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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Grief with pet loss—often met with shaming—is very much a bigger part of the human experience

Many years ago, I walked through my first professional experience with death. Being in the midst of a family who was navigating their pet’s decline in health and then the process of being humanely euthanized gave me a very different vantage point of death than I’d ever imagined I’d have. I also knew that I wasn’t as equipped as I could be; experience and time solved that in the coming years. Since that first experience, I’d seen even more than one might expect as a caregiver for pets: countless unexpected deaths, even more terminal diagnoses, age-related decline that had become too complex for the veterinary hospice care plan and medications to manage -- even a couple of pets who died in my care. I consider myself honored to have been a part of that as well as sitting vigil with families during a pet’s final hours, and having asked questions on behalf of a family while Face Timing with them during an unexpected emergency vet visit when they were at a loss for words after hearing news they didn’t want to hear, all the while scratching their dog’s backside because it comforted them, the one at the center of everything.    

It’s been a vicarious education that I never expected but with every opportunity, I felt compelled to run toward.  

One thing that every one of those situations has in common is grief.

The grief of families, of their extended circle. Not not just a blanket of anguish, no sir. It’s bereavement that ranges from the kind one feels when they get news and though the outcome of it is certainly dire, the path leaves much to the imagination -- a very active one, at times -- of grim anticipation. The fresh grief that leaves us numb, raw when that most unwelcome event swoops in, yes, that. The grieving that occurs when the dust settles just a little, and everyone goes back to their respective lives and one is left to be with that disquieting sense of everything is different. There’s the anguish that one feels when looking back and lamenting that if there was more money in the savings account, additional treatment could’ve been an option, if the pet would have only been amenable to accepting treatment. Oh, lest we forget about that kind of grief that leads others to quip, ‘’s just a dog -- you can get another to replace them, right?’

Regardless if the grief is fresh, long-set in, disenfranchised, anticipatory or blended with guilt, it’s not easy to endure. And, as I’ve seen time and time again, they’re not unified experiences, despite what well-meaning people will tell you. No one can attest, ‘I know how you feel,’ as our respective relationships with our pets are unique and complex than imaginable. The deaths of our pets are also, as one friend recently pointed out, so deeply felt because we share so much more time with them than other humans -- even say, our parents.

There are as many forms of grief as there are ways to grieve. Whether our pet dies as a result from a sudden illness, an accident, a terminal disease or age-related decline, it seems important to note that those factors often determine how the grief manifests and how we walk through it.

And it’s not something that we get over, our grief associated with losing a pet or anyone for that matter: we get through it. I tend to think our grief is quite a testament to how much our bonds have evolved with our companion animals, and in some cases, what those relationships represent. For some, it’s straight up ‘hey, this is the best relationship that I’ve ever had with another living thing’, while for many, it’s a pivotal cradle-to-grave partnership. For others, that pet represents a bond with another human loved one who might have been that dog, cat, bird, or snake’s owner before they died, and the pet is that living link to said person and now that the pet is in need of extra care -- whether it’s a manageable health crisis, an accident, hospice or even death -- this event has an impact beyond measure. Each of these scenarios, each relationship reflects so much about our lives beyond pets.

So, know that your grief is valid; it’s valued (and yes, valuable), relatable, teachable and having it in your lap is very much a part of the human experience as we know it today.

There’s no right way to grieve. We just do it, our way, and there needn’t be any shame in grieving. We’ve enough on our proverbial plates to contend with in grief to be subjected to being judged on grieving our pets or for how long or how we express it on any given day.  And there’s no shame in taking the time that we need, nor seeking support in navigating the process.

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Thank you for not walking your dog

Upon meeting with a family of a happy Labrador mix a few weeks ago, the busy mom of two toddlers sheepishly mused, "I don't walk her as much as I should. I don't seem to have as much time these days, with the kids and all..." 

"No need to apologize," I responded. "You have this ginormous fenced backyard, she's occupied with playing fetch and squirrel-chasing. Let's not neglect the fact that she can run around free."

The truth is, walking said pooch is not all that fun. And by her human's admission, she's right—some of it has to do with poor skills on the part of the dog. But in my experience with her, outings are often fraught with challenges because of stuff going on in their neighborhood. The former could be remedied, but I know all too well how much work it is to try and smooth out. And for a busy young family, the bandwidth isn't there. And even if they could manage the training, there's the external stimuli and other dogs that have inadequate tools to cope and the humans with them that lack even more knowledge to create an ideal environment. Yes, it can be really hard to train our canine friends and then proof them in every challenging environment they'll face and expect the results we desire. 

I don't have a problem saying that I find dog walks a bit overrated. Sacrilege, right? Not so fast. 

Sure, dog walks can be fun, great exercise and terrific enrichment for our canine friends. But they are devoid of all of that for some dogs. So, what's the point? I ask. Walks are not the only form of exercise, fun or enrichment and I'm not sure who decided that walks were a must-do. There are plenty of other options to get dogs outside and burn off some energy, get some much-needed exercise or sniff around and use stimulate their brains. 

I've several canine charges that find walks challenging, and I accommodate that. Maybe that means only going for walks when their neighborhoods aren't so busy. It means avoiding one street because there's that one house where the well-meaning owners decided to go with an electric fence and their dog often makes their way to the street anyway and we'll have unwelcome interaction. Sometimes I go to Plan B, and stick with what's enriching, fun and what the dog can handle. Because when a dog needs to get outside and enjoy themselves, it should be a fun, favorable endeavor, not a daily struggle for both ends of the leash.

If you've a fenced yard, why not have a vigorous game of fetch? A ball, a Frisbee, a favored stuffed toy, heck! a stick will do just fine. Give your dog pal a play bow and give chase—they love that. Hide-and-seek is great fun, of course, as is a game of Find It. modeled after an Easter egg hunt, I hide a couple of a dogs favorite toys in the yard (alternatively I'll use a few favorite dog treats) and then open the door to let them hunt all the while encouraging them, 'find it!'. These games are great because they incorporate not only activity, but something far more important: engagement with their trusted humans. Dogs love—and need—this kind of interaction with us. It builds and maintains the human-animal bond and shared experience. It's also good for us humans. I can attest that I'll use any excuse to be silly and laugh. 

Don't have a fenced yard? Consider asking a friend or neighbor if you can borrow theirs while they're not around. Visiting a dog park during low-volume periods can be a boon; check out times of day when there's no one around and take advantage of that. One of the things that I love to do for dogs with no fence is to clip a long lead to their harness and head to a park or natural area when there is a low-volume of foot traffic around. Giving a dog the chance to sniff, to have autonomy, to make decisions about how long they'll be exploring and lingering over an area is tops. Here's a video demonstrating how useful a long lead can be. 

There's no need to allow others to shame you into forcing your dog into situations that they struggle in, even if it seems as benign as taking a walk. I can assure you that a leashed walk with a dog can be one of the most stressful situations for both dog and human. Of course, it's fine to work on leash manners on a regular basis when your dog is receptive to it, but if they really have trouble, as a professional, let me assure you I'll never throw shade on you when you decide to forgo it and stick with activities that your pet feels safe engaging in. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care and is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The lasting resonance of using "against medical advice" in vet medicine can complicate a family's already difficult decision

Instead of a traditional blog post, I'm offering up a vlog entry this week. I highlight a situation I've seen in my work in pet sitting and especially as one that has come to specialize in pet palliative and pet hospice care.

As pet professionals, our jobs, especially when a family is facing a grim diagnosis, can be very challenging, there's no doubt. This is especially true for veterinary doctors, vet techs (nurses) and support staff. And as professionals, how we use the words at our disposal is as important as the skills and knowledge that we've attained. We can't forget that.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been featured guest on the Community Cats Podcast, talking about how experienced pet sitters can be a valuable asset for families with pets, as well as in the animal rescue, veterinary and animal hospice communities. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Monday, September 11, 2017

Natural disasters magnify the conflicted decisions that are made despite the human-animal bond

In the hours since Hurricane Irma made landfall, I've read a couple of articles that have been circulating on social media about the pets that were left behind by their humans to fend for themselves. Left in enclosures, chained outside—even chained to cars. There has been so much in the way of commenting, knee-jerk reactions, armchair-ing and demonizing by well-meaning people.

