Relaxed or Hostage?

I recently saw a video of a trainer teaching relaxation, the dog was tethered to the ground, muzzled, and in both a prong and shock collar.  The dog was trembling, any experienced dog person would recognize the tenseness, the stressed eyes, the trembling – it was the farthest thing from relaxed.  Was the dog down?  Yes.  But was it relaxed?  No.

The trainer felt that if it was kept in a down enough it would eventually feel the reward of relaxing.  But to me it looked like a hostage situation, and learned helplessness.  I suspect the dog was not learning to relax but was learning it was not worth fighting.  Would it maybe eventually relax?  Perhaps.  Some dogs are resilient, some dogs are not.

When I look at training methodologies I cannot help but slip into teacher mode, and go back into the classroom.  I often put a person in the place of the dog.  I ask would I do this to a student?  And if the answer is no, I ask why it is okay to do to a dog.  Is it justified?  Taking it to another level, if that was a prisoner convicted of murder – would that be consider appropriate or cruel and unusual punishment?  If the methodology would be considered too cruel for a murderer, how can it be appropriate for a dog?  

Too extreme?  Okay, I’ll take it another way.  I have a masters in Education, and was certified as both an Elementary teacher, and a Special Ed teacher in NYS.  Watching some of these “training” videos I think of all the strategies used to “rehab” dogs and how they compare to older strategies to “rehab” people. Yes for people they employed tethering, punishment, even shock.  Many times on people who did not have a voice and far more recently than many would expect.  It was shameful what was done, although it was often by done with people with good intentions – however misinformed.  Now thankfully we have left most of those methods behind.  Even nuns with rulers are becoming a thing of the past – we learned, we changed, we do better.  And I hope the dog training industry follows along.  Regulation helps that, something we are still lacking in dog training.

When considering training strategies for dogs I focus on the Five Freedoms, and I encourage my clients to consider them as well.  I will now be handing them out in my classes, but for those who want to learn more please read about them here
and here.

The Five Freedoms simply are:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
2. Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

If a trainer is endorsing any methodology that violates the Five Freedoms I encourage you to think hard about following their advice.  Look at their credentials, look at what organizations they belong to, what their training is, and what their long-term results are.  Punishment can work, but many punishment based methods have dogs operating under threat of pain or fear – are you okay subjecting your dog to that?  Effectiveness and risks aside, you as an owner have to make an ethical decision of what you are comfortable with.  And unfortunately many trainers will misrepresent their tools.  Shock collars do not shock but stim – it’s a tickle!  And prongs mimic the bite of a mother dog – it’s natural! If you have a trainer who tells you that I suggest you take a step back and do some research yourself.  First on effective punishment based training, and secondly on how these tools work.  I’m providing some resources at the end of this post.

Punishment based strategies work because the repercussion of a behavior is unpleasant, and the dog does not want to experience that again.  If a trainer is not upfront about that, I would personally not trust them – they are either misleading or lack understanding of training methodology.  

Personally I prefer to teach a dog what to do instead, to create positive experiences, and set up management and boundaries to help a dog be successful.  But everyone has to make their own choice.  For those wondering how to teach your dog to relax I would encourage them to look at Really Real Relaxation.

And for those thinking you have to, I understand.  I think I think all trainers have had those moments.  For you I encourage you to read this article by Suzanne Clothier – someone I am lucky to have as a friend and mentor.

Further Reading/References

Giving Thanks for a Prepared Dog

Thanksgiving is coming – it is my favorite holiday! Mainly because of the stuffing, but also because we get to gather with family, friends, and relax and enjoy some great food.

Thanksgiving for the dogs can be tricky for the same reasons though: lots of temptation and not a lot of supervision, and sometimes well meaning friends and family offering high fat “treats.” So here are some of my tips for having a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

First – educate yourself on pancreatitis – it is a serious condition that can be mistaken for less serious things, and is very common around the holidays as one of the causes is over-consumption of fat. Here is a good article from the AKC but here are the basic signs to look for:

  • Hunched back
  • Repeated vomiting (it can happen several times with a few hours or even over several days)
  • Pain or distention of the abdomen (dog appears uncomfortable or bloated)
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness/lethargy
  • Fever

If you think your dog might have pancreatitis call the vet (or the emergency vet) immediately.

Speaking of vets – know the phone numbers and hours of your vet, and the local emergency vets. Not all emergency vets are always open for intake so knowing where they are and what their phone numbers are is important.

