It’s okay to comfort your dog, you are not reinforcing fear!

There is a fairly common notion that if your dog is fearful and you comfort him, you are “reinforcing the fear” and thereby making it harder for the dog to conquer this fear. This, however, is not really the case, and likely stems from misunderstanding the difference between emotions (under very little, if any, conscious control) and learned responses (under variable conscious control) to particular situations. 

In the February 2019 issue of  the Whole Dog Journal, Linda P. Case has an article on comforting your dog when it is scared and she uses this analogy to illustrate an emotional response:

“I am petrified of clowns, like most rational adult humans (right?!). Everything about them is creepy to me – their red bulbous noses, crazy orange hair, ridiculous cartoon-sized shoes – all of it!


So, let’s imagine that my front doorbell rings and outside is the guy pictured above, grinning and giving me two big thumbs-up. Responding to my shrieks, my husband Mike comes running and attempts to calm me. (In reality, Mike would be bolting out of the back door with the dogs, yelling “Save Yourself”!)


For the sake of my anecdote, let’s say he’s hanging tough and comforting me.


Would Mike’s comfort cause my clown fear to increase? Of course not! Nothing can make me more fearful of clowns! Instead, it’s reasonable to assume that having someone talk to me calmly, explaining to me that clowns are not dangerous (yeah, right!) will reduce my anxiety.”

In fact, “[t]here is absolutely no evidence, not one bit, suggesting that providing comfort and security to a distressed dog causes the dog’s anxiety or fear to increase.”  (WDJ, emphasis mine.) So, why do we think that comforting our dogs will make the situation worse for them? It probably has to do with avoidance behaviors that a dog may do to help reduce his fear or anxiety. Ms Case continues:

“Stress, anxiety, and fear are emotional responses. We do not choose to be anxious or fearful; we actually have very little control over these responses. 


Conversely, any behaviors that someone uses to successfully escape or avoid fear-inducing situations are operant; we have some control over these. If these behaviors are successful – in that they lead to a reduction in anxiety and fear – they will indeed be reinforced. This is called avoidance learning and happens when fleeing a fear-producing experience results in a reduction of fear.”

In other words, if putting some distance between me and the thing that scares me (in my case snakes) reduces my fear, then I have learned something and the next time a snake crosses my path, I will head for the hills. In theory, since I learned that this works to reduce my anxiety, I have a degree of control over it, but in reality, it would take a truly Herculean effort for me to make myself hang around any snake.

“Dogs, of course, also learn this way. For example, a dog who is nervous around unfamiliar people may hide behind the couch whenever someone new enters her home…[H]iding allows the dog to avoid exposure to new people and results in an abatement of her fear…


Avoidance learning is not the same as “reinforcing fear.” It’s important to remember that anxiety and stress and fear are basic emotional responses that are involuntary and have important biological functions. Our dogs do not choose to be anxious or fearful. These are reactions to situations that a dog perceives to be unfamiliar or threatening. It is false to state that a dog chooses or willingly decides to experience fear. However, this is exactly what is implied when owners are advised to ignore their dog when he is anxious or fearful due to the erroneous belief that comforting will reinforce the dog’s fear.” (Emphasis mine).

Ms. Case goes on to cite two studies that looked at whether or not comforting a dog in a stressful situation will reduce the dog’s stress levels. In one study the dogs were tested in two ways. In one part the dogs were petted by their owners for one minute in the presence of a friendly stranger, and in the other part the dogs were not petted. The leash was then handed to the stranger and the owner moved out of site for 3 minutes. The results of the experiment were not dramatic, but they did find that the “petting scenario resulted in significantly longer periods of calm behaviors exhibited by the dogs while they were separated from their owner, compared to the no petting scenario (38 seconds versus 11 seconds of calm behavior, respectively).” 

“The results of this pilot study suggest that, when dogs are subjected to a mildly stressful situation such as a short separation from their owner, gentle petting prior to the separation can promote reduced feelings of stress and calmer behaviors. While this is not earth-shattering stuff, it is a nice bit of evidence showing that providing comfort and a secure base to our dogs is a good thing and not something to be discouraged.”

