Dogs in our lives

small_heroic_bingleyThere are times that I try to look objectively at why I have dogs in my life. Though past results are no guarantee of future performance, experience indicates that they are not an economic investment sure to pay off after years of careful training and nurturing. Certainly my vet bills for three dogs last year confirms the lack of “return on initial investment”, though the raw numbers do indicate my own robust participation in stimulating the economy. Clearly, heavily investing in dog mania does nothing to establish me as a sound financial planner.

They do provide entertainment. They make me laugh every day, but then again so does “The Big Bang Theory”, and all that requires of me is sitting in my comfortable leather chair with a mug of tea for a half hour  or so each evening. Moreover, “The Big Bang Theory” does not jump on my lap, spill my tea, and thereby cause me to further stimulate the economy by needing the services of a carpet/furniture cleaner, and a dry cleaner.IMG_1456

They keep me active. True, but so does the the treadmill in the basement, and that does not have nearly the upkeep cost of one retriever, much less two, plus a Bernese Mountain Dog. In fact, I probably demand more of the treadmill than it does of me. I owe you buddy. Maybe you’ll get some routine maintenance for Christmas this year, just for being my steady eddie.

My dogs are mentally stimulating, thus preventing early onset dementia. They baffle me, they keep me guessing as to what the heck is going on in those canine skulls, and they challenge me to be creative. I am constantly trying new bowls, toys, training techniques, treats, etc., on them to see what does and does not work for the average canine. It is an educational experience (though admittedly an expensive learning opportunity, thus allowing me to further stimulate the sluggish economy) which keeps me from doing other things that might actually pay for themselves as well as provide mental stimulation.

But, let me tell you one story. On Thanksgiving I spent most of the day cooking and serving food. It was a busy, full day and I did not get a chance to sit down until about 6 pm. The dogs had been challenged all day by tantalizing smells and the squeals of 75C_dog_thanksgiving-01small people. When I sat down on the couch, Bingley came over, jumped up on the couch, curled up into a tight ball, rested his head on my lap, and sighed deeply. As I sunk my hands into his soft fur and massaged his ears, I knew in the very depths of my soul that the constant coating of dog hair on all surfaces, tripping over a thousand tennis balls, bandaging wounds, cleaning ears, and scooping mountains of poo, are extraordinarily small inconveniences when weighed against the companionship of a beloved dog.  Truly we are meant to love creation as God loves us, and are called to be stewards of those who have no other voice. If we are willing to answer that call, then the sigh of a contented soul is a gift freely given. Dogs ask for a tiny part of our hearts, give us all of theirs, and challenge us to rise to the better angels of our human nature. That alone is reason enough to welcome them to our hearths, if not our couches.

Dog days of summer



Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?"

Every dog is a project dog.

_CSG5608When I am talking to fellow dog trainers and I mention “a project dog”, most trainers immediately understand that the particular dog to which I am referring has special needs. Perhaps it is a fearful dog, or is aggressive to other dogs, or has separation anxiety, or is a resource guarder. These are dogs that need training or behavior modification above and beyond basic obedience as well as an owner who truly understands that we are talking about progress, not perfection when it comes to overcoming the dog’s particular issues.

My daughter recently said to me, “In reality, every dog is a project dog.”  That is to say, if you decide to add a canine to your life, then training it to be a well mannered member of your family is fairly intensive on the front end. Think of it like building for your retirement, the more you can invest when you are young, the better and more stable will be your retirement. The same thing goes for dogs. The more training and reinforcing you do of good behaviors in your puppy (or new dog), the more stable, reliable, and well mannered your dog will be as an adult (or as he relaxes into his new home).

The details of this process vary trainer to trainer but, in a beginning obedience class it is common for positive reinforcement trainers to use a lot of treats in order to highly reinforce (reward) the behaviors we are teaching the dogs. Reinforcing heavily in the early stages sets a dog up for success, brings quicker and better results, and helps the dog to engage more fully in the training process. As the dog becomes more reliable with any given behavior, we will reduce the quantity, quality or type of the reward. We never eliminate reinforcement for desirable behaviors, but can use less intensive rewards as the behavior becomes a habit.

_CSG5629One of the wonderful benefits of using primarily positive reinforcement to train a dog is the relationship it fosters between owner and pet. I have found that the most successful owners are those who have positive goals to train towards and I encourage alI of my clients to think about what they want their dogs to do, instead of what they want them to stop doing. For example, if your dog jumps on guests, think about what you would prefer that he do. Perhaps it is sufficient that he have all four paws on the floor. Maybe you want him to sit to greet guests. Either solution works, in part, because you have a plan to achieve success together. It is no longer you against him, but you and your dog working in partnership. (And, it’s fun!)

