Wednesday, August 31, 2022

When You Are the Center of Your Dog's Universe

It's pretty common. Clients who say that they like being the center of their dog's universe; that their dogs are their whole world and vice versa. But is that always a good thing?  While having your dog literally watch your every move and hang on your every word may seem like a desirable thing, it can also have a dark side if your dog resource guards you from the people around you, including your friends and loved ones. Some may call it protective aggression, but it's the same thing; you are a resource for your dog and he doesn't want to share you with anyone.

While some dogs who guard people are doing it for a living (think dogs specifically trained to deter anyone who touches their person), most of the dogs I meet with this issue are freelancing. Some of them park themselves on their owner's lap and growl at an approaching spouse or child. Others, block their humans from approaches, positioning themselves so that no one can touch or get near them.  Some of these dogs can be called off, meaning if their person tells them it's okay or sends them to their place, for example, they do so, no escalation required. Others are not easily swayed and won't move when asked, instead choosing to stand their ground, willing to escalate if they feel challenged.  These dogs are risky to own because their owners need to be more vigilant and more restrictive about the situations they put their dogs into.  It's not funny nor cute; it's a behavior to be discouraged as it could result in a bite for which you will be held liable.  While you may think your spouse (or your kids) won't sue you if your dog bites them, bites still have to be reported to Animal Control if the person who has been bitten sees a doctor for their injury. This could result in fines or worse.  If your dog bites strangers, people approaching you on walks, making deliveries to your home, or working on your property, then you could be held liable, particularly if you knew your dog had resource guarding issues with regard to you.

So, what specifically can you do if you know your dog is guarding you?  First off, don't reinforce the behavior.  If they are sitting near you or on your lap and someone approaches you, get them off of your lap/away from you and approach the person yourself. If the dog tries to get between you and that person, barking at that person or worse, remove the dog for a time out so the behavior doesn't escalate.  If your dog behaves aggressively toward approaching people working on your property or guests in your home, then you need to confine them with something fun to do while visitors are there.  Don't hesitate to use crates, leashes, and even muzzles, if necessary, to ensure that your dog doesn't hurt anyone while they are protecting you.

Owning a protection dog is a huge responsibility.  The people I know with professionally trained protection dogs know this and care for them like you would a loaded firearm or an expensive automobile. They don't let just anyone handle their dogs, and they make sure the dogs are only protecting them when asked to do so.  When they are off duty, they are off duty.  Professional guard dogs learn to have on/off switches while our pet dogs who resource guard us don't have such clear boundaries and their behavior can be unpredictable.  

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

He's a pretty nice dog. Unless you try to hug or touch his owner. 
Then he's a snarling/snapping 12 lbs. of lunging fur and teeth.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

When Expectations and Reality Do Not Match Up

I've been working with these clients for a couple of months now. They are a retired couple with a new puppy.  They've had puppies before, and they've had this breed before, but this dog is giving them a run for their money.  The pup's behavior is creating friction between the humans as well, and that's why they were sent my way.  While my master's degree is in Animal Behavior, my background is in Psychology, so understanding human behavior is part of (and sometimes a giant chunk of!) what I do. This couple even joked about them needing the training and not the dog.  They weren't far off the mark with that comment.

Although puppyhood is characterized by a lot of commonalities, each puppy is an individual and as such "results may vary" if you simply approach the puppy in front of you the same way you've approached every other dog you've owned. Plus, we've learned quite a bit about the way puppies learn and how best to teach them everything from where to toilet, to how to walk nicely on a leash. Times change, methodologies change, and frankly puppies have changed too.  Just because you've chose the same breed time and again doesn't mean that the breeder you got your current puppy from will learn the same way your previous dogs did.  Rule #1:  Don't compare your kids or your dogs.

