Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Making Your Walks Safer!

I have so many wonderful online friends within the collie community.  We share stories and photographs of our collies and support one another from puppyhood, through adolescence and adulthood, all the way to the rainbow bridge.  While many of the stories shared in that space are happy and upbeat, there have been a few that were upsetting, not because of what was said, but because what had happened was so preventable.  What am I talking about? I'm talking about how to protect yourself and your dog out on walks and hikes.  

You already know that I am not a fan of dogs meeting each other when on leash. Dogs on leash pull and strain, making their faces appear tense and their body postures more rigid.  Dogs greeting each other off leash have looser, more open body language.  I especially don't like off leash dogs that run up to leashed dogs.  This creates unnecessary stress for the leashed dog and their owner.  The off leash dog's owner hollering, "My dog is friendly!" isn't helpful at all. While your dog may indeed be friendly MOST OF THE TIME, what if he isn't this time?  What if the leashed dog he's charging isn't friendly?  What if the owner of the leashed dog is afraid of unleashed dogs?  If you let your dog off leash, they must have perfect recall so that when they move toward a leashed dog, you can call them back before they engage.  If you can't do that, then don't let your dog off leash. Period.  And it goes without saying that if you are in a park or area designated as strictly for use by leashed dogs, DON'T LET YOUR DOG OFF LEASH.  Just because your dog likes being off leash, doesn't mean other people on the trail or in the park will appreciate your dog (and you) not abiding by the clearly marked rules for use of that space.  People who don't like to be around off leash dogs, or whose dogs aren't comfortable with that, will not be at parks, trails, or dog parks where off leash dogs and their owners are allowed to congregate.  Respect that.

So, first and foremost, if someone with a dog on leash approaches you with your dog on leash and asks if they can meet, firmly but kindly tell them that you don't let your dog greet dogs while on leash, no exceptions.  They may be offended, but that's their problem not yours.  Once again, they may think their dog is friendly, or may want to socialize their dog to other dogs, but that isn't your job.  Your job is to make that walk safe for yourself and your dog.  I have clients whose dogs serve as their emotional support animals, as well as dogs who serve as service animals for their owners.  They do not want to risk a negative encounter with another dog as this adversely effects their dog's ability to do their job for that owner.  I was never more sad or angry than when my client with a service dog had her service dog attacked at the airport, and subsequently her service dog has so much anxiety around travel that he can no longer support her in that environment. 

If you are approached by an off leash dog while your dog is on leash, do make your discomfort known by telling their owner to leash them, but be prepared for their dog not to listen.  Do not tighten up on your dog's leash as that will signal them to alert.  If you can slowly and safely move away, do so.  If not, stand between their dog and yours.  Carry an airhorn (one of those $5 New Year's Even party ones will do, or you can get the kind used of boats to signal distress) with you at all times so that you can blast it toward the approaching, offensive dog.  The noise will scare them off and alert others in the area to the problem.  If the other dog's owner is upset that you blasted their dog, so be it.  You've done no permanent damage as could occur with mace or pepper spray; you've simply stunned their dog into understanding why they shouldn't just run at other dogs. Airhorns can be invaluable on hikes as well, alerting others to any problems you might encounter, from snakes on the trail to mountain lions in the area. 

If you are a regular trail walker, you can also carry a walking stick with you. The stick can be waved at an approaching dog to back them off. If need be, the stick can be thrust into the side of the aggressor's mouth to get him to let go of your dog as he ultimately bites down on the stick.  Don't be tempted to hit the approaching or aggressive dog with the stick as this could cause the dog to either increase their aggression toward your dog, or result in them turning on you instead. 

What should you do if a fight does occur?  Drop the leash. Give your dog a chance to fight back or retreat.  Don't try to separate the dogs with your hands or other body parts as you will get bit.  If there are two people there, you can wheelbarrow the dogs apart (grab the back legs, raise them up and walk the dogs backwards; they will have to let go of each other and focus on walking on just their front legs).  If you are alone, do not attempt the wheelbarrow method, instead use your airhorn or walking stick to separate the dogs.  Resist the urge to grab collars as this could not only result in you getting bit, but can most definitely result in worse injury to the dogs involved as they tighten their hold when attempts are made to separate them through collar grabs. 

