Training Tuesday: Good Dog!

Stephanie in Real-Life

If you know me in real life, you know I’m really bad about cleaning out my car. In general, I’m a neat-freak and an organizational nut, but there is something about my relationship with my car (her name is Dallas. Don’t ask…) that makes me feel as though my cleaning preferences do. not. apply. I’m usually so busy trying to get from Point A to Point B and making 27 stops in between, that even though it would be simple to unload my car on the way into the house, what is the point?

Anyway, the other day I totally broke character and took the time (all of about an hour. Woah.) to clean out my car. When J got home from work, I proudly showed him the fruits of my labor. Instead of the respect and admiration I was expecting, J looked at me with an amused smile on his face and said, “Steph, we don’t get rewarded for the things we are supposed to do.”

Oh. Uhhh…. Hmm. Well that’s not the way it works in dog training, is it? So why should my life be any different? He didn’t buy into my argument, but he also didn’t comment when I served myself an extra helping of ice cream that night, so I guess that’s sort of the same thing. Whatever.

Dogs in Real-Life

Of course, like everything else in my life, I began to relate the experience to dogs. This got me to thinking about dog training. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes made by the average dog owners I encounter, is that they fail to use every opportunity to reward positive behavior elicited by their pet.

Of course, during a focused training session, most conscientious owners would typically be prepared with treats or other reinforcements. However, I think that it is important to remember that even daily behaviors that have not been offered in response to a request, should be rewarded. For example, if you have a dog that is always underfoot in the kitchen, it will be to your benefit if you offer him food whenever he chooses to lay on his bed in the living room as opposed to being in the kitchen with you.

Theory

 Remember, we want to approach issues with our pups by asking “What behavior do I want to see?” as opposed to “How do I make my dog stop this negative behavior?” Dogs are practical creatures, and so they repeat what works. They do not choose to be stubborn or vindictive… because those things don’t serve them! Because of this logical canine approach, it is so much easier to reinforce behavior than it is to eliminate it. If we take this approach to dog training, not only are we going to see positive results, but we are also going to improve our relationships with our dogs. If training is consistently about rewarding our dogs for good behavior, we will be molding dogs who are that much more willing to figure out what they can do to elicit a favorable response from us. Training becomes fun and relationship-building!

The only way to discourage a behavior you don’t want, aside from being forceful (which, remember, we will never advocate!) is to ignore it. While ignoring the behavior and thereby removing attention can be an effective technique, it is not as instantaneous and does require repetition. If we instead focus on reinforcing the behavior that we do want, it becomes increasingly clear to the dog what behavior earns them the reward that they desire.  Remember, dogs are practical creatures… they will repeat what works!

Conclusion

Thank goodness dogs are not like people, because I can promise you that offering myself an extra bowl of ice cream did not equate to a cleaner car the rest of the week. (Darn it, J and your wisdom.) But I can also verify that regularly offering our dogs rewards for staying out of the kitchen, or getting along amicably, or respecting our space, or waiting before going through the door, or staying quiet when visitors come to the door, results in appropriate behavior when those situations arise in the future. I guess you could say that my dogs are smarter (or at least, more trainable) than am I. 😉

Training Tuesday: How to Survive Separation Anxiety

…and not lose your marbles (or your spouse) in the process!

(Scroll to the bottom if you don’t care to read about our experience, and would rather check out our list of tips!)

DSC_0009It is no secret that Kingston has dealt with separation anxiety since he first came to live in the AFM5 household. Perhaps he had some sort of constant companionship where he lived previously, or maybe he just thinks we are so fantastic that the thought of being apart from us sends him into a panic. We can’t say for sure the origin of this issue, but panic he does, and our house suffers most for it.

If you’ve never dealt  with a dog who had issues with separation anxiety, then count your shimmery, shiny, (undamaged) lucky stars because it is NOT fun, not for anyone involved. And it’s not just the property damage, the expense, or the grumpy husband… it’s also the awareness that just your absence sends this animal into a state of sheer panic. Couple that with the fact that this pup is planned as only a temporary addition to your family, and you can understand why things get so complicated.

