Wednesday, May 25, 2022

How Long Wil It Take To Fix This?

I get asked this question all the time.  Sometimes I am asked during the first phone call. When people ask this question before we've even met in person where I can evaluate their pet and make my recommendations, I get the feeling they are shopping around for the answer they want to hear.  I'm pretty sure I won't have that answer for them, nor are there guarantees when it comes to treating, resolving, or managing behavior problems. And if you've given yourself some sort of arbitrary timeline for resolution, that's a recipe for disappointment.  While I understand your frustration that your dog is still jumping on guests, barking at people walking past your house, growling when you try to step around her, and lunging at people and dogs walking past her, there aren't any quick fixes for any of those problems.  I do empathize with your predicament; finding someone to care for your dog when you go on vacation in two weeks will be difficult, but rushing treatment, putting a shock collar on your dog, or just neglecting to tell your housesitter/daycare provider/boarding staff that your dog has these issues is a potential liability for you. So, while I won't give you a specific amount of time it will take to work through your pet's behavior problem, I can give you a general idea of what it will take to relieve some of the pressure your pet is obviously experiencing.

If it's a relatively new issue and you're trying to get a handle on it right away, there's a chance that we may be able to at least devise a few "work arounds" to get you both back on track.  And if you've got a couple of months to devote to implementing those work arounds so that you can get behavior change, then you should be on your way. If, on the other hand, the behavior you want fixed has been going on for a long time (or is actually getting worse), then it will certainly take longer to resolve. 

You will also want to look at the issue from your pet's point of view. How does the behavior serve them?  Contrary to popular opinion, our pets don't just do things to drive us nuts; they do those behaviors because those behaviors work to get them what they want.  They beg at the table because someone feeds them there.  They counter-surf because they find snacks there that they can reach.  They bark and paw for attention because people pet them when they do. Often the first step in helping your pet overcome a behavior problem lies in you adjusting your behavior and your expectations. 

We know how hard it is to change our own behavior.  Ask anyone who's quit smoking or started a new exercise routine.  Changing behavior takes patience and perseverance. You won't lose 10 lbs. in a week and your dog won't quit pulling on the leash after one hour of instruction. In an hour session, you can certainly learn the strategies that will help your dog to stop pulling on the leash, but it will take frequent short training sessions done by you and your dog to resolve the problem completely.  You see, you can't just yank your dog back, stop walking, and tell them not to pull. You have to tell them what it is you want them to be doing instead and reward them for making that choice when on leash, versus dragging you down the street!

Finally, you need to take into consideration the fact that we all learn at our own pace.  While your neighbor may have been able to get his dog to immediately stop barking by putting that shock collar on him, you have to know that if that collar wasn't on the dog, the dog would resume barking.  Shock collars don't "cure" barking problems; they just punish the dog for doing something that comes naturally to dogs (barking!).  If you don't teach your dog when it's okay to bark, and when they need to be quiet, and what the consequences are for making the right choices (as well as the wrong ones), they won't learn the difference and the barking will persist.  

With some behaviors you are trying to curb, you may notice your pet getting frustrated or overwhelmed as evidenced by their yawning, scratching, lip licking, or trying to move away.  If your pet is anxious or overwhelmed, take a break.  Figure out why they are frustrated.  Are you moving too quickly through the treatment plan?  Or are you moving so slowly that your pet is bored and frustrated?  Frequent, short sessions work the best, regardless of the problem you are trying to resolve.

I am always excited to work with new clients trying to resolve issues they are facing with their pets.  And I love working with my returning clients who seek me out for refreshers, help with new issues that occur right as they crop up, and seek my help preventatively with their new puppies and kittens.  If we work together as a team, we have the best chance for success regardless of the time frame you are working within. 

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

You might recognize these two sweethearts as they regularly appear on my Facebook page.  Bella, the Rottie, is 5 years old and Loki, the Labradoodle, is 2 years old.  Both have been working with me since they were puppies.  I see Bella once a month now and Loki once every week to two weeks.  For their owners, this is a chance to reinforce good behavior, work on new behaviors to keep their dogs challenged and engaged, and address any questions that may have arisen.  I love both of these dogs as much as my own!

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Just a Quick Story

So, I am down in Los Angeles this week, visiting with my kids who are all Southern California residents now.  I walked to a neighborhood cafe to pick up lunch and enjoy a lovely stroll through this neighborhood with its jacaranda-lined streets and eclectic businesses. As I was waiting for my lunch, I sat at one of their outdoor tables to soak up the sun and people watch.  A woman with a young dog walked my way and sat at the table next to me.  She smiled tentatively and told me she liked my shirt (of course, my shirt had a collie on it!) and went back to trying to get her dog to settle down.  The dog was clearly anxious about all of the people, strollers, and cars going by which made me a bit sad, but I mind my own business in situations like this.  I never give unsolicited advice and I never intrude.  What happened next changed everything.

