Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Christmas Kitten!

A client called me first thing Monday morning in a panic.  Her daughter was given a kitten for Christmas!  They've always had dogs, so my client was at a loss as to what to do with a kitten.  Fortunately, her elderly dog has been gentle with the kitten and the kitten seems unfazed by the dog, so they are off to a good start on that front at least!  We ended up doing what I like to call a "Kitten 101 Session" where I shared all of my favorite tips and tricks for raising a kitten to become a well-adjusted, confident cat. Here's what we covered, in case you've added a kitten to your household too:

While adding a new kitten to your family is fun, there are a lot of responsibilities associated with being a good cat owner. Contrary to popular belief among non-cat owners, cats require a lot more than just food, water, and a litter box to grow into healthy, sociable, well-adjusted pets. Cats have behavioral needs that often go unmet by their owners and ultimately lead to behavior problems, jeopardizing the human-animal bond. Many cat owners fail to understand their cat’s behavior or use what they know about dog behavior and try to apply that to the felines in their home. Unfortunately, many cats are abandoned and euthanized every year because of behavior problems that could have been avoided had their owners had a better understanding of normal cat behavior.

1. Socialization. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not solitary creatures. In fact, cats are very sociable creatures deriving great comfort and pleasure from the companionship of their humans, other cats, and even the family dog. Socialization is the key to owning a well-rounded, confident cat. Unlike puppies where socialization is all about play, socialization for kittens is all about learning to tolerate the close proximity of others. In the first four weeks of life, it is critical that kittens have social contact with their mother. It is a well-known fact that kittens that are deprived of this contact with their mother develop a variety of behavioral, emotional, and even physical abnormalities. These kittens are more likely to be hyperactive, antisocial, and fearful of people and other cats. They are more likely to engage in wool sucking, pica (eating non-food items), and aggressive play. They can even be slower to learn simple associations such as the location of the food bowl or litter box.

In order to develop into a normal, friendly, confident cat, a kitten needs regular handling by friendly humans and to be exposed to as many new situations as possible in a non-threatening manner. This all must occur when your kitten is primed to learn about social relationships, between 2-9 weeks of age. By 6-8 weeks of age, your kitten will start responding to visual and olfactory (scent/smell) threats. By 7-8 weeks, they will have good eye-paw coordination. Real social play develops between 6-12 weeks of age, which is why Kitten Kindergarten classes (where available) are open to kittens from 6-14 weeks of age. By 14 weeks of age and onward, these same kittens will be more interested in social fighting and fearful play. For your kitten to be good with other cats, dogs, and humans, they must be exposed to these groups as young kittens. Even if you don’t have a dog, someone you know will have a reliable, friendly dog you can expose your kitten to. If you plan on having more than one cat, consider adopting two kittens at the same time.

2. Litter Box Training. One of the characteristics owners find most appealing about their cats is the fact that cats use a litter box. Many owners, however, don’t understand the origins of this basic instinct and therefore make errors with regard to litter box style, location, number, litter substrate, and cleaning. Cats bury their waste as a means of survival. Cat urine is very concentrated and has a strong odor. This odor attracts predators. In the wild, cats urinate and defecate well away from their sleeping area in order to keep from attracting predators to themselves and their young. Thus, safety is the reason cats don’t eliminate where they eat, sleep, play, or raise their young.

Don’t make the mistake of going for the fancy, self-cleaning litter boxes made popular on television and in magazines. These boxes can be very daunting to a cat and cause them to use them less than faithfully. In addition, these boxes require less maintenance by you, which means you are not monitoring your cat’s litter habits as often as you should. So, a basic box is really all you need. When deciding on the size and depth of the box to choose, keep in mind your cat’s age, size, and health. Tiny kittens have a hard time climbing into the jumbo boxes with high sides that are designed for multi-cat households where several adult cats are using the box. The litter box needs to be large enough to move around in comfortably and guard against bottoms hanging over the edge leading to urine and feces outside the box. Your cat needs enough room to eliminate in a couple areas and still have a clean spot to stand on. As a general rule, the length of the box should be double the length of your adult cat and the width should be approximately the same as their length. You may have to make adjustments as your cat gets older and their elimination style becomes more evident. For example, if you discover that your cat is spraying urine over the sides of the box, it may be time to substitute a higher-walled plastic storage container for your standard litter box. Do NOT make the mistake of buying a covered litter box. While these boxes do contain the smell, a plus for many humans, the fact that they do so will make the box less appealing to your feline companions. Covered boxes get less air circulating in them, so they are smellier overall than uncovered boxes. Covered boxes are also rather daunting to cats that may feel very uncomfortable entering a dark hole to eliminate. Many covered boxes are too shallow causing the cat to have to duck to avoid touching their heads to the ceiling. If you have a multi-cat household, covered boxes are also a poor choice as one cat may block another from going in to use the box or exiting safely after elimination. Both of these can cause a cat medical and behavioral problems as they strive to find a safer place to eliminate.