The food dangers of Thanksgiving are not limited to fat – your dogs can also get a hold of bones (we’ve all heard the story of the dogs who steal the turkey), chocolate, coffee, onions – the potential risks are many. Having a good reference for what is and what isn’t poisonous to your dog can save some panicked googling. I use the ASPCA’s Poison Control service. There is a charge, but it is worth the peace of mind for me.

If your dog does consume cooked bones, I suggest calling the vet immediately. Do not induce vomiting without a vet advising you to as sometimes inducing vomiting can cause complications.

Now I am going to confess something – my dogs will not be attending Thanksgiving. There are too many people, too much food, and the supervision required would make the holiday more stressful then enjoyable. But I am lucky to have that choice, if your dogs are attending Thanksgiving then here are some ways you can take the stress out of the day.

Plan – if you are traveling bring a crate, and a mat (perhaps a baby gate). I love the fabric travel crates as they are light and easy to set up but if you have not used one before, get one before you need it and let your dog practice being in it. Not all dogs can generalize between crates and might need to learn a new kind. Do not forget some awesome chews, an extra leash and perhaps a long line or a toy. I like take my dog outside for some breaks from the heat, food and people so a long line and outdoor toy really come in handy!

Did they bring their IDs? Make sure their ID tags are attached, up to date, and their microchips are also up to date. No one wants to deal with a lost dog during the holidays but if you do, you want to know they have the right contact info on them.

Does your dog remember their GO TO MAT skills? – reminding them that the mat is a great place to be, and that food is delivered to them there so they do not have to beg, borrow or steal. Using the mat gives your dog a way to be right, and can take some stress out of the situation for you and the dog, giving them a safe place to be while everyone is around.

But sitting on a mat while people are going to be moving around and food will be laying on various surfaces may be too much temptation for some dogs. In that case crating them with an amazing chew, away from the chaos, may be the name of the game. Get a nice fresh raw bone to freeze and use to keep them busy, or a really nice stuffed and frozen Kong. Or you can put them behind a baby gate, or a bedroom. There is no shame in just keeping them away from the food – no matter how great your dog’s skills are, mistakes happen and I believe in better safe then sorry planning.

How are your greetings? A part of why my dogs are staying home are their greetings. Jasper just is not that into people and while he does not dislike people a lot of different people wanting to interact with him and putting social pressure on him will stress him out, which will stress me out. And Wren, well, bless her heart, while her greetings start strong she does believe that if anyone makes eye contact for longer then a few seconds they MUST want her to jump up and give them a kiss. They do not Wren, they do not, at least not everyone does. Then there is Ms. Magdalina Conchetta Wrinkles, she is mostly blind, and deaf, and asking her to navigate all the people and affection is going to stress her out as well – and she’s too heavy to carry all day. So they will stay home with some nice chews, safe and quiet, and will get to enjoy some leftover roast turkey with their dinners.

If I were bringing them, we’d be refreshing our greeting skills – Go Say Hi 1-2-3! is the name of the game there. Jasper’s is great, it’s the social pressure I worry about for him. Wren, well, I’ve slacked, we need more practice! So if she was going I’d be practicing with everyone I met until Turkey Day.

Leave it? A LEAVE IT is a great skill to have, but, if your LEAVE IT ends with a question mark, then you might need to practice some more. If a hunk of cheese hits the floor you want to know your dog will listen without questioning if LEAVE IT is worth it. An easy way to practice is to go back to step one, and just get some fast repetitions of LEAVE IT in, so the skill is nice and fresh.

Fair Trade – how is your TRADE looking? If LEAVE IT fails or your dog gets something before you notice, is your TRADE up to snuff? Having a rock solid TRADE is an important skill, especially on the holidays. This video is one of my favorites, Chirag Patel teaching TRADE (or DROP as he calls it).

I could go on and on about good skills to have for the holidays (like recall) but these are probably the most important, and the ones I’d focus on for Thanksgiving.

Wishing you all a wonderful and peaceful holiday!

Preparing for Halloween and Dogs

I love Halloween! I currently live in the country and no longer get trick or treaters and I miss it, I love seeing the costumes and talking to the kids and prepping fun things to hand out (pencils, slime, candy, etc!). When I lived in Albany it used to be a steady stream of kids at the door, and it was also where I learned what it was like to have a dog during Halloween.

Thankfully, Owen was comfortable with people at the door, and not a huge barker. But the first knock at the door revealed there was more to it then that, I had to think on my feet and each year I learned something new, and new dogs would require new tricks, on top of the treats. So I present to you a compilation of my Halloween Tricks and Treats.

