Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Safeguard against serious injuries with positive reinforcement dog training and proofing strategies

Working with dogs can be unpredictable, as anyone who does so will attest. I've seen my share of (mostly) minor injuries through the years: bruises, twisted fingers, scratches, minor sprains—even blows to the face—and one of those latter instances made me grateful that I need not wear eyeglasses full time. 

While being mindful and employing safe and force-free handling techniques on the pet professional's end is vital in making any interaction that a companion animal has with them is as favorable as can be, it's only part of the equation. It's equally helpful that a pet not only be accustomed to being handled (with care, of course), but to be reliably trained to understand cues and to have a reasonable amount of self-control. That not only ensures the safety of the human, but as importantly, that of the pets. 

We understand that a dog needs be able to understand and perform cues, right? Of course. When a dog can stop what they're doing and listen when they are being cued to do something, it's invaluable. And, proofing those skills in different scenarios is vital. But, achieving a reliable level of recall can be a bit complicated when a dog has trouble reigning in their excitement or when they have issues with reactivity.  For some, it's an infrequent event, and understandable, while for others, well, it can be an ongoing problem. And, unfortunately, it can put dogs at risk of injury. 

I'll offer a cautionary tale (one that I've permission to share) and I'll be honest: this isn't the first time that I've seen a scenario like this.

A few months ago, a friend got in touch to ask if I had an extra crate that they could borrow. Their very sweet, large mixed-breed dog, Maggie, had injured her leg the night before and needed to be confined while unsupervised for the foreseeable future. While the injury—a torn Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CrCL)—is common, the poor pooch hadn't sustained the injury while running or during rough play, as one might expect. You see, Maggie's habit is to get really excited when she sees people. Running around like crazy, jumping up in the air, carrying on, that sort of thing. (We've all witnessed bouts of frenzied joy like this that seem harmless, right?) Upon the family's arrival home from an event on that evening, Maggie began jumping around wildly in her usual unbridled fashion despite her human's efforts to tone things down, and BAM! she landed on her leg in just the wrong way. The result was an injury that was not only painful, but required expensive surgery, and a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation period.

Once all was said and done, my friend insisted on enlisting the help of a qualified dog trainer to better communicate with and to empower Maggie in having some self control, so that there wouldn't be a repeat of what happened. The result is that Maggie gets far less keyed up in those situations she used to find difficult to navigate, which keeps her safer, and her humans are enjoying fewer mishaps, too.

Never underestimate the power of the skills and self-control that come from solid dog training grounded in positive reinforcement. They'll make sharing daily life with your four-legged friend more fun, safe and rewarding.

Need help hiring the services of a qualified dog trainer, behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist? Click here to get a better understanding of the field, and the certifications that you should be familiar with. 

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 writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What dogs do post-training may enhance their ability to master new tasks

Dogs do a lot, albeit unintentionally, to remind us how to live life well. 

The value of being a good listener. The importance of naps. Stretch often. Don't lose your curiosity. Cuddling is good. Life is short.

The most important, in my experience—don't forget to indulge in play—comes up often in puppy development and dog training circles. I use it frequently in my work with pets, and for good reason: it's super-fun, it breaks up any tension that may be present from being out of routine and it's a great way to establish and reinforce a bond with an animal. 

Play also plays a part in a pet's learning, which is why it comes up so frequently amongst dog trainers, behaviorists and pet sitters. We've long known that by incorporating games, and fun, we can open up the channels for a dog in learning cues (what we used to refer to as 'commands') and other skills exponentially. 

A new study indicates that the usefulness of play may extend beyond that. 

Researchers from Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Group in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln in the UK set out to test how what events happen after a dog training session affect the animal's ability to retain what they've learned. 

16 Labrador retrievers were included in the study, and to accurately test how well they retained what they had learned, they were given identical skills to master and for good measure, they needed to reach 80% proficiency. 

The dogs were divided up into two groups: 8 were part of a "play group" while the other half were in a "rest group". The former engaged in 30 minutes of activity (a few minutes on a walk, then 10 minutes of off-lead play, with the balance of time spent on another walk). The "rest group" did just that—rested for 30 minutes on a dog bed—while the humans involved talked amongst themselves. 

In order to confirm that there were measurable differences in each group with regard to physiological arousal, the saliva (to detect hormonal variances) and heart rate of each dog were monitored during the rest/play sessions. 

Though the study was small, I found the results quite interesting. But first, a little on how the humans were able to test the dogs. Using a method called relearningthe dogs were put through the same paces as they were the day before to gauge how much they were able to retain from their previous exposure to the new task—in this case, was object discrimination, which used their sense of sight and smell. 

