Wordless Wednesday: Happy (belated) Father’s Day!

You may remember this post, where I unveiled J’s super awesome birthday present. While it wasn’t our first dog-related piece of art, it was certainly the best!

This weekend, as a silly Father’s Day present from the pups, I gifted him with another to add to his collection!

photo(1)He loves his little black dog. She loves her big red ball. And their favorite mutual past-time? Fetch for hours and hours. How perfect is this print I found, on the cheapity-cheap?! Score.

Perfecting my Perspective

*I know this one is long, but I happen to believe that it is worth the read!*

Those of you that have been following this blog for a while, may know that my passion for animals, behavior, and training first came from my background as a competitive horseback rider. When I had to take a break from riding, and my horses, for a few years, I found comfort in the world of dogs and dog training. It was an easy transition, as there are so many similarities between the two species.

Both dogs and horses are intelligent, athletic animals. They both have a strong tendency towards communication via body language. Both are powerful animals, with a fight-or-flight tendency that gives them the potential to be destructive, but only in self-defense. Perhaps most importantly, both are animals that have evolved to develop close relationships with humans. Because of this, most possess a tendency toward companionship with humans, if not a strong drive to please them. Anytime I give a riding lesson and the rider faces a frustration, I always remind them that our horses rarely willfully disobey, especially if we make the right choice easy. If they are not responding to our cues, it is best to assume a miscommunication on the part of the human partner. Of course, if you are reading this, you probably also know that to be my approach to dog training.

543388_10150945397487427_101345628_nBecause of these tendencies, I largely have always applied force-free tendencies when training either species. While we do use our bodies to cue our horses (as well as tools such as leg aids and bit pressure) the best riders will recognize that they will never be able to overpower a 1,200+ pound animal. Attempting to be forceful or aggressive with a horse will only result in a frustrated animal, that may or may not react by lashing out.

Due to the similarities I see, I will often read articles that apply to one of the two species, and stretch it to apply to training the other. I find this to be a great way to gather fresh or unique approaches and ideas. With that goal in mind, I came across this article last week, and quickly shared it on facebook with an affirmative description. Let me share with you my gut reaction.

The article discussed the perils of ‘spoiling’ our horses. What resonated with me was reflective of two important theories I apply to animal behavior.

1) Animals thrive with structure, discipline, and training. They want to know how to please us (or at least, how to earn what they want) and so we teach them ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. We create anxious animals when we change the rules or never train them to begin with, because they will exist as though they never know when punishment or praise is coming. If you know me, you know that I love to take my dogs on exciting adventures, let them sleep in the bed, and consistently supply them with the newest toys, but I also spend lots of time training them to ensure that they understand what my expectations are, and make them work for their rewards. I can confidently say that because of this approach, our pups are some of the happiest and most secure dogs I have come across.

And Foster Makes Five0091

2) One fatal flaw (literally) I often encounter in other pet owners, is that they try to show their affection to their pets by form of food. Please do not confuse my criticism as being directed toward those that practice force-free training, and make their pets work for their rewards, while maintaining a balanced diet! Instead, I am referring to those pet parents that insist on feeding table scraps regularly, and ignore the signs of weight gain in their animals. Maybe it comes from my own fixation with healthy eating, but when I see people overfeeding their pets, or feeding them inappropriate items, I can’t help but picture it as literally poisoning their friend!

food is medicine or poisonDon’t just take my word for it! You may or may not recall the invaluable research done by Purina, which produced undeniable results supporting the benefits of an appropriately-portioned diet in dogs. The study took place over 14 years, and compared 48 purebred labrador retrievers from seven litters. Paired within their litters according to gender and body weight, the pups were randomly assigned to either a control group (fed ad libitum during 15 minute daily feedings) or a lean-fed group (fed 75% the amount eaten by the littermates in previous group). All dogs were being served the same balanced, nutritionally complete diets, which started as a puppy variety, and later evolved to the adult formulation, for the entire duration of the study. The only difference was in the quantity provided.

What is your reaction to a dog that looks like this?

What is your reaction to a dog that looks like this?

Any guesses as to the results? I’m sure you can hypothesize where I am going with this, but the actual results were even more astounding than I expected them to be!