One last thing to always try preemptively BEFORE any of the above happens:  throw an obvious handful of treats away from you and your dog in an effort to redirect that off leash dog approaching you.  Most dogs will at least trot off to sniff what you tossed, giving you time to move away.  And I honestly don't care if that off leash dog eats something he shouldn't that you tossed his way; that's his owner's problem for letting him charge at you in the first place.  Bottom line?  Always carry treats and an airhorn so you are prepared for all encounters.

Being a responsible dog owner means being prepared for all possible outcomes, making your walks as safe and fun as possible for you and your dog. Stay safe out there and, as always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

Nothing more fun than a bunch of off leash collies enjoying their free time at a Collie Fun Day! Here is Ozzie laying next to a beautiful sable-headed white collie while a few other sables trot around.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Why Can't I Just Punish My Dog?"

I actually laughed when my new client asked that question, albeit in frustration. You see, she just retired and her kids gifted her an adolescent dog to keep her company.  While my client is clearly a dog person, she wasn't necessarily ready for this dog, a high-energy, head-strong, Shepherd mix.  She told me she'd punished her kids when they drove her nuts, but everything she's read says she shouldn't have done that (LOL!) and she certainly shouldn't punish her dog.  She wanted to know what she SHOULD do then, if her dog misbehaves or is defiant.  I'm awfully glad she asked (and that she said it was okay to share her story here!).

I'm not going to dive deep into a discussion of positive reinforcement, versus negative reinforcement, versus punishment.  Suffice it to say, there's a ton of research on this topic.  Here are just a few bullet points from a summary study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior 3, no. 5 (2008) that  I want you to remember:

  • Owners who use only positive reinforcement when training their dogs are the least likely to report behavior problems such as aggression, fear, etc.
  • The most pronounced levels of aggression and fear were reported in dogs trained using the balanced training method (balanced trainers use a combination of positive reinforcement and positive punishment.  Positive punishment refers to you adding in something after your dog does a behavior, like kneeing a dog who jumps up, in an effort to get them to stop jumping on people).
  • Regardless of size of the dog, owners who use punishment note more aggression and excitability in their dogs.
  • Dogs whose owners use positive reinforcement in the form of treats, are quicker to learn new behavioral tasks than those whose owners used other forms of positive reinforcement (petting and/or verbal rewards) or punishment. 
  • Dogs trained using punishment are less playful with their owners and less interactive with new people.
And finally:
  • More than one study has found that confrontational dog training methods result in dogs who respond aggressively, attend less to their owners, and show heightened stress responses.
So, no matter how frustrated my client was with her dog, yelling at him, yanking his leash, or swatting him on the nose wasn't going to improve his behavior, and might in fact make it worse.  Fine, she said.  Then what should she do when he surfs the kitchen counters, won't come inside when called, pulls her down the street on leash, and charges at other dogs? I'm pretty sure you already know what I told her.

Dogs who surf counters should not be left unattended in the kitchen.  Dogs need boundaries and structure; he couldn't surf the counters if he was in his pen, crate, or tethered to her.  And if he did try to surf when tethered to her, she could say "OFF" and redirect him to what he should be doing.  She could also teach him the place command so he has to stay on his mat during food prep. If he gets up, he gets a time out away from her.  Social shunning (time spent away from us) is by far the best "correction" to use if you must use a correction.  First, however, show your dog what they should be doing by using redirection; it's only when they refuse to do that, that a time out is warranted. 

Won't come when called?  Why aren't they on a leash or long line then?  Any dog without good recall needs to be tethered for their own safety, even in your own yard.  Use an upbeat voice and treats to reinforce coming when called. I actually did this on a long line with my client's dog and he came EVERY TIME I CALLED.  Yep.  The magic of chicken jerky!

Leash pulling and charging at other dogs will be a work in progress for my client.  We needed to get him into a different kind of harness to begin with, and added in a head halter as well, thus walking him using two leashes.  She will need to walk at off peak times in off peak places while she encourages her dog to sniff and explore rather than pull and charge.  We will be adding in relaxation and resetting techniques for them both as we move forward with their training. 

My grandmother used to say "You get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar," meaning if you're nice, you'll get more of what you want.  When it comes to training dogs, you'll get more reliability and happier pooches with treats than with harsh leash corrections and a smack on the nose. Don't get me wrong; I know we all make mistakes, yanking our dog away from something on the sidewalk or yelling at them to slow down so we can dry their feet.  Don't worry about those little blips, just make sure that they are the exceptions and not the rule in your interactions with your dogs.  And remember, you can always give yourself a time out as well, if you need it.  Nothing in the world wrong with that.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.  
These two floof-balls love training exercises.  Here we were working on a dropped leash stay for Westley and a no leash stay for Ozzie.  We definitely dished out treats when we released them from the stay as you can clearly see, they were relaxed and happy to stay in place, even with distractions on the trail that day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

She'll Outgrow This, Right?