As far as what what the dogs demonstrated, those in the "rest group" didn't have as easy a time with relearning the task that they had been exposed to the day before: the dogs that were included in the "play group" relearned the new skill 40% faster than the dogs in the other group.

So, what does this all mean? 

Well, as far as we can tell, the old adage 'practice makes perfect' isn't as simplistic as it seems. Play and fun, when coupled with learning something new, seem to enhance and expedite the process of relearning and building new skills. It's fair to say that it could, in some way be connected to having fun with their people as well. 

The takeaway? It certainly can't hurt to take a break during your training sessions and do something that they find pleasurable—like a game of fetch, tug of war, a walk—to enhance your dog's progress in learning new things. You'll keep the good momentum going, and reinforce the human-animal bond. 

Read the study, Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs by clicking here

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 writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A professional's lament on self-cleaning litter boxes

I see a lot of new products and gadgets designed to help make living with pets better, and though I find some impressive, others just make cringe. 

A recent article on The Bark reminded me of the complaints that I hear from pet owners about the minutiae of day-to-day care that is necessary, which gave me pause. And while the topic was focused on things like having to pick up poop and the amount of pet hair that needs to be cleaned up—first world problems, gah!—the one thing I can say that I wrestled with was getting home at various times through any given workday to tend to potty break and medication duties when Gretchen was in her final months of life. The same was true for my 19 year-old cat, Silver, who needed lots of extra tending during his end-of-life which was only months ago. Yes, those times were stressful, but only because as anyone who has done it themselves knows, there are always days when things don't go so swell during that time of life. And sometimes, your pet just wants you. Not another familiar person or a pet sitter who could just as willingly and aptly take the helm, it's you they really need—and that can feel overwhelming. That makes picking up poop and vacuuming more often pale in comparison and in my mind, a joyful chore. 

Yes, the rest of the time that I spent with both pets was cake and I never took it for granted. But I digress.

The case for going low-tech 

Since none of the lives I'm responsible for can't speak, it's important that I get to know them pretty well, and I need to do so right out of the gate. Behavior, habits, play and exercise preferences, eating rituals, where they like to hang out in the house, how they engage with other pets in the household, that sort of thing. That can give me a solid picture of what's going on and if there things I need to monitor a little more closely.

Something else that I make note of on a daily basis is what's happening outside, in the litter box or for exotics, in their enclosure. A pet's waste speaks volumes. I call it 'reading tea leaves'. When meeting a family for the first time, I ask, 'How often is your pet having a bowel movement?', which is sometimes met with a look of panic and a response of, 'That's a good question...' 

I often say that keeping it simple when it comes to most pet products is best, and this is especially true when it comes to litter boxes. 

In fact, a traditional rectangular litter pan isn't even necessary; an old plastic storage box, so long as it's easy to step into and deep or big enough (the latter is something that I find isn't so for most obese cats or those with mobility or pain issues, like arthritis) is fine to use. 

A human's preferences and biases often become a focus when choosing a litter pan, which can translate into a lot of valuable information about the pet's behavior or health being missed or misinterpreted—which is never a good thing.

Case in point: the automatic cat litter box. 

Designed so that daily manual scooping isn't needed, these products seem to be a boon for those who despise the task of taking one minute a day to pick up whatever tool-of-choice and scoop out urine clumps and stools from the box. 

'Oh, the litter box smells so bad!' (If you scoop it once or twice a day and dispose of the waste, it doesn't.)

'I forget to do it. Then my cat won't use the box.' (Make it a routine to scoop at the same time each day so it becomes a habit.) 

Animals don't share the same language, and because of that we need to work a little bit to decipher how things are doing with them. I think that technology and advances are great, but I assure you that nothing takes the place of a human paying close attention to any changes that might be happening. And for that reason alone, I say get over the drudgery that is all of under two minutes daily and tend to that litter box.  

(I should add that I realize that some people might find it difficult to scoop regularly because of physical limitations or illnesses, so for them a self-cleaning box is an understandably attractive solution.)

Why keeping tabs is important

When I'm caring for a pet, I'm looking for a few things in the litter box:

-What's there?

-How much is there?

-How often I'm finding it

-What does it look like?

Along with that, I'm keeping mental track of how much water the pet has consumed in a 24-hour period and how long of a timeframe has passed between their last meal and a bowel movement.

Visiting the litter box more often to urinate could mean that a urinary tract infection is present, as well as other health issues that need treatment. Ongoing loose stools could indicate other health conditions. Stools that are chronically too firm in an older cat could signal a change in kidney function. And if there isn't a stool left (ideally) once a day, that can indicate a blockage, constipation or GI motility that is inefficient (the latter two are more common in cats with diminished renal function) and those need prompt treatment as well. Vomiting just outside the litter box after going potty means something too (click here). 