So, when your dog is feeling nervous or anxious, it is reasonable and appropriate to offer comfort (and some distance) in the presence of the scary thing. Petting, food, reassuring words, are ways in which you can help your fearful dog. Changing his emotional response to something that scares him is the first step in changing his behavior to his nemesis. Next time, we will look at what you can do to teach your dog that the clown at the front door is not necessarily something to run away from. 

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Plato’s Forms Explained in Terms of Dogs.

There are two things that anyone who knows me (just ask my children) will testify to concerning my world view. The first is that I explain most things in terms of dogs or dog training. For example, my sister is an occupational therapist specializing in pediatric development. For years we discussed clients with one another, but I will never forget the conversation when I realized that we often face the same challenges. Sara described to me a young boy who had been diagnosed with ADD and was being presented to her because he was difficult to manage and seemingly unable to settle. Sara was not comfortable with the diagnosis of ADD and felt that something else was at play. I remember saying, “Well Sara, if this were a dog, I would ask three questions: How much exercise is he getting? How much sleep is he getting? And, what is his diet like?” Apparently, she had asked exactly the same three questions. Truly, canines are the answer to everything.

The second is my love of philosophy, especially the ancients and the medieval sorts. For my 41st birthday, the only thing I wanted was Anton Pegis’s translation of Aquina’s Summa Theologica (I already owned Ralph McInerny’s translation). Not only did my husband get me both volumes of Pegis, but I also got the Summa Contra Gentiles! I was one happy camper. 

Enter Plato. 

This week I attended a conference with my husband on Natural Law, where there was a lot of talk about truth, knowledge, good, religion, and the nature of man. At lunch on the first day I was seated between two attorneys (This is my lot in life. Find me at any conference, meeting, or forum not specifically oriented towards dogs and the fates will put me next to a lawyer). The attorney to my left was a gentleman from Colorado who was attending the conference specifically because he didn’t know much about Natural Law. We had a pleasant discussion and I was thrilled that I was able to give him an insight into Natural Law that the many lettered presenters were not able to do.* Of course, part of the discussion veered into the dog world as I talked a bit about the need for society and social interactions as essential to the well being of all creatures, dogs and humans in particular.** (See! Philosophy and dogs, how cool is that?)

The afternoon panel spent a lot of time tossing around the idea of good, the good, knowing what is good, the human experience of good, good in relationships, etc. One presenter even ventured an opinion that one could not have the same sort of communal, uplifting relationship with your dog that you can have with another person. Dogs, he claims, cannot share your appreciation of a beautiful sunset or a work of art. Obviously, this man does not own a retriever. Zuzu has an unrivaled appreciation for the natural world, especially if there is a stream. 

As a result of all this philosophizing, I began thinking about Plato and his idea of The Good. In the Republic, Plato discusses the nature of reality and asserts that the physical or material world as we know it, is not reality, but a shadowy reflection of the real world that is the Realm of the Forms. The Forms reside in the spiritual or immaterial realm and are the abstract, ideal, unchanging concepts of the things we experience in the shadowlands. The forms may be good, but they are not the ultimate good. The Ultimate Good is above all else and is the basis for understanding all the other forms. One way to think about it is that the forms participate in the Good, and so contain good, but are not The Good themselves. If all this is a bit confusing,
have no fear, for I have found a much easier explanation! Dogs! Of course!

But first, for those who are not familiar with how judging works at a dog show, here is a primer: At a dog show, the dogs who participate are not judged against one another, but against their particular breed standard. For example, it is up to the judge to decide which Irish Setter amongst all the Irish Setters present, best represents the breed standard for Irish Setters. That Best of Breed dog is then judged with all the other dogs in its group (in this example the Sporting Group) to determine which of the group members best represents its breed. Thus, the judge is now asking, is this Irish Setter a better representation of an Irish Setter, than the Clumber Spaniel is a representation of the Clumbers? When you get to Best in Show, you are looking at the top dogs, each a fine representative of its breed and group, and now the judge needs to decide which is the best of the very best.

