Monday, November 24, 2014

Life hack: create a sling to help support your dog's hindquarters when walking

It's not surprising that those who share lives with pets by and large, aren't opposed to spending money when it's related to their animal companion. When it comes to toys, food, enrichment, training for the family, paying up has increased tremendously.

This holds true for the health and comfort of pets, too, and anyone who has a pet with a medical condition or issues related to aging can attest to the added costs of medications, equipment and supplies.

My pooch, Gretchen — a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix — is 15 years of age and falls into the latter category. Over the past few months, there have been changes with her health that one would expect, so tweaking medication regimens, adding therapies and using products to help with her mobility has been an ongoing part of the process. While most of these things have been relatively affordable, others have been quite costly (though the benefit has far surpassed the money that has been spent; more on that at a later time) and being mindful of what's helpful and what's not is key.

Spending money in the right places is a huge part the success of a care regimen, and anytime I am able to save some money or repurpose an item, I'm there.

Using a support sling temporarily has been necessary a couple of times in Gretchen's life, as she has pinched a nerve in her spine (which is quite long) or when she has strained a muscle. A sling is super-helpful in keeping the spine aligned as a dog goes up or down stairs, or offering assistance in walking if the rear legs are weak or injured. Designed with two handles (usually adjustable to accommodate the human's height) to securely support a dog's hindquarters, they are simple and easy to use and can be found better pet stores.

(I do keep a large beach towel in my day bag that can be used in a pinch should a canine charge unexpectedly require a little temporary assistance. I simply fold it into quarters lengthwise to fashion into a sling.)

The other day, Gretchen pinched a nerve in her spine at an appointment, so once again using a sling had become necessary, so I borrowed one from the facility we were at. Though she had recovered from the injury quickly, using a sling for a few more days seemed smart. Rather than purchase one, I had a better idea: why not somehow repurpose a reusable cloth shopping bag? They're durable, they can support a fair amount of weight and best of all, they're inexpensive.

I have several bags around the house, so I set about fashioning one, and all I needed was a pair of scissors. By cutting out the sides of the bag, I have a nifty sling that is useful and easy on the pocket book. For added comfort, a little fleece could certainly be added to the sling with Velcro adhesive strips to keep it in place.

These bags are relatively inexpensive when purchased new, but to be even more thrifty, consider looking for used ones at garage sales or your local thrift shop.

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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fine-tune your approach when offering treats to better communicate with a dog that is too motivated by food

I often use food rewards when I'm with my canine charges, and I do so for various reasons. It might seem like being a caregiver to animals is strictly a fun and carefree endeavor, but it's serious business and there's much work to be done each day to keep everyone on schedule, comfortable, and having the cooperation of my four-legged friends is essential.

It's common for them to want to linger a bit longer in their backyard on visits, or not focus as well on walks when they're dealing with a slightly different schedule than they are used to. In cases like these, using treats to persuade a pooch is valuable, as most dogs (but no, not all in my experience) are quite motivated by food.

Occasionally I'll be caring for a dog that is a little too focused on getting edible rewards. I find that one cause is the chronic reliance on treats by their people (as opposed to using a combination of praise, play and treats as rewards), the timing of the food reward and the value of it.

One example of this is demonstrated by one of my charges: she's a dog that won't do anything without a food reward, even at five years of age and having gone though basic positive reinforcement training. Most of the time she'll spaz out and commence to performing any number of commands that she thinks I might be asking for — a combination of sit/down/high five in rapid succession — hoping that any number of those might elicit the yummy treat she knows that I might have in my possession, as her people usually do.

There are a couple of things that can help resolve the issue of a misplaced focus, and they're easy to implement.

Right on time

As we know with positive reinforcement training, it's crucial to have a dog's undivided attention and focus when working with them. Treats are a big part of that but it's our timing of doling them out that best communicates with them. To do this, ask for the behavior that you want, ensuring that you don’t reach for the food until the dog has performed it correctly. Using the clicker or verbal marker is important because that is a consistent precursor to what they want — the reward. Always click or mark, then reach for the food or have it ready in your hand behind your back. (Poor timing is most definitely the root of the problem with my charge, as is the overuse of treats.)

Don't let a dog's sense of smell trump your requests

If it's one thing that I know, not all treats are created equal, and I use them all differently for that reason. Some are crunchy, others soft while a few stimulate super-high value real estate in the brain because they have a powerful aroma.

Potent-smelling treats are a boon and as a pro, I know to save them to have as a secret weapon in motivating reluctant or skittish dogs. Otherwise most dogs can't pay attention to me, my voice and what I need them to do; they're only interested in the yummy bits of food and expect me to be a human Pez dispenser. Instead, I use less-valuable food treats that don't over-stimulate their olfactory system.

Incorporating the use of the appropriate treat rewards (or better yet a combination of treats, lavish praise or a quick game with a favorite toy to keep a dog on their toes) and timing the reward and marker properly can help you to better communicate with your four-legged friend.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular 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.