I received a phone call from a new client.  She has had her 5 month old puppy since she was 9 weeks old.  During that time, the puppy has shown herself to be timid with new people, avoidant of other puppies in puppy class, and "snappy" with her children, ages 8 and 10.  When the client visited her veterinarian for the puppy's next round of vaccines, she told her vet all of this and said, "She'll outgrow this, right?  This is just how puppies are when they are little, right? That's what I've read online."  Her veterinarian handed her my card and suggested she reach out to me immediately for guidance and I'm really glad that she did!

While puppies most certainly outgrow their collars (and often their dog beds!), they do no outgrow their personalities or burgeoning behavior problems.  While it certainly isn't unheard of for a puppy to avoid other puppies or hide during puppy class at times (I've written on the topic before), adding in being timid with people too AND snappy with kids and I've got some real concerns about this puppy in this home.  We set a time to meet when her children weren't home, just in case what I had to say wouldn't be what they wanted to hear about their new puppy.

This puppy wasn't timid, so much as she was uninterested in people.  She would take treats from me, when offered, but then went right back to looking out the window or chewing on her toy.  I asked the owner if she was hiding during puppy class or avoiding everyone and doing her own thing, like I was seeing there at home.  She said the puppy just did her own thing while the others ran around and played; if they approached her she would freeze and stare at them, or move away slowly until they lost interest in her. She also moved away from interacting with other people or the instructor during class.  I asked the owner to show me what things they had worked on with the puppy as I really wanted to see if this puppy would engage with her owner.  My client approached her puppy and then called her; this puppy looked up from the toy and went right back to chewing on it.  I told the owner to go ahead and take the toy away so the puppy could focus on her.  She hesitated and that's when I knew.  This puppy is already showing resource guarding in this home as well.  She is snappy not just with the kids, but with anyone who tries to take a toy or bone from her, or move her when she's laying down.  I asked if anyone had actually been bitten, and the owner reluctantly admitted that they all had.

Dogs that bite people are deal-breakers for me, particularly in homes with children as it isn't safe for them or their friends and really puts a lot of undue stress on the family to micromanage their dogs with issues in aggression toward people.  While I often suggest confidence building exercises for timid puppies, controlled social experiences for those lacking the skills to explore on their own, lots of mental exercise, and an enforced nap schedule, none of these activities will change this puppy, and she most certainly will not be outgrowing these issues.  This is a purposefully bred puppy, so this aloof personality and resource guarding aggression most likely have a genetic component.  It certainly isn't anything my client or her children have done.  It was time to contact the breeder and return this puppy in order to keep everyone safe.  

I feel bad for her kids as they really wanted a puppy and have been doing "everything right," from attending puppy classes as a family, to a white board at home dividing up puppy related tasks among all family members.  The problem isn't the family, it's this puppy.  And while that's a hard pill to swallow, it's the truth.  No amount of love, classes, naps, or schedules will change the temperament of this puppy.

I do feel that this family is ready for a puppy.  My hope is that they will let me help them find the next one and we'll be able to choose one whose personality and temperament are better suited to family life.  

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

While puppy personalities vary from introverted to gregarious (just like people!), certain personalities don't mesh well with certain living environments.  Breeders like to decide what puppy goes where, but I honestly think some of them aren't doing their homework when making those placements.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Stress of Pet Ownership

There always seems to be a lot of talk about how great pets are for their owners, reducing anxiety, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, etc. But pets don't always reduce their owners' stress; sometimes our pets can make our stress even worse. For pet owners whose pets have behavior problems, feelings of aggravation and frustration are often the norm, giving them social anxiety (worrying about what other people think of them because their pet has issues) and making them feel overwhelmed. Pet owners whose pets have both minor and major behavior problems report feeling frustrated, depressed, and even angry, at times with their pets.  Keep in mind that feeling frustrated, angry, or depressed is understandable, but our pets can pick up on these feelings and respond with even more anxiety themselves, thus leading to further or more pronounced behavior problems, particularly for issues related to separation anxiety.

