Wednesday, December 28, 2022
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Wednesday, December 7, 2022
I got a call yesterday from a woman who was at her wit's end with her new kitten. In the span of an hour, this kitten had knocked over a bag of flour, leaving little white paw prints everywhere; climbed up the Christmas tree, knocking off and breaking a handful of ornaments; chewed the ribbon off of a decorative pillow; and took off running with the bells hanging from the front door! I (jokingly of course!) told her that it sounded like she had a pretty normal 14 week old kitten. Kittens are, by nature, inquisitive, so the experiences this owner had been having were completely normal, but potentially dangerous nonetheless. Years ago, I had a client whose Golden Retriever puppy took a bit too much interest in a gingerbread scented candle and ended up burning himself and the table with the spilled wax! Holiday mishaps aren't just things that happen to people with puppies and kittens; adult dogs and cats can get into trouble as well. So how can you better ensure that your pets are safe this holiday season?
First and foremost, never leave your pets unattended in a room with lit candles, filled candy dishes, or readily available people food. All of these things smell good and are often novel for our pets, thus attracting their attention. While it is certainly worthwhile to teach your pets leave it and drop it, now is not the time to test how well they absorbed those lessons.
If you put up a Christmas tree, best to put it up in a room that isn't a high traffic area for your pets and thus a huge draw for them to explore. No flocked trees and don't put tinsel of any kind on your tree as that's a choking hazard. Keep non-breakable, non-edible ornaments within reaching distance of your pets. Save those candy canes and glass ornaments for the sturdy branches near the top of the tree. If you have a cat who climbs your tree, make sure the stand is steady and can support their added weight. Only use cool-to-the-touch lights and keep those lights tight on the branches to reduce the risk of strangulation, and only decorate your tree with cat-safe ornaments. One of my cat-owning clients has fully embraced her tree climbers by putting up two trees in her house. The one in her formal living room has all the family heirloom ornaments on it and the gifts beneath it, and is safely shut behind glass French doors when no one is in the room. The other tree is in her family room and covered in fun cat and dog themed ornaments, all made of wood or fabric with nothing on them that can be swallowed. There are no gifts under that tree, just a fuzzy tree skirt that her cats and dog love to lay on. While I have certainly seen homes where people just put up an x-pen around their tree to keep it safe from the family dog, this will not keep out an inquisitive cat! Those gifts under the tree can be hazardous as well if they contain food. And watch those ribbons as they are beautiful, but also a choking hazard. Resist the urge to put anything in your tree stand other than water. If your pet takes a sip or a paw dip, you want them to just come up with plain water.
I saw a client last week who has a recently mobile toddler and a puppy. She told me she's considering no tree at all this year because her toddler is already trying to climb the drapes with the puppy not far behind! I told her she can still decorate, she just needs to do so with an eye toward what she can put up that is safe at this stage of her child's (and her puppy's) development. This is the year for decorative throw pillows, cute floor rugs without fringe, festive artwork on the walls, and decorations on her fireplace mantel. This is not the year for snow globes, candy dishes, or breakable ornaments.
I love poinsettia plants, but I only ever keep them on my front porch, away from collie noses. Keep mistletoe out of the reach of pets, as well as that beautiful amaryllis plant or holly, if you have pets who are curious about the plants you bring indoors.
Finally, resist the urge to take your pets to sit with Santa, put antlers or blinking lights on their heads, or put them in silly holiday sweaters IF they hate wearing them. There are a lot of dogs and cats who are game for these holiday shenanigans, particularly if there are treats involved, but there are equally as many who hate wearing anything at all and doing so creates unnecessary stress for them.
Don't worry if the neighbor's tree is prettier than yours because they don't have pets in the house. And don't feel jealous of your friend whose kids are too old to pull down the decorations or eat handfuls of holiday candy when you're not looking. Your children will be grown up soon enough. Enjoy your pets and your children at whatever stage they are in. Make those necessary adjustments to your holiday decor to keep them safe. And by all means DO decorate if that's what you like to do. The holidays are a time to celebrate and enjoy. Just make them safe and fun for everyone in your family.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior. You know where to find me.
