The Benefit of the Doubt

December 28, 2011

Walking my dogs in the freezing cold of 6:30 a.m.—yes, it dips below freezing even here in southern California—has its benefits. It gives us exercise, and a chance to practice our training. It also gives me time to think. This morning, while Bodhi was running around the deserted dog park leaving p-mail on every available surface, I walked the perimeter. As I dodged the minefield of souvenirs left by other dogs, it occurred to me: Dog poop is like karma. You really need to clean up your own. Okay, so brilliant bits of philosophy aside, more serious thoughts do surface.

I had been trying to get Bodhi to chase a ball. He’d begin to run after it, but would stop halfway. I tried again, with the same result. This wasn’t like him. Soon enough, it became apparent that he had other business on his mind, and he soon contributed to the dog park souvenir collection (which, of course, I promptly cleaned up—who wants bad karma?). It got me thinking about a friend, a trainer who has been working long and hard on teaching her dog a solid retrieve. She trains gently and very well, and she and her dog have both been enjoying the process. But I wondered: If it had been me teaching Bodhi the retrieve, and it had been very important to me that he brought the ball back this morning, would I have become frustrated? Would I have insisted that he do it, or would I have given him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe he had a good reason for not complying?

We soon left the dog park and took our usual on-leash stroll along the winding pathways of the larger park. I like to allow my dogs to sniff and explore, but as I also like to remain upright, teaching Bodhi to walk nicely on leash has been a necessity. I don’t mind if he walks out ahead (we have a separate cue for him to walk by my side), so long as he doesn’t pull. Teaching this adopted, previously untrained, wild and crazy adolescent malamute mix not to pull has been quite the adventure, but things have been going well. Then there came a point toward the end of our walk where Bodhi suddenly almost yanked me off my feet. Following his gaze, I realized that there in the distance was his nemesis, the black Lab who is Bodhi’s personal Darth Vader. I gently redirected Bodhi to walk away with me, and although he was reluctant, we continued on. But what if I had taken the attitude that my dog was defying me? It’s easy to see how that line of thought could lead to a correction. And would that have been fair? Sure, it’d be nice if we were at the point where I could expect Bodhi to give me 100% attention and behave perfectly regardless of what’s going on in the environment, but the reality is, we’re not. That we’ve gotten as far as we have, where he can still focus on me and comply with minor distractions around is a beautiful thing. I don’t expect him to go from 0 to 10 with no steps in between. Once again, it was a matter of giving him the benefit of the doubt, allowing that there might have been something outside of the norm happening that was causing his behavior. Assessing the possibilities before jumping to conclusions—giving our dogs the benefit of the doubt—can avoid needless frustrations and corrections. And, hey, it’s good karma.


40 Ways to Help Dogs: Some tried and true, and some you’ve never thought of!

December 19, 2011

There is a well-known quote by Gandhi that says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So many of us want to be the change for dogs in need, and yet figuring out how to help can seem like a daunting task. So, what can one person do? Below are some concrete steps you can take. Some are small, some big. You needn’t have scads of extra cash. Some of these ideas are time-honored, straightforward ways to help, while others are more creative. Just think about the pawsitive energy that would be generated if each reader this did just one of these things!

Shelter:

1. Volunteer at your local shelter. If you don’t feel comfortable spending time in a shelter environment, participate in community adoption days.
2. Volunteer to take photos of shelter dogs to be put online.
3. Donate blankets, food, or crates to your local shelter or rescue group. Check the organization’s website to see what they need. Spearhead a blanket drive in your community.
4. Take it a step further: Ask if you can post a rescue organization’s wish list to your website, and/or make signs for local pet supply stores. Collect the goods and deliver them.
5. Offer a skill to rescue/shelter dogs: training, massage, energy healing, etc.
6. Donate a Kuranda bed. These beds are made of PVC and cloth, and keep dogs off cold, wet shelter floors. Through the program, you can purchase a bed from the website and have it shipped to your local shelter. I donated one of these to the shelter where I adopted my dog Sierra—why not send one to the shelter where you got your dog, as a thank-you for saving a life?

Foster:

7. Foster a dog for a rescue organization. Some will even pay for food and medical care while the dog is in your home.
8. Many dogs are in need of temporary shelter. Check into places such as centers for victims of domestic violence where family dogs may need temporary fostering.
9. If you are unable or would prefer not to foster a dog yourself, offer to donate funds to pay for a dog’s care while in a foster home.

When People Need Help, Too:

10. Banfield Trust’s Pet Peace of Mind program provides care to pets of those in hospice. To learn more and find out whether there is a hospice in your area, visit the website.
11. Help people and dogs in need at the same time. Organizations such as PAWS/LA help AIDS patients by delivering dog food and generally assisting with the care of their dogs. Use online search engines to find local organizations.
12. Volunteer to drive dogs of the elderly and disabled to appointments for medical care, etcetera, or become a volunteer dog walker for them—you’ll get the exercise benefits too.