Just as there are many types of litter boxes to choose from, there are also many types of litter available on the market. From a cat’s point of view, there are three basic requirements for litter:

If has to be something he won’t mind standing on; it has to be loose enough in texture for him to dig a hole, eliminate, and then cover it up; and most importantly, from a cat’s perspective, it should be odor-free and generate very little dust when scratched. The best choice that meets these requirements is scoopable litter. These litters are sand-like in texture so they are soft and easy on the feet, they are loose enough to dig in, and because you are sifting through it daily, they efficiently control odor and are virtually dust-free. Some cat owners have expressed concern that scoopable litter may be dangerous to cats if ingested. There are no reported cases of a cat having intestinal damage due to ingestion of scoopable litter. There are, however, numerous cases of cats that don’t use their litter boxes because they don’t like the substrate being provided for their elimination!

So, how much litter should you be using and how many boxes should you have? A good rule of thumb is to spread enough litter in the box to provide a two-inch layer for digging and covering. In multi-cat households, you don’t need more litter in the box, you need more boxes. The general guideline here is one litter box per cat plus one. So, if you have one cat, you need two boxes. Two cats, three boxes, and so on. In addition to daily scooping, your boxes will need to be cleaned routinely. If you are using clay litter or another non-scoopable variety, you will need to thoroughly clean out the box at least once a week. This means disposing of all the litter, cleaning the box out using warm water and a mild dishwashing soap, and letting the box air-dry. This means you will probably want to have back up boxes to use when one set of boxes is drying naturally. If you are using scoopable litter, you will be able to go longer than a week between cleanings. However, you will still need to clean the box out thoroughly as outlined above. While plastic liners make clean up easier for the humans, cats dislike liners. They get their claws caught in them when digging and they cause urine pooling and odor.

The location of the litter boxes is extremely important. It should be in a draft free area, away from sudden or startling noises, not in a traffic pattern, and, most importantly, nowhere near your cat’s food and water bowls. If you absolutely have to keep food and water bowls in the same room as your litter boxes, place them as far apart as possible. Wherever you locate your boxes, make sure to check them and clean them twice a day to ensure that your cat has a clean, odor-free area for eliminating. The most common place chosen for a litter box is the bathroom. This is actually a great spot to pick if you have the room to fit your cat’s box there. It makes cleanup easier and it is convenient for you to check its cleanliness with regularity. Laundry rooms are also popular locations for litter boxes. Keep in mind, however, that laundry rooms are noisy and often too warm to be a good location for a litter box. Your cat must feel that he has privacy and is safe when using the box. Being startled by the spin cycle of your washing machine does not promote feelings of safety and well-being! Two-story homes should have a litter box available on each floor. Even if you own an indoor-outdoor cat, you should still have a litter box indoors just in case your cat chooses to eliminate inside whether because of bad weather or illness.

The easiest way to introduce a new cat or kitten to the litter box is to confine said individual in a small area until he is using the box successfully and is comfortable with his new surroundings. If your kitten isn’t getting the idea, you can place him in the box following a meal and scratch at the litter with your fingers. Do not force him to stay in the litter box, just try to make it inviting. If your cat defecates or urinates outside the box, try to collect it as best you can and place it in the box. The smell of his own waste should attract your cat next time he eliminates. Remember that punishing a cat for not using the box will backfire on you. You will create a situation where your cat is anxious and fearful with you AND with the litter box.

3. The Principles of Learning. Your kitten is learning all the time. You do not have to be consciously working with your cat to have it learn. When most people think of animal training, they think of specific tools such as leashes, collars, and clickers. In truth, however, training any animal simply requires an understanding of the principles of learning, which apply to all species. Once you understand the basic principles, then all you need to do is take into account the species of the animal you are working with, as well as their age, sex, and activity level or drive. Finally, it is up to you to set up situations for your cat which promote learning of the desired responses that you are hoping to repeat.

Many behaviors are most easily taught using a target or targeting stick. I like to train kittens using a chop stick as a targeting stick and begin by teaching them to touch the stick with either their nose or their paw. When they touch the stick, they receive a treat and praise. Once they are readily touching the stick, I move to using the target to guide them into many tasks or tricks such as jumping on a chair or moving in a circle.

