Monday, December 23, 2013

Attentiveness is an essential skill that all dogs can benefit from

The personalities of the dogs that is get to meet and work with every day never cease to amaze me. They certainly vary, and observing those canines that are in multiple-pet families is really interesting.

When meeting with a family for the first time, one thing that I am keenly observant of is how naturally attentive a dog is to their people. This gives me a lot to go on as I'm getting to know my prospective charge. If the property has a fence, I suggest heading outdoors to play off leash.

In doing so, it helps me understand what sort of things will garner attentiveness toward me, especially if they don't offer it easily.

As a caregiver, much of what I do is all about relationship building, and from that, everything else follows: trust, bonding -- and an environment of cooperation.

The latter is vital, as the single most important aspect of my job is to keep a pet safe. If their attention is on me when a situation arises that may cause their safety to be compromised, that can make all of the difference.

Consider the dog that has a habit of bolting out of an open door, or when a pet is safely able to be outdoors off-leash. Trying to connect with a pet while giving a command like "sit", "stay" or "come" is impossible without having their full attention.

It seems important to say that the foundation for training, not to mention daily interaction is built on the concept of attentiveness.

While some dogs offer it effortlessly, others are easily distracted by things, or perhaps or have difficulty in connecting with people. I've met canines that simply lack connection with some people in their tribe. That's not to say that attentiveness can't be learned by a dog if they aren't so good at offering it. With the practice, they can gain the skill.
The best way to lay the groundwork when it comes to fostering attentiveness from your pooch is simple: build your relationship with them. By interacting with each dog one-on-one with activities like play, walks, brushing, talking to them -- anything that they find satisfying -- and then the connections begin.

Once that relationship has been supported positively, working on attentiveness is a simple task, though being consistent is where the magic lies.

There are two common cues used to teach the skill: “watch” and then of course the dog’s name.

“Watch” signals a dog to look at you, and saying her name lets her know that she should pay attention to you and wait for what's next.

When I get a pet's full attention, I always immediately follow up with a treat to reinforce the skill. This increases the likelihood that I'll get that favored response in the future, and of course sets them up for success.

Once they get the hang of it, feel free to use a favorite game, a belly rub or something specifically valuable to the pooch to alternate with a treat as a reward. Eventually, you should be able to ask for their undivided attention and it will be like second nature to them.

Teaching this valuable skill makes it easier for a dog to respond to other important cues, like “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow in a different direction while out on a walk.

Working on this essential building block of communication enhances the success on another vital skill: recall.

As with recall and other cues, I highly recommend "proofing" attentiveness in different environments regularly. Remember, simply because a dog has learned a skill in one scenario, it doesn't mean that they can apply it to another as easily. Work on it everywhere: indoors, while outdoors with varying levels of distraction. Practice makes perfect.

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, December 4, 2013

Heading out for a walk with your dog this winter? Make it safe and fun on both ends of the leash

We're heading into the harsh winter weather here in the Ann Arbor area, and we've swapped our lightweight coats for heavier ones, and pulled out the hats and gloves in recent weeks.
The snowy mess outdoors is a consideration when it comes to our feet for obvious reasons —we want to stay warm and dry.

As bipeds, it's also a challenge trying to walk on snow and ice covered areas, and the risk of injury from a fall increases greatly this time of year. If you’re walking a dog, your risk of a slip and fall in winter conditions is even higher.

Being safe and smart when you’re enjoying the winter weather with your dogs on or off leash is a must.
For myself, there is one key tool in staying safe this time of year: the proper footwear.

Nothing beats my Betty Boots by Keen to keep my feet protected from the elements, and my STABILicers give me extra traction in winter weather. I can go from a wet sidewalk to snow-covered trail to icy country roads in rapid-fire succession, and can do so with more confidence because of what's on my feet.

But footwear is only one part of the equation when it comes to being safe while out walking your dog.
The other part of winter safety on dog walks is quite simply, the dog.

Case in point: when I'm out on daily walking rounds, all-to-often I see people struggling with their dogs, trying to get them not to pull, to listen to commands and maintain an even cadence. In more than one instance, I’ve seen the human get knocked off of his or her feet because of slick surfaces and unruly pooches — a pretty dangerous situation where the consequences are not limited to a possible injury to the human and the dog.

In one instance, said dog became physically separated from the human and ran off in all of the confusion. Luckily, the pooch was easily coaxed back to the owner, and all was well.

Rule number one: each dog must listen to the commands of their partner on the other end of the leash.
Don’t get me wrong. When I’m out with my charges, it’s really all about fun. I’m there to get them out for exercise and a good time — a chaperone, of sorts. Reading and leaving 'pee-mail' is par for the course and exceptionally good for canines, as is exploring things along the way — within reason of course.

The difficulty begins though, when the pooch you're with must constantly pull or tug, or when they yank on the leash when you’re trying to clean up after they've done their business.

If your furry friend is having trouble getting the message about what you expect when they are out and about, I can offer a little wisdom to help you persuade your pup —no matter the age —to behave a little more politely on a leash, and advice on basic walking tools that will keep both of you safe this winter.

Ditch the retractable leash. Your dog should be able to walk politely on a traditional leash before you ever consider using a retractable. (I use a six-foot one most often.) Unruly dogs can get wrapped around trees or snarled in bushes and are not easily controlled when on a leash like this. Worst case scenario: These types of leashes do snap easily, and that's last thing that you want.

Teach your dog to 'sit/wait' when you're cleaning up after it. This command is invaluable in so many situations, but it's especially handy when you're trying to pick up their waste. I often offer dogs a treat to munch on to keep them occupied while I quickly scoop.

Consider buying a harness. I provide these for dogs when they're in my care, as they are securely tethered to me once the harness is attached to the leash — no worry of them slipping out of a collar and taking off. A secondary benefit: when using a harness that uses a front-chest leash attachment like the Easy Walker from Premier, if the dog pulls, the harness tightens slightly across their chest and shoulder blades, (as opposed to their neck) and redirects their attention back toward you. I've used them on dogs that normally would pull constantly, and they get the idea quickly that pulling isn't a favorable thing, especially when coupled with teaching the next concept.

Loose leash walking or walking without pulling is a must. It doesn’t matter if you're on a sidewalk, on a desolate dirt road or on a hiking path. It's quite simple to teach, although I will admit it does take time to do. The key is consistency and patience, just like when you're working with your dog on basic obedience. Dogs learn best when those two elements are part of any routine. Knowing basic commands is so important for a dog and really should be taught alongside walking on a leash with manners. Click here for a great tutorial that employs an effective positive reinforcement method for loose leash walking.
Consider putting these things to work on your outdoor adventures with your pet, and you'll not only enjoy the time more, but you'll increase your chances of staying out of the emergency room this winter.

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.