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
This may not come as a surprise to you like it did me, but there are just 18 days until Hanukkah and 25 days until Christmas. It's like one moment I was selecting pumpkins and the next I was stressing out about Christmas cards. Can you relate? I'm, once again, not ready for the holiday season. I love this time of year, but I also find it incredibly anxiety provoking. Apparently, I'm not alone. I've already received a dozen calls/emails from pet parents needing assistance "before December __ when family arrive for the holidays." While I am happy to provide guidance to these folks, I also know that it is more than likely that the issues they are facing won't be "fixed" by that looming date on their respective calendars.
You see, anxiety is often at the root of the problems for which people seek my assistance. Anxiety requires understanding, accommodations, and adjustments to our behavior, as well as our pet's. It can't be solved with a pill, a crate, or a trip to a board and train. While anti-anxiety medication might help, it takes weeks/months to reach an efficacious level in a pet's brain and body. While crates are helpful, you can't crate an anxiously aggressive dog for 10 days while you have guests in your home. And while sending a dog off to boot camp may feel like you're killing two birds with one stone (getting them training and having someone else watch them for you), dogs returning from board and train situations often come home with more problems than they started with.
I don't want these new clients to feel discouraged, but I do want to be honest with them. We aren't going to fix everything in one session. What we can do in that first session, however, is come up with an action plan of what needs to be done to reduce their pet's anxiety and make the holidays a bit less stressful for all concerned. I've been doing this a long time (over 30 years!), so I am nothing other than realistic with my clients. I'll help them reach their goals, but it will take work and more time than those 18 to 25 days before the holidays hit us like a freight train.
Here's the other thing I know about the holidays. I'm not the only human who feels stressed out and anxious this time of year. And I KNOW my own stress is felt by my dogs. Ozzie often becomes extra-clingy this time of year as he tries to help me accomplish my tasks; he is my shadow, a daily reminder to take walks, drink water, and pet the dog. Understanding that our own attitudes and coping strategies affect our pets' behavior is important too when you're trying to come up with a way to make it better for them!
So, here's my advice for you, the humans. Walk your dogs. Take frequent breaks. Drink lots of water (especially if it's flavored with coffee or tea!). Nourish you body with yummy foods, bonus for those foods your pets can have too (pumpkin, apples, pears, a bite of gingerbread!). Relax, even if it's just for a few moments; petting a dog or cat is good for them and for you. Prioritize what you need to accomplish and be realistic about what you can actually get done.
And if what you need to prioritize is help for your pet, then I'm here for you. If they jump on guests, bark at visitors, freak out over the holiday lights and decor, forget how to use their litterbox, or pull on the leash to greet everyone, let's get on those issues now. If your pet is anxious, experiencing issues related to fear or aggression, let's start working on those as well. No need to make those issues your New Year's resolutions when we can start tackling them together now.
I love that the woman I spoke to this morning told me how afraid she was to call me, but now feels nothing but hope. She said she couldn't believe I'd made her laugh and smile, when she'd dialed my number practically in tears. I'm going to consider that a win right out of the gate. She's now in a better head space for us to work with her challenging dog. Bringing hope to pet owners is definitely part of my job and one I take seriously (though I do like making people laugh as well).
Let's try to go into this holiday season with joy in our hearts and patience for each other and for the pets in our families. As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Friday, November 25, 2022
Back in August, a pet insurance company sponsored a poll where they asked about 2000 American pet owners questions regarding communication with their pets. It was a small poll, but I really enjoyed some of the answers. Here's a link to an article which summarizes the poll results nicely:
Given our long history of co-evolution with dogs, it's not surprising that 78% of poll respondents felt that if animals could speak, dogs would be the first to do so, versus the 60% who thought it would be cats who spoke first. What was amusing to me were the 53% who felt their pets would have a certain tone or inflection when they spoke, not that they wouldn't necessarily speak with the accent or inflection of the owner themselves. So many of us already talk to our animals, and answer for them, using the tone/inflection etc. that we think they would use with us. While these results were fun to think about, I really enjoyed where they got down to the "brass tacks" of pet guardianship, so to speak.
If our pets could talk to us, what would we most like to know? Personally, I'd really like to be able to have a definitive answer as to how my senior dog, Desi, is feeling every day. If he could tell me, I wouldn't have to rely so heavily on observing his behavior with us, with Ozzie, and with other people he interacts with. Interestingly enough, only 58% of poll respondents wanted to know how their pets feel, and almost an equal amount felt their pets would tell others private information! 61% of respondents felt having their pets be able to speak would be valuable in terms of telling us their food preferences. I don't know about you, but I don't need my dogs to speak in order to know their food preferences! They are pretty definitive on that front. I love that some pet owners thought their pets might say insulting things to other people or just wouldn't stop talking. Honestly, I'd never given this much thought, but I have a hard time seeing most of the dogs or cats I know running off at the mouth or making rude comments. I like to think that my dogs have a sense of humor, so if they were rude, they'd read the room and knock it off.
All kidding aside, it's nice to know that 68% of the poll respondents felt that they knew what their pet was trying to convey to them. I'm surprised this number isn't higher though, particularly among dog owners. Again, all of this co-evolution with dogs means that dogs have gotten really savvy at letting the humans around them know what they need/want/desire. Dogs will, quite literally, stare at their empty bowl and then the refrigerator. Or walk over to the treat cupboard, stare at it, then stare at you. Even my cat owning clients tell me stories of their cats standing on their chests in the morning if they don't get up and feed them breakfast. In order to "hear" our pets, all we really need to do is observe them. The fact that it took the average respondent 3.5 years to learn to understand their own pet is kind of shocking to me. That means for that animal's entire puppyhood/kittenhood and adolescence, their humans were hit or miss for understanding their needs.
We live in a digital world where you can literally ask a question on your phone or computer and have it immediately answered, whether that answer is factual or not. You can type "why does my dog whine in his sleep?" and you will literally get 2 million results in less than one second. Knowing where to go for answers is the first step and the internet isn't always your pet's best option. Much better to ask your veterinarian, your favorite dog trainer, or pick up a book written by a reputable source. If you need book recommendations, just ask!
I like to think of myself as a keen observer of all things animal-related. I've spent literally years of my life studying dogs and cats, observing them, listening to them tell me what's wrong via their behavior. This means I can understand what your pet is telling you, even though they aren't using words, funny accents, or inflections. They are using their body language and behavior to tell me, and you, how they feel, what they think, and what they need. Just watch them.
And as always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Last week, my daughter sent me the link to an article in the New York Times wellness section on pet anxiety. She said she was sending this my way so I could see what, and I quote, "the lay public is reading and doing for their pets." First of all, how awesome is it that one of my kids read something and thought of me? Makes me happy just thinking about it. And second, that she'd send me something so relevant and worth exploring further? Brilliant. So, here's the link to the article she sent me if you want to read it as well:
One of the big takeaways from this article for me was something the author discovered through her research and that is the fact that pet owners are getting better at recognizing that their pets are anxious AND they are seeking ways to reduce that anxiety. It isn't so much that pets weren't anxious in the past, or pre-COVID, for instance. Pets, like people, have always experienced anxiety; we are just getting better at recognizing it AND wanting to treat the problem. My veterinarian friends tell me that they have more clients presenting them with anxious pets than ever before, likely because those pet owners were home more during COVID lockdowns and thus watching their pets more and picking up on behaviors they likely missed when they were gone all day. So, it isn't that those COVID lockdowns created the anxiety per se, it's more likely that they just made existing problems rooted in anxiety more apparent.
I also appreciated how the author shared some of the behaviors exhibited by anxious animals. I often point some of these behaviors out to clients during appointments and they are amazed, often telling me they'd noticed those behaviors before, but didn't know that they were associated with anxiety. Dogs and cats will yawn, vigorously scratch, smack their lips, obsessively groom, etc. when they feel anxious. Yes, tired animals yawn, animals with allergies scratch and over-groom as well. It's the frequency of those behaviors and the situations in which they occur that makes it different.
While the author of this piece does mention a couple of over the counter solutions, as well as a handful that are by prescription, this wasn't the focus of the article, and in fact, she was smart to point readers to their veterinarian's office first before trying anything. There are so many products available out there and it IS important to choose wisely. While I am a huge proponent of CBD for dogs and cats, where applicable, I always suggest that owners have their pet's blood work assessed by their veterinarian first, just to make sure there are no underlying medical issues that could be contributing to the behavior or that could make giving the pet CBD unwise. And when it comes to more traditional anti-anxiety medications, there are so many options, it really does take time and experience to help point veterinarians and their pet-owning clients in the right direction. While Prozac may work great for one anxious dog, it may be a poor choice for another. And that reactive dog who acts up at veterinary appointments may be given a prescription for Trazodone, only to discover that it makes that pet so sedated that their reactive behavior is actually made worse. If you do have to go the route of a prescription-only medication for your pet, definitely talk through all of the options!
Finally, I love that the author finished her piece talking about desensitization to the vet's office and building her dog up to cooperative care in that setting, with or without drugs on board to do so. Kudos to her vet for suggesting that desensitization. It's tedious, but it does make a big difference. None of us are as anxious about places we've been to repeatedly as we are about rolling up to new or unknown situations. Experiences, especially positive or even neutral ones, in a veterinary setting, make that setting less anxiety provoking for our pets when there is something major going on and they need treatment.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
No, not the film from the early 90's, but rather how my new client felt after her last appointment with her dog trainer. She called her veterinarian and told him about the work she'd been doing with the dog trainer and he told her to stop immediately and call me. This really panicked her and she was practically hyperventilating when she called me and left me a message. If there's one thing I'm good at though, it's talking people down off the ledge. When we connected, I asked her to take a deep breath and tell me what happened that led to that call to the vet and then to me. She agreed to me sharing her story as she felt like she couldn't be the only person who'd experienced this (she's definitely not!) and she hopes it saves someone else from having to go through all of this themselves.
My client unknowingly acquired a puppy mill dog. She thought she was getting an older puppy that a breeder had decided not to keep, when in actuality, she was getting a puppy mill dog who'd likely been used as a breeder unsuccessfully, and then sent on to a puppy broker for sale. My client had no idea what a puppy broker even was until after she'd already gotten the dog and started having issues and couldn't get any feedback from the person she'd purchased the dog from. The dog in question, an 11 month old female Havanese, was incredibly fearful and disengaged, was toileting all over the client's house, was terrified of the leash, and was unable to follow basic directives like sit, down, or come. At this point, she reached out for help to a local person who billed themselves as providing "balanced dog training services." Like most people, my client equated balanced with a positive approach (much like a balanced diet), one which would take into consideration all of her dog's needs and personality and thus be balanced in how the dog was treated. She quickly discovered after a few sessions with this trainer that her definition of balanced and positive, and the trainer's definition, were two different things.
Balanced dog trainers believe in an approach that utilizes both reward-based techniques and aversive consequences (punishment). What most people don't realize is that punishment can come in two forms, positive and negative. Positive punishment is the addition of something after the behavior in question that results in the dog doing that behavior with decreased frequency. Negative punishment involves removing a reinforcing item after the undesirable behavior in an effort to decrease the frequency of that behavior. In the realm of human behavior, an easy example of the difference would be spanking a kid who misbehaves (positive punishment) or taking away his Playstation (negative punishment). So what happened with my client's dog?
The trainer put the dog on a pinch collar and 4 foot leash and proceeded to use leash corrections ("popping" the leash so the collar tightened) anytime the dog resisted walking. At one point the dog had curled up and was being dragged with the pinch collar and leash. In addition, the trainer had suggested an e-collar to "speed up the basic obedience training" and, frankly, I don't even want to tell you what the suggestion was for the housetraining issues. I honestly thought everyone at this point knew that shoving a dog's nose in excrement doesn't teach them not to poop in the house. No wonder her veterinarian sent her my way; this dog and owner were at a crisis point. While the dog had been afraid and disengaged, she had never been aggressive. After two sessions with the dog trainer, the dog was becoming snappy and growly and the trainer was suggesting "cranking up the e-collar" in response to those behaviors. Again, something positive alright, positive punishment. My client didn't realize that punishment would be the trainer's solution for the issues she was having, nor did she understand why the trainer kept referring to them as positive methods.
I felt awful for this owner and this dog. She'd spent a great deal of money on this trainer and still had remaining sessions that she'd prepaid for. Truly hoping she'll be able to get her money back. Nonetheless, we had our work cut out for us as now her dog didn't trust her and sure as heck wasn't going to trust me at the outset. I sat on the floor, not making eye contact, and tossing treats away from me, until the dog finally approached me for a tentative sniff. I extended my hand and dropped a treat, and then another, until finally the dog was in front of me. I gently scratched the dog's chest and she sat. I told her "good sit" and gave her a big treat. Her ears went back, she dropped her head, and started to retreat at the word "sit," but she ended up not moving away. She was definitely expecting a shock for breaking the sit, which she didn't of course receive from me. I scratched her chest again, she sat, I repeated "good sit," and handed her an even bigger treat to chew on. She held the sit, but kept a close watch on me. It took the full hour and a bag full of treats, but I got this little dog to trust me not to shock her for slow responses. The second session, we started again with the treat toss game which she clearly enjoyed and remembered. I had brought a 6 foot leash with me, which I dropped at my feet for her to sniff. She definitely was suspicious. I told the owner that I wanted to build up to a nice, soft harness for her dog, but we'd start with a leash and flat collar, no pulling. I had the dog drag the leash around the house while we played recall games and worked on her basics. By the third session, I could follow the dog around the owner's yard while holding the leash. At the slightest leash tension, she'd panic, so I kept the leash as loose as possible and followed the dog around, encouraging sniffing by dropping treats to find. I had given the owner homework to do to start from square one on the housetraining issues and by that third session, the dog was having very few accidents in the house and was able to toilet outside on the schedule we'd come up with for her. The owner and I plan to meet once a month going forward just to continue to assess her dog's progress with what the owner refers to as my "gentle reprogramming." I love that. Reprogramming. I definitely feel like this dog came from a less than ideal situation (puppy mill) then went into a rigorous, punishment-based training program that basically just shut her down. We do need to reprogram her to see people as kind, providing structure and guidance and consequences that the dog can understand. She still acts like the food puzzles we're giving her are punishment as well, so we'll have to keep working on that. This dog needs to build her confidence with new tasks and those puzzles use treats she loves, but she frustrates and gives up very easily. No big surprise there. My client is patient, though, and happy to see her little dog start to wag that tail instead of tucking in, and not shy away from loving handling. Another work in progress for sure.
My client is now kicking herself for not listening to her instincts and stopping this aversive training program at that first session. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Dogs are pliable and forgiving, and they do want to please us, but this dog had never had humans around in a truly positive manner, so it was like starting from the beginning all over again, building trust, setting up boundaries, and working on cooperative care. My client is all the wiser now, knowing why she'll never get a dog through a broker again AND why she'll listen to her heart when choosing anyone to care for or help her with her dog. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, November 2, 2022
I had a client burst into tears this week. Not because of something I'd said (thank goodness!), but something her neighbor had said to her about her dog. You see, my client's dog barks. He barks at squirrels on the fence, people who walk past the house, and anytime someone rings the doorbell. Truly, all normal and understandable reasons to bark, from a dog's point of view. So what's the problem? My client's neighbor is retired and home all the time. She isn't a dog lover (her own words) and she thinks dogs shouldn't bark. This neighbor is making my client's life hellish with her less than helpful comments and outright malice toward the dog in question. My client was actually thinking of moving, it's gotten that contentious. Luckily, my client's sister had worked with me a few years ago to help with her barking dog, so she recommended that I get involved.
