Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Gingerbread Time!

I'm taking the week off to spend with my kids who are home for the holidays.  So for this week's blog, I just wanted to share with you my favorite recipe for gingerbread cookies that are safe for dogs, super yummy, and definitely collie-approved.  So break out the holiday cookie cutters and whip up a batch that will last your dogs through the New Year!

Gingerbread Cookies (yields about 60 mini-gingerbread men)

  • 2 cups oat flour (plus more for rolling surface)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup organic pumpkin
  • 2 tbsp molasses 
Directions:  Mix together your dry ingredients (oat flour through ginger) using a wire whisk.  Add in the eggs, pumpkin, and molasses, stirring with a large spoon to form the dough.  Let the dough sit for about 20 minutes in your refrigerator before rolling it out on a lightly floured surface.  Roll out dough to about a 1/4 inch thickness and cut out your shapes. Place gingerbread cookies on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes depending on the thickness and size of your cookies.  Be sure to flip the cookies halfway through for evenness and to prevent overcooking. 

Store in an airtight container. Enjoy!

Waiting patiently to lick the spoon!

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Home for the Holidays

I know a lot of you are having family and friends in your homes over the holidays. Some of you will have these folks staying with you, while others will be hosting parties, gatherings, and general festivities.  All of this is lovely to think about and definitely something to look forward to.  It can be, however, an incredibly stressful time of year for pet owners. There are a lot of pets who do not enjoy this time of year at all, finding the scented candles, forbidden foods, dangerous plants, trees in the house, shiny ribbons, glass ornaments, and constantly ringing doorbells very anxiety provoking indeed.  And it isn't just puppies and kittens having a hard time; adult animals and senior pets can also be easily overwhelmed by all of this disruption and chaos.  So, what can you do to help your pets survive and thrive during the holidays?

First and foremost, know your pets. If your pets are social butterflies, then maybe they can be part of the festivities.  If, however, they are a bit too social, charging out the front door, jumping on guests, sniffing crotches, and nosing packages, then they might not be able to handle all of the holiday experiences.  It may be the case that they can enjoy the quieter activities such as movie or game nights, or be allowed to socialize but on leash and under someone's watchful eye.  Remind your guests not to give tidbits of what they are eating to your pets.  While it is certainly true that one little bite of cheese or a nibble of cookie might not hurt your pet, 20 little nibbles from a roomful of friendly guests is likely to upset their stomachs. And if your guests have brought you poinsettia plants, mistletoe or holly, keep those plants well away from your curious pets.  It goes without saying that you'll want to keep an eye on lit candles and forego tinsel on your tree, particularly if you have cats. 

For those pets who are more introverted or those who have anxiety-based issues such as fear or aggression, it will be safest for all involved if you just keep them in another room (safely tucked away in their crate if they are crate-trained) and let your guests know to keep that door closed.  This is not cruel in the slightest.  Your anxious pets will be relieved not to have to deal with people that they don't know trying to engage them, or worse yet, trying to decide if that person reaching for them is a threat!  Don't think of this as punishing your pet, rather think of this as the kindest thing you can do for them.  Give them fun things to do in that room and check on them regularly.  Use fans, white noise machines, or a TV to provide background white noise in the space.  Use food puzzles, bones, etc. to keep them occupied.  And don't hesitate to use those CBD drops, Thundershirts, or DAP collars as well. If your pet needs more than these holistic remedies, consider speaking with your veterinarian about other options for treating situational anxiety.

Finally, for those of you whose pets are fine with guests, don't surf tables or sniff crotches, and can be trusted not to drink the spiked eggnog or nose the burning candle, it's still a good idea to build in breaks away from the festivities for them that you enforce.  Don't wait for them to tell you that they're tired, just assume after an hour or so of visiting, they'll want some down time.  Make sure they have access to their crate or their favorite bed or perch and remind guests to leave them be if they are there, particularly children.  

Last but not least, keep to your pet's regular schedule as much as possible.  Those morning walks, evening strolls, or both are good for everyone.  Invite your guests to join you, if you like, but I often find that walks alone with my dogs are the perfect quiet time I need before I begin socializing for the day.  Feed your pets at their usual feeding times, and don't forget to use those interactive puzzles and games for stress relief and boredom busting. 

I wish you and your pets nothing but success as you move through the holiday season.  And, as always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Despite what the pillow says, Desi was always the perfect
 gentleman at holiday gatherings. 
We'll miss his calm presence this year!

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Keeping the Faith

Recently, I was interviewed regarding my thoughts on grief and loss from a pet's perspective and a pet owner's.  Losing a family member is incredibly difficult and for most of us, that loss and grief is the same even if the family member is a pet. Platitudes like "it was just a dog/cat" or "you'll get over it" or "just get a new dog/cat" aren't helpful.  What is helpful is surrounding yourself with people who understand your grief.  And if you don't have anyone to fill that role, reaching out to one of the pet loss support groups in your community can help. For the humans, here is a resource for you to keep handy. It's the phone number for the National Pet Loss Hotline, 855-352-LOVE. And for your grieving pets, speak to your veterinarian or reach out to me as we can help them with their grieving process.  

There isn't any one "right" way to approach grief; it looks different for each person and is closely tied to the relationship you had with the person or pet who has passed away.  You may even feel some guilt about your relief that they've passed away and that's normal too.  No one wants our families, friends, or pets to suffer, so often their passing is associated with a sense of relief, which then brings on enormous guilt. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to have conversations about your feelings, and about the loved one you've lost.  Share stories, both the funny ones and the painful ones.  Sharing those stories helps keep that loved one you've lost alive in your memories and reminds you of the times when they were free of pain, disease, etc. Let out your emotions, share your anger, despair, and pain with those you trust the most.  And if you don't have people in your life who give you the space to safely do that, find a mental health professional who will listen and guide you through the grief process.  No one should have to grieve alone.

For your pets who are grieving, keep them on their favored schedules.  Keep feeding times, walks, play time, etc. on the usual, predictable schedule.  Changes to that schedule create anxiety for our pets.  Those walks and playtime provide much needed exercise and fresh air for you both.  Remember that petting your animals helps lower your blood pressure and calm your breathing rate while doing the same for your pets. That symbiotic relationship between you and your surviving pet is worth celebrating with a walk, with a pat, or with a cookie. 

Yes, it's true, things do get better.  We do get to the point where we don't burst into tears every time we talk about our loved ones who've passed, but it's still not easy. It's just different living in a world where they are no longer residing. I still miss my heart dog, Shadow, who passed away in 1999.  She may have been gone for almost 25 years, but her memory lives on in my mind (and in the many photos of her on my walls), and I have shared stories of her with my children so that they, too, will know how special she was to me.  I am a true believer that I will see her again someday, waiting at the Rainbow Bridge, with my other beloved dogs and family members who passed before me.  I'm pretty sure she'll let me know that she was taking care of everyone til I got there, something she did when she was alive as well.  She was a Border Collie after all and we know what good managers they are.

The holiday season can be rough for a lot of people and the world is a confusing place right now.  My hope for you is that you will find peace and joy in the smallest of things, those purrs from your cats, those licks and cuddles from your dogs, those nuzzles from your horses, and the hugs from your friends and family. Take care of yourselves.

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

Christmas 1993. My beloved grandmother and Shadow are both gone now, but that apron she made me lives on.  I think I even have those ridiculous red hoop earring somewhere too, in case you were wondering!

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!

Well, the angels might be singing, but I sure know a lot of puppies who aren't listening to them...LOL.  For many dog owners living with puppies between 4-6 months of age, this not listening phase is quite frustrating.  I'm here to tell you the phase is short (usually a couple of weeks or so), BUT whether your puppy responds to you going forward depends a lot on how you deal with your frustration during this normal phase of their development. 

First, let's start with why this "not listening" thing can be seen as a good thing.  Your puppy is feeling confident, brave enough to explore beyond the usual boundaries, including the boundaries of your voice and directions for them. Developmentally, this age in wild canids like wolves, coyotes, wild dogs, etc. is associated with the beginning of independent exploration, away from the den and the watchful eye of the dam. For your puppies, it's quite similar; they are looking to explore their world with a bit more freedom and independence than they've previously shown. Those 8 week old puppies that didn't want to let you out of their sight, are now hardly looking back as they explore the far reaches of your yard, or the full length of their leash. So what are you supposed to do when your puppy ignores you?  Well, you most certainly don't want to let them get away with that! If you do, that just sets you up for future issues with attentiveness to your directives and overall responsiveness.

