Wednesday, February 28, 2024

I Know It's Hard!

I had a new client reach out for help on a referral from her sister-in-law. She's in her early 70's and in good health, but really questioning her recent decision to get a puppy. She's always had dogs and always had big dogs, but this particular puppy is giving her a run for her money! Between the bruises and marks on her arms and legs from his relentless mouthing, to the scratches from him jumping up on her, she's feeling overwhelmed and defeated.  She'd recently fallen when she'd had him out for a walk and he took off after a squirrel, dragging her by the leash behind him. She called me because she was frustrated and thinking about sending this puppy back to the breeder, but wanted my thoughts before she did that. I'm really glad she called!

Let's start with her age. Just because she's in her 70's doesn't mean she shouldn't have a dog; it also doesn't mean she shouldn't have a big dog.  First and foremost, making that decision is about what you prefer and what your dog experience entails.  Small breed dogs can be just as mouthy and jumpy as large breed dogs, and any dog can pull you over if they take off after a squirrel or cat.  What it's really about is the resources you have available to you for dealing with these common, but nonetheless annoying, issues.  I suggested that this client work with a really good dog trainer I know to get a handle on the basic behavioral challenges she's facing. I like to refer clients to this trainer because she will send them back to me if the issues aren't actually training issues, but rooted in anxiety and thus true behavior problems, warranting me stepping back into the picture.  I also suggested that she hire a dog walker, one that she can walk with and learn from.  Professional dog walkers are invaluable in helping people learn how to safely walk dogs.  Walking with a dog walker means this client can still get that exercise she'd hoped for and spend time with her puppy without worrying about him pulling her over as he's continuing to improve his leash skills. Ultimately, she decided she wanted me to come out and assess her puppy to make sure that she was indeed dealing with annoying training issues and not behavior problems rooted in anxiety or a personality mismatch between her and her new puppy, something I'm happy to do.  If this is a mismatch, or this puppy does have anxiety-based issues, sending him back to the breeder may not be a bad choice.  The breeder she chose is wonderful and willing to take this puppy back if this isn't the best home for him, so she really is fortunate. Not all breeders are as engaged with their puppies post-placement as her breeder truly is.

I think this client has been feeling judged by her family, by her neighbors, and by her friends.  She's filled with self-doubt and guilt about getting a puppy "at her age."  I tried really hard not to get inordinately irritated with this.  Here's what I think:  If you want a dog, have the time to devote to a dog's training and daily exercise, and can afford to care for a dog, then you should get a dog. This woman has the time, experience, and means to support a dog.  She's a solid home for a dog and while it's true that an older puppy or young adult dog might have been easier for her to handle, she wanted to raise a puppy again and I don't fault her for that. Puppies are a lot of work, but watching them grow up and mature is a delight and as she pointed out, she's got nothing but time to spend working with him.

Let's all try to be a bit more supportive of each other.  If you see another dog owner struggling with their companion, don't be too quick to judge them harshly as being a "bad owner" or "not taking the time to train their dog."  You are only observing a small snippet of their experience together, perhaps seeing a dog reacting to other dogs on leash.  This leash reactivity is just that, they might have the calmest most satisfying relationship at home, off the leash where there are no other dogs or people to trigger their dog's anxiety.  As my daughter would say, dog owners need to stay in their own lane. LOL.

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

Dogs can bring joy to owners of all ages!

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Getting Down to the Brass Tacks!

So, I got a couple of messages after I posted last week's blog.  People were surprised, dismayed, and a bit irritated that there were dog trainers out there who didn't use treats to reinforce dogs in classes, private training sessions, etc.  I get it.  It IS frustrating that old methods and mindsets still exist, but I think that's true of just about any profession.  The fact that many dog owners know better, ask questions, and seek out practitioners that align with their beliefs and pet parenting style is truly the key.  There will always be people who like to say "I don't have to rely on treats to get MY dog to do (insert behavior)."  But even if they say that, you and I will KNOW that their dog would be happier if they did use treats, intermittently, to make the whole game (and dog training is a game, my friends, or at least it should be!) more rewarding.