I gave these clients a crash course in animal learning theory and backed up my suggestions with the science behind why they should implement these ideas for their puppy.  First off, he's big.  Big for his age and big for his breed.  We need to teach him to be calm and well-mannered now, while we have a chance and before he even thinks about bullying his senior owners!  Yanking his collar/leash, smacking him on the nose, and grabbing his mouth when he bites aren't going to make him better behaved, but they very well may make him more of a problem.  Rule #2:  Be patient. Be consistent.  Give yourself, and your puppy, a time out.

One of the puppy's owners took me aside to tell me, rather sheepishly, that she doesn't really like this puppy and she doesn't even think he's cute.  I told her that it was possible to love her puppy, but not love his behavior.  And as far as cute goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Just as some people think newborn babies are ugly little squishy faced gnomes, I think they are adorable!  I think that if we can get this puppy onto a regular schedule of naps, bathroom breaks, play time, leash learning, and training, he'll blossom into a nice, predictable, and yes attractive, family member.  Rule #3:  Dogs, like kids, thrive on predictable schedules and routines.

There was a bit of bickering back and forth between the clients as they observed me working with their puppy.  He is a delightful, enthusiastic learner who actually gets things quickly.  He went from pulling and tugging on his leash, to walking nicely next to me on a loose leash, sitting every time I stopped moving.  One reason for this?  I never pulled his leash once.  I never yelled at him.  I didn't drag him.  I didn't push his bottom down.  What did I do?  I walked *with* him and if he started to pull, I'd loosen up the leash and change direction. He happily followed me. I rewarded that behavior.  When I stopped walking, I'd smile at him and tell him he was a good boy.  He'd sit.  I'd give him a treat for that.  Next thing you knew, he wasn't pulling, but just eagerly sniffing wherever we walked, looking back and up at me to check in occasionally, and sitting whenever and wherever I stopped.  He definitely understood the assignment.  Now we wait and see if the owners did too as their attention was often focused on throwing accusations at each other by this point.  Rule #4:  Dogs, like kids, will misbehave if they think no one is holding them accountable.  While the owners weren't paying attention to their puppy, I was.  He figured that out quickly and enjoyed working with me as it was much less stressful for him and a good deal more rewarding.

Anyone who has ever crammed for an exam will tell you that while they may be able to get enough useful information stuck in their head to pass the test, most of that information won't be there long term.  Shorter, immersive study sessions that capitalize on the way you learn best (auditory learning versus visual learning, or a combination of the two) will result in information sticking with you long after the exam.  The same is true for training dogs.  Frequent, short sessions where you don't just repeat the same thing over and over again are the sessions where they learn the most.  Practice things your dog already knows and then add in new challenges.  Make learning fun by changing locations where you work, adding in fun tasks like an impromptu agility session on a playground, or simply walking under and then jumping over a park bench. Always use a leash when you train indoors and outside as most places require a leash, so those puppies might as well learn to wear one comfortably for long periods of time right from the start.  Vary the length of your leash to give your dog more freedom and to make listening/attending to you more challenging for you both.  Always have treats in your pocket which brings us to Rule #5:  Everyone likes to get paid.  Dogs preferred forms of payment that are tangible rewards like food and toys.  Dogs do enjoy praise and affection, don't get me wrong.  But.  Food will enhance learning, speed up the process, and ensure that what you worked on sticks in their brain.

I'm really enjoying my work with this puppy.  I'm hoping I'll enjoy working with the owners more as they learn to embrace the puppy that they have and learn to accept that things have changed in the last 15 years since their previous dog was a puppy.  I am grateful that they haven't given up on him and that they trust me to guide them, even if they don't always agree with me right off the bat.  We're making progress and that's what counts.

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

All puppies need boundaries and structure.  Big breed puppies need those lessons early before their body growth outpaces their brain growth!

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Babies, Grandbabies, and Dogs, oh my!

I love babies.  No one who knows me is surprised by this.  For me, they are like puppies (which I also love) who just happen to grow up and be able to drive you around and have a glass of wine with you on the back porch.  But I digress.  While I love babies and am much looking forward to grandbabies some day, I am currently working with a handful of clients whose dogs are not nearly as excited about the arrival of babies and grandbabies as their owners had hoped they would be. 