The payoff of going old-school

Relaying that kind of vital information to your vet can make the process of ruling out some things and getting the right diagnosis much faster and less challenging—and making it easier to resolve or address an issue. Getting to the vet sooner than later also has the benefit of saving you money. 

If you're using a self-cleaning litter box, it's just too easy to miss the clues that visually inspecting and scooping a traditional box on a daily basis can yield. Do yourself and your favorite felines a favor: keep it simple and use a regular litter box and while you're at it, consider using two boxes for one cat, and at least one box per pet in multiple cat households. 

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 writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, September 26, 2016

What your cat's vomiting near the litter box can tell you about their health

Being observant of a pet's behavior and their habits is essential, no matter if you're family or their occasional caregiver.  Understanding what's normal for them and noting any changes, regardless of how subtle can speak volumes that something is going on. Cats can be especially challenging to read; they are masters of hiding any illness or pain and yes, of course they don't often openly display if they are not feeling well.

To mine for the right information, there are times you need to look no further than the litter box--or in this case, in and around it.

This morning, I arrived to care for a senior kitty that I've been tending to for years. She has some health issues, including renal insufficiency, something that isn't uncommon in cats her age. Thus far, it has been well-managed by providing bowls of fresh water throughout the house so that she is encouraged to drink ample amounts of fluid; dehydration goes hand-in-hand with chronic kidney disease (CKD). One of the areas that we see affected is the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and with less fluid made available to that area, stools can become too firm and difficult to pass. In this cat's case, I've noted that despite the fact that she's taking in lots of water (the plentiful urine clumps in the litter box are fine evidence of that) her stools are less soft than they were just a few weeks ago. That's a good indicator that the CKD is likely progressing, but with some changes in her daily regimen directed by her veterinarian, her condition can continue to be managed adequately. Watch the video below to learn more about another clue related to this facet of CKD that is often missed, but should be taken seriously and discussed with a pet's veterinarian.

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 writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reactive dogs need help to feel empowered when faced with their triggers

It's not unusual for a dog owner to be uneasy when they first contact me about caring for their furry friend. And beyond the anxiety of not knowing what to expect going in when hiring a caregiver, or having had a previous experience that was less-than-ideal, the angst they feel often has more to do with how I might react when I have the opportunity to get to know their furry friend a little better.

"They're not welcome back to the day care facility we been using… " and "...our previous pet sitter voiced some concerns about their behavior especially when encountering other dogs on walks" are common nervous refrains. 

As is often the case, observing how the guardian interacts with the dog, my spending a little time with the family—even suggesting that all of us walk together—and asking the humans good questions quickly gives me some clarity about what might really be going on.

Often I discover that what is at the root of the issue likely isn't at all what the family has been told. 

Case in point: reactivity. It's a common issue that plagues pet dogs and we've all been witness to it. Barking, lunging, jumping, vocalizing, carrying on, that sort of thing.

One assertion that I often hear when a dog is exhibiting reactivity is that they are aggressive or dominant, while another frequent quip, '...they are not obedient' gets tossed around. This only leaves the family feeling all thumbs, and wrongfully so. In fact, what I find is that obedience is not a problem with most reactive dogs; I observe most of these dogs understanding and responding appropriately to cues they're given and they're quite eager to engage and listen. The problem arises when they are thrust into a situation where they don't have a sense of safety.

With reactivity, what some mistakenly view as willfulness, aggression or dominance is simply an emotional response to a trigger (think the UPS truck, a bicyclist, another dog, a runner). This emotional response—referred to as a distance-increasing behavior—is spurred by being frustrated, anxious or even fearful. To clarify, the dog is articulating in the best way he knows how, 'I don't know how to deal with this [dog/person/vehicle] and I want it far away from me!', and with the lunging and barking and such, they hope to achieve that. Simply, the dog feels better when that trigger is gone. So if we don't facilitate getting the dog the space they need from that trigger to feel more comfortable, they'll try and make it happen by using what they have to work with.

It's not only frustrating for both ends of the leash, but potentially dangerous. Many a time I've seen a human physically struggle to maintain their hold onto the leash—even worse when a retractable is being used—or to not get tangled in the leash and knocked down and dragged about by the dog who is going bananas. By the same token, hopefully the leash, collar or harness doesn't fail and if there's another dog in the scenario, fingers crossed they don't break loose. 

For those reasons alone it makes sense to not try and do what to most might feel is wise and force a dog to sit and calm down and wait until the trigger is out of sight. (Are you with me?)