So, to relate it to Plato and his idea of the forms:  the actual dogs are the real world, the breed standards are the The Forms, and Best in Show is The Ultimate Good. (See Figure. 1). 

So there you have it, the culmination of my canine and philosophical endeavors, Plato’s forms explained in terms of dogs. What’s next you might ask? Perhaps A Brief History of Time, Canine Edition.



*The way in which Natural Law was first explained to me by a professor at the Pontifical College Josephinum was that Natural Law consists of those things we can’t not know. They are written into our very being and comprise the essence of our humanity. He further stated that the Ten Commandments can be viewed as the first codification of the Natural Law.

**For more information on the things that are due to our animal companions, please see my blog: The Five Freedoms, and Your Family Dog podcasts on The Five Freedoms Of Animal Welfare (Part 1), and The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare (Part 2).

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Puppy Vaccinations: How they work and why your pup needs so many.

Jelly and her puppies. Thanks to Judy at Victory Retrievers for use of this photo.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of The Whole Dog Journal. It has long been my go-to reference for all things canine, but I am, regrettably, not always on top of my reading. Today I found an article in my “must read” list called Puppy Vaccines: Why your puppy needs so many shots, by Nancy Kerns, and my biggest regret is that I didn’t read and blog on it sooner!

One of the things I liked the most about the article was the clear explanation of why your puppy needs so many repetitions of the core vaccines. Like many people, I thought it was because multiple shots were necessary to achieve full immunity. Not so!

As she puts it: 

Few new dog owners understand why puppies need multiple “shots.” Most veterinarians recommend that puppies are vaccinated for distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus (hepatitis) a number of times, starting when they are about four to six weeks old, and again every three or four weeks, with their last “puppy vaccination” given after they are about 16 to 20 weeks old. The most common guesses as to why puppies need all those vaccinations?

A) Because it takes at least four vaccinations for full immunity.
B) Each shot “boosts” the immunity from the first shot.

The actual answer would be C) Neither of these. Repeated puppy vaccines do not increase or “boost” the immunity in any way. Vaccines are repeated in order to make sure the puppy receives a vaccination as soon as his immune system is able to respond as we want it to…by developing antibodies to the disease antigens in the vaccines. (Emphasis mine.)

Vaccination protocols vary a lot*, but the common thread is that in order to insure that a puppy develops immunity to these devastating diseases, they need to be vaccinated frequently, because there is no way to tell when the immunity they got from their mother is going to wear off (if they got it at all).

All puppies who are nursed adequately by their mother in the first two or three days after birth receive some of her protective antibodies from drinking her “colostrum” – the yellowish substance that the mother produces before she starts actual milk production…The mother’s antibodies protect the puppies for a highly variable amount of time – anywhere from about three weeks to about 12 weeks. These antibodies gradually “fade” from the puppies’ systems as the puppies’ own immune systems develop.

As long as the mother’s antibodies are active in the puppy, he will not develop his own antibodies. If the puppy loses his mother’s antibodies at 3 weeks of age and gets vaccinated at 4 weeks of age, he will develop his own immunity, and not require any additional vaccinations. But, if he doesn’t lose his mother’s antibodies until 14 weeks of age, his body will not have developed its own immunity, despite having had several shots. Thus, he needs the 16 week booster shot. 

Perhaps more importantly: “There is no practical way to know whether the mother’s antibodies are still circulating in a puppy’s body or when they have faded. And each mother and each puppy is an individual; she will pass along a variable amount of antibodies, and these will fade at different times in each puppy. So we vaccinate several times, until we are past the point in time when any maternal antibodies can interfere with proper immunization.” (Emphasis mine.)

It is this variability in knowing when a puppy has developed full immunity that has veterinarians cautioning owners to limit their dogs’ exposure to other dogs, and places where a puppy could become ill until the dog is 16-18 weeks of age. I understand this precaution, and I certainly do not want any puppy to become sick, but there are other important reasons why your dog does need to interact with the world during this critical socialization period.

