Wednesday, February 23, 2022

More 5 Minute Training Fun!

I've received a handful of requests for more five minute training ideas.  I love that you all are embracing the notion of shorter training sessions, focused on fun exercises to help your dog be more successful on your walks, in your home, etc.  This time around, I thought it might be fun to pick five 5 minute training ideas that focus on getting your dog more mental and physical stimulation, moving beyond walks, sniffiaris, and puzzle toys.  So, here you go!

1.  Fun with leave it/drop it: Gather a bunch of items your dog might be tempted to sniff, pick up, or destroy; I like to use boxes, wadded up aluminum foil, used paper plates, used kitchen sponges, old dish towels, socks, bones or toys past their usable dates, highlighter pens, ball caps, etc.  You get the idea. With your dog in another room, spread these items around on the floor, then bring your dog in on leash and walk them around and through all of the items like a gauntlet. Your goal is to be able to use your voice (and treats!) to redirect them away from picking up any of the items on the floor; resist the urge to tug their leash to get them to leave the items. Sniffing is okay, of course, but picking stuff up should be met with a happy "drop it!" and redirection. See if you saying "leave it!" alone is enough to get your dog to move on.  If they can do this easily on leash, try off leash.  Definitely try the same exercise outdoors, at the park, etc., basically anywhere you go where your dog might find fun stuff on the ground to sniff, but should not pick up.  This is a wonderful exercise for dogs of any age, but keep in mind that puppies will likely pick up everything they encounter the first few times you do this, so definitely keep them on leash, have high value treats to trade, and make sure that the objects you are using for the game are too large to be swallowed!

2.  Where's the cookie?:  Put your dog in another room or in their crate where they can't see what you are doing.  Take a good sized dog cookie or treat and hide it in plain sight in the room.  Bring your dog back to the room and tell them to find the cookie.  They should be able to quickly find it the first time using their eyes and nose.  Be sure and verbally reward the find.  Each time you hide the cookie, make finding it more difficult; placing under dog beds, in toy bins, in the sliding door track, etc. which means your dog has to work harder to find the reward.  If you want to add another layer to the game, start giving your dog hints like "you're getting warmer!"  or "you're getting colder!" as you redirect them in the general direction of the treat.  They will learn to look to you for those hints if they are having trouble finding the cookie.  Make it even harder by taking this game outdoors and putting the cookie under a piece of patio furniture, under a soccer cone, inside your kids' playhouse, etc.  There are so many great smells outdoors, this will be a much bigger challenge!  

3.  Interval Training:  Dig out those old soccer cones as you'll need about 12 for this exercise.  Six of the cones will be set up in one part of your yard, with cones spaced about 2-3 feet apart.  They can be in a straight line, or wavy, your choice.  In six other areas of your yard, place a single cone.  Label each of those six cones (Station 1, Station 2, and so on).  Now, grab six solo cups and a bunch of scrap paper.  For each solo cup you will want 5-6 different tasks written on paper and tossed in the cup.  Some stations should be harder and/or more active than other.  For example, Station 1 might be ask for a sit then a down. Pretty easy, right?  When you get to Station 2, however, expect the activity to ramp up as this station's cup is filled with tasks like "do a circle left around the cone, then circle right."  Station 3, is your goofy station, so the cup should have ideas like "march with your dog," "get your dog to jump in place while you do jumping jacks," etc.  Head to Station 4, for a controlled exercise like a distance stay.  Station 5, is all about tricks so make sure those pieces of paper in the cup have things like rollover, shake, high five, etc. or more advanced tricks if your dog can do them!  The cup at Station 6 is filled with new things you'd like to teach your dog.  Maybe you want them to offer their foot for inspection; do a loose leash heel; pick up a dropped item; etc. From this last station, you can move to the "weave cones" and guide your dog through them saying "weave" or "through."  Start out on leash doing it with them, but move up to being able to send them through the cones on their own.  Big praise and rewards at the end!  Be sure and mix up those ideas you've written on paper and placed in those solo cups and change them up regularly as well.  And no cheating when you reach into the cup for your task; do the task on the first piece of paper chosen!

