When Your Dog Says, “Eeeuuu! What’s that Smell?”

May 7, 2015

nose of a dog , macro shot , focus on center ( beagle , police dog )

My husband calls me a canary in a coal mine. I can walk into a room and, if there is any trace of a scent of a chemical nature, I will immediately smell it and react. Send me in first and save yourself! Not only can I detect these scents, but I am hyper-sensitive to them to the point that my eyes will burn, my throat will begin to close up, I will have an instant crushing headache, and worse. We have had to switch all of our cleaning products to natural, non-chemical versions as well as making other adjustments in the house.

Now consider your dog’s sense of smell. I may be sensitive, but I still can’t smell a substance in a sealed plastic bag buried under a pile of snow. Your dog, however, can. Think about all of the typical household culprits that are offensive to a very sensitive nose, a nose that is attached to a being that has no way of letting us know that the scent is bothersome or even makes him feel ill.

We’ve known for years that cigarette smoke, even and perhaps especially in second-hand form, is harmful. Even people who don’t think much about it know enough not to smoke around infants. And yet, those very same people will smoke around dogs without giving it a second thought. So not only is the dog having to deal with the offensive odor, it’s actually having a negative impact on his health.

When I walk through a mall department store (which happens as little as possible), I am assaulted by the many strains of toxic, offensive odors—sorry, I mean perfumes. Yes, I can see the allure, but to me it’s nothing but an assault on my senses. And guess what, it’s the same for dogs. Dogs are sensitive to perfumes, cleaning products, and so much more. In the home, air fresheners, dish detergents, hand sanitizer, scented beauty products, scented candles, that horrible chemical smell that comes with certain new products like mattresses and other furniture—it’s all all a lot for a dog to deal with. What if those molecules of scent, being constantly inhaled, were giving your dog a constant headache? How would you ever know? I often wonder how much of dog behavior issues such as aggression have a link to feeling unwell from environmental factors.

So what’s the answer? Do you de-chemicalize your home? Well, it’s not a bad idea for everyone’s health. But at the least, if you smoke, do it outside, away from your dog. Switch to kinder, gentler products in the house, such as unscented dryer sheets, candles, cleaning products, and beauty products. Don’t worry, you won’t miss the scent. Besides, thinking about your dog’s feelings and health? That’s truly beautiful.

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Join me in Colorado on May 30th for a special one-day seminar “Talk to the Paw! What Dogs are Really Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” Visit http://www.nicolewilde.com/seminars for more info, and http://www.nicolewilde.com for books/DVDs.


Redirected Aggression in Dogs

March 30, 2015

husky attacksAs any police officer can tell you, domestic violence calls can be tricky. The officer arrives at the home where a couple’s heated argument has progressed to violence. But although the two have been screaming at and even hitting each other, when the officer arrives, a strange phenomenon occurs. The target of the violence suddenly shifts to the officer.

Now consider two dogs who are fighting in the home. What started out as a skirmish has escalated to the point that the owner feels the need to step in. She approaches and tries to grab one of the dogs by the collar. The dog whips around and bites her on the arm. What’s going on here?

Both scenarios are examples of redirected aggression. Emotional arousal becomes so intense that it needs a release, and the target shifts from the original opponent to the source of interference. That’s one reason so many people are bitten when trying to break up a dogfight. It’s something most of us learn the hard way, and I’m no exception; I could show you scars.

Redirection doesn’t only happen to third parties, though. It can erupt between two dogs when caused by another. For example, a Labrador Retriever and a German shepherd are at the dog park, happily romping and playing together. A Boxer comes along and approaches the pair. Suddenly, bodies become stiff. Tension is in the air. Just as the Boxer and the Shepherd are cautiously checking each other out, the Lab slaps a paw over the German Shepherd’s shoulder as if to say, “What’s up? I thought we were playing!” The Shepherd turns and lashes out at the Lab. Again, the tension needs a target, and in this case, instead of being focused on the cause of the tension, it’s redirected to what drew the attention away, much as a lightning rod diverts lightning from a structure.

