Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Being a Good Observer

For over thirty years now, I've been a paid behavioral observer.  I've observed the behavior of everything from rhesus monkeys to cheetahs to snow leopards to client's house pets, and many other animals in between. But, to do what I do now, I need to be a keen observer of human behavior as well; reading human behavior, and how the behavior of my clients affects their companion animals.  Many of my clients have children or grandchildren in their homes too, so even more to observe. While I've often found it hard enough to help adults understand animal behavior, helping kids can be even more challenging, but critical, not just to their understanding of animals but for their safety around those animals as well.

I've recently started working with a new family; they have three kids under the age of 15 and 4 pets, 2 dogs and 2 cats. This is a busy household with a lot going on.  Not surprisingly, there have been a few issues that have cropped up, both among the pets and among the humans caring for those pets. After our first appointment, it was abundantly clear to me that no one in this house ever actually looked at the pets.  Yes, they fed them all, walked the dogs and cleaned the litterboxes, and made sure that there were beds and toys available, no one actually watched the animals do anything.  Even on the walks, the kids and adults were often on their phones. When I started pointing out body language cues and behaviors and what they meant, this family was astounded.  They felt like they didn't see any of the things that I saw.  Time for a homework assignment!  Every human in the household was asked to use their phone to videotape one or more of the animals in the house at some point during the week.  The animals could be interacting with each other, one of the humans, or even out on a walk. The only thing they couldn't videotape was an animal sleeping ( I had to add that extra instruction when one of the kids thought he could get away with that as fulfilling his homework assignment!). Then, at our next appointment, we watched those videos together, first with the videographer describing what he/she observed and what they thought it meant.  Once everyone had "decoded" their videos for me, we went back, and I gave them my impressions of what was going on in the videos.  Needless to say, minds were blown.  Misinterpretations abounded, and not just for the kids.

So, why am I telling you this?  It's important to be a good observer.  This is how you'll know if your pet is bored, tired, hungry, needing a walk, needing a bathroom break, or needing attention. It's how you'll know if they are ill, hurt, or scared as well.  It will also let you know if there are social dynamics that need to change in order to stabilize those existing relationships, making it safer for all involved.  If you don't watch your animals, you'll never know any of these things until it's too late. 

For this family, we are working on changing who is responsible for what so that the care and keeping of the animals is divided more evenly.  No more looking at phones on the walks. I added in some games for the younger child to play with the dogs and cats that will keep him entertained, but also keep him safer around the animals.  Because this is a busy family, I outlined ways to keep the animals safely entertained, even when the humans weren't observing them.  Finally, I reiterated the importance of sleep for all the animals and allowing them safe spaces in their house where they could retreat and rest, undisturbed, thus helping with those nighttime zoomies and short fuses occurring because of nothing more than sleep deprivation for the dogs AND the cats.

I know we are all busy, but taking just a few moments to be truly present and observant during your interactions with your pets will enhance your relationships with them.  You may even find, as my clients did, that practicing those daily observations makes you feel happier and more connected.  And what's not to enjoy about that?

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

Ozzie spends almost as much time watching me as I do watching him. I find comfort knowing that he's resting nearby, ready for whatever I want to do once I'm done working.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Difficult Ones

I was talking with a veterinarian friend of mine earlier this week.  She and I try to connect with one another, even if it's just for a few moments, every week.  We've known each other for years and share a love not just of animals, but of donuts, coffee, and 80's hairbands. All kidding aside, this week our conversation turned to those difficult appointments, the ones where we are the bearers of bad news.  It's stressful having to tell people things that you know will be painful for them and hard to hear, but that's part of our job as well.  Where our professions seriously overlap is in the area of behavioral euthanasia.  While no veterinarian wants to or enjoys euthanizing a pet for a behavior problem, they also realize that there is such as thing as mental health in animals and some mental health issues in animals aren't treatable long term IF their behavior continually puts them, and the humans in their home and out in public spaces, at risk. Re-homing an animal who has bitten multiple times only means that poor animal has to be stressed out and overwhelmed moving to yet another home environment where they are surely going to bite someone again.  While re-homing may make a pet owner (or rescue group) feel good in the short-term, re-homing aggressive animals who bite people or kill other animals doesn't help anyone, and can cause irreparable harm.  Some animals are simply not wired correctly.  It is truly a blessing that we can spare them further anxiety through humane euthanasia.