Airlock System – the first knock on the door taught me my biggest lesson – managing a dog (and cat) and five kids under the age of ten at a door was hard. Thankfully I had a vestibule leading to my door and a baby gate on hand so I could create an airlock system, or, a way to keep my animals from the door and the kids from my animals. This prevents children rushing up to my dog and startling them, or my dog rushing up to the kids and startling them. Some kids are scared of dogs and even a social dog giving kisses can be traumatic. It also prevents a dog from bolting out the door and taking off – even a dog with a great recall can get out and panic when they see streets full of monsters.

Barkers – not going to lie, when I had my biggest barker (Shadow) there was a point where we turned off the lights and pretended we were not home. And I still have a friend who does this (Hi Becky!). While her dogs are social the constant coming and going would get them worked up and push the energy a bit too high to be easily managed. There is nothing wrong with that, and for some dogs that might be the kindest option. Shadow loved people though, and I found a way to manage the barking while letting him be a part of things. So, first, I had an airlock system in place so he could not get to the door, then, we waited, and I paid attention, when a trick or treater approached I scattered some cookies just as they got to the door and Shadow was busy while the knocks happened. Eventually he stopped caring about the approach. I’d talk to him while I talked to the kids, and the kids loved admiring him from a distance – Shadow liked costumes and was happy to wear his, and be ohhed and ahhed over from a distance. For other dogs I’ve given them a frozen Kong, a bully stick, or something to keep them busy. And I would leave them in a room with the TV playing so they did not hear as much of the street sounds.

Correct ID – while I’m always careful and employ an airlock, there is always the risk of a dog getting out a door. Or if they are being walked or joining the trick or treating there is the chance of a leash dropping or of them getting spooked and taking off. Making sure the info on their microchip is current and that they have an ID tag with your correct contact info on it is important. And I make sure they have physical ID on, this means putting your dog in a collar even if they are normally a nudist at home. Microchips are great but your neighbors do not have chip readers – they can read an ID though.

Plan your walks/potty sessions – while you cannot fully schedule your dogs need to go, you can try to get them out before the chaos starts. I like to do a walk before the trick or treaters are out, or take them in the back yard for a play session. This has the dogs satisfied and a little tired, and usually prevents me needing to take them out to potty while goblins and ghouls are roaming the street. Then when things have settled down we go back out again. Should they need to go potty during prime trick or treat time I go into the yard with them and am armed with treats – ready to distract or manage if necessary.

Prepping for the Children – Halloween brings a lot of excitement, and when children are excited their emotions are high – and emotions can change. They might get overly excited or loud when they see a dog – they might squeal, jump, reach, run. They might also get scared and cry. With very few exceptions I do not let my dog have contact with the trick or treaters. First, I do not know the kids or their skill level with dogs. Second, they are all wearing weird outfits and some dogs might find that worrisome – and while they might be okay with a child petting them they might not be okay with a vampire petting them. Having a German Shepherd, a breed who can look intimidating, I found softening their look with a colorful bandana helped them look less scary – in Owen’s case he wore pink butterfly wings.

Introduce your dog to their costume before Halloween – I have a whole blog on keeping costumes positive, but it is worth reminding people that not all dogs like costumes. Starting slow and introducing your dog to clothes and costumes before the big day can really help keep things positive and let you know where your dog falls on the spectrum. It also will let you know if the costume is appropriate. Shadow did not mind being dressed, but not all costumes fit him right or comfortably. Jasper will wear some things, but hates other types of costumes. Knowing what your dog is comfortable with before Halloween helps keep things fun for you and the dog – and if your dog does not like costumes at all (Tabby) then maybe leave them out of the theme costumes or stick to a festive bandana.

Teach your dogs about “Monsters” – what I loved about Halloween was the creative costumes, but that was also what worried some of my dogs. Suddenly people did not look like people – masks in particular were hard. So leading up to Halloween I put on masks. I stood in front of my dog, let them smell the mask, see the mask, and then let them watch me take it on and off as they realized what it was.

Scared Dogs – the biggest thing I learned was if your dog is scared, respect it, and make them your priority. If people coming to the door stress them out, put them in a safe place where they don’t have to deal with it – crate them, put them in a bedroom or keep the lights off and pretend it is just any other night. As much as I love Halloween, I love my dogs more, and they come first.

Treats – have treats ready to use when needed – be it to reward, distract or manage. If you need to go light on dinner and pop their food into a Kong, or use it for treat scatters throughout the night, do it. And also watch them around the human treats – there will be lots of chocolate around and we all know the dangers of that. Keep an eye on your dog and what they might get into, especially on walks where things may have been dropped in the leaves.