But when I read things like this, I can't help but be reminded of how, when a Very Big Crisis occurs, humans often lack the resources that they need to not to only cope, but survive the upheaval of a traumatic event. Resources that are beyond financial. And in the event of an evacuation for a hurricane—having to leave one's core source of safety and stability and wholeness, their home—resources that are barely sufficient to keep themselves safe and sane. People often have to seek refuge in places that are hardly enough to sustain them, let alone their pets: a family member or friend's home, a temporary shelter, or in some cases, goodness knows where. 

When people are forced into that kind of situation, they often feel understandably conflicted and cornered, that they have no other choice but to make decisions that are less-than-ideal.

This is no Pollyanna-tinged point of view, no excusing the choice, but an explanation. An explanation of feeling powerless, frightened and the limbic brain taking over because this is very much a fight or flight alternative, and yes, our objectivity and compassion and are easily eroded when that's the case. This is the ugly part of our humanness.

How do I know this? Because I see it everyday in my work. In the trenches of pet sitting and animal hospice. Yes, it can be impossibly ugly and difficult to be witness to, but not for the reasons you think. 

The ugly, amplified view of everyday 

I see people make unfortunate decisions every day that in ordinary circumstances they'd never otherwise consider, only because they lack resources to do better. And believe me, that's not lost on them. These situations run the gambit, and sometimes they lead to outcomes that no one, including the family, wants to see.

One example that comes to mind are the folks that I encounter who can't bring themselves to get their pet to the vet for an assessment when I first gently declare that I'm seeing significant changes in their pet's health, then need to gradually be more urgent as the weeks or days tick by, my quiet moral support steady all the while. Time that passes by as the pet receives inadequate, misguided or no palliation at all for a clearly terminal illness that they likely won't weather the way they deserve to, nor be euthanized for in a timely or peaceful manner. 

Why? Because as I've seen time and time again, 'getting there' mentally, admitting to ourselves that there's something serious going on that will take our pet away from us—the one constant that is there, the one tether to normalcy that we might have, yeah, that—is so mind-bending that we shut down. We avoid it. If we avoid it, it's not happening. ['It will be okay...'] The truth is that we have only so much space, so much bandwidth for crisis, to be fully engaged in crisis-mode, and our brains are designed to operate that way. And when we have low resources to start with—varying degrees of the always stigmatizing mental illness, anxiety, financial instability, little or no outside resources, existing crises—we have far less bandwidth. We go into survival mode, a state of being with inherently very narrow margins. 

Yes, this what happens, the kind of thing we on the fringes of the situation prefer to ignore. 

But you know what? I don't judge people in that space. I can't. All I can do is try to help empower these humans that are doing their highest to have access to resources if possible and make the best choices that they can. And when they can't, I do my best to support them through the glaring clarity of hindsight that rears its head.

This is happening everyday, all around us, these decisions that are made. The choices that leave people grappling with knowing what they have to work with leaves them feeling terrible, and yes, internally judging themselves. Though it might not seem like it, the mental paralysis of doing nothing when a pet is terminally ill, hoping all will work out fine—they aren't going to die, they can't, I need them, everything in my life is Hell—and a family deciding to leave their pets behind during an impending hurricane because they feel no choice and wishing for the best is very much sourced from the same place in our psyches. 

It's people, just trying to cope as best they can, given the set of circumstances before them. But, hurricane fare is more compelling, right? 

So, the truth is that we don't know the stories, the families behind the gripping, heart wrenching photographs of dogs chained to trees, confined in enclosures outdoors, left behind. I have a hard time imagining that these humans were looking for an opportunity to be cruel to their pets, goodness knows there are lot of ways to do that on a regular basis. I'll wager they wouldn't be that seemingly cruel on any other day than on the one that they have to flee for safety from a tropical cyclone.

Think about that: chaining your dog to a car. 

What does that say to you? What it screams, begs to have to me hear is that 'I was desperate and I couldn't make another choice. Look what I had to do. I felt like it was the best chance, a proverbial red flag, to perhaps have someone help them when I couldn't.' 

What we do need to remember is that in the 12-year wake of Hurricane Katrina, we know better, and are doing more to accommodate families with pets in the event of a natural disaster, but we've still a long way to go. In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, I heard plenty of chatter about the lack of resources for the thousands of families who needed to relocate with their pets temporarily, so that is, in my opinion, telling of why some families made the choice that they did. The choice to leave their pets behind. One that as I understand it, they'll be prosecuted for. 

