Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Holiday Season is Officially Here!

This may not come as a surprise to you like it did me, but there are just 18 days until Hanukkah and 25 days until Christmas.  It's like one moment I was selecting pumpkins and the next I was stressing out about Christmas cards. Can you relate?  I'm, once again, not ready for the holiday season.  I love this time of year, but I also find it incredibly anxiety provoking.  Apparently, I'm not alone. I've already received a dozen calls/emails from pet parents needing assistance "before December __ when family arrive for the holidays."  While I am happy to provide guidance to these folks, I also know that it is more than likely that the issues they are facing won't be "fixed" by that looming date on their respective calendars.  

You see, anxiety is often at the root of the problems for which people seek my assistance.  Anxiety requires understanding, accommodations, and adjustments to our behavior, as well as our pet's. It can't be solved with a pill, a crate, or a trip to a board and train.  While anti-anxiety medication might help, it takes weeks/months to reach an efficacious level in a pet's brain and body.  While crates are helpful, you can't crate an anxiously aggressive dog for 10 days while you have guests in your home.  And while sending a dog off to boot camp may feel like you're killing two birds with one stone (getting them training and having someone else watch them for you), dogs returning from board and train situations often come home with more problems than they started with.

I don't want these new clients to feel discouraged, but I do want to be honest with them.  We aren't going to fix everything in one session.  What we can do in that first session, however, is come up with an action plan of what needs to be done to reduce their pet's anxiety and make the holidays a bit less stressful for all concerned.  I've been doing this a long time (over 30 years!), so I am nothing other than realistic with my clients.  I'll help them reach their goals, but it will take work and more time than those 18 to 25 days before the holidays hit us like a freight train. 

Here's the other thing I know about the holidays.  I'm not the only human who feels stressed out and anxious this time of year.  And I KNOW my own stress is felt by my dogs.  Ozzie often becomes extra-clingy this time of year as he tries to help me accomplish my tasks; he is my shadow, a daily reminder to take walks, drink water, and pet the dog. Understanding that our own attitudes and coping strategies affect our pets' behavior is important too when you're trying to come up with a way to make it better for them!

So, here's my advice for you, the humans.  Walk your dogs.  Take frequent breaks.  Drink lots of water (especially if it's flavored with coffee or tea!). Nourish you body with yummy foods, bonus for those foods your pets can have too (pumpkin, apples, pears, a bite of gingerbread!). Relax, even if it's just for a few moments; petting a dog or cat is good for them and for you. Prioritize what you need to accomplish and be realistic about what you can actually get done.  

And if what you need to prioritize is help for your pet, then I'm here for you.  If they jump on guests, bark at visitors, freak out over the holiday lights and decor, forget how to use their litterbox, or pull on the leash to greet everyone, let's get on those issues now.  If your pet is anxious, experiencing issues related to fear or aggression, let's start working on those as well.  No need to make those issues your New Year's resolutions when we can start tackling them together now.

I love that the woman I spoke to this morning told me how afraid she was to call me, but now feels nothing but hope. She said she couldn't believe I'd made her laugh and smile, when she'd dialed my number practically in tears.  I'm going to consider that a win right out of the gate.  She's now in a better head space for us to work with her challenging dog.  Bringing hope to pet owners is definitely part of my job and one I take seriously (though I do like making people laugh as well).

Let's try to go into this holiday season with joy in our hearts and patience for each other and for the pets in our families.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me. 

And if you, too,  need a smile or a giggle, here's Ozzie, dressed up as Santa's little helper.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Look Who's Talking!

Back in August,  a pet insurance company sponsored a poll where they asked about 2000 American pet owners questions regarding communication with their pets.  It was a small poll, but I really enjoyed some of the answers.  Here's a link to an article which summarizes the poll results nicely:

Given our long history of co-evolution with dogs, it's not surprising that 78% of poll respondents felt that if animals could speak, dogs would be the first to do so, versus the 60% who thought it would be cats who spoke first.  What was amusing to me were the 53% who felt their pets would have a certain tone or inflection when they spoke, not that they wouldn't necessarily speak with the accent or inflection of the owner themselves. So many of us already talk to our animals, and answer for them, using the tone/inflection etc. that we think they would use with us. While these results were fun to think about, I really enjoyed where they got down to the "brass tacks" of pet guardianship, so to speak.