A much better solution is to get the dog as much physical space as they need to feel okay. In my experience—and depending on the dog and the scenario—this might mean casually changing direction and heading down another street or simply crossing the street. Often I find myself in this situation with a charge, but I might be on a country road with no where to go besides into a field or a driveway. Space is space. I should add that I frequently encounter other dogs and their handlers who are clearly struggling with reactivity, and giving them the space they need is a priority for me as doing so could avert a dangerous situation. If I see that's the case, my charge and I cross the street, change our intended course, whatever I think might be most mindful.

Steeping a dog in a situation that makes them reactive will not only reinforce and escalate what you don't want, but can lead to other unwanted behaviors.

While giving a dog the physical distance they need to help quell their reactivity in the moment (and you can certainly use it to stave off an encounter by being vigilant), it doesn't resolve the root issue: the dog hasn't been afforded the opportunity to draw from wellspring of positive experiences with their triggers. You see, with proper socialization in the crucial early months of life and positive experiences with those things that might otherwise become a trigger (two things that I find many reactive dogs lack), young dogs naturally gain confidence and the ability to make good choices when confronted with their subsequent interactions with them. Victoria Stillwell wrote a beautifully crafted piece on helping reactive dogs gain the confidence they need in situations that they've found troublesome in the past. Click here to read, Teaching a leash reactive dog to make the right choices.

Some families find that they need one-on-one help with this or in other situations. If you feel a training professional's expertise is needed, be sure to do your homework and vet the person carefully. Your family's needs might be able to be met by a reputable trainer, a behaviorist (there's a difference) or in some cases, consulting a veterinary behaviorist might be necessary.

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 writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Talk to me: conflating a dog's ability to process human language with comprehension puts them at a disadvantage

One of the top things that I impress upon people when it comes to companion animals is the importance of relationship building: it's really the cornerstone of ensuring how well they unfold as family pets. Some of us get to kick things off when our pets are young, in other cases we get a late start if they might come to us when they're a bit older. Nonetheless, great relationships are fostered by clear communication—both non-verbal and verbal. The latter kind can be a bone of contention to some degree, especially when it comes to training. 

Just how vital is our verbal communication when it comes to our dogs? Mighty important in my experience, (though non-verbal is highly effective in some cases.)

Dogs have lived along side us humans for a long time, and because of that we've had to better understand each other. One of the ways that we've made an effort is through research, and using technology has been a part of that. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is one method that has been used in the past, and it's once again shedding new light on how complex the canine brain is.

Attila Andics, PhD, a research fellow at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, along with a handful of his colleagues who are also part of the Family Dog Project, aimed to see just what goes on in a dog's brain when they hear a familiar, trusted person (their trainer) utter words and phrases. 13 dogs trained to lay calm and quietly in an fMRI scanner were used in the study, Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs, published late last month. 

To test the dog's ability to process and understand words and intonation, the trainer offered up words to them while inside the scanner that were either neutral with a neutral intonation (Nn), a neutral word with a praising intonation (Np), a praising word with a neutral tone (Pn) or praising with a like tone (Pp). 

Andics' focuses of study include voice processing and social and affective aspects of learning and perception, so it seems fitting in this study to home in on how canines might use what we say to interact with us and learn. 

So, what did the researchers discover? From the collective results of the fMRI, it appeared that the dogs could recognize meaningful words, differentiate when a word was spoken with or without a praising tone and finally, they could use the other two skills in conjunction to process the reward value of what was said. 

Does this mean that dogs can understand what we're communicating when we talk to them? The answer to that is tricky.

What we do you know from the study is that a dog's brain can process language like us humans; that is, ah-ha! I've heard that before!, but in terms of reliably comprehending what a human means when the words come out of their mouth, it's simply not on par with what we are capable of. 

Deflating the proverbial balloon, gently

That's not to say that it can't happen to some degree—there have been canines who have exhibited the ability to acquire a vast vocabulary and demonstrate comprehension with it—but yes, it's rare. Dogs gain this level of skill with a lot of training and diligence on the human's part. And the majority of dogs don't have access to that.

Sure, dogs can hear a favorable word that their humans use often when engaging with them and their reaction is equally favorable. That simply demonstrates that the dog's brain recognizes the word as such, and to go a step further it could be strung to a rewarding outcome (like a treat or an interaction that they find pleasurable). But switch up the context of the word/phrase or how it's said, and often, confusion sets in.

(This is an example of when proofing comes in as a valuable tool in training and communicating. Read more about that by clicking here.)

This is why—going back to what I mentioned in the first paragraph about relationship-building—communication with your dog needs to be clear, concise and yes, contextual. Dogs need to be able to count on us to do that when we are interacting with them, no matter if we are in training or goofing off at home or if they get loose from their leash and dash out into a busy street.

