The Case of the 160-Pound Yard Guard

July 30, 2013

My pet sitter recently called me with a behavior question. She’d just begun a weeklong assignment caring for a 3-year-old, 160-pound English Mastiff at the owner’s home. Lisa had taken care of the dog before, and they’d gotten along well. This time, however, Lucy was displaying a previously unseen behavior. Whenever Lisa placed her hand on the gate to enter the yard, Lucy would stare at her and issue a low, throaty growl. She’d then bark as Lisa entered. Once they were in the back yard things went back to normal, with Lucy jumping and rompting around like a big, happy puppy. But the threateing growl resurfaced whenever Lisa approached the front gate to leave.

Lisa was concerned for her safety, and rightly so. She was also worried about what would happen to the dog in the future if a pet sitter couldn’t interact with her, as the family took frequent trips. Lisa scheduled someone to go with her to the next feeding, to wait outside the gate just in case something went wrong. What she really wanted, though, was to change the situation. Not knowing the details of the dog’s history or anything about her, there was no way I could say for sure why Lucy was behaving the way she was. Lisa wanted to know if there was anything she was doing with her own body language to trigger the behavior, but I doubted it—she’s very aware of her body language, and is very good with dogs. (And can I tell you how thrilled I am to have a pet sitter who’s not only great with dogs, but always wants to learn more about their behavior?) I didn’t think this was a typical case of fear-based reactivity, like those where a dog is only confident enough to nip once the person turns their back—the behavior didn’t start when Lisa turned her back to walk to the gate, but only once she’d reached it. My gut feeling was that for whatever reason, the gate had become a highly charged location for Lucy, to the point that she became reactive whenever someone touched it, regardless of whether they were coming or going.

Tossing treats would be an easy enough way for Lisa to gain access when entering, but more needed to be done. I explained how to teach Lucy the “Find It” game by tossing a treat on the ground for her and saying, “Find it!” in a happy voice. Lisa would begin the game in the back yard where Lucy felt safe. Once Lucy was happily playing along, Lisa would gradually move the game down the walkway that led to the front gate, always monitoring the dog for signs of stress. If all went well, she’d move close to the gate, still playing Find It. To exit, she’d scatter-toss a windfall of treats in a final Find It, and then walk out. (I also suggested including a well-stuffed Kong be included in the last toss.) Lisa said she’d try it the next morning. I assured her that if things didn’t look promising, I’d accompany her on the evening feeding to observe.

The next morning, I received an email. Lisa wrote:
“The Find It game was a hit! We played in the back yard, and Lucy caught on quickly. Each time she would come and sit, and wait for the ‘Find it’ command. She was wagging her tail every time she came back to me.
In the front yard, we played the game. I moved closer to the gate before each throw. On my exit, I threw the ‘Find it’ cookies in one direction and the cookie-filled Kong in another and went out the gate. Lucy could care less! I left, and she was so happy playing the Find It game.”

Lisa has gone back to the home a few times since and each time, Lucy was very happy to see her. There were no incidents on the way out, either. Lisa finally got to speak with the owners last night and told them what had been going on. They revealed that there had been a teenager who was taunting Lucy through the gate a short while back, and that Lucy had actually snapped at the boy’s hand. As a potential root cause for Lucy’s behavior, that made a lot of sense!

The whole situation with Lucy made me reflect on what a trainer who relies heavily on physical force would have done, assuming the person wasn’t up to overpowering a reactive, 160-pound mastiff. Someone had actually suggested to Lisa that the owner should physically “correct” Lucy for the behavior. It’s true that allowing a huge dog (or any dog, for that matter) to growl and lunge at visitors is not okay. But as with all behavior issues, we’ve got to look at why the dog was behaving that way in the first place. As with any canine behavior problem, instead of reacting with violence, we must address the underlying issue. That way, the symptoms cease naturally, and there are no unwanted side effects like those that can occur when meeting violence with violence. Lucy’s dad loves the joy the Find It game gives her and plans to keep playing. I’m glad, as he’ll be able to use it in situations such as when Lucy notices another dog he doesn’t want her approaching, or the moment she spies a squirrel. Most of all, I’m glad Lucy is learning that the gate is not a scary place, and that the Case of the 160-pound Yard Guard ended well and safely for everyone.


Deer, Dogs, and Body Language

July 23, 2013

deer portrait smallMy husband and I just returned from a trip to Ireland, where I was teaching a weekend seminar. We stayed three extra days and absolutely loved the country. We met some wonderful people, saw some beautiful scenery, and even danced to Irish music at a non-tourist bar. I would have happily danced the hornpipe all night had the band not quit at midnight! But one of the highlights of our trip had to be feeding the deer in Phoenix Park.

The park, which was close to our hotel in Dublin, is the largest in Europe. It’s home to a variety of wildlife including many deer who roam the park freely. There are wild ones, who are naturally skittish around humans, and then there’s a herd who have become conditioned to people. These tamer deer congregate around the park’s hospital at lunch and tea times and are used to being hand fed. Armed with carrots and apples, courtesy of our fabulous self-appointed tour guides Denise O’Moore and Mike Ho, we set out in search of deer.

The first deer we encountered were in a herd of twenty or so, who were moving nervously away from a pair of tourists who were trying to approach them. The husband hung back while the woman walked straight toward them, arm outstretched, food in hand. The deer wanted nothing to do with it. Finally, they left. Denise and Mike tossed some apple pieces a short distance from us to draw the deer closer. Once the deer had come closer, I crouched, turned sideways, averted my gaze, and extended a carrot toward a large male. I know nothing about deer, but figured that keeping my body language non-threatening, just as I would with a dog, could only help. Happily, like a dog who is nervous but wants treats, the deer approached and cautiously ate from my hand. To be perfectly honest, I had a bit of a moment when, from my low vantage point, I saw most of the herd coming toward me. I’m a lot more comfortable with wolves and dogs than I am with hoofstock, and these guys had some pretty big antlers. But we seemed to understand each other, and I was able to feed them for a while. Later, we all ended up feeding the tamer deer at the hospital, which was great fun and much easier; but feeding that one wild deer was the highlight for me.

Wild deer.

Wild deer.

Tame deer. Pretty sure I was singing to it here.

Tame deer. Pretty sure I was singing to this one.

Back at the L.A. airport, while waiting for our bags (which ended up being delayed a day since they apparently went sightseeing in Boston where we changed planes), I noticed a woman with an adorable LWFD. Yes, it’s an official breed, or should be—the Little White Fluffy Dog. A man was petting the dog. I hadn’t seen him approach the dog, but I did see the dog moving uncomfortably away, licking his lips, looking away, and developing a sudden itch that was most likely attributable to stress. A short while later, still waiting for our bags, I asked if I could pet the dog. After getting permission, I did pretty much what I did with the deer, with the added high-pitched verbal silliness that comes from being away from one’s own dogs for a week. The dog jumped on me as though I was his long-lost friend, wriggling from head to toe, wagging his tail wildly. “Well, he certainly likes you,” remarked the woman.

So did the dog and deer react the way they did because I’m special, or because I have magical powers? As much as I’d love to believe the answers are yes and yes, the truth is, it’s all about body language. Whether the being is a predator or prey animal, humans still present a potential threat. But as anyone who works around wildlife knows, there’s still a lot we can do to display non-threatening body language. Although what’s effective may vary with species, putting animals at ease has a lot to do with moving slowly and projecting calm energy. Although some people seem to have a natural way with animals, knowledge, experience and practice certainly help. Music may be the universal language, but across many species, body language and intent is intuitively understood as well. And how magical is that?

Peer Pressure? Bite Me!

July 9, 2013

Here’s a pop quiz:

1. What should you do when your trainer uses harsh training methods?
2. What should you do if your veterinarian slams your dog on his back to show him who’s boss?
3. What should you do if your dog is scared of people, but someone insists on petting him anyway?

This is the easiest quiz ever, because all of the answers are the same: You stand up for your dog!

We’re taught early on in life to be polite. Women especially have the importance of courtesy and manners drilled into them from a very young age. We also learn to respect authority, and in most cases, that’s a good thing. But when someone is mistreating your dog, all bets are off.

I had a client once who came to me after attending a group class with another trainer. On the first day of class, this “trainer” (and I use the term loosely) showed the owners how to teach the dog what the word “no” meant, even before the dog had done anything wrong. This “training technique” consisted of whacking the dog over the nose with a rubber hose while screaming, “No!” The woman was mortified. She stood up in front of the entire class and informed the trainer that she would never do that to her dog. She then left.

The woman who walked out on that training class is a hero. She did two very difficult things: she stood up to someone in authority, and she did it in front of a room full of people. Don’t underestimate the power of group dynamics; many times a person will go along with something just because everyone else is doing it. No one wants to be ostracized.

Many years ago I attended a seminar given by a well-known behaviorist. A demonstration was conducted to show how a dog’s nails could be trimmed, even if the dog was scared or reactive. The dog was lying on his belly in a suspended sling contraption, with his legs dangling loosely down. I remember the terrified look on the dog’s face. I remember all too clearly the dog’s screams. The behaviorist trimmed the helpless dog’s nails anyway. I don’t know what this was supposed to show; it certainly wouldn’t make nail trims any easier the next time. But the scene made a lasting impression on me. I don’t have many regrets in this life, but I regret to this day that I didn’t stand up, said what I thought, and walk out. Upon speaking with other attendees later on, I discovered that many of them had felt the same way, but we were all too intimidated to say anything at the time.

