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.

Doggy Daycare

I have been debating whether or not, and then how, to go about writing this post for a few weeks now. I want to express a special thanks to my friend Juliana at Peace, Love and Fostering for her encouragement on the subject.

Some of you long-time readers may be aware that a big part of the reason I decided to quit my job last fall was to begin fostering. I wanted to take on a dog that perhaps wasn’t a huge challenge, but who would have some special behavioral and training needs that might require more time and attention than the average foster. Now that Georgia has become an amazingly confident and secure member of our family, I have found myself to be a bit bored without a career and unfulfilled without clear goals.

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A key challenge in the job search, is our location. I graduated from Penn State University in 2011 with a degree in Animal Sciences, and was very proud to complete this in only three years. My plan was to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales for animal products. I was blessed with a few appealing job offers in various locations throughout the country, but life had other plans for me… I met Jonathan, who would be moving back home to the Pittsburgh, PA area to work for his family’s business. This location has proven to severely limit my career search. We are just far enough outside of the city that for me to commute that distance would require a fairly high salary, in order to justify the time spent away from our home, the fuel, and the wear and tear on my vehicle, to name a few.

While it has become clear that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an actual career in this area in the animal industry, I made the decision to at least find a job that could keep me busy and allow me to be around animals. With my extensive management experience, I began looking for a job managing a doggy-daycare facility. Unfortunately, in this job climate, eve management jobs proved to be difficult to find. However, many places offered the opportunity for advancement, and so I decided to interview for an entry-level position at a well-known doggy-daycare chain. While I had anticipated my interview here with excitement, I was so upset and disappointed with my experiences that I felt the need to share those events with all of you, in an honest way.

When I first entered their facility, I was greeted by a reception area that was visually pleasing and welcoming. It was beautifully decorated and appointed, and conveyed a sense of the rugged outdoors with a log cabin design.  Soft, natural lighting, large windows, bright photos, and cheerful music brought a ‘homey’ feel to the space. With large screen televisions and marketing posters, it was clear that no expenses were spared in the design of this area. As I waited for the employee who would be conducting my interview, I watched owners bring in their dogs, and got to interact with a few of them. I felt extremely confident that this was the type of job I was meant to have! What dog lover wouldn’t love coming to work in an environment like this??

Fast forward to my tour of the rest of the facility. As I crossed from the reception area into the back of the building, I was greeted by dogs barking at such a loud volume, that the employee conducting the tour had to yell to be heard. The ceilings were quite high, and this area was dimly lit by fluorescent bulbs. It gave a dark, dingy feel to the environment. The dogs (up to 100 at any given time) were housed in metal cages, with one of those PVC/nylon beds that sat up off of the floor, and a blanket or two. The walls were a thick concrete, and very little natural light came into this half of the building.

Once our tour of the kennels was complete, the manager began to discuss with me their philosophies. I was barely able to veil my cringing when she dropped words like; “Ceasar,” “dominance,” and “discipline”. While I became quickly aware that their philosophies were so obviously not in line with my own, I was still prepared to give them a chance. Perhaps when I got out to the play yard, what I saw would be different than the words she conveyed. She then went on to explain that dogs were separated by size (not play style or age) into designated play areas, and that each play yard would hold up to 75 dogs at a time. While they preferred two employees to supervise at this number, they only required one. For the record, each play yard had an indoor and an outdoor area, each of which was only visible from that location. This meant that if the supervisor was indoors, they could not see the dogs that had chosen to go to the outdoor space, and vice versa. Each supervisor was required to carry a squirt bottle full of water, which was used to ‘discipline’ the dogs. She claimed that the water bottles were never to be squirted more than 3 times in an hour, and were used to break up fights, discourage rough play, and quell ‘dominant’ behavior. Ugh. Although one of the ‘claims to fame’ on their website, is that they don’t charge you for play time like most boarding kennels, she also made it clear that we were not to play with the dogs, pet them, or give them any attention, as this could lead to fights. Conversely, she told me to be sure to treat all of the dogs like I would my own…

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It was now time for me to go out into the play yard, where approximately 50 dogs were congregating. I was told to make a lap around the perimeter of the play area, in order to ‘establish dominance’. Of course, this made little sense to me, but as I was being evaluated, I did as I was told. I then watched in frustration as the ‘Assistant Manger’ (second in command for the whole facility) sprayed the dogs in the face so many times within an hour that I lost count, for transgressions that ran the gammet from barking to bumping into her to nipping to humping. Of course, with that many dogs in the space, even this aggressive form of punishment was used ineffectively, as she was rarely able to correct the dogs while they were in the act, and would then spray them in punishment after they had already stopped. As I spoke with her, she told me that she had only been working there for 6 months, and had already been promoted to this position. In addition, she had never had or been given any training in animal behavior, aside from the same diatribe I’d heard during the aforementioned interview with the manager.

