Wednesday, June 30, 2021

What Happened?!

 I received a funny email from a client who took puppy class with me, and is now the less than proud owner of a rambunctious, adolescent dog (those were her exact words!).  "What happened to my sweet puppy?!  This dog is crazy!," she lamented.  I reminded her that adolescence is fraught with (sometimes) painful growth, boundary testing, rule-breaking, and patience straining...and that's true for adolescent humans, as well as dogs, right?  Everyone always focuses on doing "everything right" with their puppies, forgetting many of these much-needed rules and guidelines when those same puppies hit adolescence and adulthood.  Just because a dog isn't a puppy anymore doesn't mean that rules and structure don't apply or aren't appropriate.  Let me give you a few examples of where folks seem to get messed up.

1.  Not using treats: I know we've talked about treats before, but having them readily available to reward your dog of any age is truly a game-changer.  Whether you are marking and rewarding that near perfect off leash recall, or amazed with how well your dog restrains themselves at the front door, you need to be ready to dish out rewards that your dog will appreciate and remember.  Treat-based rewards are not just for puppies and puppy training!  Research clearly shows that dogs who receive praise alone or praise and a pat and the head, are not as motivated to perform new tasks, and don't learn as quickly, as those who are given treats for their work.  And while giving kibble is fine for filling a Kong or burying in a snuffle mat, you will want to use higher value treats (as defined by your dog's preferences) when working on new behaviors, speeding up recall, or working on redirection. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. We all like to get paid.  And those treats need to be readily available. If you have to go to the kitchen, open a container, and cut up a treat, you've lost the chance of your dog associating the reward with their behavior. So, yes, you should always have treats in your pocket!

2.  Repeating yourself like a broken record: When you ask for a behavior, give your dog at least a few seconds to process what you said.  Human language is not their primary form of communication, so you need to give them a chance to hear what you said and turn that into a behavior change on their part.  Repeatedly saying "Sit," for example, won't result in your dog sitting any faster. In fact, repeating the command over and over in quick succession pretty much guarantees that they will sit more slowly as they've learned you don't have to sit when first asked, you can wait until the request is given multiple times to do the behavior being asked.  And remember: don't reach for that treat in your pocket until the dog has completed the behavior you've asked. If you reach too soon, you are rewarding the dog for thinking about doing what you asked, or worse still, you are allowing yourself to be blackmailed. If you wait a few seconds and your dog doesn't come when called, no need to repeat the word. Instead, pat your leg, bend down, whistle, make goofy sounds, run the other way, etc. This way, you're not repeating yourself, nor are you diluting the value of the request. You are simply adding more value to what you asked them to do.

3.  Delivering harsh corrections:  Just as you were patient while training your puppy, you need to be patient with your adolescent and adult dogs as well.  "Popping the leash," yanking them by the collar, etc. doesn't teach the dog anything other than to hate being leashed or having their collar grabbed.  The purpose of the collar and leash is to keep your dog safe when out in public spaces.  Remember that!  It isn't about control, per se.  It's a mutually beneficial situation; we keep our dogs on leash and near us so that they can be out in public and so that we can keep them safe.  You walk WITH your dog.  Make it enjoyable for you both by choosing the right tool for the job.  The right tool can change over time depending on the age of the dog.  While a flat collar and 6 foot leash might be fine for a puppy, you may need an 8 foot leash and a head halter or body harness for your active, adolescent dog.  And your senior dog may need more (or less!) leash depending on their vision and their abilities as they age.

4.  Practice does make perfect:  You worked with your puppy every day on new behaviors.  You doled out lots of treats and praise for every step in the learning process.  You knew that while they seemed to figure out what "Sit" meant the first time you guided them into the behavior, you would need to continue to mark and reward that behavior until they really  understood it.  Well, the same goes for adolescent and adult dogs.  You can't expect them to have perfect, off-leash recall if you've never practiced that.  If you have a pandemic dog, your dog may have only ever worked in your home and yard with any regularity.  Now, they are out in public spaces where there are a lot of distractions!  You need to work on the behaviors you want them to execute reliably out in those spaces and with distractions if you have any hope of them being successful.  Take your time and be patient.  It took you more than one day to learn to drive a car, learn to ski, or write in cursive.  It will take your dog several sessions on a long line practicing recall before they are ready to practice without a leash at all.

