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Monday, May 5, 2014

A "Service Dog"?  Give me a break!!

No more!!  No longer will I tell inquiring dog owners that, "Yes, you can call your dog a service dog and no one can challenge you about it."  It's the truth, of course, because that's what our asinine "Americans With Disabilities Act" (ADA) says, but I'm all through trying to explain it to people who have every intention of abusing it so they can take their dogs anywhere or get past "No Pets" policies with their landlords.

The bitey, noisy miniature Dachshund who lives with the man at the Senior Apartments should NOT be called a service dog. Neither should the sweet little Shih Tzu who lives with the young hearing impaired lady.  Neither should the Rhodesian Ridgeback that the owners can't control in public without a Gentle Leader head halter.  Neither should my good friend's dog who is adorable and fun, but who hikes his leg on everything.

Don't get me wrong; I desperately want all these people to have their dogs and enjoy the emotional comfort that only a dog can deliver.  But to pass them off as "service dogs" is an unintentional slap in the face of those unfortunate individuals whose dogs have been extensively trained to perform specific tasks for them that they cannot do for themselves.

Why my sudden rant?  Last week in Yakima, Wash., a pit bull "service dog" got loose (ran out the front door of the owner's house while the owner was in the back yard).  It went after a neighbor dog a block away.  The neighbor and two other people got bitten in their attempt to break it up. The whole thing ended as soon as someone grabbed the dog's collar and hauled him back (without resistance from the dog) to his owner's house.

The lead in the Yakima Herald Republic read, "A registered pit bull service dog is under quarantine after attacking three people and a dog Thursday in Yakima."  The phrase "registered pit bull service dog" is SO wrong on SO many levels that it I'd spit if my mouth weren't so dry.

A little background here:  dear old Yakima, where I resided for more than 25 years and owned a thriving dog-training business for nearly 15, decided to BAN pit bulls back in 1987. Of course the ban was stupid and ineffective for many good reasons which I should not need to explain to you, "the educated choir."  They came close to overturning it a couple times but unfortunately failed.  However, in April of this year the city council decided to exempt pit bull "service and therapy" dogs from the ban.

Under this new and enlightened ordinance, according to the Herald, "pit bulls serving as service dogs [no mention of therapy dogs] must be kept on leashes and muzzled when out in public, and confined to pens or locked enclosures when at home."  Oh yes, and their owners are supposed to go down to City Hall and "register" the dogs as service dogs.  (Hence, the "registered pit bull service dog" referred to in the Herald's story lead.) 

What????  What kind of legitimate service dog needs this type of restriction?  Mention "service dog" to most people, and they think of mild-mannered, always steady, always reliable, always quiet Labs, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs who wear harnesses and vests, move slowly and carefully, and are scarcely even noticeable.  Personally I also think of "pit bulls" (a broad-based generic term for many breeds of stocky terrier types), because I've seen them numerous time fulfilling this same role.  Pit bulls are extremely capable of being wonderful service dogs--in other words, performing physical tasks that an owner can't perform himself because of a disability, or detecting its owner's imminent seizure.  The pit bulls who are true service dogs by no means need muzzles or pens anymore than the Labs and goldens do.  Such dogs would not be "registered" as pit bulls anyway, but rather by their actual breed names, be it American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffy Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, mixed breed, or whatever.  And whatever city councilperson came up with the idea to muzzle service dogs and lock them in pens has truly revealed his or her total ignorance of the entire situation!  I'm actually embarrassed for that person.

Granted, there are "service dogs" who legitimately "serve" every day.  Some detect seizures.  Others act as "hearing aids" when the doorbell or phone rings.  (Actually, mine to do the same thing, without training.)  Some guard people with life-threatening sleep disorders.

However, the dog in Yakima "provided emotional support, calmed its disabled owner, channeled negative emotions away and provided a sense of security," according to the registration form the owner filed with the city.

