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.

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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.

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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!)

To be Wealthy

What makes you feel like a million bucks? I am so interested in the way people answer this question. It is important to note that ‘a million bucks,’ is not the same thing as ‘beautiful’.

I believe that it is a moment we all search for. A moment when we are the rulers of our world, and in total control. It is a moment that inspires us, carries us, and reminds us of what we are living for. In this moment, we see everything that we can be in this life, and suddenly, we can’t imagine being anything less.

"Dreams are always crushing when they don't come true. But it's the simple dreams that are often the most painful because they seem so personal, so reasonable, so attainable. You're always close enough to touch, but never quite close enough to hold and it's enough to break your heart."

“Dreams are always crushing when they don’t come true. But it’s the simple dreams that are often the most painful because they seem so personal, so reasonable, so attainable. You’re always close enough to touch, but never quite close enough to hold and it’s enough to break your heart.”

Every great love starts with a great story. One of my greatest loves in life, was my horse Frosty. He came into my life at a pivotal time, and our adventures cover the highest of peaks and the lowest of valleys. His registered name, the name we competed under, was ‘A Dynamic Minute,’ which so perfectly sums up our memories together: a fleeting yet divine moment in time.

Losing Frosty was one of the most painful moments in my life. Painful is probably an understatement, and conversely, one that very few will ever comprehend. Even in every happy moment or good day, something would spark that undercurrent of pain, and the crack in my heart would spread all over again. In time (only recently, 7 years later), the hurt began to lessen, and it was easier to just let go.

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Or at least, I thought it was easier. But in every ride I took over the years, I found myself searching for him. I’d seek the lifting float of his trot, or the rocking gait of his canter. I looked for his clownish personality in the barn, mirrored by his stone cold focus in the show ring. I craved the pride from our successes in the spotlight, and the quiet loyalty of our private moments behind the scenes. I missed him so. I missed hearing his name called along with mine, that sweet sound of success that made all of the sacrifices worthwhile. Even the times when our names weren’t called first… yes, I missed those too. Because, at the end of the day, I knew that I still had his giant heart to depend on. Mostly, I just missed my friend, my partner, my champion. I was looking for him everywhere, and when the feelings got too strong, I’d take a step back from the world that reminded me endlessly of him. I couldn’t continue to drive towards my dreams, for fear of what I needed to face, and what I might ultimately find. I didn’t want to recognize my own inadequacies without him. I wanted to remember us like we were those fleeting years, those exquisite summers. Independent of the world, yet fiercely dependant upon one another. Strong and brave, focused and calm. Grey horse and slight girl, gallant steed and timid princess: a fairytale, a living poem. Undeniable champions, and yet we were eventually torn apart by the very thing that drew us to great heights… ambition, though ultimately not our own.

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Our last moments together…

What I am only now realizing, as I write this, is that Frosty, in himself, was my dream. That’s it. Aside from the glory and success and points. All of that would have meant nothing without him. Every little girl’s fantasy of the beautiful horse with the rocking canter, who galloped into their dreams to carry them away from reality. That’s the gift he gave me. The glaring absence of the light that he once brought into my life, sometimes makes every other beautiful thing so much dimmer by comparison. In his dappled gray glory, Frosty was the silver lining to the clouds in my life, and so sometimes it’s hard to see much more than stormy weather. I don’t know how to conclude this to do justice to this magnificent creature. All I can say is that, in all of his glory and imperfections, Frosty was the best thing that has ever happened to me. And, he truly is ‘A Dynamic Minute’ that will last a lifetime in my heart.

"Wherever I go in life, I take a piece of you with me everywhere."

“Wherever I go in life, I take a piece of you with me everywhere.”

While I have finally come to terms with the fact that he will never again be mine, I still work to uncover the reasons why the pain of our separation was so deep and sharp. Perhaps the reason it hurts so much to have lost him is because our souls are connected. Maybe they always have been and always will be. That gets me through.