4. Handling Your Kitten. It is very important that you be able to handle every part of your cat’s body. You need to be able to examine their ears, eyes, mouth, feet etc. without fear of being scratched or bitten. Routine daily handling of your kittens will result in them growing up to be confident cats that don’t panic when they need to be medicated. If you teach your kitten to accept teeth brushing and nail clipping, you will ultimately have a healthier pet that is easier for everyone to handle. NEVER use your “naked” hands to play with your kittens. If you rough house with a kitten, allowing them to grab onto your arms and hands, kick you with their back feet, and bite, you will not only have a difficult time teaching the handling exercises, but you will have a kitten who grows up to be an aggressive cat. So, while using your ten fingers may seem like a convenient and enticing way to stimulate your kitten or get his attention, doing so gives your cat the message that biting skin is acceptable. If your cat begins to grab or bite at you during the handling exercises, do not pull your hand or arm away. This will cause him to instinctively bite down harder. This is how a cat responds to movement of prey. Instead, just freeze. Make a distracting noise with your free hand such as slapping the table, dropping a book, etc. This will startle your kitten causing him to let go and the noise will not be associated with you. If he still doesn’t let go, try gently pushing your hand or arm closer to your cat. This will cause your cat to release you from his grasp as confusion sets in; prey isn’t supposed to move TOWARD the predator! Once you are safely out of your kitten’s grasp, try immediately redirecting all that playful energy toward an appropriate target such as an interactive toy.

5. Importance of Play & Interactive Toys. Many pet owners mistakenly believe that if they provide the toys, their pets will use them. These same well-meaning owners are always flabbergasted when their pets ignore the toys and instead go for computer cords, houseplants, and toilet paper rolls. In order for any toy to effectively grab your pet’s attention, you’ve got to get in there and show them how to use it. It goes without saying that it is important to play with your pets everyday. You don’t need to devote an hour everyday to play time, but you do need to devote some time each day to play. It’s good for you and good for your pets. If you begin thinking like a cat, you will see that playtime is much more than just fun and games. Play can be used to teach your kitten desirable behaviors and help you to raise a confident, sociable, well-behaved cat. In fact, initiating play with your adult cat can help with weight control, ease stress or depression, and even correct behavior problems.

Cats engage in two forms of play, social play and object play. As the name implies, social play involves another cat, pet, or you. Through social play with littermates, your kitten develops motor coordination and learns about bonding with other individuals. Kittens will even take turns playing the aggressor as they learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses and the abilities of others. Kittens engage in the most social play before 12 weeks of age. At this point, a sense of territory begins to develop. After 12 weeks of age, social play sessions become shorter and may even end with a bit of real aggression. Object play becomes the main focus as kittens mature and is also a way of strengthening a kitten’s motor coordination, as well as teaching him about his environment. Kittens are attracted to moving objects and will chase and stalk them. Play is an important part of kitten development, and proper play and exercise are to be encouraged.

Kittens use multiple objects as prey items when they play and their play consists of stalking, pouncing, jumping, biting, and clawing. Small objects that can easily be manipulated with their paws and grasped in their mouths are preferred. However, you should avoid objects that are small enough to pose a choking risk as the barbs on a cat’s tongue do not promote movement of swallowed objects back up readily. In addition, string, thread, tinsel etc. is to be avoided at all costs as swallowing such items can be deadly.

Again, avoid playing with your hands when you interact with your kittens. While a moving hand may seem like an easy toy for your kitten, teaching your kitten it is OK to behave aggressively toward to you is not a good idea. Any attempts by you to then correct your kitten could just make the situation worse, repelling them from you. While a kitten may not be able to do serious damage to a human’s hands or other body parts, adult cats certainly can. Fishing pole lure type toys and those long wands with prey type toys attached on the end are the best to use to encourage play without direct contact to your body. Young kittens can often be encouraged as well to chase and fetch small fleece toys as they bat them across the floor.

It is also nice for your kitten to have toys that promote independent play. Peek and play puzzle boxes, turbo tracks, tunnels, firefly jars, etc. are all toys that can provide hours of enjoyment without direct human involvement. Toys should be rotated to keep your kitten’s interest and make them want to explore. It is worthwhile to note that you should never underestimate the value of cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, paper towel tubes, and empty paper bags for entertaining and providing mental stimulation for your kitten.

6. Importance of Perches & Scratching Posts. Confining your kitten to the indoor environment does not have to be a life sentence of boredom. Cats that live strictly indoors are not only healthier and free from disease and parasites, they are safe from dangers in their environment such as cars, toxins, dogs, and wild animals that could do them harm. However, keeping your feline strictly indoors does mean that you must provide an adequate environment for their physical and social development.

