Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Your Beautiful Messy Work-in-Progress Dog!

I had two different people message me about a video I posted last week with a discussion about teaching dogs leave it and drop it around real food in the kitchen.  Just in case you didn't see the video, here's a link to it for reference:

Basically, one of the people who reached out is a veterinarian that I've known for years.  She wanted me to know that she thought it was brave that I put myself and my dogs out there for people to "judge."  I told her that's not it at all!  I just have my own dogs' permission to use them to teach other people (they give their permission by participating freely; if they walk away, that's fine!); I don't use my clients' dogs for these teaching videos because I want them to feel safe and protected by practitioner/client privilege. I do have a few clients who love to see their pets featured in my posts and blogs and I am grateful for their generosity. And the purpose of these training videos is not to demonstrate how "perfect my dogs are."  They are, in fact, flawed individuals just like their owner/handler, namely, me. We all make mistakes and I have always felt that mistakes are learning opportunities. So, if someone watching one of these training videos wants to say my videography skills need work, that's fine. Or, if they want to point out that my dog barked while we were working or was slow to comply, so be it.  Again, I don't post the videos to show off; I post them to educate, entertain, and generate conversation about dogs and dog behavior. That's it!  The other person who reached out to me about my video wanted to tell me that it "wasn't fair to do these videos" because my dogs were perfect.  I cracked up at this!  Again, they aren't perfect and we are all works in progress around here. I don't set perfection as a goal for myself , my family members, or my dogs.  We are all just doing our best.  But I did kind of appreciate that she thought Ozzie was perfect at leave it and drop it!  We worked hard on that from the time he was a puppy. I think he did a great job demonstrating these behaviors and he wasn't a bit put off by the camera and tripod (sometimes he is and those are videos you never see!). 

So why am I telling you all this?  Because I want you to know that the rewards and satisfaction come from putting in the effort to work with your dogs, not from a perfect outcome. Sometimes your training sessions will go smashingly well and other times you will crash and burn.  That's how it is with behavior change; steps forward and steps backward.  And if you are working on behavior change with an anxious dog, there WILL be setbacks as they learn alternate behaviors that don't reinforce their anxiety.  That's okay.  Again, the saying is "nobody's perfect."  Make it your mantra.  Put in the effort.  Give it your best.  Reward your dogs for trying.  Move on.  There will be another day to train.  Another teaching moment. Another opportunity to improve.  Finally, don't compare where you are in your training journey with your dog to where someone else is.  Their dog and their journey are different from yours.  Even if you have the same breed of dog, related dogs, etc.  Every dog is an individual and it isn't a reflection on you or your training skills if you need more time to work on something or you seek help for your dog.

I truly hope you enjoy these blog posts and the training videos and hints I share online.  I am always grateful for your comments and feedback.  I hope that they make you think, make you laugh, and make you smile. I hope that they bring you closer to your own dogs.  I hope they make you appreciate the training journeys of other people and their dogs.  And I truly hope you enjoy seeing my collies as much as I enjoy sharing them.

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

Just me with my kitchen helpers!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Listen to Me!

It's a common complaint, "my dog won't listen to me when we are out in public!" Seems that many dogs get out of the house and their training goes out the window, so to speak.  There's even a funny video prompt making the rounds on social media where it states "show me your dog doesn't listen without telling me your dog doesn't listen."  There are a million videos of dogs completely ignoring their owners out on walks!  While the videos are entertaining, this is a real problem and one that shouldn't be ignored.  Dogs who don't listen out in public aren't just embarrassing; they could put themselves and their owners at risk.

Whenever someone tells me that their dog doesn't listen out in public, my first question to ask is how well they listen at home; do they come when they are called 100% of the time? 80%? 50%?  Do they sit, lay down, leave it, and stay both with AND without food, or are they bribing their dogs to comply and the absence of food means the dogs ignores them?  You've heard me say it many times before: we all like to get paid, but an intermittent reinforcement schedule means that your dog is willing and eager to do what you'd like them to do because they know you will be rewarding them at some point in time. For many dog owners, the truth of the matter is this: yes, their dogs are better at listening when they are inside the house and there aren't any distractions, but the bottom line is that even there (and in their backyard), the dog is easily distracted and less than likely to comply with the requested behavior. Taking this one step further; why are some dogs more likely to do what they are asked than others?  Does breed or age make a difference?