It hurts that my dreams seem to be so intertwined with him. To face the ascent to my greatest aspirations, I must also face my life without him. I still want the dream I have put down on paper so many times. The dream that has existed in my heart for years. I preach to others that not a single one of us should feel that our dream, our freedom, or our choice is elusive. It should be ours to attain. And yet, my fear of loss, of failure, of betrayal, cripples me. A paralyzing fear that is only self-fulfilling… my fear of not achieving my dreams, prevents me from actively seeking them, which in turn renders them unachievable.

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For me, riding has always been about passion. What does that mean, you might ask? I believe it is a primal, instinctively vibrant part of ourselves that doesn’t come from social status, a fancy car, or a corner office. Expressing this part of yourself radiates a confidence and glow unattainable through beauty treatments and material possessions. Passion comes from our core; from the deepest part of who we are…that place we pull our last bit of strength from, where our deepest love lives.

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Find your passion. Seize it, and make it your life’s work. You will come alive. Most importantly, no matter how much it sometimes hurts, never give up.

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“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.”

– Ayn Rand (Russian-born American author)

 

Fundraiser: Prize #10 – Sunshine & Pitties

When we got married, I was so honored to have Foster Dad’s (FOUR!) sisters standing beside me on our big day. It was really important to me to find unique and distinctive gifts for each of his special ladies, that applied to their respective interests. I didn’t want to go the route of gifts with our wedding date engraved for years to come. For J’s youngest sister, E, it was so simple. We both share a passion for animals, and a lifelong dedication to the world of competitive horse showing. Where I had my once-in-a-lifetime horse named Frosty, hers is also a gorgeous, tall, gray gelding, named Norman. I knew that for her gift to be especially meaningful, I would need to incorporate her first love and best man! After taking a few (amateur!) shots of her gallant steed, I sent them along to an incredibly talented artist who specialized in custom animal portraits. Of course, E opened her gift with an appropriate mix of speechlessness and tears, and I was so proud to be able to provide her with such a treasured keepsake, truly indicative of my appreciation for her role in our lives, and in our special day.

I share this story to illustrate just how sacred such a gift can be. Our animals grace our lives in a pivotal, yet heartbreakingly brief, way. Having their presence preserved in a work of art to display in your home, is a gift that is truly invaluable.

DawgArt –  Unleash Your Pet’s Colorful Personality!

The watermark will not appear on the print, it is just to protect the copyrighted images!

The watermark will not appear on the print, it is just to protect the copyrighted images!

Alicia is an artist that specializes in pet portraiture and animal art in vivid color. She created her company, DawgArt, in 2003. She draws inspiration from a former professor, who would leave his students with the message to “Use your powers for good!” Alicia believes that art has power, and so when she puts her brush to her canvas, she has two goals: 1) to communicate the soul of one creature to another, and 2) to make people smile. All it takes is one look at her work to know that she brilliantly achieves both goals! However, she also absolutely uses her power for good, advocating for no-kill rescue and working with many animal rescues across the country.

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Alicia has worked with almost every breed of dog imaginable.

 

While she works primarily in acrylic on canvas, Alicia also dabbles in photography, dry media, and writing. The inspiration for the color splash in her portraits comes from her youth in the desert Southwest. Alicia was born in Germany and raised in sunny Arizona, but now lives in Utah with her husband Tyler, their rescued cat Kiko, and their shelter dog Toby.

Alicia's work includes, dogs, cats, horses, and even wild animals!

Alicia’s work includes, dogs, cats, horses, and even wild animals!

 Please visit Alicia’s store (here) to purchase any of these prints, but of course, she also embraces and encourages private commissions of custom portrait work. Can you imagine how impressive it would be to have a portrait of your own pet done in her bright and sunny style?! She captures the personality of her subjects so truly and eloquently, that you can’t help but smile.

Alicia has graciously offered a donation of 8×10 fine art prints. Please make a donation to our fundraiser for LCPO’s needy pit bulls, in increments of $10, to earn an entry! The bigger your donation, the more chances you have to win and one of our fabulous prizes!

Dog Pack

“If you don’t own a dog, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.”

I have always said that people come into our lives for different reasons. Oftentimes if we look at the people we choose to surround ourselves with, they may represent a spectrum of personalities. Maybe these people encourage us to display varying aspects of our identity, or simply serve distinctive purposes in our lives.

For example, most of us have that friend from our childhood. The person with whom you share early memories and silly stories, inside jokes that no one else understands. You grow up spending as much time with their family as your own, and maybe even become something like siblings.

Some of us have friends from college, the people that are there to support us and help us grow, as we go through one of the biggest life transitions. You cram for exams, spend late nights together, and hold each other during heartbreak.

We have friends that are there for the fun times, to grab drinks or go for manicures. They are our good time friends, with whom we share wild stories and lots of laughs, but maybe nothing deeper. And that’s okay!

Then there are the friends that hold a part of our soul. For me, this person shares a passion for the same sport, but she is also always there to pick me up when times are hard. She never hesitates to set aside her own issues when I need her. She is the epitome of selfless. Her advice is boundless and always offered without criticism or judgement. She always offers me the benefit of the doubt, and knows that although I certainly don’t always get it right, my heart is full of the best of intentions for others.

While all of these people hold a vital place in my heart, as well as in the story of my life, today’s post is about a different type of person. A person that I bet all of you know, and value… the person we trust to watch our dogs when we are away.

It must be someone who will treat our dogs with tenderness and compassion, yet maintain our structure and discipline. This person must understand our neurotic tendencies as pet parents the canine nature, and have an idea about training. You must trust that they are good under pressure, and can stick to a routine. Finally, and perhaps most hard to come by, this person must be willing to give up a portion of their time, usually sacred nights and weekends. For me, these people are almost as scarce as working squeaker toys in our home, but I am lucky to know a few. From my perspective, no amount of compensation or thanks will ever truly portray my appreciation.

I met Ellie when I was working as a manager at an equine veterinary clinic. After a stellar interview, I recommended that she be hired for a position as a veterinary technician. Ellie was the person who always showed up on time, if not early, and consistently stayed late. She was willing to do any job, from monotonous stall cleaning to assisting with complex medical cases. She completed every task with a willing attitude and a smile on her face, and was always seeking out new projects to fill idle hours. She could manage criticism from her superiors, even when it was not necessarily constructive, without letting it negatively affect her performance. Perhaps most importantly, Ellie maintained an understanding for our clients, while handling the horses with the perfect combination of skill and compassion. As she embarks on her path to vet school, I know that she will make an incredible veterinarian. Not only do I feel safe when she is watching our pets, but I feel blessed to have such a trustworthy, caring, and responsible person that is willing to devote her time to allow us some freedom.

Foster Dad indulged me this weekend by taking me on a trip to Ohio for a large annual horse show. While we took our two perma-dogs along with us for the ride, we left Georgia and our cat, Bella, home with Ellie. We are so happy to share Ellie’s account of her weekend with Georgia. Enjoy!

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Georgia got to make a new friend this weekend! In order to let foster mom and dad take a weekend trip, I was called in as backup.  An avid animal lover as well, I jumped at the opportunity to meet this sweet girl that I had been reading about.
I was super excited to meet her, but nervous at the same time, as I was worried she would be anxious with foster mom and dad leaving. She was quick to prove my worries wrong, greeting me with hundreds and hundreds of kisses. (Yes, hundreds. I’m not exaggerating or complaining!) She was an all star the entire weekend and was up for whatever it was I wanted to do,
whether that be long walks on the farm…
watching TV… (Bella too!)
studying…
playing tug of war…
or sun-bathing.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised with her patience and willingness, as well as how quiet she is (no whining or barking from this girl, not even after being kenneled for bedtime!!) and I think we had a pretty great weekend together.  Hands down, anyone would be lucky to have a dog as great as she is.

Georgia (and her ears!) napping after a long day of fun!

 

If you think you might know someone who would be interested in adopting our sweet girl Georgia, please share her story! Any questions about Georgia or the adoption process can be directed to me (Stephanie!) at sel1490@gmail.com.

Dog & Pony Show

Some of you may know that my love for animals originated in the world of horses. I began riding at the age of 7, and soon started competing nationally. For the majority of my life, I slept, rode, ate, rode, slept… not necessarily in that order. I even graduated high school a year early in order to afford me the ability to travel to compete for a national title. My hobby was one that necessitated receiving judgement on a regular basis. My horse’s talent, as well as my own, were constantly under scrutiny, from my trainer, the judges, and even the other competitors. Riding is as natural to me as walking, and the thrill I got from competition required me to remain open to criticism.

My most recent show horse, Shadeless

One of the things I so love about spending time with dogs, whether it be attending training classes or volunteering at local shelters, is the lack of judgement. While this was never something that I felt bothered by while riding and showing, I realized what it was like to come in to a group of people that offered no criticism. The other volunteers, and of course the dogs, were just happy to have another set of willing hands.

However, if any of you readers out there share an affinity for pit bulls, you know that what I’m writing about may not always be true. Unfortunately, pit bull type dogs are judged on an almost constant basis. Whereas the ‘popular’ breeds like Golden Retrievers and Labradors may have the freedom to act out on occasion or misbehave in public, the same is not true for our dogs. If our pitties even let out a low warning growl to another animal they can be considered aggressive.

My favorite example of dog breed discrimination occurred at the Jeep festival last summer. We had only had Gaige for about a month, and it was her first public outing. We took her to the busy festival, not sure what to expect, but we wanted to start socializing her as soon as possible. Surprise? She was. an. angel. (Note: as much as we love her, this is not how she regularly acts at home!) She sat any time someone wanted to pet her, walked patiently on the leash, and was all around a fabulous representative of her breed. We had recently learned how much Gaige adored children, and this festival was no exception. Anytime she saw a pint sized human, she sat her butt down, wriggling her tail and front feet with anticipation. When one particular little lady came up to us with her grandmother, they politely asked us if they could pet our puppy. As Gaige sat down, soaking up the little girl’s lovin, they remarked on how sweet and well-behaved she was. They asked us a few questions about her, until they got to asking what breed she was. We told them that we didn’t know for sure, but we thought she was probably a pit bull – black lab mix. The grandmother glared at us, grabbed the little girl’s hand, and  dragged her away, muttering “How could they bring that dog in here in good conscience…” Poor Gaige just laid down and watched the little girl walk away, presumably wondering what she’d done wrong to scare her off!

Gaige’s “please, pet me” face

Of course, it is not fair that we as owners have to deal with the scrutiny that our dogs come under. We love our pups, and know that if others would just take the time to get to know them as they are, they would probably love them too. However, you can put a positive spin on the negative publicity, and use it as encouragement to make your relationship with your dog the best it can be. Attend obedience classes and work on socialization. Start training for agility competitions. Perhaps even make it a goal for your pittie to be able to pass the Canine Good Citizen test. Any of these things will strengthen your bond with your dog, and also show the public one more positive ambassador of the breed we know to be loving, loyal, and strong.

Where these stereotypes really hurt is in the shelters. Unfortunately, pit bulls fill most of the shelters across the US. Even worse, most of these animals never find loving homes. It is estimated that 1 million pit bulls are euthanized in shelters ever year, some of them just puppies, and many of them without ever having known the love and protection we so willingly offer to our four-legged family members.

Recently, after sharing some of the issues we face in Animal Welfare, a well-meaning family member asked me, “Well, what can you do about it?” I know that my blog may only average 100 readers a day, but my hope is that I can help even just one animal through what I do. Perhaps our stories will inspire someone else to foster an animal in their home, or even to just consider a rescue instead of a breeder when looking for a new pup for their family. I don’t think what I do will put an end to animal abuse or to the unwanted animal epidemic, but maybe if we all did our small part, we would see a large change for the better.