When that puppy ignores you, you have to step up your game AND you need to anticipate this behavior before it happens.  So, while you might be tempted to let that 4-6 month old puppy roam leash-less in your yard, don't.  Put a long line on them instead; this gives them some freedom to explore, but a tether for you to gently tug on if they don't respond when you call them back. You don't want to yank on the line as they'll just resist. Instead, put a small amount of pressure on it and call them.  Don't say "come," necessarily, as you don't want to make coming to you seem negative to your puppy. Instead, whistle, clap your hands, bend down and make kissy sounds, etc. all while tugging gently on the line. I like to wiggle my fingers too as that seems irresistible to a lot of the puppies I meet.  Even if they are slow to get to you, throw them a tickertape parade with lots of love and some high value rewards as well when they get to you. Now, and this is important, let them wander off again.  You see, you want them to understand that coming to you doesn't necessarily mean the end of fun exploration away from you, it just means that they have to check in periodically.  If you practice this long line recall every time you take your puppy outside, you can work up to doing the same thing at the park, during a little league game, etc. What this reinforces is that coming to you and checking in is always a good idea. And, yes, sometimes you'll be reeling them in and taking them home, but not every time.  Your puppy learns that check-ins are smart, that they don't mean the end of fun, AND that they will always be rewarded for doing so.

I'll just go ahead and say it.  Some breeds are better listeners than others.  If you have a hound, for example, and they are hot on the trail of a rabbit they just chased into the bushes, no amount of calling or tugging is going to get them out of there.  Just go collect your puppy at the end of that line and start again. Some dogs, regardless of age, never can be trusted to be off leash safely.  They just don't have reliable recall.  Whether that's because they got in the habit of ignoring their owners as puppies and their owners allowed that behavior, or because they are a breed bred for independent thinking, either way, they stay on leash (or a long line) forever, for their safety and your peace of mind.  There is no hard and fast rule that every dog has to have off leash time to be a well-adjusted member of canine society. Some dogs, in fact, are just safer kept on leash.

Henley is a good listener. We've worked on the long line and off leash in my own yard.  He knows there will be rewards even if he's slow and he's certainly tested that theory more than once. It does help that he has Ozzie who comes every single time I call him as his guide in life.  Ozzie can be off leash and out of my sight and if I whistle, he comes running.  Every single time.  And that's why he's earned off leash time on forest hikes; he's a reliable hiking companion. Whether Henley gets to that level of reliability remains to be seen. He's only 8 months old and he's got a lot of maturation left to do.  Ozzie and I are ever hopeful.

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

Here's Desi, off leash, at our neighborhood park when he was about 4 years old. He had great recall, always coming back when called. He was never speedy about it, but he always came back, even if there were squirrels, wild turkeys, or people he wanted to greet. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Preponderance of Fear Aggression

I used to see just a couple of cases of fear aggression every few months.  Now, post-COVID, I see a couple of cases every week. The number of fear aggressive dogs has increased worldwide, seeming to indicate that those dogs born and raised during COVID lockdown and experiencing a lack of socialization with groups of people and other dogs during that time period, are having trouble adapting to this post-COVID world where they are now walked in busy public spaces and taken out of their homes and their comfort zones.  It's also the case that these COVID dogs are now old enough to breed, so we are now seeing puppies born to under-socialized COVID-raised mothers having (inherited) issues in fear and fear aggression.

Fear aggression is typically a defensive behavior by design, meant to move people or other dogs away from the fearful dog. Those growls, lip curls, and whale-eyes, while backing away, are meant to communicate "Stay Away!"  Unfortunately, however,  these signals often go unheeded, putting these dogs on the offensive and making aggression (and potentially a bite) imminent. Fear aggression is about a dog perceiving a threat; the threat does not have to be real, just perceived to be so. For these dogs, it is very difficult to teach them that their fears are unfounded. And for some dogs, their fears are real, meaning they don't want you to touch their feet/nails because someone grabbed their feet and cut their nails so short they bled, for example. 

Fear aggressive dogs look very different than, say, dogs with status aggression or resource guarding aggression. They are often so scared that they freeze, defecate, urinate, or express their anal glands while trying to escape. Their heads are low, bodies low, tails tucked, etc.  While you may see a low tail or a frozen body posture with other forms of aggression, you certainly won't see that unloading of the bowels! The big difference and the one that often gets people into trouble is recognizing the difference between a fearful dog and a fearfully aggressive dog until it is too late.  So, a dog who is afraid will back up, cower, and tuck their tail to avoid confrontation, but if you reach for them, they will not vocalize aggressively or snap/bite you.  Reaching for a dog who is afraid is never a good idea; reaching for a dog who is a fear aggressor is an even worse idea.  So what can you do?

First and foremost, you have to avoid putting the dog into those situations that trigger the fear and aggression.  If it's the groomer, skip the groomer.  Your vet?  You'll obviously need to work on that, but not taking them to the vet until you can work on the fear and aggression is key. For dogs afraid of strangers and/or other dogs, don't walk them where there are other people or dogs!  You can exercise them at home and it's less risky. Basically, all situations where the dog might be fearfully aggressive must be avoided until you can slowly desensitize your dog to those scenarios. Fearfully aggressive dogs must be counter-conditioned to view previously provocative situations as non-threatening.  You do this by starting at a distance from their triggers and teaching them to exhibit or engage in a behavior that runs counter to their fear.  So, instead of backing away or cowering, you teach them to sit close to you, for example.  The process will be slow, but worth it, as you watch your dog gain confidence and overcome their fears in a safe, predictable environment that you control for them. 

For safety reasons, never corner a fear aggressor, instead call or lure them out. Give them a safe space, however, and let them go there whenever they feel overwhelmed. It goes without saying that fearfully aggressive dogs should not be physically punished as that will just reinforce their fears. Never tell them that it's okay or that they are alright; they aren't okay and doing so just reinforces the fear. Instead, provide a safe haven for them, ask for that counter-conditioned behavior, and reward them for doing that. It's also true that many fearfully aggressive dogs require anti-anxiety medication to fully achieve counter-conditioning long term. 

While your friends and family may be "dog people" and want to help you with your fearfully aggressive dog, it's in everyone's best interest if you protect your dog from these well-meaning folks. Remember, fearfully aggressive dogs are behaving abnormally; they are just as afraid of gentle approaches as they are of unfriendly approaches. Instead, keep your dog in their crate or in another room with something fun to do. They won't see this as punishment but as a reprieve from a situation that will trigger them to behave fearfully.  And if you must have your dog with you in a provocative situation, muzzle train them so that you keep them and others safe.  Remember, though, your fearfully aggressive dog is still afraid while muzzled, they simply can't bite anyone.  You still need to work with them to keep them under threshold. 

My hope is that I will see fewer and fewer fearfully aggressive puppies and dogs as we move further away from the short term effects of the pandemic.  If there's one thing I learned from the pandemic it's that people and dogs need to see and engage other people and dogs, even if it's just exchanging pleasantries as you pass them on the street.  Avoidance fuels anxiety and fear in all of us.

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

Does this dog look scared to you? Rather than finding out the hard way by walking over there, hovering over him or reaching for him, just call him.  Crouch at a distance, body facing away from him, and call him in a friendly manner. If he isn't afraid AND if he WANTS to interact, he'll get up and come to you.  Reward that with some gentle pets and a tasty treat, thus reminding this dog, afraid or not, that you represent safety and all things that are good and predictable in this world.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Tis The Season

Well, the holidays are upon us whether we're ready or not and that means lots of pressure for pet owners. Pressure to make sure our dogs don't jump on anyone uninvited. Pressure to make sure they aren't table surfing, or worse yet, sampling off of plates on laps.  Pressure to make sure our cats aren't walking on the kitchen counter prep area and that the litter boxes are clean. While we hope our family and friends will understand that this is our house and that the pets live here year round, we do want those people visiting us to feel comfortable.  At the same time, however, we don't want our pets to feel left out and more importantly we don't want to feel judged.  There's nothing that takes the holiday spirit out of a pet owner faster than being judged.