Cats need a lot of vertical space to explore. This means not only places to climb onto but ways to move across their environment, above the floor. Cats will use book shelves, cupboards, counters, backs of furniture, window sills, and the tops of doors to move around. Cats also desire cubbies and hiding places and will sneak under beds, into closets and drawers, and inside of cabinets. From these hidden areas your cat will “hunt” for toys and food, so you can make the game more rewarding by hiding dry food in lots of areas around your house.

You can purchase commercially made cat perches for your feline friends. The best perches incorporate sisal fiber for scratching and climbing, in addition to walk ways and hiding areas. You should have numerous scratching posts and pads in your home for your cat. Scratching surfaces should vary to meet your cat’s every mood. There are scratching pads that lay on the ground and are made of rough cardboard; these are nice to put along carpet edges to deter your cat from scratching and digging at carpet fibers. Upright scratching posts covered in sisal, wool, or rough fabric are better than those covered in tightly woven carpet. These upright posts should be placed in front of curtains and furniture where your cat likes to scratch. Once they’ve become attracted to their posts and are using them regularly, you can move them to locations that are more convenient for you.

It is important to remember that scratching is a perfectly normal feline behavior. Cats with access to the outdoors may even restrict their scratching to the trees and fences in their environment. However, indoor/outdoor cats, and those who live strictly indoors, will need to have outlets for their behavior. While scratching does serve to shorten and condition the claws, the primary reasons that cats scratch are to mark their territory and to stretch. This is why it is critical for your cat’s scratching posts to be tall enough for them to scratch while standing on their hind legs with forelegs extended. The posts also must be sturdy enough that they won’t topple over when leaned on and scratched. Toys and treats can be used to attract your cat to a new post and help them to return there on their own.

At the end of our conversation, my client said she still felt a bit overwhelmed as a first time "cat mom," but at least she now had the tools she needed to get her daughter and the new kitten off to a great start. I'm excited to hear about their progress over the next few months!

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

Sleepy kittens are definitely as cute as sleepy puppies!

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

It's the Most Wonderful (Stressful!) Time of Year!

I love the holidays.  I love the smell of a fresh Christmas tree, the aroma of my cranberry kitchen candle burning, sugar cookies fresh from the oven, and having everyone home for Christmas.  What I don't love is the stress!  Ozzie has always been my mirror, reflecting back at me my moods, feelings, and frustrations.  He feels the holiday stress as much as I do.  Because of this, I make a concerted effort to work on my stress and his through mindful activities together.  If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed as well, maybe these tips could help you too!

1.  Take a walk. Ozzie and I walk every day, rain or shine. Our holiday season walks are a necessity for our sanity.  We love to walk really early in the morning when there's hardly anyone else out there.  We look at the sky together, Ozzie sniffs and stalks squirrels, and he will bump me with his head and grin whenever he feels particularly light-hearted.  I treasure our morning walks; and if Desi is up for walking in the morning too, having him along just adds to our pleasure.

2.  Stop Moving.  This is a hard one for me, but I make sure to do it anyway. I just stop, sit down on the floor or a dog bed, and do absolutely nothing except pet a dog.  No phone, no TV, not even a book.  Just a girl and a couple of collies breathing in and out.

3.  Nourish your body.  We love apples.  I'll slice an apple and share it with Ozzie and he'll happily crunch away on it, waiting for more.  His crunching sounds make me smile.  Apples are good for us both in more ways than one.

4.  Treat yourself.  Anyone who knows me, knows I love to bake. I find it stress-reducing, and having that delicious reward at the end is gratifying.  I especially like to bake things that can be shared with Ozzie and Desi.

5.  Prioritize.  This is really hard for me, but it's something easily learned from a dog.  They don't worry about what others think of them for taking a nap, taking a break, playing, or just doing nothing.  Prioritize what really needs to happen and what can wait or be skipped altogether.

6.  Soothe your soul.  Whether it's music, a massage, a soak in a hot tub, or all three, schedule some daily relaxation for yourself.  While you're at it, treat your pets to some T-Touch so that their sore muscles, aches, and pains can find some much needed relief on these cold, winter days too.

Finally, it's okay to feel grumpy, grouchy, and less than festive.  And if it's your dog who is feeling a bit like the Grinch, that's okay too.  Give them the space they need to recharge; put them in their crate with a frozen Kong, or in another room with a bully stick or bone to chew on.  A little peace and quiet (and something hard to gnaw on!) will have them back to their usual selves in no time.  And remember, not every human or animal is an extrovert.  Give those introverts space and an out when they need it.  

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday, one that serves you and brings you joy.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. I'm over here, sitting on a dog bed, sharing a snack with a couple of collies who stayed on Santa's good list all year long!