Some of you may remember that nothing about Kingston’s arrival was planned. I was contacted by someone who knew of his abuse, but couldn’t help or get him the medical care he needed. Of course there wasn’t much thought involved… I needed to do whatever I could to assist him. But when you are on emergency time, you aren’t exactly setting yourself up for success. When I finally got Kingston safeuly into our home, we were at a loss as to where to put him. We knew he wasn’t crate-trained, and we planned to practice a two-week de-stress, which would require that he stay separate from the rest of our animals. He seemed pretty quiet and lethargic, but we were told that he was a puppy, and we all know that puppies chew. So we set up our small, finished basement for him to be as comfortable as possible. We included a cozy bed, water, and plenty of toys. The first time we left him was for a few hours the day we brought him home. I know, not ideal, but remember that this wasn’t part of a ‘plan’ and we do have other commitments. We came home to a few ‘accidents,’ but no property damage, so we chalked it up to a house-training issue.

For the first few days, the worst thing Kingston did was panic DURING our departures, and force his way through the door as we tried to exit. Thankfully when he ‘escaped,’ he didn’t go far, considering that his destination was simply wherever I was. However, this repeated dance was anxiety-inducing for all of us.

To solve this problem, I worked on training a ‘stay’ with Kingston. He couldn’t ‘sit’ so well, due to the femur break, so it was a nice way for us to bond over some simple obedience.  This worked well for the physical act of leaving, but it was at this point that he began performing custom carpentry… see below for evidence.

IMG_2404Note: actual removal of  door frames

At this point, it became clear that I needed to dedicate myself to crate-training Kingston. In the past, we had always crate-trained our dogs, even in my childhood, and they had all treated their kennels as their ‘dens’. I had never had a dog that gave me an issue with relaxing in their crate. Nevertheless, I took the process slowly. At first, Kingston was only expected to eat his meals or treats in his kennel, and with the door open. Slowly but surely, I began closing the kennel door and sitting with him for short, increasing increments of time. He was always relatively calm at these times, but the second I walked away, he became a dinosaur.

dinosaur-rawr-dinosaur-club-15762329-480-313No, seriously.

The noises, guys. I wish I could relay them in picture-form. If we had neighbors, they would rank it somewhere between a puppy-torture chamber, and the return of Jurassic Park. Add that to the rocking-and-rattling of his kennel (he flipped it more than once) and you would have about 1% of the noise that this dog created.

It was at this point that we realized we needed to step up our game. We tried Kongs, food puzzles, Rescue Remedy, the Thundershirt, Happy Traveler treats, and DAP diffusers, all to varying levels of success, but nothing hit the ball out of the park.

Disclaimer: This happened while wearing his thundershirt, sniffing the DAPs, absorbing the remedies, and letting his foster sister out of her kennel...

Disclaimer: This happened while wearing his thundershirt, sniffing the DAPs, absorbing the remedies, and letting his foster sister out of her kennel…

As gradually as I tried to proceed with the crate-training for Kingston’s sake, at one point I was given advice that I was taking it too slowly.  It was at this point that I added 3 carabiner clips to his kennel, and left him. For approximately 30 minutes. When I came home, it was to a totally dismantled kennel and a very. bloody.dog. outside of said kennel. Not fun, not for anyone. (I will not share those photos, you can thank me later.)

At this point, I was advised by that same person to visit our veterinarian for anxiety medications, and so we made an appointment with the vet. She seemed to be unfamiliar with medicating for anxiety issues, but prescribed Kingston with Prozac. The very first day I gave this to him, all was well. It didn’t seem to have any affect on his anxiety, but it is said that these medications can take weeks to work. However, that night I was awoken multiple times within every hour by a dog who would.not.stop.itching. I panicked that his fleas had returned, but closer inspection (light ON) revealed a dog truly covered in hives. We’re talking no less than one hundred red, inflamed, itchy bumps all over little K’s body, from the top of his head to his twinkly toes and his tail! Truly the ONLY thing that had changed in Kingston’s environment was the medication.

itch

I decided that it was time to call in a professional trainer. The vet had been little to no help, and I knew that even if we were able to find a way to manage his anxiety, it would probably flare whenever he went to his new home. I wanted to be sure that the steps I was taking were correct, so that I could arm his new family with the proper tools to ensure success.