If our pets could talk to us, what would we most like to know?  Personally, I'd really like to be able to have a definitive answer as to how my senior dog, Desi, is feeling every day. If he could tell me, I wouldn't have to rely so heavily on observing his behavior with us, with Ozzie, and with other people he interacts with. Interestingly enough, only 58% of poll respondents wanted to know how their pets feel, and almost an equal amount felt their pets would tell others private information!  61% of respondents felt having their pets be able to speak would be valuable in terms of telling us their food preferences. I don't know about you, but I don't need my dogs to speak in order to know their food preferences!  They are pretty definitive on that front. I love that some pet owners thought their pets might say insulting things to other people or just wouldn't stop talking.  Honestly, I'd never given this much thought, but I have a hard time seeing most of the dogs or cats I know running off at the mouth or making rude comments.  I like to think that my dogs have a sense of humor, so if they were rude, they'd read the room and knock it off.

All kidding aside, it's nice to know that 68% of the poll respondents felt that they knew what their pet was trying to convey to them. I'm surprised this number isn't higher though, particularly among dog owners.  Again, all of this co-evolution with dogs means that dogs have gotten really savvy at letting the humans around them know what they need/want/desire.  Dogs will, quite literally, stare at their empty bowl and then the refrigerator.  Or walk over to the treat cupboard, stare at it, then stare at you.  Even my cat owning clients tell me stories of their cats standing on their chests in the morning if they don't get up and feed them breakfast. In order to "hear" our pets, all we really need to do is observe them.  The fact that it took the average respondent 3.5 years to learn to understand their own pet is kind of shocking to me. That means for that animal's entire puppyhood/kittenhood and adolescence, their humans were hit or miss for understanding their needs.

We live in a digital world where you can literally ask a question on your phone or computer and have it immediately answered, whether that answer is factual or not. You can type "why does my dog whine in his sleep?" and you will literally get 2 million results in less than one second. Knowing where to go for answers is the first step and the internet isn't always your pet's best option.  Much better to ask your veterinarian, your favorite dog trainer, or pick up a book written by a reputable source. If you need book recommendations, just ask!

I like to think of myself as a keen observer of all things animal-related.  I've spent literally years of my life studying dogs and cats, observing them, listening to them tell me what's wrong via their behavior.  This means I can understand what your pet is telling you, even though they aren't using words, funny accents, or inflections.  They are using their body language and behavior to tell me, and you, how they feel, what they think, and what they need.  Just watch them.

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

I'm pretty sure you know what Ozzie and Desi are telling me.  Their eyes and attention say it all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Our Post-Covid Pets

Last week, my daughter sent me the link to an article in the New York Times wellness section on pet anxiety.  She said she was sending this my way so I could see what, and I quote, "the lay public is reading and doing for their pets."  First of all, how awesome is it that one of my kids read something and thought of me?  Makes me happy just thinking about it.  And second, that she'd send me something so relevant and worth exploring further?  Brilliant.  So, here's the link to the article she sent me if you want to read it as well:

One of the big takeaways from this article for me was something the author discovered through her research and that is the fact that pet owners are getting better at recognizing that their pets are anxious AND they are seeking ways to reduce that anxiety. It isn't so much that pets weren't anxious in the past, or pre-COVID, for instance.  Pets, like people, have always experienced anxiety; we are just getting better at recognizing it AND wanting to treat the problem.  My veterinarian friends tell me that they have more clients presenting them with anxious pets than ever before, likely because those pet owners were home more during COVID lockdowns and thus watching their pets more and picking up on behaviors they likely missed when they were gone all day. So, it isn't that those COVID lockdowns created the anxiety per se, it's more likely that they just made existing problems rooted in anxiety more apparent.  