Desi is always a good boy, despite what the pillow says!

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Developmental Delays in Dogs

I met with a client this week who has been struggling with her dog for a couple of months.  His body is big and he's passed his first birthday, but he still behaves like a puppy.  He has accidents in the house; he chews anything and everything (no piece of furniture is safe); he doesn't heed signals from her other dogs when they shun his exuberant behavior; he's very needy; and he still needs enforced nap times.  Basically, he's a 120 lb puppy and his owner is quite frustrated and downright concerned. Her veterinarian told her that she doesn't discipline the dog enough; her neighbor told her the dog needed more training; and her family has told her that the dog isn't welcome at family events until she can get better control of him.

When I observed this dog, here's what I saw immediately:  A puppy.  Not an adolescent dog.  Not an adult dog, but a puppy.  A BIG puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. His behavior was consistent with what you would expect to see in a 6-8 month old puppy, not a dog who had just celebrated his first birthday.  He wasn't being defiant when he pulled on the leash, he was excited to explore!  He wasn't being defiant when he chewed on the furniture, he still needs direction to appropriate chewing outlets and boundaries to help him make the right choices. The hardest thing is going to be helping this big puppy move past his fears and uncertainty when out in public so that it's safe for his owner to walk him (when he gets scared or spooked, he wants to bolt for home).

Dogs, just like people, can experience developmental delays.  Those delays can be genetic in origin, or they can be due to something that happened during the dam's pregnancy, during birth, etc.  Some puppies get stepped on or laid on, and some are born as singletons or the runt of their litter.  All of these scenarios could result in a puppy, and thus a dog, with developmental delays. 

If your dog has developmental delays, you will need to be more patient with her. She may take longer to get through puppyhood, experiencing longer or more frequent fear stages, having accidents in the house more often, and seemingly ending up over threshold or being more reactive than other puppies or dogs her age. Thus, while most people report their puppies, regardless of breed, being completely housetrained by the time they are 10-11 months old, a puppy with developmental delays may be 18 months old before reaching that milestone. And while most puppies go through four fear stages in their first year, a pup with developmental delays may seem to be stuck in a fear stage for weeks to months at a time. It is also true that while most gangly, loose-limbed puppies become sleek, well-coordinated adolescent dogs, those with developmental delays may seem off balance or uncoordinated a bit longer. One caveat to all of this, however, is that you can't just assume that an adolescent dog who is still having house training accidents, or is fearful, or seems to trip over her own feet has developmental delays. Your first step always is to visit your veterinarian and rule out the other, medical causes for these behaviors before assuming that a developmental delay is the culprit.

So, back to my client. She's been to see her veterinarian several times to rule out medical issues because she was sure her dog must have had a bladder infection given the number of accidents the dog was having! Nope, the dog is perfectly healthy, just really a 6 or 7 month old puppy living inside the body of a 1 year old, young adult dog. So, here's what we are going to do to ease my client's anxiety and help her dog thrive and mature to the best of his abilities:

  1. Set and maintain clear boundaries: While my client had crate trained her dog as a puppy, she'd quit using it once she thought he was an adult and wouldn't need it anymore. We are bringing back the crate for nap times, and enforcing those nap times, to make sure this dog is well-rested. We are also introducing an x-pen to confine the dog when he's awake but can't be supervised. That way, he can't chew the furniture or constantly pounce on her senior dogs for attention.

  1. Adhere to a predictable schedule: Having a set schedule that the dog can predict and that the owner can stick to will be key. A lot of anxiety for dogs comes from not knowing what will happen next, or thinking it's time for something to happen, and then it doesn't. For dogs with developmental delays, willy-nilly schedules, missed walks, etc. are not just frustrating, they are anxiety-provoking and stressful.

  1. Increase both the mental and physical exercise the dog receives daily: Two walks a day with a focus on sniffing and exploring are a must. Simple, interactive toys like snuffle mats and food dispensing balls to build brain connections are also necessary. The third component we are adding in are balance and coordination boosters, which will ultimately increase the dog's confidence. Using wobble boards, hula hoops, and bosu balls, this dog will learn to balance his big body, lift himself a few inches off of the ground, etc., thus making him able to step off of a curb without tripping over his big feet.

  1. Increasing the amount of time the dog is on leash: We are going to keep my client's dog on leash more; he can drag it around the house so that someone can step on it, if need be, to keep him from jumping up. He can also be walked on leash inside the house to increase his confidence with being on leash and help him to learn not to pull. There is no hard and fast rule that says walks on leash need to be outdoors. Leash walks can be done anywhere, inside the house, in your yard, in your garage, etc. Anywhere you have space to walk with your dog is an opportunity to work on leash etiquette.

