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Monday, September 30, 2013

Life after a pet's hearing loss can be less daunting when you both learn new communication skills

One chilly pre-dawn morning this past year, I quietly padded past the dog bed where I can usually find Gretchen either lightly snoozing, as she appeared to be that day or already sitting up, looking around quietly. She's always been easy to rouse, either by my simply walking by or with a quiet whisper asking if she'd like to go outside.

That morning, nothing.

My heart sank, as at 12, I was all too aware then that my time with her is limited.

I tried again, and nothing.

I reached down and softly touched her shoulder, and she woke up with a start.

What I should have realized was that she couldn't hear me, but I dismissed it as her being sound asleep. Gretchen failed to hear me again later that day as I called to her later as I was cutting up an apple to eat, as she will always come to beg for a piece. I called to her, then puzzled, I observed her as I loudly clapped my hands, then whistled.

Not even a look in my direction.

She had seemed to have lost her hearing so quickly, and of course a visit with the vet was in order. She was due to go back for a recheck after being treated for a urinary tract infection, and upon conferring with her doctor, my suspicions were confirmed: the antibiotic that Gretchen had been prescribed to treat her infection had likely caused her hearing loss. As was expected, her hearing did return, but for the few weeks that sense was gone, it was a game changer.

Gretchen has always been an engaged dog who listens well, and I was all too aware of how much she had relied on that sense to function day to day, not to mention how much we relied on it together to communicate in different ways.

I often wondered how disorienting that might be to her, to suddenly have that sense disappear.

Her sense of hearing was one thing that I capitalized on to train her as a puppy, of course. However, her training wasn't limited to simple verbal commands. I'm grateful to say that I I insisted on including hand signals along with each verbal command (sit, stay, come). Even when praising her, I would clap my hands. I have been mercilessly teased by family because of my natural tendency to not be able to talk without moving my hands, so this came quite naturally to me, I think.

I'm quite certain that over the years, she's picked up on my non-verbal communication too.

In those weeks when that one crucial sense wasn't available to her, we were able to fall back on those established and recognizable hand signals and body language, thankfully.

Those few weeks weren't without an adjustment period and a few gaffes on my part, though Gretchen seemed to fall into our new routine with ease.

A dog who has always been reliable off leash in the yard and in public, Gretchen could be easily called back without issue. But without the ability to hear me call out to her, I needed to be more aware of her whereabouts and mindful of staying out with her so that I could get her attention in other ways. On more than one occasion, I found myself forgetting and needing to go to her to get her attention. Old habits die hard!

Here are some other tips in teaching and incorporating hand signals to communicate with a pet, should the need arise due to age or, in Gretchen's case, a medically-induced cause.

First and foremost, a visit with the vet is necessary to rule out any medical issues.

It's important to remember that a hearing-impaired dog needs to focus on her handler to see visual commands that correspond to the verbal ones, for example, "sit" and "down." So, it's essential that you have a “look at me” cue or signal that gets your dog’s attention. This tells her to look at you. Then, a desired behavior can be performed by being prompted by a visual command.

To do this, prompt her to look at you in response to the "look at me" cue: give a stimulus, a gentle pull on the leash, a light touch on her shoulder or even move a treat out in front of her nose and up toward your face. As soon as she makes eye contact, mark with a “good job!” signal, such as a thumbs up, or like I do with clapping hands and follow, (or mark it) with a treat.

(The goal is to get your pooch to make eye contact when you give the first cue, like the shoulder touch or gentle leash tug, without any further prompting from you.)

Once your pet gets the hang of it, you can phase out giving the treat. Do this by moving your empty hand, still shaped like it has a treat inside it, up toward your face. Praise your pooch for making eye contact. Eventually, you'll be able to fade out the hand signal by moving your hand near your face.

You'll want to continue focusing on the wanted behavior with the “good job!” signal and a reward, or immediately ask your dog to do another behavior, such as a sit, when she looks at you.

