Wednesday, November 26, 2014

There's No "I" in Team

Dogs are amazing creatures which bring so much to our lives. The problem is their natural desire to give isn't always reciprocated. Though they meld well into so many situations and perform a myriad of functions that benefit us, we have to remember that they have needs as well. 

A dog shouldn't be a status symbol. If you buy a Bulldog because of their “cool” factor, be prepared to have additional sums for its health care needs. Veterinarians don’t have patience for those who buy a designer puppy for $2000 and then lose their head over the cost of vaccinations, fecal testing, deworming, flea and heartworm preventatives and so on. Additionally, if you buy a German Shepherd (from Germany), who has “unbelievable working lines” – don’t use it as lawn art! Your dog’s a thinking, breathing, emotional being that needs the ability to have training, affection, play, and an outlet for its breed-specific needs. It’s not there to decorate your backyard like a toy you can put on a shelf when you’re bored.

A dog shouldn't be a fashion accessory. Those who buy little dogs as a constant companion in their carry bag have delegated that pet to being a mere observer in the owner’s world. The dog has legs for a reason, so let the little one explore, become more confident and get exercise. Some of these dogs become fearful and anxious because they haven’t had the opportunity for independent exploration. Imagine if you were sequestered to a wheelchair, but you were perfectly capable of walking! It doesn’t stop there though. Some dogs live as a dress up dolls, without consideration of whether the activity makes the dog happy or at least comfortable. If your dog requires its own closet to house doggy couture, and you don’t have a Chinese Crested or weather requiring additional warmth, you may have a problem.

Lastly, your dog is shouldn't be an extension of yourself. This is a tough one. If your dog goes over to a friend and mounts their leg with great verve, I know it’s hard not to be totally embarrassed into 90 shades of crimson. Apologize to the person and divert your dog, but don’t punish him. Punishing your dog due to your discomfort may seem natural, but often reinforces the situation, or worse, pushes the pet into becoming defensively aggressive. As humans, we have a knee jerk response when confronted with situations that might imply we’re not good leaders. Here’s a scenario: while standing in a checkout line your kid points to the person next to you saying “She’s got a HUGE nose!” Your reaction is to scold your kid because he made you look like a terrible parent who teaches their child proboscis shaming! No. It’s a child; they’ll learn people come in all shapes and sizes, but can’t be expected to have an advanced adult social filter at such a young age (and the lady really did have a big honker). With dogs, they do what comes naturally as well. We need to listen to them to determine why they’re reacting, and then divert their attention to something that they CAN do instead. Disobedience is one area where dogs are judged harshly. Reactive dogs are often punished by their owners out of exasperation spurred on by public pressure (real or imagined) that decides they haven’t done enough to curb that dog’s behavior. Dogs are not automatons that are capable of turning off their own perceptions, fears, and concerns just because the display would be “inconvenient” for the company at large. Be a protector—remove your dog from the situation.

Dogs are a wonderful species, whose presence in our lives rewards us by enriching our own. We need to remember they are whole and separate from ourselves, and give them our time and understanding so they can have the opportunities to fully explore their true natures. Ownership is a dance and if you don't pay attention to your partner, all you'll find is that someone's got sore toes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pick a Winner

We are often asked to give a referral for a “good dog trainer”. Selecting a trainer is as important as choosing the proper person to be your kids’ nanny. We often recommend trainers who are educated, perform regular continuing education, use reward-based training, will let you monitor a class to see if you feel comfortable and have references. If you’re new in a neighborhood, doing the research can be tough; thus websites often end up being a starting point to pare things down. I thought it might be helpful to point out some key phrases which might indicate steering clear is the best option.

  • Pack Leader/Pack Theory: This phrase alone may indicate that the trainer is ascribed to dominance-based training which does not promote a good relationship with your pet.
  • Balanced Training: This means using “good” and “bad” to achieve balanced training. Good would be positive reinforcement. The bad is most likely positive punishment with choke chains, prong collars or electronic collars. Combining good with bad will, at best, give you something neutral. I would prefer a good experience personally.
  • Done without harsh punishment: This means there will be punishment, but not HARSH punishment. Yes, they could mean negative punishment (walking away or turning your dog jumps on you), but I doubt it. Harsh is subjective, so I would pass on this one.
  • Fast results guaranteed: If you have ever touched a hot burner or have been shocked by a short in an electrical cord – you know you only do it once. Fear is a powerful motivator – but it does not make for a trusting relationship between you and your pet.
  • No bribery: This essentially means they don’t use treats to train “commands”. The thought process is that the pet must do what’s asked out of respect for you – or out of respect for the pain that you can inflict if he doesn’t follow instruction.
  • Obedience to fix problem behaviors: Behaviors problems are not always an obedience issue. If that were the case, your dog would be doing things just to make you mad – which isn’t in their mind set. For instance: If your dog is barking, it may be because he’s scared of the kid who throws rocks at him over the fence. Expecting your dog to shut up because you say no won’t make him less frightened.
  • Specializing in Board and Train: There can be trainers who offer board and train in a responsible positive manner. The concern is that you have no idea how your pet is being trained in your absence.
  • The use of e-collars, stim collars or remote training collars: These are all euphemisms for electric collars and should not be used in training.
Other helpful sources:
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists How to Select a Trainer
American Veterinary Society of Behavior’s How to select a Trainer handout
Trainers through the Karen Pryor Academy
Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Galloping Gourmet

Dogs are wonderful animals that bring so much value to our lives. We love to play with them, pet them and snuggle – that is until we discover that Rover has been busy eating stool in the backyard. Yup, you heard that right. Eating poop is a gross doggy habit…I guess that’s one benefit of strictly owning cats. For those who have a pet with this affliction, your first question is probably “Oh my goodness. Why???!!!” Coprophagy, or eating of stool, is suspected to be caused by:

  • Natural behavior: Female dogs clean their puppies and their den by eating stool. A large percentage of dogs that eat stool are females. The most common breed with this problem is Beagles.
  • Underlying medical problems: This can be seen in pets with malabsorption in the gut, starvation or malnutrition (ensure your pet is getting a balanced good quality diet).
  • A less discerning palate – they think it tastes good. Raiding the cat litter box rates highly as a popular bistro bar since cat food is higher in protein.
If your pet is eating his own stool, or those from your other dog, there are many preventatives including:
  • Take your pet on walks and bag the stool as you go
  • Do not yell at your pet when it consumes stool since this might accidentally reinforce the behavior
  • Ensure you are providing a quality diet – talk to your vet for suggestions.
  • Unfortunately, research has shown that no aversive additives work.

Out of all these preventatives, the most successful treatment is to pick the stool up right after your pet goes to the bathroom. Get your dog on a feeding schedule to help regulate stool production and make pick-up times more predictable. 

If your dog is a frequent flier to the cat litter box, consider making one bedroom or office the “cat domain”. Use a child gate to cordon off the area – your cat can jump over, but your dog is kept away from temptation.

If your pet is a scrounger on walks, keep him or her leashed and sequestered to paved areas where animals are less likely to eliminate. The biggest concern with coprophagy—other than rank dog breath—is the ingestion and transmission of intestinal parasites. If your pet tends to ingest stool be sure to have regular health exams and fecal testing to prevent infestation.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Move My Cheese

I learned everything I needed to know about food aggression from a dog/animal actor named Chester. Our relationship started on a commercial set, where I worked as a second-trainer on a Three-Day Blinds commercial with him. He was an adorable wrinkle-beast, so cuddly it was hard not to fall in with love him. He reflected a mild nature, regardless if you scrubbed him up in the tub, cleaned his ears or provided a pedicure. He had a gentle mouth when offered treats, tail wagging and eyes sparkling. Over all, I thought of him as a gentle soul…until the day I fed him and attempted to pick up his food bowl. Watching the Exorcist would probably give you a good idea of the shock and awe on my face when I saw “that look” come across his face seconds before his teeth flashed near my hand! I jumped back – uninjured but deeply stunned.

This isn't an uncommon situation. Many people have perfectly lovely dogs - just so long there isn't a bowl or high-valued chewie sitting out. Food aggression is interesting in how owners react to the possessiveness. Let’s put this in perspective: I have a plate of chocolate chip cookie and I’m chowing down on them. I've been looking forward to this moment of bliss ALL DAY and now it’s coming to fruition. Suddenly, someone comes by and sticks their thumb in the middle of the cookie I’m eating. Then, as an indication of ultimate skeeziness, swipes the entire plate away while all the while telling me how BAD I am for getting upset. This is the travesty of being a dog. Misinformed people have perpetuated the idea of taking away food from puppies while they’re eating and scolding them for getting mad. Even worse: others put their hands in the bowl to ensure it’s understood who the Alpha is! In fact, you’re just being rude. You’re the provider of food and the one with the opposable thumb, so you really don’t need to put on such a needless show of power.

Food aggression is caused by the fear of losing a resource.

By taking that item away from the animal, you’re reinforcing that perception that their fear is valid. The only way to teach a dog that you’re not salivating over his bowl of kibble is to build trust. How can you do that? Become a provider rather than a thief.

If your dog is aggressive about food or toy – make your presence seem like a party. You want him to look forward to your presence while he’s eating rather than dread it.
  •  Start by getting close enough so your pet can see you, but not so close that he stops eating, gives you the hairy eye-ball, growls or snarls.
  •  Once you've established the “safe spot”, toss something truly special and delicious right near his bowl (like a piece of chicken or hotdog), then walk out of the room. You’re showing him “When I’m here, something awesome happens!”
  •  With treat tossing as your mission, get slowly closer to the bowl during each meal, following the previous parameters of ensuring your pet isn't getting upset with your existence.
Eventually, you’ll find that when you walk into the room your pet may STOP eating and look up at you with a totally different expression – one of happy expectation. If he leaves the food bowl, so be it, you want him to be happy that you've come by the ol’ doggy trough to visit.

Do you want to take the bowl away, but Rover refuses? Do a trade: Have one person call him with a delicious morsel, while you whisk away the bowl. Note that throughout this scenario, there’s no yelling, intimidation or corrections. Fear is built on those principles. Trust, however, is grown through consistency, respect and understanding. If you do your job right, you’ll find that the training is much simpler than arranging an exorcism.

                                              Chester courtesy of Ron Kimball Photography

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Seeing Both Sides of the Situation

Our exam rooms have been host to numerous animals and owners seeking to find common ground and resolution to a myriad of complex problems. The one thing that all of our appointments have in common is how the appointment starts – with the student, staff or faculty member asking “how can we help you today?” After that question is tossed out, we get perspective of how the pet’s behavior has affected their owner. After that, we let our eyes, ears, nose and hands help get the rest of the story from the pet. The solution to the problem presented is often about opening lines of communication between the two parties so healing can begin.

As humans, we take in information around us, and then sort it into what’s important and what isn't. Next we add emotions to the situation, with a dash of our own history into the interpretation. The end result is what we understand as true. The problem is we’re using our perspective to write the narrative of a creature that doesn't think like we do.

Case in point: You come home to find that your cat peed on your comforter. You know it’s your cat, because it’s the only pet with access to the room. You know it’s less likely to be your husband because, well, he knows that being housebroken was a non-negotiable item on your e-Harmony form. You start pondering about what would compel your cat to do such a thing. Your bed doesn't appear to be a sandy litter-box. This has never been an issue before. The cat knows it’s your bed, since she sometimes sleeps with you under the covers on cold nights. She didn't pee on her OWN bed, so this must have been personal. Why would she be mad? Well you were out for a fun weekend in Tahoe, and she was left alone with the automatic cat feeder as her only form of company for a day and a half. Your cat is a pouty vindictive wet towel who detests the idea that you’re out hanging with friends rather than sitting in front of the boob tube, petting her.

This all sounds logical to a human (though I doubt many of you have room mates who feel put off by not being invited to a party and handle the slight by relieving their bladder on your stuff). On our end, we see an older, pudgy cat with a mild limp. There’s only one litter-box in the home and it’s downstairs. When no one’s around, said cat enjoys lying on the bed, bathing in the sunshine provided by a nearby window. When people are home, she’s all about being on her owner’s lap for a pet…though that’s been happening less for some reason. What we wonder is if the cat is arthritic, and if pain from jumping up and down might have something to do with the situation. If she was uncomfortable and lying on the bed and couldn't bounce down off the bed, down the steps and across the home to the litter-box, accidents happen. Cats aren't vindictive. They don’t keep hash-marks on the side of their scratching post, tracking perceived slights until the decision to steal your breath while you’re sleeping seems an attractive prospect on the ol’ bucket list.

We would want to perform an exam on the cat, x-rays if indicated, and possibly a blood and urine sample to rule out internal organ function problems. If everything looked normal, then we would discuss recent changes in the household such as a different kitty litter, pan, litter-box location, other pets, stressful events or local outdoor visitors like feral cats. Felines are sensitive souls, but most of them really WANT to use a clean, well-placed lavatory. Once you get the pets perspective, answers come more easily and harmony in the household can be re-established. Some cases aren't as easy as this, but it’s a good example of how a single offensive act doesn't necessarily indicate a declaration of war – rather a cry for help.