So, do we take the study with a grain of salt? Let's just say that the information gathered from it is helpful in that it demonstrates where the limits are when it comes to what dogs can understand, and we need to respect that. I've read too many articles with regard to this study that would easily lead some dog owners to feel supported in their misguided view that their dog is simply being willful or as one said to me, "...they're stupid". In truth, the difficulties arise from the mistakes that have come from the other end of the leash.

Equating the way that the canine brain works with our own muddies the waters and only creates problems. Dogs, although highly intelligent, adaptable and very much a part of our families, are not human. We have to be okay with that.

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, August 28, 2016

New product designed to reduce rodent populations without using poison gets FDA approval

The use of home and garden chemicals is the bane of many a pet lover's existence, especially pet sitters and dog walkers who frequently encounter yards freshly treated with pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. There are dangers that these chemicals pose to the health of our companion animals. Admittedly, during the warm months here in Michigan, I'm constantly vigilant as I make my way out with my canine charges, scanning for tip-offs like the tell-tale spike tags on the edge of lawns, not to mention the overwhelming odor. I imagine I look like I'm playing hopscotch when avoiding these areas. 

But these aren't the only chemical dangers that pets face while in the great outdoors. As you might recall from a piece I'd written for MLive in 2012, rodenticides pose a significant risk, and one dog's encounter after ingesting a common product meant to kill mice was chronicled. 

We do of course worry about pets ingesting things like this, as they can make them sick, or in some cases, kill them. Some pets wolf things down (yes, even mouse and rat poison) indiscriminately, even if we don't see them as being necessarily appetizing. Other pets ingest products like this accidentally. 

The problem is, Daphne—a black Labrador in the story— didn't consume the product directly. It was deduced that she likely did so as a result of secondhand poisoning: catching and then eating a mouse that ingested the chemical elsewhere and made its way to her yard. 

A safer solution

Daphne required hospitalization and an ongoing recovery, narrowly surviving the harrowing encounter, but one biotech company in Arizona is hoping to make incidents like that a thing of the past. Flagstaff-based Senestech received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a formula that can control rat populations more safely and humanely. And the way it works gets to the core of what drives the populations, and is likely just the beginning of something bigger.

"ContraPest has the ability to revolutionize how we control rodent pest populations in the United States by focusing on the root cause of the problem—reproduction," Loretta Mayer, CEO of SenesTech said in a press release

Both sexes of rats are targeted; females experience egg loss while sperm development is impaired in males. ContraPest is a palatable liquid—and according to a test run in New York City, it is one that rats find appealing—delivered via proprietary, tamper proof bait stations. In fact, the rodents love it so much, they come back for more. That's a good thing, considering that sustained consumption of the product means an efficacy rate of the product that's optimal, resulting in rats that can't reproduce.
flickr photo by jans canon

Another attractive quality of the product— which has two active ingredients, one derived from plants, the other chemically based—is that it breaks down into inactive ingredients when it has contact with water or soil, so no worry of contamination, unlike its toxic predecessors.

Additionally, ContraPest was created to not only be a more humane to the populations it's designed to control, but safe for those it's not. Ditto for humans (including those handling the product and bait stations)—even children—and yes, pets.

"Municipalities are perpetually faced with the constant harm caused by rodent overpopulation, including the transmission of diseases, damage to public infrastructure, as well as destruction and contamination of food supplies," added Mayer.

"ContraPest is more humane, less harmful to the environment, and more effective in providing a sustainable solution to rodent pest infestations than traditional lethal methods, such as rodenticides, which contain lethal chemicals that can be toxic to humans and other animals."

Historically, trying to deal with rodent populations has proven to be challenging, due in large part that killing rodents isn't a sustainable solution. But inhibiting the animal's fertility is. 

Rodent control and beyond 

Because the dosage needed to affect rats has been formulated for their size, larger animals won't see any effects. That said, the company is on track to create a formula that is designed for mice.

You might find another facet of this technology to be interesting: Mayer noted that the company is also researching how it could be put to use in feral populations of cats and dogs, something that could be another viable tool in addressing pet overpopulation and homelessness. Alternative solutions to those issues that go beyond surgical neutering, like Esterisol and Zeuterin are being explored but will take time to thoroughly vet and put into place.

Click here to learn more about ContraPest.

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, August 20, 2016

'My Last Dog' Syndrome stunts our perception of our current pets and can exacerbate behavior problems

It's been ten months since my 15 year-old St. Bernard/shepherd mix Gretchen died, and though it sounds clich├ęd, I can say with complete confidence that she was a delight to everyone that she came into contact with, even those not terribly fond of dogs.