I do better nowadays. When we first adopted Sierra, we learned that she’d been brought in as a stray, and had been impounded at the shelter four times. At home, we quickly discovered that she had the escape talents of Houdini. We extended our fencing and practiced vigilance. On the morning walks we’d take around the local park, I fell in with a group of dog owners who allowed their dogs to romp and run around the surrounding hillsides.
“Let her off leash,” one woman suggested. I explained why that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Come on, you’ve got to let her have some fun,” another chimed in. I suggested that Sierra becoming lost in the hills and ending up back at the shelter probably wouldn’t be all that much fun for either of us.
“You’re a trainer, can’t you just train her to be okay off leash?” a man challenged. Sure. But I’d only had Sierra a few weeks, not a few years, and our bond and her training weren’t rock solid yet. Those well-meaning folks persisted week after week, until I finally told them gently but firmly to please stop asking, if they wanted us to continue walking with them. Looking back years later, being all too familiar with Sierra’s extremely strong prey drive, it’s a good thing I never gave in to that peer pressure. She’d have been one bunny away from disappearing over the mountains and far away.

Peer pressure, and pressure from authority figures, can be intense. People can be judgmental and condescending. Standing up to it can be difficult, and may mean risking social ostracism. You could be disinvited from a social group, or dropped as a client. But you are your dog’s advocate, the only thing standing between him and the big, bad world. You’re the one who understands his temperament, knows his behavior, and can predict better than anyone what will scare him or cause him to become aggressive. You are the one person he trusts completely, and looks to for safety. Hey, everyone’s got an opinion, and they’re welcome to it. My response to unrelenting peer pressure? Bite me! My dog is infinitely more important than what you or anyone else might think of me.

So You Think You Know Bloat?

July 1, 2013

Mojo looks into the distanceI had planned a different post for this week, but a message I received changed my mind. It was from the owner of a dog who had bloated, and died. The woman blamed herself for not recognizing the symptoms sooner and getting her dog to the emergency vet faster. The sad truth is that it could happen to anyone, and besides, many dog owners have never even heard of bloat. Millions of dogs die from bloat every year, and there’s more to it than the “usual” symptoms. And so, below is a re-sharing of my original blog on the subject from a few years ago, when my soul dog Mojo was still alive. (That’s him in the photo.) Please share this potentially life-saving information with others.

So You Think You Know Bloat?

I thought I did. It’s the second leading cause of death among dogs, after all. I knew that a potentially fatal thing can happen when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and fluid, and that it’s often accompanied by gastric torsion—a twisting of the stomach. If the dog isn’t given emergency veterinary treatment in time, he will die. Bloat happens most often to deep-chested breeds, although the cause is still largely unknown. The warning signs include a stomach that’s bloated and hard, and dry heaving without the ability to vomit.

Well, that was the extent of my knowledge until a few short weeks ago when my own dog Mojo bloated. It was late afternoon on the Friday leading up to Memorial Day weekend. (There seems to be an unwritten rule that dog emergencies happen on holiday weekends and whenever else your vet is closed.) Mojo, my now 14 ½-year-old German shepherd/Rottie/Malamute/wolf mix, began pacing and whining. He vomited a little bit of white, foamy-looking stuff. I called the emergency vet, as my regular vet was already gone. The receptionist, after consulting with the vet on duty, told me to simply fast Mojo for twelve hours. Ten minutes later my husband came home from work and I told him what had happened, and that I was worried. As we were speaking, Mojo went outside and spewed a huge amount of that same white foam. We immediately rushed him to the nearest emergency clinic.

A tech took Mojo to the back room to be examined by the one vet on duty, who was busy trying to save another dog who was also having a very bad start to his weekend. The vet came out and told us that Mojo had bloated. I was floored—bloat had never even entered my mind. After all, he hadn’t been dry heaving; he’d actually been vomiting. But he was bloated, gastric torsion and all, and we were told that if emergency surgery was not performed immediately, he would die. The fee they quoted us was incredibly high and, as they warned, the aftercare was going to be very difficult. And he was fourteen-and-a-half. His chances of making it through the surgery were 50/50. Were we sure we wanted them to try to save him? Of course we were!

It was a very long and very difficult weekend, but thank goodness, Mojo pulled through. The first 72 hours after bloat surgery are critical, as many dogs develop heart arrhythmias during that time and die. Did I mention how long and difficult the weekend was? The following weeks involved, as promised, plenty of aftercare, but as my husband said, “He’s the Mighty Mojo Man, he’s a fighter.”

In the course of telling some of my dog training clients about the experience, I was shocked to realize how little people actually know about bloat. Most I spoke to hadn’t even heard of it. I am now on a mission to inform as many of my clients (as well as dog owners I encounter) about bloat, including the common warning signs, as well as the not-so-common ones.

Mojo is laying at my feet as I finish typing this. He seems very happy to be at home where he surely must know how lucky and how loved he is.

July 2013 Note: My apologies for not including more detailed information on the warning signs in the original re-post. It had included a few links which I believe no longer had the most up-to-date information, and I deleted them. Here are a couple of links to more information. These are just a few. Googling “canine bloat” will bring up more for you to research. (video: makes the excellent point that you should know what your dog’s belly feels like normally, so you’ll know if it becomes hard/distended.)

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