Why wait?

January 30, 2012

I just got off the phone with a man who was seeking assistance for his four-year-old male Chihuahua/terrier mix. Any time the man is on the couch with the dog and his wife approaches, the dog becomes aggressive toward the wife. The same thing happens if he’s in bed (the dog has slept on their bed for the last four years). Interestingly, if the wife is in bed or on the couch and the husband approaches, the same type of behavior occurs. The dog isn’t guarding one particular person but, rather, whichever person is there with him.

The dog also “throws up about once a month” and will then guard the mess. I asked whether the dog guards his food, bones, toys, or anything else, and nope…just them and the vomit. Well, it’s always good to know you’re as valuable as vomit! No, I didn’t say that, but I did ask whether they had any idea what was causing the vomiting. Apparently, they feed the dog ice cream “a lot.” After a discussion of why that’s not a good idea, mentioning Frosty Paws as an alternative treat to be given now and then, and setting up training, we ended the conversation.

Now, here’s the part I haven’t told you: The man said the dog’s aggressive behavior had been going on for the last three years. So why, you might wonder, were they seeking help now? The man has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors expect him to live another six months to a year. He knows that at some point he will be bedridden, and that his wife, who will be his primary caretaker, will need to be able to get near the bed. I assume he will need nurses and other care as well, which may also be an issue as far as the dog’s behavior. The man said he had considered bringing the dog to the shelter, but that he knew it was very likely they would euthanize the dog.

This story makes me very sad. It also makes me wonder about all the people who have dogs with serious behavioral issues such as aggression, who don’t do anything about it until something has to be done. Trainers hear about this type of thing all the time. Very often when asking someone whose dog has bitten multiple times why they’re seeking help now, the answer is that now the dog has bitten someone outside the family, which could mean legal action and a bad end for the dog. Even with lesser issues such as destruction, owners often allow the behavior to continue until something truly valuable is destroyed; I remember being called in after a dog ate the owner’s $3000 hearing aid.

With the economy faltering, everyone multi-tasking, and all the “stuff” that comes up, I can understand why training gets put off. In the big scheme of things, whether a dog pulls on leash or not is not exactly a matter of life or death. But sometimes, especially with aggression issues, it is eventually a matter of life or death—for the dog. We may not be able to foresee the future, but we can certainly address what’s in front of us now. That way, if life throws us a curve ball, we will have done all we can to make sure our dogs will weather the storm as well as possible.


Misinformation Anxiety

January 24, 2012

This wasn’t the blog I was planning to post this week. I had a perfectly fine, dare I say interesting, blog ready to go. Then I happened on a website where advice was being given to an owner whose dog had severe separation anxiety. The answer was very brief, and involved crating the dog. It then advised that if the dog became a “butthead” in the crate, to use an electronic collar on him. To say I was aghast would be an understatement.

There are plenty of articles online about separation anxiety. Most recirculate the same advice that’s been around for many years; some of these recommendations are sound and stand the test of time, while others are sadly out of date or just plain wrong. Completely withdrawing your attention from your dog, for example, is more likely to create stress, frustration, and other problems than it is to cure a separation issue. Then there are the sites that make it sound as though separation anxiety is something that can be cured in “5 Easy Steps.” Naturally, that involves purchasing the handy-dandy, fix-em-quick manual that’s instantly downloadable. If only it were that easy.

The truth is that separation anxiety is a challenging problem, and one that gives even experienced trainers pause. I can only imagine the confusion and frustration of the average dog owner who gets conflicting advice from trainers, television, and the internet. Although I’ve been successfully treating dogs with separation issues for the last twenty years or so, I never truly understood what owners go through until we adopted Sierra. Not only that, but Sierra was such a non-typical case that pretty much all of the standard protocols and advice…well, let’s just say she hadn’t read those books. So I had to come up with creative alternatives.

The first few weeks were extremely tough, and one day when I was standing in the kitchen venting my frustrations to my husband, he turned to me and said, “You know what this is—it’s your next book.” I won’t repeat my response to him at the time, but as it turns out, he was right. Don’t Leave Me: Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety was the result of the combination of my personal and professional experience. The reason it’s in a workbook format is because I know how unwieldy separation anxiety can feel, and I also know that just being able to hold a workable plan in your hands helps to vanquish that feeling of helplessness, and instills hope and confidence. The book reviews and emails from owners whose dogs have been helped by the book warm my heart and make me grateful for the opportunity to combat some of the more questionable information that continues to circulate.

Although I still love presenting my seminar on Helping Fearful Dogs (another topic that’s very close to my heart) and others, this year I’ll be rolling out a new presentation called Two Timely Topics: Separation Anxiety and Dog-Dog Play. The morning is all about new and creative ways to help dogs with separation issues. Although it’s based on my book, it goes farther with even more tricks, tips, and new approaches. The dog-dog play half is extremely video-intensive, and I was amazed when sorting through the endless hours of video at just how much the human eye misses when watching interactions in real time; the slow motion playback segments of the seminar are truly eye-opening. I’m hoping to see a lot of you trainers, owners, and other dog folks at these seminars, and to get the word out that separation anxiety can be treated effectively in a humane and compassionate way.


Does YOUR Dog have PDS?

January 17, 2012

Friends, today I’d like to talk to you about a serious condition that affects millions of dogs all over the world. It is seen in puppies, adult dogs, and, perhaps most often, adolescents. It does not discriminate between pups purchased from breeders and dogs rescued from shelters. Many owners—often those with Labrador Retrievers and bully breeds—swear the affliction has a genetic component. Others believe the nefarious condition lies dormant until adolescence, when it bursts forth full-blown. Symptoms include sore throat (the owner’s, from shouting), loss of hair (again, the owner’s, from tearing it out), and a belief on the part of the dog that his name is “No, no, bad dog!” This condition is so widespread that, I dare say, it is a syndrome. Its name? PDS: Pushy Dog Syndrome.

Bodhi, who we adopted from a shelter at the estimated age of a year-and-a-half—prime time for PDS to manifest—came to us with a severe case. No, the treatment wasn’t antibiotics or bed rest; it was training, and a mega-dose of patience. The shelter had told us Bodhi had been turned in by a college kid who could no longer afford his upkeep. Judging from Bodhi’s behavior, it was easy to believe he’d been raised in a frat house. Hell, he probably hogged the remote and used beer kegs as Kongs. That first week, I couldn’t walk across a room without him blocking my path, jumping on me frantically, and repeatedly clamping his jaws around an arm or nipping at my legs. This wasn’t soft mouthing, either; it left bruises.

Another way Bodhi’s PDS manifested was that whenever I’d go to pet Sierra, he’d thrust himself bodily between us in an attempt to keep all the attention for himself. Yep, he had it bad. So what’s a dog-Mom to do? First, instead of allowing him to block me, I body blocked him. I certainly never kicked him (no, not even the “Cesar kick”), but instead shuffled forward as though my feet were glued to the floor. Bodhi quickly learned that trying to impede my progress just wasn’t going to work. As I claimed the space, he surrendered it by moving away. As for the charming jumping/mouthing combo, I leaned slightly forward while giving him a hard stare and uttering a low, guttural, “Eh-eh!” That might sound harsh to some, but something had to be done. It certainly didn’t traumatize him, but it was an effective punishment, as it quickly decreased the occurrence of the behavior.

As for his pushiness when I would pet Sierra, I decided on an acceptable alternative way for him to solicit my attention; to lie down. Of course, I didn’t expect Bodhi, in a flash of doggy genius, to come up with the idea on his own, so I showed him what I wanted. I taught him a down. Then, any time he approached while I was petting Sierra, I immediately cued him to down. He was then rewarded him with a most spectacular tummy rub. The result is that now, many times when I’m on the floor petting Sierra, I’ll hear a thud behind me. It’s Bodhi, flinging himself to the floor and rolling onto his back, waiting for attention. It’s pretty funny, but it’s also a beautiful thing.

As for Bodhi’s PDS, we still have a ways to go, and he may always have a trace of it. But we’re working on it. So take heart, friends, if your dog has PDS, patience and training is just what the dawgter ordered.


A Shocking Experience

January 9, 2012

I just watched a very interesting video. Trainer Frances Dauster decided to see for herself what a shock collar feels like. No, she didn’t put it around her neck, but she did position it so the two prongs that are normally placed against a dog’s neck were positioned against the inside of her wrist.

The “stimulation” as it is sometimes called, began at a very low level, and moved up through level 8, at which point the shock became too painful to proceed any further. The sensation was described at various levels as akin to a mosquito bite, static electricity, a bee sting, a painful slap, and…well, one that elicited an exclamation I can’t reprint here.

At a certain level of shock, although the prongs were against her wrist, one of Frances’ fingers began to twitch. This makes sense, given the nerve pathways’ ability to conduct electricity—we are electrical beings, as are dogs. It does make me wonder, though, in what other parts of a dog’s body the shock is felt, and whether the pain is localized to the neck or if it travels. She also mentioned that it hurt more each time. Do dogs become more and more sensitized when shocked multiple times?

Perhaps most interesting was the comment that was made after a few of the tests that the pain lingered on for a few seconds afterward, then gradually faded. Even if you were a proponent of shock collars, you’d have to admit that if this is the case with dogs as well (and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be), pain lingering on after a correction is pretty sloppy training, not to mention cruel. (For the record, I don’t recommend citronella collars for the same reason.)

I’m sure some people will watch the video and thinkm Oh, but you wouldn’t just put a shock collar on a dog at that high of a level. Why then, I would love to know, do shock collars even go up to such insanely strong levels? Naturally, some dogs are more sensitive than others, just as people are, but at some point it becomes obvious that a particular sensation is going to cause serious pain to the majority of recipients.

Another important point to consider is that during this video, the trainer controlled the remote; she knew when she was going to receive a shock. Dogs don’t know. Pain combined with lack of control and the element of surprise is much worse than pain that is self-administered.

I commend Frances Dauster for doing what I certainly would not have done. Perhaps watching this video and hearing the description of the pain at various levels of “stimulation” will stimulate some to throw their shock collars away and “train with your brain—not pain.” You can check out the video for yourself here


You did WHAT to your Dog?

January 4, 2012

Some dog trainers refuse to have lengthy phone conversations with potential clients; they want to sell their services and keep the initial chat as brief as possible. While that’s understandable and maybe even commendable from a business point of view (besides, who really wants to be on the phone for an hour?), I don’t mind spending a bit of time getting to know someone’s concerns, what they’ve tried so far, and their goals. I find that it actually benefits the business as well, as it gives me time to establish rapport, which greatly increases the chances of the caller becoming a client.

While most conversations are pleasant enough, some are difficult at best. I recently got a call from a woman who had a five-month-old Labradoodle and two young kids. Predictably, the dog was jumping and nipping at the kids. The family wanted the behavior stopped, yesterday. Pretty typical stuff. Then the woman went on to tell me what she had tried so far: a spray bottle; “clamping the dog’s nose;” and, finally, “hitting him as hard as I could.” I was silent for a beat, processing that last one. She continued on to explain that when she hit him, the dog thought she was playing, and just got more amped up. I was silently grateful that the dog hadn’t been traumatized. I maintained a calm, friendly tone as I told the woman I could hear that she was very frustrated; that I was sure it’s difficult to deal with two young kids and a rambunctious dog; and that I knew she didn’t want to have to resort to hitting the dog that way. She agreed completely. We chatted a bit longer and, thankfully, she ended up setting up an appointment.

After I hung up, I suddenly burst into tears. It’s not a reaction I’ve ever had before—in this business, I hear about disturbing things on a regular basis, and I deal with it. Maybe I was just having a rough day. The thought of someone hitting a dog “as hard as they can” is pretty awful in itself, but that hadn’t been the only troubling dog-related behavior I’d heard about that day. That same morning, a trainer friend had told me about two young men—big, burly guys, from her description—who had a young Aussie mix puppy with them at a basketball court. The pup was behaving very well, lying calmly at the edge of the court as they played. My friend was walking her two dogs in the surrounding park area, being careful to maintain enough of a distance so as not to be distracting. At some point one of her dogs barked, and the puppy stood up and trotted off a few feet to investigate. One of the men immediately yelled at the puppy to get back there and lie down. The pup skulked warily back toward him, but apparently it wasn’t fast enough. The man grabbed the pup by the collar and dragged it across the asphalt, yelling close to its face all the while. My friend didn’t feel she could safely intervene, but she felt terrible, as did I, just hearing about it.

These are certainly not the worst examples of the abuse dogs suffer at human hands—believe me, I’ve heard a lot worse. But this type of thing happens so often. These are just two more examples of the kind of low-level abuse that goes on daily, in millions of homes, in the name of training. And the truth is, most of these owners are not terrible people; they’re frustrated with their dogs’ behavior, and don’t know how to get compliance any other way. It’s ironic, because just like the dogs, they just don’t know any better. Just as we train dogs gently and kindly, we trainers have to keep our cool with owners regardless of the awful things we might hear, in the hopes of changing the person’s behavior.

In any helping profession, it’s easy to get burned out. All we can do is to keep on having respectful conversations, and keep on putting the education out there. And so, that one emotional outburst past, I go back to keeping my balance on the fine line of hope that at some point the tide will turn and positive, gentle training methods based on cooperation and communication will become the norm.


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