4.  Silence is Golden:  This is just charades for dogs.  Start out inside your house, but work up to doing this outdoors where there are other distractions.  Set a timer for 3-5 minutes.  During that time, and until you hear the ding, you cannot use any words with your dog.  You must use your body language, hand signals, and facial expressions to convey your messages.  Start with the easy stuff like sit, down and stay, since I'm sure you have hand signals for those things already!  How about come?  Do you pat your legs, snap your fingers, or whistle to get your dog to come to you?  Try them all to see what works best, getting the fastest recall.  If you haven't been using hand signals for other behaviors, go ahead and use a treat in your hand to lure your dog into the behaviors, but quickly move past the lure to an actual hand signal.  Use your hands to guide your dog to stand at your left and then come around behind you to the other side.  Signal a good job to your dog with a thumbs up gesture and a big smile on your face!

5.  Backyard Parkour: You can use almost anything for this exercise, but these items are my favorites: hula hoops, picnic table benches, foldable chairs, adjustable beach umbrellas, large sturdy buckets, cement blocks or bricks that can be stacked on two sides with a broom, large PVC pipe, or 2 x 4 positioned across them. Spread out your parkour items in your yard!  Hula hoops can be laid on the ground for practicing sit/stay and down/stay in place or you can teach your dog to pick up an item and drop it inside the hoop.  Your other hoop can be held up so your dog can jump (or walk!) through it.  For the picnic table bench, teach your dog to put their feet up, and then to climb up and walk across the bench, stop and then hop down.  Once they can do this, see if they can turn around on the bench and move back the direction they came.  Can they walk the bench backwards?  Add in a bow?  For the foldable chairs, either spread them out for weaving between, or leave them folded and lean them against each other or a wall and have your dog walk through/under them them without knocking them down.  For the beach umbrellas, have your dog crawl or walk under the open umbrella stuck into the ground. If they are afraid of umbrellas, start by moving around them first and build up to going under them. For the buckets, teach your dog to balance with their front feet on the upside-down buckets.  Little dogs can be taught to jump up on a bucket with all four feet, and maybe even sit up on it!  For larger dogs, just the front feet is fine.  You can also use the buckets to play a larger version of the shell game.  Put some treats or kibble under one bucket so that when your dog get to the bucket, she realizes there is an added bonus for turning that bucket over!  Play the limbo game with the broom/PVC pipe/board across the cement blocks.  Keep lowering the broom to see how close to the ground your dog can crawl without knocking over the broom. Now reverse it!  Start raising the broom on the blocks for jumping over without knocking over the broom! If you don't have any of these objects, or your yard is too small for parkour, get creative at a community park, using playground equipment when the neighborhood kids aren't there, picnic tables and benches not being used, weave around trees or bushes, crawl under tables, and plant feet on art in the park, water fountains, trash cans, etc.  See a large rock?  Have your dog put his feet up on it!  Found a stump?  Time to get your dog to balance up there!  Hey, there's a puddle!  Let's jump over it!  I'm sure you get the idea.

Each of these five exercises allows your dog to use their brains and their bodies to solve problems, stay active, and have fun.  They can be customized for puppies or for senior dogs as well.  These exercises are also great for building confidence in a shy dog, or for bonding with a recent rescue. And remember, the goal of these exercises isn't to do them all in five minutes flat.  Rather, it's to do something fun with your dog that challenges their mind and body for five minutes each day. 

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

Here's my Saturday buddy, Loki, doing a bit of impromptu parkour on a stump
 we found during a recent training session 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Teaching Cooperative Care to Puppies & Kittens

I had another long conversation with a veterinarian friend this week.  She was having a few problems with one of her own pets, a senior cat, needing weekly fluid therapy and meds. This cat is fairly easy to handle at home, but becomes very fractious in the hospital setting.  She knows that stressing him out at the office won't help him, but she can't do what needs to be done for him at home; it's got to be done at the clinic.  This started a conversation about the importance of cooperative care and teaching our pets when they are young to accept the kind of handling necessary to give them pills or vaccines, but also to administer ear and eye medications, and even take x-rays. We both agreed that it is frustrating, even for us, when you know giving your pets medication stresses them out.  We both know that our clients experience similar frustration as well. Plus, there are animals who behave aggressively toward their owners, as well as their veterinarians, whenever any medical procedures need to be accomplished.  I know that your veterinarian has the option to muzzle or sedate your pet for what needs to be done in a veterinary hospital, but do you really want those added stressors for your pet?  And how will you do the post operative care and/or medications at home?