Um... did anyone at the city read the ADA definition of a service dog?  For starters, "Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

Well, shucks, my dogs provide comfort and emotional support too.  That's why I have them.  The Department of Veterans Affairs also says I'm disabled (it's okay, I'll tell you, it's from undergoing four hip replacements) so I guess that means my dogs would qualify in any number of ways.  They keep me awake when I'm driving.  They comfort me when I'm sad.  They calm me when I'm having a tantrum. They sound the alarm when someone rings the doorbell. They lower my blood pressure when I stroke them.  They can carry stuff for me in backpacks.  They'll stand still and let me lean on them if I'm on the floor picking up their dog toys.  They even help with housework by Hoovering up whatever crumbs I drop in the kitchen.  I might add my dogs are better behaved than most children I know, making them far more pleasant in public places.

But none of these qualifications gives me the ethical right to call them service dogs, and especially not the part about providing comfort and channeling away my negative thoughts.  Yes, they are therapeutic.  But therapy dogs are not service dogs.

So who's to blame here for this out-of-control plethora of fake service dogs?  Is it the dog owner?  Is it the City Council?  Is it dog trainers like me who have tried to honestly answer people's countless inquiries about whether or not their dog would "pass" as a service dog?  (By the way, this is not just a Yakima problem.  If you Google "fake service dog," you'll find dozens of similar predicaments all over the country.)

Here's where I place the accountability:  the police of political correctness.  The whole ADA is designed to provide a politically correct world for disabled individuals.  Because of that, the ADA service dog law is short, vague, and open to interpretation (but only on the disabled person's side).  Why can't a hotel manager ask for a demonstration of what the working dog does?  Why can't the restaurant prohibit the dog if it's a big hairy Pyr that's going to shed in everyone's soup?  Why can't a merchant ask for documentation that the dog has been legitimately and extensively trained to do its job?  It's because it's not PC.  It's not nice to question people about their disabilities.  You might hurt their feelings or embarrass them.  It's not nice to question the legitimacy of their dogs' training because it might insult them.  It's not nice to make them sit separated from other patrons who may have allergies, because it makes them feel excluded and calls attention to them.

The current ADA service animal law is devastating, particularly to owners of legitimate service dogs.  (And don't even get me started on miniature horses, which are also now legal service animals under ADA.)  "Fake" service dogs have given real ones a black eye.  Ironically, many disabled people with true service dogs would love to see the law tightened up and would be in favor of documentation of extensive specialized training.  Of course, that opens a can of worms too, as certificates and "service dog" vests and placards can be purchased by anyone over the internet.

True confession time.  While recovering from one of my four hip surgeries, I "employed" my Greater Swiss Mountain Dog as a service dog.  According to ADA it was totally legal and legit.  He carried things for me and helped me with mobility issues.  Could I have gotten along without using him as a service dog?  Of course.  I could have worn my own backpack and used crutches a little longer. But it was cool to have my big, handsome, impeccably mannered dog accompanying me into Costco or coming to meet me in my hospital room following surgery.  And it was nice to not have to pay the pet deposit at a motel.  Now I feel guilty about it, although I did nothing wrong according to the law.  But I took advantage of a bad law, primarily for my own gratification.  And that's not right.

So don't call me anymore asking if your dog could pass as a service animal.  If he or she could, you already know it and won't have to ask anyone's opinion.

By the way, my two angelic dogs are "pit bulls" (actually American Staffordshire Terriers).  Needless to say, I have no desire to return to Yakima or any other municipality that supports breed specific bans, whether or not there are exclusions for "service dogs."  That's okay.  Everyone here who knows my dogs loves them.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Speeding tickets and shock collars

You're wondering what one has to do with the other?  They're closely related.  Let me tell you about my speeding ticket and use it to demonstrate the way I feel about using shock collars for modifying certain behaviors in our dogs.

The cop nailed me as I was coasting down the hill into Lewiston a couple weeks ago.  He clocked me at 72 mph in a 60mph zone and slapped me with a fine of $90.  It shook me up!  I'd tried so hard to stay within the speed limit for the past 200 miles.   But for a few seconds I'd let down my guard on the steep grade, and I got caught.

Since then, I've been absolutely paranoid about exceeding the posted speed limit anywhere.  I don't care what my peers on the road are doing, I'm going to drive like an old lady because I DON'T WANT TO PAY THE CONSEQUENCES AGAIN.

