Stop Chasing That Dog!

March 27, 2012

This past weekend, I stopped by an office supply store that sits in the middle of an outdoor mall. Arms laden with printer paper and packing tape, I walked across the huge parking lot back to my car. I had just turned the key in the ignition when I spied an Australian shepherd walking on a nearby grassy median, heading toward the main road that runs along the storefronts. Just as I started to turn off the engine, a woman appeared a short distance behind the dog. She had a large adolescent-looking Chow mix on leash, and there was a white terrier mix walking along with her, also off-leash. Thinking uncharitable thoughts about people who allow their dogs off-leash in crowded shopping malls, I started the engine and began to drive away. I had just reached the main road when the car in front of me slammed on his brakes. The Aussie had reached the road and come within inches of being hit by the car. I immediately shut off the car and leaped out. (If you ever want to steal my purse, just put a stray dog in the road.)

The woman went chasing after the dog, and the dog ran from her. I ran to a spot a short distance ahead of them on the sidewalk, crouched down, turned my body slightly to the side, and began to pat my thigh and call the dogs to me in a happy, high-pitched tone. The little white dog reached me first, and I petted her while gently restraining her by the collar. By this time the woman was approaching, and I was able to get the Aussie close enough that she could get her hands on him. As she leashed him I continued to hold the terrier by the collar, petting and happy-talking her so she wouldn’t panic at being restrained. The woman soon got the leash attached to the terrier’s collar as well, and thanked me for the help. I don’t remember exactly what she said, and she had a very heavy accent that was difficult to understand, but I understood that she had somehow lost control of the leashes and the dogs had gotten loose. I was just relieved to see them all safe.

Last week, I was at the park doing my usual dog walking duties when I spied a stray dog way off in the distance, but still within the confines of the park. Just as my mind went into that tactical mode where thoughts like “How will I get the dog into my vehicle?” and “What if I put one dog in the front with me and leave the other behind the gate?” started whirring through my brain, a park worker saw the dog and began to chase it. I was way too far off for him to hear me shout, but if I could have, I would have told him to stop chasing that dog!

It’s understandable that when a dog is in danger, especially if it’s your dog, you want to rush over, grab him, and get him to safety. But chasing a dog who is running away, or who is happily romping just out of reach, can be the worst course of action. If it’s your own dog, it can be great fun—for him, that is. He runs, you chase. Woohoo! Party! In the case of a stray dog who is afraid, being chased can just be plain scary for the dog, but the result is the same; the dog runs away. It may feel counterintuitive at the time, but if you can remember not to chase the dog, you’ll have a much better chance of catching him. Catching strays is a whole other blog, so I’ll stick here with solutions for when it’s your own dog who’s gotten off leash: Try running the other way, away from your dog, and shouting happily in a high-pitched voice. “Come on, Buddy! Chase me, let’s go!” If you’ve ever played the Chase-Me game at home, your dog might already be conditioned to drop everything and run after you. But even if you’ve never done it before, the movement and high-pitched sounds will encourage your dog to run toward you. If that doesn’t work and you’re near home, you can always try getting into your vehicle and pulling up ahead of your dog, then opening the door and saying, “Want to go for a ride?”

You can also pretend to find something really fascinating on the ground or on the grass. Crouch down, pretend to pick something up and examine it, while saying, “Wow, what’s this? Ooh, this looks reaaally interesting!” Since dogs don’t speak English, this one’s all about your intonation, but many dogs will come over to see what treasure you’ve discovered.

As a last resort, you can try something I heard from trainer John Rogerson many years ago: pretend to fall down and be hurt. It takes a bit of acting skill, but the idea is that you’ve tripped and gone down in a heap, and you’re whining like a hurt puppy. Many dogs, realizing the fun is over, will drop the game and rush over to see if you’re okay. This is particularly effective if you have a strong bond with your dog. Just be sure to grab him gently when he comes over, and not to scold him.

These are all effective ways to get your dog back once he’s run off. But better yet, check the fit on his collar periodically and train a rock-solid recall so that all of the foregoing will be completely unnecessary.


Separation Anxiety in Boarding Kennels

March 20, 2012


This week I received the following question:

Nicole, how do you suggest we avoid separation anxiety caused by our dog staying at a boarding kennel for a week? She will be just shy of 5 months, and we don’t want the experience of staying at a kennel while we travel abroad to my brothers wedding to be so traumatic it causes her to develop a SA problem! (her breed is prone to this). Thank you!

Since a lot of us travel and worry about this type of issue with our dogs (although half the time it’s us who suffer from separation anxiety), I thought I’d post the response that I sent, with a bit added in.  

There are a few things you can do to make time in a boarding kennel easier on your dogs:

–     If you can swing it, leave your dog at the kennel for a one or two night stay before the actual trip. That will allow her to get comfortable with the facility and the staff, and will let her know that when she’s left there, you will always return.

–     Send along your dog’s favorite bed, stuffed animal, or anything else that will serve as an “anchor” to the familiar.

–     Give the kennel a sweatshirt or T-shirt you’ve been wearing, to leave in the pen with your dog. Your scent will provide comfort. (If you ever travel for longer than a week, give them two shirts and have them keep the second one sealed in a plastic bag, to be swapped out for the first shirt halfway through the stay.)

–     Make sure the kennel offers some sort of daily exercise, such as a run in a fenced yard or a walk with a staff member. Structured, supervised exercise can mean a reduction in stress hormones.

–     Make sure the kennel has whatever type of chews you normally give at home. Bully sticks, stuffed Kongs, etc. can help, both because chewing is a canine stress-reliever, and because it’s a familiar activity. Ask if you can send some along.

–     Try to keep your own demeanor casual and carefree when dropping your dog off. If you’re stressed, she’ll pick up on it.

One last thought…there are some really wonderful boarding kennels out there, but some dogs do better if left in their own home environment. If you can find a great petsitter, you and your dogs might find it a less stressful arrangement while you’re away.


New Doggy Digs and Preventing Negative Associations

March 13, 2012

As I sit here typing, my husband is outside building a large wooden doghouse. He’s joked recently that the many canine-related construction projects around here over the years have earned him a PDA—Professional Dog Architect. Bodhi long ago dismantled the doghouse we’d had forever, so he and Sierra now need a place they can take shelter in the rain or cold. They had formerly been left in the house if no one was at home, until Bodhi proved time after time his willingness to destroy couches, cushions, and anything else could get his paws on.

Earlier this morning, as my husband paused in his hammering, Sierra wandered over to the mostly-finished structure and began to explore the interior. Seeing my husband standing with a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other, I quickly called to Sierra to come to me. I didn’t want her inside the structure when the pounding began. She’s quick to make associations, and that might have been all it would have taken to ensure that she never ventured inside it again. (Somehow I don’t think my PDA would have been too thrilled about that after all his hard work!)

I became hyper-aware of the canine power of association back when I first began to work with the wolf sanctuary that I would eventually co-run. Many of the wolves were skittish around humans, and it took a lot of time and patience to earn their trust. Every now and then, I’d be petting a wolf when we’d both suddenly be startled by a loud noise or other sharp intrusion. Wolves, like dogs, make quick associations, and unfortunately, I sometimes became associated with the scary thing. Depending on the wolf, it could take some time to win back trust after an incident like that.

Some of you may have read in my book Help for Your Fearful Dog about how Soko, my German Shepherd, was a master of association–fearful dogs often are. I had employed my husband’s assistance to get Soko over her fear of the microwave beep. She had started with a fear of his pager beeping (remember those?), and then associated that with the beep made by the microwave. She further associated the microwave beep with the door opening, and eventually even back-chained it to the freezer door opening. You can imagine what a problem this became, especially since my dietary habits at the time largely revolved around popping things from the freezer into the microwave.

I set up a protocol: My husband was positioned at the microwave. I stood with Soko at the opposite end of the house, where the open floor plan allowed us to see each other. He would open and close the door softly, and I would feed hot dogs. All was going along nicely until he slammed the door a bit too hard, startling Soko. Can you guess what happened next? She became afraid of hot dogs! Fortunately, she got past both the fear of hot dogs and the fear of the microwave beep—but it was another example of the power of association.

Here’s an update on the doghouse: While I expected the dogs to jump on and off the roof or lounge on it, they haven’t just yet. Sierra has been investigating the inside very carefully for mice. Have I mentioned her mouse obsession? She’s already begun to dig a hole beneath the structure, convinced there is a colony of mice mocking her from beneath, which for all I know, there is. I’m sure that hole will turn into a cellar very soon. Maybe Sierra and Bodhi are the the ones that deserve the title of PDA.

I’m So Excited!

March 7, 2012

I really love presenting seminars. Spreading education about positive, gentle training methods, helping people to help their dogs, teaching trainers how to better help clients’ dogs, and meeting new people—it’s truly a joy. Okay, the traveling part, not so much…but once I’m there, it’s great.

That’s why I’m so excited that, in addition to my popular “Helping Fearful Dogs” seminar, I’ll be rolling out a brand new full-day seminar this year. “Two Timely Topics: Separation Anxiety & Dog-Dog Play” features completely new material. Attendees at the San Diego APDT conference heard a bit of the separation anxiety seminar, but there’s even more information included in the ½ day presentation. For example, how owners can use technology (such as Skype, or ready-made products such as VueZone or Dropcam) to monitor how their dogs are coping, or how natural alternatives to pharmacological intervention can be helpful in many cases. Busting old myths about separation anxiety is gratifying, and the seminar is filled with tricks and tips that will surely help owners and trainers alike.

Preparing for the dog-dog play seminar was much more time-consuming than any project I’ve put together in the past, largely due to the time spent videotaping and editing. (I guess in this digital age I need to stop saying, “videotaping,” but you get my meaning.) In addition to including footage from outside sources, I spent hours and hours at dog parks videotaping dogs playing. I started out having certain types of behaviors I wanted to capture in mind, but soon found even more interesting interactions to film–for example, instances when a play bow didn’t really mean “let’s play” or an owner completely misunderstood their dog’s behavior. The thing that surprised me most while reviewing the footage were the instances where I’d come across something I’d completely missed during the shoot. It’s hard to focus on so many things at once, particularly when you’re filming running dogs, and the camera captured things my eyes didn’t.

There have been some very informative studies done in the last few years about dog-dog play. Some have focused on puppies, and some on adult dogs. The research covers topics such as preferences in playmates as far as gender and familiarity, who instigates play, whether the 50/50 rule (play should be “fair” as far as give and take) applies, and a lot more. There are some fascinating conclusions, and seminar attendees will hear about them in between watching videos. One thing I can guarantee is that watching the footage—particularly the many parts I’ve slow-mo’d down—will improve your own skills at assessing canine interactions and body language.

My “2012 Tour” (hah—touring never happened when I played bass guitar, but I guess it’s never too late) begins soon, and the new seminar is included in many of the dates. The fun starts in April with a weekend seminar in New Jersey. I’ll be in Missouri in May, and then in June, first Murphy, NC and then much closer to home in Burbank, CA. In August it’s Toledo, OH and Lawrenceville, GA, followed by dates in Seattle, WA in September and New Orleans, LA in October. You can find the hosts’ contact info on the Phantom Publishing website. I hope to see a lot of you on the road. Be sure to come up and say hello!

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