Now, before any of you get ticked off at me for not trying harder to save these animals, let me set the record straight.  I am not someone who takes behavioral euthanasia lightly.  I have certainly met pets who were simply in the wrong home environment, unable to thrive there.  For those pets, I strongly recommend re-homing them so that they can find their perfect match, that place where they will feel safe and seen.  I have met perfectly wonderful pets, who through no fault of their own, ended up in a home with someone who just didn't understand them or wasn't equipped to meet their needs.  So, yes, I strongly suggested that they be re-homed so that they could find their happy place.  And, obviously, I've helped clients find that perfect match; that pet that suits their lifestyle and temperament.  But the bottom line is this:  If you have a pet in your home who is a risk to you or others, I am not going to sugar-coat the situation, nor am I going to tell you to "just keep at it." No. I'm going to suggest that you speak to your veterinarian about a full physical and metabolic workup to make sure that there isn't some medical reason for the behaviors you are seeing.  It isn't normal for a dog to bite people; let's rule out pain, discomfort, disease, etc. first.  If there isn't a medical reason for the aberrant behavior, we have to assume that the animal isn't wired correctly and then humane euthanasia becomes part of the discussion.

My veterinarian friend and I share a handful of clients and she has done a few humane euthanasias for behavior problems that were unsolvable and creating dangerous situations for their owners. Neither she nor I found joy in these situations, but we did find peace in the knowledge that we kept that animal from biting another person.

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

Donuts and coffee, shared with a friend, in good times and bad.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Atmospheric Rivers Be Gone!

As you've likely heard, California has been getting a lot of rain this winter.  So much so that the events are actually referred to as "atmospheric rivers."  It isn't that we don't get rain (and snow at higher elevations) like this during the winter, it's just that we don't usually get this much all at once!  In any event, I've had clients emailing and texting me for ideas to keep their pets busy when they can't get their daily exercise outdoors.  You already know that I'm a fan of puzzle toys for both dogs and cats, and those should be in your regular rotation of activities rain or shine. Besides those store-bought puzzle toys, there are other option for you to consider.  Here are five of my favorite boredom-busters for your dogs stuck indoors:

1.  Obedience with a twist: Take your obedience and tricks training to the next level by adding in music!  I'm sure you've seen those videos of people doing obedience and tricks with their dogs, set to music, for freestyle competitions.  Well, even if you don't plan to compete, adding in music during your training sessions just makes them more fun. Plus, it's fun to watch your dog's reaction to your dance moves. How about adding in "Who Let the Dogs Out?!" just for fun?

2.  Time to Walk the Dog:  Just because you can't walk outdoors doesn't mean you can't get in a walk.  Without a leash, walk your dog around the house; keep them on your left as you'd do on your walks outside, stop at all curbs (steps/stairs), stop signs (corners in your house), and jump over obstacles in your path (put down a few obstacles to maneuver around/over). 

3.  Recall: Just because you can't go outside doesn't mean you can't work on your dog's recall.  But it's time to make it fun!  Give your dog a small treat as they are faced away from you and then go hide!  Call them and when they find you, celebrate with a large treat!  And if hide-and-seek isn't your game, why not yo-yo?  With your dog at your side, toss a treat approximately 12-18 inches away from you.  When they scamper off to get it, say their name so they look your way, and then toss another treat a different direction.  Periodically, say "Here!" or "Come!" and only toss the next treat when they return to you.

4.  Box Bonanza:  I'm sure you've saved more than a few Amazon boxes in your garage for this activity!  Cut holes of different sizes in the boxes.  For large holes, smear a small amount of peanut butter around the hole on the inside of the box.  For boxes with smaller holes, put treats or kibble in the boxes so your dog can roll and toss (and tear up!) the boxes to get to those treats.

5.  Break out the Flirt Pole: While most people think of a flirt pole as a strictly "outdoor activity," you can play with a flirt pole indoors as well.  You may need to move the coffee table out of the way, or clear the kitchen floor, but letting your pup chase the lure around inside the house gets them some much needed physical and mental exercise.  Remember though that the flirt pole isn't a tug-of-war toy.  Your dog chases the lure and when they catch it, they must drop it when asked, in order to continue the game. If your dog doesn't want to drop the lure, now's a great time to work on reinforcing drop it by offering them a treat for dropping the lure.