We judge people for staying put in the event of a hurricane, which they often do because they lack resources like a place to go, money or reliable transportation to get far enough from harm's way. Or, though they won't admit it to others, but they don't want to leave their pets. We judge them more harshly for evacuating like they've been directed, but leave their pets because those family members are not welcome, allowed or valued as much by others as their human counterparts. I propose that instead of judgement, we look with at situations like this with the clarity they deserve and create an environment of cooperation, support and caring so that families don't need to be backed into this corner.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been featured guest on the Community Cats Podcast, talking about how experienced pet sitters can be a valuable asset for families with pets, as well as in the animal rescue, veterinary and animal hospice communities. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Friday, September 1, 2017

Why does the age-old conundrum of children not taking responsibility for family pets thrive?

I can recall to what seems like a lifetime ago, sitting in the passenger seat of the car when my 8 year-old stepson bounded into the backseat, teary-eyed at the prospect of having to get rid of his cat, Silver. He and his mother were moving again, it seemed, and the year-old cat wasn’t welcome in their new digs.

“Dad, can he come and live with you?”, his face pleading.

My then husband looked my way, knowing that he and I would have to talk about this in private for several reasons. First, it was a big commitment, taking responsibility for a young cat -- any animal, really -- something that he knew I took seriously. His son’s mother also had a habit of welcoming pets into their home life with a casualness that made me cringe: Silver had a sibling that was adopted at the same time from the shelter, and had ‘accidentally’ made their way outside just a short time before. Before that, there was a puppy that grew into a youngster who ‘disappeared’. As the boy's father and I discussed later, I didn’t want either of them to think that our taking pets into our home would be handled with the same laissez-faire attitude, nor would we be taking anymore animals off of her hands, among other things.

“Silver will have a permanent, stable home here, with us,” we explained to both my stepson and his mother days later, making clear that if he came to live with us, he wouldn’t be going back with them if their living situation changed. This was an arrangement that I especially felt was mindfully fair, given their track record with pets, not to mention the fact that this young child needed to have some semblance of what a responsibility of having a pet is really like, and Silver deserved to stay in one home. They happily agreed, (and of course they wanted the cat to come back with them months later when they moved, a request that I reminded them was out of the question), so we had ourselves a cat.

I should interject that I had no expectation that an 8 year-old would have any responsibility in caring for Silver. Doing so would be unreasonable and futile in my opinion, and I made that clear to his father going in. (After all, we were the ones taking on the responsibility for the pet.) Instead, he would be witness to the grown ups of the household modeling of thoughtfulness, sacrifices of time and resources, care taking, the joys of watching a young cat unfold into a full-fledged adult, as well as the difficulties, like when pets are sick and we have to sacrifice more so that they can have what they need. While in our midst, he’d really have no choice but to be tied to our commitment; before doing things for ourselves, especially traipsing back and forth to fun outings -- no, wait -- the adults needed to ensure that Silver had fresh water and food, and was the litter box tended to? If the grown ups couldn’t proceed before that was done, that meant the younger family member couldn’t either. As we thought about vacations, no fun planning for anyone until care was secured for the pet.

You get the idea. And so did the kid. Sort of. Well, as best an 8, 9, 10 year-old is able to.

The truth is that he wouldn’t have learned any more had we insisted that caring for Silver was ‘his’ responsibility. We didn’t absolve him of any responsibility, we exemplified it day after day and he saw what comes from honoring commitments and taking care of another living thing. And, this same thing was patterned when we welcomed Gretchen into the family, which changed the dynamic of intention and caregiving and sacrifice further. Expecting a child to take responsibility for a pet is a recipe for disaster and strife, though it is a bonus when they do pick up the slack, and by osmosis, he did at times.

I read a post by Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and fellow writer, Steve Dale this week regarding the collective disposability of pets, at least some species of pets, that some families seem to feel. In an exchange with a parent who was looking to re-home a pair of hamsters because their daughter had “gone through that phase”, Dale voiced his concerns about any lessons that were to be missed out on for her offspring, and that pets, in this case, hamsters, are not disposable -- the latter being something that the parent indicated they felt.

Dale’s feelings on this are understandable. And he’s correct in saying that no pet is disposable. But I’m ambivalent about his assertion that the parent can mandate that the child continue to care for the hamsters, and that if that doesn’t pan out, well then, the parent can assume sole responsibility of the pets to “offer the lesson that these animals aren’t disposable”.  