A common scenario for redirected aggression is when two or more dogs are behind a barrier, such as a chain link fence. Someone passes by the yard with another dog. The enclosed dogs begin to bark and jump at the chain link. They can’t get to the dog, so they become agitated. Frustration builds. When it reaches a boiling point, the dogs may redirect on each other. Barrier frustration can easily turn to redirected aggression in other scenarios, too: picture two dogs who both want to go out to the yard because they see a squirrel. They jump, whimper, and claw at the sliding glass door that leads to the yard. Frustration builds, and soon they turn on each other.

Anytime there is over-arousal, aggression can follow, and it will find the most convenient target. So what can you do to avoid redirected aggression? Be aware of the potential. Try to avoid putting your dogs in situations where redirected aggression might occur. If you see a situation building, interfere before it’s escalated too far. Teach a solid attention cue, meaning your dog stops whatever he’s doing to look at you when you call his name. Don’t jump in to the middle of a dogfight and expect not to be bitten. (How to properly break up a dog fight is a whole other blog.) Don’t approach dogs behind a barrier if they seem agitated; if they are calm but then become agitated, leave. In many cases, redirected aggression can be avoided. The more we understand about how dogs think and react, and the more vigilant we are about recognizing their body language and actions, the safer we can all be.

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Don’t miss my Burbank, CA seminars April 18 & 19! Topics are Helping Fearful Dogs, Separation Anxiety, & Dog-Dog Play.


Do Little Dogs Get Away With More?

January 14, 2015

Young chihuahuaScrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, this headline caught my eye: “Pet Pomeranian Kills 6-Week-Old Baby Girl.” Now, any incident where a dog kills a child is horrific, but this one was also unusual. I mean, cute, fluffy Pomeranians aren’t exactly known to be a menace to society. It’s always particularly shocking when small dogs cause extensive harm since they are, by definition, less capable of inflicting physical damage than their larger, stronger counterparts.

Too many times, I’ve heard some version of, “He’s bitten me a few times; he’s bitten my daughter once, and my son’s friend, too. Oh, and then there was the neighbor…” The subject of these confessions are almost always small dogs. I can’t help think that had the dog been a hundred-plus-pound mass of muscle, the problem most likely would have been—excuse the unfortunate pun—nipped in the bud after the first occurrence. These situations are perpetuated too by the fact that fewer people will report a bite from a smaller dog than one from a large dog. Men in particular seem to be reluctant to walk in to their local animal control department, roll up a pants leg, and say, “Look what that mean Chihuahua did to me!” It’s unfortunate that aggression in small dogs is sometimes not taken seriously until it’s too late. What “too late” often looks like is someone outside the family getting bit, the family getting sued, and the dog being euthanized.

The paradigm of small dogs equaling small problems is also apparent when it comes to potty training. I’ve lost track of how many homes I’ve visited where the Maltese, Bichon, or (insert your favorite small dog breed) has been soiling the house for… wait for it…years! Yes, actual years. I’ve wanted to loan some of those people a 120-pound Rottweiler to see how quickly their vigilance increased. Again, with small dogs, some issues just seem…smaller.

Then there’s the flip side, the many wonderful owners I see walking their little dogs in the park, because yes, small dogs need exercise too. Let’s hear it for those responsible people who train these dogs, rather than saying, “Oh, he’s so small, he can’t really pull on leash anyway,” and actually teach the dogs not to run out the front door, jump on visitors, or use the house as their private urinal. These are no doubt the same owners who, if their small dog were to have an aggression issue toward other dogs or people, would address it immediately. So, do small dogs get away with more? They shouldn’t—and they don’t, if owners understand that where behavior is concerned, a dog is a dog no matter the size.
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BURBANK, CA seminar April 28 & 19 earlybird reg. closes March 18th. Discounts for shelter/rescue groups. Upcoming Seminars (First Half 2015): Brisbane, Australia, Burbank, California, New Orleans, LA, Broomfield, CO, Edmonton, Canada. For seminar info, books & DVDs, visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


Are You and Your Dog Sympatico?