Despite coming home with me much earlier than she should have—Gretchen was 5 weeks of age, and in a situation no dog should have been in—she was a joy to unfold from house training and learning cues to understanding what was cool and what wasn't in terms of how she behaved. It was a challenge at times, but what puppyhood-into-adulthood isn't, right? She was a major chewer as her second set of teeth came in and I would get lax about ensuring her chew toys were at her disposal, so I lost a pair of shoes and other things, but lesson learned! She developed a brief penchant for digging, which we got under control easily by working together, but her love of rummaging through any trash can could not be tamed. In the latter case, I resigned myself to the fact that keeping trash cans out of her grasp was a mindful way to solve the problem, and indeed it did and that was that. 

Even as a large-breed dog, Gretchen was a divine traveling companion and acclimated easily to staying in hotels, beach-going and even canoeing. She loved visiting my Dad before his death in 2012 and understood that the "rules of the house" applied equally at his home, or no matter where she might be visiting.

Though she was a champ at the vet's office—no anxiety about being examined or poked, even when she wasn't feeling well—in her later years I opted to go the house call vet route to make it easier on her as car rides, though joyous and calm in her youth, were not as easy for her or myself to manage physically because of her arthritis and her large size. 

Her personality was just about perfect: an intelligence beyond belief, a quiet curiousness tinged with a sense of humor that rivaled the most apt clown and a stubborn sensibility that didn't let you forget that she was her own living, breathing being with a mind of her own. 

All of that said, I'd never considered taking us to a training class, and I've no regrets. 

Her Other Important Human, Chris, had been in the picture for the last half of her life and misses her equally. They had cemented a fantastic relationship and shared a bond that was as close as I had experienced, albeit different and for every bit of what they had together, I was grateful. He of course was fully present, supporting her passage as she had help making her final transition at home and as the trip was made to have her vessel tended to and her cremains brought home later that night. Despite our decision to part ways years ago, Chris and I have remained close friends and after our losing our other dog, Bruiser, three years ago, he's expressed that he's got the urge to welcome a new furry friend. 

I'm not surprised at his remarks on several occasions that he'd love to have another dog that is just like Gretchen. So would I, admittedly. But we both know that's about as likely as winning the lottery. She was a one-of-a-kind, in the best possible way and any future dogs that we bring into our respective folds will be as unique, though perhaps not as reliable in terms of their personality and behavior. 

The latter is something that comes to mind often as I read emails from readers and listen to clients as they see a new-to-them puppy or dog unfold.

"My last dog wasn't like this. He never had an issue when it came to house training. Why is it that Piper can't get with the program?"

"I buy all kinds of toys to fetch with and Boston doesn't seem interested at all. You remember how Eddie loved to fetch [me, nodding in agreement]—we would have to make him stop and take a break. What's wrong with Boston?" 

"Perry seems to get anxious when I leave for work. I never had that concern with my other dog—she was so easygoing. I just don't get it." 

There are a bazillion other comparisons, but they have one thing in common: they're unfair. 

Dogs are much like humans when it comes to their personalities, preferences and previous experience—they, as with fingerprints, are not alike. That's why it's vital to treat each dog (any pet, for that matter) like the individuals they are. The way that we interpret their behavior, how we interact with them and our expectations of them requires us to be free from the influence of our "last dog". Otherwise, we risk not allowing them to unfold freely and in many cases, we exacerbate problems or behaviors that are unwanted. Sure, it's helpful to use our previous experiences with pets to guide us in our relationship-building with the ones in our lives now. It's important to remember that dogs are not robots, but complex beings with emotions, drives and mental and physical capabilities that need to be considered as we discern if what we're seeing is first of all, really a problem and if so, why it's happening. Seeing things without the lenses that we've managed to leave our fingerprints all over serves both parties well. 

One of the first things out of my mouth when speaking with a pet owner when scheduling a meet and greet is, "Tell me about each of your pets... what are they like?". This enables me to better use the information about their care regimen and tailor the time I spend caring for them in an optimal way and avoid problems. The mental notes and dialogue abound! 

One family (they have previous life experience with dogs) that I tend to had four border collie mixes when we first met. The ages ranged from geriatric to young adult and their respective personalities were as diverse. Each was welcomed into the fold at different times, they had been given the space to unfurl naturally and continue to be who they are. The comparisons end at, "They're just different from each other." One lives to have a ball kicked to him so that he can bring it back to the human participant to do a hundred times over; another is a lively girl who appreciates her one-one-one attention and will do her best to get it; the third is one of the most sensitive dog I've ever known and has a keen ability to pick up on the energy of the others around him and then absorb it. Two summers have slipped by since the dog rounding out the tetrad—the oldest and most stubborn of "matriarchs" in her own right—passed away from age-related causes. All of the dog's personalities impress prominently, and despite that, the swirling of their personalities influence each other, at least a little. After the elder dog died, I could sense a palpable shift in the group's dynamic and most interestingly, they unfolded a little more individually. All of this has not been lost on the humans in their life: they can see it too, and adjust accordingly. 