  1. Clear communication: Using hand signals and verbal markers, my client will make a bigger effort to connect with her dog. He watches her all the time, waiting for feedback, and now she's going to make a conscientious effort to give it to him. She's going to let him know when he's having success by saying “Yes!” and doling out treats and use redirection and time outs for when he invariably makes mistakes. She's going to learn t-touch so that she can use handling and massage as a way to calm her dog and reinforce their bond.

We all learn differently and at different paces. Some people find math easy, for example, and others think of math as a foreign language that they just can't figure out. Dogs are just like us in that regard; some find learning to walk on a leash to be very easy, while others find it quite challenging and anxiety provoking.  There's one thing we can all agree on: The world of dogs and dog owners has plenty of room for all types of abilities and aptitudes.

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

In case you were wondering what a wobble board is, 
here is a stock image of a young Australian Cattle Dog 
working on balance using one!

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Five Minute Training: Part Two!

I received so many requests for another set of "five minute training exercises" from followers after last week's blog post!  I'm really pleased that you enjoyed these easy to do exercises with big behavioral payoffs for your dogs, so here are five more exercises you can do for five minutes each day:

1. Wait before going out the door or jumping out of the car;  Make sure your dog understands stay before you teach them to wait.  Stay is a permanent command, meaning you will always go back to your dog and release them from their stay.  For wait, your dog can be told when it is safe for them to proceed, without you returning to them to do so. For example, have your dog sit on leash at the front door and stand on the leash.  Tell them to "wait," and open your door.  If they try to bolt out the door, they won't get far because you are standing on the leash!  Say something like "Uh oh!" or "Nuh uh!" and bring them back, have them sit, tell them wait, and try again.  Continue to do this until your dog will sit and wait at the door.  Once they will do this reliably, then you will say something like "Now we go!" or "The coast is clear!" and head out the door with a calmer dog.  For the car, have them in their car harness or crate for rides.  When you stop the car and intend to let them out, don't allow them to bolt from the car. Again, tell them "wait," as you unhook the harness or open the crate door.  Repeat the wait command if you have to do so.  Then, hook on your leash and tell them "Now we go!" or "The coast is clear!" as they exit your vehicle. Never let your dog exit the car without being on leash as they could be distracted by a cat, squirrel, passerby, etc. and exit your car, cross the street, or run into traffic versus into your house or yard as you intended. 

2.  Take treats nicely:  Do not teach your dog the gentle or easy command for this one.  Putting taking treats nicely onto a command implies that there is a time or place where they won't have to take treats nicely and that's simply not the case!  Your dog should always take a treat nicely, when offered.  Instead, set them up to succeed every time by shaping the behavior you want around food.  Hold a low value treat (kibble works well for this) in a closed fist and hold your fist out in front of your dog.  She'll be able to smell the food and will bang on your hand with her nose, teeth, lips, etc.  None of these behaviors will get you to release the kibble.  When your dog gently nuzzles or licks at your hand, flip your hand open so she can take the kibble from the palm of your hand.  Repeat this over and over with kibble until your dog simply approaches that closed fist and sits in front of you waiting for your hand to flip over and the kibble to magically appear in the palm of your hand.  Once you can do this with kibble, repeat the exercise with low value treats, high value treats, and desirable "people" food like cheese, meat, etc.  Once your dog is proficient at automatically taking treats gently from you, start adding in other people to your exercises to ensure that they always take treats nicely, regardless of who is offering them.

3.  Stop grabbing hands, clothing, or the leash:  This is an exercise in self control.  Many dogs get so excited about going out for a walk that they start grabbing anything that they can get their mouths on, including us!  Your first step will be to decrease the value that the leash inherently has for them.  This means attaching an old leash to your dog's harness or collar (one that you really don't care if it gets dirty or destroyed!) and letting them drag it around while you are home doing other things.  Basically, you want the leash being attached to their collar or harness to no longer be a thrill.  Periodically pick up the leash your dog is dragging around as this used to signal to them that a walk or trip outside was going to happen.  Now, when you pick up the leash, ask them for another behavior (sit, touch, watch me, shake, etc.), one that doesn't require them to open their mouths is the key.  When they do this calm behavior, reward with a "yes!" and a treat from your pocket.  Continue picking up the leash and marking a calm behavior throughout your training sessions.  Once your dog can do this easily, you are ready to apply this same routine at the front door and on your walk.  During the walk, keep your dog under threshold for grabbing and mouthing by redirecting them to "go sniff!" and even dropping treats on the ground for them to find.  You can also redirect to a toy or bully stick you carry in your pocket, but mostly you want to be shaping calm behaviors on leash and keeping your dog from getting over-stimulated.  If your dog still grabs your hand, your clothing, or the leash, stop dead in your tracks, drop the leash and stand on it, while ignoring your dog.  Don't give them enough leash to jump on you, but just enough to stand or sit.  They may get frustrated with this, but they won't be able to reward themselves with the jumping, grabbing, etc.  When they settle down, pick up the leash, ask for a calm behavior like sit, touch, watch me, etc., before you begin walking again.  Repeat as much as you need to for them to stay focused on the walk and not on grabbing you and the leash!