In all (3) of the play yards I entered, I gently pointed out that there was no fresh water, as the bowls were empty, and so it was then filled by the assistant manager. Wouldn’t something such as competition for meager necessities contribute to fighting? Furthermore, in the same play yards I saw dogs that were seniors, arthritic and hard of hearing, being jostled around by juvenile great danes and lab mixes who were tumbling and wrestling.

I will say that the majority (though certainly not all) of the dogs I saw, seemed reasonably content. Some even seemed to enjoy the chaos, in a frantic sort of way. But the most traumatizing to me throughout my experiences that day, was yet to come.

According to corporate policy, for a dog to be admitted to the doggy day care program at this facility, they must go through an ‘interview’ process. I imagined this to be something similar to the behavior evaluations we hear about in shelters across the country. This particular facility even had a whole room designated for such a purpose! Their website claims that before new dogs enter the play yard, they are introduced to two congenial dogs one-on-one. However, the manager at this particular location told me that they found this to be too ‘time-consuming’ and a ‘waste of time’ and so they just didn’t do it. At all.

I watched as a dog who was there for his first day, whose owner had been told that he would receive an ‘interview,’ was introduced. And by introduced, I mean he was propelled into an environment that even our Wonderdog Tonka would probably not have been physically able to handle well. This dog was a male german shepherd, probably right around one year old. He was brought up to the gate of the largest and most crowded play area, on a leash. I then watched as one worker physically pulled him into the play area from the end of the leash, while the leash/collar combo tightened in a noose around his neck. Another worker was literally pushing him from behind, to the point that his haunches were up underneath him. The employees regarded this situation without concern, as if it were a daily occurrence… forcing a dog into an uncomfortable situation was obviously not out of the norm.

This dog very clearly wanted nothing to do with the play area… why, you might ask? Perhaps it had something to do with the 40+ dogs swarming around his face, biting and barking and displaying all manner of inappropriate and overbearing greeting behavior. As this poor dog was physically forced into an uncomfortable and intimidating environment, no attempt was made to reassure him, or even to encourage the other dogs to back off of the new visitor. It was almost as if these people had no ideas about body language or dog behavior… oh wait. Maybe it’s because they don’t. They had no training in dog behavior or body language, and had been instructed this way by their own supervisors.

To me, it is only a matter of time, if repeatedly exposed to uncomfortable situations such as this, before this dog becomes reactive and aggressive towards other dogs. And I can’t say that I would blame him in the slightest. But you can bet that some of the employees probably would… and who knows what forms of correction punishment they would consider reasonable. Who knows if his breed would get brought into the equation should something happen that was altogether preventable…

As though the issues with the facility, philosophies, and protocol itself were not enough, the way they treated their employees is not conducive to a pleasant working environment. And you can bet that dissatisfied employees are going to be more likely to take their frustrations out on the dogs, or at the very least, not fulfill their job requirements thoroughly. As an interviewer, I was kept there for 3 hours without pay. I was required to scrub kennels with a toothbrush and cold water while being ‘supervised’ by yet another assistant manager who was clearly barely out of high school, as she gossiped with another employee. I was told that call-offs for any reason could result in termination, unless accompanied by not a Doctor’s excuse, but an emergency room excuse. Being even three minutes late would earn a demerit, regardless of the circumstances, three of which would result in termination. All employees were required to work nights, mornings, weekends, and holidays, and it was made clear to me that requests for time off were not guaranteed. Scheduling was never consistent, and so it was not likely that you could rely on a regular weekly schedule, nor guaranteed that any employee would hit a set minimum of hours. On top of all of this, there were no benefits offered to employees, and the rate of pay was between $8 and $9 per hour. Yes, it was the same for someone with a GED and dog experience limited to pet ownership, as it was for someone with a college diploma and advanced dog handling and training experience. The bottom line is, I worry about the quality of the employees that would accept a position in such an environment.