I met with a client last week whose life has been turned upside down.  Her husband passed away, she had to move out of the home they'd shared for almost 50 years, and she was trying to adapt to living in a senior apartment with the young dog that her husband had acquired just a year before he'd passed away.  She was not only reeling from all of these changes, she was also trying to deal with the burgeoning behavior problems this dog now has.  He'd been an active, enthusiastic puppy, but her husband loved that in the dog, and spent hours playing with the puppy, taking him on beach walks, and teaching him tricks.  Now, they live in the suburbs, don't have a yard, and she's trying to adapt to senior living, in close proximity to people she's just met. She's having trouble because this dog barks, jumps up on people, and pulls hard on the leash.  Her neighbors have reported her dog for his barking and that's been incredibly upsetting for my client as she feels like everyone is out to get her. She feels judged when she walks her dog because he pulls to meet people and then jumps up on them.  She doesn't want to give up the dog as she does love him and sees him as all that she has left of her husband, but she also doesn't want to be forced out of her new living environment.  Her veterinarian had suggested she reach out to me for help.

I had this client and her dog meet me at a local park.  As I approached them, her dog started bouncing around and pulling.  It was all she could do to hold onto his leash!  As I was introducing myself, she literally burst into tears!  I felt terrible for her; this dog wasn't purposefully "being bad," he just didn't know how to control his enthusiasm.  I asked for her dog's leash and told her she could just watch us work together until she felt comfortable jumping in.

I switched out his 4 foot leash which was too short for nice walking and sniffing in favor of a 6 foot ThunderLeash.  I dropped a few treats, encouraging him to sniff them out on the grass. This helped him to relax a bit so he could focus.  I used treats to lure him into a nice loose leash heel around people at the park, and he did great!  I encouraged sniffing and exploring and gave him enough leash to sniff without feeling rushed. At this point, I put him on a 20 foot line, so we could practice his recall and so that he could explore even more without feeling too restrained. This dog was clearly missing the freedom he'd had with his own backyard! His owner was amazed at how well he did with me.  I started teaching him a few tricks, just for fun.  As we continued to work together, I watched my client relax.  She began to smile.  She even clapped and giggled a few times.  Success!

I gave this owner a straightforward plan that she could follow.  I outlined where, when, and how long to walk her dog.  I suggested feeding him in puzzle toys instead of a bowl.  She will enforce nap times for him so he stays well-rested.  She will stand on his leash for greetings and move from that 4 foot leash to the longer ThunderLeash for better control.  She will let him sniff and explore, both on leash and on a long line. She will carry treats at all times and use them to reward and to lure into good behavior, and to help him remember the value of sniffing.  We also talked about his barking which I feel is the result of both boredom and uncertainty with his new home environment. Frequent short walks, puzzle toys, and tricks training should help with the boredom and make being in their new home more comfortable.  She can stand on his leash for greetings so he won't jump up, and encourage people to pet him under his chin and offer him treats for sitting or standing nicely. She will start pairing her time away from him with fun things like bones, bully sticks, and frozen Kong toys.  She will reinforce the crate as his happy, safe place and have him sleep in there at nap times and bedtime. 

My client feels hopeful.  She really wants to keep this dog and honor her husband's memory.  He was "the dog person," but she does enjoy the dog's company and feels like he could be a healing companion for her.  Our next meeting will be at her senior residence so we can work around the obstacles there and I can smooth the way with her neighbors. 

I will do everything I can to help this client and her dog succeed.  I want to help her heal and find joy again and I do truly believe that this young, happy-go-lucky dog can help her achieve that end.  

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

Having a healthy, happy relationship with your dog takes work, but it's worth it!

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Keeping Your Dogs Employed!

I worked with a client over the weekend and his adolescent dog.  During the appointment, I commented that his dog needed a job other than tearing up patio furniture cushions, digging under the fence, and pulling out prized plants by their roots.  He said he hadn't realized that his dog was "unemployed!" We got a good laugh out of this, but truly, sheer boredom was the root cause of all of his dog's "bad" behaviors.  And, again, ripping things with his teeth, digging, etc. are not "bad" behaviors to a dog, they are just dog behaviors.  Most dogs love ripping stuff up and digging to their heart's content.  This doesn't mean you just have to put up with your dog turning your yard into a wasteland, rather you need to give them a job that suits their skillset.  Diggers need to dig, climbers need to climb, and runners need to run.  You get my drift, I'm sure.  So, here are my suggestions for getting your dogs a "day job:"