Dogs bark. This is a suburban neighborhood where it is considered normal and acceptable for dogs to bark between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm, as long as those dogs are not barking for more than 15 minutes straight. I know all of this because I looked it up. We set up cameras so that we could watch and listen to my client's dog throughout the day. We wanted to make sure that the dog wasn't experiencing separation anxiety or some other stressor that was causing him to bark unnecessarily. We also wanted to be able to figure out exactly how much barking he was actually doing while my client is at work. We discovered that her dog barks when he hears delivery trucks passing the house, solicitors ringing the doorbell, and when he sees/chases squirrels and birds in the yard. He never barked for more than a minute and a half at any point. And that bark that lasted a minute and a half? That was directed at the shared fence with the retired neighbor who was literally standing at her side of the fence yelling at the dog and banging on the fence! My client was floored to discover that her neighbor was actually part of the problem. We are hanging on to all of this video footage in case my client needs it later. In the meantime, I suggested blocking off that section of her yard so that the dog can't approach that shared portion of fence. I also suggested putting up a security light that shines right at that area of the fence so when her neighbor approaches it to tease the dog, she gets hit with a spotlight or motion activated sprinklers that shoot in that direction. Just as we need to keep the dog away from the fence, we also need the neighbor to get out of the bushes there and quit teasing the dog. We also added in some fun interactive feeding toys on timers which is helping to keep this young dog active, engaged, and wanting to stay indoors more. Finally, we worked on what to do when he barks when she's home so that we make sure he understands how long and when it's okay to bark.
This is not the first client I've worked with who's been harassed by a neighbor, family member, or friend with regard to a pet's behavior. Advice is one of those things that shouldn't be given unless you've been asked for it. Telling someone that they "should" or "need" to fix a behavior problem their pet is experiencing isn't helpful; they know there's a problem and being told again is not helpful. If they ask for advice or help, by all means make some suggestions, just make sure those suggestions are based on scientifically supported methods, that don't focus on punishment or punitive solutions, and that are kind to the human and the pet involved. And finally, don't make hurtful statements like "no one is going to want to come over here unless you..." Guilting someone into getting help never works.
I know I've said it a million times, but we really do need to be kind to one another. Just because you don't like dogs (or a certain breed of dog) doesn't give you carte blanche to take jabs at your neighbor who does. Don't like the neighbor's cat coming into your yard and using it as a litterbox? Don't run around bashing that neighbor to the other neighbors, or worse yet, take it out on the cat. Instead, approach the cat's owner directly. Tell them what their cat is doing and give them the opportunity to correct the problem. No need to be mean or derogatory about the cat; it's the toileting behavior that is the problem.
The holidays are rapidly approaching, so I know a lot of you will have family and friends visiting you in the coming months. Some of those folks may make less that helpful comments about your pets, or even say hurtful things about them. This reflects on them and has more to do with them that it does you. I'm happy to help you work on some of those issues before the holidays get here so that you can say with confidence and poise, "I know and I'm working on it." Nobody's perfect and some folks just need to be reminded of that.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Wednesday, October 19, 2022
I worked with a couple of different clients this week who told me I was better than any coach they'd ever had. I got such a kick out of this as I've never really thought of myself as a coach, per se. I'm more of a cheerleader, rooting my clients on to make the best of their relationships with their pets. And I'm definitely an animal advocate, educating people on the science behind the behavior, why animals behave the way they do, and how we can improve their lives. But a coach? How cool is that! It got me to thinking about what it takes to be an effective coach, and I realized that the most effective coaches I know provide solid guidance while also being cheerleaders and advocates for their students.
It's true; a lot of what I do is educate pet owners. Yes, I work with their pets directly, and I'm certainly hands on, where appropriate, but most of what I do is teaching people. These two clients loved that I gently guided them and then cheered them on as they gained confidence and made breakthroughs in working with their anxious pets. Here's the thing: I love cheering folks on. I love to see their faces light up when they get reinforced too. Maybe I should start carrying people treats in my pocket as well as those dog treats. You see, people need reinforcement just as much as their pets do. They need to know what they are doing is the right thing; that they are helping their animals become less anxious; that they are providing the best experiences and enrichment activities that will enhance their relationships with their pets.
Sure, there have been times when I've wanted to holler "ACK! You're doing it all wrong!" But that kind of response/reinforcement (punishment is reinforcement, after all, just not the kind any of us enjoy) isn't going to help my clients or their pets, though it might make me feel better in the moment. Pet owners come to me for guidance on serious behavior problems. Most of them have already beaten themselves up pretty bad over what is going on, feeling like they must have done something wrong to end up in this spot. A lot have even had friends and family tell them that they "screwed up." Not helpful, to say the least. No wonder these folks need a coach!
So, I'm going to continue to get excited when my clients use the techniques and tools I've given them. I'm going to continue to cheer them on in their pursuit of harmony in their home. And I'm definitely going to continue to use science and rock solid methodologies in the treatment of behavior problems so I can continue to advocate on behalf of those who have no voice, but rely on us to help them...our pets.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Wednesday, October 5, 2022
I met with a client over the weekend who is feeling quite desperate. She has two dogs, both with fairly significant behavior problems. She's been working with a dog trainer on and off for over 6 months, but she doesn't feel that they are making any headway, beyond basic obedience skills. She's feeling a lot of pressure to do something (maybe even return one of the dogs to the breeder) because she has family coming to stay in both November and December and her dogs aren't going to do well with new people in their home. Her veterinarian suggested working with me as the issues she's having aren't about obedience per se, but about anxiety.
Animals, just like people, experience anxiety. Some animals are more anxious than others, whether due to genetics, experience, or a combination of the two. Anxiety cannot be erased, but it can be managed, if you know what triggers your pet's anxiety and make changes to reduce or remove those triggers. Some of the pets I see have multiple triggers and experience anxiety even when home alone with their owners. For these pets, therapeutic intervention in the form of daily medication is often needed to control serotonin levels in their brains, promoting a more stabilized mood and thus less anxiety overall.
As you may have already guessed, treating anxiety in our pets isn't about short term solutions or quick fixes, but about making those long term changes that will result in a more content and stable animal as a result. Some of those changes may be difficult for the humans involved; some may even be impossible to do. You still need to consider those changes, however, in order to understand what it will take to keep that animal safe and improve their quality of life. Let me give you an example.
If your dog is anxious about meeting new people, hiding behind you perhaps, or maybe even blustering and barking and rearing up when approached by anyone he doesn't know, then it's up to you to control those encounters with new people, even minimizing them so that the fearful/anxious behavior doesn't get continually repeated and thus reinforced. If it's just occurring on walks, you can change when and where you walk, while working on strategies that increase your dog's confidence. If, however, that stranger anxiety occurs in your home when guests visit, then you will obviously have to make some significant changes in order to keep your dog safe and under threshold when you have visitors. If those visitors are coming next month and planning to stay at your house, then you may need to either ask those guests to stay elsewhere, board your dog (if possible), etc. What you don't want to do is "wing it," assuming that you can just put your dog in another room or crate him with the guests there. That might work as a short term solution for guests coming for a 3 hour party, but it most certainly isn't going to work, and will likely create more anxiety for your dog, if you try to do that while guests stay with you for a week.
Anxiety will take longer than a month to get a handle on. And it isn't going to go away just because your veterinarian prescribed Prozac for your dog. Prozac and other medications of that kind are supportive, not curative. Treating anxiety takes work and an understanding that there will be setbacks along the way. You have to remain compassionate (and retain your sense of humor) and be persistent in your pursuit of relief for your anxious dog. I find it helpful to give my clients an action list of things they can do right now, things they can do preemptively to help reduce anxiety in the future, and goals to work toward. That way, they have more realistic expectations for what it will take to help their pet going forward.
I do understand that treating a pet for anxiety isn't easy and that it can be frustrating. I cannot, however, make the process go any quicker for you and your pet. If it is the case that you simply cannot provide the time and care needed to treat your pet's anxiety, that's okay! This doesn't make you a failure, a horrible person, or selfish. It just means you aren't equipped to take on a pet with extra needs. The time to decide that, however, is not the week before you have guests coming to stay with you. Re-homing a pet, particularly one with anxiety, takes time to find a good match, that is one that won't cause your pet added stress and anxiety.
We humans can be so hard on each other, judging each other harshly, whether that's about our own coping abilities and handling of daily stressors, or that of our beloved pets. Until you've lived with, cared for, or yourself had to manage anxiety in a loved one (furred or otherwise), you really need to refrain from offering platitudes and quick fixes. Ask how you can help. That's what I do.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
I worked with a half dozen clients over the weekend who all had the same complaint; why can't they get other dog owners in their community to understand the concept of personal space? You see they each had a dog who would react negatively when another dog passed by them in close proximity. Each of these dogs was different; for two, their reactivity came from a place of fear, one had previous negative experiences while on leash, one never saw another dog up close so had a lack of socialization, and one was experiencing outright aggression with unknown origin. Nonetheless, each of the owners was experiencing a great deal of frustration any time they took their dog for a walk. One client told me that she was literally afraid to walk her dog in her own neighborhood as more than one neighbor had told her she had no business taking her dog outside the house! Another client said she was so embarrassed by her dog's behavior that she only walked him late at night when there weren't other people around. I found all of their stories to be heartbreaking.
Even if a dog has been deemed dangerous as defined by the law, an owner still has the right in most states to take that dog outside of their home, as long as the dog is leashed and muzzled, so this notion that people whose dogs are reactive or aggressive shouldn't be out in public is a fallacy. Obviously, if your dog is aggressive toward people or other dogs, you should be using a muzzle when you walk them, even if you walk at off peak hours in off peak areas. Muzzle training is easy and a very effective way to prevent a bite. Basket muzzles can be worn comfortably for extended periods of time, allowing the dogs wearing them to still sniff, explore, drink water, take treats, and exercise.
Now, for dogs who are reactive and just need more space to feel comfortable in public spaces, we as their caretakers need to make that known. I know that there are flags you can add to your leash, as well as embroidered leashes that state that your dog needs space, however these are often ignored by people, particularly children. Better to adopt a strategy that helps your dog succeed by being proactive and moving out of the way when you need to, crossing the street, bringing your dog behind you or at your side, etc. And as much as you might like to be one of those dog owners who can walk down a busy sidewalk with your dog, don't be tempted to do it; just because you have the right to walk your dog in public, doesn't mean you should put her, yourself, and other dog owners in a precarious position. There are techniques that you can learn to help your reactive dog become more tolerant and even ignore other dogs, all you need to do is ask for help!
While dogs do need physical exercise, there is no hard and fast rule that says that has to come in the form of daily walks. You can use a flirt pole to exercise your dog, set up an agility course in your yard, or even in your house using furniture, or play a rousing game of fetch. Balance that physical exercise with mental exercise so that your dog truly feels "spent." Mental exercise can mean a bone or bullystick, but better still to offer an interactive puzzle toy or some other task for your dog to do independent of you. If you like dog training classes, your reactive dog still has options! You will need to think about something like nosework for her instead of a traditional group class. Nosework classes, by design, have each dog and handler working in the training space one at a time. In between sessions, dogs are crated or outside of the training area, allowing those whose dogs are reactive to remain at a safe distance, below their threshold.
One of those clients this weekend said she felt like she was walking around in her neighborhood with a scarlet "A" on her chest for her aggressive dog. I told her to start thinking of it as an "A" for awesome as she is making great strides in getting a solid handle on her dog's aggression, taking time to watch him and understand his triggers so that she can better manage his behavior. We're still muzzle training him as well, but he is doing quite well overall, as are the other handful of leash reactive dogs I'm working with right now.
Progress takes patience and consistency and a willingness to learn new techniques. I'm grateful to those clients who let me guide them on their journey. As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.