December 11, 2014

woman with dogA while back, I watched a television special where singer Sheryl Crow was discussing the process of songwriting and producing music. At one point she mentioned working with another person, and smiled as she said they were “sympatico.” She described a relationship where each seemed to feel what the other was feeling and know what the other was thinking, in such a way that allowed the creative process to flow freely. Like so many other things, this made me think of dogs.

Although there’s no true dictionary definition of sympatico, it’s generally accepted to mean having a strong mental connection or bond; to get along; to have a mutual understanding. We’ve all heard stories of people who have these types of relationships with their dogs, and if we’re lucky, we’ve been those people. I’ve had friends over the years whose dogs knew when they were feeling sad, and would come over and nuzzle or otherwise comfort them. Then there are the dramatic stories where an owner-dog bond is so strong that the dog lays down his life for the owner, or won’t move from the place the owner has died.

As much as I hate to admit it, although I’ve had dogs I absolutely adored, and one named Mojo who will forever be my soul dog, I never had that truly sympatico type of relationship. Take Soko, the German Shepherd who was Mojo’s buddy when he was alive. One winter morning, I slipped on the icy dog ramp in back of our house and went down in a most ungraceful heap. My ankle was twisted beneath me at a horribly painful angle, and it felt as though it might be broken. The pain was excruciating. I began to cry. What did Soko do? Did she whimper, whine, look concerned, or nuzzle against me to offer solace? Did she, in an act of inspired canine wisdom, dash indoors and dial 911 with her paw? No. She disappeared around the corner of the house, only to return moments later…with her tennis ball! She dropped it at my feet as if to say, Since you’re down here anyway, why not toss a few? It was disappointing, to say the least.

I always felt badly for students in my group classes who seemed to have little or no bond with their dogs. It was difficult for them to master obedience skills together, because their communication was sorely lacking. Neither seemed to understand the other, and there was frustration on both sides. If there were a word for the opposite of sympatico—perhaps nonpatico?—that was them. Of course, with encouragement and coaching on how to work and communicate better together, relationships can improve. But some bonds are just effortlessly special.

I said earlier that I’d never had a truly sympatico type of relationship with my dogs—that is, until Sierra. I was absolutely crazy about her and somehow knew she was mine from the moment I saw her at the desert shelter where she’d been impounded as a stray. Ours was a strong, immediate bond. In the months that followed her adoption, we worked through her separation anxiety (yes, there can be too much of a bond), did lots and lots of training, and learned gradually about each other. Her prey drive was so high that at first I thought I’d never be able to allow her off leash, lest she spy a squirrel and cease to remember I existed. But now in the mornings I let her run loose over park trails. She happily bounds up and down hillsides and races around dirt tracks, but always looks back to check where I am. And she always comes when I call.

As for Sierra’s ability to sense my moods? Well, I’m normally a fairly strong, balanced person emotionally, but last week I had a bit of a meltdown. The trials and tribulations of caregiving for two elderly parents who are both seriously declining at once are exhausting. After receiving some especially bad news by phone, I hung up, sat at the kitchen table, and just lost it. My other dog, Bodhi, stayed a short distance away and circled nervously, apprehensive about those weird noises that were coming out of Mom. Sierra ran to me. She sat in front of me, looking up in a way that I can only describe as very concerned, and kept pawing at my leg. Now, she does paw when she wants her chest rubbed, and through my tears, I automatically complied. It calmed me. But it was more than her wanting affection; there was real worry in her eyes. There have been many other instances of our being in sync, but really, it’s more of a constant, everyday type of thing. It’s the ease of a relationship where you don’t have to try so hard, the natural rhythm of simply being in tune—the type of thing we look for in a life partner. I’m lucky to have that in my husband, and now, happily, I finally have it in a canine companion as well.
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Fundraiser alert! Between now and Christmas, I am donating $5 per “Hit by a Flying Wolf” sold ($3 per ebook) to Villalobos Rescue Center. Books must be purchased through http://www.nicolewilde.com Get a great holiday gift (or a gift for yourself!) while doing something good for dogs in need.


Do You Want a Well Trained Dog, or a Happy Well Trained Dog?