They were surprised when I turned down the job offer (of course I cited the commute, and not all of these reasons I have shared here) but hopefully all of you readers are not.

I do not know exactly why I am choosing to share this story with you. It certainly is not to garner sympathy for my job search. While I would love to get a job that will enable me to feel like a more productive member of my family, and of society as a whole, I am lucky to be married to a man that works incredibly hard to provide for us and supports me in all of my dreams and goals… even when they are less than profitable. It is not to bash a specific chain of doggy-daycares, either. If it were, I would have shared their name, which I will not be doing. I guess what I hope we all can learn from this, is that we need to be cautious when we entrust the care of our animals to others. I can only imagine that the owners of the dogs I supervised have no idea what they are putting their animals through. So often, dog owners misunderstand their animals; a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog, and neither does boisterous barking or panting. To me, it is the job of places such as this to be the voice for the dogs, and aid in the communication between pet and owner.

If you are a frequenter of a doggy daycare or dog park, please be sure you are not confusing your dog’s body language as excitement, when in fact it is nervous energy. At the same time, I spent a few hours at another, independently owned, doggy daycare in the same week, and my experience there was vastly different. So I want to know; have our readers had better experiences in dog parks and doggy day cares? Have you had some that are worse? I want to hear about it!

Throughout college, Tonka was a frequenter of dog parks like this one

Throughout college, Tonka was a frequenter of dog parks like this one

Warming Up

I wish I could say that I am referring to the weather here in Pennsylvania, but in reality, there is still a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Which has all resulted in a lot of this…

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and this…

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and this…

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Wait… what?!

If you are very observant, you may notice that the last photo shows three… count them, THREE, pups all cuddled together indoors. If you are even more observant, you may have recognized that such a photo has never graced the pages of our humble blog! What must this mean??

The frigid temperatures have kept us largely indoors. Because of that, the dogs have been extra cuddley, and needed even more attention than usual. You may remember that while Georgia has been integrated with Tonka, the male, indoors for a while now, we have closely monitored her indoor interactions with our female, never letting them off-leash inside, unless closely monitored or behind respective baby gates. The nasty weather has relegated us indoors, and forced me to focus on proceeding with their integration. While working with them off-leash this past week, Gaige and Georgia both finally decided to break down their barriers… with a BANG! Not only were they interacting indoors, but they were playing, cuddling, wrestling, and even sharing toys! We could not be more impressed or surprised by this sudden transformation.

Every pittie's favorite game: bitey-face

Every pittie’s favorite game: bitey-face

The swiftness of their friendship had us scratching our heads a bit, so we were cautious to take things slowly at first… they still were never together while unsupervised, and still required some direction from the two-leggeds. However, after a solid week of playing and cuddling and learning one another’s limits, with no arguments in sight, we think it is safe to say that they are total BFFs.

All four of our "dogs" waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

All four of our “dogs” waiting (patiently?) to go outside.

You can check out a funny video of the girls here. This was the very day, the very minute, that they decided that playtime was a better option than being constantly separated. Therefore, you can hear the surprise (anxiety?) in my voice. Please ignore my excessive verbal input, but enjoy their friendship. They are now absolutely inseparable… can anyone imagine how this has Georgia’s foster parents feeling?! Ugh… let’s just say, the idea of giving up our baby girl gets more bittersweet with each passing day!

Learning New Tricks

You may remember us mentioning our plans to enroll Georgia in obedience classes. This is not because we think she is difficult to train, but rather because we would like to make this an automatic step for each foster pup that comes into our lives. It is a great way to spend focused time on their training, while also exposing the dogs to new people, environments, and dogs! We have gone to two classes so far, and are really loving it!

Our classes take place at Ringer’s Pet Dog Training, which is a quick drive for us, as they are located in Tarentum, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh). They bring a fun, practical, and of course positive, approach to dog training. We have a great time during our class, and we think the dogs do, as well! Not only do they do a great job of helping our dogs (and their owners!) reach their full potential, but they are extremely friendly towards mutts, fosters, and rescues. They gave us an incredibly generous discount on our rates, because Georgia is a foster. They also offered to refund or roll-over the classes, if she is adopted before the class concludes. (Ringer’s also offers a really cool class called Nose-work… check out their page for more info, but we plan to do a post on it at a later date.)