A young man walked by with his Labrador puppy.  This puppy was clearly having the time of his life, sniffing everything he could reach and bounding toward every passerby.  When this pair moved past the tables where we were sitting, the woman's dog flew out from under the table, making an aggressive grab for the puppy.  Luckily, the man jerked his puppy away before any contact could be made, and the woman apologized profusely, grabbing her dog's collar and dragging her back under the table where they were sitting.  People around us began to give her disapproving looks (this is a very dog-centric, urban neighborhood) and she made comments about just waiting for her order and then she'd be out of their hair.  I glanced over to see her dog furtively looking at me, so I slowly dropped by hands down at my sides.  She crept out of her hiding spot and sniffed my hand, nudging it for a pat.  I stroked her chin gently and her eyes closed and she sighed.  Her owner looked surprised.  I said, "Well, I won't tell you that I'm a dog person, because I absolutely hate when people say that.  But, I will say that I am fluent in dog and your dog is clearly anxious and looking for an out, which I'm happy to oblige!" She asked me if I would hold her dog's leash while she quickly ran inside to pick up her order which was now done.  Her dog didn't move as she got up to go in the building.  

When the owner came back out, she sat down rather defeated.  She said she felt overwhelmed by her dog and wasn't sure what to do, but since I clearly was a dog person (despite what I had said, lol!), she wondered if I thought her dog was a menace too.  So, I did what I never do; I told a stranger on the street my thoughts! I told her that her dog wasn't a menace and that she could help her dog by changing her behavior first.  I suggested that she walk her dog at off peak times and off peak places given that this dog is clearly anxious in busy, social settings.  She could work on getting her dog to sniff and explore and focus on her rather than people and cars going by.  I suggested that she work at a distance from other dogs that felt comfortable for them both.  I didn't think her dog was dog aggressive per se, but simply over-stimulated by her surroundings and lashing out from a place of fear and anxiety rather than overt aggression.  I told her that had she been observing her dog from the outside looking in, she would understand that this dog hadn't felt comfortable or safe, probably from the moment they turned onto this busy street, with the anxiety peaking the moment the owner sat down at a table on the sidewalk. The reason her dog felt safe approaching me was that I hadn't approached her, rather giving her an opening (my hand dropped at my side) should she decide she wanted to interact with me.  Then, I had stroked her under the chin (non-threatening on my part) and avoided direct eye contact.  That's why her dog was relaxed with me, enough to stay with me while the owner went inside for her takeout order. 

The owner was nodding at this point and asked where I had learned all of this and could I recommend whoever I used for my dogs because she bet that my dogs "were utterly delightful and well-behaved." This made me laugh as while I definitely think my dogs are both of those things, they aren't perfect.  No one is, really.  Then I told her I had to come clean and tell her what I did for a living. She was practically giddy until I told her I was simply in the neighborhood visiting my daughter.  Before she could become deflated yet again, I did tell her that I work with clients remotely and would be happy to schedule a time to work with her.  She lit up again and put my phone number and email address into her phone immediately.  I sent her a quick link right then to my blog and told her to listen to her dog always and watch for those cues indicating that she was becoming anxious.  Not all dogs are social butterflies, and it's not a requirement that they love every person, dog, or situation they encounter.  Urban dogs, however, do need to be able to navigate those situations safely and she needs to build up what her dog is able to tolerate, adjusting for those situations where it is just in everyone's best interest that the dog stay home.

Needless to say, my order was done by this point, and one of the cafe employees came out to see why I hadn't picked up my bag yet!  I took if from her, thanked her for the "curb service," and invited the dog owner to walk with me so she could have a less stressful exit from her table where other patrons were still glancing her way. I made goofy, distracting sounds which made her dog perk up, wagging her tail and focus on me as we moved away from the cafe.  The owner shook my hand with both of hers and they headed up the street, while I crossed and headed my own way.  While I had thought today would be my day off, it turns out the universe had other plans for me, and I'm okay with that.  I hope I hear from this woman again, and if I don't, I hope it's because implementing my simple suggestions was enough to get them off to a better start on their relationship.

Okay, back to my sandwich and mystery novel.  I'll be back in work mode by the weekend.  