We know from research done in 2011, that the dogs who do best around children and for whom the presence of kids results in less anxiety, are those dogs who were exposed to positive experiences with children during their sensitive period for socialization at 3-12 weeks of age.  Dogs exposed to children after 12 weeks of age, or never really exposed to kids until after children are brought into their homes, are the dogs who show the most reactivity, excitability, and even aggression. These results really hammer home the importance of exposing puppies to nice, friendly, people of all age groups during their sensitive period for socialization.  This is particularly important for any dog who will ultimately be living in a home with kids, or in a home where kids visit often.

So, what can you do if you don't know if your dog got exposure to kids during the critical socialization period and you are getting ready to bring home a new baby?  First off, try doing a few experiments yourself.  Take your dog, on leash, to a park where children of all ages congregate.  Walk your dog around at a distance and observe their behavior as you get closer to the kids.  Are they happy and interested?  Are they licking their lips, yawning and trying to pull you the other way?  If a child approaches your dog, what does she do?  Does she freeze and look away or try to move away?  Does she get overly excited, yipping and barking?  Or does she wag her tail loosely with a soft gaze, soliciting a pat from the child?  

If your dog appears interested in children, not anxious, fearful, or aggressive, you can begin exposing your dog to even more provocative situations such as crying babies, kids throwing tantrums, etc.  For many dogs this type of young human agitation is stressful.  You want to see if your dog moves away from such things, seeks you out for reinforcement, or becomes agitated themselves. 

While you can definitely prepare your dog for the arrival of a baby by doing all of these things while out and about, what can you do in your own home?  Start by introducing your dog to all the items you've purchased for your baby.  Let them sniff, touch, etc. the stroller, swing, crib, high chair, diapers, and toys.  Lay a blanket on the floor and begin teaching your dog the boundaries.  They can approach the edges of the blanket, but not get on it or cross it.  Start walking your dog alongside the empty stroller. If you plan to use baby gates to separate areas of your house into dog free/baby only zones, do that before the baby arrives.  While many news parents and grandparents worry most about their anxious dogs when the baby is under 2 years of age, the truth of the matter is that kids are at their greatest risk after 2 years of age as they become more mobile.  And many dogs show peak anxiety when their kids reach adolescence and there is conflict in the home. Parents often make the mistake of relaxing their vigilance as their kids get older; truly, all interactions between kids and dogs, regardless of their age, need to be supervised.  Kids often miss subtle (and not so subtle) cues given by dogs indicating that they are uncomfortable with a situation. Ignoring those cues can result in a snap or bite. Parents and caregivers need to be observant and remove the children or the dog when arousal gets too high.  Every home should have safe spaces for the kids and the dogs.  For kids, those safe spaces are often their rooms and/or pieces of furniture the dog isn't allowed into or on.  For dogs, safe spaces might be under a table, in their crate, or on their dog bed.  Teach your children to leave a dog who is sitting or laying still alone and teach your dog to leave your kids alone when they are in their rooms, for example.  Dogs will often seek out their adult humans as safe spaces as well. Let them.  Reinforce that behavior, don't scold or shun it.  Use time outs and redirection for your dogs AND your kids.

Parents and grandparents need to learn how to be better observers of dog body language.  Watch the family dog for signs of stress such as lip licking, excessive yawning, gaze averting, hard stares, stiff bodies, moving away/turning away.  If you see these behaviors, call the child or the dog away and redirect them.  Being proactive is key; if you can't watch your kids and the dog, then they need to be separated until you can. Teach your children to be gentle and respectful with the family dog, allow them to take age-appropriate responsibilities with respect to the dog, meanwhile teaching your dog not to jump on children, grab their food or clothing, or steal their toys.  Children who take an active role in the care of the family dog have a better relationship with that dog and are better at reading dog body language than those children who aren't as involved in a dog's care.  Train your kids to care for the dog, and praise them for a job well done.  That positive reinforcement doesn't just work on dogs, it works on kids too.