For dogs who like to dig: Time to either designate an area of your yard for digging, or set up a space for them to do so.  It could even be an old sand box your kids don't use any more, or a plastic wading pool that you repurpose for digging.  Fill the sandbox or wading pool with your dog's favorite digging substrate (clean dirt, sand, etc.) and then bury fun things there for them to find such as bones, baby carrots, or bully sticks. If you catch them digging where they shouldn't, redirect them to the appropriate area.  Make digging in those areas less satisfying by laying down netting, adding in large rocks, or putting up fencing to discourage digging in the wrong areas.  And remember, if you are digging in an area, they will want to dig there too as you've obviously chosen the best spot!  Keep your dog indoors when you do your spring planting and remember to supervise them in the yard until they are regularly choosing their designated digging area without you leading them there.

For dogs who like to run:  Flyball and lure coursing are two sports that are perfect for dogs who like to run.  Lure coursing is great for dogs who like to perform alone, while Flyball is a team sport.  For Flyball, dogs basically compete relay style, one team versus another, with dogs jumping over jumps to get to the special box at the end, tag it with their feet to release a ball, grab that ball and run back, which then triggers the next dog to run. Really fun to watch and participate in and the jump height for the jumps is set to the smallest dog on the team's shoulder height.  Most teams have a fast, little dog to keep those jumps at a reasonable height for sailing over quickly.  Lure coursing is just what it sounds like.  There is an artificial lure that races around a course and your dog chases after it, fastest time wins!  Think about those racing greyhounds chasing the fake bunny around a track and that gives you an idea of what lure coursing is like for your dog.

For dogs who like to climb: Hikes in mountainous terrains are great, if you like to climb too, but if you can't climb, or you don't live near steep trails, then agility, or even parkour, might be a great sport for your dogs.  Agility is an individual sport, with points for time and accuracy.  Even if you don't compete, your dog will have fun jumping over jumps, climbing a-frames, balancing on teeter-totters and dog walks, and zipping through tunnels. Parkour courses are basically agility done with objects found in the real world such as hay bales, picnic benches, drainage tunnels, traffic cones, etc. 

For dogs who like to sniff:  Nosework is the ideal sport for dogs who love to sniff .  Whether they are sniffing for unique smells like cedar or birch in a nosework class, or sniffing out a rat in a hidden cage in Barn Hunt, your nosey dog will have an appropriate outlet for the behavior with these two options.  Given that most dogs love to sniff, these two sports are good for almost any dog, and are really wonderful for older dogs who still have the drive to work, but may not have the stamina or vision any more to do other tasks.

For water-loving dogs: Dock diving is a terrific sport to pursue with dogs who love the water.  A floating toy is thrown in the water for your dog to race along a dock and jump as far out into the water as they can to retrieve the toy.  You'll get great practice at throwing the toy further and further out as your accuracy and distance at throwing the toy, will help push your dog to jump further out into the dock diving pool!

For dogs who love meeting new people: Pet assisted therapy is the perfect job for dogs who love meeting new people and can be trusted not to jump up on them, mouth them, etc.  Pet therapy is particularly well-suited to dogs who aren't put off by strange smells (think hospital smells) odd human behavior (think people with dementia, shaky hands, or unsteady gaits), or medical equipment around them like wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc. While many people think the ideal pet therapy dog is a small dog who will sit on someone's lap, the truth of the matter is that big dogs, medium dogs, and every size in between can make great pet therapists for various environments. For example, while a German Shepherd or Great Dane might seem like the perfect candidate for a hospital setting where the patients are in beds and those larger dogs will be able to position themselves alongside the beds easily for petting, a medium sized dog can do this too, she may just need to be taught to sit in a bedside chair for better access!

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of dog jobs, but just the tip of the iceberg.  There are so many great options that you can pursue with your dogs depending on their aptitude and your schedule.  I purposefully did not include links to local clubs/events for these pursuits because not everyone following this blog is located in the San Francisco Bay Area.  If you are, however, here in the Bay Area, and you want a suggestion on where to pursue one of these jobs for your dog, send me a message, and I'll make sure to send you a place to start.

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

Desi is a natural at pet assisted therapy.  He can work his magic on the elderly, the infirmed, and kids of all ages.  He is also a somewhat trustworthy babysitter, though he does often fall asleep on the job!