  • The median life span of the lean-fed dogs was increased… but by 1.8 years, or 15%. In the lean-fed group, the age at which 50% of the dogs had passed was 13, compared to 11.2 in the opposing group.
  • By age 10, only three of the lean-fed dogs had passed away, as opposed to seven of the control dogs. At the end of the 12th year? Only ONE control dog had survived, in comparison to 11 of the lean-fed dogs. 25% of the lean-fed group lived to see 13.5 years of age, while none of the control group achieved that mark.
  • Additionally, 50% of the dogs in the control group required treatment for chronic conditions at 9.9 years of age. In contrast, the median age for the lean-fed dogs was 12 years. This group had lower serum triglycerides and triiodothyronine, as well as healthier insulin and glucose use.

Think about your dog; your sweet best friend, partner, and confidante. Imagine them aging, slowing down, becoming hard of hearing. As hard as it may be, picture yourself preparing to say goodbye to them when the time comes… in that moment, what price would you pay to guarantee you a few more years of your time with your dog, free from pain and the difficulties that old age brings? I would be willing to bet that no price would be too great. But this study shows us that we need pay no price… to ensure more years of time with our dog, as well as a significant reduction in health problems and associated vet bills, we must simply maintain portion control in our pet’s diet. It makes those nightly tablescraps seem a little less innocent, doesn’t it? Of course, occasional indulgences are not my complaint… but we must keep in mind that when we are responsible for the input of calories in our pets, we must be cognizant of the effects of our decisions. By overfeeding them, we are literally shortening their lifespan.

——————————————————————————————

While those are the visceral responses I had to the article, a friend of mine, whose opinion on the topics of animal training I greatly respect, had a different reaction. Her reactions were not my initial perspective, but I could not agree with them more. I think it is so interesting that two people who have largely similar approaches to the subject (she also shares an equestrian background, as well as an animal sciences degree, an affinity for pitties and force-free dog training… and we are the same age!) can have such different gut responses to the same topic. This was our conversation:

J: I agree that untrained/”spoiled” horses can be very dangerous – but I’m not comfortable with thinking my horse is “disrespecting” me. To me, this article weighs very heavily in human emotions, and does not seem to address other sources of bad behavior: fear, anxiety, nervousness, insecurity (just like dogs). The “too many treats” argument is often used against reward-based positive training, and, while I agree they shouldn’t be overused, I think that primary reinforcers like food can go a very long way in getting an animal – any species – to change their emotional response to things and therefore their behavior. Thanks for the thought provoking article!!

S: Completely agree J! I wasn’t thinking about it from that perspective… I would never want to reinforce theories that refute force-free training, so thanks for sharing that perspective. Maybe I should have applied that philosophy a little more in my mind before I shared this. I guess what struck me about this article is the fact that humans often anthropomorphize our animals’ behaviors… not wanting to train them or correct them because they worry about ‘hurting their feelings’. I am a strong believer in the fact that happy animals are ones that know what is expected of them, and are corrected when they stray outside of their expectations (not forcefully!) and rewarded when they make the right decisions. I believe that the best animal owners / handlers /etc train their animals to clearly learn ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ so to speak, by making the right choices easy to achieve, and the wrong ones more difficult. Does that make sense?

J: Yep, totally. And I’m completely with you on the not over-anthropomorphizing the behaviors of our dogs (animals) to justify letting them get away with something – that is one of the only things Caesar Milan and I agree on. In sort of but not really the same vein, a big thing I am learning with all the books I am reading lately is that if an animal is not responding to our cue (often quick to be labeled as stubborn!!), it is our job as the trainer to look at how we can improve our communication. Does the animal *really* know what we are asking of them? Anyway, positive trainers often get the wrap that we’re big softies, which is a shame because our animals have a ton of boundaries and expectations, they’re just not upheld in the traditional ways (“let’s make it worth your while to do what I want” vs “do what I want, or else!”).

One difference that my friend has from me, is that she has been a part of the blogging and advocating thing longer than I have, and she has more formal, applied experience with dog training. I think that while we largely share the same views, she has developed a clearer position that she applies any time she approaches a topic. I am still working on developing my approach and perspectives, as well as learning to check myself before I choose to support or criticize an article, group, etc. Do you know that you readers and your comments are a huge part of that learning process for me? So let’s hear it… what was your first reaction to the article? Any similarities or differences to the perspectives that my friend and I had? Can’t wait to hear from you! (PS- As a reminder, I am a big fan of intelligent and respectful debate!)