The instructors utilize clicker training as a method of positive reinforcement. Georgia, being the… ahem… little piggy that she is, is of course ALL ABOUT this. Essentially, you are teaching the dog that the clicking sound is their reward. So of course, we teach them to positively associate with this sound by giving them treats… lots, and lots of treats. Last night was only our second class, and while we did our best to remain impartial, we have to say that Georgia was the rock star. While most of the other dogs were barking and trying to get to the other pups, Georgia was content to sit or lay quietly at our sides, with a wagging tail. Not only was she friendly yet aloof with the other dogs, but she also made a total liar out of us, and didn’t jump at all. She was absolutely a great representative of her breed, and picked up on each cue with ease.

Ignoring the barking dogs... what a great student!

Ignoring the barking dogs… what a great student!

As the owners, we were given homework to work on for the week. Georgia is a master at sit, and some of the other simple cues, but the ‘down’ request seems to be a bit difficult for her. You may remember that we have taken her to our friend Dr. Dave, who is a fully-licensed canine chiropractor. We are thinking that her hesitation with the down cue may be due to some lingering back pain, so we plan to take her for a visit to his office, to see some improvement.

One main theme of the exercises dictated in our classes, is to teach your dog to look to you for reassurance and guidance. This is a great tool for dogs who are reactive to other dogs, or just a little A.D.D. easily distracted. Below, check out a brief summary of our classes so far.

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Clicker Training

  1. The first step of clicker training, is to reward your dog for focusing on you. If you get a head turn in your direction, you are to click, and then feed your dog a treat. You will then advance to rewarding the dog only when they are looking at your face. It is important that the dog is associating the ‘click’ as the reward, as opposed to your hand movements or rustling treat bag. Therefore, keep your empty hand at your side when clicking, and don’t reach for a treat until you have achieved the behavior and applied the click.
  2. The next step is to reward the dog for a ‘sit’. If you have been working on step 1 for very long, your dog will probably fall into a sit on their own. The reward is the same; click, then treat. Once it is clear that your dog understands your cue, work on allowing them to figure out the behavior on their own, by not verbally or manually requesting that they sit. They should fall into it on their own, which shows confidence, independence, and intelligence. If your dog gets ‘stuck’ in the sit, try dropping the treats to the ground, rather than feeding them directly. This will get them moving, so that they must then exhibit the behavior independently.
  3. Once the above steps were achieved, we advanced to a head turn. Putting either hand out to the side, the dog was supposed to turn his or her head in the direction of the hand. This was rewarded, and we progressively worked to rewarding the dog for leaning toward the hand, and eventually moving their feet so that they came closer to the hand. This is especially great for timid or fearful dogs, as it gives them confidence when greeting new people. It can also help for positioning your dog, which could help in an environment such as the vet’s office.
  4. The next step was to work on the ‘down’ command. First, the dog was guided down into the laying position by dragging the treat slowly from their nose to the ground. Once the dog was making full body contact with the ground, they were rewarded with a click and then the treat. This was repeated 2 more times, to help the dog understand the behavior. Then, the handler was to stand in front of the dog with the treat visibly in hand, and the dog was to (ideally) figure out what they needed to do to earn the treat. This step required a lot of patience for some teams!
  5. We finally worked on an off-leash ‘come’. This can be intimidating and distracting in a classroom environment! For some dogs, the temptation of play-time with other dogs seemed more intriguing than their owners with a pocket full of treats! Person 1 would hold the dog on-leash at one end of the room, while Person 2 was positioned about 15 feet away, with the clicker and treats. Then, Person 2 would say the dogs name, and the command, just one time (Georgia, come!). Once the dog was moving in the commander’s direction, Person 1 released the leash, and Person 2 was only then to begin rewarding the dog verbally (Good girl, that’s it!) in a high-pitched voice. Once the dog met Person 2, they were given lots of treats and lots of love. This distance could be widened with each successful attempt.
Playing with the instructor

Playing with the instructor

While these steps may seem pretty intuitive, the classes are a great way to cover all of your bases in a focused setting. I really recommend them for any dog owner! It added a degree of difficulty to work on Georgia’s obedience with the temptation of other dogs, new people, and interesting smells. I cannot wait to see what kind of dog is on the end of our leash at the culmination of these classes!

PS- Did I mention that she is still conked out after all of her hard work last night?!

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