When in doubt, leave them home – planning on taking your dog out trick or treating with the kids? Or to bring them to a trunk or treat or a costume party? Are you sure they are ready? Will they be worried about the costumes, the noise, the crowds and the dogs? How about the flashing lights and strobes used for safety gear? If they are not are you prepared to bring them home or spend your time managing them? Will they have fun or would they rather be home with a chew? I admit the level of work it would take to bring my dog to most people events is not equal to the level of enjoyment me and my dog would experience. It is stressful, these days my dogs stay home (and more often then not I do too).

“Tricks” and treats – skills that can make things easier. It is a little late to teach these skills from scratch but if they know them, it is a good time to do some review with lots of high value rewards to keep them fresh in your dog’s mind. And if they don’t have these skills consider teaching them for next year.

  • Recall – should your dog get lose you want to be able to call them back. Halloween will be full of distractions so even if your dog has a rocket recall get some practice in, and practice around distractions too. I like to do some on-leash recalls so they get used to doing them on the street, and around children and cars.
  • Go to Mat – being able to send your dog to a space when asked is a huge help. If a scared kids comes to the door you can send them away to a spot, if the baby gate falls you can get them away from an open door. If they are barking you can move them out of the area – it’s a great backup plan.
  • Leave It – whether something is dropped at home or you are on a walk and find an unattended Snickers bar, leave it is important. Remember the game – put a treat under your hand and ask for a LEAVE IT – reward them when they take their attention off your hand.
  • Stay – another great safety measure for your dog. If the baby gate falls or the leash slips from your hand, can your dog STAY. Can they STAY around distractions? Maybe do some stays and practice dropping your leash (in a safe place) and dancing around, pretend to trip, do things to distract and prep them for things that might happen.
  • Doorway Manners – have you been having your dog sit on both sides of the door? If so go back to paying that, or try to get some practice in. Not only does it encourage calm behavior around a door, it is a great safety measure to have in place if a door gets left open on this busy night.
  • Behavior cued by a knock/doorbell – does your dog bark when there is a knock at the door? Do they lose it when the doorbell rings? Can you teach them to do something else? One of our dogs who loved to bark was trained to run to their bed each time there was a knock at the door. How did I do it? I knocked on the wall and tossed a treat to the bed, and repeated that pattern until he heard a knock and ran on this own, then I applied it to the door. Ta da! Behavior changed.

My Position on The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Training Position

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has strengthened their position statement on training methodology and has come out to say they recommend reward based training methods only for training. You can read that position statement here.

What does that mean in English? No shocks, no prongs, no mother’s bites, no choke chains, no “stim” collars.

Coming from an education background this is no surprise to me. I tell people if I would not put it on a child, I’m not going to put it on a dog. And yes, as a substitute teacher I will fully admit there were moments where I wish I did have an easy way to correct the children, and as a dog trainer I’ve had those moments where I’ve lost patience and thought about a prong collar. But I don’t, because I don’t want to rely on pain and threats to teach.

And yes, prong collars, mother’s bites, shock collars, stim collars, choke chains, etc – they rely on pain. Aversive tools work by creating an experience the dog (or person) wants to stop – an aversive experience. So the dog will change their behavior to stop the bad thing from happening. That means the dog stops pulling because it hurts to pull. If it did not cause pain, or a negative feeling, it would not work any differently then a regular collar. And if you have heard some say they do not hurt because of pressure distribution, etc, etc, you might want to read this post here.

But pain aside, I have not seen them to be effective teaching tools. I have seen them manage behavior, but teach? If they taught a dog not to pull then a dog would not need to wear it once they learned. But that is not what happens. I see it all the time with dogs who have been on prong collars their whole life and then come to class to do their Canine Good Citizen test and suddenly lose all their “training.” Aversives too often are used to manage, not teach. They are a way to control a dog’s behaviors so they appear to be well trained, but, once the equipment is off and the dog has the freedom to choose, you can see that the behaviors were not changed, just repressed.

I do not want to repress behaviors, I want to teach dogs new ones.

Magdalina Conchetta Wrinkles

A few days before Halloween in 2019 a little hairless gremlin entered our lives. She was an emergency intake for a local rescue, and the only time I’ve brought home a dog without letting my husband know before hand. He should have known then he was in trouble.