November 4, 2014

run to me hill cropIf you scroll down my personal Facebook page, you’ll find lots of photos of my dogs. There’s Bodhi standing atop a hill in the early morning; Sierra focused on a sound she hears in the distance; and many shots of each dog, separately or together, coming when called. These latter types of photos and are fun and exciting and, as one of my Facebook friends commented, “They do it joyously! Makes all the difference, I think!” She was absolutely right.

Obedience training isn’t rocket science. Of course, some trainers are better than others, and I’m not saying anyone can do it. But obedience skills are a fairly straightforward thing to teach if one knows what they’re doing and has the patience and persistence to stick with it. But unlike fixing a bathroom sink, in training, it’s not just the end goal that’s important. While a drain plug might not mind rough treatment or suffer long lasting effects, dogs certainly can. Here’s an example: The owner of Benny, a Rottweiler mix, believes that rock solid recalls are crucial. So far, so good. But after teaching the basics, he becomes frustrated when Benny doesn’t come when called in certain situations. There was the time Benny had his nose down a critter hole, and ignored the request to come. When he did finally return, his reward was a smack across the muzzle and a stern reprimand. Streak’s owner too knows the importance of a reliable recall, particularly because the little Aussie mix, true to her name, streaks across hillsides at manic speed. Streak’s owner trains a rock solid recall, but takes a different tactic. She sets Streak up to succeed by teaching the basics, and then building difficulty in distance and distractions gradually. She rewards Streak for good behavior along the way. When Streak doesn’t come immediately when called, sometimes the owner hides behind some bushes. Streak soon looks around to find herself alone, and begins frantically searching for her owner. When she finds her, all is good. At other times, her owner goes to Streak, leashes her, and the fun ends. Streak learns to pay better attention.

Fast forward a few months. Both dogs come to their owners when called. Benny, although he will dutifully come, doesn’t seem very happy about it. Streak, on the other hand, comes flying over hillsides, a big smile on her face, happy to play this fun game. And that, my friends, is the difference. Why does it matter how we train a dog, when we can get the same results with various methods, some faster than others? Teaching a dog that a painful or frightening consequence will follow if he doesn’t comply will certainly work. There’s no denying it. But what’s the end result? A dog who acquiesces out of fear of punishment. And, perhaps, a dog who does not especially enjoy working with the person doling out the punishment, or who loses trust in that person. Fear may create compliance, but it does not create a bond of trust or feelings of affection. Contrast that with the dog who is trained kindly and gently, yet effectively. The same reliable recall results, without the fallout. The dog enjoys working with the person, and trust is built. It’s patient teaching, teamwork and encouragement versus threats. Which way would you rather learn?

And so, when I receive comments like the one on Bodhi’s joyous recall photo, it makes me happy. I reflect on how far Bodhi and I have come. Yes, it took some time and patience, but the results were worth it. He’s not only got a rockin’ recall—all with a goofy grin plastered on his face—but our relationship has also blossomed.
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You can find my books, DVDs and 2015 seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com


What is “No!” Really Telling Your Dog?

October 21, 2014

man yelling at dog smallThis past weekend my husband and I saw the film Whiplash. The story centers around a teenage music student whose teacher is…well, I can’t really print the words that would accurately describe him. But at one point the student, a drummer, is asked to play solo a few bars of a piece the group has been working on. “That’s not my tempo!” the teacher yells. The boy tries again. “Not my tempo!” the man barks. And so it goes. After a number of tries there is blood on the boy’s hands, and the despotic instructor just keeps yelling.

What does this have to do with dogs? Well, consider the way the teacher reprimands the boy. Does “Not my tempo!” give the drummer any concrete information? It certainly tells him that he’s got it wrong; but beyond that, there is nothing useful to work from. Given that the man couldn’t seem to instruct without yelling, even yelling, “Faster!” or “Too damned slow!” would have offered a clue. And yet, many dog owners seem to be constantly yelling “No!” at their dogs. Sure, a dog will stop what he’s doing when that one-syllable, sharp sound is uttered, but does it tell the dog what he’s expected to do, exactly? Nope.