Cooperative care allows an animal to take an active role in the process of their grooming or medical needs.  It gives them the opportunity to make choices before, during, and after their care and see the consequences of their choices.  I'm going to tell you right off the bat: this is a tedious process.  You can't work on cooperative care with your pet 10 minutes before you need to medicate them; it's something that you want to be teaching them everyday and incorporating into your daily training and handling exercises. As with anything new you want to teach your pet, it's a lot easier to teach them when they are younger and haven't had many negative experiences to color their perceptions of handling.  Consequently, I think teaching exercises in cooperative care should be part of every puppy class, kitten kindergarten, and new puppy or kitten appointment at a veterinarian's office. If we start when our pets are young and eager to please, our grooming sessions and necessary veterinary care will be so much easier (and less stressful!) when they are mature.

So, what basic behaviors do you want to teach? First off, teaching your pet to stand for examination is important.  Hold a treat in front of their nose if they are sitting and move the treat toward you as you say "stand."  Hold the treat for them to chew on as you move your hands lightly over their bodies. If they back away, sit, etc., no more treats.  

Your next step will be to teach your puppy or kitten to place their head/chin in your hand.  This is fairly easy, as most kittens and puppies enjoy a nice face rub.  Put your hand out and wiggle your fingers to get them to approach, use a treat in your other hand to get them to hold that position for a few seconds to begin with, then give them the treat. Work up to longer periods of holding steady in your hand before giving the treat.  Add in touching the ears and eyes to the process ONLY AFTER YOU'VE GOTTEN THE CHIN REST BEHAVIOR SOLIDLY IN PLACE.  If your pet removes their head from your hand, nothing bad happens, but the treats go away.  If you have a dog, you will want to move past this to teaching your dog to put their head on a lap or on a raised pillow on the floor or a chair.  Do it the same way; lure them into position and build up to longer periods of holding their head/chin on the lap, chair, or pillow.  Always use high value treats and no treats if they can't remain still in place. If you want to take this a step further, you can place a cloth on the chair, pillow, or lap you are practicing this behavior on.  Look at or point at the cloth and reward your dog for approaching, sniffing, touching, and then ultimately resting their head on the cloth.  That way, you can take this cloth to the veterinary hospital, if needed, to help your dog execute the same behavior in that setting; the cloth becomes the place cue for the behavior you are looking for.  You will want to assign a verbal marker for this behavior as well.  It can be as simple as the word "rest, relax, or chill" or be specific to the body part "chin please." In order to make this work across situations, you will want to add in distractions and practice in different locations.  For puppies and kittens learning the chin rest, you can ultimately use this behavior to provide routine ear or eye cleaning, even if they don't require medication, to continue to reinforce the behavior. 

The next behavior you will teach your puppy or kitten is to offer a paw.  This is valuable for nail trimming as well as for blood draws.  Start with simply holding the paw and work up to squeezing the paw, pinching the foreleg (desensitizing them to needle pokes),  touching individual nails, etc. The key factor here again is giving the animal the option to say "No, I'm not comfortable with that." Since you are basically teaching your pet to target (i.e. target your hand, the cloth on your lap, the pillow, etc.), they learn that all they need to do to signal their discomfort is move away from the target; they don't have to growl, snap, bite, or flee. Of course, the high value rewards go away too, but that's how they learn that their behavior has direct consequences.

To me, cooperative care is nothing more than a fancy term for shaping, that is rewarding an animal for successive approximations to your desired goal.  In this case, you are rewarding your pet for relaxing and submitting to routine care; they can stop the process at any time, so they don't need to panic.  This is critical because if they are ill or injured, panicking may be their first choice, but if they've been taught to rest calmly, you may be able to get them the care that they need without provoking additional distress. 

There are resources online that include videos you can watch to help demonstrate what I've described above, adding in specific training for things like administering liquid medication, cleaning and medicating ears,  brushing and nail trims.  I'd recommend starting here:

I'll be meeting with a client next week to help her teach her dog to allow ear cleaning and medicating.  You see, he isn't aggressive when she tries to work with his ears, he actually gets profoundly anxious and then depressed, and will hide in a closet following any ear treatments.  Since he gets routine ear infections, he needs his ears cleaned daily, at a minimum.  It's gotten to the point where he sees her gathering the ear cleaning products, and he's already high tailing it to hide in the closet!  It will take more than one session to help this dog, but my hope is that we can, at a minimum, teach him the chin rest behavior so that the owner can continue to work on her own, at her dog's pace, to get him to the point where his ears can be cleaned routinely. 