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

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Living With Aggression

It's been a busy week and unfortunately several appointments have involved helping dog owners dealing with aggression.  It's incredibly difficult for many dog owners to face the reality of life with an aggressive dog.  Even though the majority of dogs experiencing aggression aren't aggressive all the time (in fact most aggressive dogs are seemingly fine right up until the point that they are not), the often unpredictability of the behavior makes long term management challenging. And the bottom line is this:  Whether a dog owner will be able to manage their aggressive dog's behavior depends on several factors.  Depending on how you decide to break down the different ways dogs can behave aggressively (i.e. the motivation behind the behavior), most people agree that they are at least 14 different types of aggression seen in dogs. Some of those forms of aggression may be easier to manage, while others may simply be deal breakers for the dog owners.  And no matter what anyone says, the decision regarding whether to manage a dog with aggression, and how that will work for you and your family, are decisions that only you can make.  No one should ever pass judgement on you one way or the other, whether you decide to manage the dog, give the dog up, or humanely euthanize them. Only you know whether you are in a position to make management feasible.  Let's look at a few examples that I've seen recently.  I've changed a few details to protect the privacy of my clients as that's another thing about dealing with aggressive dogs; their owners are sad, aggravated, devastated, furious, frustrated, and embarrassed, feeling singled out by their family members, neighbors, friends, etc. 

One of the young dogs I saw this week suffers from resource guarding aggression .  He guards his bed, one of his favorite toys, and real bones.  He's fine with having his food and food bowl handled, doesn't care about his body being groomed or his nails trimmed.  Occasionally he will growl if you wake him up on the sofa, but that doesn't happen all time.  I've asked the owners to take away the favored toy permanently and not give him any real bones ever again.  I've asked them to bring his crate back inside from the garage and start using it again.  He always loved his crate and used to nap in there regularly.  The humans removed the crate because it took up space in their family room.  By bringing the crate back and putting the dog's bed back in the crate, his protection of his space will be easier to accommodate and manage.  If the dog is in his crate, they can just leave him alone.  Interestingly enough, he never once guarded the bed when it was in the crate previously.  I've asked them to redirect him off of the sofa when he first jumps up there, but if he's asleep when they find him there, they need to make a noise at a distance that wakes him up and then redirect him off the sofa and to his crate to nap.  My hope is that by returning the crate to this dog, he'll feel less anxious about where he's sleeping.  He may miss his favorite toy and real bones for a while, but he'll get over it. Like many dogs, he has a ton of other toys to play with and can get his chewing time in on bully sticks, frozen Kongs, Nylabones, etc. that he never guards.  Luckily, I saw this dog before he escalated from freezing, growling, snapping to lunging and biting.  That isn't always the case, however. Sometimes I don't hear from owners until someone has been bitten.  Or a few someones have been bitten :(

Another client has a young adult dog who has now bitten four people; three of these bites occurred to gardeners, repair people, or delivery folks.  The fourth bite occurred when they took the dog to their kid's baseball tournament.  They had been advised to use an electronic/shock collar on the dog after the first bite, so that's what they've been doing.  The dog wears the electronic collar all the time and receives varying levels of shocks for any aggressive behavior.  The dog was shocked for each of the three subsequent bites after being fitted with the collar in the first place.  The dog's behavior is not improving and the last bite happened to someone who actually knows me and suggested that these dog owners seek professional help.   I sent these owner instructions on muzzle training their dog before our appointment.  When I arrived the dog was muzzled and happily trotting around in their yard.  I explained the liability involved with keeping a dog like this long term and that they need to change the way they view this dog; yes, she is a family member, but where she can go and what situations they put her in needs to be restricted.  She is crate trained, so she should be in her crate anytime they have workers in their home or yard.  When she is walked, she needs to wear her muzzle.  She should not be taken to places like ball games where people congregate and will approach without much warning.  You can't change other people's behavior, but you can change what you force your dog to deal with.  This dog has zero interest in meeting new people; she likes who she likes and she loves her family.  She has protective aggression and territorial aggression.  She and I got along fine because I pretended she didn't exist. I never made eye contact or tried to touch her.  She sniffed me several times, even choosing to sit near me once, but basically she wanted to lay near her owners and watch me from across the room.  I told the owners that muzzles can be like on/off switches for dogs such that dogs learn what they can and cannot do while wearing them.  Thus it falls on the humans to make sure that they don't put their muzzled dogs into situations where they feel triggered, over-stimulated, and anxious.  Yes, they can't bite someone with a muzzle on, but they are still anxious.  Your job as the handler of an aggressive dog wearing a muzzle is to NOT put them in situations where they feel triggered.  Luckily, most strangers won't try to approach or pet a dog wearing a muzzle, but the same goes for visitors and guests as well.  Muzzle the dog when people come over and tell people to just ignore the dog.  Most territorial and protective dogs aren't "gunning for people to bite, " rather they are responding to people invading their space, touching their people, or trying to touch them.  Leave them alone and they leave you alone. 

One last case, and this one breaks my heart.  My clients have had their dog for over five years.  They just had a baby and their dog is very anxious about this new, little human in the house.  The dog has barked at, lunged at, and actually nipped at the baby's dangling foot while the mother was nursing the baby.  They've tried giving the dog treats when the baby is around, letting the dog be in the same room in his crate or x-pen, etc.  The grandparents are furious that this dog is even still alive, let alone in the same house with their grandchild.  This is creating a huge amount of friction for everyone in this family.  Now the baby has colic and is very agitated almost all of the time.  The screaming/crying baby has caused this dog to actually bite dad when he stepped in to block the dog from getting near the baby's crib.  While I can understand this dog's anxiety (he's never been around children and is a rather anxious dog to begin with, particularly with noises), this situation is untenable long term.  This dog isn't safe in this home and neither are the humans.  This dog will bite again.  He needs to live in a quiet, child-free home.  The problem is that placing a dog that bites isn't easy and these owners don't have time to spend trying to find a home for their anxious, biting dog.  In the short term, the dog is living with a friend who has no kids and works from home, but they aren't interested in keeping the dog long term as the dog does chase cats and she has three cats in her home.  These owners need to decide whether to surrender this dog to the shelter, knowing that he may be euthanized there because he's a dog with a bite history and some existing issues in anxiety otherwise as well, or make that heart-breaking decision to have him euthanized by their own veterinarian.  They've spoken to their vet (as have I) and their vet is an understanding and compassionate soul who doesn't want to think about a dog in a home with a baby and his risk for another bite. 

These are just a few examples, but they do illustrate the wide range of ways that aggression can manifest in dogs and varying ways that dog owners can manage the behaviors they are seeing.  Management is never easy, but in some cases it is possible.  But not always.  Dogs who bite will bite again if we don't keep them from doing so, either by restricting their access to triggers, wearing a muzzle, or re-homing them into a situation where their triggers don't exist.  Each of these dog owners brushed off the first (or the first handful) of aggressive behaviors their dogs exhibited.  I know it's hard to acknowledge that your dog is aggressive as many feel like it's their fault their dogs behave this way, but ignoring or explaining away the behavior won't make it go away.  Neither will putting an electronic collar on the dog and shocking him when he behaves aggressively.  If anything, that strategy is likely to backfire, making the behavior worse as the dog gets frustrated and redirects their aggression on you.  Shocking a fearful/anxious/aggressive dog just reinforces that whatever triggered their aggression in the first place is bad and they were right to feel anxious and react.

If you are dealing with issues in aggression, please let me help you.  I just want to see that your dog, and your family, are safe, whether that's safe from a bite, or safe from liability. Whether you keep your aggressive dog, or not, is not for me to decide.  Only you know whether that is something you can do and I won't be judging you either way. 

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

Would you want to reach down and take this dog's bone away?

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Moving With Your Pets

Last week, we talked about summer vacations and preparing your pets for that inevitable separation from you and their normal routine.  Another very common summer stressor for pets (and for their humans!) is moving, whether that means a move to a new home across town, or a big relocation out of state or out of the country.  A recent study found that people rank moving as even more stressful than getting a divorce! If we humans find moving stressful, we can only imagine how our pets must feel. Dogs and cats are naturally territorial animals, so moving necessarily redefines their home turf.  Plus, the anxiety and tension we humans experience as part of the moving process is something our pets most definitely pick up on, leading them to behave anxiously too.  So, what can you do to make the process easier for your pets, and therefore easier on yourself as well? 

First things first.  Bring in those moving boxes and rolls of packing tape early on.  You want your pets to get used to having boxes around on a daily basis.  I know some cat owners are going to find their cats inside of those packing boxes, but that's great; just don't start loading household items in there with them!  While you are packing up your home, getting rid of items you no longer need, etc. try to keep to your usual routine as much as possible.  Our pets thrive on routines and schedules, so you want to do all that you can to keep disruptions to their daily routine at a minimum. Don't move their beds, toys, or favorite hiding places until the last possible moment.  If you have a dog and are moving someplace where you can visit in advance of your move, be sure and do that.  Walk them around your new home environment inside and outside on leash several times before you make that final move.  That way, the new environment won't be a complete surprise to them.  This is particularly important if you are moving to a home with stairs, an elevator, elevated balconies, or any other features unfamiliar or new to them. You want your dog to know how to use those stairs, or enjoy that second floor balcony, before you move in.  Take treats with you and spend some time together getting to know and explore your new home.  Obviously, this isn't possible to do with every move, so just do your best!  These walk-throughs that you do with your pet will also allow you to figure out any changes or alterations that will need to be made to make your new home safe for them.  Do you need to extend a fence?  Fill up a hole in the yard or remove toxic plants?  Put up netting or wire on a balcony or treads on the stairs?  The time to find out those things is before your pet is permanently in their new space.