5.  Recognizing when your dog is apprehensive or afraid:  Remember in puppy class when you scooped up your puppy and reassured him when he got rolled by another puppy during play?  You recognized that he was overwhelmed and afraid and you stepped in to let him know that you had his back.  So, why aren't you doing the same thing for your adolescent or adult dogs? While puppies do go through fear stages, fear isn't something that only happens in puppyhood.  The world is full of scary things and a chance encounter with a runaway shopping cart at Home Depot may be all it takes for your dog to be afraid of wheeled objects.  Acknowledge that they are afraid and work with them to move past it at their own pace.  This will likely require repeated exposures and desensitization, along with the delivery of rewards as they move through their fear. And if they don't move past it?  Try not to get frustrated and ask for help.

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

You can clearly see the treat in my daughter's hand as she is teaching Westley to fist bump.  He's definitely interested in learning the new behavior. And looking quite dapper doing it, if I do say so myself. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Never Play Tug-of-War With Your Dog & Other Falsehoods!

At least once a week, I field a call or email from someone who was told/read online/or saw a post on Facebook that said they shouldn't be playing tug-of-war with their dog because it will make the dog aggressive.  I'm glad that the people telling me this over the phone or via email can't see my face as I'm sure I'm gritting my teeth and my eyes are rolled back in my head.  What a load of nonsense!  Playing tug-of-war with a dog most certainly does NOT make dogs aggressive. If it did, I'd have had nothing but aggressive dogs in my home my entire life!  The game of tug-of-war itself doesn't make dogs aggressive; aggression is something that dogs inherit or something they develop as a consequence of their environment.  Meaning, for example, if your dog keeps getting repeatedly beat up and bullied by other dogs at the dog park, he may very well become aggressive toward other dogs as a response to those negative experiences.  Tug-of-war is a game that most dogs really enjoy.  It allows them to use their mouths in a safe way with their humans.  They will tug and pull and growl and shake their heads to try to get the tug toy away from you.  And you will do the same, hanging onto the toy for dear life, grunting and maybe growling to make sure you get to keep the toy.  Fun times!  I love playing this game with Ozzie as we both turn in circles, growl, and jump around.  My one chance to be like a collie!  We play tug-of-war daily, sometimes he initiates the game, other times, I do.  He comes to the humans for the game because Desi won't play tug with him.  If Westley is home, however, he'll play tug with Ozzie and that's fun to watch for sure!  You see, dogs play tug-of-war with each other and with us. It is a game of strength and skill, but it's still a game.  If you want to play it with your dog, that's fine.  If you are concerned about your kids playing the game with your dog, then by all means, set some ground rules.  With kids, I suggest that the child start and end the game, not the dog and if the dog gets overstimulated and begins grabbing at the child's hands or jumping on them, then the child should drop the toy, firmly say, "Game Over!" and walk away from the dog and ignore them.  Dogs quickly learn that if they want the game to continue, they have to play by the human's rules.

Another falsehood I hear a lot is that dogs shouldn't be allowed to walk on leash in front of their owners as that means the dog is in control.  That's simply ridiculous.  Can you see my eyes rolling up in my head again?  Most dogs like to walk slightly in front of their owners and this isn't about them controlling you, it's about them assessing the environment you are walking into.  They are scanning the area, sniffing the air and the ground, etc.  They are making sure it's all good in your neighborhood.  I'm not suggesting that you let your dog tear your arm out of the socket and drag you down the street; rather, I am saying, if your dog wants to walk slightly in front of you, don't take this as some sort of affront to your status.  You are walking WITH your dogs, meaning it should be enjoyable for all parties. Staying at your knee in the heel position, looking adoringly up at you for an entire walk is not particularly pleasurable for your dog. Letting them trot ahead to sniff or look for squirrels, and then circle back to see what you are up to, makes for an enjoyable walk for everyone.  By all means, bring your dog back into the heel position if you are walking on a busy sidewalk or need to pass someone on the street, that's where teaching a dog to heel truly has the most value.  