Hairless, smelling of yeast, bleeding, intact and mostly blind we were expecting her to be an easy, gentle soul who did not expect much, and she was to start. Fast forward a few weeks and soon the true Magdalina emerged, and was she fierce. She was soon running the show, bossing around a then adolescent Jasper, taking up the best spot on the couch, claiming my lap, and making herself an essential part of our home. Jasper loved her, Tabby thought she was funny, and she quickly bonded to me and became my little smelly shadow. I was adopted.

Magdalina is smart, sassy, and we all dance to her tune. With all she went through we figure she is due. She has made us into a small dog family, travels in a crash-tested car seat and has her very own stroller for walks. Wherever she goes she makes people smile, and she makes me laugh every day. It took me over two years to teach her to sit on command and while we know “touch” and “beg” convincing her to do “down” is an ongoing work in progress. It has nothing to do with her capability to learn and everything to do with her interest in learning – she is smart, she is motivated, she just doesn’t see the point.

I sometimes wonder if my Elkhound sent her to me to remind me to stay humble, and keep laughing.

“But e-collars aren’t shock collars!”

Petco announced they would no longer sell remote shock collars, a huge step forward for the dog training industry, and I join the many voices applauding that change and their #StopTheShock Movement. You can read more about it here.

But as I read the posts what is jumping out is the amount of people in the comments asking if that meant e-collars are also banned. They are told yes, e-collars are shock collars and therefore no longer sold. So then they reply that e-collars are different though and don’t hurt the dog . . . and my head explodes. Not because of the people making these comments, but because of the professionals who told them that.

This to me is why there needs to be more regulation in the dog training industry. Because there are people out there telling clients that e-collars are different, that they don’t hurt, that they just “stimulate” the dog. And while they do make collars that just vibrate or beep, the e-collars they are referring to are not those types. Are the trainers lying or are they ignorant? I don’t know which is scarier.

If you want to train with fear/pain, that is your choice, and if you want to sell those methods to clients, that is your choice. But please don’t misrepresent those methods to your clients. That is not fair. They deserve to make an educated choice.

Clients deserve full disclosure of the pros and cons of any method used with their dog, and trainers who are educated enough to provide those pros and cons.

The bottom line is e-collars/shock collars, whatever you want to call them work because they apply an unpleasant stimulus. Just as marking and rewarding with food/play work by applying a pleasant stimulus. It’s science.

Dog owners – please do your research because until the industry has some kind of regulation, and likely even then, it is buyer beware and there are a lot of people out there who you need to be aware of. Just because someone is on YouTube saying they are an expert doesn’t mean they are, it just means they have a camera and a YouTube channel. And this applies to all people saying they are dog trainers, regardless of their methods. And don’t trust all certifications, some require nothing more then the willingness to pay $100 and an e-mail address.

Find out what those credentials after someone’s name means, and what they stand for before you hire someone.

Socialization and Social Distancing

With puppy classes on hold, and people practicing social distancing I have had a few clients reach out and ask what they can do to keep their puppy socialized, and to expose them to new things. I did my best to put together some things to do, this is not a definitive list, it is a list of things to try, things to do, and ways to keep busy. If you think of something else, feel free to give it a try, or if something is just not for your puppy, skip it!

First though, a warning. Socialization is about quality, not quantity. It is also about creating quality experiences for your puppy. You want to go slow, at your puppy’s speed, and make sure you are not overwhelming them. Watch their body language, are their ears shifting back, are they lip licking, is their brow furroughing? If they start to worry watch and see if they can resolve it, if they cannot back them up, can they resolve it with more space? No, then go on home, or stop, and try again later. Sometimes if a puppy has already done too much they just cannot handle another thing, or, sometimes they are tired, or sometimes they are worried. Forcing them through something will not make it positive though, and in fact it may make it worse. If you want to learn more about socialization and how to help your puppy I suggest watching the seminar Mindful Socialization by Suzanne Clothier. I was involved in the production and it was incredibly helpful to me as a trainer, and a dog owner.

Second, bring treats. If your puppy can enjoy a snack as things go on around them – yay! What a great day for a puppy. The treats may also help you work through a sticky point, or be needed to manage an over-excited or worried puppy and lure them out of a situation. If you are in a spot without treats, and things get scary, and your puppy is unfocused and barking, that may be experiences we have to undo later, so, use food and make it awesome as much as possible.