I will spare you the drama that ensued, but it was then outright stated that by me not immediately choosing a second medication (I didn’t know which one to pick, neither did the vet, and I was worried about another allergic reaction. ‘Let’s just spin in a circle until we land on one to try,’ is not my preferred method of veterinary treatment. Sorrynotsorry.) that I was neglecting Kingston and his condition. OH hailnaw, ain’tnobodygottimefo’that. Thankfully, I reached out to Beth McGonigal, force-free dog trainer extraordinaire, and I am so glad that I did. (Thank you to A Positive Promise and all of you who donated funds for helping to make this possible!)

The first thing Beth asked was for me to give her a detailed list of the ‘symptoms‘ of Kingston’s anxiety, or what I saw that, to me, equaled anxiety. This is the list I gave her:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Strange vocalization (not barking)
  • ‘Velcro-dog’
  • Won’t eat
  • Destruction of doors and doorframes
  • Some urinating/defecating

Beth also asked what we have done to try to combat the issues, and you can see this list below:

  • Calming Music
  • Bach’s Rescue Remedy (natural herbal anti anxiety)
  • Crate training (panics more)
  • Frozen filled kongs
  • Thundershirt
  • Prescription anti-anxiety meds (allergic reaction)
  • Training (leaving him alone for short amounts of time, rewarding quiet behavior, extending the amount of time he is alone by small increments, etc)
  • Baby gates instead of closed doors
  • Leaving another dog with him (while both are crated)
  • Food puzzles/treat dispensers to burn off some energy

Of that list, the only one that had a notable impact on his anxiety level was when we left Gaige with him. However, he then directed his attention to breaking her out of her kennel, which he was successfully able to do on more than one occasion.

After coming to our home and evaluating Kingston, Beth gave us some great feedback on what we were doing right, where we could improve, and some new tricks to try. The most successful of those was to purchase an airline crate, in place of his current metal one. This has helped immensely, simply by Kingston learning that his attempts to break out are unsuccessful, and he is rewarded (by treats, praise, or freedom!) when he is calm and quiet in it. Beth also said that in her years of experience, she has only ever resorted to psycho-medications for ONE dog, and that pup would randomly attack inanimate (and also totally animate) objects to the death. So there’s that.

When in doubt, get a cat to keep your anxious dog company. That ALWAYS works.

When in doubt, get a cat to keep your anxious dog company. That ALWAYS works.

While we are not at a point where Kingston’s anxiety is ‘cured’ (and we may never truly get there!) we can safely say that it is being properly managed. Here are some tips and tricks we’d like to share with all of you, many of which were inspired by the things we learned from Beth. She was gracious enough to allow us to share them with all of you (have we mentioned, she’s the best?!)

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1. Analyze His Behavior

The first thing you need to do is properly analyze your pup’s behavior, in order to identify their triggers. When are they displaying these behaviors? Is it only when a specific person leaves, or anytime they are alone? If the behavior occurs due to a specific person(s) leaving, this is termed Separation Anxiety. However, if it occurs whenever alone, it is actually referred to as Isolation Distress. In Kingston’s case, even in the presence of the trainer, he still exhibited mild to moderate anxiety when Foster Dad and I left the room. Therefore, his behavior can accurately be termed Separation Anxiety. However, as he is also more comfortable with Gaige in the room as opposed to being totally alone, he also has Isolation Distress.

While analyzing their behavior, write down the list of ‘symptoms’ you see, as I did above. This will help you or a training professional to identify the severity of the anxiety, and therefore an appropriate treatment plan. Our trainer identified Kingston’s SA as mild to moderate, and his ID as moderate to severe.

2. Research & Modify the Environment

Using our tips above, books, or even just the handy-dandy google search, come up with some approaches that have worked for other owners in dealing with SA and ID. If you have a dog with ID or SA, you have probably already modified the environment in some way. You should ensure that they are safe, even if they were to escape from their crate or kennel. This means putting up anything hazardous or dangerous.