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

Ozzie is very good about cooperative care.  He understands that he can say no at any time, but that going along with ear cleaning, eye wiping, teeth brushing, body grooming, and nail trims will earn him special treats.  Plus, he likes to put his long nose in my hand or on my lap even without treats!

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

There Are No Stupid Questions!

I met with a new puppy owner this week.  This is their family's first puppy, and very first dog as well! They want to do everything right, which is completely understandable.  There is so much information out there on puppies, puppy behavior, puppy training, etc., it's quite difficult to sift through and determine what's good information (i.e. based in science and presented by knowledgeable, well-informed resources) and what's misinformation (i.e. not based in science, put forth by individuals lacking the training and knowledge to know they are pushing outdated/harmful suggestions). I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.  I spent almost two hours with these clients walking them through everything I know about raising a healthy, well-adjusted, behaviorally sound puppy.  We talked about the importance of naps, the value of crates and exercise pens, toy rotation, consistent consequences for mouthing, bathroom schedules, eating schedules, and handling exercises.  It was a lot to cover and I was truly amazed that the two kids in this family stayed engaged the whole time, especially given the fact that the younger child was just 7 years old.  As we neared the end of our appointment, after her parents had prefaced several of their questions with "I know this is a dumb question..." to which I kept replying, "Not at all! There are no dumb questions!" the 7 year old said, "I have a question...but it's probably dumb too."  I smiled at her and said, "There are never any dumb questions, remember?  What would you like to know?"  She actually had two questions and I so enjoyed answering them, that I thought they'd be fun to share here too, simply because I'm sure there are lots of folks out there who wondered this as well, but didn't want to feel "dumb" by asking.  

Her first question was why did she see her puppy eat his poop (this was accompanied by the funniest facial expression on her part!).  I explained to her that, to some extent, poop eating serves a survival function.  Mother canids consume their pups' feces in an effort to keep their den area clean and make sure that there is nothing in their immediate environment to attract predators to the litter. So why would her male puppy do it then? Well, perhaps, he saw his mother do it and the behavior is persisting at their house, though likely to go away with time. I did let her know, however, that it was good that she was watching her puppy so closely.  Dogs who persist in eating their own excrement may have nutritional deficits, digestive issues, or even internal parasites, all reasons to bring up the issue with their veterinarian during their next well puppy visit if the problem has persisted. I told her that from my point of view, a lot of puppies eat their own poop because they are anxious, bored, or under-stimulated. I told her that these were all issues she could begin working on with her puppy now through toy rotation, enforced nap times, and gradual exposure to new experiences.  I did tell her that there are a small subset of puppies who persist in this behavior, despite nothing being wrong with them physically or psychologically, then just like the taste of poop (their own, or other pets/animals!) and they love the reaction and attention they get for the behavior.  I reminded her that watching her puppy toilet, having him toilet while on leash, and cleaning up right afterward (while directing him to an appropriate, alternate activity) should be all it takes to get her puppy out of this poop-eating mindset. 

For her second question, she wanted to know why her puppy "couldn't get comfortable on his bed." She was afraid that they'd chosen the wrong bed for him! Turns out, she had observed her puppy rooting around on his bed, digging, snuffling, and turning in cycles one direction, and then another.  A couple of times, she'd seen him lay down, only to get up, sniff and paw again, and turn a bunch of times before plopping.  Fascinating!  So, this, too, is what we refer to as a "holdover" or instinctual behavior, one very much adaptive for wild canids, but seemingly unnecessary for our house dogs.  Pawing and digging at the bed leaves scent markers behind from the small, scent glands in dogs' feet, defining the bed as their own. Turning in circles while digging and pawing serves to flatten the bedding and/or puff it up, making it more comfortable. In the wild, canids tamp down the grass by circling, and dig to loosen dirt, making a more comfortable sleeping area for themselves and their young. I told her that her puppy is just getting comfy, and as long as he's not tearing holes in his bedding, we won't be concerned.  I couldn't help but laugh when she told me that she likes to shake out her blanket and plump up her pillow at bed time too!