This tribe—and how their human members allow them to develop and redevelop—is a fantastic example of one not afflicted by the "previous- or my other dog syndrome" that is all-too-easy to get sucked in to.

Though it'll be hard to not conjure thoughts of my life with Gretchen when I decide the time is right to welcome the next canine who I'll share life with, I'll spare myself the frustration of thinking they could never measure up to her. As importantly, I won't do anything to try detract from what made Gretchen unique by comparing how awesome they are. After all, I'll be a different human in many ways this next time around, and hopefully won't be under the proverbial comparative lens, and maybe, just maybe, I'll need some slack cut. 

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.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The ties that bind: giving familial dogs physical and mental space is essential for their emotional health

There's a point during our time together  — usually at the 5-to-7 day mark — when some of my canine charges start getting a little antsy with the change in their normal routine. That means I need to step things up a bit and adjust to keep them content. I'm all-too-happy to do what I can to make a companion animal comfortable while their people are away, and that can mean doing any number of things.In households with multiple dogs, this is something I need to be especially mindful of. 

We need not look much further than examining our own needs when it comes to thinking about how we can cultivate a sense of emotional well-being for our pets. Yes, as a species, dogs thrive on social bonds. But that doesn't mean they need to be immersed in contact with members of their own species constantly. It's all about balance. As someone who admittedly prizes alone time — something I know many of you can relate to — I can see its usefulness amongst the canines in my midst.

Unfortunately, there's so much emphasis on socialization and how familial dogs are buddies who so enjoy each other's company, the importance of their being individuals and having alone time can easily get brushed to the wayside. I find that not honoring that alone time for the pets who require it can create some real challenges for how well they fare and get along no matter if they are in their everyday schedule, if they're tagging along on a trip or if their family is away. 

It can be the similarities in our furry friend's personalities that can create tension — like their energy levels, their neediness, their play styles — that can make them feel a little squeezed mentally and physically when it comes to sharing their time and physical space. Ditto for sharing the humans in their lives. 

The same is true obviously when considering any differences. 

And though it's nothing new, it seems that more families are welcoming as many as 3 and 4 dogs into the fold. For some, especially newcomers who might have a little trouble adjusting to their new life, a little alone time can go a long way. There are few ways to approach it, and it's a matter of finding what fits. 

Don't underestimate the power of focused engagement

Giving dogs some of that valuable space can be as simple as taking a solo walk with them, or for a 10-minute game of fetch so that they have the ball all to themselves (or any favorite activity for that matter). The individual attention a dog gets from one of their humans —  this includes using one's voice, physical touch and eye contact — is vital.  I often take extra time for this with each of my charges, and I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in how they behave: they tend to focus better on listening and their happiness quotient increases dramatically. (I use a stuffed Kong to occupy the pets who aren't the center of my attention and might otherwise feel left out. As a positive distraction, this enhances the way they get to spend this time, too.)

Room to breathe 

There's something to be said for the benefits of dogs having that physical space that all of us crave now and again. I've a client with two dogs that-are very attached to each other. They're close in age, well-matched in athletic ability and activity levels, but in some ways, so very different. One is a little firecracker, with her non-stop desire to have in-your-face engagement and playtime with dogs and humans alike; the other, more reserved, stoic and quite happy to just sit and enjoy life from a quiet spot. Though they play well together, the latter really needs her alone time so that the former doesn't drive her crazy. That means separating them for periods during the day by putting them in different parts of the house. It's a strategy that works well for this and other families that I know. 

Loosening the ties that might bind 

In my experience, there are rare instances when two dogs are so bonded that they find it difficult to be away from each other, but even in this case alone time can be essential and easy to achieve. It's just a matter of perspective. Case in point: two of my canine charges would rather not be separated, but it's obvious that one of them has an appreciation for some alone time, and he plays well independently. He makes up games to entertain himself (I have to say I find it entertaining to watch), so while he's engaged in that, I keep his housemate — who is quite boisterous — occupied with some sort of activity on the other side of the room. This gives both animals a break from each other while not feeling the tension of being separated. 

While all of these strategies are useful all on their own, depending on your tribe's composition and needs, they can be used in conjunction with each other. However you can incorporate that feeling of freedom for your pets from being lumped together 24/7, you can be assured of a few positive benefits long term. 

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, May 18, 2016

Dog bite prevention is successful when rooted in facts, understanding canine body language

A frequent conversation that I have with someone who contacts me for the first time to care for their pet involves a lot of dialogue about their dog's behavior, and the better part of it is on the caller's part. 
"My dog has been labeled as 'aggressive' toward members of the staff of the doggie daycare that they attend and has been asked to not come back, but they are fine at home," or, "My pet is uneasy and becomes unmanageable on walks, or around new people or groups of people," are familiar statements. 
Some of these pets have snapped at people or even worse — bitten them.
Can you relate?
Many of my clients have called on me because they need a caregiver while they are away and they've been made to feel that they have a 'problem dog' and they're running out of options. The other arrangements have not worked out well for various reasons, but in most cases it's due to lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the pet care professionals, caregivers and even the family.   
When I say to that dog's human, "I understand — and it's common — but let's talk more about that so we can unpack why it might be happening. Surely there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior..." they tend to relax a bit after a bit of open and honest discussion about what behaviors that their furry friend is exhibiting, revealing a picture about the pet that they didn't expect. 
The first thing I ask is whether or not the dog has been evaluated by a veterinarian. Undiagnosed illness or pain can affect a pet's ability to interact the way they'd like. 

I'm happy to recommend a couple of reputable and certified training professionals who can help the family, which I do often.
Most of the time it just boils down to the fact that the dog hasn't attained the skills or have been given the space they need to navigate through these type of encounters (with both other pets and humans) and some are actually quite fearful. The dog's clear communication about how uncomfortable they're feeling in a given situation has been missed or ignored, and that can happen with any dog. They all have limits on what they're willing to tolerate. The sad reality is that misunderstanding these concepts or writing a dog off as 'aggressive' and leaving it at that can lead to situations where things escalate to a point when a dog bites someone — and that's never a good thing. 
An unfortunate misconception is that all dogs like each other. Taking your canine friend to a dog park, doggy daycare (or even a walk down a sidewalk that sees lots of foot traffic) is in my opinion a lot like one of us humans attending a cocktail party: there are some of us who can hang and interact with gusto, others can do so for only so long, while a few of us... well, our personalities are such that they're not well suited for that environment. And that's okay!
But, unfavorable interactions aren't limited to these settings. Anytime there is an opportunity for two or more dogs to meet or for a pooch to be close to a human, it can happen. 
But this leads me to address an important topic: May 15-21 is Dog Bite Prevention Week, and to highlight that it only seems fitting to talk about this totally preventable issue that has grown significantly in recent years. Here are a few things to think about. 
  •  4.5 million dog bites occur each year, and out of those, 800,000 seek medical attention.

  • Roughly half of those individuals are children are often, and they sustain the injuries that are the most severe — often bites to the head and neck.

  • The vast majority of victims were bitten by a dog that they knew, not a stray dog roaming the streets, contrary to popular belief.
Those statistics speak to me clearly, and illustrate some of my previous points on why most dog bites occur. These situations are preventable, and it comes down to humans (both kids and adults) understanding what facilitates them and how to best deal with a dog who bites.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, has offered some sage insight when it comes to dogs who bite.
One point that stands out is that, quite often, a dog is conveying to the human that he is uncomfortable, but said human is not understanding the message. It's up to us to learn the cues that dogs exhibit by way of body language.
This is especially important for kids, since they are the ones who fall in the demographic of often bitten most often. So, what factors create these dog bite cases? 
Many times, children have not learned how to approach a dog correctly and they don't know how to 'read' what a dog is saying when they communicate that they are not comfortable being approached. Other scenarios include a child approaching a sleeping pet — surprising them — or not understanding how to greet dogs. (Embedded in the text are great video links that you can watch with your children.)
On the other hand, many dogs who bite are fearful.
Yin explains this concept in a blog post.
Generally fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defense because it makes the scary people go away.
Fortunately, there are ways to help dogs learn how to navigate through encounters with humans that they find challenging, by way of desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC). And with some diligence, finesse and patience on the human's part, their dog can behave more confidently when it comes to being social, regardless of the situation. 
Yin gives more detail on this and other concepts, such as how canines can be taught to carry out proper replacement behaviors that are disparate with the fearful behavior they have become so familiar with exhibiting, in her blog post, 'Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs Who Bite'. 
Excellent resources related to the topic of preventing dog bites are included as well.
All dog bite situations happen because of an oversight on the part of a human. 
Canines need to be empowered to not be pushed to the point that they bite, no matter their size, age or the company they're in. That happens when the humans in their life (and in many respects, those who are unfamiliar to them) see to it that's the case. With diligence, proper education and understanding of canine behavior and body language — as well as ensuring that dogs are not placed in a situation where they will react by biting — we can keep everyone safe. 

Click here for more resources on Dog Bite Prevention Week.

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.