I also appreciated how the author shared some of the behaviors exhibited by anxious animals.  I often point some of these behaviors out to clients during appointments and they are amazed, often telling me they'd noticed those behaviors before, but didn't know that they were associated with anxiety.  Dogs and cats will yawn, vigorously scratch, smack their lips, obsessively groom, etc. when they feel anxious.  Yes, tired animals yawn, animals with allergies scratch and over-groom as well.  It's the frequency of those behaviors and the situations in which they occur that makes it different.  

While the author of this piece does mention a couple of over the counter solutions, as well as a handful that are by prescription, this wasn't the focus of the article, and in fact, she was smart to point readers to their veterinarian's office first before trying anything. There are so many products available out there and it IS important to choose wisely.  While I am a huge proponent of CBD for dogs and cats, where applicable, I always suggest that owners have their pet's blood work assessed by their veterinarian first, just to make sure there are no underlying medical issues that could be contributing to the behavior or that could make giving the pet CBD unwise. And when it comes to more traditional anti-anxiety medications, there are so many options, it really does take time and experience to help point veterinarians and their pet-owning clients in the right direction.  While Prozac may work great for one anxious dog, it may be a poor choice for another.  And that reactive dog who acts up at veterinary appointments may be given a prescription for Trazodone, only to discover that it makes that pet so sedated that their reactive behavior is actually made worse.  If you do have to go the route of a prescription-only medication for your pet, definitely talk through all of the options!  

Finally, I love that the author finished her piece talking about desensitization to the vet's office and building her dog up to  cooperative care in that setting, with or without drugs on board to do so. Kudos to her vet for suggesting that desensitization.  It's tedious, but it does make a big difference.  None of us are as anxious about places we've been to repeatedly as we are about rolling up to new or unknown situations.  Experiences, especially positive or even neutral ones, in a veterinary setting, make that setting less anxiety provoking for our pets when there is something major going on and they need treatment.

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

Anxiety does not look the same in every dog.  Ozzie has situational anxiety which I manage with behavioral modification, confidence building exercises, and occasionally CBD.  He is not anxious at the vet's office as he's been practicing cooperative care his whole life.  But big social situations?  That will trigger his anxiety for sure.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Dazed and Confused

No, not the film from the early 90's, but rather how my new client felt after her last appointment with her dog trainer. She called her veterinarian and told him about the work she'd been doing with the dog trainer and he told her to stop immediately and call me.  This really panicked her and she was practically hyperventilating when she called me and left me a message.  If there's one thing I'm good at though, it's talking people down off the ledge. When we connected, I asked her to take a deep breath and tell me what happened that led to that call to the vet and then to me. She agreed to me sharing her story as she felt like she couldn't be the only person who'd experienced this (she's definitely not!) and she hopes it saves someone else from having to go through all of this themselves.  

My client unknowingly acquired a puppy mill dog.  She thought she was getting an older puppy that a breeder had decided not to keep, when in actuality, she was getting a puppy mill dog who'd likely been used as a breeder unsuccessfully, and then sent on to a puppy broker for sale. My client had no idea what a puppy broker even was until after she'd already gotten the dog and started having issues and couldn't get any feedback from the person she'd purchased the dog from.  The dog in question, an 11 month old female Havanese, was incredibly fearful and disengaged, was toileting all over the client's house, was terrified of the leash, and was unable to follow basic directives like sit, down, or come.  At this point, she reached out for help to a local person who billed themselves as providing "balanced dog training services." Like most people, my client equated balanced with a positive approach (much like a balanced diet), one which would take into consideration all of her dog's needs and personality and thus be balanced in how the dog was treated. She quickly discovered after a few sessions with this trainer that her definition of balanced and positive, and the trainer's definition, were two different things. 

Balanced dog trainers believe in an approach that utilizes both reward-based techniques and aversive consequences (punishment). What most people don't realize is that punishment can come in two forms, positive and negative. Positive punishment is the addition of something after the behavior in question that results in the dog doing that behavior with decreased frequency. Negative punishment involves removing a reinforcing item after the undesirable behavior in an effort to decrease the frequency of that behavior. In the realm of human behavior, an easy example of the difference would be spanking a kid who misbehaves (positive punishment) or taking away his Playstation (negative punishment).  So what happened with my client's dog?