4.  Stay off of the furniture: While some of us may be okay with our dogs being on the furniture, for others, the arrival of guests for the holidays, or the addition of new furniture, means dogs need to learn to stay on the floor.  Obviously, it's easier to just never let them up there in the first place than to switch gears and change your mind, but it is possible. Just remember that to a dog, your old couch looks just like the new one, so they aren't going to figure out that they can't get up there anymore unless you help them to understand. Do make sure that you have dog beds, dog mats, or your dog's crate nearby so that you can tell you your dog where they are supposed to be rather than on the furniture. When you are first teaching this, do not leave them unsupervised in the room with the off limits furniture; close the door to the room, block it off with a baby gate, or confine your dog when you aren't home to help them make good choices.  Now, it's time to make staying off the the furniture fun! Put yummy treats in your pocket and plop down on the couch yourself.  When your dog approaches you, and before they try to jump up on the couch, tell them "go to your bed/mat!" and then toss a treat in that direction.  Once they are there, tell them to stay.  If they stay, toss them another treat.  If they get up and come toward the couch, say "Nuh uh!' and take them back to their bed/mat and tell them to stay.  If they stay, toss another treat.  Repeat this exercise until your dog understands that staying off of the couch is way more rewarding than getting up there.  A side note: this only works if everyone in the house keeps the dog off of the furniture.  And, if your couch or chair is positioned in such a way that it is located in the exact spot that gives your dog the best view of the street, side walk, etc., then you will need to realize that keeping them off of that piece of furniture will be more challenging; you might even want to move it and put the dog's bed or mat there instead. Finally, if you are looking for a happy medium, teach your dog to lay on a machine washable blanket located on one spot on your sofa or chair.  That way, they can still be there with you (and look our the window!) without soiling the whole piece of furniture.  Again, you will still want to do the exercises outlined above to ensure that they stay on their blanket and don't wander to the unprotected spots on the couch.  

5.  Don't paw people for attention: Dogs paw to get our attention and will continue to paw as long as this behavior is successful.  Remember, dogs just want attention, so negative or positive, if they get your attention for pawing you, then they've been successful!  When your dog approaches you, and before they go to paw you, ask for something that is counter to pawing (lay down, for example).  When they do what you asked, offer them a treat.  If they paw you, turn your body away from them, or get up and walk away.  When you sit down again, ask for the down and say "stay." Once again, if they paw, turn away or move away.  Only give them attention for NOT pawing you; bringing a toy, is fine, just no barking, whining, or pawing for attention.  Those behaviors will get them shunned or ignored.  It is critical that everyone in the house resist giving the dog attention for pawing; if one person rewards them, the behavior will persist.

Now you have a total of ten exercises that you can do in 5 minutes or less everyday to help your dogs be on their best behavior!  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior (or have suggestions for topics you'd like me to cover in my blog posts!), you know where to find me.

My daughter allows Westley up on all of her furniture. As you can see, he does have a blanket he's supposed to lay on, but he prefers to ball the blanket up and then perch on top of it. Go figure.  This doesn't seem to bother my daughter (or Westley!) at all though!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

It Just Takes 5 Minutes a Day!

I know that blog title makes this sound like an infomercial, but it's true!  You can change your dog's behavior if you just work at it for 5 minutes every day.  That's it.  Sure, you can do more than that, but so many of your basic goals can be achieved with just 5 minutes of training every day.  So, what does that look like, you ask?  Here are some examples:

1. I want my dog to stop jumping on people. Excellent!  Put your dog on leash anytime you will encounter other people, whether it's at the front door, out on walks, or around your house  Stand on your dog's leash so that they can only sit or stand in place when approached and then have people approach your dog.  Start with quiet people approaching and work up to giggly, bouncy, squealy people approaching your dog.  Yes, you can practice this!  For 5 minutes every day, set your dog up with the leash on to do these controlled greetings.  Have treats and reward your dog for sitting or standing in place (wiggling is okay!) for greetings.  Over time, you will challenge your dog more by loosening the leash and moving up to no leash at all for greetings in and around your house.

