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Friday, May 6, 2016

My problem with "no kill" shelters

Today I was evaluating Fancy,  a lovely little Rottie mix who'd just come into a shelter in my area over the weekend.  One of the kennel attendants was in the "meet and greet" room with the dog and me, and we were discussing her sweet disposition.  She'd be perfect, I hoped, for an elderly friend who has asked me to help him find a companion dog to replace the boxer he'd recently lost to bone cancer.

Suddenly there was a lot of commotion on the other side of a closed door to an adjacent viewing room.  It was obviously a big dog hurling himself against the door in hopes of getting in to see Fancy.  The kennel attendant looked nervously toward the door and said, "Oh no, I hope Cody doesn't give us any trouble."  Cody was a huge, beautiful American Staffordshire terrier who was on display for the public that day.  He was purportedly a real lover of people, but he apparently had a bad habit of trying to kill every other dog he ever saw.

Just as I was snapping a leash onto Fancy's collar to evaluate her leash manners, the heavy metal door between Cody's viewing room and ours burst open.  In an 80-pound flash of brindle muscle and frenzied snarl, Cody pounced on Fancy and locked onto her jowls.  As he clamped down on her, she screamed and moaned. The attendant and I tried to pull them apart, but to no avail.  She said, "Go get help," so I staggered clumsily to the door, leaned out and yelled "Help!  Help!  Dog fight!"  No one was in the lobby at the time, but within five seconds (which seemed like an eternity) several attendants came running from various directions.  They all descended upon the two fighting dogs, grabbing both and holding on.  One of them stuck a spray can and air horn in Cody's face, but the spray and noise were totally ineffective.  Cody wouldn't let go. The staff asked me to leave the room, so I did, feeling useless and sick.

Within a minute, the noise of the fight was over, and an attendant came out to find me in the lobby.  She apologized profusely for what I had "had to witness."  I told her I was more familiar with the predicament than they could ever realize, and that I fully understood what had just happened.  I asked how they finally got the dogs separated.  She said Cody had eventually eased up in preparation to get a better bite, and that's when they pulled the dogs apart. 

After a few minutes of calm, they let me visit Fancy again in an outdoor kennel.  She'd come through the attack amazingly well, without any lacerations or puncture wounds in her muzzle.  She'd be sore and swollen, and she stunk from having expressed her anal glands, but she was okay.

So here's my heartburn:  I believe Cody should be euthanized rather than put up for adoption.  This behavior is neither normal nor acceptable in any breed, and he is a huge liability for the next owner.  Can his behavior be fixed?  Probably not.  At best, it would be a temporary fix until it was pathologically triggered again.  As lovable as he may be with his people, he's psycho with other dogs.  He is a time bomb, through no fault of his own.  Eventually he will kill another dog, possibly injure a person in the process, and cause deep heartbreak for many people.  Yet this is a no-kill shelter, so Cody could remain there until he finds a new home where he will likely inflict his damage again.

In my 30 years of dog training, I've seen and experienced just about everything in the realm of dog behavior.  I know which behavior modification techniques work and which do not, and I've become brutally realistic about projected outcomes.  Some dogs are easily reformable while others are like the psychotic humans we commit to mental institutions....our human "no-kill shelters."

The goal of this shelter  (which, by the way, is the most outstanding shelter I've ever visited in terms of  facilities, caliber of it workers, and dedication to continued training for its staff and volunteers) is to get all its animals adopted out to "forever homes."  When I voiced my doubts about Cody getting successfully adopted, one of the attendants confidently said, "Oh, he'll get placed.  There's a good home for each one of them."

I beg to differ.  A dog with dangerous, truly abhorrent behavior should not be saved.  Nor should a dog who is critically ill and at risk of spreading its illness to others in the shelter and beyond.  There are WAY TOO MANY really good dogs of all breeds being euthanized all over the country in "kill shelters" due to simple overcrowding and ridiculous, indiscriminate breed ban ordinances.  THIS IS HORRIBLE.  But to keep a known psychopath in a shelter and try to re-home him is equally as wrong.

Some of you who are familiar with my situation know that I chose to have my own dog euthanized due to her escalating aggressive tendencies.  Lizzie was a therapy dog, a great obedience competitor, and an agility champion.  Everyone loved her--most of all, me. But when I saw her senselessly attack and nearly kill an older Lab one day in our front yard, I knew she had crossed the line.The behavior was not normal, nor was it fixable.  To prevent her from inflicting that kind of harm ever again, I had her euthanized that same day.  That was two years ago, and the painful wound in my psyche was re-opened by today's incident.

The term "no kill shelter" may warm the hearts of the naive and beckon them to open their wallets and donate.  But to me, the term sends up red flags.  A shelter should be a place offering temporary safe haven to animals until a responsible and permanent solution can be decided.  If that means one out of 200 dogs should be euthanized, then so be it.  I had my own dog killed, for God's sake!  The memory of that day will haunt me to my death, but my only solace is knowing it was the responsible thing to do.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Curb"...The Most Popular Command of All!

Of all the "word commands" I've taught in my behavior improvement classes over the years, the hands-down favorite of my students has been "Curb."  Back when I was charging semi-big bucks for my classes, I had a woman tell me that the "Curb" command was worth the whole price of the class because "it kept Puddles from climbing into the dishwasher to do the pre-wash cycle."

Well. "Curb" does indeed keep your dog out of your dishwasher.  More importantly, however, it will keep your dog from bolting out a door, gate or car.  It will potentially save his life.  It's also one of the easiest commands you could ever teach your dog.

Picture this:  you're about to go out the front door, and you don't want your dog to bolt out ahead of you.  So you look at him and say, "Listen, Buddy, you can't see it but there's an electronic barrier built into this doorway, and if you cross this barrier without my permission, you're going to get zapped big-time.  Believe me, it's not worth it."

The short version of the above: simply say, "Curb!"

You should be able to teach your dog this concept in less than one minute.  Here's how you do it:
1.  With your dog next to you on a leash, approach a closed door.
2.  Put the leash in your left hand.  Tell the dog to "curb."  Use a stern voice.  Repeat the command several times for emphasis.  As you do this, swing your right hand and arm from one side of the door frame to the other, back and forth, like the pendulum on a clock.  You are "showing and telling" your dog something he may not yet understand, but he soon will.
3.  Make sure your dog's leash is very loose...so loose that he'd be able to sneak out ahead of you if you opened the door right now.
4.  Repeat the "curb" command (and signal) once more, studying your dog's reaction to it.  (He will probably be ignoring you because he is fixated on the door that is about to open.  This is okay!)
5.  Holding the long, loose leash in your left hand, open the door with your right hand and proceed to walk through it.  As you do this, look down at the threshold and your dog's feet.  You are expecting him to move forward through the door.  Let him start. Do NOT hold him back!
6.  If/when the dog's front feet cross the threshold (which is the "barrier" you were trying to show him), say "NO!" or "AAGGH!"as you jerk him back or bump him back with your legs. Quickly close the door (if there is one) and start over. Immediately repeat the command and signal using an even sterner voice. Study your dog's body language.  He should look startled, somewhat bewildered, maybe even mildly alarmed.
7. Now show and tell him to curb again, open the door, monitor the threshold and proceed to walk through the door.  If your dog once again breaches the line with his front feet, correct him back again (with even more shock and awe), and once more repeat the command to curb. Your aim is not to hurt your dog, but rather to startle him into thinking about the gravity of that new word he's just learned.
8. The third time you open the door, you should see your dog choose to stand clear of the threshold, looking submissively at you and waiting for further directions.  He may even back up or glance sideways when you say the word. At this point you know your dog is thinking (instead of simply reacting) and making a conscious choice to do the safest thing, which is to remain behind the curb line you have established.
9.  At this point, immediately move back into the room to your dog and praise him lavishly!  Tell him "Good curb!" and let him know he did the right thing.
10.  Now, try it again. You're simply reinforcing now, and chances are you'll have success without any correction.  Your dog will stand there looking at you and waiting for your next cue.  When you come back to him, you'll see his ears dip back and he'll probably do a sweet, submissive little wiggle that says, "I did it right, didn't I?"  Praise him!

You've just taught your dog the main concept of "Curb," which is, "Remain behind this line until I tell you to do something else."  You have used the element of surprise to make your very first correction meaningful.  You showed your dog that there are immediate, clear, predictable consequences for actions.  Your dog will never forget this lesson because it's as indelibly etched in his brain as if he'd bumped into an electric fence.

You could use the above scenario for curbing your dog inside while you momentarily step outside to retrieve a UPS package left on your front porch...or while setting a bag of garbage outside the back door.  In each situation, you return across the curb line to your dog.

Now, let's say you and your dog are both going out the door.   He's pushy and wants to get out the door ahead of you.   Here's how you handle that situation:
1.  Curb your dog as described in the section above.
2.  Leave the dog and step across the curb line.
3.  Once you have gotten out ahead of your dog and are ready to release him to go with you, simply give him an "Okay!" and invite him to come across the line to you.  At this point, have the leash in your hand so you can give him a friendly little tug toward you if he is hesitant to cross the line.  Reward as he come to you and continue on your way.

This technique can also be used when you're getting your dog out of the car.  If he rides in the back seat, you must first get out of the car.  Next, stand outside his closed door and tell him to "Curb."  Slowly and carefully open the door, grab your dog's leash, and then release him out of the car with an "Okay!"

Some rules about the use of "curb"
  • Always say "Curb" BEFORE you open the door or gate, or before you cross the line yourself. This puts your dog on alert and can prevent an unsafe escape.
  • Always be ready to correct sharply if your dog's toes cross the line before you release him.
  • Your dog need not be at the door when you curb him.  If he's playing in the room, you can go to the door, tell him to "curb," and then just leave.  He can continue playing, as long as he does not cross the curb line.
  • Only use "curb" when you are there to enforce it.  Don't expect it to replace a fence or actual gate.  Use it when you can keep an eye on your dog to make sure he does it right.
  • When possible, try to use a visual "line of demarcation" on the floor.  A change in surface (i.e., from carpet to tile) is a good curb line, primarily because it helps you know precisely when to correct the dog.  If you correct the dog too soon or too late, he will become confused and frustrated, and learning will stop.
  • Start by practicing "curb" on small doorways and passages that are easily defined by both you and the dog.  Next, graduate to less specific and larger openings, like garage doors or corral fencing.  As long as you indicate with a verbal command and a pendulum arm signal, your dog will have the idea that he must not cross the invisible line drawn by your hand.
  • Be as firm and consistent with your corrections whether it's a critical curb or a convenience curb.  The dog must know there are always negative consequences when he breaks a curb line.

Is this cruel or harsh training?
It's real-life learning. Some of the most important safety lessons we ever learn are etched in our mind because of immediate negative consequences.  Put your hand on a hot stove and get burned.  Grab and electric fence and get shocked.  Exceed the speed limit and get a big ticket.  These lessons potentially save our lives too.

Why "curb" instead of "stay"?
Whenever possible, give the command that is easiest for you to enforce and easiest for the dog to do.  When you say "Stay," you should be asking him to freeze in his current position and not move until you release him. That's usually more restrictive than necessary.  You are also obligating yourself to strictly enforcing that "stay" command once you give it. "Curb," on the other hand, simply tells him he can do whatever he wants, as long as he doesn't cross the line.  Which is less restrictive to the dog? Which is easier for you to enforce?  It's "curb," of course.

Why not say "Wait"?
Personal preference.  I prefer "curb" because it sounds a bit stronger, a bit more intimidating.  But I've had many students who chose "Wait" because they'd already introduced their dogs to a similar concept with this word.  Whatever you choose, be consistent.

Ways to use "curb" around the house:

  • At the tops and bottoms of stairs to keep your dog from tripping you.
  • Inside when you are going in and out the sliding patio door checking your barbecue grill.
  • Keeping your dog out of your immediate cooking area in the kitchen.
  • Keeping your dog from jumping into your car before you've cleared a place for him to sit.
  • Keeping your dog in the mud room until you can grab a towel to wipe his muddy feet.
  • Keeping your dog from crowding the front door when someone rings the doorbell.
  • Keeping your dog out of the kitchen while you're washing the floor.
  • Keeping your dog backed up away from the dishwasher when you're loading it!

Ways to use "curb" away from home:
  • When you and the dog are approaching the door of a commercial establishment.  Seeing your dog "curb" will let everyone know your dog is trained and well behaved.
  • Getting your dog in and out of the gates at a dog park.
  • Getting off an elevator with your dog.
  • Preventing your dog from jumping out of your RV into an unsafe situation.
  • Preventing your dog from jumping from the back seat into the front seat when you are driving.

Use it 50 times a day whether you need to or not
Don't wait for the "really important times" to use this command.  Use it regularly, every time your dog is following you  through doorways in your home.  Use it every time you're getting your dog in or out of the car, his crate, or his backyard kennel.

Your dog likes it too
The "curb" command, used frequently and responsibly, will make your dog feel secure in your presence, because he knows you're watching him.  Our dogs are constantly looking for meaningful employment with us, so consider this a "job" you can give them many times a day.  They'll be willing workers, finding gratitude in the mere opportunity to please you.

More important than "Come!"
Even a dog who is trained to come when called may fail the exercise when he escapes out the front door and runs wildly down the street.  If he is taught to respect the curb command at the door, the  incident will never happen in the first place.  Prevention--with the curb command--is the best medicine of all!

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.