Donate/Fundraise:

13. Got a talent or product? Donate it for fundraiser raffles.
14. Many homeless people with pets go to food banks for help. Donate dog food to your local food bank.
15. Prefer to donate to a national organization? Check them out on Charity Navigator.
16. Assist your favorite animal charity by having a virtual fundraiser. Use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. Websites such as FirstGiving will allow you collect funds online.
17. Do you run a business? Donate a percentage of sales to the dog-related charity of your choice.
18. Have a garage sale—better yet, get your whole community to participate—and donate all or a percentage of the profits.
19. Have a recycling drive. Place bins for cans and bottles in your office, local pet supply shops, etc. and donate the proceeds.
20. Organize a silent auction. Solicit donations from companies and from your community.
21. Spearhead a dog food drive, then donate the collection to your local shelter or food pantry. Get local pet supply businesses involved, too!
22. Create a product (like these great Puppy Mills Bite T’s that I love) and donate a portion of sales to dogs in need.
23. Set up a large box outside pet supply stores and ask for donations of gently used pet items such as bedding, dog toys, etc. Donate to your favorite group.

Education:

24. Set up a booth in your community to educate the public about spay/neuter. Refer to low cost spay/neuter clinics in your area. You might also hand out info on how to support the shutting down of puppy mills.
25. Get the word out about puppy mills. Check out Prisoners of Greed, and the Companion Animal Protection Society, which investigates pet shops and puppy mills (both provide education and accept donations).
26. Got an area of expertise? Set up a website and share your knowledge. Or write a blog on training, care, and other positive aspects of the human-dog bond. It’s easy to get set up on WordPress.
27. Write articles for local magazines and newspapers.
28. Do presentations for school kids on the importance of being kind to animals. Bring your own well-trained dog and dazzle ‘em with some cool tricks.

Internet and Social Media:

29. If you’re a web designer, donate your talents to local rescue groups. Help get those dogs online so people can see them!
30. Add a banner link from your webpage to Petfinder to help encourage adoptions.
31. Create a webpage for lost and found animals in your community, and post flyers announcing it at vet’s offices, dog parks, and other places dogs congregate.
32. Post educational material online via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. Spread the word on worthwhile causes and campaigns.
33. If you are a trainer, donate your time to write articles or answer questions on dog-related websites.

Big Ideas:

34. Start a non-profit Pet Taxi service to help shuttle dogs to the vet, etc. for people who are ill or otherwise unable to transport.
35. Start a small rescue group; perhaps a specific breed, small dogs only, senior dogs, etc. If you are a trainer, train the dogs to make them more adoptable. (Now there’s a marketing idea: “Adopt a dog who comes already trained!”
36. Start a non-profit food pantry for dogs of the homeless and others in need.
37. Coordinate with your local cable station to set up a weekly show highlighting dogs in need of homes.

Miscellaneous:

38. Donate canine oxygen masks to your local fire department.
39. Take CPR training for dogs. Extra credit: become certified to teach it.
40. Many rescues need transport, especially when dogs have to be transported from state to state. Do a bit of Googling around to see how you can help.


Santiago’s Brain–And what it has to do with Dogs

December 12, 2011

A recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine contained a fascinating article called “Santiago’s Brain.” Santiago Gonzalez moved with his parents from Mexico City to Colorado soon after his first birthday. By the age of eighteen months, he knew the alphabet. At two, he could count to 20 in three languages. At the Montessori school where his parents enrolled him, he learned English in about a month. (Anyone else feel like a slacker yet?) His hyper-fast learning curve continued, and Santiago entered college at 11. At 13, he has advanced computer programming solutions drifting through his mind as he sleeps, and easily discusses things like “molecular orbital theory.” Clearly, Santiago is what is termed “exceptionally gifted.” But that’s only part of the story; the more troubling aspect is the boy’s emotional life. Early on, he’d been placed in age-appropriate classes at school. By the end of his first week of first grade, he had became a loner in class and volatile at home, and sometimes acted mean, which was totally out of character for him. He soon became very easily frustrated and completely unbalanced emotionally. But when his parents took him to museums, bookstores, and libraries on the weekends, his moods lightened. When Santiago was eventually put into an environment where his mind could be engaged and challenged, although his classmates were much older, he thrived. In other words, mental stimulation was key to Santiago’s emotional stability.

Naturally, this story made me think about dogs. We often stress the importance of exercise, but I seldom come across conversations about how much mental stimulation is required for a dog’s well being. I can’t help but think about all of those border collies and other highly mentally focused breeds that are in the care of owners who don’t understand this aspect of their needs. Perhaps, just like Santiago, those dogs require a higher level of mental stimulation than others in order to remain well-adjusted emotionally. We do know that many highly intelligent dogs who don’t get enough mental stimulation invent activities for themselves, channeling that intense focus into projects their humans just don’t seem to appreciate.

Highly intellectual dogs need more than simply excavating a Kong or running through basic obedience routines. So how can we challenge them? One thing that comes to mind immediately is clicker training. What could be better for a super-smart dog than having to figure things out? Once a dog is clicker-savvy (click equals treat), the game is on! It’s all about figuring out how to make that human click, and it’s great fun for both parties. Although Mojo (my soul dog who has passed on) wasn’t what I would call mentally advanced, he loved learning new tricks with the clicker. Two of his favorites were “Say your prayers” and “Turn out the light.”

Another neat mental activity is to let dogs figure out how to get treats out of a complex treat dispenser. For dogs who haven’t done it before, the Aikiou (pronounced “IQ”) is a good product to start with: it’s a large plastic paw with four sliders that can each be pushed to reveal a treat, and a round disk in the center that must be nudged or pawed to reveal pockets of treats all around the circle. For more experienced or highly intelligent dogs, the Nina Ottoson toys are an excellent choice. They’re more advanced, and require dogs to figure out, for example, how to spin multiple levels of disks to line up the openings to reveal a treat. There’s one where a dog has to figure out to remove a large wooden peg in order to allow a slider to move, which in turn reveals the treat. There are varying degrees of difficulty, and plenty of puzzle toys to choose from. Of course, there are many other activities that also stimulate dogs mentally, including sports such as agility, K9 Nosework, and herding. We just need to match the sport to the dog’s abilities and discover what he enjoys.

According to the Santiago article, because intellectually advanced children are often ostracized, they try to act like everyone else by burying or switching off that highly advanced part of themselves. Researchers worry that “intellectual motivation, after prolonged decimation…becomes irrecoverable.” I hate to think that a dog with intellectual drive, who is motivated by learning, could end up languishing without proper mental stimulation, possibly even becoming depressed, or having his lack of needs being met manifest as behavioral issues. Santiago’s story is a good reminder to all of us to take the time to challenge our dogs not only physically, but mentally. There’s an old saying that a tired dog is a good dog, but I’d venture to say a dog who has been mentally stimulated is a great dog, and a happy, better behaved one at that.


Taking the Long View

December 5, 2011

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to live with dogs with behavior issues. I’ve had dogs with fear issues, aggression issues, resource guarding issues, separation anxiety…the list goes on. I always wonder if the Universe somehow arranges it so these dogs end up with those who can/will deal with them, especially when the dogs might otherwise end up homeless or euthanized. And of course, it makes us better trainers in the process.

I was commenting online the other day about how far Bodhi has come in the year-plus that we’ve had him. My friend Angela Wong in Malaysia responded, “Another testimony that patience, perseverance and consistency are some of they key factors in rewards-based training. Fear issues don’t just disappear overnight, just as how it didn’t develop overnight in the first place!” And you know, she’s right. It can be so difficult to see significant changes when you live with a dog every day, especially since big changes are normally made of a string of small, subtle changes that connect and build upon themselves. It’s easy to feel that nothing you’re doing is having an effect, especially when we live in a culture of instant gratification. But taking the long view, things do change.

It’s easy to forget that when Sierra first came to live with us after having been in the shelter four times, although she was sweet and friendly, she was also shut down in certain ways. If I gave the hand signal for stay, she’d cringe and look as though I was going to strike her. She was afraid or somehow unwilling to try to excavate a Kong, and I kept making things easier and easier for her (peanut butter smeared on a bully stick, for example), until she felt it was okay to try. She’s still a sensitive dog, but nowadays she knows a bunch of tricks, is a willing and enthusiastic participant in training sessions, and can get anything you can put into a Kong—frozen or not—out in no time flat.

My husband and I both suspect that Bodhi was abused. I’m the first to say that people jump to that conclusion all too easily when adopting a dog, but the way he’d flinch whenever my husband would move his foot just a bit spoke volumes. Bodhi was afraid of my husband for the first couple of months, but slowly warmed up to the point that now, he and Sierra good-naturedly battle it out for my husband’s attention each night when he gets home from work.

While on leash, Bodhi used to lunge and bark at other dogs. It seemed as though behavior modification took forever, and I changed tactics a bunch of times along the way, always striving to match the technique to what was needed at the time. The worst was when we’d walk both dogs together, as not only was Bodhi reactive, but Sierra would actually resource guard dogs who were at a distance, and would begin snapping and snarling at Bodhi. So whenever we see a dog coming, we create some distance between ourselves so as not to pass the dog at the same time. Over time, we’ve been able to close this gap a bit, although the behavior is still not to where I’d like it to be. I have to say, though, that Bodhi has come a long way in being able to pass by other dogs, and thanks to a few different men we see on our regular morning park visits who give him treats, Bodhi has now taken to going up to strange men to solicit food and attention. And many times these men have dogs—who Bodhi totally ignores! Okay, so the mugging for treats is not the best manners (and I do ask that they tell him to sit first), but coming from a dog who was deathly afraid of men, I’ll take it. And Bodhi can usually walk past smaller dogs fairly calmly now, although large dogs are still a bit of a challenge and take more wrangling.

Although I don’t walk around thinking about how far the dogs have come, maybe I should sometimes. If you’ve been working on a long-term behavior issue with your own dogs, maybe you should do. It’s true that patience, perseverance, and consistency are key. And taking the long view now and then helps to keep you motivated, and grateful for the progress you’ve made.


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