The key is to be judicious and careful about where and how your dog is exposed to the world. Do take him to a good puppy class; have friends and family over to visit, and “bring him to the homes of relatives and friends whose dogs are demonstrably healthy, vaccinated, and friendly. Do not take the puppy for walks in places that are highly trafficked by unknown dogs, such as sidewalks, parks (especially dog parks), pet supply stores, and so on.” With some forethought and planning, you can have a healthy immunized dog who is also a social superstar!**


*This variability is due to numerous factors. Puppies in shelters whose mothers vaccination record is unknown may need more frequent vaccinations to achieve immunity, whereas puppies from a reputable breeder may have better maternal interference and need fewer repetition of shots.

**On our podcast, Your Family Dog, Colleen Pelar and I have done several episodes on puppies which can be found here:

With Dr. Leanne Lily of OSU:

With Dr. Christopher Pachel on puppy socialization:

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 1: Trauma and Your Puppy

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Does your dog bark, lunge, snarl, or growl when on leash? You are not alone!

The 2019 Midwestern Veterinary Conference once again provided exceptional sessions on a variety of topics from “Surgery in Pet Fish” (which I didn’t attend) to “Common Behavioral Problems in Working Dogs” (which I did attend). I spent two days in a special lab on “Aggression in Dogs: Defensive Handling and Training” and I attended several sessions offered by Dr. Christopher Pachel*, a veterinary animal behaviorist from Portland Oregon. His session on leash reactive dogs was great and he offered a lot of insights as well as practical solutions for dealing with canines who lose their minds while out walking.

The first thing he did was to define leash reactivity as “the term commonly used to describe a dog that engages in any combination of barking, snarling, growling, or lunging toward people, other dogs, or other specific stimuli when on leash.” Reactivity can result from a variety of reasons, including fear, frustration, or arousal. He also emphasized that it is “important to identify whether this is truly an isolated problem, or whether similar behavior happens in other circumstances as well.” If a dog shows similar reactivity  in various situations, then leash reactivity may well be a symptom of a more far reaching problem. If you are uncertain as to the pervasiveness of your dog’s reactivity, consult a positive reinforcement trainer, or a behaviorist who can help you to clarify the situation, as well as create an effective treatment plan.

Helping your dog to overcome his reactivity can be a pretty straightforward endeavor, but it is imperative to understand not only what triggers your dog’s reactivity, but the concepts (such as thresholds and recovery time) behind the treatment plan. Knowing how much and when to expose your dog to its triggers, and when and how to effectively avoid them, as well as building strong foundational skills, can make the difference between success and frustration or failure.

One terrific source for help with establishing foundation skills as well as reducing or nearly eliminating leash reactivity** is the Instinct Dog Training: Leash Reactive Dog Course. This FREE program is great, and a terrific place to start learning how to handle your dog in tough situations. It has 5 parts, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing each part in order. If you want to change your dog’s behavior, then it will happen the quickest, safest, and most effectively if you follow their instructions and build your skills and your dog’s skills in a logical, systematic fashion.

Here are the 5 Parts:

  1. Part 1: Getting Started. 
    -Your Course Roadmap
    -Tools for Success
    -Rewards that Work
    Get a clear picture of what this course includes, how it works, and what you’ll need to get started.
  2. Part 2: Key Concepts
    -Leash Reactivity:
    What, Why, How to Help
    -Threshold, Frequency, Recovery Time
    Review important behavior concepts before you jump int0 hands-on training.
  3. Part 3: Foundation Skills
    -Unprompted Attention
    -Leash Pressure Cues
    -Loose Leash Walking
    Learn how to teach your dog the three foundation skills every leash reactive dog should know.
  4. Part 4: Defensive Handling for Everyday Encounters-U-Turn -Arc-By -Call-to-Front
    Learn three defensive handling techniques to use with your dog to reduce episodes of lunging and barking.
  5. Part 5: Changing Your Dog’s Emotional Response to Triggers
    -Understanding the Stress Response
    -Setting up Counterconditioning Sessions
    Learn to use principles of counterconditioning & desensitization to change your dog’s emotional response to triggers.

How long this process takes depends on several factors, but they estimate that it will take you 10-16 weeks. As they put it:

Remember, every dog is different. The timeframes included above are estimates. Your rate of progress will vary based on your dog’s starting reactivity level and learning history; the complexity of your environment; and the time you have available to practice.
As you make your way through the course, watch for positive trends in your dog’s behavior, and try not to get discouraged by the occasional bad day!

I have been working through the materials and videos and they are universally excellent, easy to follow, and encouraging to owners! I would invite anyone who has concerns about their dog’s behavior on leash to take a look at this program. Even if your dog is not leash reactive, there are some great foundation skills to learn and practice, as well as techniques that can keep you and your dog safe and happy on walks where you encounter an over the top canine. 

*Dr. Pachel joined Colleen Pelar and me on Your Family Dog for two episodes. You can check them out here:

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 1: Trauma and Your Puppy

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 2: Over Stimulation

**It is important to understand that behavior cannot be unlearned. If your dog has learned to react in a given way (such as barking or snapping at another dog), that particular behavior cannot be fully eliminated or cured. But, it can be reduced or greatly diminished, depending on the circumstances. As one veterinarian at MVC said, “Think of aggression like cancer, we hope to get it into remission.”

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Aging With Canines

Often times, when we think about dogs and special populations of people, our thoughts turn to infants or small children. Certainly I have written and podcasted about a variety of kid and dog issues.*

Pat Miller, trainer extraordinaire, has an article in the January 2019 Whole Dog Journal called Spending the Golden Years with Dogs.** She addresses the pluses of owning a dog in your senior years as well as important points to remember about how much canines can cost, and how critical it is to make the right choice about the type of dog you adopt.

Some of the positive points she makes:

You will likely be home more. In retirement, most people have more time to spend with friends, family, and dogs. This is a grand time to have a dog. If you are an active soul who loves to walk and hike, how much more will you enjoy it with an enthusiastic canine?

You might travel more together. Have you ever considered a motor home to see the country? This is a great way to have your dog come with you without worrying if relatives will welcome your dog, or if you can find a dog-friendly hotel.

Keeping a canine companion for company is good for you! Increasingly, retirement and assisted-living communities not only allow, but welcome pets as they recognize the importance of companionship to mental and physical health.

She does caution the following:

Providing proper care for dogs can be costly. Retirees are likely to be on a fixed income and can limit the amount someone feels he or she can spend on a pet. Pet insurance can help with some of the medical costs (especially for catastrophic illnesses or injuries), but keep in mind that pets require regular vet visits and medications such as heart worm and flea/tick preventatives.

Seniors must be sure, more than ever before in their lives, to make good adoption choices. I thought this was one of the most important points she made in the whole article. If you are 68 years old and have recently lost your 14 year old Golden Retriever, you may be tempted to get another Golden. You have had them all your life and they are your breed. Think, however, about the fact that you were 54 when you last got a puppy. Are you really, truly, up for the challenges of an energetic youngster? Can you lift a large dog into the car if injured or sick? Perhaps it is time to consider a medium size dog, and/or a middle-aged or senior dog at the shelter who needs a home and can offer you 6-8 years of loving companionship. Think seriously about what you can and cannot do, and choose wisely grasshopper.

Ms Miller goes on to address training tips and equipment that might make life easier and safer for everyone involved. Included are tips on leashes, harnesses, treat delivery systems, and training.

She also includes a section on Caring For Your Dog After You’re Gone. It is important to recognize that your dog may outlive you and you need to make provisions for his health and well being. She outlines various strategies, including setting up a pet trust, providing for your dog in your will, and/or making a written agreement with a someone you trust to love and care for you pet when you are gone. I know from personal experience that it is very easy to have a clause put in your will for your dogs. I have had one in my will for over 20 years. Having recently updated my will, I can attest that a good lawyer will not laugh at you, but respect you for caring so completely for those who cannot care for themselves.

But for now, as I seem to be careening towards my senior years, I am happy to hike, travel, and cuddle with my canine BFF, and I look forward to many happy dog years ahead! I wish the same for all of you!

Cuddling puppies in Alaska!

*Click here to see my blogs on kids and dogs; and here to go to Your Family Dog Podcast, where we have several episodes on kids and dogs.

**Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to access the full article, but here is the link nevertheless: Spending the Golden Years with Dogs

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Sometimes it is the dog, not the owner.

Dr. Laurie Schulze is a visiting veterinarian who specializes in behavior consults. I have used her services myself, and have directed several clients to her. She is a compassionate professional and we had a great interview with her on Your Family Dog. She posted an article on Facebook from the website Animal Sheltering called “When love isn’t enough” about times when shelters and canine foster groups have to make the decision to euthanize a dog due to behavior problems. There are times when love isn’t enough to fix the problems that a dog has. All the best efforts of trainers and vets do not alleviate the issues, and the very hard decision to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal has to be made, not only by shelters, but by owners as well.

So, why is it that some behavior problems cannot be resolved? With enough time, money, and talent, couldn’t every behavior problem be successfully addressed? Maybe…but dogs, like kids, are not blank slates when they are born. They bring their own personalities and genetic makeup to how they interact with and interpret this experience we call life. While puppies are malleable in many ways, there may or may not be things they can tolerate, things that scare or enthrall, experiences that are joys to one dog, terrifying to another. We can ameliorate many difficult situations, teach our pups that the world is a good place to be, but some dogs have more resilience to difficulties than others, some are more inclined to use force, and some are destined to see the world as a terrifying place, no matter what we do to convince them otherwise.

Experience, unfortunately, has taught me that as much as families may love their dog, there are some dogs who cannot change enough to fit their circumstances. A dog who does not have bite inhibition; has low tolerance for stressful situations; is overly sensitive to stimuli, touch, noises, movement; startles easily; and/or reacts with barking, growling, or biting to stress; may not have the underlying temperament needed to live in a family and may not have the resiliency to adapt and change enough to be happy and safe in society. 

When evaluating a situation, I try to look at both the big picture and the individuals involved. I have to help the family as well as the dog. Each child, each pet, each person has a stake in the future of the family. My job, in part, is to help them decide whether or not this particular dog can become a well-mannered member of their familiar unit. To do this we need to look at the dynamics of the family, their willingness and ability to manage and train the dog, the responsiveness and resiliency of the dog to training, and how much time, money, and effort can be expended to resolve the situation.

Sometimes the family does not have the resources needed to rehabilitate a dog. Other times the risk of serious future incidents is too high to consider behavior modification and strict management protocols effective enough to prevent calamity. And sometimes, the dog itself does not have the internal resources necessary to be rehabilitated.  The family may have raised the dog correctly: socializing it to a variety of people, places, and things; getting it to puppy class; using positive reinforcement training methods, etc. But, the innate reactivity of Rover to stress makes it hard to manage him safely around people, especially if he is prone to biting to resolve conflict. 

Let me pose a hypothetical: Suppose you have a dog who is friendly 95% of the time*, yet is quick to amp up and has bitten when excited. Perhaps the first bite was minor, scraping the skin and drawing blood, but no puncture marks. You vow to manage her better, especially when she is excited, but quite unexpectedly, she bites and delivers a puncture to the forearm of your elderly mother. Then, one of your kids trips, and falls down next to the dog. She bites your 6 year old daughter on the leg three times, leaving 4 punctures, as well as scraping her teeth down the side of your daughter’s head. These incidents all happen within 6 weeks of one another. The dog is 1 year old.

What do you do?  If things reach this point, there are several options you can consider:

  1. Hope for the best.You can just wait to see how the situation continues to develop. After all, having bitten 3 times doesn’t absolutely mean she’ll do it again…right?
  2. Rehab and manage. This second option means strict management protocols both during and following a behavior modification program. This is not easy, nor can it offer a 100% guarantee she won’t bite again. The probability of success depends on many individualized factors including the severity of the problem, the composition of the family (number of people in the household, number and ages of children, impaired individuals, other dogs or pets, etc.) and how much time they can realistically devote to the program. Questions that need to be asked are: Did any bites require medical attention? Can you follow strict supervision protocols and be sure they are fail proof? Would you really trust her with your children again? Can you afford (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) to work with a trainer or behaviorist?
  3. Re-homing the dog. This may be an option, but under Ohio law, you must fully disclose the dog’s history to the new owners. Ask yourself, would you take on a dog that bites? Or, would you feel completely at ease passing her on to another family? What if they can’t or won’t manage her?
  4. Humane euthanasia. This way you prevent any future incidents, but you are ending the life of a young, healthy dog, which is unbelievably heartbreaking.

Are any of these options without consequence? No. Are any of them easy? No. But, ask yourself this: what if you were a parent and your child was bitten by a dog at a friend’s house. How would you feel if you found out the dog had bitten previously? Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you be asking why the dog wasn’t better supervised, or why the dog was still there?

All this said, I am not advocating wantonly giving up on troublesome dogs. Rather, for those who are inclined to believe it is the fault of the owner for not trying hard enough or not loving the dog enough, I am urging compassion and sensitivity when looking at a situation where a family (or a shelter) is dealing with an aggressive, problematic, and/or biting dog. In all likelihood, those on the outside do not know the entire story. They do not have to live with the dog (and the consequences of its actions) on a daily basis.

Nor, have I yet to find anyone facing this dilemma who takes this lightly or without a great deal of soul-searching, pain, humiliation, fear, and uncertainty. They have probably lived with the problem for months, struggled with the solution, and are trying to do right by the dog, their family, and their community. 

And, in most cases, there are no simple, easy, unemotional, or painless solutions to the problem, nor is there any one best course of action. These families will have to live with the decision that they make for the rest of the dog’s life, and they will likely rethink and reevaluate it for the rest of their lives as well. I know, because my family has faced this decision, and even though I am a trainer, this was no easier or clearer for me than it was for any other dog owner.

Fortunately, most people do not have to face this alone, nor should they. If you have a problem that is escalating in severity or frequency start with talking to your veterinarian. Our vet was crucial in helping us to understand the problem more clearly. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a search page where you can find someone specializing in behavior to help you review your options. If you have a trainer, talk to her as well. I am also happy to talk with you, so please feel free to contact me. 

We were very lucky that none of our supporters tried to convince us of a particular course of action, but helped us to weigh the heart wrenching options as carefully as possible. As a result, this is why I face, not only the unpredictability of pet ownership, but the challenges of helping others to wade through options that seem impossible to bear.  

*95% is the most common number I hear from owners with reactive dogs, and one reason why it is so difficult to resolve the situation. Most of the time the dog is great, but what happens during that 5% is critical to determining what course of action will be taken. If the dog has a predictable trigger that can be managed and desensitized, resolution of the problem is more likely. If, however, the dog is highly unpredictable, has multiple triggers, and/or has an escalating (in severity and frequency) bite history, then the situation is much more problematic. 

Also, consider what 95% actually mean in terms of everyday interactions with your dog. Five percent of a 24 hour day means that over one full hour of time with your dog is problematic.  But it’s actually more difficult than that implies. If your dog was unpredictable for one hour at a time, this would be manageable. But in reality, of course, this hour of potentially problematic interactions is spread throughout the day. So, in terms of interactions, that means that out of every 100 interactions with your dog, 5 could be potentially harmful (An interaction could be as simple as walking by the dog). Who can supervise every interaction, every time, with every person?


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Some new favorites, canine-wise.

by lana Reisner, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVB

Dr. Ilana Reisner is a veterinary animal behaviorist and an expert on canine behavior. I frequently link to her facebook page (Reisner Veterinary Behavioral Services) and when I was trolling for blog ideas I came across this article by her about dominance theory and moving past the idea that you have to be leader of the pack in order to get along with your dog. It has a good overview of where this mistaken notion came from, as well as why this can harm your relationship with your dog. 

The idea that canine behavior problems all stem from an innate canine drive to wrench control of us, leads to a gross misunderstanding of what is actually happening with a behaviorally challenged dog. It also blinds us to the body language that will give accurate cues as to the nature of the problem. 

The behavior problems most often seen in dogs—aggression, fearfulness, destructiveness, inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate attention-seeking—are associated more frequently with anxiety or frustration than with confidence and social assertiveness.

Observation of the “badly behaved” dog will frequently reveal conflict signals, such as yawning or lip licking, along with anxious or ambivalent posturing. Responding harshly to these signals increases the dog’s fear and reactivity, which, along with genetics, can lead to worsened impulsivity and aggression. In fact, fear is not voluntary and cannot be changed using operant methods, such as reinforcement or punishment. (Emphasis mine, Reisner)

This article is well written, referenced, and definitely worth reading. Your dog will thank you.


Kurgo Kibble Carrier

We have been traveling with Zuzu a fair amount and I decided that I needed a better way to transport her kibble than a ziploc bag.In my search for a kibble transport system, I found the Kibble Carrier at Kurgo. There are several features that I like, but the main ones are: it holds 5 lbs of kibble and keeps it fresh; and it is easy to use and carry. I like the roll top feature which creates a comfortable handle, and it opens wide enough to use a scoop. It packs easily into a small space in the car and Zuzu is not tempted to try and open it. The bottom opens so that you can add their collapsible bowl,**  there is a side pocket for treats, and a sturdy loop to attach your keys. After just one road trip, I am completely sold on it!



St. Roch by Tim Campbell

One last thing… Most people associate St. Francis of Assisi with animals, and indeed he is the patron saint of animals, merchants & ecology. The patron saint of dogs (and dog lovers), however, is St. Roch (c. 1295-1327). He was born the only son of a nobleman from Montpelier, France. According to his biography on Catholic, he was:

born with an unusual and deep red mark on his chest in the shape of a cross, a sign that the Blessed Virgin Mary had heard and answered his mother’s prayers for her barrenness to be healed. As a child St. Roch was deeply religious, fasting twice a week after the example of his pious mother. His parents died when he was twenty years of age, after which he gave his inheritance to the poor, handed the government of the city over to his uncle, and began a new life as a poor mendicant pilgrim.

St. Roch set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but when he came to the town of  Acquapendente, he found it had been struck by the Black Plague. He diligently cared for the sick without regard for his own health, and cured many people “by simply making the Sign of the Cross over them.” He continued his healing work as he proceeded on his pilgrimage.

However, when he got to Piacenza, he realized that he had contracted the plague and it was manifesting in his leg. Refusing to burden anyone with his illness, he found an abandoned hut in the woods and waited to die. Fortunately, a local count’s hunting dog befriended him, brought him food every day and licked his wounds. A spring arose near the hut providing fresh water for St. Roch. One day, the count followed his dog into the woods, found Roch, and helped him. After his recovery, Roch “received divine inspiration that he should return to his native Montpellier.”

Once there he found the city at war. He refused to disclose his identity to the soldiers so that he could remain poor and unknown, having renounced his former life as the son of the governor. But his obfuscation aroused suspicion, and he was accused of being a spy disguised as a pilgrim. St. Roch did not defend himself against these charges…and was cast into prison by his own uncle, who failed to recognize his nephew’s altered appearance. According to legend, St. Roch was forgotten and abandoned in prison, but not by God, who sent angels to minister to him while he was held in captivity. He died there five years later.

I first discovered St. Roch when we were traveling in France and visited a church in a small village in Brittany. There was a series of carvings around the pulpit of the life of St. Roch. It was a delightful retelling of his rescue by a dog and I was hooked! There isn’t a lot of art for St. Roch, but here are two of my favorites: Icon of St. Roch by Tim Campbell, and In the Company of Saints has a statue of St. Roche in two sizes.

And finally, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and all your wonderful dogs.




*Not that I don’t love ziplocs! But, I have found that they last only so long. They rip, the zip stops working, or pulls out, and it is very easy for even a casually interested dog to open and indulge in an impromptu snack. 

**I do not know how well their collapsable bowl works as I have a travel bowl set for Zuzu, so I cannot advise pro or con on this item. But, I do know her bowls, which collapse and zip together into the approximate size of a CD case, fit nicely in the top of the kibble carrier, and that’s a nice feature! Her bowl is similar to this bowl by DogBuddy. For a nice review of collapsible bowls see: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Collapsible Bowls.

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