Finally, one of the most disturbing trends I see in the world of kids and dogs is the proliferation of videos on social media showing kids sitting on, riding, pulling tails and ears, grabbing faces, shoving their faces in dog faces, laying on dog beds next to dogs or in their crates with them, and screaming and running while a dog chases them.  When I see these videos, I have to scroll away as the body language on the dogs terrifies me.  The fact that caregivers are not just allowing these behaviors, but reinforcing them AND videotaping them, causes me undue stress and agitation.  Why anyone would allow their dog to be treated that way, let alone put their child at risk with an animal is beyond me. I will never share those videos and I would love if I never saw one again!  

There are so many benefits to be had by dogs living in homes with kids, as long as that situation is safe for the dogs and kids involved.  If your dog is nervous and reactive with your new baby, separate them and try to see if a slower, more controlled introduction will help.  If your dog simply cannot be around your baby, you can try to keep them separate until your child is older and try again, or you can choose to rehome your dog.  If your dog is aggressive to your baby or child, however, you really do need to get them out of your home immediately.  I've been involved in enough dog bite cases to know that you can't ignore what a dog is clearly telling you; if they don't like kids, you can't make them like yours.

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

When Desi came to live with my family, he was 4 years old. I knew he'd been raised around children and loved them, which I thought would make him a good fit for pet assisted therapy. He truly was and is a natural.  He gravitates toward children, is gentle about where he puts himself with regard to their physical space, and he loves all manner of attention.  In that first picture, I actually watched him walk up to that baby, plop down behind him, and then wrap his head back around for attention!  The second photo is from a visit with day camp kids learning about dogs and dog behavior.  This little girl had read Desi a book and then wanted to stay after her reading to give him more attention.  I love that his head is on her leg, while he keeps one paw firmly planted on mine.  Desi is the consummate family dog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Vet Hospital Etiquette for Dog Owners

I had a client reach out for help this week who was quite sheepish with regard to why she was seeking my assistance.  She indicated that her veterinarian, who is also a dear friend of hers, strongly suggested she work with me before their next appointment.  The owner has a bright, engaging, 4 month old Golden Retriever puppy who is happy and in good physical health.  So why would a bright, happy, healthy puppy need to see me, you ask?  Well, here's what happened on their vet visit as told by the client.

She arrived for her appointment and her puppy was super excited to be there! He pulled her into the hospital lobby.  He's new to being on leash as she'd previously carried him inside for his appointments.  Now he's too big to pick up!  Once inside, he jumped on a woman seated in the lobby with her elderly dog; he also kind of pounced on her elderly dog.  When she pulled him back, he started barking, and that's when he noticed the cat in the carrier on the front desk.  He proceeded to twist away from the client, and race toward the counter where he jumped up, startling the cat, who jumped back in the crate, knocking the crate over onto the front desk, knocking over a computer monitor!  The client got a hold of her puppy's leash and sat down to wait for her appointment.  Not surprisingly, the staff immediately put her into an exam room to wait for the vet.  When her vet friend walked in, her puppy immediately began barking again and yanked his leash out of the owner's hand and proceeded to throw himself at the vet with utter delight.  She managed to get a hold on the leash, but while doing so, was getting repeatedly mouthed and chewed on by the puppy.  The vet tried to stand on the leash and mark good behavior with treats, but the puppy was just too over-stimulated at this point.  The vet opted instead to call a technician into the room who then was able to pick up the puppy and carry the wiggly bundle into the back treatment area for his exam and next round of vaccines.  Upon return, the client was told she needed my help and given my card.

I was exhausted just listening to this story!  I felt bad for the veterinarian (who is also a friend of mine!), her staff, the cat's owner, and the poor owner of the elderly dog. While the story may have made you want to laugh and say, "that's just how puppies are!" then you missed the point entirely.  While puppies can indeed be exuberant, there is a time and place for that kind of behavior and the vet hospital isn't it.