Yes, breed *can* make a difference.  For example, a Beagle is a scent hound, so if they are out and about and catch an amazing scent, they may pay less attention to you in that moment, but that doesn't mean that Beagles cannot be good listeners.  And we all know that puppies, in general, are eager to please, while adolescent dogs often thumb their noses at training exercises, particularly if they feel that the exercises are boring, repetitive, or unnecessary.  So, this brings us to our first important point: know your dog.  What were they bred for?  Were they bred to herd sheep with a shepherd, or were they bred to keep the laps of monks warm in cold weather?  And while you most certainly want to work with your puppy every day on their basic obedience commands, you won't want to just keep up that same routine with your adolescent dog.  You will want to move on to tricks and other activities that utilize those important, basic skills they have, but in novel ways that hold their attention and challenge their brains.  

The next key point: context proofing.  It isn't good enough that your dog sits for you at home when you feed him dinner.  He must sit in other contexts as well, and include contexts where an immediate food reward isn't forthcoming.  So, sit at the front door when it's opening; sit in the car and wait to get out; sit while you use the ATM machine; and sit patiently while you drink coffee in an outdoor restaurant or stop on the street to talk to a neighbor. Initially, you SHOULD use treats to reinforce all of those sits in different contexts, but once your dog can do it reliably, move on to an intermittent reinforcement schedule and use praise and physical affection to reinforce in between. 

Here's a big one: ramp it up.  Work with your dog around a lot of distractions.  Before you practice coming when called off leash inside the dog park, practice coming when called OUTSIDE OF THE DOG PARK.  I mean this quite literally, outside of the dog park.  Put your dog onto a 15-30 foot long leash and let them run off and sniff the area outside the dog park.  Call them back to you (definitely have yummy snacks ready!) and if they don't come right away, give that long line a tug and try to get their attention focused on you again.  Your rule of thumb should be "I will not let my dog off leash anywhere until I am certain that she will come back to me, even with distractions."  If your goal is to hike off leash with your dog, then you must practice good hiking behavior ON leash first.  There will be birds and rabbits and squirrels (and other off leash dogs!) on those hiking trails too.  You need to be certain your dog will leave those things alone if you tell them to leave it and call them your way. Practice does make perfect on this.

Do keep your sessions short and positive.  While training classes are often an hour in length, frequent short session (less than 10 minutes, and 3-5 minutes is ideal) will help your dog to understand what you want, learn to do it across situations, while not getting bored or overwhelmed. Build sniffing and exploring into the breaks between your training sessions.  Sniffing and exploring is rewarding in and of itself, no food rewards required! If you find yourself getting frustrated, your dog will know this.  Give yourself a time out if you find yourself yelling at your dog, yanking them by their collar or leash, or lashing out.  You are a team and there's no place for any of that on a good, reliable team.

One last thing:  If you have an anxious dog (she's reactive to other dogs, she's afraid of noises, scared of new people, etc.), then context proofing will take longer and you may never get to the point where being off leash is safe.  Set realistic goals for your anxious dog; you can definitely work with her to the point that they two of you can have nice, loose leash walks together where she listens for your cues as to how to behave. 

And it goes without saying: while someone with a small, distracted, disobedient dog can simply laugh and pick their dog up when he won't sit at the curb, that isn't an option for those of us with medium and large dogs.  We all need to work with our dogs (and with each other) to get to the point where they are safe in public spaces. 

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

I feel like it should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Never walk multiple dogs together unless you are sure you have control over each dog as an individual.  Having multiple dogs drag you around not listening is even more of a hazard!  Desi and Ozzie walk nicely alone and do well walking together too.  Of course, they've had years of practice!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Leaving His Mark

I met with a client last weekend who has an adolescent male dog. He is a large breed dog with growth plate issues, so she's trying to hold off neutering him until he's between 2 and 3 years old.  While she was worried that she might have issues with him getting along with other male dogs, that's not a problem at all. He plays well with other male dogs just fine.  She was then concerned that he might try to mount all the female dogs at daycare.  Well, the daycare accommodated him and now the only females in his play group are spayed and they correct him appropriately if he tries to mount them. So what's giving her the biggest headache at the moment? Marking!  This guy marks the stairwell in her house, the patio furniture, and the tires on her car! There aren't any other animals in her house, so she's at her wit's end trying to figure out why he is now marking so frequently.  This is actually a fairly common problem, so let's take a good look at marking behavior.