Here is a list of some suggestions:

  • If you cannot get your puppy around different types of people, wearing different types of clothes, become those different people for your puppy! Start wearing hats, sunglasses, coats, wigs, Halloween costumes, masks, whatever strikes your fancy! Put on any weird thing around your puppy and make it seem totally normal.  Just please do not startle your puppy. Do not put on a Batman mask and jump out at your puppy, sit in front of her and let her see you put it on and take it off a few times. Same with the glasses, or hats. Let them see you change and realize that sometimes people look different, but they are still people.
  • Show them seasonal clothes or stuff they would not see everyday! Put on a rain coat, open an umbrella, break out your pancho, roll a suitcase around, go outside and show your pup a wheelbarrow and a hose and a rake and whatever is in your garage!
  • Break out some throw rugs, cardboard boxes, metal cookie trays, measuring cups, metal spoons, bells, balls, any weird things and put them on the floor as your puppy plays. Ask them to walk over weird stuff, to play with weird stuff and get used to different materials under their feet and in their mouth.
  • Break out toys that make sound have flashing light, let them check those out. If you have ones that move or dance, all the better!
  • Take out your lawn mower, rev it up, take out the weedwacker, rev it up. Chainsaw – sure! Let the neighbors think you are crazy (and feel free to send me video please – ha!). Inside use your coffee grinder, your blender, a food processor, vaccuum, carpet cleaner, whatever is different. You want to get really brave, put the fire alarm very, very far away and set it off and give your puppy treats while it happens.
  • Just because you have to stay apart does not mean you cannot see people. Drive to the grocery store, go to the back of the lot where there is no one close, and people watch with your dog. You can also do this with the vets office or a pet center to watch the dogs come in and out.
  • Bored neighborhood kids? Talk to their parents and ask them to ride their bikes by your house at set times so you can have your dog see them from a distance. Have them use scooters, throw footballs, bounce basketballs, ride a skateboard, make noises and be kids! Really want to go nuts? Ask them to wear costumes or hats and really give your pup some new things to see. From a distance! Don’t have kids? Go on YouTube and find some video of kids laughing, crying, screaming and being kids and at least play those sounds for your puppy, all while sharing some awesome snacks.
  • Take a drive to the country, check out cows, horses, sheep, llamas.
  • Drive your pup to a boat lock, look at the boats, walk on the weird surfaces. Go to the gas station and have them wait in your car as you pump gas. Take them to a drive through for coffee (well, coffee for you, puppies do not need caffeine!). Go to the places you hope to go when they are older, even if you cannot go near people, or you may not be able to inside, you can get them used to the ride and the area.

Remember, quality, not quantity. Use the check-lists below if they help. Make memories, create positive experiences, have fun and take pictures. Puppyhood does not last forever and while this one will be a little non-traditional, it is still going to be awesome and you will miss it when they are big (minus the house training part).

Raising a Perfect Puppy

Each and every puppy class I teach I am surrounded with owners who want what is best for their dogs.  Best food, best treats, best training, best play, best toys – and I get it.  I also want what is best for their dog, and for them.  I am right there with them determined to give them my best, and help them do their best.  It is a lot of pressure.

Especially since puppies are not blank canvases, their DNA has been in place since conception, and that DNA will drive who they are, and who they become.  But, their experiences help shape that DNA, and that is where good socialization is so important, where creating positive experiences and associations can guide your dog to their best possible self.

But, this post is not about socialization, or DNA.  It is about you, me, and the pressure we put on ourselves when we raise a puppy.

Whether we realize it or not deep down I think we all dream of owning Lassie, that perfect dog who saves us when we need to be saved, who is friends to all, and who can walk by your side, never questioning your commands.  I know I do, the list of dogs I read about when I was young and dreamed of owning is epic.  But they were all fictional, and, the dogs by my side are not. 

Jasper was not a perfect puppy, he worried, he was aloof, he did not want to interact much with people, and he gets rough when playing with other dogs.  I knew I had to be careful with him, I put a bubble around him and did all I could to control everything around us and give him only the best experiences.

And I failed.

The first incident I could not control was when we were taking a walk and the neighbor’s let their dog out without realizing their gate was open.  She silently ran up from behind Jasper and grabbed him by his neck as we were walking by.  My husband’s quick reflexes saved the day as he (stupidly but bravely) tackled the other dog and grabbed her collar.

Then there were the new neighbors.  We used to have a lovely greyhound next door who would sniff along the fence line and say hi to Jasper, they had a great relationship.  He moved out and two new dogs came in, one of those dogs decided the best way to enter the yard was to bark and charge the fence, even if we were not outside.  He did his best to eat Jasper, I did my best to manage it.  I put up a visual barrier, I put up a smaller fence inside our fence, and then eventually had to put a full fence inside our fence to keep him from my dogs.  He still managed to make a hole big enough to shove his head through in the metal fence on their side.  Despite my best efforts Jasper learned the joys of barking at other dogs through the fence, he truly seemed to think it was a sport.  When the other dogs were let out and he was inside he’d run to the door with his tail high and wagging, wanting to go out and bark back.  He also learned dogs on the other side of the fence were dangerous.

The neighbors did their best but we both had dogs who needed to go out, and work schedules, and life happens and the dogs were exposed to each other far more then I would have liked.  There was nothing I could besides move, which we did, but, not before the habit was formed.

Then there were the neighbors who felt it was appropriate to let their dogs roam the neighborhood, loose and free, unattended.  Their dogs who were intact females, who would dance around outside my fence and drive Jasper wild.  More bad fence habits established. 

The most stressful moment for me came in a class when Jasper was taking his Canine Good Citizen test.  There was a dog in the class who felt it was entertaining to chase after the dogs as they walked by, barking at them.  Instead of dismissing the dog, as they should have, the tester decided to make every dog walk by that dog.  Jasper did, and he held it together as the dog chased after him snapping at his feet.  And Jasper held it together as three other dogs were forced to endure that.  But then the dogs in the room started to lose it, they started to get restless from the tension, and they started to bark back at this dog.  Jasper is not one to be left out, and he is not one to handle tension easily, and I watched him fall apart.  I should have left that class as soon as the other dog acted out, but I didn’t want to be rude. 

I’m telling you this not to excuse my dog’s behavior, or to promote the truth in the adage that good fences make good neighbors.  But to share that no matter how hard I worked, no matter what I did, I was not going to make Jasper’s life perfect.  Life is not perfect, life comes with conflicts.  And you have to be prepared.  Not by building a fortress around your dog or reading every training book you can get your hands on, but by accepting that you cannot raise a perfect puppy, that life is not perfect, and neither are you, and neither is your dog. 

Love your dog, build a relationship with your dog, celebrate your dog’s quirks and accept them for who they are, and where they are.  Take the pressure off you, and your dog, and enjoy the journey.  You only get one chance at life with your dog and if you spend your dog’s life worrying you are missing out on so much.

I failed at giving Jasper only the best experiences because my expectations were unrealistic, perfection is unrealistic.  Where I succeeded was in building a relationship with my dog.  Because of that relationship when the imperfect moments happened we could work through them together.  We have a connection to fall back on when things get stressful, or one of us gets worried.  And that connection was not built just through training, although that does play a role, it was based on having fun with my dog, listening to my dog, understanding what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and respecting him when he told me no, I can’t do that right now, or no, I don’t like that. 

When Jasper barks at another dog I know we can work through it together, and that is more valuable to me than having a dog who doesn’t bark.  Why?  Because while not every dog might react to other dogs every dog is going to have something they struggle with, and if you have a connection with your dog, you can help them through that struggle.

Compassionate Costumes and Clothes

With Halloween approaching I admit I am reveling in dog costumes!  I love dressing up and as it is not socially acceptable for me to go out in costume as an adult, I indulge myself by dressing up the dogs . . . with some caveats.

First, they have to like it.  When I put a coat on Tabby it was very clear she thought that coat was going to steal her soul and leave her for dead.  She froze, she went belly up, she shivered worse then she did in the snow.  I tried a costume to see if something less restrictive might be more appealing. It was not. I told Tabby I received her message and instead of using a coat I carefully monitor her time outside when it is cold, and she remains a nudist.  Costumes are not put on Tabby.

Jasper does not mind a coat, but he does not love a coat so I was not sure about costumes.  Last year he was all puppy and felt costumes were for chewing.  This year I tried out some different things I had for different dogs, and well, costumes are hit or miss.  Some of the ones with appendages he thinks are more fun to chew then wear.  Anything that goes near his head and flops around he does not like, or covers his ears, so, things with “heads” or hats are mostly out.  I do not want to limit his vision or his hearing – and not just because it is uncomfortable. Jasper is a cautious dog and he startles, putting him in something that makes it harder to see leaves him easier to surprise, and just plain stresses him out. I do not put him in anything restrictive to his movement – he is a young dog and should be able to move freely.  And so he tolerates them, and I respect that he is wearing them for me, not him, and do not keep him in them for long, or for more then a picture or two.  Which is a shame because he looks totally adorable in them.

I will chew this the second you look away.