Finally, there's the client I saw last weekend who told me she was sad that she couldn't let her dog sleep on the bed with her anymore.  I was figuring either she was allergic to the dog's fur or he snored or was restless, thus making sleeping with him on the bed uncomfortable.  Nope, that wasn't it.  She'd read in a Facebook dog owners group that letting dogs sleep with you or be on the furniture meant you were giving them power and they would thus not want to listen to you or be "obedient."  I was astounded by this!  Sharing your bed, your couch, or your favorite chair with your dog isn't what makes them ignore your requests or be disobedient.  That's crazy!  The only dogs who shouldn't be on furniture are those that try to guard those places from other pets or from their humans. If you can't sit on the couch because your dog will growl at you if you do, then yes, your dog shouldn't be on the furniture!  If your dog scoots over to make you a spot, or waits until you sit down to see if you'll invite them up there too, then sharing the couch isn't a problem.  If your dog doesn't hog the bed, growling at you for disturbing them, then it's fine to have them up there.  There have even been studies that show that women who sleep with a dog on their bed get a better night's sleep and rank themselves as happier overall!  If having your dog on the bed makes you sneeze, however, or keeps you from getting a good night's sleep, then by all means they need to sleep on a dog bed or in a crate in your bedroom instead.  You are still sleeping together then, just not co-sleeping. 

I hope this makes you feel better about that dog on the couch who likes to walk in front of you on your daily strolls and loves a good game of tug-of-war.  You see, I have one of those too and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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

Ozzie takes up a lot of room when he sits with you on the couch, but he's always willing to share his spot and loves trying to sit, at least partially, on your lap!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

What Breed of Dog Do You Think He Is?

 This is one of my favorite questions!  My dog trainer friends and I have a blast guessing what dog breeds went into some of the mixes we meet everyday. In the old days, you looked at a dog and made your best guess based on their color, coat style, head shape, body size, and to a certain extent, their temperament. Lots of dogs were just "shepherd mixes" or "lab mixes," but again, those dogs looked "shepherdy" or behaved like labs. Times are different now; you can actually send in a sample of your dog's saliva in to a company and they will give you your dog's DNA results.  There are so many of these companies out there, however, so how do you know which company to choose? My favorites are the companies that provide not just information on your dog's breed (s) makeup, but information on genetic diseases that they may be predisposed to experiencing in their lifetime. Thus, these are the two companies I recommend for DNA testing, to those clients seeking answers to that age-old question, "What do you think he is?"

Wisdom Panel Dog DNA Test:  I like this one a lot because they offer two versions, an essential version that gives you your dog's breed mix down to about 1% accuracy and information on 25 possible medical complications your dog might experience, and the premium version which tests for over 200 possible medical issues.

Embark Dog DNA Test:  This one is quite popular and I think that has a lot to do with their targeted advertising on social media!  Nonetheless, I like this company as they've been in business quite a while, so they do seem to have figured out how to make their results reliable and worth the expense. They, too, have two tests you can purchase.  The first is a simple "breed ID kit," which simply helps you identify your dog's breed makeup.  Though they do now offer an additional feature where you can find your dog's relatives through a family tree feature!  Reminds me so much of the "23 and Me" program for human DNA testing!  The Embark Breed & Health Kit offers everything the breed ID kit has, plus identifying over 190 health conditions your dog might experience. 

I love when clients send me a copy of their dog's DNA results after they've received them.  So fun to see if I was even close to right on what I thought their dog's breed makeup likely was!

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

This is an old picture of the mixed breed dog I had all through college, grad school, and my early married life.  She was a "border collie mix."  Would have loved to know what else was in there (if anything!) as she was the smartest dog I've ever shared my home with and I still miss her every day.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Pick of the Litter!

 I've known this client for almost 15 years.  We met when her first dog was a senior and experiencing dementia.  Her last dog was a rescue who had never been on a leash or inside of a house when she got him, so that took some work, but he ended up being a delightful companion.  Sadly, he passed just before the pandemic. My client and I talked about different breeds and temperaments and she decided on a breed and a breeder for her next canine companion.  She's super excited as she is going to pick out her puppy next week (she's been on the waiting list for almost two years!) and she gets first choice from this litter of eight puppies. She was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choosing process and called me to get some tips on picking a puppy when you have eight to choose from!