Conversely, if you rely on punishment to train your dog, he will likely learn to associate you with things he dislikes. In her book, How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and a behaviorist describes one of the unintended consequences of using punishment based training:

Some animals are more resilient or forgiving when aversives are used; however, many others will never reach their potential or form the strongest possible relationships with the use of many adversives.

So, what’s the bottom line here? All dogs require training, and the more you train in the beginning, using primarily positive reinforcement techniques, the better behaved your dog will be in the long run, you will develop a genuine partnership with your dog, a deep and lasting relationship, and you will have fun doing it!


Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?"

Decompression is not just for divers…

Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services is located in Pennsylvania and is headed up by Illana Reisner, a board certified Veterinary Animal Behaviorist. There are only 50 (or so) of this highly trained professionals in the nation and we are lucky to have one of them Dr. Meghan Herron at OSU. Dr. Herron studied under Illana Reisner for her post-graduate work. Dr. Reisner also spoke at the Midwestern Veterinary Conference in 2012 and her knowledge, compassion, and dedication to the health and well being of dogs (and cats) is deep, broad, and inspiring. I highly recommend that if you are on Facebook and interested in animal welfare and behavior (and want some great tips for successfully managing your pets), like Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services and look for their Tuesday’a Pearl posts as well as their Saturday’s Pet Peeve. You will become a better owner! Here is a recent example:

Tuesday’s Pearl: If you don’t know your dog well – if he was recently rescued, for example — don’t push his limits with uncomfortable (to him) interactions. Many behavior clients call about recently rescued adult dogs showing unexpected aggression towards them, and are surprised because the dog behaved appropriately when they first met.
          This is usually because a stressed and unattached dog in a noisy environment will act differently from one who’s lived in your home for a few months. It may take the dog a while to settle into the social rhythms of his new home and relationships. For a newly adopted adult dog, kissing, hugging and snuggling (especially while they are lying down) is confusing at best, and certainly not automatically positive.
           In fact, the dog probably wonders why his owner isn’t getting the message to stop – after all, he is looking away, licking lips, yawning,  even rolling on his back. When owners persist and rub that belly or hazard kissing it, the dog may bite – this is a common scenario with adult rescues who are bewildered by all of it. It is safest and least stressful for both dog and human to avoid “in-your-face” interactions with an adult rescue, and instead focus on walking, training and just hanging out near each other.
In other words, recognizing when your dog needs some space to decompress from events he finds stressful will help ensure the health and well being of everyone, human and canine.
Liplicking, when not waiting for dinner, is another indication that the dog is uncomfortable and needs some space!

Liplicking, when not waiting for dinner, is another indication that the dog is uncomfortable and needs some space!

I caused how much trouble?

Avoiding eye contact = stressed

Yawning can be a displacement behavior and it is one way a dog tells you he is uncomfortable, stressed, or needs some space.

Yawning can be a displacement behavior and it is one way a dog tells you he is uncomfortable, stressed, or needs some space.

There are many other displacement or stress signals that your dog may be exhibiting. If you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, then contact a positive reinforcement trainer who can help you to better read your dog’s body language and to interact with him in a healthy and positive way.

Behavior or "What the heck?" Stress: signals, management, & warning signs

My bad is your good!

Walk this way…

Claire got her lab puppy because she wanted a happy dog who could be her steady companion on the long walks she loved to take. She envisioned strolling through the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, greeting friends, buying fresh bread, stopping for coffee on the way home, all the while, her steady Eddie at her side. What she never dreamed of was a dog-reactive maniac lunging at other canines as she desperately tried to restrain him.

Claire sought out a positive reinforcement trainer and learned how to help Eddie with his “issues” by using desensitization and counter-conditioning to the stimuli of another dog. Eddie improved, a lot, and they were able to go on walks again, but Claire remained very careful of the distance she allowed between Eddie and another dog. She noticed that the trainer was able to get Eddie closer to other dogs than she was and chalked it up to experience. She hoped she would get there someday. What she didn’t notice was how the trainer’s reaction to an approaching dog differed from her own. Claire’s reaction to the sight of another dog was to suck in her breath, tense up, and tighten her hold on the leash. It was not a reaction she consciously thought to do, it was simply her response to stress, just as Eddie had his response to stress. The problem was, her response triggered or exacerbated Eddie’s reaction to the presence of another dog.

So what’s an owner to do when his or her unconscious reaction causes the dog to over-react to something? First, be aware of your reaction to an approaching dog. If you tense up on the leash or suck in your breath quickly, then consciously put slack back into the lead, and take a breath. Now, say your dog’s name in a happy voice (smile when you say it, it will help you to sound happy and be more relaxed). When he looks at you, give him a treat. Repeat as needed to keep you both calm.  By teaching the dog that tensing up on the leash, a quick sucking in of air, or your general stiffening are actually signals for him to cue into you and relax, you will be able to have more successful close encounters!