Commands your furry pal previously learned on a verbal signal will need to be retaught with new visual or physical cue. This can be facilitated more easily if your pet still has some hearing, and is called transferring or replacing the cue. Click here for more on that.

Consistency is the key, so you'll want to be succinct, use the same signal each time you work on that desired behavior and ensure that everyone in the family (and caregivers!) are using the same signals.

As with anything else, these skills become better with practice for those on either end of the leash, and by establishing another way to communicate, you and your pet will find life easier to navigate after their hearing loss.


Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A retractable leash can seem like a cure-all when walking your dog, but these tools are not all they're cracked up to be


People have a hard time understanding my disdain for retractable leashes. It's certainly understandable, considering how much the pet product industry has lauded them in an effort to sell.

In theory, they certainly do have attractive qualities: they allow a dog to remain tethered to its person while being able to get some distance so that the dog can try to find just the right spot to relieve itself, or while snooping around in a safe proximity to its human in an open area, like a field or a beach.

Another aspect of these leashes is that they come with a trigger lock that can be easily pushed with the thumb, to keep a pet from moving any further away from you, should the need arise (and if they're used correctly).

The use of retractable leashes have increased in the past few years, and it's understandable on the part of the dog owner. In a world full of leash laws, they appear to make everyone involved happy: the animal can stay safely tethered to its human while having a bit more freedom to be a dog.

In a perfect world of mindful dog owners and well-behaved dogs, this would be the case.

The problem is, I'm seeing these contraptions used in situations that are totally inappropriate and even border on dangerous.

I'm going to be blunt: Having a dog on a leash can be hazard if the situation is handled casually, no matter the size or breed.

As a professional pet sitter, I've been in many a situation with a client when we are approached by an exuberant (but rarely an aggressive) dog, on or off leash or when a squirrel comes into view that the dog just can't seem to resist. Walking in the winter can pose a special challenge: coming upon a particularly icy surface and having an animal that you cannot manage well on the other end of the leash.

The cords on retractable leashes have a reputation for snapping (one of the reasons that I refuse to use them), and biped legs are easily tangled by them and can be cut as if the cord were a knife — ditto for arms and hands (there's actually a warning label with regard to that on the packaging for these leashes).

Retractable leashes can even fail to lock. No one wants that when a car is passing by.

Unfortunate situations often arise in public places, like the vet's office, where I'm seeing a too-eager dog, because of their thoughtless human, get in each and every face in the waiting room — some of which, I might add, aren't feeling well and are understandably grumpy.

I often hear that besides affording a little space on walks, retractable leashes
do offer some middle ground for dog that that pulls on a traditional leash (even worse at times it's coupled with a head collar!). I find that this really isn't the case, as the dog really isn't learning not to pull and stay engaged with his person; he just has more freedom, and always palpates that bit of tension these leashes have.

My suggestion is to consider ditching the retractable leash, and instead utilize a much more sensible solution: a long training lead.

I use mine often when on out on walks with some clients, and always use it with a harness.

Available in 20-, 30-, or even 50-foot lengths, long training leads are a mindful approach in offering your dog the space that they crave, while keeping them safely tethered to you and offering more control over any situation. This tool does require you to have both hands free (yes, please put the smartphone away), and your attention on your pet.

Not only does your dog benefit from having a bit more autonomy when it's safe to offer it to them, but you have the sturdiness and unquestionable control that a traditional leash offers.

A secondary benefit that I invariably find when using this tool, is that because the leash will drape to the ground, your dog will have the feeling that they are actually off-lead; this simultaneously improves their loose leash walking skills and can help with training or proofing a recall.

(I trained and proofed these skills with my own dog, Gretchen, with a long training lead.)

One of my charges, a young Dalmatian who typically would be pulling non-stop on a six-foot leash, becomes a very different dog in her busy neighborhood while on a long training lead, as you'll see in a video that I taped last week. Click here to view it.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Marijuana poisoning in pets is on the rise, and prompt treatment by aveterinary professional is necessary

The medical use of marijuana in humans has been a vigorously-discussed topic in recent years, and along with that, a conversation about using pot to help ease the discomfort associated with illness in pets has emerged.
Flickr photo by chrismatos

In fact, earlier this year one veterinary doctor, Doug Kramer, DVM made his case to have a clinical trial established on the efficacy of the use of medical marijuana in pets, primarily in the area of pain management.

He acknowledged that medicinal pot could be of use in issues associated with end-of-life care, pain management and mitigating the debilitating side effects of some very useful drugs, including those used to treat cancer. But because there's been a lack of much-needed research, those possibilities aren't being pursued.

The area of pain management is in dire need of more research, and Kramer notes that there are some pet owners who are seeking alternatives in helping their pets be more comfortable, and they're experimenting with the use of marijuana in an effort to do that.

But that could put a pet at risk by going it alone.

Perhaps the amount of the drug could be too high for a frail pet, or if an adverse reaction occurs, the 18-36 hours that the drug stays in the pet's system could complicate a health problem.

Kramer cites another example, like the use of a cannabis patch designed for pets, which one company was able to obtain a patent for back in 2011. He indicated that it could pose a problem.

"From a veterinary standpoint, the recently reported 'pot patch' is an obvious safety hazard and the perfect example of what happens when professionals fail to address a clear, unmet need in their field."

The fact is that marijuana is a drug, and it can cause adverse effects on pets via a patch that really hasn't been solidly tested (or if the drug patch is inadvertently ingested by the animal or another in the household), being administered the drug intentionally or by ingesting the recreational stash of one of their humans.

One veterinary study published in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care reported a significant increase in the number of canines treated for marijuana intoxication between 2005 and 2010, and interestingly enough, states that have passed the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational use saw the biggest increase in cases.

Since 2008, the Pet Poison Helpline has experienced a 200 percent increase in the number of cases of pets having suffered poisoning after ingesting pot.

"Of all illicit drugs, marijuana has always been responsible for the most calls to Pet Poison Helpline, but this recent increase is the sharpest we have ever seen," notes Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT and associate director of veterinary services at Pet Poison Helpline.

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, cases of death from cannabis poisoning are rare, but treatment is necessary to recover. Recovery can be somewhat slow.

Ingesting foods laced with the drug (usually the marijuana butter that is used to make brownies, cookies and the like — or the baked good themselves) or inhaling the smoke are typical sources of poisoning. If the food contains chocolate, the danger is exacerbated.

Symptoms of poisoning in pets can occur within 30-60 minutes after exposure, depending on the source, and can include stumbling or lack of coordination, dilated pupils, vomiting and glassy eyes.

In dogs, it's not uncommon for them to present with urinary incontinence or dribbling. In about 25 percent of dogs, agitation and excitement occur.

More serious effects include changes in heart rate, coma, tremors, and seizures.

Treatment for marijuana poisoning can be limited to IV fluids, anti-vomiting medication, oxygen, blood pressure monitoring, thermoregulation, but in more severe cases, ventilator/respirator support may be called for.

Prevention is best, of course, but the experts at the Pet Poison Helpline stress that like with other poisoning cases, swift action is necessary if your pet has somehow ingested marijuana, and that people that seek assistance by calling to speak to a veterinary professional will not be reported to the authorities. Their only objective is to the pet's welfare.

The Pet Poison Helpline is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-213-6680.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Keeping pets occupied and happy during a recuperation period after aninjury or post-surgery can be easy


"... she is not overly happy about being in a crate when we are not home, at night and being on a leash even in the house with the strict directions of no playing, no running, no jumping and no stairs."

This is an excerpt from a recent email from a client, and a scenario is not all that uncommon in my line of work. Through the years, I've been able to help many of my canine (and feline) charges navigate through those first few days and weeks after a surgical procedure or injury, as resting the affected area is crucial in healing. Having two large breed dogs myself, I've been through this a few times too.