One of these same conversations about treats pivoted to a request for an appointment.  How delightful for me, right?  I explained to this dog owner that I would be happy to set her up with a video appointment.  She explained that she felt we should meet in person so I could see her dog's behavior.  She has a dog who is reactive around some dogs and aggressive toward strangers.  I gently explained that I don't need to see a reactive or aggressive dog to know what needs to be done. In fact, over 33 years in business, I've seen hundreds of reactive and aggressive dogs, some of whom bit me in the process!  Seeing one more isn't going to change my recommendations on how to proceed. While I understand that this is your dog and for you this is unique, it's important to understand that for me the issue isn't unique or uncommon.  And, while I'd love to be able to see each and every client in person, there are some for whom that just isn't possible. I have clients all over California, in other states, and around the world.  In order for me to be able to assist and treat as many pets as possible, I have to be realistic; I can only see so many clients in person in a day.  One thing I learned during the whole COVID lockdown was how efficient and productive I could be seeing clients virtually.  It was actually kind of humbling as I had always thought I *needed* to see people in person and put my hands on their pet, so to speak, for them to understand the treatment plan. Now I know that's not the case.  Meeting with clients virtually is just as effective, at least for the first one to two appointments, which is often all that's needed to get them back on the right track. If they still are having issues OR the problem really does warrant me being there in person, I make that happen to the best of my abilities.  Doing this has allowed me to see clients sooner as well, instead of having to schedule out 3-4 weeks in advance as my in-person calendar is so booked up.

Please don't get me wrong. I love meeting people in person.  And I know many of the veterinarians who trust me with their clients love the fact that I will do in-home appointments as well.  But here's the thing.  There's only so much time in a day and if I'm battling traffic for 3 hours to get between clients, that's reducing the number of clients I can help AND negatively effecting my quality of life in the process.  I've started offering clients the option to come to me and that's been amazing.  You do the driving but we can still meet in person if that's what you feel will work best for you and your pet.  That's a win-win for sure. And for those aggressive dogs, getting them off of home turf is often helpful to the treatment process which is always a relief for their owners and for me.

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

One of the benefits of working at a local park here in Concord are the plethora of opportunities to work on confidence building AND redirection from the comfort of a sturdy bench!

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Reinforcers, Rally, and Other Random Thoughts!

I had such a fun video consultation earlier this week.  New clients, experienced dog owners, but with two little dogs who don't always get along with one another.  They've been through a lot of training classes and private training lessons as well, but weren't really getting anywhere with that core issue; lack of harmony between their dogs.  They had asked around and were given my name as someone who could actually address that problem specifically and I'm grateful to whoever sent these folks my way.  You see, these two little dogs don't have an obedience problem, they have a behavior problem.  Those are most definitely NOT the same thing!

After taking a complete history, it became clear that these dogs have a huge age disparity; one is just 2 years old, the other 11 years old.  While little dogs do tend to live longer than larger ones, this is still a significant age gap.  The 2 year old dog wants to play and the senior dog most decidedly does not.  I suggested sending the younger dog to daycare, something they did try, but they sent both dogs!  Not unexpectedly, the older dog hated it, so they decided not to send either dog as they didn't want the older dog to get jealous if the younger one was out of the house without him. That was the mistake. It's absolutely okay to remove one dog, leaving the other at home.  I truly believe time away benefits them both.  The younger dog gets to play, socialize, and run around while the older dog gets some much needed rest, making him less likely to lash out at the younger dog for bugging him.  Plus, the younger dog will be less energetic when he returns home having spent most of his energy at daycare.  Beyond that, the humans need to better control the resources that are in conflict between the two dogs.  The humans need to be in better control of doorways in their home as well.  These two dogs both want the favorite chair and to go through the doorways first.  The owners need to decide who should have the chair (or neither of them!) and who goes through the door first and reinforce that so the dogs know the rules.  I've said it before and I'll say it again. Dogs love structure, rules, and guidelines. If there is disharmony between two dogs it is often related to someone overtly or covertly challenging the status quo.  It's up to the humans to get that settled and reinforce the rules.

Speaking of reinforcers. Turns out the long time dog trainer these folks have been using discourages the use of treats.  W.T.H.?!  That makes no sense at all.  I went over the research with these owners that shows that the happiest dogs are those who are paid with a tasty treat, not the ones getting verbal or physical (pat on the head) reinforcers alone.  No wonder these dogs were starting to slack off at Rally classes and not doing well with their recall.  They weren't getting paid for their work!  It's been a long time since I've come across a dog trainer who doesn't believe in the value of working with treats!  I suggested that these owners have a frank conversation with their trainer (who they love working with!) and let him know that they intend to side with the science over "the way its always been done" philosophy.  These two dogs are food motivated, adding in treats will result in them working more effectively and efficiently, guaranteed.

And about those Rally classes.  The other problem at classes was the reactivity of one of their dogs toward the other dogs participating.  I suggested that part of the reason the classes aren't fun for them or the dogs is that the reactivity is getting in the way.  These owners have no intention of competing in Rally, they were just doing it for fun and because their trainer loves the sport.  They can continue to take the non-reactive dog to classes, if they like, but it would be better to set up Rally courses at home for their reactive dog, reducing the pressure he feels being surrounded by unfamiliar dogs.  And Rally truly can be done anywhere and without a lot of special equipment.  You just have to get creative with your furniture placement!