One reason some dogs exhibit SA/ID is due to lack of enrichment in their environment. By providing them with various sounds, smells, etc you can sometimes relay the anxiety. In addition to the ones I have listed above, you can try these below:

  • Sound/Sight: Experiment with TV vs classical music, etc.
  • Sight: Having access to a window may help some dogs, while it may make the anxiety worse for others.
  • Sight: For some dogs, it is simply the element of the closed door that causes the panic. In this instance, try utilizing baby gates or other similar barriers. You may also try placing the dog’s kennel in an area where they are unable to see you leave.
  • Sight: Lights on vs. lights off or blanket covering the kennel.
  • Smell: Leaving the dog with a piece of worn clothing that smells like the owner
  • Smell: DAP (Dog-Appeasing Pheromone). These are wall plug-ins (diffused) or collars (concentrated) that give off pheromones similar to the ones a lactating female dog would produce, which calms dogs under stress.
  • Touch: Constricting jackets like the Thundershirt have been shown to calm some dogs.
  • Taste: Some dogs do better when left with food or other yummy treats like a Kong or special bone.

Other things to try:

  • I would personally always recommend enclosing an anxious dog in a kennel of some sort. This is as much for their safety as it is for the sake of your home. A plastic airline crate is not only more durable and escape-proof, but it also can offer a more den-like environment for some dogs, as opposed to the cage-like metal kennels. Try to make their kennel as comfortable and appealing as possible.
  • Burn off energy: this can be as straight-forward as a run or walk before you leave the dog alone, or more creative like utilizing treat-puzzles and other enrichment.
  • Medication: Perhaps for some dogs, medication is a necessary option. However, it can’t hurt to at least try herbal remedies, such as Bach’s Rescue Remedy or Happy Traveler treats. If conventional medication is the avenue you’d like to try, simply be sure to consult regularly with your vet on any changes in your dog’s physical or mental state.
  • Companionship: If you have another pet who is more calm and balanced, and if the two animals share a mutually-positive relationship, experiment with leaving them in some sort of proximity to one another. Note: I never recommend leaving any animals, even the most cohesive, free in a home when no one is there to observe. Of course this is just my personal opinion, but I think that doing so needlessly opens up the possibility of a scuffle, fight, injury or other issue.

3. Record the Results and Utilize Training

Experiment with the various options above, and others you may have gathered, first by utilizing them when you are home. This not only allows you to observe any changes in behavior, but also allows the dog to acclimate to the new modifications while in your presence, which may make them more relaxed and accepting. You can then proceed to ‘pretending’ to leave, while observing or listening from behind closed doors. Eventually you will be able to truly leave for short durations, and slowly increase the length of your time away from the home. Be sure to record what works in order to refer to it later, or share with your trainer!

If you have graduated to leaving your dog alone from any distance or for any length of time, only return when the dog is displaying appropriate behavior (no vocalization or destruction). This is their reward for behaving correctly!

Important: While some say that a schedule is crucial for dogs with anxiety, I could not disagree more. The best thing you can do for your anxious dog is vary your schedule and the length of time spent away from the home. This shows them that no matter how long you are gone, that you will always return, and they will gradually begin to become comfortable during your absence. Vary the time the dog is left in the crate, even in the beginning, from 5 minutes to 30 seconds back to 5 minutes to an hour.

One thing that worked well for Kingston was crating him in the same room where Georgia and Gaige were crated. If he began vocalizing or misbehaving while the other dogs were quiet, we would let the girls out while leaving him kenneled. He began to recognize that appropriate behavior was rewarded, and soon followed suit.

4. Stay Positive

As frustrating as it can be to deal with your dog’s anxiety, and the destruction that may follow, try to stay positive. There IS a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it does require the help of your vet or the assistance of a trainer. Recognize that his or her anxiety, while certainly unnecessary, stems from some sort of fear or trauma. Remember that by becoming angry with your dog, you will only exacerbate their panic. Try to make your departures as positive and enjoyable as possible.

carrie101 Things to Do with a Box was a REALLY fun clicker-training game Beth suggested that we play with Kingston. I had played it once before with our service-dog-in-training, Carrie. It can work well for a dog with SA/ID, or any dog who could use a little extra confidence!