My wish for you this holiday season is that your family and friends will see the hard work you've put into helping your pet companions thrive.  That they will see you working on your dog's barking, or your cat's furniture scratching behavior and complement you on your progress rather than criticize you for not having it "fixed." They need to embrace the fact that you are a pet owner and dogs do bark and cats do scratch and that's normal behavior for their species.  You would not have chosen a dog companion if you didn't expect them to bark, nor would you have chosen a cat if you didn't expect to have to teach them where to scratch. These are hard concepts for non-pet owners to understand.  The rest of us totally get it. So if no one tells you this holiday season, you know what? You're doing great! I see you making headway with your dogs and cats and I appreciate your efforts.

Look, I have an 8 month old puppy right now.  He's made huge progress but he's not perfect. Yet.  Hey, I've still got a month before Christmas so a girl can dream.  Just kidding. He won't be perfect then either, whatever perfect really means.  You see, he's perfect to me and he's becoming such a delightful companion, walking nicely on leash, only occasionally trying to chase the neighbor's cats now.  He rarely barks and when he does it's because he genuinely heard or saw something important.  He still eats the fruit and veggies in my garden, but at least he doesn't eat the furniture or my shoes.  He would like to sit at the table when people are eating, but he will go lay on his bed if asked.  Twice.  You need to ask him twice.  Still, that's progress.  He does try to jump on people, so he'll be wearing his collar and leash when guests arrive, but that's okay.  My friends and family accept that he's still a puppy.  An over 50 lb. puppy, but a puppy nonetheless.

It's also a good time to remember that letting your dog chill out in another room with something fun to chew on, or letting them hang out in their crate with a bone, are perfectly acceptable solutions to some common holiday woes.  If your dog hasn't mastered not bolting out an open doorway as guests enter, jumping up, table surfing, etc., then placing them in another room or in their crate is fine. It's safer for them and less stressful for you.  And if it's possible to keep them on leash, tethered to you, that's a viable option as well.  Now, if your dog is afraid of new people or aggressive, then you simply must put them somewhere else when you have guests.  It's your job to keep them under threshold for unwanted behaviors that put them (and you!) at risk.  Rather than having those out-of-town guests stay with you and your fearful or aggressive dog, instead suggest a local hotel or an Airbnb for their safety and comfort.  You can still get together at your house, confining your dog when they do, but the guests staying elsewhere means your dog won't have to be confined the entire length of their visit, thus making guests a big negative for them.  If you haven't already done so with your aggressive dog, now is the time to muzzle train them.  Muzzle training them means that they can be on leash and muzzled anytime they aren't confined. This makes it easier and safer for guests who are staying in your home. Muzzle training doesn't make you a bad dog owner or them a bad dog; it's a tool that can be used to increase safety and provide a reactive dog with an obvious on/off switch.

It goes without saying that your well-mannered, social butterfly cats and dogs will need to be watched as well.  You see, they are going to be the ones receiving often unnecessary or unsafe handouts from well-meaning friends and family as a reward for their "good behavior."  While one little piece of skinless turkey won't hurt a dog or cat, several pieces will definitely upset their stomach and it's not like guests will be tracking who gave your pet a tidbit and who didn't.  And your dog/cat sure as heck isn't going to tell, right up until the point they feel ill and begin experiencing vomiting or diarrhea!

Finally, I hope you take the time to enjoy the holiday season.  We all get so rushed trying to get everything done and make it all perfect that we forget to to enjoy the moment.  Pets are good at reminding us to relax, take a break, and play.  So, walk the dog, cuddle your kitty, and play with all of your pets. It's good for you and it's good for them.  Stress relief in the form of a nice boost of serotonin and a bit of dopamine for good measure.  Tell those judgy friends and relatives that your pets are good for your mental health, I'll back you up on that.

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

Henley is ready to party!

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

When Labels Do More Harm Than Good

I taught a class last weekend for new pet assisted therapy animals and their humans.  After class, one of the new volunteers commented on how much she appreciated it when I said "it isn't that jumping up is bad, it's just that it isn't appropriate for pet therapy animals on visits." She said she'd been told numerous times that her dog was "badly behaved," had "poor impulse control," and "needed to be taught who's in charge."  These comments had come from friends and family, as well as a couple of dog trainers.  I was saddened by this, but I can't say that I was shocked.  I've worked with many clients who've been told similar things (or worse) by those they've approached for help, guidance, and support.  

But see, here's the thing.  What I said is true. Whether you're talking about a dog who jumps up, a dog who surfs counters, a dog who barks a the mailman, a dog who chases squirrels, or a dog who pulls on the leash, all of those behaviors are normal dog behaviors.  Dogs jump up in joy or to get a better vantage point. Dogs surf counters because there is food there.  Dogs bark at the mailman because he's invading their territory.  Same goes for those pesky squirrels.  And we know already that dogs pull on the leash to get to the next sniff because we've talked about that many times.  Now, I understand that YOU may not want your dog jumping up or counter surfing, and that's okay. I can help you with that.  But don't succumb to labeling your dog as bad or poorly behaved, lacking impulse control, for doing those things.  He's just being a dog. It's our job as their guardians to teach them boundaries and limits as defined by us and our living situation.  You've all heard the phrase "my house, my rules." Well, that applies to dogs too.  Just because I don't allow my dogs on the couch doesn't mean your dog is bad if he gets up on yours. It simply means that the rules at your house are different than mine.  And guests to your home need to understand that they will be sharing the sofa with your canine companion and that doesn't make the dog bad or poorly behaved.  He's just following your rules.

In pet therapy class, I let the new volunteers know what behaviors are unacceptable in terms of being successful pet therapists.  I don't just tell them "don't let your dog jump on people," I also tell them how they can get a handle on that behavior now so that it won't keep them from being able to participate.  All of our pets are leashed for therapy visits, so simply standing on the leash of a bouncy dog helps them to understand that jumping up doesn't work there.  Same goes for dogs who paw for attention; that may be something you are okay with at home and that you reinforce by petting your dog whenever he paws you, but we can't allow pawing for attention on therapy visits. So, I ask owners of the pawing dogs to simply place their forearm across their dog's front legs during petting to keep those legs from coming up and pawing a patient for attention. Dogs who paw for attention aren't bad dogs; they are just dogs who are allowed to do that behavior and while you may hate it, their owner clearly doesn't as the dog has been allowed to do it all the time!

So, my friends, be careful labeling dogs (or their owners) when you are out and about.  Just because that dog is jumping up on someone for an ear ruffle and love doesn't make him a bad dog. It simply means that he and that human he's jumping up on are enjoying their interaction.  And for those of us who don't like being jumped on, we can simply ask our friends with the bouncy dogs to stand on those leashes so that we may greet their dogs with four feet solidly planted on the floor.  

And all of this is really important as the holidays are rapidly approaching and you'll have family and friends visiting your home and your dogs.  Make sure your guests know the house rules with regard to your dogs.  If they don't want to share the couch with the dog, then maybe they should sit in a chair instead!  And if they don't want the dog sleeping with them in your guest room, then they can shut their door.  It's as simple as that.  

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

Here's my granddog, Westley, at my daughter's house where he's allowed on all of the furniture.  At my house, I have a "no dogs on the couch" rule as my new couch is small and there's not enough room for the people AND all of the dogs.  Westley knows that it's "grandma's house, grandma's rules" and he doesn't even try to get up there anymore.  He's not a "bad dog" for trying to get up there the first couple of times he visited me with the new couch.  He simply needed to learn the new rule. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Please Be Kind

Last Sunday, I held my dog walking tutorial at the park.  It went swimmingly well and I think everyone benefited from being there.  One of the participants reached out after the tutorial to tell me how panicked she'd been beforehand, almost to the point of not showing up and making an excuse for her absence, but then decided to at least show up and see how it goes. You see, she has a "challenging" dog.  Or at least everyone around her is telling her that her dog is challenging.  She's been working really hard to help her dog be less anxious in social situations, to enjoy walks, etc.  And yet, her family, her neighbors, and even a few of her friends keep telling her that her dog "still needs work."  Well, I'm here to tell you, first of all, we can all use a little work, can't we?  And second, comments like this are not well-meaning, nor are they helpful or kind.  All those comments have done are make my client feel like she's not doing enough for her dog, when it's actually quite the contrary; she's doing so much for her dog and it shows!  She and her dog did great in the class and I was thrilled with her progress and told her as much.  

The whole point of teaching this dog walking tutorial was to offer an opportunity for a group of dog owners to get together in a non-judgmental, supportive environment, and work together on their leash handling skills, ability to move around other people and other dogs, and expose their dogs to children playing, bikes, scooters, etc. in a controlled setting, and under my watchful eye.  I chose the participants for this class based not just on my knowledge of their dogs, but on their ability to be kind and caring with each other.  I knew that a couple of the dog owners attending this tutorial were going to be way out of their comfort zone.  I wanted them to know that every other dog owner around them has had similar experiences.  I had them practice exchanging pleasantries as they passed each other, learn to say no to friendly strangers who wanted to pet their dog, and what to do when children charge at you unattended.  We problem solved approaches from off leash dogs when your dog is on leash, and we even worked around picnickers and food.  Everyone left class with a better sense of how much they've accomplished and a few pointers on what they can do to make their walks even better in the future.

When I saw two people exchange contact information after class to set up a walk together again sometime soon, that's when I knew this tutorial had been a success.  Folks came to learn but walked away with the confidence to step out of their comfort zone and hit the park again without me there cheering them on.  As any good coach knows, you teach the skills and then you let your students soar.  One person asked if I'd do another tutorial in a few months to assess progress and make further recommendations, and I think that might be a fun thing to do a reunion, of sorts!  Do I think this group really needs it?  Not at all.  But if they want to work together again, I am happy to facilitate that and provide guidance.  No matter what, they all know now that kindness can be found among strangers.

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

Just me with some dog friends and their guardians on a lovely day to walk
 and work in the park.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Play Time!

I had such fun on Sunday, overseeing a first playdate between dogs belonging to two of my favorite clients.  Both have young, large breed dogs and were looking to set up a playdate that would be safe and fun.  I was happy to introduce them, knowing that their dogs would get along really well and have fun together, but I promised to attend the playdate, just to make sure it all went well, and it did.

I love talking with people about play behavior; it was the topic of my dissertation research in fact!  Play is important to normal growth and development for many animals, and the value of good play cannot be emphasized enough.  Good play helps build confidence, problem solving skills, and sociability. Good play is not necessarily synonymous with large group experiences; some of the best play you will ever observe will be between two participants, whether those two participants are children, dogs, or birds.

Those of you who know me or have been reading my blog for a long time, know how much I dislike dog parks. I feel like I need to explain again why that is the case.  You see, back in the late 90's when dog parks were really taking off, I was invited to be at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the brand new dog park in Alameda.  It was a beautiful park and they'd incorporated so many of the features in their design that I thought were important in a park made for dogs, including signage that indicated who should (and who should not) be using the dog park.  It wasn't a year later that the sign was gone and the park had become a very different place, one that wasn't all that safe for the dogs using it.  After visiting a few other Bay Area dog parks with clients whose dogs used them regularly, I discovered that the problems I'd seen at the park in Alameda were not unique to that park; problems at the dog park seemed universal.  There were people taking dogs there who were aggressive; there were dogs there who were bullies; there were people on their phones not watching their dogs; there were kids running around in the dog park; there were toys being thrown (and guarded) by dogs; there were filthy communal water bowls; there were older dogs who clearly wanted to be anywhere but there; there were young dogs who wanted to be anywhere but there; and there were dog owners who clearly knew nothing about basic dog body language or behavior, letting their dogs' behavior influence the experiences of others.  I always became overwhelmed, frustrated, and upset when I went to the dog park with clients to the point where I tried really hard to never have to go!

Now, I know some of you regularly use dog parks and love them and that's great. I also have clients who simply get together at local school fields at certain times of day to let their dogs run together.  Me? I love a good playdate in someone's backyard.  Whether it's two dogs or more, I feel like playing in a yard is an environment that can be better controlled.  You know all the players, you know their owners, and you've established that the physical space is safe for play.  In a dog park, anyone can join in on your dogs' playtime and those dogs joining in may be unsafe and you may not realize that that's the case until it's too late.  I've had many a client tell me that they had to leave the dog park after their dog was repeatedly bullied or attacked by another dog, all while that other dog's owner was telling them that it was fine and "that's just how dogs are."  I'm here to tell you, that's NOT how dogs are; most dogs are not aggressive, nor are they bullies. But some dogs clearly are and for whatever reason their owners are taking them to the dog park and allowing them to behave badly.  I'm not okay with that.

One of the many benefits of attending a puppy class with your new puppy is that you will meet other puppy owners. I always encourage the people in my puppy classes to exchange numbers and email addresses so that they can set up playdates between classes and after classes are over with. I want those owners I've educated on what makes good play to continue to give their puppies those opportunities to play in a safe environment.  And for many of the puppies who don't enjoy playing in puppy class because it's too many puppies off leash etc., they do end up enjoying those smaller playdates, one on one, as they can play without getting overwhelmed.  And that feels safer to me than any dog park.

My almost 8 month old puppy, Henley, attended puppy classes where he fit in best with the bigger, older, rowdier puppies. That's his personality and I have to find him playmates who match his energy level and enthusiasm for tag, chase, and barking while running in circles.  Luckily, he has a young "cousin," my friend's male French Bulldog, Argon, and those two run around like lunatics, playing hard and being a pair of goofy boys, until we tell them enough and make them take a break.  They play hard.  Ozzie is not a fan of this kind of energy, so I don't take him to these playdates.  While Henley and Ozzie do play together, it's different than when Henley plays with other puppies his age, or with his Frenchie cousin. Henley is getting all kinds of play opportunities, including play with me.  He's developing into a very confident, outgoing, fun-loving dog. He needs to play and I need to make sure that need is filled, but I'll not be filling it at a dog park. I know too much about dog behavior and body language and I'd drive everyone there nuts!

I'll finish up a dog play seminar this Saturday and my hope is that the participants in that seminar will now have a much better idea on what constitutes good play, and what doesn't, and thus be better observers of behavior when they use their local dog parks. You need to feel confident enough to step in and step up on behalf of your dog if someone else's dog is behaving in an unsafe manner.  You need to tell that other dog owner that bullying is not, in fact, normal dog behavior and they need to collect their dog and get that dog under threshold or leave the park.  That other dog owner will likely not take that advice well, so you may just want to leash your dog and leave the park instead.  But you do need to stop it.  The number of times I've treated dogs repeatedly bullied to the point that they are fearful and/or aggressive around other dogs is too numerous to count.  Don't risk your dog's behavior and well-being by forcing them to stay in an unsafe "play" environment.  I've often used this analogy with parents/grandparents:  You wouldn't allow your kids/grandkids to play on a playground where they were being repeatedly beat up or bullied, so why are you letting that happen to your dog?  They are family members too!

Henley has a playdate coming up with someone who was in his puppy class and I hope to have time to set up another play date with his "cousin" soon.  In the meantime, he and Ozzie are running around the yard together at full speed and they are having a good time. I'm monitoring them to make sure it continues to be fun for them both.  Why? Because that's the right thing to do for both of my dogs.

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

Here they are mid-chase!  Henley is bowing to indicate he's still interested in the game and Ozzie is looking back at him right before he takes off to the left, straight through my flowers and tomato plants!

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Compliance Versus Defiance

I had an interesting conversation with a client yesterday. She was frustrated with her adolescent dog's behavior.  He just keeps counter-surfing, jumping on people, and pulling on the leash when she walks him.  She indicated that he "knows what he's supposed to do," and that he's "just so defiant."  You know me, I'm not a big fan of labels like stubborn, defiant, willful, etc.  For some reason, folks always think of those things as negative.  Maybe I'm just sensitive to it because my lovely daughter was also described as "stubborn, defiant, and willful" as a child, and I know she turned out terrific!  But I digress. 

I asked this client what type of consequences she had established for her dog when he did these things. For example, did he get redirected when he jumped on people?  Or were people actually encouraging the behavior by repeatedly telling him "off!," grabbing his feet and shoving him away, or even letting him do it and rewarding him for it by petting him?  Well, turns out that her dog has been getting mixed signals. Her husband pats his chest for the dog to jump up on him and her teenage son likes to grab the dog's feet when he jumps up.  Hmm.  Sounds like that dog isn't defiant so much as he's smart!  He's learned that jumping up gets him attention in some fashion, so there is clearly no motivation to change his behavior as far as he's concerned.  And the counter surfing?  Well, yes, they'd been telling the dog to get down off the counter when they caught him up there, BUT they were still leaving food out on those counters unattended.  And they expected him not to try to get those goodies when they were out of the room?  That's crazy!  This dog has been able to reinforce himself with his counter surfing more times than you can imagine.  As far as the leash pulling situation goes, she'd basically been shortening her leash and attaching it to a prong collar as a means to keep him from pulling, but of course he still was, and gasping for air to boot.  So, where were the well-defined, easy-to-understand consequences for this dog to get him to WANT to stop jumping up, counter surfing, and pulling on the leash?  Or to use my client's word: How could she get him to be more compliant?

Dogs actually like rules and structure.  If you don't show them those boundaries and the consequences for pushing them, they have no reason to change their behavior.  Dogs who jump up should be on leash for all greetings.  That's a consequence.  Standing on the leash to prevent them from jumping up.  That's a consequence.  Putting them in another room if they can't stay in their place when guests arrive and get settled.  That time out is a consequence and all of these consequences are things dogs will understand and respond to.  Counter surfing dogs have no business in the kitchen unsupervised.  They should only be in there when you can have them practicing a sit or down in place away from food prep areas (and the added bonus consequence of getting moved further away if they don't stay in their place). When you can't supervise that stay in place because you need to leave the room, take the dog with you or shut them out of the kitchen. No more free access is a consequence they can understand.  Now, leash pulling.  We've talked about this many times.  Shortening the leash just triggers dogs to pull because they've got so much tension in the leash, they are trying to create breathing room.  And attaching a short leash to a pinch collar means your dog is just going to be triggered to pull and gasp and hate walking with you. Instead, try a head halter, no-pull harness, or martingale collar, attached to a 6-8 foot leash.  When your dog pulls, stop walking. That's a consequence they can understand; if they pull you, then the walk stops.  Bring them back to you, have them sit or stand at your side, and start walking again. Encourage them to sniff, look around, etc., basically behaviors that run counter to pulling. Give them enough leash to comfortably sniff.  If they try to pull you to the next sniffing area, JUST STOP WALKING. You can stand on the leash and ignore them.  Basically, a public time out until they notice you've stopped walking and talking to them.  When they make eye contact with you, bring them back to your side, ask for a sit, and try again.  Yes, this makes for a slow and tedious walk at first, but if you use treats to lure your dog along, it really isn't that bad, and it beats being dragged down the street.

So, now my client knows what consequences her dog will understand in order to be "compliant and not defiant."  I still don't think of him as defiant though; I see him as a pretty typical adolescent dog who has been given way too much freedom and inconsistent reinforcement to know what he should be doing.  As my grandmother used to say, you get more flies with honey than vinegar.  Break out the treats and the praise (and take those things away when needed!) as these are consequences dogs (and kids for that matter) understand. 

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

Henley would like me to throw Eeyore so he can play fetch. You can see him pleading with his eyes, but he's not jumping up on me, shoving me with the toy, or pawing at me. He's learned that doing any of those behaviors only results in me ignoring him.  If he stands quietly near my desk, however, I will notice him being very good and waiting, and then I will take a break and toss that toy.  Consequences my 7 month old puppy can easily understand!

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Join Me For a Dog Walking Tutorial!

I'm excited to announce that I will be doing a one hour, dog walking class with a select group of dog owners!  We are likely to do this more than once, so if you can't make it the first time around, I'll try to set up a second outing.  This tutorial will be held on the weekend, likely a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to accommodate the most people and pups.  Here are the details on who can join me and how to sign up:

1.  No aggressive dogs this time around, please.  We will have some impressionable puppies on these walks, recent graduates of my puppy class.  We want them to have a positive group walking experience!

2.  Any aged dog is welcome!  If you are coming with a puppy, please make sure your veterinarian is okay with you bringing him or her to a group event.

3.  Multiple humans welcome!  If more than one person in your family walks your dog, please feel free to have them join you.

4.  Yes, if you are a multi-dog household, all of your dogs can attend, you will just need to have one human for each canine and sign them up individually to participate.

5.  We will be meeting at a centrally located park in the East Bay, just a few minutes off of Hwy 680.  I've chosen this park because it has shade, grass, trees, walking trails, ample parking, and lots of activity for us to work around. Specific details and directions to the park will be sent out to the participants once they've signed up.

6.  All dogs will need to be on 6-8 foot leashes, non-retractable. Any collar or harness is fine, but if you haven't found the right one yet, bring everything you have and we will try to figure out what will work best!  

7. Definitely bring treats (high value and low value, as defined by your dog, of course).

8. We will start our meetup with introductions and a warm up exercise.  When you arrive, please stand on your dog's leash to keep them from pulling and give each other space to group together comfortably.

We will be together for an hour which will actually be a lot for your dogs, so bring water!  We will talk about expectations versus reality when it comes to walking dogs (they want to sniff, and you want to walk!).  We will practice maneuvering around obstacles and each other, how to pass other humans with and without dogs, and how to stand and have a conversation with someone without your dog getting antsy or losing their mind! We will practice polite behavior around bicycles, skateboards, etc. and learn how to keep our dogs from jumping on people they meet, tangling us in the leash, and pulling us down the street.  We will focus on lure training, that is luring our dogs into the behaviors we'd like them to demonstrate.

Finally, you don't have to be an existing client of mine to be able to participate in this experience.  If you know me, follow me on social media, or are a friend of someone I know, that's great!  The more the merrier and I love working with new people. 

To sign up, simply comment on this post or message me through Facebook, Instagram, or Threads. You can also just email my office directly, and I'll add you to my list. I think this will be a fun, productive, and entertaining way to kick off the holiday season.  My plan is to get this under your belts the beginning of November before you get really busy, and then do a second group walk after the New Year.  Hope to see you there!

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

Here's Henley, post-walk, taking some quiet time to chew on a bone, loose leash visible, while I visit with a friend and have a cup of coffee.  We've been working toward this moment for months and he's getting really good at chilling out and hanging out without constantly pestering me for attention.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Yes, there are only 75 days until Christmas, but that's not what I'm talking about today.  What I want to talk about is what dogs hear and how we can tap into our own abilities to truly hear what's going on around us.  We can learn a lot from dogs and being able to intentionally listen to the world around them is one of their greatest skills.

Dogs can hear sounds four times further away than we can, they can hear higher frequency sounds than us, and they are much better at differentiating sounds than we are.  They are also able to move their ears (unless we've altered those ears for them!) in such a way that they can better locate where sounds are coming from. What this means for us as their caretakers is that we need to respect and acknowledge that they know way more about what's going on around them than we do.

When your dog barks, they are barking for a reason; they heard something.  Now, what they heard may not be all that important to you, but letting you know they heard it, is important to them.  It's actually part of their job and one of those key reasons early humans invited canids into their campsites.  It's your job to let your dog know you appreciate the heads up and then let them know that was enough, no need to persist in barking.  One of the benefits of doing it this way every time your dog barks is that if something bad/distressing/dangerous is happening and your dog barks, you aren't going to tell them enough/quiet. In fact, you are going to hope that they bark so loud and so long that they scare away whatever it was that triggered the barking in the first place, and if not, that their sounding of the alarm will bring assistance your way.  

So, your dog is digging up your yard and you can't figure out what's the trigger? Consider that it might be burrowing animals!  Dogs can hear those pesky moles, gophers, etc. digging under your yards and gardens.  When they hear them, they want to catch them and often will dig several holes as the pests try to escape their intrepid canine hunters.  And if you see one of those telltale mounds of dirt in your yard, that's those pests pushing up the turf to get to your garden, not your dog digging.  Pick up some of that dog excrement your dog just made and put it in the holes dug by those pests.  They are repelled by it and maybe your dog will stop digging there as well!

Have some fun learning just how amazing your own dog's hearing really is.  Put your dog in a sit or down in the other room. Hide from them in a closet or a room behind a closed door.  Quietly say their name or call them.  How long does it take them to find you?  Do you think they used that amazing hearing, or did they sniff you out, or both?  Research shows that most dogs love this game and are delighted to play it with their owners, whose voices and requests are familiar and rewarding, and are less enthusiastic about playing it with unfamiliar people. 

Another fun game for you and your dog:  The next time you're on a walk and spot a park bench, go ahead and stop. Have your dog relax near you, close your eyes, and just listen.  Force yourself to hone in on just what you hear.  You have to focus on just the sounds and trust your dog to stay near you.  Now imagine how loud that truck must be for your dog; how annoying that human talking on their cell phone; how stimulating that buzzing bee; and how scary that motorized scooter that just whizzed by. What you will take away from this exercise is an appreciation for how hearing and experiencing these everyday sounds the way your dog does must be rather overwhelming at times. 

And finally, don't bother purchasing those ultrasonic rodent and insect repellents for your home.  Not only does research show that they don't work, but the high frequency sounds they emit are very annoying to your dog and hard to get away from if you've got those things plugged in all over your house.  Again, just because you can't hear it doesn't mean your canine companions can't.

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

With ears like this, I'm pretty sure Henley hears things happening on Mars!

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Knowing How to Listen

There's a famous quote by Orhan Pamuk I've always loved and that I've used as an intro slide for my seminars on dog body language and communication.  Here's the quote:  "Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen."  So, why am I bringing this up now? Glad you asked! You see, knowing how to listen to dogs is a skill we can all use and one we can hone, becoming better at it the more we lean in to what our dogs (and other people's dogs) are telling us.  Here are a few examples where listening to dogs aided me in guiding their owners to the appropriate solution.

The Problem:  My Dog Hates Putting On His Leash. I asked the owner to show me.  He reached for his dog's collar to hook on the leash, and as he did so, I saw the dog wince and turn away.  I asked the owner to stop and give the dog a moment.  The dog licked her lips, scratched at her collar, and then gave a full body shake before looking at me intently.  I took the collar off and put a simple harness on the dog.  She didn't resist the harness, instead showing interest as I offered her treats while I fitted it properly.  I attached the leash without issue to the front of the harness; the dog did not wince, look away, or show any other signs of distress.  We walked out the front door, and around the block without any issues, until I handed the leash to the owner.  Now the dog began looking back at her owner, licking her lips when he pulled on the leash.  I had him stop, hand me the leash, and watch me walk his dog.  I gave her enough leash to sniff, redirecting her with my voice and treats rather than pulling.  When we got back to their house, I removed the leash without issue.  Then, I asked the owner to observe closely as I removed the harness.  When I pulled the harness over the dog's neck, I applied a small amount of pressure.  She stiffened, winced, and looked away.  I stopped let her scratch and shake, and then I offered her treats while I widened the harness and lifted it away from her neck.  She was fine.  Have you figured out what this dog was saying?  She was saying her neck hurt; the leash attached to the collar made it worse.  Pulling on the leash on walks with her made it infinitely worse, to the point where she didn't want to go for walks.  I recommended a trip to the vet to see if there was more to her neck pain and lo and behold, she had early disc disease in her neck.  The solution?  Anti-inflammatory medication and walks on a loose leash with a soft harness, no collars.  Pain is often the reason a dog is behaving in a "stubborn," "confrontational," or "reactive" way.  Rule out pain first.

The Problem:  My Dog Gets Nervous Around Other Dogs. I asked the owner to meet with me at a local park at a time when the park would be little used.  I told her that I would bring one of my own dogs to use as a "trigger" so that I could observe her dog and make recommendations.  I figured that way, the owner would feel less stressed about meeting, knowing that the dog her dog would see would be one of my trusted collies. I brought Desi for this appointment since he is incredibly relaxed and refuses to engage other dogs who bark, whine, or pull toward him.  I saw the client standing with her dog as I pulled up in my car.  She looked really stressed out to me, with her leash so short the dog's front feet were practically off of the ground!  I unloaded Desi and asked him to sit next to me; we were about 30 feet away from the client and her dog at this point.  I waved and smiled and gave her a greeting, letting her know that Desi and I were going to approach. I also asked her to either loosen up on that leash or stand on it instead so I could better observe her dog.  She loosened it about 3 inches, but the leash was still taut and the dog was still straining. I stopped, had Desi sit again, and asked her to go ahead and just stand on the leash.  She began to panic and indicate that she didn't think that would be safe for her dog or for Desi.  I reiterated that we'd be fine and just give it a try.  I could see she wanted to resist, but she dropped her leash, standing on it, giving the dog about 2 feet of leash to work with.  I coached the owner to unfold her arms and either keep them at her sides or behind her back.  She fisted her hands at her sides, something her dog was clearly watching!  I reiterated that she needed to also be relaxed, so I had her take a couple of deep breaths, roll and square her shoulders, then tuck her arms behind her back. Desi and I started walking toward them again, passing within about 6 feet.  Lo and behold, her dog leaned toward us with curiosity, not reactivity, nor was he fearful; he was intrigued!  I pointed all this out to the owner and encouraged her to reach down and give her dog a treat. She had told me he won't take treats on walks, he's so nervous, but guess what? He ate that treat.  Desi and I moved past and around these two about a dozen times, until the point where I could clearly see that the client had relaxed; her dog had relaxed from almost the moment she'd dropped the leash and stood on it.  Now we were getting somewhere!  The rest of the appointment was spent walking past one another, coaching the client out of her own way, and eventually walking together with our dogs to the car.  Turns out that the client's previous dog was attacked by another dog while they were out on leash and she basically had PTSD from that incident.  This current dog had never had a negative encounter with another dog, let alone ANY encounter with another dog.  He had been nervous/fearful because his owner was; she cued the vigilant behavior by shortening the leash, keeping it taut, and being tense herself. Once she learned to relax and stop cuing the anxious behaviors, her dog relaxed too.  Her homework?  Invite her friends with nice, friendly dogs to walk with her so she could continue to boost her own confidence on walks.  Listening to dogs often means watching their owners to see what the dog has been experiencing.

The Problem: My Dog Hates Our New Baby. The clients had reached out because their dog had growled and snapped at their 3 month old baby.  Turns out this dog had never liked children and the owners had been good about keeping him away from kids on walks and crated when their friends and family came to visit with children before their baby was born.  I asked them what made them think that the dog would be okay with them having a baby in their home 24/7.  Their response?  They just figured that if it was THEIR baby, the dog would be fine.  As you might have guessed, that's not how it works.  Dogs either like kids or they don't.  They aren't ambivalent about it and you most certainly must use past behavior as a predictor of future behavior. If your dog is afraid, avoidant, reactive, or aggressive toward other people's children, there is no reason not to hear them and believe what they are telling you.  They are telling you that they don't like kids.  And if they've snarled, growled, snapped, lunged, nipped, or bitten your child, that's all the information you need to know that the dog and your child are not safe together in the same home.  Since you can't rehome your kids, you need to rehome the dog to a home without children/grandchildren.  There is nothing I can do to make your dog love your kids other than listen to your dog and guide you to find them a more suitable, less anxiety-provoking living arrangement.

Dogs really do tell us a lot with their body language and behavior, we just have to stop and watch them. More importantly, we must be as impartial as possible; any good scientist will tell you that you have to be impartial to get good data.  If you see your dog gaze averting, licking its lips, yawning, etc. when one of your friends comes to visit, listen to your dog.  They are telling you that they aren't comfortable with that person.  Don't force them to interact with that person; don't give your friend treats to give your dog as that will only reinforce their anxiety and belief that you don't hear what they are saying. Instead, have your dog stay in another room or their crate with something fun to do when your friend comes to visit. Ask your friend to ignore the dog.  Your dog will thank you.  And bottom line, if your dog is usually quite friendly and solicitous with new people, but suddenly takes a dislike to someone you know, LISTEN TO THEM.  Dogs are very good at reading people; it's what they do all day, everyday.  I've said it many times:  If Desi doesn't like someone, I'm pretty sure they must be suspicious in some way as Desi truly does love everyone.  There's a neighbor he avoided interacting with and I heeded that information and I watched that neighbor. And you know what? He was right.  That neighbor was not a nice person, nor were they nice to animals.  