Pet owners must be in control of their animals at all times during their vet visits.  This means crating/confining cats and dogs who are small enough to do so.  If you have a medium to large sized dog, you must have control of your leash at all times.  This means you should not be using a retractable leash for veterinary appointments, instead opting for a 4-6 foot leash for better control.  Puppies should be on harnesses so their sudden exuberant pulling does not result in a neck injury.  Adolescent dogs and adult dogs can be on head halters, regular collars, etc. Smaller breed dogs should remain on harnesses to protect their delicate tracheas from the damage of a sudden collar pull. If you know your dog is going to be rambunctious at arrival, walk them before your appointment, or simply tell the veterinary staff that you will wait in the car until your appointment time to enter the building.  You can even ask if it's possible to wait in a room so that your dog isn't disruptive.  If you are inside the lobby waiting for your appointment, keep your dog close to you.  Don't allow your dog to approach other pets and their owners. Just because your dog is friendly doesn't mean that other dog is.  They are likely anxious about their appointment too.  If there are cats, rabbits, or pocket pets awaiting their appointments as well, make an effort to give them plenty of room. All of those animals are, by definition, prey species and your dog is the predator.  Do not allow your dog to stare at or hassle those smaller pets.  If you need to step outside to give your dog a break or let him sniff, absolutely do so!  Sniffing is a natural stress reducer for dogs and a welcome distraction for them from the tension of a vet hospital lobby.

Once you are in the exam room, hold onto your dog's leash and stand on it as well if you know your dog will jump up on who ever enters the room.  Bring treats to reward and mark good behaviors like sitting or laying down, making eye contact with you, etc.  You can even bring a toy or chew to occupy them until their appointment.  If your dog barks at the vet when they walk in, correct that behavior.  Tell your dog to quiet and give them an alternate task.  If they can do that, only then can they be rewarded with attention and a treat from the vet.  You want to be rewarding good behavior, not bribing them into compliance. If your dog is mouthy, be proactive!  Give your dog something else to hold onto.  This is especially important with puppies who are learning bite inhibition.  If you have an adolescent or older dog who is frightened or aggressive at the vet's office, muzzle train them in advance (see one of my previous blog posts on how to do this quickly and easily) to make appointments as fast and painless as possible.

I know I've talked about cooperative care in the past.  In a nutshell this refers to you teaching your pet to allow basic body handling without getting afraid, anxious, or aggressive.  You teach your pet how to tell you when they are starting to get overwhelmed BEFORE they actually are over the top.  Show your veterinarian how you handle your pet's feet, ears, etc. so that they can use your methods to make those exams safer. I know teaching your pet cooperative care is a tedious process, but it is well worth the investment in time.  And if you have a puppy or kitten, teaching cooperative care right from the start means that they won't know anything different!  Cooperating with groomers, veterinarians, and their staff will just be something they do automatically.

Finally, when it's time for you to pay for your vet's services and leave, don't forget that it's okay to tell the staff that you're going to take your rambunctious/overstimulated/overtired/stressed out pet to the car and then come back and settle the bill.  This gives you a break, allows you to hear any after care instructions, and pay for services rendered without any distractions or unfortunate incidents. 

When I went over all of this with my client, she said she'd had a similar discussion with her daughter's pediatrician years ago at an office visit where her daughter was, quite literally, climbing the walls during an appointment.  I asked her how old her daughter was and she said 35!  I laughed so hard and then told her I meant to say how old when she was climbing the walls at the pediatrician's office!  We both got a good laugh out of that one.

We are meeting in person to work on manners as the client now realizes that her puppy isn't just exuberant at the vet's office, but anytime she takes him outdoors, whether in her yard or out in public.  He's a sweet, smart dog, so I know he's going to get this quickly, but then it will be up to his owner to continue to work on good behavior across situations (what I refer to as context proofing).  Golden Retrievers are notorious for being puppies long past their first birthday, and given their large size and jovial dispositions, it's imperative that we get a handle on this pup's behavior now before he reaches adolescence and boundary testing becomes the norm.