Sick as a Dog

Early last week, this picture came up on my news feed…

chukie-1His name was Chukie, he was at the NYC public shelter, and he was slated to be euthanized that day. This photo? A shot of one of the volunteers saying his last goodbyes to his favorite pup. Chukie had absolutely glowing reviews from staff members and volunteers alike. Most of us have gotten used to seeing things just like this on our news feeds, multiple times per day. While it is unfortunate, you sometimes have to grow a bit numb to prevent yourself from being in a constant state of despair, misery, and hopelessness. In spite of that, Chukie’s story really struck me, and I shared him in hopes of helping him find a foster or forever home.

I was so pleased when that photo quickly received a comment from my friend Josh from That Touch of Pit and Bully Project. If you are familiar with dog rescue, you’ve probably heard those names a few hundred times… they are responsible for the rescue of so, so many wonderful pups. They do great things for New York’s neediest dogs, and beyond. Josh informed me that although they were still searching for a foster or adoptive home, they had put a safe hold on Chukie. With Josh’s help, Chukie had narrowly escaped euthanasia!

430029_518596208207046_717395621_nUnfortunately, the struggle for Chukie’s life was not over. While he has since been removed from the shelter, he is spending his days in a veterinary office, where they work diligently to save his precious life. This is one sick pup, friends. And because they are struggling to find a worthy foster home, the funds that should be dedicated to his mounting medical costs will also need to be allocated toward expensive veterinary boarding fees. In spite of his dwindling health, Chukie remains friendly and affectionate with everyone he meets. It is easy to see what a wonderful family member he would make, if and when he recovers from his illness.

1000424_518927361507264_795835897_nNow renamed Chunk, this boy has overcome so many obstacles, but he is not yet assured a chance at a happy life. Please help Bully Project help Chunk, and other dogs like him, by making any donation, here. I know that if he could, Chunk would thank you with a big wet, sloppy kiss! I will choose to thank you in a way that is more subtle πŸ˜‰

Safety First

We feel right in tune with our friends at Doggerel, because they wrote a great post last week that has been on our minds for a while. We want to know… how did you train your dogs to have a solid recall? Do you have any tips or tricks you could share with us? And what do you think contributes to a dog having a really solid or easy acquired recall?

Tonka has the most consistent recall of our group, and was also the easiest to train. He is a dog that doesn’t need much in the way of treats during a training session… he is happiest and most focused when his reward is just attention and praise. He is the dog that can be in hot pursuit of a rabbit, and still turn on a dime to come running if he hears his name being called. On top of that, he’d really rather never be out of sight range from his mama, so I never have to worry about our boy. Have I mentioned lately just how awesome he is? If not, let me remind you… we shared a photo last week of a water excursion.

922859_384119938374813_289831267_n

What we did not share was that we encountered a black snake in the water! Never in my 23 years of existence has this happened. Not only that, but it happened again this past weekend on our own farm! Both times, Tonka was within a few feet of the snake. Scary, right? Thanks to his strong recall, we were able to call him quickly to safety.

What scares me, is if it had been either of the other girls, the results may not have been so positive. I’m not sure if it’s because they were added to the pack later on (both later in their lives, and later as far as our multi-dog pack), or if it is because they are females, but they just really can’t seem to get the recall thing down. It doesn’t matter what treats we use, how excited we pretend to be, or how often we work on it… recall just isn’t their thing, even if they are both food-motivated! We feel like we have tried it all (the games, the treats, the works!) While Gaige is the more consistent of the two, sometimes her disobedience is just that… a nah-nah-na-booboo sass that she doesn’t wanna listen! As for Georgia, there’s no attitude, but I swear some days it’s like the girl just doesn’t hear us!Β  IMG_1459 IMG_1460 IMG_1461 IMG_1462 IMG_1463

So we wanna know… do you have a Top Secret training tip or idea that we could try? Maybe something that isn’t the run of the mill sit-stay-come-treat? We have faith in our readers! While we are responsible owners that leash our dogs when out in public or on public trails, we’d rather our girls not be relegated to on-leash living for the rest of their lives, or worse yet, experience a safety issue while roaming free. Because of that, we are open to any and all advice!