Finally, the owners wanted to know what else they could do to curb door charging behavior by both dogs. Their trainer was having them use a shaker can (a soda can filled with pennies) to discourage going near the door when the doorbell rings.  However, that shaker can has resulted in the dogs being terrified to go near the front door and they now avoid the trainer if he's holding the can as well.  Well, no kidding.  Shaker cans are awful!  They are unexpectedly loud and definitely punishing.  These two dogs have no idea why approaching the front door is now an excruciating auditory experience, but they definitely are associating it with their trainer!  I suggested that they get rid of the shaker can and try a consequence their dogs can understand.  First off, barking at the front door is a normal dog behavior. They are simply letting you know someone is there.  Once you get to the door and tell them to quiet, back away from the door, and stay, that's what they should do. If they don't do that, there needs to be a consequence and that consequence is social shunning.  That is, you remove the dogs from the front door and put them somewhere where they can't see what's going on.  Dogs hate missing out and being removed from you and whatever is happening at the door is a form of social shunning.  You can go and let them out of their time out after a couple of minutes, but continue to do this every time you get someone at your front door and your dogs don't follow the rules.  Social shunning (time outs) are very effective at altering behavior in dogs and they actually use social shunning themselves.  In fact, these owners came to realize that their older dog, hiding under the bed where the younger dog can't get to him, is in fact a form of social shunning.  The older dog often snubs the younger dog this way after he's fed up with the nonsense!

We ended our video appointment with a summary of why it's important to look beyond "what you've always done" or what "used to work" and find what works for the dog in front of you. And more importantly, embrace the science behind animal learning and motivation!  You don't have to take my word for it that positive reinforcement works to build and support relationships while punishment results in animals less likely to perform reliably for you, just look at all the research coming out which continues to substantiate those truths.  We all prefer to get paid and be told we are doing a good job.  Beats the heck out of being startled, yelled at, or smacked around.  And if you've brought doughnuts, I'm definitely interested in what you have to say!  

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

These two goofy goobers are here to remind you that they like chicken and almond butter as their reinforcers.  And if you give them both at the same time, they'll be your best friends forever.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Winter Blues

I have a friend who lives in Tennessee. They've had the wildest weather this winter, including icy conditions and snow! Here in California, we've been hit recently with record amounts of wind and rain with lots of snow at the higher elevations.  My friend in Tennessee had reached out for ideas to keep her pets from going stir crazy when they can't spend as much time outdoors.  This is something I've been facing myself with a yard that is flooded and walking trails that are treacherous to navigate as they are under deep water and felled trees. So, how do you keep your pets happy when the weather conditions are less than cooperative?

First, don't feed them in bowls.  Find creative ways to feed your cats and dogs their meals, using boxes, muffin tins, egg cartons, and knotted towels.  If you have them, break out the snuffle mats and puzzles as well.  If you don't have any of these items, that's okay.  Now's the time to hide kibble for them to find and use the remainder for reinforcing some of their basic training and teaching new tricks.

Just because you can't walk outside doesn't mean you can't walk inside!  You can do this on leash, off leash, or both, just grab a handful of kibble or treats and walk your dog all around your house, pretending corners are stop signs and doorways are stoplights.  If you have stairs or even 1-2 steps in your home, use those too.  Teach your dog to take a single step at a time, two feet up on a step, and then those two feet back down on the floor. Work on taking stairs slowly and see if you can teach them to turn around mid-flight.  Work on backing up, going through your legs and around objects in your house as well.

Playing hide and seek is always fun.  Put your dog in a stay or wait and then hide from them. Call or whistle for them once and see how long it takes them to find you.  Give them a nice reward when they do!

Work on object recognition.  Grab three of your dog's favorite toys and lay them out on the floor, 12-18 inches apart.  Tell your dog which toy to grab.  If they find the right toy, they get a treat.  Start adding more toys to the line up to see how many they can differentiate based on verbal cues alone.

Here's a fun art project:  Combine food coloring and corn starch to create a pet safe paint.  Dip your pet's paw(s) in the paint and have them walk across a piece of paper, creating a colorful canvas of happy feet! Definitely put your art up on the refrigerator!

To relax your pet and keep their coat healthy while indoors where it's warmer and the air is dryer, brush or comb them daily to get rid of loose fur and dander. Follow up the grooming with a massage session.  I wrote about the basics of T-touch once before, so here it is for easy reference:

And if you're going stir crazy too, maybe it's time to make some popcorn, put on your favorite movie (I'll suggest Lassie, of course), and curl up together on the couch.  You may fall asleep, but then again, rainy days and snowy days ARE the best nap days indeed.

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

Couch potato bliss on a recent stormy day in Los Angeles.