5. Remember every dog is different

While it can be helpful to reach out to others for advice or support, don’t let anyone strong-arm you into trying something that you do not feel is right or necessary for your dog, especially if they aren’t there to witness the behavior firsthand. What works for other dogs may work for yours, but it is just as likely that it will not. No dog has the same genetics, cognitive abilities, coping mechanisms, early development, or environment. If you put your dog’s best interests first, you can be sure to identify a management program that works best for you and your family.

6. There is no ‘cure’

Remember that there is no magic cure for SA/ID. Rather, your goal should be to find a way to manage the behavior so that it inflicts the least damage on your lifestyle and environment, and of course, your dog. By setting up an environment in which your dog feels most comfortable (and I don’t mean a fancy dog bed!) they will begin to relax even in your absence, until you see the negative behavior regularly dissipating. This does not mean that the behavior is cured forever, so be aware that if the environment changes (move homes, go on vacation, etc) the behavior may reappear.

7. Reach out to a Trainer

If all else fails, please do not hesitate to reach out to a force-free trainer like Beth. Even if you have tried all of the above, they will still have a bag full of tricks  to try. Not only that, but dealing with SA/ID can be very frustrating. It is nice to have someone there who can remind you of all you have done WELL! The right trainer truly creates a partnership that will ensure success in your household, and we can’t thank Beth enough for having done that for us.

Kingston & Beth

Kingston & Beth

Beth McGonigal: North Pittsburgh Animal Behavior

Training Tuesday: Building Relationships

My approach to dog training is not altogether different from my approach to my human relationships. Because that is what my interactions with dogs are… relationships. You must give love (or kindness, or respect, etc), to receive it in return, and you must be more focused on what you put in than you are on what you receive. This approach largely explains why I believe that force-free dog training is the best way.

Tonka loves to learn!

Tonka loves to learn!

Relationship Reinforcing

I fully recognize that a more heavy-handed approach is still very much prevalent in our society. Why? Because of Caesar Milan. Because it works. A dog is afraid of punishment, afraid of pain, afraid of the one in charge, so they operate in whatever way necessary to avoid these things. Science has proven that these approaches do not work long-term in real-life, but they do produce results of indeterminate length or consistency. Using punishment to stop behaviors is nothing new. But notice, I use the word ‘stop‘, as opposed to the word ‘teach‘. We can stop any behavior, but I am more interested in teaching my dogs to choose the behavior I seek. If we utilize intimidation and physical punishment, have we truly stopped the underlying behavior issue, or simply made our dog fearful of our reactions to their instincts? I never force, but I always give my dogs a choice, or at least the illusion of such. They make the right choice because they trust me, because I do not hurt them, because I keep them safe, because I make it easier than the wrong, and because the outcome is enjoyable. They make this choice because while training, we establish a relationship and a partnership. They do not just aim to avoid pain… they aim to please.

Even a game of fetch should have fun rules... consider them bargaining points!

Even a game of fetch should have fun rules… consider them bargaining points!

Training Across the Species

Some of you may know that I am as active in horse training as I am in dog training. One thing that is important to remember is that appropriate training practices should be able to be applied successfully to any species, at least as far as your approach and methodology. Do we want to have to rely on disciplining a large or dangerous animal when they have displayed a poor behavior? Of course not, because it might be too late! It might also result in frustration on the part of the animal, which can lead to aggression. Instead, we as the trainer need to be managing the situation and environment during our training sessions in order to avoid the occurrence of the bad behavior in the first place. When in doubt, ask yourself… would I want to tell my horse “No”? What about my elephant or my tiger?!

Awesome infographic from www.doggiedrawings.net

Awesome infographic from http://www.doggiedrawings.net

Pets as Robots?

Punishment-based methods can work. In the right settings and with uniquely tempered dogs, they can produce animals that respond quickly and correctly. In effect, they produce animals that perform. If we train our dogs like machines, with cold punishment and little reward, they will operate in like fashion… with detachment and avoidance. What those methods cannot do, is contribute to building relationships. And why do dogs exist in our lives, if not to be our family members and friends, guardians and partners, cuddlers and playmates?  Rather, if we embrace the natural abilities and traits of our dogs as individuals or as a species, we will create a partnership with a free-willed and independent animal who chooses to do anything in its power to please us. And that is more powerful to me than any other force.