Confessions of an Ignorant Dog Owner

I want to share with all of you an experience that I once had, years ago. I’m not sure if I am sharing this for the sake of full disclosure, to rid myself of some guilt, or to educate others, but I do know that I feel it is important to share. SO here goes…

Some of you may know that I got Tonka when I was just finishing high school, which I did a year early, and so I was only 17 years old. However, I took this responsibility very seriously. Having temporarily retired from my competitive horseback riding career, training and socializing Tonk became my hobby, and so it filled many of my waking hours. Yeah, there is probably a psychology lesson in there somewhere, but let’s just say that I put every ounce of heart and sweat into his upbringing.

Baby Tonk

Baby Tonk

When I went on to college, it was no surprise that he went with me. He was everyone’s favorite pup. He was the type of dog that could calm even the most reactive of dogs, and do it well. It took a lot to ruffle his coat.

Helping me study

Helping me study

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience... but the same was not true for Tonk =/

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience… but the same was not true for Tonk =/

A few years later, when Tonka was 3 or 4 years old, I took a summer internship on a horse farm in VA. It was a dream job, even though the hours were exhausting. Best of all, I could take my pup with me (as if I would accept a job otherwise!) The only downside? The owner, who I deeply respected and admired, bred Labs. That was all fine and dandy, but his male lab, Chase, was quite a handful. Of course being intact and overflowing with hormones, Chase had little respect for anyone, and nothing in the way of manners. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and it didn’t really matter who tried to stand in his way. Unfortunately, Chase took a quick disliking to Tonka. Tonka would try to avoid him, but if I was standing between the two, he never hesitated to defend me. I did my best to keep the dogs separated, but Chase’s owner seemed intent that the dogs would eventually work it out themselves. Of course, that never happened. Over the course of the summer, Chase attacked Tonka three separate times, and did the same with two other dogs. Once, when one of the other dog’s owners interfered with the attack, she suffered a nasty bite herself, for which I took her to the emergency room an hour away in the middle of the night. These weren’t just your run of the mill dog fights… they were serious aggression issues. Tonka still has white scars on his face that tell the story.

This was Luke, one of Tonk's friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

This was Luke, one of Tonk’s friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

That summer seemed to instill in Tonka a mild yet lasting distrust of other dogs, particularly males. Of course I couldn’t blame him. At the same time, I felt such immense guilt for not being better able to protect my dog from Chase and his ignorant owner. However, the man was thrice my age, and was responsible for my wages, job, and living arrangements. To say it was a delicate situation is to put it mildly.

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever...

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever…

When we returned to State College that fall, I made it my mission to improve Tonka’s socialization in order to bring him back to where he had been previously. At the time, I thought that the best way to do this was to visit the dog park. For a while, this worked wonders. Tonka loved going to the park and interacting with the other dogs and owners, most of whom we knew by name. For a long time, we did not experience any issues. However, in a college town, you can expect that not everyone who frequented the park was a responsible dog owner.

Dog park dog

Dog park dog

On one sunny afternoon after I was finished with class for the day, Tonka and I were playing fetch in an empty corner of the dog park. He was totally relaxed and focused on the task at hand, enjoying some one-on-one time with his mama. Usually the center of the pack, he was content to play with me while the other dogs wrestled and played probably 100+ feet away from us. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, a male boxer who had just entered the park, ran past the other dogs and people, and literally came flying straight at my dog (like, so fast he was truly a blur), straight into his side, with such force that Tonka was instantly knocked to the ground. This dog, for no obvious reason, began attacking Tonk. Without any conscious thought, I ran over to the dogs and started kicking the boxer that was still on top of Tonka. I still don’t know what prompted me to do that, but I can guarantee that it was a gut reaction to a traumatic situation. I know that I was not kicking him with full force, or at all to try to hurt him, but enough so as to dislodge him without getting bitten in the process. I also know that it only took one or two kicks to redirect his attention… I was not repeatedly kicking a dog in the stomach. A few seconds later (although this all felt like an hour!) a young man, about my age, came and retrieved his dog by the collar. He seemed like a nice person, but he was irate at me for kicking his dog. He yelled something about his dog having fear issues, and how could I kick someone else’s dog? No apology or even acknowledgement of the fact that his dog had just attacked mine without any provocation. He quickly left the park. I was so shaken up that I don’t think I even said anything to him, either in apology or defense. I went to retrieve Tonka, who seemed to escape with a few minor injuries, at least of the physical variety. Some other dog owners came up to me to report that this was not the first time they had seen this boxer attack another dog, but nothing could really calm me. That was the last time I visited a dog park with Tonka, until this experience years later, with Gaige. (Long-time readers will remember that we had a less dramatic, but similar, experience with her.)

