Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Post Holiday Blues

For many people, these next couple of weeks post-holidays are fraught with depression.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 64% of people report being affected by holiday depression, particularly as the season draws to a close.  Our pets have formed very close bonds with us and are, not surprisingly, affected by our moods and feelings as well. Thus a significant number of pet owners report depression in their pets this time of year too.  Here are a few ideas for helping your pets with their post-holiday blues:

1.  Walk the dog:  Oftentimes during the holidays, we get so busy we just don't have time for a good long walk with our canine companions.  Making time post-holidays for a long walk, or even heading out for a stroll on the beach or a local hiking trail can make all the difference in the world, weather permitting, of course.

2.  Grab a flirt pole:  Whether you have a dog or a cat, a game of chase the lure is a fun way to burn off a few of those extra holiday calories and just get your heart pumping.  This is wonderful exercise for those of you stuck at home due to inclement weather.

3.  Work on a puzzle:  You know I love a good puzzle toy for dogs, but there are great puzzle toys for cats as well.  Look for Nina Ottosson puzzles for both your dogs and cats and the Trixie company makes amazing puzzles for both as well.  

4.  Stretch:  We all know that deep, focused breathing and stretching can help us to feel more relaxed and less tense. Our dogs can benefit from stretching too.  Whether you both use a bosu ball and take turns stretching on it, or you break out the yoga mat and work on your downward dog/bow posture, you'll be getting in some good stretching exercises together. 

5.  Share a snack:  Not all people food is good for our pets, but some of it is not only shareable, it's good for everyone!  You can share your banana or apple with both your cats and dogs.  If you are watching a movie, why not airpop some plain popcorn and share that with your canine and feline friends?  No butter or salt needed!

I know this time of year can be really rough. I truly hope that all of you are taking good care of yourselves and your pet companions.  As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Westley enjoys cuddles on the couch, dog-shareable snacks, and Netflix, post-holidays. 
How about you?

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Let's Talk Leashes!

Yesterday, I met with a client who has a brand new puppy.  She hasn't had a puppy in years and is really trying to do "everything right" this time around.  I genuinely appreciate her enthusiasm for the scientific approach to raising puppies. One of her questions was about leashes.  She knew she needed to start leash training early, but her puppy resisted the leash, so she stopped, figuring it was better to try introducing the leash again when I was there.  This was a terrific way to go as then I could work with her puppy and the leash ensuring right from the start that the leash was a positive thing. I know I've talked about leashes many times, but I feel like it is such an important topic for our dogs that it bears another discussion. 

There are 8000 year old images of dogs on leashes, so the use of leashes is not a new concept.  What is new is a better understanding of how to use the leash and what kind of information your dog is receiving from you when on leash. The true purpose of a leash is safety, right?  We leash our dogs so that they don't run off, wander into traffic, or impede the progress of other people going about their lives.  This means that if you are walking a dog on a public street or sidewalk, your leash should be of a length suitable to that purpose given the size of your dog.  For most dogs that means a 4 to 8 foot leash.  I do not and will not EVER endorse the use of a retractable leash for any dog or any situation.  They are dangerous and should not be used on city streets or side walks and for those who like to use them on hikes, trips to the beach, etc. I myself prefer to use a long leash of 20-30 feet for such situations; these long lines are weighted like a regular leash and don't pose the hazard that those retractable leashes inherently do.  Not to mention the fact that most dog owners using retractable leashes aren't "reeling in their dogs" when they should, putting other people and their own dogs at risk.

Once you have your 4-8 foot leash, you have to attach it to something on the dog.  Small dogs and all puppies should be on harnesses; medium and large sized dogs can still be on harnesses, but a lot of  adult dog owners prefer a collar of some sort, whether that's a martingale collar, head halter, or flat collar. The first time you walk a puppy on a leash and harness, that walk should be in your house.  Just follow your puppy, keeping the leash loose in your hand.  They will spin around, try to grab the leash, sit, and then try to run away from it.  That's all okay!  Just go along with them.  The second they calm down, bend down, show them a treat, and then  lure them a few steps to follow you.  Keep the treat right in front of their nose so their focus is on that treat, not on the leash.  After several short sessions like this, you should be able to follow your puppy around on a leash inside your house.  You can practice maneuvering around furniture obstacles, or down hallways, to perfect your walking technique in those safe spaces before you ever venture out into the real world. Don't worry so much about getting a perfect heel; focus instead on keeping your puppy on one side, not under your feet, dragging behind you, or too far out front.  Somewhere in your stride works just fine.  Make sure you are grasping the leash gently but firmly, though not white-knuckle, death-gripping it. If you put too much pressure on the leash, shortening it so the dog feels pressure on its neck/back, most dogs will resist and pull harder.  Giving them a loose leash creates less anxiety and gives your dog more room to explore and sniff, thus relieving anxiety rather than creating or fostering it.  And, yes, sniffing and exploring are two things dogs like to do out on those leashed walks!

So, back to my client and her puppy. The puppy already had a harness on when I arrived.  I bent down and offered the puppy a few licks from a high value, lickable treat.  Once the puppy was enjoying that and wanting more, I brought the leash over and laid it on the floor next to us.  The puppy sniffed the leash tentatively and that earned a lick of the treat.  When the puppy backed away from the leash, the treat went away.  At this point, I asked the puppy to sit, rewarded that behavior, and hooked on the leash, no struggle at all.  Now, I stood up and gently held the leash with two fingers and followed her puppy as she moved around the room, tentatively at first, and then with gusto when she realized I was letting her choose our route.  Once she got the hang of what a leash felt like, I bent down with my lickable treat and encouraged her to walk where I wanted to walk.  I lured her along for about 15 paces, stopped, let her have a few licks, and then waited to see what she'd do.  She sat down and looked at me as if to say, "Where to now, treat lady?" We then walked all around the room, with me holding the leash gently and the puppy bouncing along on my left checking in for treats, and then sniffing corners of the room she'd never explored before as they were outside of her x-pen.  After 5 minutes of this, I had the puppy sit, and I removed the leash.  Session #1 of leash training complete and her puppy is no longer afraid of the leash.  Even more importantly, my client now understands how she should be holding the leash, and what her role is on those leashed walks; her job is to keep her puppy safe and make the walk age-appropriately enjoyable.

Now some of you may be saying, "That's all fine and well and good as that was a puppy. What about my leash pulling adult dog who has anxiety?"  Even for those dogs, loose leash walking is still your goal.  Walk your dog in your yard, inside your house, etc.  Just as we can get our daily exercise on a treadmill not a track, so can dogs get their walking exercise walking in a safe area like your yard or home.  Obviously, there aren't as many good/novel things to sniff there, but it is safe. Plus, you can make it more interesting for your dog by setting up "Easter eggs" in the areas of your home/yard where you will be walking for your dog to find when they walk.  Basically, hide kibble or treats where you will be walking for them to discover.  Keep your leash walking sessions short and rewarding until your dog becomes less anxious about leash walking in general. 

I know there are dog owners out there who still yank their dogs around by the leash, snap/pop the leash to get their dog's head up from sniffing, and offer other harsh corrections using the leash attached to their dog. It's a wonder those dogs will still go out on a leash!  I like to think of leashes the same way I think of reins on a horse; they are there for safety and for me to guide the horse on which way I'd like to go.  If you think yanking on a horse's reins will garner you any extra favor with a horse, you're wrong.  They are big animals who can knock you right off that saddle, or stop dead in their tracks and stop moving, if your whole approach to using the reins is based in control.  Just as reins and a saddle require a relationship between the rider and the horse to be successful, so does that leash/harness or leash/collar combo.  You have a relationship with your dog that you want to be positive and pleasant and rewarding for you both.  Good relationships do not involve asserting your control or authority in a way that causes pain, confusion, or frustration.  While every dog, at one time or another, will get out to the end of their leash and have it tighten their collar or harness uncomfortably as a consequence, that feeling doesn't have to be the rule for walks, but rather just that.  A learning opportunity, a chance to teach your dog a better strategy for walking on leash that involves tangible, predictable rewards for keeping near you, on a loose leash, while still being able to sniff and explore.

I'm really looking forward to my next session with this client and her puppy.  They are a lovely pair and I'm anticipating that their relationship will do nothing but blossom as they continue to discover how much they enjoy each other.

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

This is my buddy, Loki, on a recent session together.  You can clearly see that his 6 foot leash is loose, as it's actually dragging on the ground while he sniffs.  During our training sessions together, I add in short bouts of loose leash walking so that he can take a sniff break and enjoy being a dog!

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Is Your Dog a Back Seat Driver?

I met with a client last week and her two adorable little dogs.  They are so sweet and lovable, you just want to pick them up and love on them all the time.  That is until you load them into their car seat in the car and they start barking at everything!  They bark at people, dogs, golf carts, bikes, motorcycles...well, you get the picture.  They bark nonstop in the car, making it very difficult for my client to concentrate on her driving.  Her dogs' barking has also made it so that no one wants to ride in the car with them!  She set up an appointment with me and I gathered all my tools for fixing this problem as the plan was for me to hop in the back seat with her dogs and take a ride. She told me she hoped my ear drums survived the trip!

You all know by now that I have collies.  Collies are notorious barkers.  They take their role as sentries and family guardians very seriously.  They, too, will bark in the car if you let them.  Ozzie still occasionally barks in the car when a motorcycle pulls up next to us in traffic.  Go figure.  Anyway, the thing to keep in mind is this:  While barking is a normal dog behavior, and alerting the humans to changes in the environment is an important dog job, doing so in the car is very distracting to the human occupants of the car and needs to be curbed for safety reasons.

While you may be tempted to curb the behavior by applying negatives (yelling, squirting water, no-bark collars, etc.), this really isn't the best choice.  You want riding in the car with you to be a positive experience for all involved, not anxiety provoking.  So, let's take a positive approach.

First off, secure your dog(s). Dogs should be wearing car harnesses, sitting in car seats designed for dogs, or in a secured crate.  Dogs should not be running around in the backseat, jumping from the back to the front, on your lap, or heaven forbid on the floor near the driver's feet! Dogs who fixate on movement outside the car often do best harnessed into the middle of the backseat rather than up against a window.  Those pull up, easy-to-install, window shades are also helpful.  They won't obstruct your view as the driver, but they do mute the view for your canine passengers.  Plus, they help keep the car cooler, an added benefit for your canine friends.  

Now it's time to make that spot in the car really fun by keeping your dog busy while sitting there.  Just as you might give your kids or grandkids something to play with in the car to keep them from asking a hundred times, "How long til we get there?!" you need to do the same for your dogs.  Some dogs are easily distracted with a bully stick in a holder to keep them from choking, a bone, or even a frozen Kong.  I like to take that one step further and put that frozen Kong or bone into my Kurgo treat pouch that has a fun, drawstring pouch for making it harder to get to the goodies and a little side pocket where extra treats can be tucked deep for rooting around for rewards.  If you've only ever used a treat pouch to carry treats you give your dog, then you're missing out on this second use!  This Kurgo one also has a clip and a carabiner that help to keep it anchored to the seat belt or car seat for your dog passengers.  Here is a link to the Kurgo treat pouch I use for this purpose:

For my appointment, I also wanted to show my client a way to get her passengers to actively participate in helping her dogs be less barky in the car.  By riding in the backseat, I could talk to my client as she drove and reinforce her dogs for quiet behavior.  I wasn't using traditional treats for this, but rather a high value, lickable treat that is fragrant and quickly delivered, or removed, based on their behavior.  I let the dogs see what I had (one quick lick) and we began our car ride.  As soon as I saw people, other dogs, etc., I'd offer the treat to lick (no words, just made it available).  Once the stimulus was gone, I put the cap back on the treat.  Next stimulus was a bike, out came the treat before they even thought of barking.  By now, my dog friends were watching me rather than out the window.  I petted them and loved on them, but no treats until we saw the next trigger. Now they understood. As soon as they saw that golf cart, then turned toward me and the treat was already headed their way!  They weren't being bribed into quiet behavior, just rewarded for it! My client was amazed!  She decided to "push our luck" and drive past the dog park, something she would never do as her dogs go nuts the second she gets within a block of the park.  Not only did they not bark on approach, we drove right past barking, running dogs in the park, and not a peep; her dogs just watched, happily licking the treat.  On the way home, the dogs were even laying down in their car seat, resting their heads on the arms of the car seat, instead of hyper-vigilantly looking out the window for something to bark at.  My client said it was the nicest car ride she'd had in over a year!

Going forward, she will use the Kurgo treat bag and a variety of novel yummy snacks for her car rides alone with the dogs.  When she has passengers, she can use the lickable treats.  Either way, her dogs will come to see car rides as an opportunity to go someplace fun AND have the ride itself be rewarding as well. Blissfully peaceful car rides for all!

Having the right tools for a job really does make a difference. As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Westley loves a good car ride.  He wears a harness in the car
 for safety and is never a nuisance barker. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Are Your Pets on Santa's Naughty List?

I got a call yesterday from a woman who was at her wit's end with her new kitten.  In the span of an hour, this kitten had knocked over a bag of flour, leaving little white paw prints everywhere; climbed up the Christmas tree, knocking off and breaking a handful of ornaments; chewed the ribbon off of a decorative pillow; and took off running with the bells hanging from the front door!  I (jokingly of course!) told her that it sounded like she had a pretty normal 14 week old kitten. Kittens are, by nature, inquisitive, so the experiences this owner had been having were completely normal, but potentially dangerous nonetheless.  Years ago, I had a client whose Golden Retriever puppy took a bit too much interest in a gingerbread scented candle and ended up burning himself and the table with the spilled wax!  Holiday mishaps aren't just things that happen to people with puppies and kittens; adult dogs and cats can get into trouble as well. So how can you better ensure that your pets are safe this holiday season?

First and foremost, never leave your pets unattended in a room with lit candles, filled candy dishes, or readily available people food.  All of these things smell good and are often novel for our pets, thus attracting their attention.  While it is certainly worthwhile to teach your pets leave it and drop it, now is not the time to test how well they absorbed those lessons.

If you put up a Christmas tree, best to put it up in a room that isn't a high traffic area for your pets and thus a huge draw for them to explore. No flocked trees and don't put tinsel of any kind on your tree as that's a choking hazard.  Keep non-breakable, non-edible ornaments within reaching distance of your pets.  Save those candy canes and glass ornaments for the sturdy branches near the top of the tree.  If you have a cat who climbs your tree, make sure the stand is steady and can support their added weight.  Only use cool-to-the-touch lights and keep those lights tight on the branches to reduce the risk of strangulation, and only decorate your tree with cat-safe ornaments.  One of my cat-owning clients has fully embraced her tree climbers by putting up two trees in her house.  The one in her formal living room has all the family heirloom ornaments on it and the gifts beneath it, and is safely shut behind glass French doors when no one is in the room.  The other tree is in her family room and covered in fun cat and dog themed ornaments, all made of wood or fabric with nothing on them that can be swallowed.  There are no gifts under that tree, just a fuzzy tree skirt that her cats and dog love to lay on.  While I have certainly seen homes where people just put up an x-pen around their tree to keep it safe from the family dog, this will not keep out an inquisitive cat!  Those gifts under the tree can be hazardous as well if they contain food.  And watch those ribbons as they are beautiful, but also a choking hazard. Resist the urge to put anything in your tree stand other than water.  If your pet takes a sip or a paw dip, you want them to just come up with plain water.

I saw a client last week who has a recently mobile toddler and a puppy.  She told me she's considering no tree at all this year because her toddler is already trying to climb the drapes with the puppy not far behind!  I told her she can still decorate, she just needs to do so with an eye toward what she can put up that is safe at this stage of her child's (and her puppy's) development.  This is the year for decorative throw pillows, cute floor rugs without fringe, festive artwork on the walls, and decorations on her fireplace mantel. This is not the year for snow globes, candy dishes, or breakable ornaments.

I love poinsettia plants, but I only ever keep them on my front porch, away from collie noses.  Keep mistletoe out of the reach of pets, as well as that beautiful amaryllis plant or holly, if you have pets who are curious about the plants you bring indoors. 

Finally, resist the urge to take your pets to sit with Santa, put antlers or blinking lights on their heads, or put them in silly holiday sweaters IF they hate wearing them.  There are a lot of dogs and cats who are game for these holiday shenanigans, particularly if there are treats involved, but there are equally as many who hate wearing anything at all and doing so creates unnecessary stress for them. 

Don't worry if the neighbor's tree is prettier than yours because they don't have pets in the house.  And don't feel jealous of your friend whose kids are too old to pull down the decorations or eat handfuls of holiday candy when you're not looking.  Your children will be grown up soon enough.  Enjoy your pets and your children at whatever stage they are in.  Make those necessary adjustments to your holiday decor to keep them safe.  And by all means DO decorate if that's what you like to do.  The holidays are a time to celebrate and enjoy.  Just make them safe and fun for everyone in your family. 

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

These three have never minded wearing holiday garb. Probably because they know wearing it gets them extra attention and yummy snacks!