Julie said..." right next to them.  That made me smile.  Her mother had listened to me too. She had validated what I do.  She had reinforced that I help people just as much as I help their pets. 

I'm going to keep this card as a reminder of why it's important to make my call backs every single day, even when *I* don't really feel like talking.  Because now I know, the person I am calling may be waiting on me to do so and I may be the only person they hear from on that day.

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

One of the conversations she'd noted in her journal was one where I'd talked about how set in his ways Desi has become as he's gotten older.  Dogs love routine, and old dogs love that predictability even more so.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

For Peep's Sake: Easter Safety Tips for your Pets!

When my kids were little, Easter was one of their favorite holidays, right after Christmas and Halloween.  They loved hunting for eggs in the yard, and the older they got, the more competitive they got in the process of finding those candy-filled eggs! Our dogs always loved being part of the process too.  They helped the Easter Bunny hide all of those eggs, and then ran around helping the kids find them as well.  It was pretty amusing to watch and definitely on my list of favorite memories.  We were lucky, however, that our dogs never tried to eat any of those plastic or hardboiled eggs themselves; they saved those for the kids.  It probably helped that the dogs had their own Easter baskets, but I digress.  My point in telling you all of this is to remind you of a few Easter hazards for pets that you may not even be aware of.  So, for safety sake, here is my short list of things to watch out for:

1. Chocolate:  Yes, I know, there is a lot of chocolate available on other holidays as well, but not in the form of chocolate bunnies, ducks, and chicks.  Those bigger-sized, fun-shaped chocolates found in Easter baskets are deadly.  Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, two methylxanthines. Both are in higher concentrations in dark chocolate, for example, but a big, milk chocolate bunny is still a gastrointestinal risk for your dog.

2.  Easter Grass:  If you think tinsel is attractive to dogs and cats, you can't imagine how exciting it is for them to spot loads of colored tinsel (aka Easter basket grass) readily available in those cute Easter baskets sitting out for the kids.  Easter grass can cause bowel obstructions, stomach irritation, and is a choking hazard. If you are doing an Easter basket for your pets as well, stick to shredded paper or hay for their "grass."

3. Plastic Eggs & Small Toys: Those cute, colored plastic eggs whether filled with candy or small toys, are a choking hazard for your pets.  Again, if swallowed, they can cause bowel obstructions and stomach irritation as well.

4. Eggs:  While hard-boiled eggs can be a healthy treat for your pet, the dye used to color the eggs may not be.  Make sure that the dye you use is non-toxic, as a bit of dye always permeates the egg shell leaving the egg inside with a slight tint.  Again, watch how many eggs your pet consumes.  While one egg is fine, if they find and consume more eggs than your kids/grandkids do, you've got a potential problem!

5.  Jellybeans:  While jellybeans in an of themselves might seem low risk, they can be deadly if the brand chosen contains xylitol as the sweetener.  Xylitol poisoning leads to liver failure and death.

6.  Easter Ham & Lamb:  While a bite of ham or lamb may be low risk, these higher fat foods, along with the higher fat side dishes we often serve on this holiday as well, are a risk for pancreatitis, abdominal pain, bloat, vomiting, etc.

7.  Easter Lilies: Several varieties of lilies are toxic to cats and many are toxic to dogs as well, leading to kidney failure and death if any part of the plant is ingested. Lilies are messy plants, dropping petals and pollen in their water and on the surfaces where displayed.  Your pets may ingest those fallen leaves or petals, or walk through the pollen and then lick their feet.  The risk is so high, I recommend not bringing lilies into homes with pets at all.

8.  Marshmallow Peeps: while these cute little holiday traditions make it into many an Easter basket, they are loaded with sugar in several forms making them a gastrointestinal risk for pets who consume these colorful little treats in excess. 

Keeping your dogs on leash during the Easter egg hunt in your yard, placing Easter baskets up out of their reach, crating or confining those that surf counters are all good ways to protect your dogs on Easter Sunday.  Encourage well-meaning friends and family to bring other bright, cheerful flowers and plants and stay away from lilies and daffodils.  Have them bring tulips instead since the riskiest part of the tulip is the bulb making those beautiful, fresh cut tulips very low risk.

I realize Easter isn't until April 4th this year, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared, particularly for those of you with new puppies/dogs acquired during the pandemic lockdown, who've not had as many opportunities to work on leave it and drop it when it comes to holiday treats.

Hopefully, you won't need it, but if you do, here is the phone number for the pet poison hotline, (855) 764-7661.

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

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

What's Wrong With Me?

 That was the question my client asked right at the beginning of our appointment. And right before she burst into tears.  I felt bad for her, even more so now with COVID restrictions in place keeping me 6 feet away from her.  I really wanted to give her a hug, but realized even more than a hug, she needed to get some peace of mind.  And she needed it quick!

The reason for the appointment laid about 8 feet away from her.  He's a beautiful puppy, a little fluffball with soulful eyes and huge paws! My client and her new puppy just weren't making a "love connection." While they'd only been together a week, my client was fraught with concern over this puppy.  He won't nap, he hates his crate, he won't come when she calls, he doesn't like to cuddle, and the worst thing of all...he seems to love everyone else more than her.  Those were her words exactly.  I have to admit, while his avoidance of his owner was clear to me (he stayed at a distance from her, but chose repeatedly to come solicit attention from me), the reasons for his behavior were more complex and worth exploring.  A little background at this point will help.

My client lives alone.  Up until a month ago, she shared her home with an elderly dog that she'd had since he was a puppy.  He'd been with her through her divorce, her beloved sister's death,  and through her own cancer diagnosis and recovery.  He was her rock, her constant.  She always said that he was the reason she got up every day and the reason she looked forward to doing so.  She took his death hard, but at 15 years of age, his passing was not unexpected. What had surprised me the most was that rather than allowing herself time to grieve, she had turned around and immediately acquired a new dog, and a puppy no less.

I reminded my client that it's been 14 years since she had a puppy and the last time she did, she was married and still had one child at home to help with his care. Raising a puppy alone is a lot of work.  I also reminded her (gently) that she was, understandably, still grieving the loss of her long-term companion dog.  It's hard to open your heart to a puppy (and all of their needs!) when you are still in the grief process. Plus, she'd gotten a puppy of the same breed AND a male again.  This meant that she was constantly comparing this new puppy to her previous dog and the puppy was coming up short.

While getting a puppy of the same breed does mean that there will be some breed characteristics and traits in common between her beloved dog and the new pup, they aren't going to be exactly the same.  I could already tell that this new puppy was more introspective and quiet, not the uber-social, gadabout her previous dog had been.  That difference doesn't make her new puppy bad, it just means he's different and she's going to need to recognize those differences and change her perspective IF she intends to keep him. If she really feels that she can't bond with this new puppy, then it's truly in her best interest, and his, that she return him to his breeder sooner rather than later.

At this point, I felt like it was important to show her all of the great things about her puppy.  I put him on leash, taught him a few fun behaviors, and got him to play with a flirt-pole.  He was wagging his tail, offering play bows, and climbing in my lap for puppy kisses by the time we were done.  So, why wasn't he behaving this way with his owner?

Her overwhelming sadness and frustration were palpable and making it difficult for this puppy to connect with her.  He was in a new situation, away from his dam and siblings, and sleeping alone in a crate in her kitchen.  I suggested we move the crate to her bedroom and set up some sleep rituals for the two of them to enhance their bonding. We talked about doing short training sessions during the day when she felt the best; when she was feeling particularly down, she should focus on quiet interaction with her puppy and gentle handling exercises, or simply let him be and give him a bone or toy to play with in his x-pen.  While it is certainly okay for her puppy to see her sad, he also needed to see her happy and know that that happiness was being directed at him.

She heard everything I had said and really wanted to try to make this work, but where to begin?  I held him on my lap, gave him treats, and did some basic t-touch.  I then handed him to the owner and asked her to do the same.  She hesitated at first and I saw the puppy shrink and try to move away.  I encouraged her to love on him and talk to him and give him a few treats.  Lo and behold, he stayed on her lap and took an interest in her.  I told her to keep talking to him and try rubbing his chin which he seemed to love.  He would glance over at me periodically and I just kept telling him what a good boy he was.  Suddenly, my client started to see that he really WAS a good boy, just a different boy, from her previous dog.

Before I left, we devised a game plan for the week so that we could get this puppy onto a schedule and relieve some of the pressure my client was feeling.  I agreed to come back and work with him again and help her gain confidence in her new relationship with him.  We also agreed that if this didn't seem to be working, it would be okay to return the dog to the breeder. This would not mean that she was a failure or that this wasn't a "good puppy." It would simply mean she wasn't ready for a new relationship and/or this puppy wasn't a good match for her.  

I truly hope this works out.  He's a delightful little guy, full of potential.  I think his quieter demeanor means he will be more of a rock-steady companion for my client. I also think he'll make a great pet assisted therapy dog some day, especially if his mellow disposition continues to be the case.  At this point, I've done what I can to help make this a love connection.  Now it's up to my client and her puppy to try to make it work for them both.

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

I love this photo of my daughter's smooth collie, Westley. It was taken about 10 minutes after he was unloaded from the transport that brought him to our home, and  his first experience away from his breeder's home.  In this picture, I see an adolescent dog, full of potential and ready to interact with his new humans and my two resident collies.  While my daughter was overwhelmed at first with all that goes into caring for a young dog on her own, she too could see everything this young dog could be. Westley is pure joy, all packaged into 40 lbs of collie mischief and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Look What the Cat Dragged In!

One of my clients has two cats and she just got an Italian Greyhound puppy.  She's been busily teaching the puppy not to chase the cats and rewarding the cats for not swatting out one of the puppy's eyes when they correct him.  What she didn't plan on was the cats teaching the puppy to kill lizards in her yard.  You see, her cats are the consummate predators.  Both of them have numerous kills on record, having brought down everything from birds and mice to lizards and snakes.  Her cats often eat at least part of what they catch before bringing the rest indoors.  Occasionally, however, they bring their entire prize inside, causing my client an inordinate amount of anxiety.  Yesterday, she saw one cat catch a bird and stun it, taking it back to the other cat and the puppy.  Her precious puppy got in on the action, catching the bird as it tried to flap away.  She was horrified.  I was actually pleased to hear this. It means the cats are accepting that puppy as their own.  My client indicated I had some explaining to do and that I should do so while she found a cold compress for her head and a cocktail for her hand.  So, if you, too, live with predators in your own home, here's what's happening.

Cats are hunters.  While we may like to think of  cats as being domesticated, they really aren't that far removed from wild cat species.  It is instinctual to hunt, capture, and kill prey for nourishment and enjoyment. Cats hunt for themselves and they hunt for their kittens, or sometimes for other close family members, including you, their beloved human. Whether your cat is bringing you these prey items to share, to thank you for your love (and the easily gotten food you provide), or simply to get your attention since you freak out when they do, is all within the realm of possibility.  I'm a firm believer that cats put the half-eaten goodies they find on your bed as a reminder of their prowess and because they want to finish what they killed in a comfy spot.  One client even told me that she trades her cat a treat or a toy if he'll give up whatever he's caught before he kills it.  That cat has it made! He can hunt to his heart's content and his owner will reward him for doing so!  

If you really don't want your cat killing prey in your yard or their neighborhood, then don't let them out unattended.  Watch your cat in your yard and/or walk them on a leash.  If your cat loves being outdoors, provide them with a safe enclosure in your yard to hang out in.  Outfit the enclosure with perches and things to do, but keeping your cat enclosed, even when outside, means they won't be able to hunt anything other that unsuspecting insects that fly into that enclosure. Personally, I feel like those bugs are on their own.  Keep indoor cats busy with puzzle feeder toys, fishing pole lure/wand toys to chase, and remote control bugs to chase and "kill." And, yes, they do need an outlet for their natural, hunting behavior.

Dogs can be predatory too, with some breeds being much more into the hunt than others.  It's why you shouldn't keep bunnies or guinea pigs if you also own whippets or greyhounds!  Siberian Huskies can be quite predatory as well.  But even Ozzie loves to chase squirrels, birds, and the occasional rat that runs through our yard.  It's in his nature, as it is with every dog, to chase after things that move.  I honestly don't know what Ozzie would do if he caught something he was chasing, but I do know what Cinderella, our Labrador did.  She caught everything from quail to snakes, and grabbed the tail feathers right off of a pheasant as it tried to take off quickly to get away from her.  Cinderella loved the hunt and the kill, but whatever she killed she left for me to clean up. Sometimes with a shovel and often with a hose.  

So what about my client's Italian Greyhound puppy?  Well puppies (and dogs) are observational learners.  Her puppy, who by the way is already breed predisposed to wanting to chase after moving prey, will definitely be taking notes on hunting strategies from her cats, particularly since her cats are clearly including him in these lessons. Rather than making herself anxious and her pets neurotic, better to embrace the little hunters she shares her home with.  While I did suggest she get rid of the bird feeder in her back yard as that seemed unfair, I think that anything else that wanders into her yard is fair game. She can add an outdoor enclosure for her cats, but her dog will still be out there using the yard and chasing birds, bugs, lizards etc.  She certainly will not be able to curb or suppress her dog's natural instincts anyway, so why bother? It may just be me, but I feel like in this case, we just need to let cats (and dogs) be themselves.  Unless it's a skunk in the yard and then that's off limits. And a story for another time.

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

The mighty hunter with her kill!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Snacks, Rewards, and Other Food for Thought

 I was the 5th "dog specialist" my new client had worked with.  Three of the previous specialists were "known for working with her dog's breed" and one had been recommended by her neighbors.  Three of the four told my client that she should absolutely never use treats to train her dog or her dog would end up being dependent on food in order to do anything.  The other trainer she'd seen told her that she could use treats, but they had to be "derived from organ meat" in order to be valuable for training purposes.  It could just be that I was tired by the time I met with this client, but this nonsense really ticked me off.  I wasn't aggravated with the client, but with the uneducated and misinformed "advice" she was getting.  This is a bright, well-spoken woman.  She's had dogs before.  When I asked her if she really believed that giving treats to her dog would actually result in the dog blackmailing her for more food, she giggled.  C'mon folks.  We all like to get paid for our work.  What makes anyone think that dogs are any different? Treats are a commodity and dogs are willing to work for tangible rewards just like anybody else.

While it is true that not all treats are created equal, making a bold statement that only organ meats make suitable rewards is ridiculous.  The value of a treat is determined by the dog.  Some dogs love cheerios.  Others love lettuce.  Westley loves carrots, while Ozzie and Desi love strawberries. All of these food items are rewarding for the dogs who enjoy them.  Giving lettuce to Desi will not be considered a reward and will quite frankly leave him disgruntled that you thought it would be valuable for some reason.  The bottom line is this: just because I like something, or I've bought something that I think my dogs will love doesn't guarantee that they will. Just because you purchased expensive, freeze-dried, organ meat for your dog doesn't mean they will like it or eat it.  Maybe they prefer goldfish crackers! I'm teaching a puppy class right now and two of the dogs in that class happily work for their kibble. Go figure. Plus, there are dogs who will work for kibble at home, but need something higher value out in public, and that's fine too.  Their preferred currency can change based on the circumstances they find themselves in.

So what about dogs who won't take treats out in public?  Those dogs, by and large, are anxious.  Anxious dogs aren't hungry; they are distracted and overwhelmed by whatever is causing their anxiety.  I saw a client yesterday who said her pup has never taken a treat in public because she is so anxious.  We worked together for an hour to reduce the dog's anxiety and she was then happily taking treats I'd brought with me.  Not fancy, freeze-dried organ meat; simple training treats that smell like bacon. What's the point of telling you this?  If your dog "isn't interested in eating," then figure out what's making them so anxious.  All animals need to eat in order to sustain themselves.  It could even be the case that what you are giving them is making them feel sick.  Changing treats, trying limited ingredient treats, etc. is one way to begin figuring out what works to motivate and reinforce your dog without making them feel ill.

And for those three specialists my client saw who told her that treats are "verboten" during training; there's plenty of research which clearly proves otherwise.  In one study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, researchers examined whether dogs' interest level in food affected their ability to be trained.  Dogs were divided into groups depending on whether they were fast eaters, slow eaters, or dogs who left food behind in their bowls. For one test, dogs were asked to sit and given food as a reward.  For another test, dogs were asked to sit and instead of giving them food, they received praise and pats. All of the dogs, whether slow eaters, fast eaters, or picky eaters, responded better when food was used as a reward compared to receiving praise and petting.  So while this study showed that there were clearly individual differences in how dogs responded to receiving food during training, ALL of the dogs were motivated by food. This is just one of many studies that have been conducted on this topic and all of this research is readily available to read online.  Why trainers are still telling dog owners that treats spoil the dog, make the dog engage in blackmail, etc. is beyond me.  It simply isn't true.

I will agree that you have to keep an eye on the number of treats your dog is receiving.  Dogs have daily caloric needs based on their age, level of exercise, and body conformation.  While a puppy may burn off those extra calories very quickly, a senior dog may not.  Dogs who are running agility may need extra calories compared to dogs who take a leisurely stroll twice a day with their owners.  Don't hesitate to use treats as rewards, to redirect your dog, and to make those interactive puzzle feeder toys more enjoyable. Just be aware of the calories your dog receives in those treats and adjust their meal ration (or increase their exercise) accordingly. 

There is nothing wrong with sharing food with your dogs.  Eating is a pleasurable activity and one which is all the more enjoyable if you have others there with you. So, go ahead and share your banana with your dog.  Definitely ask them to sit, or touch, or turn, or bow first, just for fun.  We all like to get paid for a job well done. Dogs don't mind working.  They just prefer not to work for free.

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

Westley finds cookies made with my homemade dog cookie recipe to be quite rewarding.