Pirate we once put a coat on, getting it off was an adventure, we do not dress Pirate, he let us know VERY clearly it is not his thing.  Although for some reason he does not mind hats. Pirate is weird, but he is entitled to his opinions on clothing.

Enter Magdalina.  Magdalina is the most tolerant dog in the house.  I can put her in a lion’s mane, I can make her a rainbow, she is an adorable frog too!  But she tolerates, she does not love, and putting them on her sometimes makes her a walking chew toy for Jasper who thinks frogs legs are delicious!  I learned with Magdalina too that HOW a coat or costume fits matters as much as anything else.  Magdalina has arthritis and achy legs, manipulating them to put them in a coat or a sweater or a costume can be painful for her.  I have to find things for her without sleeves and that attach by the neck and under the belly. In an attempt to find something light weight I even broke out my knitting needles to make her a sweater that does not involve sleeves.  With her skin and sparse hair coats are sometimes a necessity, and she does appreciate the warmth, but, it is hard to find appropriate clothes sometimes.

But I have to talk about Shadow, Shadow loved a tutu.  You put him in a tutu or his Batman costume and he would strut his stuff and be so proud.  I could put him in so many things and as long as the camera was out, he was posing.  He was a dog that loved a costume, or maybe he loved the attention it brings.

He is not alone! My foster dog Nellie adored being dressed up, for her I think it was also about the attention. But she had no issues with costumes or clothes. Poor dog was put in many outfits.

My friend’s dogs love costumes and clothes so much they come running when she gets them out. Memphis and Bella are dressed more often then they are not and have the biggest wardrobe of any animals I know.

So, this Halloween as you are picking out your outfits take some time to think how they will fit your dog, how they will affect their vision, how they will affect their ability to move, and do doggy things. If you notice them stressed out, take it off. Watch for lip licks and ears back, and do not wait until Halloween day to put on the costume for the first time. Halloween comes with enough stress and weirdness without leaving your dog feeling uncomfortable in a costume too.

Have fun this Halloween, but make sure your dogs are having fun along with you.  And send pictures. 

My meatballs bring all the dogs to the yard.

More specifically the kitchen, but, that does not fit the song as well.

Confession – as much as I love a cheese stick for high value treats, Jasper is a total meat dog. I am not a huge meat eater, and hot dogs have a lot of stuff in them, so, I have been experimenting with different treats. He loves chicken but it shreds in my hands, and makes a mess on the floor. He will happily eat steak, but, that is not budget friendly. Liver is harder to prep and gets soft in my hand. So I have been buying pre-made meatballs for Jasper for agility class lately.

They are tempting to him, easy to defrost, and store, and because they are frozen they do not spoil on me before I use them. But, I do not love all the ingredients (onion powder), and they are a little fattier then I like. So, today I decided to make my own. Judging from how his head lifted and his nose hit the air as they came out of the oven, and how quickly Tabby came running from upstairs when I brought one to the living room for sampling, I think they are a hit.

I also like how they break up easily without being too crumbly, although, next time I might add some shredded mozzarella cheese to help them bind up even more.

Full confession, I was learned to cook from my Armenian grandmother, and mother, so, until it feels right is a common measurement in my house. I did my best to track amounts though.

  • 1 lb. lean ground beef (96%)
  • 1 lb ground turkey (85%)
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 Tbs. canned pumpkin
  • 3 Tbs. grated or shaved parmesan
  • 1 Tbs. Nutritional yeast (confession, I am trying to use it up, you can ommit it!)

First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenehit. Then put the ground beef and ground turkey in the bowl, followed by the egg. Add the canned pumpkin, grated parmesan, the nutritional yeast (if you are adding it) and then mix (I did it by hand, but, you can use a spatula). If you sing ‘my meatballs bring all the dogs to the yard’ at this stage, it adds some extra love.

Prepare your baking tray buy lining it with foil, and if you prefer, placing a baking rack on the tray too (I did not do this but I wish I had). Shape the meatballs so they are about 2 inches in diameter (should make about 15) and place the meatballs on the rack/tray. You can make them smaller, or larger, but you need to adjust your baking time. I made them large planning to defrost a few at a time and break them up as needed.

Place them in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until the internal temperature is 165 degrees farenheit.

Once they cool, store them in the freezer and take them out as needed. If you forget to take them out the night before, you can pop them in the microwave for a quick defrost.

Like I said, if you want them to be less crumbly, you can add some shredded mozarella cheese to the recipe. Play with it, make it your own, and let me know how your pups like them!