All dogs, both male and female, spayed/neutered or intact, may engage in marking behavior.  Most people tend to think of marking as a strictly male behavior (a dog lifting it's leg), but that isn't the case.  Any dog may mark; urinating to leave a scent mark is part of normal dog communication. The triggers for marking are most often new or novel smells, another dog's urine, etc.  Often upright objects like posts, poles, trees, etc. are favorite places to mark.  Some dogs are triggered to mark by being in a new place; I've had several clients report their dogs marking in the new homes they've moved into.  Others are triggered by the presence of new objects. For example, years ago I had a client who was so excited to get all new living room furniture only to discover her male dog was marking the new stuff!  She was so surprised (and dismayed!) by this as he'd never marked her old furniture.  I've been in homes where the dogs mark stereo speakers, pole lamps, and coat racks! Usually, if you move to a new place or add new furniture to your home, you can simply supervise your dog's access to these areas until they get comfortable with them and no longer feel the need to mark.  You can do this by spending time with your dog in each new space (or near the new objects), feeding them there, etc.  When you can't watch them, return them to a space they won't mark such as their crate, pen, or confined to your kitchen.  As your dog's comfort level increases, you can expand where they can go when unsupervised, but never leave them alone in an area where they've previously marked until you are certain they are past the behavior.  I say this because many dogs mark because they are anxious.  They are experiencing stress and are responding to the influx in hormones by marking, thus creating spaces they can comfortably claim as their own. So, while a normal intact male dog might be triggered to mark by the presence of an intact female dog on his home turf (a common problem in dog breeders' homes), anxious male dogs may be triggered to mark by other external factors.

Dog owners are frequently told to "just neuter your dog and the problem will be solved," but that's often not the case.  While neutering reduces marking in approximately 80% of male dogs, it only eliminates the problem in about 40% of the cases. As mentioned previously, marking occurs in neutered dogs too, as well as female dogs. Again, marking isn't just about hormonal arousal, it's also about anxiety.

Let's get back to my client's dog.  This young dog is living in a very busy household.  I believe he is experiencing some anxiety, which truly isn't uncommon in adolescent dogs.  He gets plenty of exercise and has a lot of social opportunities.  While my client hasn't added anything new to her home in terms of furniture or upright items, she does live in a huge home.  While her dog is house-trained in the conventional sense (he knows to go outdoors to eliminate), he isn't trustworthy to have free-rein of the whole house unsupervised.  I've asked her to go back to restricting him to the downstairs area of her home where the family spends most of their time and where he has never marked.  Outdoors, he should be supervised as well so that he can be redirected away from marking the patio furniture or her car tires. She lives near an open space, so it's quite likely that free-roaming animals like skunks, opossums, deer, foxes, squirrels, etc. are moving through the yard and he is marking in response to that.  Nonetheless, if she doesn't want to supervise his outside time, she will have to learn to accept him marking outdoor objects.  If she continues scrubbing them with soap and water, he will just feel compelled to go back and freshen his marks if he smells other animals in the area again. It's fine for her to interrupt the behavior if she sees him sniffing around the furniture or her car; she can call him away or redirect him to another activity (e.g. go get your ball!). 

For some dogs, using an odor neutralizer in the marked area will be enough to deter them from returning, but that's not the case for my client's dog.  She tried booby-trapping the stairwell where he was marking, but he just waited until the booby traps were removed and then went back and marked! Now we just don't let him anywhere near the stairwell at all. As a stop-gap measure, she can put a belly band on the dog to prevent marking; belly bands are a fabric device that goes around the dog's abdomen, covering the penis, and thus ensuring that any urine excreted by the dog is absorbed by the fabric band and their belly fur, and not by the object they were trying to mark.  A belly band is fine to use when you can't supervise your dog, but leaving one on your dog all the time isn't a good solution. Better to confine them when you can't watch them, make sure they are getting enough mental and physical exercise, and address any issues in anxiety that are contributing to the marking.

