Thursday, April 24, 2014

Play is important in the development and training of pets, and finding what is a motivator is the key to using it optimally

Play is something that we often forget about participating in as we age. We usually are reminded of how good it feels to partake in it when we have children, or for a lot of us, when we have pets.

With that in mind, it's helpful to turn the tables and be mindful of how beneficial it is for our pets.

As ethologists have learned from discoveries in their research, play isn't just a fun thing to do — it's vital.

You see, as humans, during the process of play we learn, grow, think, reason, step outside of our comfort zone and acquire new skills in the process. We know from research that's been done that this is the case with animals, too.

Learn more about how play is integral in brain development and enhancement by clicking here.

And, as Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. — an author and researcher — indicates, depriving young animals of play puts them at a disadvantage: it affects the maturation of the brain. His research showed evidence that the simple act of play increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein linked to brain maturation.

It's easy to engage in play with puppies and kittens because they so willingly initiate it. But it's equally important to keep the ball rolling as a pet ages.

There are all sorts of games for dogs that are easy, inexpensive, fun and beneficial to play, and options are limitless, just as they are when thinking of the needs of cats.

Identifying your pet's play preferences can be helpful, as they can vary from not only species, but from pet to pet. Breed, age and physical capability can also influence the way a pet plays.

Some dogs are chewers, others love to hunt for things and still some others love to problem solve or even play with puzzle toys. You might even consider activities like nose work or agility for your pooch to give them a healthy outlet.

Cats have play preferences like birding, stalking or hide-and-seek.

Even birds like to — need to — play.

Human-pet play is an invaluable source of enrichment for a pet, and as I always remind when thinking about enrichment for your pet, "Spend half as much money, and twice as much time."

This type of play is different than self-directed play or interaction between other animals. One difference is that we use language to communicate during a fun activity, using repetitive phrases and gestures. Think about how this correlates with training.

Play has been an integral part of unfolding my now 14 year-old dog, Gretchen, and is one of the most important forms of interaction between myself and the animals in my care. By paying attention to and honoring how they play and engaging in a fun activity with them, I can quickly ascertain what motivates them, what they find off-putting and developing a bond with them.

What are your pets favorite games?

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, April 15, 2014

A dog's mounting behavior when directed toward humans can be a complex issue

It used to happen without fail: whenever I arrived to see one rather large Labrador retriever at his home for a pet sitting visit, within the first few minutes he'd run, leap up, grab ahold of me and well, for lack of a better word, hump me.

Typically this sort of thing doesn't faze me too much, as I encounter all sorts of things on a given day. In this case, it's been a problem because it happens with regularity but more importantly he's a big dog -- weighing in at around 90 pounds -- and it's not fun to be pummeled by that much force. In fact, the first time that it happened, I wasn't expecting it and I face-planted into the snow. That's not something that anyone wants or needs to happen!

For this particular dog, (I'll call him Sam) it's not only the notion of my being injured upon the initial contact that's a possibility, but once when he's engaged in this behavior, it can be a challenge to get him to stop (especially if I'm not expecting it).

That said, although Sam's a sweet boy otherwise, that behavior is something that I need to be vigilant of at all times.

I have yet to meet another canine that engages in mounting a human with that level of enthusiasm, so this is a unique situation to say the least. Typically, mounting is simply a bit of an embarrassment say, if you have guests (or if you are the guest!)

Interestingly enough, this behavior might appear in different contexts and for various reasons, so understanding that is helpful.

It seems important to note that mounting has nothing to do with "dominance" toward a human. Mounting a human is a dog's displaced way of communicating how they are feeling, nothing more.

There are a handful of things that a canine may be feeling when this behavior emerges, and in paying attention, you'll notice that an environmental or social stimulus is behind it.

Anxiety or stress about the presence of another person or a situation that has presented itself can be a stimulus, as can too much excitement (the latter seems to be Sam's trigger). Some dogs just want to play or are indicating the need for attention when they mount a person.

Of course, if there is a female in heat, that can be a trigger, as well.

In any case, some dogs in an attempt to convey how they are feeling, may "shift" -- or displace -- what is really going on (anxiety, excitement, stress, an unsure feeling) and start humping.

Hindering the behavior largely depends on the context and who the recipient is.

Calmly walking away is a simple tactic to address it, as is having them sit. It's impossible for them so continue if their rump is on the floor!

In Sam's case, his excitement level goes to a fever pitch, so by my calmly entering the house -- a gentle scratch on the head, no words, no excitable behavior on my part, and immediately leading him outside to do his business and then starting a game of fetch with a prized toy in the backyard does the trick.

Redirecting any excess excitement into the game and letting him expend some energy certainly seems to help, though I still need to keep an eye on him.

That same strategy -- redirecting the dog's attention in some way -- can be used to avoid the behavior cropping up, especially if your pet is getting a little too friendly with guests.

A quick walk or a playing a game that they enjoy can certainly redirect them, as can a stuffed Kong or a puzzle toy.

As with any behavioral issue, in identifying the stimulus, you can help mitigate the behavior. By managing any anxiety or excitement that is at the root, you can set your dog up for success in having self-control in whatever environment or social situation they are in, and with more ease.

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

Windows can offer dogs beneficial outlet, but for others they are a behavioral burden

There's a neighborhood I walk a client in on occasion that boasts many homes with canine family members, and by and large, it's pleasurable and safe to walk in for both me and my charge, a young dachshund.

There is one house that I avoid walking directly past without fail and for good reason: a potentially dangerous situation looms every time.

Upon passing the home, I witness a sight that I see often on my travels (just one reason that I don't walk distracted by my phone or otherwise), and it always gives me pause.

An adult German shepherd inside the home, gustily plants their body atop the back of the couch that is situated in front of a single-pane picture window, growling, vocalizing, clearly not able to control them self at the mere sight of my client and I making our way down the sidewalk. A less-out-of-control golden retriever always joins in within seconds and most definitely seems to follow the lead of their housemate.

Unfortunately the location of my client's home necessitates the need to go past this house, so I mindfully do so, but from a safer distance across the street.

Thankfully even now, that seemingly sturdy window keeps a dicey situation from escalating to one that would have an unfavorable outcome.

I often wonder how many times a day that the poor dog engages in that level of arousal at that window, and what other behaviors the dog might be exhibiting that could be easily addressed. Then, I think about all of the other times in a given month when I see this kind of thing happen in my travels.

Windows are a wonderful way to offer a view of what's happening outside for pets, but for some, they only show potential threats and are burdensome to them.

Thankfully, there are simple changes that can be implemented to help dogs like this avoid the stimuli that trigger these kinds of behaviors, so let's start with one obvious source — the visual type.

Usually a combination of things, like moving furniture away from windows, closing blinds or drapes or using rice paper film on the lower-half or the entire window to obscure the view (this still allows light to stream in). The latter comes in different finishes and may affix by clinging to the window or may use an adhesive.

If that all isn't enough, blocking access to rooms with large windows entirely may be necessary.

Audible triggers often accompany the behavior, so keeping a radio on or using a white noise machine to buffer any noises from outside is helpful.

Positive reinforcement training goes hand-in-hand with these efforts, and for more on that, click here.

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