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

It's hard to get mad at a puppy as cute as this one.  But they sure can test your patience!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Giving Dogs Time to Thrive

I've talked to three new clients this week about their recently adopted dogs.  These dogs are all different; one came from a breeder, one came through a local humane society, and the last was re-homed with my client by a neighbor who was moving out of the country.  What did each dog have in common?  They were having a rough time adjusting to their new home environment and their owners were frustrated.  Frustration will not, however, improve this situation. In fact, it could make it just that much worse for those new dogs.  It's time to set the record straight on bringing a new dog into your home.

First off, any new dog, regardless of age, requires an adjustment period.  Yes, even puppies.  They've just left their mother and littermates and are now on their own with new people, new expectations, and new experiences.  That's scary!  So, it doesn't matter if you've brought home a new puppy, an adolescent dog, a senior, or anything in between, it's going to take them time to adjust to being *your* dog.  Most dogs need 4-6 weeks to get the hang of their new routines.  Yes, some will acclimate faster than that, but there are just as many dogs who will need longer to feel safe and grounded in their new homes. While you may have thought that bringing home an adult dog means that they will be somewhat "wash and wear,"  don't be surprised if they are actually "gentle cycle only."  What do I mean by that?

Even though you've adopted an adult dog whose description indicated that they are house trained, that doesn't mean they won't have accidents in your home.  Until they learn where the exits are, where they are supposed to toilet, and feel safe asking to go outside, there may be accidents.  You can make this easier on you and on your new dog by keeping them somewhat confined in the beginning.  Restricting where your new dog is allowed to explore in your home means it is easier to keep track of them and know when they need to go outside.  It also means accidents, if they occur, are limited to an area that you can easily clean up. And just because a puppy or dog comes to you "crate trained" does not mean that they won't have issues in separation when they come to your home.  Plan to keep crating on a predictable schedule for your new dog with appropriate mental and physical exercise in between as they learn to stay alone in their crate in your home.

Decide on a schedule that will work for you and your family BEFORE you bring your new dog home.  Keep to that schedule as much as possible.  Predictable schedules bring comfort to new dogs; they know what is supposed to happen next with few surprises.  While you may be excited to show off your new dog to all your friends and family, resist the urge to do so.  Too many new people can be overwhelming; introduce new friends slowly over a few weeks, rather than over a few hours. If you are hosting a party or attending a party, best to leave your new dog behind so that they feel safe and not overstimulated. And if they can't be home alone, hire a sitter for your new dog!

Don't change foods too quickly.  While you may be a fan of a particular brand of food (or it's the one you feed your other dog), you will want to switch your new dog slowly over to that diet.  Start with whatever they were fed before they came to live with you, and gradually begin mixing in the food you plan to switch them to.  While you definitely want to use treats to reinforce behaviors and lure your new dog to you, stay within the realm of the food they were on when you got them.  So, for example, if they come to you on a chicken-based diet, plan to use chicken based treats like freeze-dried chicken or chicken jerky for training, at least until you are sure that your new dog can tolerate other proteins. If you've brought home a new puppy, talk to your veterinarian about adding probiotics to their meals to ensure good gut health.

Puppy proof your yard, even if you didn't bring home a puppy!  Look for holes in fences, loose boards, areas that can be dug out, or fences that can be jumped to escape. Don't leave your new dog unattended in your yard; supervise them until you are certain that they can be trusted alone in that space.  And if they can't, plan to crate them, kennel them, or send them to doggie daycare until you can.

With all these "don'ts" what are the "do's?"  Do offer your new dog ample opportunities to bond with you.  Sit on the floor with them; offer them toys; brush them; walk them; take them for a ride in the car.  Show your new dog your willingness to be a good companion and they will show you, over time, unconditional love.  And that's why you got that dog in the first place.

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

This is Shadow.  When I adopted her, she was so shut down, she spent 3 months living under an end table in my living room.  She'd let me put the leash on to take her outside, but she'd go right back under that table when we came indoors.  I gave her space and time and she not only came around, she became my constant companion, my protector, and truly my heart dog.  She's been gone for over 20 years, but I still miss her every single day.