One last note, if the idea of even trying this makes you terribly uncomfortable, then get a professional positive reinforcement trainer to help you through the process of desensitizing your dog to your reactions. A great place to look for a trainer in your area is the Trainer Search page on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website. You can search by zip code and distance.



Loose Lead Walking Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"

Of dogs and cows…

This week I decided to do veer off in a slightly different direction and share a news item of which pet owners should be advised.

Guilty as charged?

Guilty as charged?

Dog Owners Can Be Held Liable for Negligence:

According to a recent court decision, a couple walking their dog in Central park can be held liable for negligence for allowing their dog to cross a path in front of a bicyclist who subsequently “flew off his bike and landed on his face” when the dog bumped into him. This decision comes after considering the case for a second time and is, in part, the result of an incident involving a cow and a car six years ago.

In the case of the wandering bovine, in 2007, the cow had escaped from a fenced pasture and was then hit by a car.

Until very recently, the Court of Appeals had held that a person who is injured in an accident involving an animal can never have a claim for negligence against the animal’s owner. Only if it were shown that the owner knew the animal had vicious tendencies could he be held liable for the injury, but it would be without a finding of fault.

But ruling on the cow case in April 2012, the Court of Appeals carved out an exception for situations in which a landowner may be liable for negligence for allowing a farm animal to stray from his property. (see link below for full article)

Although this ruling did not explicitly include pets, it opened up an opportunity for the bicyclist to get “another shot in court” and for a law suit to be filed against the pet owners. The case has not gone to trial yet and the pet owners can appeal to the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.

Here is the link to read more about this case:

For me, the question now is: What does this mean for the average pet owner? I am not a lawyer, but I am married to one, so I posed this question to my legal scholar husband, Brad Smith, and here is what he said:

For New Yorkers, an owner can be held liable for negligence if a pet causes an injury, either because the pet is not properly attended, or, as in this case, because it was doing what it was told by its owner. My guess is that this will be the trend nationally. Moreover, remember that you are liable for your dog and its behavior. If it causes harm to others – not merely by an aggressive act such as biting, but also by an innocent act, such as interfering with a cyclist on the biking trail, – the owner can be held liable. The moral here: Control your pets!

I caused how much trouble?

I caused how much trouble?

The best way to reduce your risk of negligence is to train your dog. Attending a basic obedience class can help you learn the best way to teach your dog to come, stay, and walk on a leash, as well as build a positive relationship with your canine buddy. Plus, it’s fun!


Toy Box or stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere

Rin Tin Tin wannabees…


Stranger Danger, or “I want my dog to be like Rin Tin Tin, and protect me!”

Ah yes, the “I want my dog to protect me from strangers, dangers, and things that go bump in the night. I want him to be like Lassie (or Rin Tin Tin, or Benji, or any other fictional heroic canine) and be able to recognize the bad guys and protect me.”  That’s great! Who wouldn’t want that? The problem is, those dogs (or more precisely, the roles that they played) are fictional. They do not exist in the real world and to assume that you can train your dog to be protective only when necessary (and to determine the need on its own) is highly unrealistic for almost all dogs and their owners (including yours truly).  When I mention this to people wanting protection dogs, they often reply that Police dogs can tell the difference and only attack on cue. Exactly! They only attack on cue from their handlers. We do not have lone Police dogs (or even Police dog pairs) patrolling the streets of cities and towns assessing potential wrong doings and protecting the general public from odious characters. These highly trained dogs are always with their handlers and are trained to be very responsive to exact cues.
Therefore, when the subject of protection arises, I ask people to define, carefully, what they mean by protection, as this can be a very dangerous place to wander with your dog.  Ask yourself honestly: Do you really want your dog to be aggressive to strangers?  And, how is the dog suppose to know who is a good stranger and who is bad one, especially if you are not there? What if someone comes to your 24_dog_zombie run awayhome when you are not there and the dog is in your yard, or your back door is unlocked or left ajar by mistake? Perhaps it is a child whose ball was knocked into the yard, or an old friend stopping by spontaneously to say hi? Or a different UPS guy? Or a new neighbor coming over to introduce herself, or use your phone? These people are strangers to your dog. Do you honestly want  him to be aggressive and to take matters into his own paws to protect the homestead?
I propose that what you probably want is your dog to have a strong social drive to people. Why? Because the vast majority of people you meet will be people with whom you desire your dog to be friendly. Moreover, who wants to risk a dog biting someone who is not a threat? And, believe it or not, a well socialized dog is more likely to be able to react to real dangers or concerns. Because he 35_dog_adoringpublicknows what safe looks, feels, and acts like, he will be suspicious of those things which do not lie within his field of experience. The reaction may not be huge, but if you know your dog, you will know when he is uncomfortable or concerned, just as you know when all is well with him.
In the case of my sister’s condo associate who lives alone (see last week’s blog for Part 1 of this story) and wants a dog larger than the 30 pound limit, I think that she is probably motivated by two things: 1) she wants her dog to bark at the door when people arrive, and 2) she will feel safer walking at night with a large dog rather than with one that can be mistaken for a giant powdered sugar donut. I know that most persons of nefarious intent will go to another door rather than risk a barking dog alerting the owner or neighbors, and they do not want to risk being bitten. That said, a larger dog has a deeper bark and is more likely to cause someone to pause. My Bingley has a very deep bark that is kinda scary, and he has caused more than one person to re-consider coming to the door. A chihuahua, or Pomeranian is not as likely to scare someone off either at the door or keep someone at bay when walking out on the street (but it is probably better than no bark at all!). Therefore, in this instance, when you want a dog with a definite presence, you need a bigger dog. What you don’t need is a meaner dog.
Thus, the question remains: Can small dogs be protective as well as companionable? Yes. But how effective are they? It depends, again, on how you define protective. If you want a dog to bark, growl, snap at or intimidate strangers, get a small dog and do not socialize him to people, places, and things. This will create a “protective” dog who will react out of fear, and which people will avoid, but are unlikely to consider a serious threat (Which btw, is not smart. Small dogs can bite seriously, multiple times, and cause enough damage to require stitches, strong antibiotics and perhaps plastic surgery if the bite is to the face.) But I ask you, how happy is this dog and how happy will the owner be with a dog that hates/fears everyone? Far better to have a dog that likes people, and barks at appropriate times, such as at the door, or on cue. Small dogs can be very unpleasant and people may avoid them, but they seldom strike fear into the hearts of the masses.
So in summary, if you want a dog that will “protect” you or at least give the illusion of protection, bigger dogs are more likely to fill the bill. Dogs up to 60~75 pounds (most labs, goldens, setters, spaniels, other retrievers) would do well in a mulit-unit complex and are a size that most people can manage effectively, and which would provide a level of comfort (i.e. when walking at night these guys are large enough to cause someone pause) or protection to the owner. Remember however, that these dogs, like any dog, require good management, a strong relationship with their owner and training to make them successful members of society. Without those three things, the size of the dog does not matter, it will be a problem and/or nuisance to the owner and the neighbors.
11_dog_dino on watch

Behavior or "What the heck?" Shy dogs Toy Box or stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere

Small is not necessarily better…

My sister lives in a condo complex that does not allow dogs larger than 30 pounds. A woman petitioned the condo board to have a larger dog as she lived alone and wanted a dog for protection. The board assumed that larger dogs were more difficult in a variety of ways, including destructiveness. My sister asked me for my opinion on a couple of issues and this is part one* of my response:


Common assumption #1 that people make which may or may not be true:

Big dogs are more destructive/messier than small dogs.

Messiness: It is true that big dogs leave big piles, but if they are cleaned up, then there isn’t an outdoor mess problem! Little dogs leave little piles, but if they aren’t cleaned up there is a problem!
Destructiveness: This has more to do with temperament than size. If you have a dog that suffers from separation anxiety, for example, it can be destructive of property, scratching up or chewing on door frames, floors, moldings, window frames etc. Small dogs as well as big dogs can cause significant property damage, especially if they are not fully housebroken (a common problem with toy dogs, which is why I recommend litter box training for toy breeds). Managing a dog with destructive tendencies should include:
  • – good food
  • – exercise
  • – space management (meaning the use of crates or baby gates to control access of the dog before it is housebroken or to keep it from mischief in other areas of the house), and
  • – addressing behavioral issues (such as separation anxiety with behavior modification and possibly anti-anxiety drugs) with a positive reinforcement trainer, behaviorist, and/or behavior savvy veterinarian who can help you to design a management program that includes a strategy to contain/control the behavior and addresses the underlying causes of the problem.

Good management should significantly control or abate most issues of destruction both inside and out.

Image 2Common assumption #2 that people make which may or may not be true:

 Small dogs are easier to manage when it comes to behavior problems.

Smaller is easier:  Not necessarily true…this is like assuming that big people will have more behavioral problems than small people. While big dogs can create big problems quickly (for example, it takes a Dane lot less time than a beagle to eat a couch), small dogs can also destroy property and deliver damaging bites (just ask anyone whose small dog has bitten them or a child on the face).  Barking is another issue of annoyance for any size dog, but can be helped with good management, training, and perhaps behavior modification to address the underlying reasons why the dog is barking. The bottom line is that dogs are individuals, and to judge them based solely on their physical size does not allow for the singularities that make each dog so very special. Perhaps the question should not be size of dog, but whether or not the dog and owner follow clear guidelines which define appropriate behavior for the dog and the owner. If the guidelines are not met, then the owner (and offending dog) would have to face the consequences.
44_dog_milk carton
 * Part two can be found here: Rin Tin Tin wannabees…

Toy Box or stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere