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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Old dogs lead the way for us

It's 3:15  on a warm summer morning in 2006. Something awakens me.  The sound of the breeze through the open windows?  The faint bark of a small neighbor dog down the road? Maybe just the overall peacefulness in this room. 

I'll get up for a drink of water.  I listen before swinging my legs out of bed.  He's down there on the floor in the blackness, next to me, and the last thing I want to do is bump him and disturb the peace he's finally demonstrating by his stillness. 

It took him a long time to get settled tonight.  Arthritis and the stress of aging are taking their toll.  Lots of restlessness, heavy panting, turning in circles, groaning as he finally flops down, and then getting up and starting the whole process over again.  It's the same procedure I go through when I'm trying to get my pillows adjusted "just right."  Sometimes there simply is no "just right,” and attempts to improve a situation just lead to frustration and more restlessness.

But he's quiet now, finally.  I can hear his deep, rhythmic breathing.  I reach an arm down to gently locate his positioning and determine where his head is and where his legs are.  My hands make contact with a body that feels almost foreign to me.  So different from what I've felt for most of the past 11 years with him!  I touch his hip...or is it his shoulder?   The hair is shorter, sparser, courser these days.  His body has lost so much of its muscle tone and definition that I can't even tell which quarter of him I'm feeling!  I can identify nearly every bone directly under the skin.  My hands slide up his body until I locate his neck, that one area still so soft and plush and full, and I gently massage the skin for a moment before finally getting the courage to lower my legs to the floor.  I know where he is now, and can get up without disturbing him.  As my feet land and I stand up, I realize, ironically, that he is so restful at this moment that hardly anything could disturb him.  These days, when he's out, he's really out.  I could have stepped on him and he'd scarcely stir.  For that, I am grateful.

He's leaving me.  He's fading away, ever so slowly.  It's more than just muscle tone.  It's his mind, too.  While generally healthy, he's also very elderly.  His cognitive abilities are decreasing.  He hears selectively, if at all.  His priorities have changed.  Meals and naps are his main interests.  He must get up now, almost every night, and be let outside to go to the bathroom.  Negotiating the doggy door by himself is difficult, so we patiently get up to help him whenever he needs it.  This is the least we can do, in exchange for 11 wonderful years of his service to us as a watchdog,  award-winning athlete,  and companion extraordinaire. 

The aging process is so humbling, and yet so graceful and natural.  Our dogs teach us what to expect for ourselves, and how to tolerate our own  "winding down" experience.  They say, "Accept yourself.  Enjoy what you can.  Wherever you are, be all there.  Each day and each moment is a gift to be relished to the fullest extent.  Become childlike again."

My old dog is still slumbering as I return to bed.  Once again, I reach down to locate him.  I stroke his front leg, down to a big paw which I cradle in my hand for a moment.  I think about all the hundreds of miles of mountain trails and dog show parking lots those paws have negotiated with me.  About all the motel rooms and travel adventures we've shared.  About all the unusual and challenging things I've asked those paws to do for me over the years.  And about how faithful and unwavering they have been in their devotion to me.

For most of his life, I was my dog's teacher.  Now he teaches me.  Age gracefully, and with gusto.  Be proud of a life well lived.  Look forward to an eternity of exploring the universe. 

Rest well this night, my old friend. And thank you for showing me the way.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Safer stairs with "Puppy Treads"

It took only a few years for our dogs' toenails to do a number on our beautiful hardwood stairs, installed in 2007.  My husband was planning to refinish them this summer.

And then.....and then....and then along came Puppy Treads, a new product  designed to protect stairs from wear while making them a zillion times safer for dogs and people.

Actually, the company contacted me to see if I'd like to try the product and write an independent review on my blog.  I was skeptical but said, "Sure!" and a week later I received a complementary box of 15 Puppy Treads to test on my own stairs.    WOW!!  Now, instead of refinishing stairs, my hubby will have time to go fishing this summer!  We're both amazed at the quality of these thing!

Puppy Treads are made by the same company that makes the folding pet ramps (which we've also used for getting infirmed or geriatric dogs in and out of our vehicles). The company is "Handi-Ramp," and they make a complete line of quality home and commercial safety products.  Puppy Treads are apparently one of their newest products, and they are sure to catch on in a big way as people discover how great they are.

Here's what a Puppy Tread looks like: it's 6" x 24" (although they come in other sizes as well).  It's a flexible, thin type of textured vinyl with a paper backing that you peel off when you're setting them in place on your steps.  The backside isn't tacky; there's no sticky residue and absolutely no mess.  I don't really know what keeps them in place, but they really stay put, without marring the wood surface of the step in any way. Puppy Treads come in three colors: black, gray, and translucent, which is what I chose.  When I first installed them,  I thought the translucent ones would detract from the sheen and color of the rest of the steps, but with a few weeks of use they have blended right in.  And they haven't budged since I laid them in place.  (By the way, installation took me all of five minutes!)

I haven't even tried to peel them up and have no reason or desire to do so.  However, the product literature claims they will leave no stain or marks whatsoever.  I placed mine on the very edges of the steps, where the dogs' nails had dug in and worn into the tread.  Now I feel those steps are completely protected from the traffic of two rambunctious Labs and one bulldog.

Besides being attractive and protective "Band-aids" for our steps, they've also given us peace of mind.  Our bulldog has been known to stumble and tumble down to breakfast when he first wakes up, and both our Labs have had orthopedic surgeries.  So we're anxious to make our stairs safe for them.  Puppy Treads are providing that increased safety.  When I first installed them, the dogs thought they should step around the treads.  Since then, they've discovered how comfy and secure the treads feel under their paws, so now they aim for the Puppy Treads as they're going up and down the stairs.

It's worth mentioning that this is a great people product too.  My husband and I are both active seniors, living with the typical aches, pains and stiffness associated with aging.  I love negotiating these steps and feeling the grippy Puppy Treads under my bare feet.  I'm not going to slip on these!

Thus far, keeping them clean has been a cinch.  I have used the vacuum and broom on them, and the dog hair and dust come off with ease.

Puppy Treads also work on vinyl and tile flooring.  My mind is spinning as I'm thinking of other innovative ways I can use this handy traction footing for both the dogs and the people in our household. If you'd like to try Puppy Treads yourself,and get a 10% discount, contact the company at http://www.handi-ramp.com. Enter a discount code of BLOG2015 to receive a site-wide 10% discount!

I'd like to thank the Puppy Treads folks for sending me this product to test.  I highly recommend them.  They are not cheap, but they are affordable quality.  When you consider the cost of refinishing stairs, or mending a hip or other broken bone caused yb a fall on slippery steps, the cost of Puppy Treads is downright irresistible!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Expand your dog's bubble!

When I get a new dog, I make an immediate and automatic commitment to begin training and keep it up for the rest of the dog's life with me.  The sooner I start the basics, the sooner I'll be able to relax and enjoy my new dog, instead of wondering what she'll find next to chew up, or where she'll decide to go potty in the house.

Since I don't have huge blocks of time that I can dedicate to getting the training done, I have to incorporate it into my own daily routine of living.  I get lots more training done this way than I do if I try to set aside 20 minutes a day to "drill" on obedience exercises.  I'm lucky if I get five minutes to do that each day.

So my dog learns "on the go."  She goes with me everywhere it's practical and safe to take her.  She got her Doggy Boot Camp basics at home on a leash, and now we practice those basics (paying attention, walking nicely on a leash, sitting, lying down, staying on command, and coming when called) in the real world.  It "generalizes" the behaviors she learned at home; that is, she learns that expectations for her behavior are the same wherever we are, whether it's in the house or in a strange parking lot.

Lots of people leave their dogs at home because they're difficult in public.  I call these "snow globe dogs" because they live in a protected bubble and never get to experience the thrills of going to PetsMart, playing fetch at family reunions, or enjoying their human's company at a sidewalk bistro.  These folks often think that bringing their dog to a group obedience class will solve the problem and improve the dog's social behavior.  Granted, the social contact with new dogs and people in a new environment will help. But what will you do when the class ends?

Don't expect your dog's behavior in public to improve UNTIL YOU TAKE YOUR DOG INTO THE PUBLIC VENUE.  Yes, it may feel awkward the first few times you try to walk your dog around a Costco parking lot.  But each time you do, the task will become easier because your dog will be more relaxed.  Everyone's excited in a new environment.  Once the environment becomes familiar, the anxiety diminishes...and the experience will be much more enjoyable for both of you.

I take my dog on "educational field trips."  We'll drive up to get the mail.  We'll walk around the grocery store parking lot for five minutes before I do my shopping.  We'll practice obedience exercises in the aisles at Lowe's, where she can be distracted by forklifts, friendly employees, and little kids. Every time I get her in and out of the car, we're practicing safety techniques.  Every time a semi whizzes by us on the highway, we're desensitizing her to "the world."  We're expanding her bubble.

Wherever my dog accompanies me, she's sharing my own protective bubble.  It's my job to keep her there.  But my bubble moves in all directions, so my lucky little Dolly gets to explore the entire world with me.  I want her at my side.  That's why I got her.

Expand your own dog's bubble too.  Next time you're going to the dump or the feed store or the grocery store, take the dog.  Practice good behavior getting in and out of the car. Always require good manners.  Saunter into PetsMart and encourage your dog to be polite, even if the other dogs in there act like idiots. 
 The "real world" is the best training classroom for your dog!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The next "best thing"

Just when you think you've already had your best adventure, best love, best meal, best dog, or best anything....another one comes along.  That's the great surprise of life.  It keeps getting better.  The next "best anything" is right around the corner.  You can't see it, but you can believe it's there, waiting.

There have been times lately, as I age, that I've felt the best is behind me.  I've accomplished a lot of lifetime goals but have recently experienced this "Well, now what?" feeling of dead-endness, with no more particular goals to anticipate.

But two things recharged my life in 2014 and showed me there indeed is more ahead.  One was my trip to Iceland, where I established a whole new circle of friends and a kinship with another country.

The other was the "new dog."

That's the magic of dogs.  You get one, and you've just taken on a potentially 15-year project involving another heartbeat in your own house.  Sometimes you have the luxury of carefully picking one you think will fit into your pack and lifestyle.  Other times, they just fall out of the sky and onto your porch, and you resign yourself to "making do" with however they turn out.  Either way, of course, the responsibility of how they turn out is in your hands and no one else's. And that's the part that secures your own future, as well as theirs.  The new dog is going to be your work in progress; he's your reason to set goals and to dream about your future together.

Last year when I rescued Milo, my little bulldog mix, I was sure I'd finally found my "heart dog."  He's my beloved Teddy reincarnated into a smaller package...Teddy was a Rottweiler.

Milo is still a dream come true, even though he turned out to not be an agility dog.  Neither was Teddy.  Both were too mellow.  They were both designed to lower blood pressure and impart serenity to those around them.  That's a very important job, but it doesn't have much to do with the sport of agility.

The new dog, however, has carved her own place in my heart in the short month I've had her.  Usually it doesn't take that long, but I was resistant.  After all, I'd recently lost Lizzie, my long-time agility partner, and come to terms with the fact that dear, sweet Milo was NOT going to be my next agility dog.  With emotions stretched over these two issues, I started searching for a new dog to fill the gap in agility as well as in our household pack.  When I found Dolly on Petfinder.com, I selected her for purely practical reasons.  She fit all the criteria.  Angus and Milo liked her, she was playful and friendly, and she was agile.  She'd do.

Now, a month later, she's nestled at my feet under the desk.  She stares up at me with calm but expectant brown eyes, telling me she's most secure when I'm within her sight and she's ready to do whatever I want her to do next. She's won my heart, not by virtue of cuteness (she's just a plain mixed-breed black dog) but with her mind. Our personalities have synched.  Having this power and this effect over any other living creature is almost scary.  If I am insignificant to every other person in the world, I am still everything in this dog's eyes. 

The responsibility and challenge that accompanies this devotion is intimidating.  This dog would do anything for me, provided she understands what it is I want.  Therefore, it's up to me, totally, to teach her the right signals.  She will only be as good a dog as I am a trainer.  Am I up to the task?  Do I deserve her?  She has championship potential as an agility dog, but do I know enough to develop her that way?  Can I move well enough to do her justice?

Therein lies the big-picture benefit to having a new dog.  She requires me to stay fit, to exercise, to keep my weight down, to guard my health, to keep educating myself, and to continue striving.  She requires me to live healthfully for at least another 14 years.  Because of that, there's no telling what other pleasant life surprises will be waiting for me within that time span and beyond. 

And, since she obviously isn't the "best" dog I'll ever have, I'll have to stay ready for the next one, which undoubtedly will be...until the one after that.

Get a dog.
Set goals.
Earn what your dog wants to give you.

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.