If you are faced with a similar issue, here is your action plan:

1.  Clean the marked area well with a product designed to actually eliminate urine odor and damage.

2.  Block access to the areas your dog was marking when you can't supervise them there.  When you are there with them in those areas, use those opportunities to work on behaviors that run counter to marking such as grooming, feeding, training, or playing.

3.  Whenever possible, keep the objects your dog most desires for marking out of their "safe spaces." So, for example, if your dog likes to mark unfamiliar shoes in your entryway or your guests' suitcases, keep those visitors' shoes out of reach and put suitcases in closed closets so your dog won't be tempted to mark them.

4.  Address and resolve any conflict that could be contributing to your dog's anxiety and leading to marking.  For example, if you've brought in a new pet, brought home a new baby, or your elderly aunt just moved in with you, all of these situations could cause conflict and stress for a dog who then responds by marking. Break out the high value treats and reward your dog for getting along with the new family member.  For best results, pair all good things with the presence of the new person or pet. DAP plug ins and Adaptil collars may help, and even CBD formulated for dogs may curb the transitional anxiety associated with the upheaval in your home. 

5.  Tether your dog to you if you can't crate or confine them.  Teach them to lay on a mat or rug near you calmly rather than allowing them to explore unsupervised.  Give your dog frequent opportunities to get outdoors and appropriately mark to their heart's content. 

6.  If marking persists despite your best efforts, talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication.

The one thing you don't want to do is punish your dog for marking.  This will only increase the dog's anxiety thus leading to further, often more surreptitious, marking behavior.

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

Even on a rainy day, and while wearing his trusty raincoat, Desi likes to sniff and mark on his morning walk.  The rain often brings new and interesting smells to the surface and we definitely notice him stopping, sniffing, and marking even more than usual!

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Who Let the Dogs Out: When Dogs Congregate!

One of my clients is super-frustrated with her adolescent, intact male dog.  He is great on his daily excursions with the dog walker who takes him off leash with a gaggle of other dogs, where he can run around, play in water, etc. When he is on leash, however, he is a "fur missile," launching at other dogs and dragging his owner down the street.  On playdates in the neighborhood? Again, he's great!  On a walk in the neighborhood?  Not so much.  So why is it that he's fine with dogs off leash but not on leash?  Why can't he be equally social in both situations? Will neutering change any of this behavior?

I've had many clients notice the behavioral differences exhibited by their dogs when on leash versus off leash; even dogs who are not reacting to other dogs when on leash do seem to be more "hyper aware" when they are on leash versus off. This is actually very normal and easy to explain. Let's look at this from the dog's perspective.

When a dog is on leash, they are by definition tethered to you. This means that they can't get away if a situation goes badly.  It also means that they have to protect themselves and you while hindered by that tether. This situation makes many dogs "hyper aware" when on leash walks with their owners when other dogs are out as well. A lot of dogs pull on leash to get to each other as fast as possible to get those sniffy introductions out of the way and determine if all is well.  When dogs pull toward one another on leash, however, their bodies aren't in the normal shapes and postures conducive to a successful greeting.  When dogs pull they are gasping for air, straining on the leash, with ears often back, lips retracted, and a direct stare in the direction they want to go  A lot of dogs will scrabble around with their feet as well, appearing completely out of control.  Add in some barking, whining, or yipping, and you have a recipe for disaster when those two leashed dogs explode into each other's space. And, yes, dragging their equally stressed out and anxious owners behind them. This is just one of the many reasons why I don't let my dogs greet other dogs while on leash; off leash playdates in a yard, under my control, are the way my dogs engage other dogs. 

I love that many of you are using daycares and dog walkers for your dogs now that you've headed back to work.  This is a wonderful solution to the age old question of "what is my dog going to do all day while I'm at work?" A well-staffed, well-trained daycare provider can ensure that your social dog has an outlet for their enthusiasm and a place to get their exercise while hanging out with other, like-minded dogs. Daycare experiences can mean everything from a traditional daycare that is run like a staffed, off leash dog park, to an in-home daycare provider who keeps just a few dogs at a time daily for exercise and socialization in their own home and yard. For older dogs or dogs who aren't particularly social, daycare can be stressful and overwhelming.  These dogs will likely do better with an experienced dog walker for one-on-one excursions and fun outings. Remember that dog sociability is on a spectrum, and not all dogs are extroverts, desiring that constant contact with other dogs.  And it is also true that dogs' social needs change as they get older.  Your dog may have loved to play at daycare when they were a puppy and adolescent, but as a senior dog, they may find the whole experience very stressful.  Daycare providers want your dogs to succeed and be happy; if a staff member tells you that your dog isn't enjoying himself, don't be upset by this.  Daycare isn't for every dog and daycare providers need to make sure their areas are safe for all the dogs in their care.  And while I'm happy to evaluate your pet and discuss all of this with you, you need to keep in mind that I can't *make* your dog want to go to daycare or enjoy going there if she doesn't.  Rather, I will be pointing you toward other solutions as to what they should be doing while you are at work all day.

So, let's circle back around to my client with the intact male dog I was telling you about. He is clearly still enjoying his dog excursions and off leash socializing.  Even though he's intact, he is not mounting the other dogs as we've successfully taught him that that behavior earns him a time out away from socializing.  Neutering him will definitely help with the marking he does, on occasion, in their house, but it isn't going to make him any less "nutty" on leash when he sees other dogs.  That's where the work needs to be done!  He thinks that when he sees other dogs, it's play time!  We need to teach him that when he's on leash, this is work time.  His owners need to stop trying to figure out how to let him safely greet other dogs when on leash, and focus on how to make him a good walking companion.  We went for a walk together and I put two leashes on the dog, one attached to a martingale collar and the other attached to a Gentle Leader Head Halter. I had a bag full of very high value treats in my pocket and I'd already let him know that he could have them IF he walked nicely on leash as we started our walk in their yard before heading out into the neighborhood.  I was in charge of the leashes as his owner admitted that she was sure she was cuing him to dogs and thus part of the problem.  I understood this; she'd been pulled over more than once as her dog tried to yank her toward another leashed dog.  We walked for just 10 minutes; this was a training walk, not an exercise walk.  I let him sniff and explore with his leashes loose so he felt relaxed.  What I did NOT do is tell him when I saw other dogs, gasp when I saw other dogs, tighten up on his leash, ball his leash up in my hand, or step to the side to let other dogs go by.  I also didn't hide behind any hedges or cars!  We walked.  If he started to focus on another dog I'd say his name using an upbeat tone and guide him my way with the two leashes (think about how you might use the reins on a horse!).  When he broke his laser focus on that other dog, he received an enthusiastic "Yes!" from me and one of those high value treats.  He continued to get high value treats for following along with me and ignoring the other dog.  When the other dog was out of sight, no more treats and back to encouraging him to sniff and pee. We passed homes with off leash dogs behind wire fencing who barked and chased us along the fence line and he did great!  A few whines and a bit of pulling, but following along with me was much more rewarding.  His owner noted that his walks are never this pleasant for them, and that he normally pulls even when there aren't other dogs right there.  This is where the two leash system can be really helpful, particularly for big dogs.  You feel safer and like you have more control, and thus you are less likely to shorten up on your leash thus cuing your dog to pull in response.  Keeping the walk short and adding in those treats really will help.  Even a neighbor reinforced this point for my client when he came out on his driveway and said," Wow!  He looks so much more relaxed!  He's enjoying that walk this morning!"  My client thanked him and then sheepishly told me he was the neighbor who came to her rescue with wet wipes and bandages on one of the walks where her dog had pulled her down!

These improvements are just the start.  We'll need to walk together a few more times to make sure her dog has got the new routine. My client will need to do the walks with me there so she can build back her own confidence.  In the meantime, he will continue to go to daycare to get his exercise and playtime with his dog friends, and even have a few playdates with his dog buddies in their yard.  Her walks with him will initially be at off peak times to work on her leash handling and treat delivery.  All walks will be short.  Over time, we'll build up to walking at peak times when there are lots of dogs out on leash.  For now, we'll keep it simple and rewarding for all parties concerned. 

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

A group of dog friends having fun at Sniff and Saunter Dog Adventures! In-home daycares like this are wonderful for dogs who prefer small groups and where even older dogs can enjoy a bit of socializing without feeling overwhelmed.