My client is fortunate.  A lot of times, new puppy owners don't have an opportunity to see the litter their puppy is coming from.  Not seeing all the puppies together, with their mother, really puts a new puppy owner at a disadvantage.  You don't get a good idea of the litter dynamics (e.g. is someone a bully?  bigger than the others? is there a puppy who is more timid?) if you don't see all the puppies together.  And seeing them with their mother gives you an idea of what to expect from your genetically related puppy!  If you get to meet the father dog (and/or other relatives), you will have even more information on what your puppy will be like going forward. I know that a lot of breeders share videos with clients, but that just isn't the same as observing a litter of puppies yourself. Plus, unfortunately, videos of litters can be altered to highlight certain things and gloss over others. Better to see the litter with your own two eyes and make a well-thought out decision.

When I temperament test a litter of puppies for a breeder or for a client, I look at several factors, none of which have to do with how cute they are or how much they cost!  I like to test every puppy in a litter, even if some of them are already spoken for.  In order to compare siblings, you need to evaluate all of the puppies.  I look at the following factors when choosing a puppy for a client and you can look for these things as well:

1.  Responsiveness:  Call each puppy using a friendly tone of voice and actions designed to get their attention (e.g.  say, "Puppy Puppy Puppy!" while patting your leg, snapping your fingers, or clapping your hands gently together). Does the puppy gallop your way, ignore you/hide, or run off to play with his/her siblings instead?

2. Assess their curiosity and visual tracking ability:  Get the puppy's attention and then roll a ball across the floor.  Does the puppy follow the ball visually?  Does the puppy chase after the ball?  Does the puppy run away from the ball?  Does the puppy ignore this whole exercise?

3.  Reactivity:  blow a whistle, click a clicker, stomp your feet, etc. to see if the puppy is interested, nonplussed, scared, or curious.

4.  Handling: Pick up each puppy and touch them all over.  Cradle them on their back in your arms and hold them just behind their front legs, letting the back legs dangle.  Can you touch the puppy's ears, mouth, tail, and feet?  Do they squirm to get away or do they seem entertained and interested in this exercise?

5.  Trust:  With the puppy on the floor, roll him/her onto their side and then back.  Do they struggle, vocalize, resist, move away from you and not return?

6.  Social Attraction:  Position yourself about 6 feet away from the puppy and make sad, whimpering sounds.  Does the puppy feel bad for you?  Does the puppy walk away from you?  Extra credit points for the puppy who goes and gets a toy to cheer you up!

7. Hand shy test: Raise your open hand above the puppy's head and make a downward motion (do not, of course, actually make contact with the puppy's head!).  Is the puppy flinchy or fearful?  Does he sit there thinking this exercise could lead to petting?

8.  Follow the leader:  Loop a leash onto the puppy and start walking, calling the puppy in an upbeat tone of voice.   Does the puppy follow along?  Does the puppy frantically resist?

Generally speaking, puppies between 9 and 16 weeks of age are all about exploring new situations and meeting new people.  They are very responsive to being engaged in a friendly manner.  They are generally more curious and exploratory at this age as well, making these tests easy and effective in choosing the puppy that is right for you.  Puppies this age aren't afraid of new people, new situations, or new sounds and are easy to handle.  And puppies this age should show empathy for someone making sad noises, and are likely to lick the face of the sad person. 

My client intends to use this outline to test the puppies she will be seeing next week.  She did say that she may narrow it down to a couple of pups and then FaceTime me to show me the puppies so I can help her make that last decision of who to bring home.  I'm really happy for her and love that this breeder is giving her the opportunity to meet the entire litter, the mom, the dad, and a grandmother as well. I think the breeder has made a good choice choosing my client for one of her puppies and vice versa.  And it goes without saying that I'm looking forward to working with her new bundle of joy when they return home.

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

Ozzie was chosen for me by a dear friend who is quite knowledgeable. She temperament tested his litter to find the one she thought would be a good match for me. I have to agree, he's perfect!

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Working 9 to 5!