There’s a problem: just because it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t mean that the child will actually learn a lesson because the parent has stepped up to the plate after the original plan implodes, and often, they don’t. Often, they learn that they can just pass the buck. Someone else will take care of things instead.

The context of how a pet is welcomed into the family makes an impact.

Children are more apt to be empathetic, caring and responsible toward pets when they see that modeled with a sense of thoughtfulness and consistent diligence by their parents and other adults in their life from the start. That is, rather than us buying a cute hamster for our child on a whim because they’re cuddly and small and live in a cage (and cost so little, another issue) -- what’s the big deal, right?? -- we instead cultivate a different mindset: welcoming a pet into the family because, as a whole, we’re ready for that long-term commitment and want to share in giving them the kind of life they deserve. Yes, that means selecting a pet based on what we as families can handle, what can be afforded and what is an overall good fit for the family unit, and talking openly about it, not because of the pet’s appearance or that kitten that is part of a litter from down the street is free and it could be a good lesson as any in empathy. And, though it doesn’t mean that the young members of the family need to be exempt from the care taking and day-to-day responsibilities associated with having a pet, it does mean that parents need to dive in with the knowledge that ultimately, they’ll be responsible for ensuring that said pet is not only tended to, but patterning that sense of diligence everyday through open dialogue, action and inclusion that in most cases will take root.

That, in itself is the lesson, the solution to the exponential problem: the numbers of homeless animals that are waiting in shelters because of a family’s inability to keep them, the surmounting population of pets who are still with their families but their human-animal bond is broken because of behavioral and health issues stemming from lack of enrichment and interaction. I could go on. I’ll be honest in saying that though it might be an unpopular view in some circles, in my experience, in some cases it’s better for a pet to be re-homed successfully if its possible. The fallout from neglectfulness or when the animal-human bond is broken (or never really established) isn’t pretty, and I’ve seen it first hand.

So, while Dale was on the right track in saying that the family should honor their commitment, that commitment first has to be centered from the right place. People are more likely to carry on a healthy mindset of welcoming pets into the family if they see that patterned for them as children.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Understanding scratching behavior in cats can keep your furniture—and the human-animal bond—intact

Nearly every time I walk into a client's home to care for their cat, the pet will greet me and within a few minutes of my arrival, if they're amenable to coming out and interacting, they'll begin giving their scratching post or cat tree a good bit of attention by rubbing up on it and scratching. This isn't at all surprising to me; cats express themselves in all sorts of ways and by them coming out and engaging in normal, healthy activity when their people are away, tells me they're doing well. There are benefits of scratching—some of them include being that it allows them to get in a good stretch, it's used an olfactory marker and an emotional release—so any I say, scratch away, friends. But only if its done it in an appropriate place, of course. 

Inappropriate scratching is a bone of contention in many households with cats, and it's understandable. The activity can produce mighty destructive results; I've seen many a piece of furniture destroyed, and some cat's penchant for wood trim is unmistakable. It seems important to say that this issue is one of the most-cited for relinquishment to shelters, attempts at rehoming—or even declawing, a topic that I assure you is a hotbed of well-deserved controversy in pet care professional and advocacy circles. 

Oft-misunderstood, I need to reiterate that scratching is a completely normal behavior, much like a good chew party is for dogs and it's something that felines do even into old age. Equally important to state is that by providing appropriate objects to scratch on, you'll not only be saving your stuff from being destroyed along with your important human-animal bond—it's also a terrific form of feline enrichment.

So, your cat needs something enjoyable and appropriate to scratch on. What to choose? There are tons of products on the market, right? It's easy to pick up the most convenient or newest thing on the market, but really, as a 2015 study illustrated, it all comes down to a cat's preferences; the substrate used, the structure itself and where said appropriate scratching product is placed. 

Disposable fun

Scratching boards made from cardboard are a common sight in pet stores, and are an economical option. Kitties can give them a pretty good workout and I find that because these are low to the ground and typically horizontal, they're a good choice for senior and geriatric cats. They can be flat, inclined and come in different sizes. Some scratching boards are made from sisal/rope. 

More permanent options 

Carpeted scratching posts are an option that some cats like, and can be obtained easily. Carpet isn't as effective as you might think at offering a nice, solid scratch for the younger crowd, though senior and geriatric cats seem to prefer them. You can purchase one, or if you're feeling ambitious, go the DIY route.