And don't forgot to groom your dogs, even on rainy days.  Keeping the fur on their feet trimmed means less water and debris tracked indoors from their bathroom breaks. Short nails mean better traction and fewer scratches on hardwood floors.  Brushed/combed/grooming mitted dogs drop less fur and dander on your furniture, rugs, and bed. 

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

Here are my three musketeers (or the three stooges, depending on how you want to interpret this!) intently supervising me as I fill their puzzle toys for game time on a recent rainy day.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

For the Love of Little Dogs

I have several new clients with small dogs.  Everything from a 5 lb Terrier mix to a 12 lb Poodle. While dogs are dogs, regardless of size, I do think that small dogs have some unique issues to deal with that your average medium or large-sized dog doesn't have to contend with regularly.

First, being picked up.  Everyone seems to want to pick up those little dogs.  And it's not just their owners!  Unfamiliar people seem to think that it's okay to pick up these little dogs when they meet them.  I find this incredibly rude and potentially risky.  Many little dogs don't enjoy being picked up by their owners, let alone a stranger.  Folks need to wait for those little dogs to approach them and indicate that they'd like to be picked up. And if they don't, then don't pick them up. Period.  Just because a dog is "pick-up-able" in size, doesn't mean that they want to be carted around in someone's arms or shoulder bag.  While I have certainly met some dogs whose legs are essentially useless as they are never on the ground (lol!),  for the most part, dogs like to be on the ground and moving at their own pace.  I had one client tell me that her little dog never came when she called him, but would come to her husband when he called the dog.  She started telling me that it must be because the dog views her husband as "the alpha."  First off, that's ridiculous; you know how I feel about the alpha thing. It's misleading and doesn't even apply here.  The dog came readily to her husband, and to me for that matter, because we didn't try to scoop him up and smother him with kisses when he did.  It was as simple as that.  I needed to train this owner to call her dog to her, reward the come, and NOT pick the dog up.  It took about 45 minutes of recall on a long line for the dog to get over his PTSD about being picked up when he approached his female owner.  Once he realized that he wasn't going to be picked up, he relaxed his posture and would come close to her to get his treat for coming when called.  Her homework?  Long line recall, high value treats, and no picking up the dog. Instead, she can sit on the couch or in her favorite chair and wait for the dog to approach her and climb in her lap, which he does quite regularly.  Like any dog, he likes to make that choice on his own. Big dogs don't have this problem; we can't scoop them up when we call them.  We can, however, still make coming a negative if we always do something the dog doesn't like immediately following that recall. So, for example, if you always call your dog and then leash him up to go home, he'll stop wanting to come to you as he doesn't want to leave where he's currently located.  If instead, you call your dog, reward them, and then send them off to play again, even for just a few moments, your dog learns that coming when called doesn't necessarily mean the end of all fun.

Let's circle back to those kisses as well.  While little dogs seem to bear the brunt of the hugs, kisses, and squeezes, medium and large-sized dogs aren't immune to this kind of attention either, it just doesn't seem as prevalent.  It's not often you see someone run up to a Rottweiler and throw their arms around the dog's neck, smothering them with kisses.  You'll see it daily, however, with little Maltipoos and Cavaliers.  Is it that Rotties don't like hugs and kisses and those white fluffy dogs and Cavaliers do?  Not at all.  It's just that many of those smaller dogs have learned to put up with it, increasing their threshold of tolerance for rude human behaviors.  Again, some dogs love hugs and kisses (probably because their owners do), but waiting for a dog to offer that type of attention first is the key.  Consent isn't just something that needs to be given in human interactions; we need to wait for consent from dogs as well.

One last note about little dogs that sets them apart from their larger compatriots.  House training.  Many smaller breed dogs are more difficult to fully housetrain.  I've had people tell me that it's because those little dogs have smaller bladders.  While it's true that they do, that's not the whole story. In our human desire to breed smaller and smaller dogs who are more "puppy-like" in size for their entire lives, we are also (perhaps inadvertently) breeding for the retention of other juvenile characteristics beyond just size.  Neoteny is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood.  So traits like those domed foreheads on Chihuahuas and big eyes on Cavaliers, those are the result of breeding for puppy-like traits being carried on in adult dogs, so examples of neoteny.  Circling back to house training.  What's a common issue dealt with in puppies? House training!  So these small breed dogs often take longer to house train, or for some breeds are never fully house trained, as adult dogs.  It's the trade off for those other juvenile characteristics folks love so much in their small dogs.