No Effort Dog Training… What?!

While food can be a fantastic motivator to many dogs, it is certainly not the only one. My favorite reward to use with my own dogs are non-food reinforcers, or functional rewards. This allows the dog to tell us what their preferred reward would be. Have a reactive dog who likes to approach other dogs rudely while on a walk? (Provided that the reactivity is not fear-based…) Don’t allow the dog to move toward their trigger unless they are calm and quiet. This approach is used commonly as a parenting practice: you want your teenager to clean their room, and it is a regular battle. Once you find their functional reward (they want to go to the movies with their friends) you prevent them from achieving their reward (movie) until they have performed the desired behavior (cleaning). Make sense? This type of functional training is especially effective, because it doesn’t require you setting aside time for obedience, getting out the clicker and treats, setting up the environment, etc. While that is productive, it isn’t something that the average owner makes time for each day. Functional training is something that is simple to apply in your daily life and schedule, and will directly equate to a dog who is a more compatible addition to your family’s lifestyle, because you use everyday scenarios to improve your dog’s behavior.

By recognizing and utilizing your dogs’ natural behaviors, traits, and preferences, you can be a step ahead in your training. Exploit the fact that your dog’s life is full of rewards! Think of all the pleasurable activities you control access to, and use them to help your dog earn his rewards by displaying good behavior. For example, have a dog who loves to play fetch? Require every session to be a training opportunity. Before the ball is thrown, they must sit, and before it is taken, they must come when called and ‘drop it’ on command. If they fail to respond appropriately, the play session ends. Proper obedience doesn’t always have to take place in formal classes or structured sessions… it can (and should!) be as simple as incorporating cues and rewards into your everyday routines.

Georgia has learned to 'offer' a sit when she is in doubt as to what is expected of her

Georgia has learned to ‘offer’ a sit when she is in doubt as to what is expected of her

Offering Behavior

Think about traditional dog training. The handler verbalizes a ‘command,’ perhaps coupled with a a hand motion. The dog is then supposed to reply with the corresponding behavior. The problem with this, is these training sessions do not always automatically relay to our everyday lives. For example, we want our dogs to sit for attention when guests come into our home, but how do we ‘train’ this in a traditional obedience session? As you are greeting your guests, do you want to also have to command your dog to sit amidst the confusion? To your dog, these are two entirely different scenarios, and the application may not be evident. If we teach our dogs through everyday interactions to ‘offer’ behaviors without a command, and withhold their functional reward until they do so, we are more likely to see these behaviors relayed in everyday events. Remember, dogs are functional beings, and they repeat what works. The dog has learned that jumping and barking = being ignored, while sitting quietly = praise and attention, and so they will repeat it, even in the presence of guests (just make sure your guests are ‘trained’ as well!)

Have confidence in the cognitive abilities of your pup… once you have successfully requested the desired behavior a few times, approach the next session with the goal that you will try to let them figure it out before jumping in and making commands. This gives your dog a chance to demonstrate what you’ve taught them, and teaches them to use their brains to solve the puzzle, by independent figuring out how to appropriately get whatever it is that they desire.

It is important to remember that if we punish our dogs for inappropriate behavior, they are going to be less likely to want to try to offer a behavior on their own. This technique requires a dog who is balanced and confident in his or her relationship with you as the owner or handler, and will never work in conjunction with forceful training practices.

Application

Today’s challenge is to focus on one area of your dog’s behavior that is particularly frustrating. Instead of correcting them when they display an inappropriate behavior, make a choice not to allow them the opportunity to act poorly in the first place, and then focus on the reward. Try to allow them to offer the behavior without making the request. Have a dog that rushes past you through doors, or is pushy during feeding time? Their reward is as simple as the thing that they seek, which makes your job very easy! Withhold the ‘reward’ until they have offered an appropriate behavior, such as a sit. Having a dog with good manners is as easy as making them a habit throughout your daily life.