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

Several years ago, Desi worked with a young man who felt out of place at a party without a prom date.  Desi was his date for the pre-prom party and ended up being the "hottest date there!" As you can see, Desi wore a collar and bow tie and worked the room, drawing other young people over to engage his "date."  The young man was so appreciative and felt quite popular with his peers.  I watched and listened to Desi the whole evening. He never once "said" he was tired, overwhelmed, or bored. He was in his element and I was grateful that he could help this young man and charm the young ladies.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Leashes, Leashes, Leashes! More About Leashes!

I realize I've talked about leashes many times here on my blog, but I get questions about leashes and leash walking more often than almost anything else.  It doesn't matter if a dog has anxiety or is anxiety-free, his or her owner likely still has questions about the leash.  Some people want to know what the "right" leash is for their particular dog, many want to better understand why their dogs pull on the leash, and more importantly, how can they stop that behavior. And for my clients with anxious dogs, how they use those leashes is critical to helping their dogs manage their anxiety on a daily basis.

First and foremost, never use a retractable leash on any dog.  Yes, I know people who can use these leashes with some success, but the majority of the dog owners I've seen using them are having trouble.  Plus, they truly aren't safe for dogs; I could tell you horror stories about dogs who've died on retractable leashes, but I won't. Most small to medium sized dogs need a 4-6 foot leash for walking; medium to larger dogs, a 6-8 foot leash is perfect. If you want your dog to have more freedom to explore, but still be on leash and under your control, get them a long line as well.  Long lines are made of the same material as most leashes (nylon), have a similar metal thumb release clasp, and come in varying lengths from 10 feet up to 100 feet!  For my dogs, I'm comfortable putting them on a long line that is 20 feet in length for safe exploring and for practicing their recall.

How you attach the leash to your dog makes a difference as well.  If your dog pulls, regardless of size, then a collar may not be your best option. Particularly for smaller dogs, collars can put a lot of undue pressure on their necks which could result in damage to their trachea.  Even for medium to large sized dogs, hard-core pullers will be gasping, coughing, and gagging while they pull on leash, and that could result in tracheal damage.  While I know that there are people who put pinch/prong/correction collars on their pulling dogs, that will never be my go-to solution. Rather, I'll be suggesting a head halter for that dog or a "Freedom No-Pull Harness" from 2 Hounds brand. Why?  Because if a head halter can control a horse, it can certainly help control a dog.  And the harness from 2 Hounds has a better design and fit than other no-pull harnesses AND you can order a double connection leash to go with it. I love these leashes for pulling dogs as they utilize the two points of contact on the 2 Hounds harness, thus evening out how much pressure you and your dog feel when they pull. Plus, two leashes leading to one handle makes it feel like reins on a horse and I love that. Much easier than trying to use two separate leashes which is something I've done with clients in the past.  If your dog isn't one to pull, but perhaps is one who falls behind, stops frequently, or zig-zags in front of you, then my choice for that dog would be a martingale style collar. These collars come in different widths for comfort at the neck and work well on dogs who don't pull.

Now, on to the actual walk.  Walks are not about cardio exercise for you, but rather about sniffing, exploring, and relieving themselves for your dogs. You want a cardio workout?  Take a brisk walk without your dog.  Yes, I know that there are dogs who don't sniff, explore, or relieve themselves on walks, preferring to power walk with their owners and then head home.  That's great for those dogs, but the average dog?  He/she wants to sniff and explore. When they are sniffing or relieving themselves, give them enough leash to do so without feeling pressure on their neck or body.  Keep the leash loose (a smile in the leash, so to speak). When dogs are doing something pleasurable, we want them to make an association between those behaviors and not feeling tension in the leash.  This means the person holding the leash needs to pay attention!  Don't walk with your phone in one hand, doom-scrolling, or trying to talk to someone on the phone while you walk.  Focus on your dog and what they are doing.  Redirect them from areas where they shouldn't be sniffing or exploring, and encouraging them to do so in areas that are safe for those behaviors.  In between sniffs, your dog doesn't need to be in a competition heel.  Save that strict behavior for tight spaces where you need to pass other dogs and people, or move through high traffic areas.  For general walking, focus on having your dog near you, either in front, alongside, or even behind, as long as your arm isn't taut and the leash isn't straining.  If you've ever seen me walking my dogs, you know that I allow them to move from side to side, walk in front of me, etc.  I'm fine with all of those things as long as my arm isn't getting yanked out of the socket and we aren't trying to maneuver in tight spaces.  In tight spaces, I keep my dogs next to me, not by shortening up the leash, but by using my voice and encouragement to keep them there without signaling danger by tightening that leash. How does that even work, you ask? Let me explain.

My dogs learn to walk on leash with me inside my house first, then in my yard, and then out on the street at off peak times.  We move up to high traffic walks as they become more skilled at listening to my directions. Before I ever put a leash on my dogs, however, I walk them without one all around my house and yard, luring them into position with my voice and treats.  That way, they learn the value of listening to me in a low pressure/low stress situation.  Walking my dogs on an invisible leash means I have to get really good at keeping them focused on me as I can't resort to pulling on the leash to draw their attention back.  See? Training for humans as well.  I do this invisible leash walking, moving up to leash walking on home turf, with every puppy I work with, as well as every adult dog experiencing leash anxiety/reactivity/aggression.  For many clients and adult dogs this seems like a step backwards, but ultimately retraining those humans and dogs on how to use a leash properly is critical to the treatment of the anxiety that drew them to contact me in the first place.

For those of you who are skeptical, thinking that's all fine and well and good, but those dogs aren't getting nearly enough exercise walking around the house and yard, my response is this:  Better to have shorter, more frequent, successful, stress-free walks in your home and yard than stressful, anxiety-provoking walks of any length out in public spaces.  Plus, there are all of those judgy people watching you get dragged around by your dog, yanking your dog into position, and struggling to maintain your control of the leash and your composure.  I'd rather you were in a better head space and less stressed out yourself before you get out there where other people are watching you.

Anyone can put a dog on a short leash, attached to a prong/pinch collar and yank them into submission.  But is that okay?  In my opinion, absolutely not.  Forcing a dog into submission is to ignore what they were trying to tell you with their pulling.  Using force to get a dog to walk nicely on leash doesn't get at the underlying issue of why they were pulling in the first place.  So, if you want to know why they are pulling AND how to fix it, then definitely let me know.  Leash walking is an art as far as I'm concerned.  Having your leash walks go well is such a joy and really does make you want to take your dog out to more places more often. Not to show off, per se, but to help them to see what the world has to offer if they can listen and stick with you when on leash.

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

Here's my granddog, Westley, out for a rainy day walk.  You can see he's happy (just look at that blur of a tail!) AND you can clearly see that my daughter is allowing him walk in front of her while still keeping the leash loose enough that it isn't taut.  I'm proud of Westley's leash manners and of my daughter for actually taking the time to learn how to walk her sometimes anxious dog.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Tantrums: They Aren't Just for Toddlers!

I worked with a client last week who was at the end of her proverbial rope.  She had been patiently (sort of) waiting for her 70 lb. dog to move from adolescence to adulthood.  She figured if she could just get him to the age of 2 years, she'd be working with a calm, rational dog, willing to do what she asked him to do.  She has plans for this dog, wanting to do competitive obedience and agility, and maybe rally as well. She's always done activities like this with her dogs and it's actually how we met 10 years ago with her previous dog, an always compliant gentleman.  Her new dog?  Same breed, same breeder, in fact, but he's far from compliant.  He's "hell on wheels," as my grandmother would say.  He really does seem to relish challenging his owner (and me).  Any time he doesn't get his way, he resorts to throwing a tantrum.  Yes, a tantrum, much like an over-tired toddler in the grocery store, only he weighs 70 lbs.!  He spins and jumps, vaulting off of my client, trying to grab the leash out of her hands, grabbing anything he can find on the ground, and then eventually flopping into a down and refusing to move.  This happens in many different situations, including right in the middle of the street if he decides he doesn't want to go the direction she's leading him.  Fun times. He's, quite literally, stopped traffic in their neighborhood.  My client is mortified by her dog's behavior and frustrated that he's not grown out of this; he's been having these exact same tantrums since he was a puppy, they are just more dramatic (and dangerous) now. 

Just as with a human child having a tantrum, you can't give in to them, and you can't give them attention for the behavior. As frustrating as it is, you have to shut down and ignore your dog throwing a tantrum because giving them any kind of attention for it just encourages them to use this strategy again.  In order to keep my client safe, I've asked her to stand on her dog's leash so he can't jump on her and/or grab the leash from her hands.  Standing on the leash forces him into a sit or down, given his size.  I've encouraged her to talk to people passing by her, or bring out her phone and pretend to look at something on it.  Basically, she ignores her dog until he lets up on his behavior and begins to move out of the tantrum.  For her dog, this usually means that he gives a big "harumph," a dramatic yawn, and then he'll try to get her to look at him.  Once he does this, she unceremoniously picks up his leash and starts walking the direction she wanted to go in the first place.  His current record is three tantrums in one block, but since that day, his tantrums have become less frequent overall, shorter in duration, and not so many in a row.  That's progress. He's still throwing tantrums, but we are making headway.  So why is he doing this in the first place?

This is a very headstrong dog.  He knows he's big and he's figured out that he's stronger than his owner, though honestly, I've seen him do the same behavior with her husband who is a whopping 6 foot 4 inch man who used to play football for Stanford! No dog likes to have their goals thwarted, but some are more likely to react negatively than to capitulate and do what their owners ask of them.  For this particular dog, I could pretty much pinpoint where it all began.  His first tantrum was at a class meant to prepare dogs for competitive obedience.  He balked getting out of the car there and shut down during much of the class. The instructor dragged him out of the car and pushed the owner to do the exercises in class saying that he'd "get the hang of it if she just kept at it." Well, not only did he not get the hang of it, he outright hated that class, those exercises, and that instructor.  Again, I understand that dog owners have every right to choose the classes, sports, and activities that they are interested in doing with their dogs.  If your dog resists those activities, however, is afraid or overwhelmed, or shows a lack of interest, you need to take a look at whether there is something that you (and they!) would enjoy more.  I'm not saying give in to your dog, I'm just saying choose something you both can enjoy.  And it may even be the case that they will enjoy that original activity, you just need to stop for a bit, let them mature or even find a new class/new instructor and start again.

As you've probably figured out if you've read along this far, tantrums are all about control AND about anxiety.  You have to keep yourself under threshold as well as your dog.  You can't push them too hard or they'll shut down/resist.  What you can do is work on your own behavior; stay calm, resist the urge to yell or punish them, and show them that all that drama isn't going to get them what they want.  I've got another session with my client next week.  We're meeting at a new class setting, this time it's introductory agility with a different instructor, so we'll see how it goes.  I've done some parkour with this dog, just for fun, so I think he'll really enjoy agility.  Fingers crossed that we can find an activity he enjoys and that his owner enjoys as well.

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

Ozzie has been known to throw a tantrum or two in his life.  For him, these episodes were clearly associated with anxiety.  He felt overwhelmed and couldn't fathom moving past what bothered him. If I tried to move him through it, he'd resist and throw a tantrum, jumping, spinning, and trying to bolt.  Over time, we worked through this and he now knows how to ask for needed space when he's anxious, versus throwing a tantrum.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Advice for You & Your (New) Dog

While many a new dog owner is fairly patient with that 8 week old puppy they bought that has toileting mistakes in the house, whines in the crate, chews on the furniture, and won't sleep through the night, often the same cannot be said for dog owners acquiring a new dog who isn't a puppy.  A lot of dogs coming out of shelters are adolescents, and same goes for a lot of the rescue groups.  Why? Because adolescence is fraught with challenges and pitfalls and many a dog owner gives up during this developmental time period.  Even if you adopt a senior dog, however, you need to expect some challenges when you bring them into your home and as they make that transition.

Just because a dog is labeled as "housetrained" doesn't mean that they won't have accidents.  He or she, regardless of their age, is new to your home.  They need to learn your schedule, as well as the schedule you are imposing on them.  Maybe they used to free feed, but you feed them twice a day. That will change when they need to relieve themselves.  Or maybe they previously lived completely outdoors, toileting whenever and wherever they wanted, and you live in an apartment where all bathroom trips are planned as they have to get into an elevator and go down four floors to get to the bathroom area. Expect accidents and don't get mad.  If you want to decrease the number of accidents overall, crate train your new dog, or use an exercise pen to confine them when you can't watch them.  At a minimum you will be limiting where the mistakes will happen.  Plus, most dogs don't want to toilet where they are resting/sleeping and will go to great lengths not to toilet in their crate or x-pen, which helps you as well. Tether your new dog to you when you are home.  They most certainly are not going to toilet on your feet, so if they start pulling away from you, take that as a sign that they need to relieve themselves.  Tethering has the added benefit of helping you build a bond with your new dog.  That's a win-win.

While most newly adopted dogs go through a "honeymoon phase," where they are pretty well-mannered overall as they learn the ropes and get the lay of the land in your home, that isn't true for all new adoptees.  Some have some serious growing pains, reverting to behaviors that are more often seen in puppies and may have been why you chose NOT to get a puppy in the first place. Be patient.  They will definitely move out of this phase faster than a developing puppy would. In the meantime, go ahead and treat them as if they were indeed a puppy: Crate train them, enforce naps, walk them on a schedule, do multiple short training sessions each day, and judiciously use redirection and time outs as needed. 

It's likely that the name assigned to them at the shelter or in rescue isn't the last name that they were called, but even if it is, don't expect them to come to you every time reliably just because you used that name.  Or maybe you want to change their name. Either way, you will need to work on recall and making coming to you a positive thing. I meet so many newly adopted dogs who don't want to come when they are called. From their body language, it's clear to me that they've either been punished for coming slowly, or they assume coming to you will be the end of all the fun.  It's your job to teach them how valuable and fun it is to come every time that they are asked!  Keep treats on you at all times and reinforce every come indoors, even if it's slow.  Outside, keep your new dog on a leash or long line so that you don't lose them, don't have to chase them, and can work on recall with the added distractions that the outdoors inherently brings to training.

Just because you adopted an adult dog doesn't mean that they don't need mental stimulation.  Yes, puppies need a lot of mental stimulation, but honestly, so do adult and senior dogs.  Figure out what works for your new dog and add that into their daily routine. Start with something simple like a Kong and work your way up to snuffle mats and interactive brain games and toys.  If you have a really destructive young dog on your hands, consider some of those more indestructible brain toys from Starmark and Busy Buddy.  Talk to your vet as well about whether real bones, either from the butcher shop or the precut, stuffed, sterile ones available online and in pet stores from "Red Barn," could work to curb the voracious chewing demands of your new dog.

I think it goes without saying that most newly adopted dogs need some work on their leash skills. Some of them have clearly never been walked before, while others have been walked, but by someone who never let them sniff or explore, so they resort to dragging you everywhere to try to get in as many sniffs as they can before they are yanked away. Again, pretend that they are puppies. Walk them on a leash inside your house first.  Use treats to lure them into calmer, more controlled leash manners. Continue to work indoors or in your own yard until you can get a modicum of control and focus on you, thus making those walks outdoors in busy public spaces less challenging. 

Finally, do set a schedule and stick to it.  Dogs love schedules and predictability.  It's the not knowing that makes them anxious.  Having a predictable schedule means your new dog will learn when they are being fed, when they will be walked and trained, and when they will be given the opportunity to relieve themselves.  Take them out often until you figure out what their body clock naturally does, but still know that there will be mistakes.  Just be patient, as every new puppy owner will tell you, it does get better.

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

I know I've shared this old photo before, but I can't resist sharing it again. This is Shadow, the dog I rescued when I was in college.  It took her 3 months to come out from under an end table except to relieve herself, but she eventually blossomed and became my devoted companion, as you can see here.  She would run alongside my bike all the way to campus and lay under my chair in class, never making a peep.  We went an entire quarter once before the professor even knew there was a dog attending his advanced genetics class!