Over the years, I've answered hundreds of questions, everything from why dogs sniff butts to why dogs bite people.  None of those questions was dumb and I always appreciate that people ask me for an answer rather than "googling it," and risking finding the wrong answer, or, at the very least, a misleading one.

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

Ozzie almost always turns circles and digs before plopping down on his bed.  He also frequently grumbles and growls while he's doing it, finishing up with a huff as he gets comfortable.  He curls his tail around his body, and will often use toys, pillows, and people as a head rest. He's quite a character!

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

You & Your Veterinarian

As you may have guessed, I have lots of friends who are veterinarians.  Some I met years ago in graduate school, some I met when I worked for the San Diego Zoological Society, and others I've met through my work as an animal behaviorist, helping pet owners. There was even a time when I thought I might be headed to vet school myself before I immersed myself in all things animal learning and behavior. I admire veterinarians; to me, they are like pediatricians.  They work with beings who aren't verbal, trying to ferret out what's wrong, what needs fixing, etc.  This isn't easy, particularly when your being of choice to work with can bite, scratch, kick, or otherwise maim you!  This is why I'm always dismayed when one of my veterinarian friends doubts the value of what they do or the care that they provide.

According to the AVMA, one in six veterinarians has contemplated suicide and 10% of veterinarians experience psychological distress, and 30% of veterinarians indicated that they've experienced bouts of depression. During the pandemic, pet owners couldn't be there for their pets' appointments, and that was stressful not just for the pets and their owners, but for their veterinarians and staff as well.  While some of our pets are indeed better behaved when we aren't there, most are fearful and unduly stressed when in unfamiliar surroundings like a veterinary hospital.  Vets and their staff were working long hours trying to care for our pets, while also dealing with enhanced risk from frightened pets, staff shortages, etc.  Add to it their own fears regarding the pandemic and its effects on their families and it's a wonder those depression statistics weren't higher between 2020 and now.  

I had a conversation with one of my vet friends this week who was troubled by the verbal abuse she and her staff have routinely received over the last couple of years.  Pet owners who are upset about not being able to be present for exams, mad about the costs incurred with procedures and products, and even infuriated when services could not be provided to their pets because it wasn't safe for staff to do so.  While I understand the frustration many pet owners feel about not being able to be there for their pets early on in the pandemic, most vets are allowing pet owners to be present now.  And with regard to the cost of veterinary medicine:  veterinarians are dealing with increased costs themselves from pharmaceutical companies and those that provide medical equipment and instruments to veterinary practices.  In order for a veterinarian to provide the best service and care, they must have access to the latest technology and products.  Everything has gone up in price from vaccines to anesthesia to surgical care.  While insurance companies defray some of the those costs in human medicine, most pet owners don't have pet insurance. Some of you may argue with me on this point, but I truly do not believe your veterinarian is "price gouging" you.  They are trying to make a living, pay their staff, and provide the best care they can to your pets.  Frankly, I don't want my veterinarian cutting corners with my pets; I want them to receive the best care.  They can't tell me what's wrong and I need to have confidence that my veterinarian can determine the problem and guide me in fixing it.

Yes, veterinarians make mistakes.  We all do.  Even human physicians make errors.  Yelling at your veterinarian, calling them names, etc. isn't helpful.  Honestly, knowing that pet owners I've worked with behaved this way in their vet's office is really disturbing.  That kind of behavior has left my soft-spoken, ultra-compassionate veterinarian friend trying to decide if she should leave the veterinary profession. I'll tell you right now, the veterinary profession would be losing a wonderful doctor and pet owners would be losing someone who truly cares about the bodies AND minds of the pets in her care.  Over the years, we've talked at length about how to make pets less fearful when they visit her practice; how to train her staff to better read canine body language; and how to teach pet owners the basics of dog and cat behavior so that they can help their pets lead better lives.  

If you've come this far, you may be wondering why I'm even bringing this up, given that I'm not a veterinarian.  Well, I work with them every single day on behalf of my clients and their pets.  Hearing their stories about what's going on behind closed doors in their practices is concerning to me.  Your veterinarians and I really want to help you and your pets.  We work together to provide the best care to their bodies and their minds.  I respect the veterinary profession and I'm grateful that the veterinarians I work with respect what I do as well. Let's try to remember that the health and well-being of our pets is what we all want to see and is of paramount importance. 

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

The look on this dog's face says it all.