Whether you are using a moving company, or moving all your stuff yourself, you will want to have your pets out of the house on moving day.  Doors and gates are going to be open and you don't want anyone running off.  Plus, the stress of watching strangers invade their home turf AND remove their things can result in some pets displaying aggressive behavior. Leave your pets with a friend, at daycare, or board them on moving day. Your goal is to bring them into their new home environment with most of the furniture in place, particularly the objects belonging to your pets (e.g. beds, dishes, cat trees, toys).  For some pets, the safest way to move their stuff is for you to move it in your vehicle so that strangers' hands don't touch their stuff.  While you could certainly wash a pet bed when you get to your new home, your pet will actually find comfort in those familiar smells from the old place. 

If you are moving across country, you can certainly drive with your pets or fly them cargo, but another option is to use a transport service.  These transport services can be lifesavers for people moving cross country who don't want to drive with their pets and/or who need to fly and don't want to ship their pets in a plane's cargo hold. Using a transport service allows you to schedule when you want your pets to arrive at your new home as well, thus allowing you to get that space set up in advance of them coming home. If you are moving out of the country, be sure to check what sorts of vaccines, examinations, etc. are required for them to go with you.  Is there a quarantine period where you are moving? Will you be able to visit with your pet in quarantine?  These are all questions you want to have answered well before moving day. And if you are driving with your pets, be sure to secure your hotel accommodations well in advance as while most will allow pets, some of them will have additional requirements or fees for pet owners, and may only allow a certain number of pets in their rooms/units. Whether you are driving or flying to your new home, it's a good idea to pack a pet emergency bag or box that has all the items they will need for several days, including backup leashes and collars just in case the ones you are using currently break, get lost, or your pet anxiously chews through them!

I want to talk about our feline friends specifically for a moment.  Cats should be kept strictly indoors (if they aren't indoor cats already) following a move.  In order to make sure that your cats don't escape, keep them confined to one room initially, filled with their favorite climbing structures, perches, water fountains, food puzzles, dishes, litterboxes, and hiding places. You can use plug in pheromone adapters (Feliway) in that room to enhance their sense of calm with the new space.  Give your cats at least a couple of weeks, for some even a month or more, to get their bearings before you begin having them out in other parts of your new home, supervised at first, to make sure that they aren't overwhelmed. If you share your home with guinea pigs or rabbits, be extra careful when moving them.  Keep them in a small, warm crate or container with familiar bedding while transporting them. Keep them isolated in one room as outlined for cats above.  And it goes without saying that your feathered friends must be moved while caged as even the most docile, well-trained bird, can fly off if anxious during the moving process. I know this may sound a bit heartless, but unless you are doing a short, local move, it's probably better to re-home your fish than to try to take them with you.  Fish often fatally respond to moving stress, so limiting how much movement they experience is a key factor in their survival. For short distances, move your fish in bags filled with their old tank water.

If you are moving to a new area, you will not only want to find a new veterinarian for your pets, but also locate the nearest 24 hour emergency vet service.  Once you have identified the new vet who will be caring for your pets, you can have your pets' records electronically transferred over to ensure consistency of care, particularly with regard to prescriptions than may need to be refilled soon.  Find out if your pets need to be licensed where you are moving and get that done in advance.  I hate to even mention it, but some places have breed bans in place, so the time to find out that your new city, new neighborhood, or new building doesn't allow Cattledogs, Rottweilers, or Pit Bulls is BEFORE you choose to make the move happen. 

It goes without saying that you will want to be extra kind to yourselves and your pets during a move.  Take that extra walk.  Go for a hike and explore together.  Break out the yummy treats. Spend more time playing together, or just relaxing in your new home.  Those boxes will all get unpacked eventually, and taking a break to settle in with your furred and feathered friends is well worth it.  Your anxiety will be curbed a bit, as will theirs.

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

Moving day for my daughter almost two years ago.  You'll notice something important missing here, though the use of the Chewy boxes should give you a hint.  Her smooth collie, of course! Westley stayed with friends while we moved her into her new house.  He visited the new house several times before the move, and was happy to see that "his" couches were there by the time that he arrived after moving day was all said and done.