 As soon as I typed that blog title, I started humming the Dolly Parton song of the same name!  It's also what popped into my head when a client called to say she was returning to work and freaking out about leaving her dog home alone.  She, like many dog owners, has been working remotely for the last year and a half.  Her kitchen became her office and her favorite co-worker, her dog.  She acquired this dog right before the lockdown last Spring, so consequently, her dog has really never been home alone for longer than about 20 to 30 minutes.  My client is worried that when she returns to working outside her home again in September, that her dog will panic and either destroy her house, hurt herself, or both.  She's also worried that she won't do well back at work without the dog there.  She's gotten quite used to the dog laying beside her chair, providing comfort and support. My client is not alone in these concerns.  Seems everyone is talking about their pandemic pups and separation anxiety.  What we aren't seeing though are suggested solutions for coping with this very real possibility.  I know I've talked about the treatment of separation anxiety many times over the years, but I feel like we need to revisit the topic with an eye toward the strategies and potential solutions. 

First off, go ahead and acknowledge that you will miss your dog and she will miss you.  Now that you've done that, start practicing being apart!  Go for a walk without her, don't take her in the car when you go to run errands, etc.  Don't have your groceries delivered, go shopping yourself.  Set up a camera so that you can watch your dog while you are gone.  If your dog is profusely panting, pacing, drooling, barking, whining, scratching at the door, or being destructive, she'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, she's fine.  Keep an eye on her while you are gone and see if she 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 she may have separation anxiety.  If she doesn't show any of these signs, she'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.

If you have a job situation where your dog can return to your workplace with you, that's great!  I wouldn't, however, plan to take them every day.  It's nice to have variety in your life!  Take your dog with you some days, leave them home some days, and maybe even send them to daycare (if they like other dogs!) or hire a dog walker to come in on a couple of days.  It's good for our dogs to know that they can exist outside our immediate presence.  It's good for them to interact with other people and other dogs in a supervised situation such as daycare or with a dog walker. And remember, just because you can take your dog to work with you, doesn't mean you should. If your dog has separation anxiety, just you leaving her behind to go to a meeting (or use the bathroom!) could cause her distress leading to barking or destructive behavior at work, which is a no-no. If your dog is anxious or aggressive about new people or other dogs, then taking her to work isn't a good idea.  People will be coming in and out of your workspace and you need to be sure that's safe for those people AND for your dog. Plus, if your employer allows other dogs in the workplace, you need your dog to be okay with her canine co-workers there with their humans too.

So, what should you be doing now if you know your dog suffers from separation anxiety? First, you will want to set up an appointment with your veterinarian as drug therapy is often a big part of treatment.  Second, never leaving your dog alone until she can be calm there is truly a key factor in the solution as well. This is because one of the first steps in treating the problem is removing the dog from situations that cause the anxiety. For a lot of dogs with separation anxiety, I recommend daycare since at daycare (versus a dog walker, for example), they can interact with new humans and other dogs and be crated or confined only under supervision, and barking and destructive behavior are curbed and/or redirected, if they are occurring. It's important for your dog to experience separation from you and have that go well. And for many dog owners with intense work schedules, daycare is the key to success.

Here is a general outline for the treatment of separation anxiety:

1. Never leave the dog home alone (even briefly until she has been taught calming techniques)
2. Crate train and/or x-pen train to build confidence when you are home (this helps curb the drooling, pacing, and destruction that so often occurs)
3. De-couple your departure cues (e.g. dress like you are leaving for work, but stay home; wear your pajamas and leave the house for a few minutes)
4. Only give attention to the dog when she is calm and deferential (any anxious behavior is to be ignored).
5. Increase her mental AND physical exercise everyday
6. Drug therapy (I usually recommend having a conversation with your veterinarian about your options, and starting with either Clomicalm, Elavil, or Prozac). Sometimes Xanax is needed if there is a panic component to the behavior as well. There are also some holistic options as well such as CBD treats or a DAP collar that may be worth exploring in conjunction with more traditional options.

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 (this is what it means to decouple departure cues!).  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!

It is hard to leave your dog behind and go back out into the real world.  Don't make the problem worse by ignoring any issues your dog might have with you leaving, as the sooner you address those issues head on, the better the outcome. Don't let your guilt about returning to work make your dog anxious either.  Dogs are good at picking up on human emotions; if you are ambivalent about returning to work, your dog will sense that and it may make her anxious on your behalf.  

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

My canine co-workers sleeping on the job again!