I'm looking forward to my follow up appointments with the Terrier mix and the Poodle.  My guess is that their recall will have improved. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there haven't been any other snapping/growling incidents associated with being picked up and coddled. Giving dogs choices and waiting for their consent keeps those dogs AND the humans safe.

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

This is McIntosh.  He was a West Highland White Terrier and my first dog.  He was a whopping 22 lbs. when full grown, so technically pick-up-able, but not something I ever recommended.  While he was game to wear a ribbon, hat, or coat, particularly for a photo op and a treat, he was not a lap dog.  His preferred position was the the back of the couch, not a lap, nor someone's arms. And we respected that.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Should Have Started Sooner!

At least twice a week, I work with someone who says "I wish I had started on this when my dog was younger!" While it's true that teaching cooperative care techniques, walking nicely on a leash, and polite behavior around kids and the elderly are skills more easily taught to puppies, you can certainly work on all of these things with adolescent, adult, and even senior dogs.  Not having adopted a puppy isn't a valid reason for not doing the work to get a handle on behavior issues.  And while starting when you first brought home that new dog is ideal, there really is no time like the present!

Whether you are teaching your dog to offer a paw for a nail trim or walk nicely on leash, you will need treats.  I've said it many times; we all like to get paid for a job well done.  The value of a given treat is determined by your dog and the job at hand.  So, while a few small treats may work nicely when teaching your dog to move away from the door and sit nicely when guests arrive, you are likely going to need something more enticing to get that same dog to hold still for a nail trim.  And something even yummier to teach them not to pull on the leash.  Varying the payment options and payment schedule depending on the job is important.  You are not bribing your dog to behave or cooperate, you are rewarding/paying them for a job well done.

It's also important to divide your training into frequent, small sessions.  While it would be nice to be able to dremel all of their toenails at once, that may not be feasible right off the bat. Instead, focus on your dog cooperating with you (i.e. not pulling their foot away, struggling, or mouthing your hand!) as you trim/dremel just one nail.  It may be the case that you can trim all of the nails on one foot and I'd consider that a success! Same goes for teeth brushing.  Start by just having your dog lick the doggie toothpaste off of the brush.  Work up to putting the brush into their mouth and moving it around. You may only be able to brush those front teeth the first few times you try, but that's better than not brushing their teeth at all. And when it comes to working on leash skills, start indoors without the leash, having your dog attend to you and focus on walking nicely by your side.  Work up to walking around inside your house on leash, graduate to your yard, and your neighborhood before venturing too far from home.  Frequent short sessions on leash will result in better learning and keep your dog from getting overstimulated.

Be patient. I realize having to trim one nail every day, brush just a few teeth, or spend your time walking around with your dog on leash inside the house is frustrating.  I've done all of those things myself and can confirm that I needed to take a break and walk away from the training session just as much as my dog did.  Doing those frequent short sessions, however, means that now I can do all of the nails AND brush teeth AND groom my dog ALL in one session.  Happily.  

The bottom line is this: You CAN teach an old dog new tricks.  A dog of any age can be taught to participate in care that is crucial to their well-being.  They can learn that not pulling on leash means a better walk.  It's just going to take some patience on your part and an understanding that Rome wasn't built in a day.  Taking the time to do it right, having treats ready to reward those baby steps, means you and your dog can look forward to those grooming sessions, leashed walks, etc. that go off without a hitch.  And by all means, start early if you've just brought home a puppy!  Trimming puppy nails and brushing puppy teeth, introducing the leash, etc. are exactly the kinds of skills you will want to be working on with your puppy just as much, if not more than, the crate training, sitting when asked, and fetch.

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

Ozzie started walking on leash, inside our house, as an 8 week old puppy.  By 11 weeks, he'd graduated to walking alongside Desi as we did a slow lap around our block.  You'll notice that Ozzie is walking on a leash and collar.  Because we started indoors, making the leash positive without pressure on his neck, he was able to navigate leashed walks outside without a body harness.