Sisal, or rope posts are, according to the vast majority of my charges, the cream of the crop when it comes to working those claws. They're favored by clients as well, and in my experience, can tolerate the most vigorous feline punishment. This substrate holds up incredibly well and offers the kind of contact that younger cats appreciate, and plus, it's derived from a renewable resource. (DIY fans click here.)

Cat trees/condos are popular, as they not only provide a variety of satisfying substrates on which to flex those claws, but offer happy places to perch themselves. According to the aforementioned study, there's more to cat trees than meets the untrained eye. Height and composition are just two components that seem to matter to cats of all ages. For young cats, cat trees that are a minimum of three feet in height and crafted from sisal or rope are pretty boss. Height is important here, as it's thought because of this age group's optimal agility and mobility comes into play, so a cat tree with two or more levels is tops. (This is where the enhanced enrichment comes in.) I'll note that when cats are climbing up a cat tree, it's easy for them to get their claws caught in the loops of carpet substrate, so on a second or higher level, look for sisal/rope to minimize that prospect. I find that cat trees with a base of at least 2-3 ft wide are best, since young cats especially have a tendency to run and jump up on cat trees, and a wider base helps to keep them from toppling over. 

If you lead, they will follow...

Getting your cat to use a scratching post or cat tree instead of the antique chair that once belonged to your favorite aunt isn't always as simple as plopping the item down and letting them have a go at it. After all, some cats are particularly sensitive to new pieces of furniture in the house (which essentially is what this is), so getting some pets comfortable with this seemingly weird thing might take a little nudging. Feliway is always helpful (I think it should be in every home with felines), but really good catnip as an attractant and positive reinforcement along with food rewards are integral to getting cats to focus their energies on clawing on an appropriate surface. Cats are trainable (!!), and Julie Hecht of Dog Spies offered up a terrifically helpful and funny article on how she trained her cat, Josh, in preparation for the arrival of a new couch. Click here to read that

Location, location, location

Where the scratching post or cat tree is placed can make a difference in how open a cat is to using it, so being mindful of what locations in the house your furry friend prefers to scratch is key. One idea to keep in mind is that cats often like to scratch after a snooze, so keeping a cat tree or scratching post close to their favorite napping spot, because convenience is king, is a good strategy. 

A final word: well-trimmed nails are helpful in keeping the peace and promoting healthy claws. So, it's important that a cat is used to getting his claws trimmed, so ideally, we want to create positive associations with that while they're young. If you've an older cat that is less open to the idea of nail trims, don't fret—there's hope. Click here for strategies on helping young cats develop a good association with the notion, and for older, resistant cats, get more comfortable with the idea. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Unethical pet products and training methods designed to correct problem behavior put pet care professionals, families at risk

If you look at the shelves of any pet store, the programming on some television channels or browse your social media streams, it’s clear that we find living with dogs to be rather difficult, at least part of the time. Difficult enough to look for a solution outside of our collective wheelhouses or levels of patience. It seems like every time I walk into a pet store, there are more new products promising to correct behavior that we find objectionable, lined up next to the bark collars or spray, every conceivable walking contraption, products to stop coprophagia, prong collars, books and magazine articles whose information is antiquated or is written by charismatic-but-unqualified authors, shock collars intended to correct any number of behaviors and finally, the crates that promise that your frantic dog won’t be able to escape from it. Let’s not forget the television shows touting to teach you to be a pack leader (dogs don't need pack leaders, by the way), Facebook pages emphatic that they have the secrets to dog training and dog trainers (or those that promote themselves as such) who employ punitive, confrontational tactics to try and produce behavior that pet owners desire.

I’m cringing as I type this. Why? Because all of this is a symptom of a bigger problem: ‘solutions’ that don’t really work to begin with, and only exacerbate behaviors.

They also put families, veterinary staff, groomers, pet sitters and other caregivers -- and the public-at-large at risk of unwanted and even dangerous interactions with dogs.

We all want what’s best for pets. We want them to be able to handle themselves with a manageable level of self-control, to be happy and safe. So we interact in ways that communicate when they need to exercise certain levels of that self-control -- but those interactions need to be devoid of fear and pain. While I’m a firm believer that families ought to be asking pointed questions about how their pet sitters, dog daycare and boarding staff handle addressing unwanted behaviors and what training philosophies (by this, I mean ‘how do they communicate with the dog?’), these professionals need to be inquiring the same of their potential clients.