Now, of course I know that one should not exceed the speed limit anywhere.  I understand the law's rationale.  But that knowledge seldom stopped me from occasionally drifting over the posted limit.

I've also had a couple warning tickets in my life, and I've seen others pulled over by flashing lights.  But none of those is as powerful a deterrent  as getting that ticket two weeks ago.  That was a painful lesson I won't forget.

Shock collars work the same way.  They're not appropriate for all dogs and all problems.  But let's say it's a self control problem with a headstrong breed.  There's absolutely nothing else wrong with him, other than a lack of self control.  He's strong, agile, extremely intelligent, powerful, confident.  Like a human teenager, he is controlled by his impulses--or lack thereof.  You can "tell" him (train him) nicely not to do certain things, but you can't explain "why."  That can only be revealed by the consequences of his actions.  If the consequences are unpleasant enough, he'll learn to control his impulses.
The photos below illustrate a dangerous situation that I corrected with a shock collar.  Lizzie was chasing the cart horse and actually jumping up to bite his nose, which put everyone in the picture at risk of injury.  I put the collar on her, carried the transmitter, and pushed the button when she got within jumping distance of the horse.  She immediately learned to leave him alone, but continued to gleefully run alongside and turn to look at him without actually making physical contact. She still loves to run with the horse but is no longer a liability.

Today's shock collars have adjustable settings, from a mild vibration or a static snap like you get from a carpet in winter, to a jolt you'd get if you touched an electric fence.  Just about all humans experience all these "shocks" during our lives, and we live to tell about it.  We also remember the bad ones.  The worse the shock, the better we remember exactly what we were doing when it happened...and we mentally affirm to never repeat the same action that caused the shock.

Chasing livestock, chasing a car, or chasing another animal with intent to harm it...those behaviors are all worthy of a correction that sends the dog a clear message:  "Never again!"  The intensity of the "correction" (yes, a euphemism for "electric shock" ) depends on the size, age, breed and disposition of the dog.  It simply needs to be enough to get the point across--the first time--that the chasing action is not worth repeating.

Many novice trainers are understandably leery of using shock collars.  If you're not careful and your timing is off, you can inadvertently "correct" your dog for a benign behavior.  Let's say, for example, that you want to teach your dog not to chase deer.  You see deer at the edge of the yard, and you see your dog bolt in that direction.  You assume he's going after the deer, but in fact he hasn't even spotted them yet.  You push the button on the shock collar's remote transmitter and give the dog a correction.  The dog responds with a startled "Yip" or a little jump, and backtracks.  You may find it difficult to get your dog to go into that part of the yard again.  It has nothing to do with deer.  You've "taught" him that something nasty will happen to him if he goes into that part of the yard again.  That's clearly not what you intended to teach him, right?

The time to correct is when the dog has totally committed to whatever behavior you want to stop, but before he has the chance to actually do damage or be hurt himself.  Example:  you let the dog outside, you see him lock onto the deer and start to run toward them with purpose.  His body language tells you he intends to catch the deer if he can, and do them harm.  Push the button when you see the dog's natural impulses take over his brain.  He may be halfway to the deer, or he may be even closer to them, but he'll be totally focused on the deer.   When he feels the shock, he'll assume the deer themselves are "electrified," and he'll develop an instant distaste for them.  It usually only takes once.  If your timing is off, it may take two episodes to convince him.  That's all.

There are many who claim that shock collars are cruel and inhumane.  I think it's much more inhumane to allow a dog to be kicked by a horse it was harassing, or hit by a car it was chasing, or put down because it was allowed to attack another dog.  Who could argue that one static charge of electricity, strategically delivered at the right moment, is worse than injury or death?

Watch what you read on the Internet.  Most of the well-intentioned souls who espouse that shock collars are bad haven't had enough experience with dogs and dog problems to know what they're talking about. Granted, they're not for every dog or every situation.  But sometimes--when impulse control means life or death--there's no greater tool.

For more on shock collars, check out this older post:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When leash walks turn chaotic

My friend Andy visited us last summer with his Irish Terrier, Risky.  Andy's put a lot of time and effort into training, and the two of them have competed in rally and obedience.  But Risky still had a behavior problem that was baffling Andy.

"Every time we walk past a fence that has a barking dog behind it, she just 'loses it,'" he said.  "She just becomes this uncontrollable monster, seething at the end of the leash.  I can't seem to stop her and show her that she should relax."

So we took a walk up our dirt road and got to the neighbor's house, where a border collie mix ran down his driveway to size us up.  His tail was erect and he was growling, but he stopped when he got to the end of his driveway.

Risky, on the other hand, predictably started a barking and pulling frenzy, despite Andy's efforts to subdue her.  He, too, had stopped to try to reel her in and make her sit calmly in the other dog's presence.  But the more she barked, the more frantic he became in his commands, which were like kerosene on a fire.

And this was the crux of the problem!

"Andy," I yelled, though he couldn't hear me over Risky's barking.  "Keep moving; keep walking.  Walk her right past that dog and keep going."

Finally I stepped in and took Risky's leash so I could demonstrate.  Keeping the leash fairly short, but not tight, I turned us around 180 degrees and strode briskly and confidently back past the dog at the fence, without even glancing at the border collie.  Risky had no choice but to keep going with me.  I turned around and dd it again.  She was calmer because I was calm.  We did it once more, and this time Risky didn't look at the dog either, and she didn't bark.

I had diffused her anxiety by telegraphing to her that I (her leader) was not concerned about the strange dog, so she need not be either.  In fact, I had "dissed" the other dog by not even acknowledging him, and that was the only information Risky needed to determine her own reaction.

Whereas Andy had stopped and knelt down and tried to physically calm his dog in the presence of the stimulus, I had chosen to remain upright (showing confidence) and ignore it.  With Andy, Risky had picked up on his anxiety, which had escalated the problem.  With me, Risky picked up on a calm assertion, which meant she could relax because she knew I didn't think the situation was worth a reaction.  I also used motion (I kept walking) instead of stopping.  When your dog is moving, he has less time to "stew" about things.

Mind you, I had to pull a bit the first time to get Risky to go smoothly with me past the border collie.  But I didn't beg, yell, reason, comfort, or jerk the leash.  I just kept walking.

As a calming agent for your dog's reactivity, your own leader-like demeanor is probably better than any gimmicky training device or drug you can buy.  Remember...if the leader's not worried about a situation, no one else has to worry either.

(Note:  this principle is only applicable to "true" leaders, not necessarily those we just elect to public offices!)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dog ramps for higher tailgates

When we bought our latest Dodge half-ton truck for our Lab, Angus, we failed to take into consideration the height of the tailgate, and the leap he'd have to negotiate to get in and out of the bed, which is covered with a canopy.

Our Dodge Dakotas have been low enough that Angus could jump in and out if he had to.  But this bigger truck is another matter.  After a 12-week recovery from shoulder surgery, we're not letting him leap in--and especially not out--of anything that high anymore.

Which would you find easier to negotiate?  The steps, or the ramp?
So we hauled out our old folding dog ramp and put it up to the new truck's tailgate so Angus could give it a try.  He didn't even get halfway up before I called a halt to the operation and got him off.  The ramp, at its steeper angle, just wasn't stable under his 80 pounds.  It was bouncy and slippery.

That's when my brilliant husband retreated to the mud room and came back out with the folding stairs we use with our dog tub.  (Yes, we had a professional grooming tub installed in our mud room, instead of a traditional "utility tub."  We use it for everything...even bathing dogs.)

These steps fit the higher tailgate perfectly.  They offer  stability (necessary when you have older or handicapped dogs).  They're lightweight and easier to maneuver than the folding ramp (which always pinches my fingers).  And Angus has absolutely no trepidation about climbing them, because the footing is so secure.
The steps can actually hook only the end of the tailgate, whereas the ramp can slide or bounce loose.

Once the dog is loaded, you just fold the steps flat and slide them into the pickup bed.  No more pinched fingers.

Only one problem now:  we can't bathe the dogs until we get more steps.  For some reason they're not complaining.

You can get these steps from any groomer supply catalog, at prices ranging from $100 to $125.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"I'm too old for this!"

Despite our best training efforts, the trail to better dog behavior can get bumpy at times.  The older we are, the more the bumps can hurt.  It's best to know when to change directions, accept the way things are, and learn to manage situations to minimize potential problems.

Yesterday my boisterous young Lab, Angus, pulled me right off my feet.  He saw a squirrel to chase, and I went horizontal before I went "splat" on the gravel road.  The retractable leash jerked free of my hands and chased the dog, as I lay there yelling cuss words in the dirt.  (Maybe you've seen the HILARIOUS YouTube classic of the little old lady going horizontal behind the Great Dane....it was just like that, only not as funny to me!)

Mind you, this is our sweet, charming, normally dependable Lab who excels in obedience competition.  But yesterday was a rude reminder that he is not bombproof and never will be.  Nor, perhaps, do we really want him to be.  Making him bombproof would require a frontal lobotomy, and we don't want a zombie dog!

So....we deal with the facts.  When 60-year-old people incur strains and bruises, they take longer to heal.  We're not as strong and agile as we used to be.  Their reaction time is slower, their balance is worse.  Bottom line:  older people have to be more careful with their activities.  They must adjust and modify.

That's why I've ordered a Gentle Leader head halter for Angus.  I don't want to quit walking him; I just want to be safer when I do it.  Rather than take chances and depend on training alone, I'm going to be ready for the unexpected.  The Gentle Leader is no substitute for training, just as a seat belt isn't a substitute for a defensive driving course.  But it will help minimize chances of my getting hurt (or my dog getting away) if the surprise squirrel reappears.

I have a friend and former student whose two leashed Great Danes bolted, pulling her off her feet  and slamming her into a car.  She spent months in a body cast.  My advice to her after her accident was to always walk the Danes in Gentle Leaders, "just in case."   Now I'm going to use the same advice.

Training is necessary, but it's not always enough.  Awareness of situations, management, and common sense are all required for responsible dog parenting, and even more so as we age!

For more on Gentle Leaders, check the post I wrote here several years ago.  It explains the system very well.

Monday, January 28, 2013

When "Fetch" starts to hurt

Angus, our two-year-old Lab, is a maniac for "fetch."  He's hard-wired for the job and, like many retrievers, would rather fetch a toy or stick than eat.  He would literally fetch till he dropped.

His enthusiasm is so contagious that we often don't like to stop the game either.  "Okay, one more...just one more....now this is the last one...," etc.  If you've had a ball-crazy dog, you know what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, Angus got "too much of a good thing" a few weeks ago.  After a rousing game of fetch in the snow, he followed me inside and began limping on three legs.  The pain was in his right shoulder; he was avoiding putting any weight on it at all.

Since he was no better the next morning, we took him to the vet.  X-rays and an exam revealed nothing remarkable.  The vet suggested it was either a soft-tissue injury or a chip of cartilage that had broken off and was floating around in his shoulder.  We went home with anti-inflammatories and orders to keep him quiet for three weeks.  If that didn't clear up the problem, he'd be facing arthroscopic surgery to the tune of about $2,000.

Angus ceased limping within a day, and we were all the more concerned that it was a chip.  But we finished our course of prescribed "quiet" and he's had no recurrence.  We haven't started playing fetch again yet either.  When we do, it'll be by a different set of rules.

We'll require him to sit and wait until the object we throw hits the ground.

When a dog takes off at full speed after a flying object, whether it's a Frisbee or a ball, he's often craning his neck to locate it.  He then leaps up into the air, twisting and contorting his body to catch the object, he lands hard on the front end, and he immediately twists back to return the object to the thrower.  If he's a long-legged or heavy-bodied dog, the strain and stress on ligaments, muscles and entire skeletal structure can be devastating, especially with lots of repetitions.

It's dramatic and exciting to see dogs do this; Frisbee dogs are very entertaining.  But when you think of the unnatural stress this activity puts on their bodies, you have to think twice about playing fetch this way with your own dog. You can still exercise his natural instinct and have fun doing it.  Just tone it down so your dog doesn't have to jump, twist in midair, and crash to the ground.  You'll probably extend his fetching days by several years.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stupidity kills dogs

A guy I know just "lost" his second dog in four years.  He didn't really lose them; he allowed them to be killed.