The trainer put the dog on a pinch collar and 4 foot leash and proceeded to use leash corrections ("popping" the leash so the collar tightened) anytime the dog resisted walking.  At one point the dog had curled up and was being dragged with the pinch collar and leash.  In addition, the trainer had suggested an e-collar to "speed up the basic obedience training" and, frankly, I don't even want to tell you what the suggestion was for the housetraining issues. I honestly thought everyone at this point knew that shoving a dog's nose in excrement doesn't teach them not to poop in the house.  No wonder her veterinarian sent her my way; this dog and owner were at a crisis point.  While the dog had been afraid and disengaged, she had never been aggressive.  After two sessions with the dog trainer, the dog was becoming snappy and growly and the trainer was suggesting "cranking up the e-collar" in response to those behaviors.  Again, something positive alright, positive punishment. My client didn't realize that punishment would be the trainer's solution for the issues she was having, nor did she understand why the trainer kept referring to them as positive methods.

I felt awful for this owner and this dog.  She'd spent a great deal of money on this trainer and still had remaining sessions that she'd prepaid for.  Truly hoping she'll be able to get her money back. Nonetheless, we had our work cut out for us as now her dog didn't trust her and sure as heck wasn't going to trust me at the outset.  I sat on the floor, not making eye contact, and tossing treats away from me, until the dog finally approached me for a tentative sniff. I extended my hand and dropped a treat, and then another, until finally the dog was in front of me.  I gently scratched the dog's chest and she sat.  I told her "good sit" and gave her a big treat.  Her ears went back, she dropped her head, and started to retreat at the word "sit," but she ended up not moving away.  She was definitely expecting a shock for breaking the sit, which she didn't of course receive from me.  I scratched her chest again, she sat, I repeated "good sit," and handed her an even bigger treat to chew on.  She held the sit, but kept a close watch on me.  It took the full hour and a bag full of treats, but I got this little dog to trust me not to shock her for slow responses.  The second session, we started again with the treat toss game which she clearly enjoyed and remembered.  I had brought a 6 foot leash with me, which I dropped at my feet for her to sniff.  She definitely was suspicious.  I told the owner that I wanted to build up to a nice, soft harness for her dog, but we'd start with a leash and flat collar, no pulling.  I had the dog drag the leash around the house while we played recall games and worked on her basics.  By the third session, I could follow the dog around the owner's yard while holding the leash.  At the slightest leash tension, she'd panic, so I kept the leash as loose as possible and followed the dog around, encouraging sniffing by dropping treats to find.  I had given the owner homework to do to start from square one on the housetraining issues and by that third session, the dog was having very few accidents in the house and was able to toilet outside on the schedule we'd come up with for her. The owner and I plan to meet once a month going forward just to continue to assess her dog's progress with what the owner refers to as my "gentle reprogramming." I love that. Reprogramming.  I definitely feel like this dog came from a less than ideal situation (puppy mill) then went into a rigorous, punishment-based training program that basically just shut her down.  We do need to reprogram her to see people as kind, providing structure and guidance and consequences that the dog can understand.  She still acts like the food puzzles we're giving her are punishment as well, so we'll have to keep working on that.  This dog needs to build her confidence with new tasks and those puzzles use treats she loves, but she frustrates and gives up very easily.  No big surprise there.  My client is patient, though, and happy to see her little dog start to wag that tail instead of tucking in, and not shy away from loving handling.  Another work in progress for sure.

My client is now kicking herself for not listening to her instincts and stopping this aversive training program at that first session.  Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Dogs are pliable and forgiving, and they do want to please us, but this dog had never had humans around in a truly positive manner, so it was like starting from the beginning all over again, building trust, setting up boundaries, and working on cooperative care.  My client is all the wiser now, knowing why she'll never get a dog through a broker again AND why she'll listen to her heart when choosing anyone to care for or help her with her dog.  If it feels wrong, it is wrong.

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

This dog most certainly did not need a pinch collar or an e-collar.  What she needed was a better understanding of why we were putting a leash on her and all the great things she'd get to do once she learned to walk on a leash fear-free.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

When Well-Meaning is Just Plain Mean

I had a client burst into tears this week.  Not because of something I'd said (thank goodness!), but something her neighbor had said to her about her dog.  You see, my client's dog barks.  He barks at squirrels on the fence, people who walk past the house, and anytime someone rings the doorbell.  Truly, all normal and understandable reasons to bark, from a dog's point of view.  So what's the problem?  My client's neighbor is retired and home all the time. She isn't a dog lover (her own words) and she thinks dogs shouldn't bark.  This neighbor is making my client's life hellish with her less than helpful comments and outright malice toward the dog in question. My client was actually thinking of moving, it's gotten that contentious. Luckily, my client's sister had worked with me a few years ago to help with her barking dog, so she recommended that I get involved.

Dogs bark.  This is a suburban neighborhood where it is considered normal and acceptable for dogs to bark between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm, as long as those dogs are not barking for more than 15 minutes straight.  I know all of this because I looked it up.  We set up cameras so that we could watch and listen to my client's dog throughout the day.  We wanted to make sure that the dog wasn't experiencing separation anxiety or some other stressor that was causing him to bark unnecessarily.  We also wanted to be able to figure out exactly how much barking he was actually doing while my client is at work.  We discovered that her dog barks when he hears delivery trucks passing the house, solicitors ringing the doorbell, and when he sees/chases squirrels and birds in the yard.  He never barked for more than a minute and a half at any point.  And that bark that lasted a minute and a half?  That was directed at the shared fence with the retired neighbor who was literally standing at her side of the fence yelling at the dog and banging on the fence!  My client was floored to discover that her neighbor was actually part of the problem.  We are hanging on to all of this video footage in case my client needs it later.  In the meantime, I suggested blocking off that section of her yard so that the dog can't approach that shared portion of fence.  I also suggested putting up a security light that shines right at that area of the fence so when her neighbor approaches it to tease the dog, she gets hit with a spotlight or motion activated sprinklers that shoot in that direction. Just as we need to keep the dog away from the fence, we also need the neighbor to get out of the bushes there and quit teasing the dog.   We also added in some fun interactive feeding toys on timers which is helping to keep this young dog active, engaged, and wanting to stay indoors more.  Finally, we worked on what to do when he barks when she's home so that we make sure he understands how long and when it's okay to bark.

This is not the first client I've worked with who's been harassed by a neighbor, family member, or friend with regard to a pet's behavior.  Advice is one of those things that shouldn't be given unless you've been asked for it.  Telling someone that they "should" or "need" to fix a behavior problem their pet is experiencing isn't helpful; they know there's a problem and being told again is not helpful. If they ask for advice or help, by all means make some suggestions, just make sure those suggestions are based on scientifically supported methods, that don't focus on punishment or punitive solutions, and that are kind to the human and the pet involved. And finally, don't make hurtful statements like "no one is going to want to come over here unless you..."  Guilting someone into getting help never works.  

I know I've said it a million times, but we really do need to be kind to one another.  Just because you don't like dogs (or a certain breed of dog) doesn't give you carte blanche to take jabs at your neighbor who does.  Don't like the neighbor's cat coming into your yard and using it as a litterbox?  Don't run around bashing that neighbor to the other neighbors, or worse yet, take it out on the cat. Instead, approach the cat's owner directly.  Tell them what their cat is doing and give them the opportunity to correct the problem.  No need to be mean or derogatory about the cat; it's the toileting behavior that is the problem.

The holidays are rapidly approaching, so I know a lot of you will have family and friends visiting you in the coming months.  Some of those folks may make less that helpful comments about your pets, or even say hurtful things about them.  This reflects on them and has more to do with them that it does you.  I'm happy to help you work on some of those issues before the holidays get here so that you can say with confidence and poise, "I know and I'm working on it." Nobody's perfect and some folks just need to be reminded of that.

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

If you visit my house, you will be greeted with enthusiastic barking, nudges for lovies, and you will leave covered in dog hair.  They don't pester guests, but they do participate in family gatherings because they ARE family.