Sure, when a pet has had an injury that requires some time off its feet and it is under doctor's orders to be on restricted activity, it can put a damper on things for a while. That said, I always remember that I'm not only there to take care of the pet's needs — but for fun as well.

I've found that shifting the focus from what activities a companion animal normally does to what they can do physically to those that are allowed, and of course compensating by adding more mental stimulation is of great help.

After all, a pet who has not had adequate exercise can develop unacceptable behaviors, like whining, barking, chewing or excessive licking (the latter can lead to bigger problems), to pass the time. This only exacerbates the original injury.

The first thing that I always begin the dialogue with when getting up to speed on where a canine client is at post-surgical or injury, is by asking what the doctor's orders are, and what the timeline looks like for gradually reducing any restrictions — essentially what can they do week by week.

Some of the things that I like to know are:

How long can the animal walk while on leash? (Unleashed walks are almost always not allowed.)

Are they able to swim at some point instead of running?

Under what conditions do they need to be crated?

Are stairs off limits, or can they be managed with assistance?

After I get that information, it's all about working with a client to work together to put a plan of action in place. Depending on the animal, you would be surprised at the kinds of things that can temporarily take the place of the activities that are off-limits.

A refresher course
Simple obedience is great for your dog's brain — and you get to the benefit of having a dog that is well-trained.

Dong a little refresher training on the commands sit, stay, down or others that he already knows can earn treats, a new toy or even an opportunity to play a favorite game, so long as it's one that is not off-limits during his recuperation.

You might enroll him in a regular class to learn new skills and can provide both physical and mental stimulation during this interim time.

Tricks for treats
The process of learning tricks is one that is mentally stimulating, and much like training sessions and playtime, has a secondary benefit: it strengthens the human/animal bond.

Because learning tricks challenges the mind, it offers your pets (canine or feline) the opportunity to burn off some mental energy, too, which can wear them out without forbidden physical activity.

Easy tricks (again, as long as the movement is allowed) include wave, shake, crawl, spin, roll over and high-five.

Stuff it
Most dogs are quite fond of Kong toys, and providing one for your ailing pooch can offset the boredom that sets in, especially while you're away and they are left alone within the safety of their crate. Click here for ideas on healthy alternatives for stuffed, frozen Kong toys, or consider some other toys that I've recommended for dogs that are not only good for the brain, but are great for those that need to adhere to a restricted activity care plan. A few ideas can be found by clicking here.

Don't forget the good old standby of catnip for cats!

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

'Dog Faming' features canines in the act of demonstrating good behavior

Flickr photo by johnnyjet

We expect a lot from our pets when it comes to living in our very human world -- at times too much.

When that happens, we often see instances of misbehavior, especially in dogs.

In some cases, it's clear that the misbehavior stems from being asked for more than they are able to deliver because of limitations due to their age, that they've lacked the opportunity to develop good skills or that we expect the wrong things. Mostly, it's because of us. So often we communicate in a way that's unclear with other humans; ambiguously, perhaps in a hurried manner, so it's no surprise that we behave in the same way with dogs.

I was chided about sharing my disdain for the popular trend of pet shaming — snapping photos of pets after their respective displays of unruly behavior and posting them online. Yes, I know that to some degree, it's done very tongue-in-cheek, and I'm not a complete wet blanket. There are times when you just need to sit back and laugh at the mischief.

But a new trend has emerged, and is one that I'm hoping will catch on as easily as dog shaming did.  

Dog Faming features photos of pets caught in the act of being good — displaying examples of favorable behavior that interestingly enough, is the result of positive reinforcement training. The Facebook page was started by Eileen Anderson, a staunch advocate of positive reinforcement in the canine training community.

You can read more about Dog Faming by clicking here, and you can go directly to the Facebook page to see regular updates of dogs being good.

Lorrie Shaw is a blogger and is owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.