Take the example of a dog who is chewing on something he shouldn’t. The owner could yell, “No!” and the dog would stop momentarily, having been startled by the sound. Depending on the dog, he might then go right back to chewing or not. But what if, instead, the dog were instructed to “Leave it!” Assuming the dog has been trained to understand the meaning of the words, that would let the dog know that the owner is requesting that he kindly move away from the object. “Leave it!” is an instructional reprimand, whereas, “No!” is more like “Not my tempo!” which leaves a dog wondering what exactly he did wrong, thereby increasing the likelihood that he’ll get it wrong again. Once “Leave it!” has been used, the owner can redirect the dog to a more appropriate behavior.

A helpful exercise that I’ve used with training clients is to draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side, list all the behaviors you’d like your dog to stop doing. Number one might be jumping on visitors at the door, number two pulling on leash, and number three, begging for food at the table. Now, on the right side, jot down what you’d like the dog to do instead. For number one, the doorbell could become the dog’s cue to go and lie down on his bed. Number two could simply be “walking by my side,” while number three’s food begging could be solved with a down-stay on a nearby dog bed during family mealtimes.

Thinking of what we’d like dogs to actually do instead of just shouting a frustrated, “No!” takes a bit of forethought, but it communicates information the dog can use. In the long run, issuing calm cues that tell the dog what we’d like him to do solves problems much more efficiently with less stress all around. Now, that’s my tempo.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com.


Living in the Moment

September 30, 2014

Sydney copyOne of my best friends lost one of her best friends yesterday. Sydney was a thirteen-year-old mixed breed bundle of love, and was my friend’s “soul dog.” If you’ve ever had one of your own, you know what I mean. Although passing on is not unexpected in a dog of many years, it’s still a shock when it happens, and my friend is crushed. All I can do is offer a shoulder, an ear, and send lots of good energy her way. I can’t say I know exactly how she feels, but unfortunately, I have an idea.

Mojo was my own soul dog, my 120-pound baby. He passed in 2008, and his death hit me harder than I can describe. (If you’ve read Hit by a Flying Wolf, you know what I’m talking about.) Our dogs are our kids, and people who don’t have dogs just don’t get it. When a human family member dies, people send sympathy cards, understand if we need time off work, turn up on our doorsteps with food and friendship, and are generally extremely supportive. With dogs, some look at us a bit strangely.

In Mojo’s senior years, I had a habit of stealing glances at him as he slept. There was always a microsecond of holding my own breath as I watched for his; I’d exhale as I saw the soft, reassuring rise and fall of his chest. I remember feeling a little crazy and obsessive, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew my time with him was finite. When he was 14, Mojo bloated. We rushed him to the emergency vet, where we were told that he only had a 50/50 chance of making it through surgery, the surgery was expensive, and he was over 14 years old. Clearly, we were meant to draw one very final conclusion. Well, we didn’t. I told the woman to stop talking and get in there and save my dog. Mojo made it through the surgery and ended up living another six months. It was worth every cent.

My friend is now experiencing the sharp pangs that accompany those little daily routines that are forever changed. When Mojo passed, for days afterward my hand still extended with a piece of banana, meant for my breakfast-sharing buddy who was no longer there. There were dozens of times this sort of thing would happen, and countless tears. I always remember the saying, “Grief is the price of love.” I don’t know who said it, but it feels like truth. But for the seemingly bottomless pit of grief, we also get a bottomless well of unconditional love, and a magical, shared slice of life with an amazing being.

I am all too aware as I look at my own dogs, now middle-aged by the standards of dogdom, that the crushed, grieving person will one day again be me. And so, I give them my entire heart while they are here. In those moments when they look at me as I’m busy at the computer, I stop what I’m doing and give them that tummy rub. When I have appointments and it would be easier to sleep in, I get my butt out of bed and take them to the park. And more than anything, I make sure they know how much they are loved. I know my friend’s dog knew how much she is loved, as Mojo surely did. I suppose that’s all any of us can ever hope for, and it’s a beautiful thing.


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