 

Training Tuesday: Dog Training for Dummies

Seriously friends? It doesn’t have to be so hard…

I am all about sharing knowledge on the internet (obviously, or this blog would cease to exist). It is no secret that the world wide interwebz are an amazing gift given to our generations, where no piece of information or opinion is out of our reach. But it is also important to remember that not all of the information we come across is reputable or reliable.

With that being said, the companion animal industry (and yes, it is an industry, one that grossed over $53 BILLION last year alone, up from $28.5 billion in 2001) is one of the most lucrative and dynamic. According to the APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 68% of US households own at least one pet, which equates to 82.5 million homes. Because of this exponential growth, it is no surprise that many of these owners, plenty of whom are new to pet ownership, are turning to the internet as a resource for advice.

An interesting (yet depressing) study shared by Petfinder and directed by the National Council on Pet Population, showed that of the 4 million+ dogs surrendered to shelters in 2012, 96% had received NO obedience training. Of those, between 2-3 million will never make it out of the shelters alive. So statistically, we can reasonably assume that a large percentage of owners who surrender their dogs to shelters may do so because of training and behavior issues. If we make training so complex and nearly elitist, who are we really helping? Rather, if we make it straightforward and approachable and even (gasp!) fun, how many lives could be saved? Even if it’s just a handful, wouldn’t that be worth it?

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So let’s stop it. As much as us dog-nerds enjoy delving into the nitty-gritty of animal behavior and the learning process, what purpose does that serve? Instead, let’s remember why we do what we do. Instead of approaching animal behavior as behaviorists or veterinarians or scientists or dog trainers (even if you are one of those!), let’s start approaching it as the average dog owner.

In honor of this approach, I am going to devote one day a week to talking about training tips in a fun, simple way! I am not a professional or certified dog trainer, and I don’t pretend to be. There are lots of amazing blogs and websites out there written by brilliant dog trainers and animal behavior experts that cover those bases… but I believe that some of them leave a lot to be desired in terms of approachability and usability. I have developed (and will continue to!) some tools in my experiences as an owner, dog sitter, and foster, and why shouldn’t I share that with all of you?

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So stay-tuned for Training Tuesdays!

(Not So) Expert Advice

Upon the advice from our rescue, A Positive Promise, we made an appointment for Kingston to see the vet on Friday. We wanted to get him up to date on the rest of his vaccines, double check some questionable swelling around his suture site, and discuss with them the options for anti-anxiety medications. Although I hadn’t yet been able to visit the new vet, Foster Dad had taken Kingston there for all of his pre- and post-surgical appointments, and had had positive things to say about the experience and the staff with whom they had interacted.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same when I went along on Friday night. The facility is a 24/7 emergency clinic, so maybe you can blame it on the fact that we were being treated by the overnight staff for the first time, or else were perhaps at the end of someone’s long day, but it was one frustration after another. We were rudely talked down to by the technicians (“I’ve never heard of medicating a dog for anxiety! Why can’t you just train him?” and “If he’s just a foster, the rescue group is not going to want to pay for any unnecessary vaccines like kennel cough or lymes.”)and doctor in more than one instance. Never one to be confrontational, most of their comments I could easily brush off, but the final blow came when the doctor came in to examine Kingston. She knew his history of abuse, as well as his lack of familiarity with veterinary offices until his traumatic and painful recent experiences. Instead of coming in slowly or quietly or even just normally, she came loudly into the room, cloaked in a heavy jacket, and hovered overtop of Kingston. Obviously uncomfortable, he still did not aggress toward her, but simply retreated into the corner near Jonathan and me, and emitted a low growl. Once he stopped growling, J reached over to pet him and to give him some reassurance. The doctor immediately started to belittle Jonathan, telling him in no uncertain terms that the dog needed to be punished for growling, or else we were reinforcing the behavior. UGH! I hope I don’t need to explain to our readers why her position was so wrong archaic, what with all of the new things we know about positive reinforcement and canine behavior. However, just in case, check out this infographic from the ingenious Grisha Stewart.