This man was "anti-leash."  Because of that, both dogs are dead.

He had his first dog for a couple years and it met a tragic end.  So he got another one, same breed, which recently met a similar end.

He took both  through classes with me when each dog was about six months old.  I'm not sure why he did that, since he refused to follow my advice, which was, "Use a leash in public" and "Don't allow your dog to run the neighborhood."  These were quick, brilliant dogs, by the way, but I could tell that each of them lived in a state of mental confusion as to what was expected of them and who was in charge.  During training, the man was slow to react when necessary, and he was too harsh when he finally did. Naturally the dogs gave up and quit listening most of the time, and when they did, they behaved with spastic submission.  The man was not cut out for this breed of dog!

The man is a jogger.  I'd repeatedly see him going for his afternoon jogs in the borrow pit alongside the busy highway, his dog-of-the-day ranging way up ahead or way behind him.  I'd cringe each time I saw them, but knew that stopping the car to counsel him was a waste of time.   The message simply wouldn't sink in.  I believe the man did, in some warped way, actually care for his dogs; he took each to work with him every day, and they were sociable with customers.  That's why I can't figure out his refusal to leash his jogging partners, safely contain them at work, or  keep them in a fenced yard when they were at home.

The first dog died because it was running loose, unsupervised, in the guy's workplace parking lot.   A  forklift operator accidentally dumped a load of pallets on her.   A few months later the man procured the second dog, which lived for about three years before getting  hit by a car near his home.  This dog had repeatedly been seen by neighbors, running loose and alone down the middle of the busy, curvy  road.

If these had been human children, the guy would be in jail for manslaughter or negligent parenting or something.  But because they were dogs--and "expendable"--he can just go get another one.  I pray that he does not!

Leashes work miracles
Many of you know Lizzie, my rescued pit bull.  You know how obedient and angelic she is (most of the time).  She could be considered "under voice command" when we're out hiking the backroads, but I prefer to have her on a leash.  It's not just for her safety either.  It's for the additional bonding that happens between us, as she refreshes her memory each time about who's in control and who she should trust with her life.  It's the best "attitude adjustment" exercise in the world.  My dogs are always calmer, more relaxed, and happier at the end of a leashwalk than they are when they come back from running loose in the woods.

Leashes do more than save lives.  They GIVE lives.  A leash allows your dog to accompany you throughout your daily activities, instead of being left at home.  The leash offers safety, security, serenity and reassurance.  It's your dog's key to a more interesting existence...and one less likely to end in tragedy due to human negligence.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beware the Corporate Vet!

My friend Kathryn is a veterinarian at a clinic in a small town far, far away.  When I told her I was looking for a "backup" clinic for our dogs here in  rural Montana, she shared some juicy "inside" information with me on the trend toward corporation-owned vet clinics.

"Steer clear of the corporate clinics," she said.

Oh no, I thought.  I'd just established a relationship with a slick multi-vet clinic in Sandpoint, 70 miles away, primarily because they offered emergency vet services that I couldn't find locally.

Kathryn grimaced when I told her.  She said, "The clinics that have been bought up by major corporations are really focused on profits and quotas.  They push services you might not really need."  Like annual dentals and blood work for every procedure.  It's marketed as "preventive medicine," with the idea that it will SAVE the pet owner money down the line (much like mammograms and colonoscopies for humans).  But....

"If you're a vet in one of these corporate practices, and you don't sell a certain number of dentals every week, for instance, you get called into the office and counseled."

Oh!  My!    Mind you, I have known some independent vets who push services a la carte, and end up selling a lot more stuff to a client than they can pay for (or than they need).  I've never cared for that approach.   But in the corporate world, we're talking about a structured strategy to financially drain the pet owner for the sake of clinic profits.  It makes me think of sleazy car salesmen who have to run back and forth to "the office" to get approvals for the deals they're cutting.  That's now how I want to think of my wonderful vet!

"They [the corporate vets] lay a guilt trip on the client," Kathryn says.  "'You really need to get Fifi's teeth cleaned,' or 'You really need to have this blood panel done.'"  And more clients, she says, tip over immediately because there's no limit to what they'll do (or spend) on the family dog or cat...whether it needs the procedure or not.

Think of yourself (I think of myself) in a vet clinic.  We're so in love with our pets that we become 100 percent vulnerable to the sales tactics of the vet clinic.  We are putty in their hands.  We're afraid to refuse a procedure or test because we may be labeled as uncaring and heartless.  After all, if the vet says we need it, then we need it.  This is a blatant misuse of the doctor/patient relationship, which should be built on trust and honesty, not on corporate profits. When was the last time you asked, beforehand, what the veterinary procedures of the day would cost?  Chances are, you went into the exam room, glassy-eyed, full of love for your pet, and ready to accept whatever bill they presented you when you checked out.

If you think about it, this is the same problem we have with human health costs.  We trust our doctors, we trust our insurance companies, and we know the bills will get paid, by someone or another, eventually.  So we accept our bills without question.

We can all save money these days by educating ourselves about procedures and maladies, and becoming informed patients/clients.  Corporations don't just own vet clinics; they own hospitals too.  If we become more responsible for our own health and our own medical bills, and if we get estimates and explanations up front (before procedures are done), our medical costs--for humans AND pets--will probably go down... a lot!
Is this the heart and soul of your veterinary clinic?

Kathryn told me to look for names like "Banfield" and "VCA Antech" prefacing the names of veterinary clinics. Those are only two of the big ones; there are more.   That, she said, is the indication of whether or not they are corporation owned.  So, for instance, our local "Thompson Falls Veterinary Clinic" would be listed and promoted as "Banfield Thompson Falls Veterinary Clinic."  Fortunately it is NOT.  An independent vet (and independent businesswoman) owns our local clinic and thus is able to operate it the way she wants, rather than fall in lock step with a corporation edict.  Same thing, apparently, with the multi-vet practice in Sandpoint (70 miles away) I use as back-up.

Yakima (where many of my blog readers are) doesn't appear to have any corporation-owned clinics either, nor does Missoula (my current "big neighboring city.")  But Spokane and the Tri-Cities do.

These corporate clinics aren't inherently evil.  They do stress preventive care, and they do have good, licensed veterinarians.  They'll take care of your dog.  But just beware that they will also attempt to sell you services you may not truly need, because they are required to do so by the corporation that has them in shackles.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Proactive or Reactive: Which would YOU trust?

 Look at the two faces pictured below.  Which one does your dog most frequently see in you?  In which one's presence would you (or your dog) feel safer?

"I correct Abby every time she does it, but she keeps on doing it," Linda wailed.  "I hate to keep correcting her all the time!"

Linda was referring to the play-biting her Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy would start whenever she wanted attention.  But Linda could have also been referring to a dog that jumps up on counters, chases deer, lunges at other dogs, or grabs Kleenex out of the waste basket.  While any of these undesirable behaviors can be "fixed" by various methods, the common denominator in them is the human leader.

When Linda waits for Abby to do the bad deed, and then corrects her, Linda is being "reactive." She reacts to the dog's behavior.  The problem with being "reactive" is that the dog quickly learns this is part of the game.  Dog does "X" and owner does "Y."  To him, it's just a routine.

Because the dog already got his gratification by doing "X," and because the dog may not particularly mind the reprimand, the dog decides it's worth it to him to repeat the behavior at another time.

Let's use a steak on a plate as an example:  Your dog is hungry.  He spies a steak sitting on a plate on the edge of the counter.  He jumps up, grabs it, and gobbles it up as you come running over to discipline him.  You're too late.  The satisfaction of gulping down that juicy steak was far greater than his fear of retribution.  Therefore, he'll probably do it again....if you're foolish enough to leave a steak on the edge of the countertop!

A "proactive" approach communicates far better leadership from you.  Here's how you could be proactive in the same situation:  the steak is on the countertop (not because you're baiting your dog but because that's just where you had to put it for the moment).  You're quietly watching from the sidelines as you see your dog's nose twitch.  The dog gets up and walks cautiously over toward the countertop.  Ears are up, nose is still twitching.  You know what he has in mind.  THIS IS THE MOMENT you become a proactive leader.  You step in with a swift "Leave it!" command or a sharp "Aagh!!"  The dog glances at you, knowing he's busted before he even commits the deed.  His ears go back submissively and he slinks back to his resting spot.

NOW YOU ROBUSTLY PRAISE YOUR DOG!  You have just thwarted a dog-crime.You've convinced your dog that...
1.  You can read his mind (and you can).
2.  You are watching him at all times, like the good leader you are.
This message of leadership is far more effective than any "reactive" swat on the tush that may have come AFTER he'd committed the dastardly deed.

In Linda's case, she's going to learn to "read" her dog more carefully.  She'll see the changes in body language and demeanor that tell her Abby's mood is swinging from playful pup to bratty teenager.  She'll learn to intervene and redirect the dog's thoughts and energy BEFORE she becomes bratty.  Regardless of what method she might use to do this, the key ingredient is her observation of Abby and her ability to be "proactive" in her approach.

Even if you haven't served in the military, you're still aware of how important a good leader is to his troops in a combat situation.  Soldiers don't want a leader who aimlessly leads them into a firefight and then reacts defensively when they get shot at.  Soldiers want a leader who will keep them out of the firefight to begin with, or at least keep them on the offense.  That's what a proactive leader does.

Your dog wants to know you're in charge.  Whether he's a Rottie or a Yorkie, he needs to have confidence in your ability to keep him safe.  Without it, he has no choice but to promote himself to a rank higher than yours....and that, of course, is when you begin taking orders from him.  If you wouldn't dream of putting your small children in this role, don't do it to your dog either.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fighting females

I have two Australian Cattle Dogs, both females, that hate each other.  One is about a year old and the other is about three.  The vicious fighting started last year.  They mean business, and we have incurred several large vet bills because they tear each other up.  The fights seem to be over me; when I show attention to one, the other bristles up, and then they'll just explode into a violent fight.  They get along okay during the day when I'm gone, but they can't be in the house together if I am there.  I have to keep one in the bedroom if both are inside.  I feel like I'm walking on eggshells, waiting for a time bomb to go off.  What can I do?

I could give you a long-winded, optimistic reply about how you could modify the behavior over time and get the two to peacefully coexist.  Some trainers would do that.  I won't.  Life is too short, and no one in your household is happy right now with all this tension.  For the sake of everyone, re-home one of the females in an environment that's more suited for her. (i.e., no other females, no cats,  whatever...)

Your situation is not unusual.  You have two strong-willed, same-breed females--tenacious "heelers," no less--and there are serious issues between the two of them.  While the fights probably do start over you, the tension is always under the surface, and you're correct to liken it to a time bomb.  You simply shouldn't have to tiptoe around your own home and dogs, nor should you take the chance that you can affect the behavior sufficiently to make a permanent change.  Certainly there are steps you can do to postpone another violent fight, but the next one could be the worst yet, and will likely occur when you're least expecting it.

Years ago I saw two red female Dobermans, littermates, try to kill each other in my class.  They blew up so  unexpectedly that none of us saw it coming.  The two young dogs had been sitting quietly and obediently next to each other with their owners when they suddenly exploded at each other.  We managed to get them apart, but not before one had torn her sister's ear and left puncture wounds on her muzzle.  The owners then told me this was an ongoing issue; the dogs had hated each other since adolescence, and their fights had resulted in numerous visits to the vet.   We explored various types of behavior modification, ways to mitigate, ways to better expend the dogs' energy, ways to manage them.  Yet I was pessimistic about how much success they would have.  Frankly, I could see the people were not up to the task. It would have been a lot of work, with no guarantees the fights would stop.

Like your situation, each of the dogs was great without the other.  Each was entitled to live a life of peace and low stress, which would not be possible if they lived together.  Careful re-homing may be heartbreaking for you, but it would definitely be in the best interest of the dogs you love.