Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Room to Breathe

I worked with a half dozen clients over the weekend who all had the same complaint; why can't they get other dog owners in their community to understand the concept of personal space?  You see they each had a dog who would react negatively when another dog passed by them in close proximity. Each of these dogs was different; for two, their reactivity came from a place of fear, one had previous negative experiences while on leash, one never saw another dog up close so had a lack of socialization, and one was experiencing outright aggression with unknown origin.  Nonetheless, each of the owners was experiencing a great deal of frustration any time they took their dog for a walk.  One client told me that she was literally afraid to walk her dog in her own neighborhood as more than one neighbor had told her she had no business taking her dog outside the house!  Another client said she was so embarrassed by her dog's behavior that she only walked him late at night when there weren't other people around.  I found all of their stories to be heartbreaking.

Even if a dog has been deemed dangerous as defined by the law, an owner still has the right in most states to take that dog outside of their home, as long as the dog is leashed and muzzled, so this notion that people whose dogs are reactive or aggressive shouldn't be out in public is a fallacy.  Obviously, if your dog is aggressive toward people or other dogs, you should be using a muzzle when you walk them, even if you walk at off peak hours in off peak areas.  Muzzle training is easy and a very effective way to prevent a bite.  Basket muzzles can be worn comfortably for extended periods of time, allowing the dogs wearing them to still sniff, explore, drink water, take treats, and exercise.  

Now, for dogs who are reactive and just need more space to feel comfortable in public spaces, we as their caretakers need to make that known.  I know that there are flags you can add to your leash, as well as embroidered leashes that state that your dog needs space, however these are often ignored by people, particularly children.  Better to adopt a strategy that helps your dog succeed by being proactive and moving out of the way when you need to, crossing the street, bringing your dog behind you or at your side, etc.  And as much as you might like to be one of those dog owners who can walk down a busy sidewalk with your dog, don't be tempted to do it; just because you have the right to walk your dog in public, doesn't mean you should put her, yourself, and other dog owners in a precarious position.  There are techniques that you can learn to help your reactive dog become more tolerant and even ignore other dogs, all you need to do is ask for help!

While dogs do need physical exercise, there is no hard and fast rule that says that has to come in the form of daily walks.  You can use a flirt pole to exercise your dog, set up an agility course in your yard, or even in your house using furniture, or play a rousing game of fetch.  Balance that physical exercise with mental exercise so that your dog truly feels "spent."  Mental exercise can mean a bone or bullystick, but better still to offer an interactive puzzle toy or some other task for your dog to do independent of you.  If you like dog training classes, your reactive dog still has options!  You will need to think about something like nosework for her instead of a traditional group class.  Nosework classes, by design, have each dog and handler working in the training space one at a time.  In between sessions, dogs are crated or outside of the training area, allowing those whose dogs are reactive to remain at a safe distance, below their threshold.

One of those clients this weekend said she felt like she was walking around in her neighborhood with a scarlet "A" on her chest for her aggressive dog. I told her to start thinking of it as an "A" for awesome as she is making great strides in getting a solid handle on her dog's aggression, taking time to watch him and understand his triggers so that she can better manage his behavior.  We're still muzzle training him as well, but he is doing quite well overall, as are the other handful of leash reactive dogs I'm working with right now.

Progress takes patience and consistency and a willingness to learn new techniques. I'm grateful to those clients who let me guide them on their journey.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Not all dogs love other dogs and that's okay.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

How to Walk a Senior Dog

I had a wonderful appointment over the weekend with a client and her senior dog.  Her veterinarian had suggested she meet with me to specifically discuss how to help her senior dog get the most out of their daily exercise. When the owner told me this, I found it fascinating!  I'd never had a vet recommend me for that before.  When I met with the client, it became quite clear why her veterinarian had suggested the meeting.  This senior dog was having a really hard time on leash and the owner was quite frustrated.  Neither of them were enjoying their walks and quality of life was becoming an issue.

We started our appointment at the owner's home.  I wanted to observe her with her dog and get a better idea of their relationship.  After just a few minutes it was clear that her dog is starting to experience some of the early signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, basically senility in a dog.  Her dog was doing some pacing throughout the day and having accidents in her house which she attributed to the dog not getting out for walks enough. However, when she gets the leash out for walks, her dog often hides or avoids putting the leash on. For senior dogs, regardless of size, I prefer a harness over leashing them to a collar. Senior dogs often have joint pain, arthritis, disc disease, etc., so leashes pulling at their neck can be uncomfortable.  In addition, a lot of senior dogs have failing vision, so if they stumble or lose their footing, getting yanked at their neck can be disconcerting to say the least.  A body harness works great, or even an easy walk style harness will do.  Next, you want to make sure your leash is 6-8 feet in length.  You need enough leash to give your meandering, senior dog room to safely sniff and explore, even if they are lagging behind you on that walk.  While the quality of the walk (i.e. how much they are allowed to sniff and explore) is top priority for all dogs, really emphasizing that the purpose of the walk for a senior dog IS to sniff, explore, and stretch their legs, NOT walk a specific distance or meet a certain amount of time outdoors.  Senior dogs do not need to walk as far, nor be out for as long as they did when they were younger.  What they need is an opportunity to take in the smells at their own pace. If you let them sniff, they fill their brains with all of that information, and are quite satisfied when they get home, ready for a well-deserved nap.

I had brought a harness with me to our appointment and I gently put the harness on my client's dog, telling the dog how wonderful he was and giving him treats for letting me do so.  He wagged his tail and smiled with an almost toothless grin.  His owner indicated that he's never just stood there when she leashed him up and I reminded her that I wasn't attaching a collar to his neck, but rather gently putting a harness around his shoulders and upper body, while rubbing those areas as well; plus, I was giving him treats, something she'd not done in years!  Once we attached the 8 foot leash, we headed out the door...and stopped.  The owner was at the end of her driveway before she realized that we were still on the doorstep!  You see, her dog had stopped to look around, so I had stopped too.  His nose was in the air and he was sniffing away, eyes closed, face to the sun.  I did the same and remarked to him that the sun felt good.  The owner came back and asked what on earth we were doing and I told her we were enjoying our walk.  She laughed and said, "But you haven't gone 10 steps yet!"  This is when I reminded her that this was her dog's walk, not mine.  I was letting him set the pace.  We slowly made our way across the lawn with her dog sniffing all the way.  The owner indicated she usually headed straight for her driveway as her dog could "take forever just sniffing his own front lawn!" Time for a gentle reminder that this is the whole reason we were outside; this walk was for her dog's enjoyment, and not something to just check off of her to-do list.  I talked to her dog as he stopped to sniff some flowers, as he pawed at some leaves, and as he avidly sniffed the crack in the sidewalk.  I pointed out how lovely her neighbor's roses were, the dead snake her dog had found in the bushes, and asked her if she'd seen the grass poking up through that crack in the sidewalk.  She'd seen none of these things. She'd missed the hummingbirds, the cat hiding in the bushes, and the half eaten bag of chips we'd found as we walked.  It took us 15 minutes to walk a block and a half.  At this point, I could see her dog was really slowing down.  He was sniffing still, but not as much, and his gait was getting awkward; he even stumbled a couple of times in spite of our slow pace.  It was time to head home.  It took us almost 30 minutes to get back home.  We had to stop a lot.  I offered her dog a few treats and some love on those pit stops, but we made it home.  The owner was flustered.  How in the world could her dog get any exercise out of that walk?  She felt like she wanted to scream and just haul him home.

I took off the harness at his water dish and gave him a few pats.  Within minutes of getting home, he was passed out at our feet.  At this point, I reviewed the walk, breaking it down from her elderly dog's point of view.  All of the joy in that walk came from sniffing on a loose leash.  Quality over quantity.  For the humans on these walks, I can only suggest that you try to enjoy them as well.  Try sniffing the air, the flowers, etc.  Look around, take it all in.  Slow down and just watch what's going on around you.  Don't talk on your phone or mindlessly scroll through your social media feeds.  Stay present.  Talk to your dog.  Pet them.  Get excited about the things they get excited about.  Fake it until you feel the joy in these moments for real.  Bottom line?  That dog won't live forever and every day with your senior dog is a gift. Don't waste it.  

I love all of Alexandra Horowitz's books and recommend them frequently to clients looking to better understand their dogs.  I'll leave you with a quote from her book, Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell:  "Take a breath (through the nose, please)...By following the dog's lead, we can learn from him about what we are missing--some of which is beyond our ability to sense, and some of which we simply need a guide to see."

Let your dogs be your guides.  Excellent advice.  

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

My Desi is a senior dog too; he will be 12 next month.  
His walks have gotten markedly shorter in length and less frequent,
 but he still enjoys a good sniff in the company of his family.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

We Really Don't Deserve Dogs

Last week, I blogged about behaviors by humans that dogs don't really love, but many put up with, in the name of keeping the peace and pleasing those humans (and increasing their social media followers!). Several people messaged me saying that we really don't deserve dogs and I think that's worth discussing further.

Dogs and humans have been co-evolving for over 30,000 years. I've referred to this as a symbiotic relationship, but it truly does go deeper than that.  They are such an important part of human society around the world.

"Coevolution entails biological influences among species, and reciprocal entanglements between culture and biology "(Durham, W.H. 1991 Coevolution. Stanford University Press). 

"Dog-human coevolution is based on intimate cooperation..." (Ellen, R. 1999 Categories of Animality and Canine Abuse. Anthropos 94:57-68).

Dogs are marvels of adaptation.  Biologists define adaptation as "the mechanism by which organisms adjust to new environments or to changes in their current environment." And just think of all of the environments that dogs have adapted to living and thriving in.  We see dogs living in high-rise apartments, navigating elevators to get outside to relieve themselves.  We see dogs guiding blind humans so that they can safely move from place to place. We see herding dogs responding to whistle notes and moving livestock accordingly. We see street dogs confidently approaching unfamiliar humans in the hopes of a handout for themselves or other pack members.  And, yes, we see dogs on sofas and in handbags, wearing expensive collars, nail polish, sunglasses, and booties.  As they say, "it's a living."

The fact that any dog can be dropped into one of these environments and thrive is stunning.  While it may not be ideal by the standards of some, I've seen a Malamute living in a studio apartment and a Chihuahua living in a 15,000 square foot home.  While it might seem that those two dogs would have been happier if they'd switched living environments, the truth is that both of those dogs were quite content and thriving right where they were.  They'd adapted to their circumstances and found their joy.

For me, the epitome of the human-animal bond are the stories of the dogs and their human handlers working in the aftermath of 9/11.  Dogs working tirelessly alongside their handlers searching for survivors, searching for bodies, providing comfort, and doing so at their own peril. The story of the two guide dogs, leading their humans and others to safety, as the towers were crumbling down, gets me every single time.  As do all of the stories of the 300 dogs who brought closure, relief, and comfort to the people around them.  Truly the best examples of adaptation, cooperation, and coevolution.

So, yes, I guess you can say we don't deserve dogs, but we should try to be worthy of their companionship and tireless assistance.  We must help them find joy and purpose in every day as their lives are short and we are all that they have.

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

Three generations of service dogs at CCI, Canine Companions for Independence.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

But He Loves It!

I hear this a lot.  When someone is hugging their dog.  Kissing their dog.  Laying on their dog.  Repeatedly tapping their nose. Handing them odd foods to eat. Letting them chase their kids around the furniture. Hovering a hand just above their heads out of reach. Usually these things are done in the name of social media, meaning they are capturing these behaviors on their phones and sharing with their friends/followers. But this is a slippery slope and the truth of the matter is this: Your dog may put up with these things, they may let you do them, but no, they don't love them at all.

After more than 30,000 years together, dogs have learned just what it takes to keep the humans happy.  They make sure we get our daily exercise, keep watch over our homes, and make us feel safe and loved.  They seem to understand that their purpose is to help us, even if that means watching us use the bathroom.  It's a symbiotic relationship, meaning a relationship that benefits both parties. We house them, feed them, and (hopefully) provide them with appropriate and sufficient enrichment and stimulation, both mental and physical.  For most dogs, their favorite form of human affection involves receiving a treat, a toy, or a walk.  Hugs, kisses, nose boops, and eating frozen lettuce are not on their short list. 

I realize that there are dogs who submit to all of these things somewhat willingly, but do I think they enjoy them?  No, not really.  I think they've learned to allow their humans to do these things simply because they know it makes the humans happy and keeps the humans engaged.  And if the human is happy, they'll (eventually) give the dog those things that make them truly happy.  Back to the definition of symbiosis, right?

So, what's my point here?  First of all, please don't put yourself or your children at risk by forcing yourself on a dog who isn't willing to participate in these interactions.  Meaning, if the dog tries to move away, looks away, licks her lips, yawns, etc., then stop right there.  Don't force a dog who is clearly saying "No!" to have to escalate to a snap, growl, or bite to get you to stop.  And if your dog does allow these interactions without any indication of stress or anxiety, then reward them for their participation in an activity that is clearly for the benefit of the humans.  Go ahead, give them a treat, a bone, or that bully stick they love.  They earned it.

Our dogs bring us great joy and I love seeing my friends and clients sharing their photos of their dogs, well, just being dogs.  And, sure, I enjoy a picture of a dog wearing a cape or a hat, just as long as that dog doesn't hate wearing those things.  As, once again, it isn't like dogs evolved to wear clothing per se. With Halloween right around the corner, I felt like I needed to say that as well.  Costumes for dogs shouldn't be a thing unless, once again, the dog doesn't mind it.  If your dog tries to escape when you're putting it on, refuses to move, or is scratching and shaking to get it off, then it's time to find another way to celebrate Halloween with your dog.  I have a pumpkin cookie recipe that I'm happy to share.

Anyway, maybe I'm just a bit cranky this week because it's been so hot.  Or maybe I'm just afraid I'm going to hear one more horror story of someone getting bit while smothering their dog with kisses.  Either way, it felt like it needed saying.  

Stay cool friends.  Share your ice with your dogs.  And, as always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

Ozzie is usually game for something like this quick, posed picture.  If he'd knocked the glasses off his head, that would have been it.  No pressure.  But, he was willing to amuse me, never offering any signs of stress or anxiety, but he definitely herded me to the treat cupboard after I snapped the photo.  Smart dog.  Symbiosis indeed.