2.  I want my dog not to beg at the table and in the kitchen. Absolutely!  Decide where it is you want your dog to be when you are eating at the table and/or working in the kitchen.  Most dogs prefer to be able to see their people, so set up your crate, x-pen, etc. at a distance that work for you to easily remove them from your table and/or kitchen area.  Get a rug or mat and place that where you would ultimately like your dog to be while you are eating or doing food prep.  Put some treats in your pocket.  As your dog follows you into the kitchen, walk them over to the mat, have them sit or down, and ask them to stay.  Go back to your food preparations. If they start to get up, mark it verbally, "Nuh uh.  Get back on your mat." If they return to the mat, walk over and give them a treat.  You can repeat stay.  If they don't return to the mat, walk them to their crate or x-pen and leave them there for 2 minutes or longer if they fuss.  Bring them back out and try again.  For meals at the table, park your dog on their mat before you sit down to eat.  Tell them to stay and give them something to do there while you eat (a bone, a Kong, etc.).  If they finish their treat or leave it behind to come beg at the table, verbally mark the behavior, "Nuh uh. Back on your mat."  If they return to the mat, they can stay in the room. If they balk at staying on their mat, it's back to the crate or x-pen for the rest of your meal.  This will not make the crate or x-pen a negative thing; it will, however, make you dog want to learn self-control and stay on that mat so that they don't miss out on food prep and meal time observances, and those occasional treats from your pocket!

3.  I want my dog to drop the ball/toy when we are playing. Sounds reasonable!  Start with two balls or toys and a bag of treats.  Hand your dog a ball or toy, but don't give it to them completely.  With their mouth and your hand on the toy, happily say "Drop it!" and put a little tug/pressure on the toy as you hand them a treat. They will (obviously) need to let go of the ball/toy to get the treat.  Do this repeatedly until your dog is happily dropping the toy/ball for a treat.  Practice the same exercise with several different toys so that you know it will work no matter what toy you are playing with.  Now, add in that second toy or ball to the game.  When your dog drops the first one, don't give a treat, but immediately toss the second toy.  Now, the second toy getting tossed quickly after dropping the first one itself becomes the reward! 

4.  I want my dog to heel on walks. Then you need to be willing to work toward this goal!  Start by walking your dog, without a leash, around your house.  Hold treats in a closed hand down at your side and right in front of your dog's nose.  You can say "Heel" as you walk around. If your dog jumps at your hand, lower it.  If your dog goes in front of you, lure them back to your side. Once you can easily do this indoors without a leash, move to your yard and do the exercises again without a leash.  Once you can do this, you are ready to do the exercises with a leash on both in the house and in your yard. You can expect your dog to pull when the leash is put on them as that's something they've been doing all along!  Use high value treats in your closed hand and do it the same way you did when they weren't on leash.  Don't yank on the leash; use your voice and the treats to encourage your dog to stay at your side.  Once you can do this in your home and yard, move to doing the heel exercise as part of your walks. Do not make it the goal of your whole walk though!  Loose leash walking, exploring, and sniffing are what a dog's walk should really be about; use the heel when walking in busy, populated areas and when maneuvering around tight spaces.  

5.  I want my dog to come every time I call. Definitely!  First step is to remind your dog that coming to you when called is rewarding.  Even if it takes your dog the whole 5 minutes to come to you, you need to reward them!  Start inside your house and work up to outdoors.  Don't hesitate to put them on a long leash so you have a way to encourage coming when called.  Always praise and treat when then get to you.  Turn coming to you when called into a game.  Have your dog sit for you and then toss a treat away from you.  As soon as they pick it up, say their name and call them to you.  When they get there,  say "Yes!" and toss another treat. Now your dog sees that coming to you doesn't end the fun...the fun has just begun! If you feel that your dog has made negative associations with the world "come," then change what you say.  Teach them to touch your hand instead, tap your foot, etc.  Try whistling or clapping to get their attention before you try to call them.  And remember, if they are barking at squirrels, chasing the neighbor's cat, playing with their dog friends, etc., then don't bother calling them.  Go to your dog and collect them instead. 

Hope this gives you some ideas on training exercises to do with your dogs for 5 minutes every day. If your dog can breeze through these exercises, then do 5 minutes of trick training instead.  And even if they aren't perfect on everything, add in some trick training to break up the routine and add some levity.  Always praise your dog for their efforts and don't forget to stock up on their favorite treats.  

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

Ozzie practicing his stay with distractions on a hike this summer!  Incorporating training exercises into trail walks, trips to the beach, and walks around town are critical to context proofing, that is teaching your dog how you want them to behave regardless of location or what's going on around them.