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Certainly we would never want to reward Kingston, or any fearful dog, for being aggressive. However, once he had stopped growling, he had made a great choice in choosing to retreat from whatever was scaring him. Animals have two options when faced with a stressful situation; fight or flight. By choosing to leave the situation, he was making a choice that was blatantly NOT aggressive. Why should he be punished for such a behavior?

Throughout the appointment she continued to speak to us as though we knew nothing about animal behavior, training, or health (hello, I have an Animal Sciences degree thank-you-very-much, as well as a more thorough education in companion animal nutrition than you would have been required to take in veterinary school!)

Thankfully the doctor did eventually pull out some treats (hello, couldn’t this have been one of her first steps?!) and Kingston warmed up to her after a little while, but Jonathan and I were still so rattled. How disconcerting is it when the people we trust to be the ‘experts,’ are really lacking in the knowledge and understanding departments… and even worse, are completely oblivious to the fact that there might be other opinions out there?! I understand that a veterinarian’s job is never easy. Their days are filled with lots of sadness and despair, and I empathize that their occupation is not always a rewarding one. However, it was still so disappointing to feel as though this doctor was taking her frustrations out on us. Have you ever experienced a similar issue? If so, how did you react? What is your advice for us if we are ever again faced with a similar situation?

Poor, sad widdle pibble

Poor, sad widdle pibble

Fostering is Hard

I try to keep things really positive around here, but I have recently realized that in doing so, perhaps I am not always as up front as I could be. I wanted to take a moment to be really, really honest with all of you.

Fostering is hard. While that may not be something I want to share on a regular basis, because I wouldn’t want it to turn anyone away from trying to make a difference, I also don’t think it is something that many are unaware of. One of those things that is often unsaid, yet understood. It is hard to bring a dog who is at its lowest into your home and into your family, fall in love and nourish it back to physical and emotional health, only to have to say goodbye and trust a new family to care for him or her as well as you could.

But there is more to it than that. It is hard to give up date nights week after week, because it would make more sense to allot those funds to a bag of dog food, not to mention that the dogs have been kenneled all day while you’ve been working. It is hard to deal with extra fur and even sometimes ticks and fleas. It is hard to take time off of work to drive to the vet, and set aside time in your evenings for training and communicating with the rescue and prospective adopters. It is hard to see your own dogs upset or sad or even angry to be isolated from you in order for you to spend time with your foster dog. It is hard to have friends or family members or acquaintances ask you if they can adopt the dog, when you know it might not be an ideal fit. It is even harder when people criticize you for not keeping your foster dog, when you know it wouldn’t be ideal for anyone involved. It is hard to disappoint others when you have to cancel plans because you need to make sure your foster dog gets his medications on time. It is hard to feel judged by others for the way you choose to spend your time and money, in the hopes of making a difference. It is hard to balance all the guilt and sadness and anger and other emotions… guilt toward all of the dogs, and deciding which ones get your time and attention, sadness for your foster’s situation, anger toward the person who selfishly put this burden in your life, and everything else that goes along with this job.

It is really hard when you discover that your foster dog has separation anxiety. It is even harder when you see evidence of his tantrums. It is hardest when you imagine what could make a dog panic to the extent that he is so destructive when you leave him for just a few hours.

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But you know what makes all of that not only easier, but actually worth it? When your foster falls into a deep sleep in your arms, and you realize that this is probably the safest he has ever felt. It’s easy when you watch him play with another dog, bouncing and smiling and play-bowing, his antics showing a pup much younger than his age might suggest. It helps when you see the light bulb flicker on during a training session, and you see a glimpse of the perfect family dog he is becoming. It is easier when you see him greet a child, and he becomes a gentle, wiggly thing, giddy at the chance to kiss the fingers of a person right at his own height. When you proudly watch him share his toys with another dog or politely greet a new person, using the skills you’ve shown him. And of course, you can’t help but smile at the simplicity and clarity of it all when you remember that this dog exists, in no small part, simply because you chose to inconvenience your life in exchange for the continuation of his. Not such a hard bargain, if you ask me.

IMG_2398We love you, Kingston! No matter how much fluffing you scatter around our house. ❤