I don’t know what to say about the traumatic events that day. Of course, I feel terribly about kicking his dog. To this day, I wish I could contact the owner in apology. I’m sure his dog is not a horrible pup, and now being a person with a dog that can sometimes be reactive, I have so much compassion for both the owner and the pooch. At the same time, I was there, effectively by myself, and was trying to make a decision to save my dog. Do I think his dog was trying to kill Tonka? No, I do not. But in a traumatic situation, I don’t think my brain could process that. Furthermore, the fact that the attack was targeted and completely unprovoked made me feel as though the dog’s actions could not be predicted. Had the owner been in range to assist me, maybe he could have jumped in instead of leaving me to fend for myself. I still do not know how I would react if I were to be put in the same situation… which is just one of the many reasons that I will never go to a dog park again.

As I said when I began, I don’t know exactly why I decided to write this post today. Maybe it is to free myself of some guilt… guilt for the way I handled the situation at the dog park, and most especially, guilt for the fact that I feel I have failed Tonka as far as standing up for him in stressful situations. Of course I now know better, but I wish I could have spared him some of these experiences. Perhaps by sharing this, it will help other dogs whose owners are as well-meaning yet uninformed as I once was.

Wordless Wednesday: Wet Dawgs

Our pups saw their adoptable interwebz friend Moby doing some pond cleaning in his spare time, and they realized that perhaps they should be more environmentally conscious as well. Except where Moby was retrieving sticks, our pups felt the need to rid the waters of flowers. So, it’s either that, or they were trying to bring me a belated Mother’s Day gift… not sure.

IMG_1528Β  IMG_1530 IMG_1531IMG_1535IMG_1506 IMG_1509 IMG_1513 IMG_1518IMG_1543 IMG_1545 IMG_1548 IMG_1551 IMG_1554 IMG_1558 IMG_1563

Help! Spots, Rashes, and All Things Itchy

We have been noticing lately, more and more, that poor Miss Gia has some itchies that we just cannot seem to get under control.

When she first came to us, she had some not-so-cute rashes on her tummy. We were able to alleviate this by a simple switch to a higher quality food, as well as a few medicated baths.

DSC_0005

For a while, this seemed to curb her problems. However, as spring started to finally arrive in our little piece of Pennsylvania, we noticed our girl doing more itching and licking than ever! We would notice an issue especially after we cut the grass, or she spent a lot of time outside ‘hunting’ in the woods (her favorite!) At first, we could combat the problem by treating her with some liquid Benadryl, but now even that doesn’t seem to be able to combat her itchings!

Caught in the act =/

Caught in the act =/

She will even wake out of a deep sleep to lick or itch at her paws or back end or tummy, and then go right back to dreaming. We are having a hard time telling if this is something that is physical (there are no lumps, bumps, fleas, or rashes) or mental. She will just lick and lick at her paws if we aren’t there to stop her. When we correct her (just with a quiet ‘no’ or by redirecting her to a toy or bone) she will give a big yawn, as though she is worried or stressed. If I had to guess, I would say that it is probably a combination of both.

When we went to our vet, they were pretty blase about it… they told us to try Benadryl (duh, been there, tried that) and Fish Oil (check!) neither of which seemed to do much for our girl. We know that pittie mixes can have a tendency towards the itchies and the allergens, so I know that some of our wise blog friends will have some suggestions for us! We’d love to hear your thoughts to make our girl more comfortable… should we try allergy testing, or is there an intermediate step we are missing?

Thank you in advance for your help!