On more than one consultation, I’ve needed to advocate for myself, which in turn does the same for the pet and and the others. I’ve gotten really good at asking questions about a pet’s behavior, including anything that’s concerning or troublesome -- and how the family addresses it. Resource guarding is common, as are fear-based behaviors. On one occasion, a family member noted that the former was something that they had been working on with their giant breed dog, as they have the youngest relatives of their family visit often and didn’t want to put them at risk of being bitten by the dog should they get too close to a toy or a bone. I was not surprised to hear the strategy:

“I take hold of him, pin him to the ground by the scruff of the neck and sternly tell him no.”

I politely responded with, “You alpha roll him.” They gave an affirmative reply.

Just visualize that. Then think about the likely outcome.

A 120 lb dog, handled in a manner that’s at its core, is incompatible with getting the true result that a family wants. And when one does this, they end up getting way more than they bargain for by way of more complicated behavior issues. Essentially, using a strategy to correct behavior that is based on fear begets a fear response. At first glance, that might seem benign, but as that fear response increases and that pet’s fear threshold lowers, a dog will do what it needs to protect them self (think fight or flight). This is not a decision that a dog chooses necessarily; the unmistakable displays of fear, which in their early manifestations go unnoticed by many humans, the growling, snapping, biting is not. They are a physiologic response. They are all signals to convey, ‘please stop right there, I’m not comfortable with this’.

I replied by saying that I understood and appreciated the notion that resource guarding can be problematic, I needed to be very clear that I hope that they understood that I would not be able to interact with their dog in that way, and that in doing so would violate my ethos in many ways. And though yes, this was their home, the dog belongs to them and that there are no laws dictating that they can’t employ training methods like this, the outcome from doing so certainly has implications that affects others. And they can be unexpectedly exponential. I explained to the family why alpha rolling their dog wouldn’t accomplish what they were aiming for (the cessation of resource guarding), it would likely magnify the behavior, and in all likelihood in the midst of the children they were trying to keep safe. Those children, being less-sophisticated than their adult counterparts in picking up on this lovable dog’s body language, wouldn’t notice how, their attempts to pet or cuddle him or innocently reaching for a random item near him might be taken as ‘Wait, the last time a human made a move around me like that (association with the alpha roll), it made me really uneasy… oh no”.

And then there would be the matter with my physically interacting with him, which inherently would be happening a lot; reaching to put a harness and leash on him, petting him, feeding him, playing with him, checking him for ticks.

Could they see my point? Yes, they said, wide-eyed.

Though I’m masterful at consistently reading a pet’s body language, it goes without saying that the level of contact that I have with my charges does in itself raise the inherent risk of being snapped at or bitten. (Because of my training and policies -- not luck -- that’s never happened.) But with a dog who has been subjected to strategies that rely on fear, pain and lack of autonomy to communicate with them or address unwanted behavior, well, that unnecessarily places me and depending on where we are, other pets and humans at an even higher risk. From a legal and ethical standpoint, I’m not keen on that, and other professionals and caregivers shouldn’t be, either. That said, I politely decline on taking on clients who adhere to methods of training or behavior modification that put myself and others at risk.

It goes without saying that I commend families for recognizing the need for adequate training and communication when it comes to themselves with their pets -- and when there is a sticky wicket of an animal behavior issue that needs attention. I do implore, however, to allow the ever-increasing amount of products and books and celebrity-status personalities (oh, yes, and your cousin’s neighbor) who lack science-backed education but are nonetheless advising the best way to fix these situations to inform: they’re not effective. If they were, there wouldn’t be a need for more options every week, and thus, fewer pets would need re-homing. Instead, please, consult an animal behavior professional, one who has accreditation from and affiliations with reputable organizations that espouse responsible strategies, for example, positive reinforcement and relationship building with dogs and cats. They can help with so much, including barking issues, separation anxiety, fearfulness, leash reactivity, house training, redirected aggression, resource guarding and recall. In doing so, you’ll be advocating for your pet, yourselves and everyone in your midst while promoting a safe and happy environment for all, including your pet sitter and veterinary staff.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter