Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Turn That Frown Upside Down: Part 2!

So many of you reached out to let me know how much you loved the idea of teaching a dog to pick up items and drop them into boxes or baskets from last week's blog post.  One of you actually told me that I was a genius to think of this and that really made me blush!  Not genius, just creative.  And the client with the resource guarding dog was desperate enough to try anything, including shaping an entirely new behavior, slowly, over time.  

There are other behaviors that your dogs might be doing that you find challenging enough to want to try shaping those behaviors into something more manageable for you.  For example: Does your dog bark and scratch at the door to get you to let them outside/inside your house?  How about teaching them to ring a string of bells on that door instead?  Basically, you just attach a single bell on a sturdy rope (you can buy them pre-made on Amazon, Chewy, Etsy, etc. or you can make your own with craft store finds) and tie that to the door handle of the door your dog goes in and out of the most. Every time you open that door, ring the bell yourself and say whatever you say when you open the door.  At my house, I say "Go potty!" when I open the door to let the dogs out and "Wait!" when I open the door to let them back in.  You can hang bells on both sides of the door so your dogs ring the bell to go out AND to come back inside. Timing is everything. You need to be there to respond quickly and open the door the first time your dog bumps those bells with a paw or their nose instead of pawing or nosing the door itself.  You definitely want to get there on the first ding so they don't escalate to barking!  You are trying to teach them that ringing the bell is enough to get the door opened, no scratching, pawing of the door, or barking is necessary.  

Ready for another one?  Does your dog jump up on people who raise their hands up to avoid getting jumped on or who raise their arms up because they are afraid?  Well, teach your dog that those raised arms and the frightened high pitch voices that accompany that behavior are actually just a different way that some people ask them to sit!  Have treats at the ready and get really excited, squealing with delight and throwing your arms up in the air.  Jumping dogs can't resist and will try to jump. Tell them to sit while your hands are up in the air.  The moment they do, give them a treat and repeat again with the squealing excitement and hands in the air. This is one of my favorite alternate behaviors to teach novice therapy dogs as a way to help prevent jumping on people during therapy visits. And a special thank you and shout out to Trish Wamsat for this exercise and helping me teach it to Henley!

One final example of shaping you might like to try: Ever been in a tight space with your dog where getting them into the heel position was difficult as people were walking on both sides of you?  Instead of shortening their leash and forcing them to stand next to you/walk next to you, try having them walk under you or  reverse sit in front of you, and wait at your feet.  Basically, you teach your dog to walk in the heel position first.  Then stop and have your dog go around behind you (use your hand to direct them around your body) and poke themselves through your legs.  Keep your legs a comfortable distance apart so that your dog can squeeze through and have them sit immediately when the front half of their body is through your legs.  They should be sitting right in front of you, between your feet, with their heads facing out. It's okay if they look up at you initially, but the goal is to have them go around your body, position themselves between your legs, and then sit calmly in your body's space at your feet.  You can even train them to walk with you, between your legs, much as some trainers do who teach dogs in the art of protection. The bottom line is that now people can move around you on either or both sides and your dog and you are sharing the same exact space, making those people around you less worried about moving around you and your dog.  

I've been continuing to work on the "don't jump up when people get excited and raise their hands or clap" behavior with Henley. It's a work in progress as he REALLY wants to jump on people.  What I don't want to do is pull back on his leash as that teaches him that whatever he's approaching is bad.  I can stand on his leash, but he's really strong and he's been known to yank that leash right out from under me to get to someone to say hi!  So, we continue to work on the sitting politely for greetings, even if people get excited to see him too. No surprise, Ozzie is great at this exercise.  And Ozzie loves the through-the-legs-sit-at-my-feet exercise too.  And if I walk with him between my legs, he grins from ear to ear with joy, prancing with every step!  That will be the next behavior I teach Henley; he can walk around and then through my legs, but sitting quietly at my feet will take practice.

Let me know if you try any of these shaped behaviors with your dogs too.  And as always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Here's what I see when Ozzie does the "sitting at your feet, sharing your space" behavior. 
 He makes this look easy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Turn That Frown Upside Down!

Just because a behavior seems bad doesn't mean you can't turn in into something that's less bad or even something that's actually good!  This was how I started a recent appointment with a new client whose dog is a resource guarder.  If he gets a sock, a kid's toy, etc., he's not giving it up and he's escalating to aggression in his efforts not to give up what he's found in their house.  The owners are terrified that they'll get bitten or that he'll swallow something he finds and get really sick.  So, here's an outline of what we're going to try with this dog. 

We set up laundry baskets and boxes all over their house, one in each room to begin with.  Using toys, I taught the dog to pick up a toy and hand it to me, and then I gave him a small bite of mozzarella cheese.  He'd never had cheese before, so he was definitely interested in what I was up to!  Once he was able to pick up any toy I dropped and hand it to me, I walked over to one of the baskets/boxes and put my hand over it as I asked the dog to give me the item.  Instead of taking it, I let it drop into the container and immediately rewarded the dog with cheese.  I repeated this until he'd readily just drop the toy into the container and look at me expectantly for his treat.  This was phase one. The owners will keep working on these basic behaviors (pick it up, give it to me, and drop it in the bin with dog toys) until we meet next week for phase two.

For this next phase, I'll be using innocuous items that are too big for the dog to swallow, but also something he's likely to want to hang onto and not give up.  I'll start with a hard glasses case and a hair brush, dropping these items on the floor and asking the dog to pick them up. I'll start with having him hand them to me, rewarding with larger pieces of cheese when he does so.  Once he's handing them to me readily, I'll quickly move over to the container in the room and see if I can get him to drop it in the basket and step away for the treat.  Stepping away after he's relinquished the item is the key with this phase.  If he does, big rewards!  If all of this goes well, I'll have the owners start doing these same exercises for another week with innocuous items and we'll see how it goes from there.

What's the end goal?  My end goal for this dog is to let him pick up anything he wants IF he'll go and put it in one of the containers in the house. If he does, big rewards in the form of mozzarella cheese will be coming his way. Why do I want him dropping the items in the containers versus just handing them over?  Mostly because this dog has a history of dropping things in his owner's hands and then grabbing it back quickly before she can even get a hold of it, and he'll growl with a hard stare if she grabs for it again.  I want a completely different behavior to be trained so that we bypass that grabby business and get the dog into a working mindset.  Plus, as the client said, if she can get this dog picking up stuff around her house and putting it away in the baskets and boxes, he'll be better trained than her kids!

Yes, it's important to control defensible resources in a home with a resource guarding dog, but it's also possible that you can turn that behavior into something different IF the dog is willing to trade and IF you are willing to take the time to shape a different behavior.  And, yes, you can shape this same behavior in a dog who doesn't engage in resource guarding. When Ozzie was a puppy, I taught him to pick up laundry and help me stick it into my front loading washing machine! He loved this task and it kept him from racing around with socks and underwear. I no longer have that front loading washing machine, but he still stands at the ready when I'm doing laundry. I appreciate that about Ozzie.

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

My ever present laundry assistant, Ozzie. If I drop something, he'll pick it up for me!


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Make the Most of Every Moment!

A client called me over the weekend to share the sad news that her 5 year old, seemingly healthy dog, had passed away suddenly. Apparently, he'd become lethargic and she figured he just didn't feel well and would get over it on his own, only to find out that whatever had made him lethargic was some toxin he'd gotten into outdoors and his liver just couldn't beat it.  Really sad and all the more reason to watch your dogs when they are outdoors AND have a really good leave it/drop it in case they do pick something up they shouldn't.  But besides that, I think the thing that really broke my heart even more was when she said, "I wish I'd spent more time just hanging out with him.  He was so amazing!" She'd had this dog since he was an 8 week old puppy, so her feeling that they'd not spent enough time together, really hit me.

We all need to make the most of every moment we have with each other.  Savor the friendships and the time with loved ones as there really are no guarantees that any of us will be here tomorrow, next week, or next year.  And our pets' lives are already shorter to begin with.  Yes, I've known dogs and cats that live well into the double digits, but the truth of the matter is that the average dog lives about 10 years and the average cat about 12 years. That's not nearly long enough!  While I'm not advocating bubble wrapping them and never letting them do anything that could be challenging, I am saying enjoy them while you can. 

Take the walk even if you only have 15 minutes to do so.  Better to walk for 15 minutes with your canine friend than not at all. Grab that fishing pole lure toy and play with your cat every chance you get.  Just take the time, even if only a few minutes at a time, and enjoy them. Include them in what you are doing.  Take your dog to run errands with you and watch TV with your cat.  You know, dance like no one is watching! Better yet, dance with your dog!

For me, I really enjoy the "not really doing anything in particular" together moments with my dogs. They'll park themselves next to me while I'm working, reading my book, or watching a movie.  We love walking around in our garden together.  Sometimes we just sit outside and enjoy the sunshine, or even the rain. I want to remember these moments with them as much, if not more, than those moments where we were doing something specific together. 

The bottom line?  Take care that your pets stay out of trouble and don't shorten their already abbreviated lives with risky behaviors.  Help them understand what's safe to pick up/eat and what they need to avoid.  Keep them on leash unless their recall is near perfect amid distractions. Buckle them in or secure them in crates when they ride in your car. And most importantly remind them every single day that you appreciate the joy they bring to your life.

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

Shadow with me, circa 1995. She's just hanging out while I carve a pumpkin. Nothing fancy, nothing mentally taxing, but definitely enjoyable. I don't remember this day specifically, but I fondly remember all of the times that she was there with me doing something, doing nothing, but nonetheless together.  She was here for 16 years and it still wasn't long enough.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

When it Hurts

I started working with a new client this week.  She has a dog who has suddenly begun displaying aggressive behavior.  This dog went from being friendly, outgoing, and sociable to snappy, avoidant, and biting anyone who touches her. She had emailed me photos of her dog out in public, receiving pets and love from strangers, children, etc. Now, she's afraid to even walk her dog as the dog lunges at anyone who gets within range of them. I asked, of course, if she'd talked to her vet about this and she said, yes, the vet prescribed Prozac and gave the client my card.  I felt bad about doing it, but I told her she has to return to see her veterinarian. I didn't want her to feel like she was being ping-ponged back and forth without getting any help, but I have major concerns about this dog's physical health.

For a dog to suddenly go from friendly and approachable to one that can't be handled, even by the owner, is a red flag for some sort of medical issue.  Pain mediated aggression, that is, aggression as a result of physical pain, is a very real thing. The aggression can be an appropriate or inappropriate response to pain. The highest number of bites occur in veterinary clinics and emergency clinics treating canine patients who have been injured or who have orthopedic issues. Yes, even arthritis can stimulate an aggressive response from a dog. While it is true that exhibiting pain mediated aggression toward someone who has barely touched the dog is absolutely inappropriate, and snapping or biting at that person should be a last resort not the the first line of defense, not every dog deals with pain in the same way. Some breeds are more sensitive to handling to begin with and many dogs are wary of handling because they were never accustomed to it when they were younger (cooperative care, something we've talked about many times before). But if this dog is a bite risk for the veterinarian and the staff at the veterinary hospital, how will this dog get the care it needs?

First and foremost safety has to be a priority. I advised this client to reach out to her vet and set up the agenda for the appointment in advance.  She should fast her dog and have it wearing a muzzle when they arrive for the appointment, that way the dog is prohibited from biting and ready to be sedated or anesthetized for care. This dog will need blood work, x-rays, and a full physical exam including exploration of the ears and mouth to rule out ear infections, cracked teeth, or oral abscesses, for example. That blood work should tell us if there are underlying issues with the dog's thyroid function, liver, etc.  And those x-rays are critical for telling us if something is broken, torn, or if this dog has something brewing with her internal organs.  If all of this is inconclusive, it might be worth the expense to do either a spinal tap or brain MRI, or both.  If this dog's body is healthy, there may be something very wrong with her brain causing the sudden and abrupt change in behavior.

This client felt relieved to have a game plan so that she can return to her vet's office and start getting answers on why her formerly sweet, compliant dog, is no longer approachable or touchable.  While I never want to hope that a dog has medical issues, in this case I truly do.  If this dog's behavior changed this rapidly with no underlying medical reason for it, then we are likely dealing with a case of idiopathic aggression; that is, aggressive behavior that is unprovoked, unpredictable, and uncontrolled.  There isn't a lot that can be done with idiopathic aggressors as their care is about safe management rather than a solution.

I hope the veterinary appointment goes well and my client gets the answers she so desperately needs, both for her sake, and for her dog's.

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

Sudden changes in behavior must be investigated from a medical point of view first. 
Then, if medical reasons for the behavioral changes aren't found, 
you can pursue treatment in the form of behavioral modification.