Category Archives: About Us

What’s in a Name?

I love naming dogs. There’s a lot that goes into a name, and it’s often one of the first things we do when we bring a dog into our family.

I’ve named my fair share of dogs. Working in shelters and rescue for years, it became a regular task. Litters of puppies were oftentimes the most fun, because we would work from a theme. It could be music (Adagio, Forte, Pianissimo, Solo) or chocolates (Godiva, Ghirardelli, Hershey, Cadbury), but every puppy got their own name. Whether it was Link and Zelda, the Shar Pei pups, or Emily Dickenson, the sweet Pit Bull, the name was often one of the first connections that potential adopters made with their dog.

Photo by bivoir on flickr.

Photo by bivoir on flickr.

Naming a homeless dog and naming your own dog are two very different things. I learned early on in my rescue career that unique names were important for shelter dogs. There may be twenty black Lab mixes named Buddy on Petfinder, but there was probably only one named Baloo, and Magpie would stick out in a crowd of Maggies. Choosing a name that would invite questions, laughter, or interest was one of the best things we could do to help our homeless dogs find their forever home faster.

When I started fostering my dog Trout, she was known as Lucy Lu. It was a cute name, but she got much more attention as Trout, the homeless puppy who was abandoned on a trout farm. She also got a forever home with me, and I quickly renamed her Mischief.

Names have a habit of sticking, though, and I should’ve known that this would happen with her. After all, it had already happened with Layla. When I adopted Layla, I wanted quite badly to change her name. She already knew Layla, though, and would wriggle when she heard it. She’d had so much upheaval in her short little life that I couldn’t bring myself to change one more thing, so her name stuck.

Trout’s name stuck too, as much as I wanted to change it to Mischief. All of my friends and my boyfriend (whom she had decided was her forever person, regardless of what the adoption papers might say) already knew her as Trout, and they continued to call her by that name. I was one of a handful of people who called her Mischief.

Surprisingly, this worked out in our favor. Trout became her everyday name, her around-the-house name, and she responded well to it. Mischief, however, became her attention cue. Since she only heard that name when she and I were training, it worked as a homing beacon to bring her lasering in on whatever was coming next.

There’s a lot that goes into naming your dog. The first considerations are practical. Is the name easy to say and spell? Naming your dog Maquoketa after the town where his breeder was located insures that no one else will have the same name, but also pretty much guarantees that you’ll spend his whole life saying “it’s pronounced mah-koh-kah-da.” The length is also a bit clumsy. Four syllables is a mouthful when you’re trying to belt out a quick recall cue as your dog races towards a busy road.

Another important consideration is the uniqueness of the name you choose. Does it sound like anyone else’s name in your close circle of family and friends? One friend was surprised to figure out that her dog Kayla had a difficult time distinguishing her own name from the neighbor’s Bloodhound, Beulah. The “la” sounds at the end of the name were too close, and caused a lot of confusion. You should also decide whether you’re okay using a more popular dog name or whether you want your dog to be more unique. There are hordes of tiny, fluffy dogs name Gizmo or Gidget, but Grizzle or Gretel are less common. I used to groom Gwenivere and Galahad, and always got excited to see their names on my schedule. I was happy to see Sophie the Cocker Spaniel on my grooming schedule too, but always wondered which of the handful of Sophies was on the books until the actual dog showed up.

Think about the personality of your dog’s name and the impression it may make on others. It’s a cruel irony that I’ve met more one-eyed, three-legged dogs named Lucky than any other name, and have had several Angels come to me for help with severe aggression issues. Cujo may be a funny name for your well-trained Maltese, but naming your Pit Bull Lucifer just serves to reinforce an already unjust and unfair bias against the breed in people who don’t know how awesome they can be. Words have power, so choose a name for your dog that won’t cause others to subconsciously dislike your dog before they even meet him or her.

Finally, choose a name that actually fits your dog. Every dog is an individual with his or her own unique personality, and I’m strongly in favor of getting to know your dog as an individual for a few days or a week before settling on a name. Corndog was a fine name for a sweet, silly hound puppy whom I fostered, but would have been downright insulting for the dignified old Chihuahua dame who came after that. Apple, Mowgli, and Kip were a series of Rat Terrier fosters who each spent at least 24 hours in my care before receiving names, although I knew right away that Paddington Bear was the right moniker for the gentle giant of a senior Lab who came into my care after his stray hold was up.

Ultimately, your dog’s name is going to be one of his first and last connections to you. It will be one of the first things he learns, so choose a name that you can say gently and kindly. Choose a name that will make his eyes sparkle and his tail wave gently when he hears it, and then say it frequently and with great love. Say it for years and years, and when the time is right, whisper it to your dog as he leaves his old and worn body behind for whatever comes next. Make it an incantation, imbued with the life and the love and the memories that have transformed it from a shiny new thing to a powerful invocation of your time together.

How did you choose your dog’s name? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

When Jumping isn’t Friendly

In our last blog, we discussed how to deal with dogs who jump up in a friendly manner. Most dogs who jump up on people do so out of excitement or greeting. However, there are also other reasons why dogs may jump, and it’s helpful to be able to discriminate between friendly jumping and these other reasons. Let’s discuss some less common reasons that dogs may jump up on people.

While jumping is generally friendly, some dogs will also jump on people as a way to communicate. The character of this behavior is very different. Communication can have a couple different goals. Sometimes, dogs will jump as a way to communicate their discomfort with your proximity. Other times, dogs will jump up to ask you for help. So, how can you tell the difference between friendly jumping and jumping as communication? It’s all about context.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away.

Friendly? Not in the least! Layla is uncomfortable and wants Crystal to move further away. Photo by Brian Thompson.

Distance-increasing jumping, also sometimes referred to as height seeking, is displayed when a dog is uncomfortable with you and wants you to give her space. This may initially appear friendly or may seem frantic, but ultimately it’s important to respect the dog’s discomfort and move away (or move the dog away from the other person if you’re her owner). Dogs who jump in this way may be more forceful in the way they bounce off your body than a dog who simply wants to be stroked or greeted. They will have a closed mouth and tight face. If you attempt to pet a dog who is jumping up in a distance-increasing manner, she may jump even more forcefully, perhaps even punching you with her muzzle, or may skitter away so that you can’t touch her.

Distance-increasing jumping is usually a sign of a dog who feels anxious or conflicted about your presence. Layla is a great example of a dog who jumps in this manner. While she enjoys meeting people, she does not like to be touched, and is often very anxious that new people will try to pet her. When she meets someone new, she will stress up, bouncing around with a high, quickly wagging tail. Her pupils dilate, and if the person attempts to pet her she will bounce off their belly forcefully (we jokingly call this the “double-ovary punch,” but it’s no joke to the person who’s on the receiving end of her punches).

If your dog jumps in a distance-increasing manner, it’s a clear plea for help. Jumping in this way means that your dog isn’t comfortable in the social situation she’s found herself in and needs your help getting out of that situation. In Layla’s case, I keep her on a leash or behind a gate when first introducing her to new people. Once she’s calmed down I allow her more freedom, but not until after instructing the new person not to pet her unless she requests that attention by sitting or lying down next to them and leaning in. Layla usually prefers to sniff new people with a low, softly wagging tail while they ignore her or verbally acknowledge her without trying to touch her in any way. After meeting them, she will relax and lie near them. Knowing that I will not let strangers touch her has gone a long way towards relieving Layla’s social anxiety and preventing her from bouncing off new people.

Other than distance-increasing jumping, some dogs will also jump up to ask their owner or another person they trust for help. This is most frequently seen at the dog park, vet clinic, or other unfamiliar social situations. If your dog jumps up on you in these situations and either paws at you, tries to climb your body to get in your arms, or stretches upwards and keeps their paws on your body while looking at your face, they are probably asking for help.

If your dog jumps on you to ask for help in a situation that makes him uncomfortable, it’s important to respond proactively to him. Ignoring his pleas for help will teach him that you are unreliable in those situations and that he has to take matters into his own paws, which often results in a dog who lunges, growls, snaps, or bites in situations that make him uncomfortable. Remember, dogs don’t just “get over” issues, and exposure alone is not the same as socialization. If you teach your dog that you will help him get out of uncomfortable situations he will be more likely to look to you for guidance in the future. Be a trustworthy presence in your dog’s life.

While less common than friendly jumping, height-seeking and pleas for help are both legitimate reasons for dogs to jump on people. Understanding your dog’s attempt at communication is one of the best ways to get control of this jumping, as training alone likely won’t resolve these kinds of jumping unless the underlying emotional insecurity is addressed at the same time.

Why does your dog jump up? Please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.

Roadwork

Roadwork involves training your dog to trot alongside a bike, golf cart, or other vehicle. Bicycle roadwork is required for the Schutzhund AD (endurance test) for a distance of 12.5 miles, but even dogs who will never compete in Schutzhund may enjoy learning to do roadwork. Roadwork can be a great way to keep up with an active dog who requires lots of physical exercise.

Photo by Andrew Kurjata

Photo by Andrew Kurjata

It’s important not to start roadwork until a dog’s growth plates have closed completely (at about 18 months of age for most dogs), and to train the foundation behaviors well before starting for safety. This activity is best for structurally sound dogs who are under good verbal control and do not have any desire to chase vehicles.

First of all, a dog must understand how to walk nicely on leash without pulling. Teach your dog that he only gets to go forward when the leash is slack by stopping every time the leash gets tight.

Next, condition your dog to wear a comfortable harness. This is important for safety, since if either your dog or you should “wipe out” you don’t want him wearing a regular collar and potentially injuring his neck. The harness you select should have a spot for the leash to attach over the dog’s shoulders. No-pull harnesses or other devices aren’t appropriate for roadwork. To get your dog used to wearing the harness, put the harness on prior to feeding meals for about a week, then take it off when your dog is done eating. Begin using it on regular leash walks until your dog is happy and comfortable wearing it.

Finally, teach your dog the “whoa” and “leave it” cues. These are important safety cues.

“Whoa” means “stop immediately.” Start using it on walks by saying “whoa,” then stepping in front of your dog to stop his forward motion. Click and treat when he pauses. Gradually fade how far you need to step in front of him before he stops, until he is stopping on the verbal cue alone. Once he’s reliable with this, introduce the “whoa” cue at higher speeds, such as when you are power-walking, jogging, or running.

“Leave it” means “that’s not your’s” and can be used when your dog shows interest in sniffing, chasing the bunny that just ran across your path, or snatching up some tasty roadkill. “Leave it” is a basic obedience command that is taught in most training programs.

If using a bike, make sure that you wear a helmet. An attachment specifically made to hook your dog to the bike, such as the Springer or WalkyDog, is highly recommended. If using a car or golf cart, choose a sturdy 6′ leash (you’ll have to roll down the driver’s side window if using a car).

Be careful about where you run your dog. Running on pavement is hard on a dog’s joints and can cause his paw pads to become torn or worn away. Dirt or grass is best. Abandoned country roads, flat fields, bike paths, or empty parking lots are all possible places to do roadwork. In the beginning stages, check your dog’s paw pads and toenails regularly for wear and tear, and only work for short distances. Consider when you run your dog as well, paying attention to potentially hazardous weather.

When you first introduce your dog to roadwork, start off slowly. Make sure your dog is running far enough away from your vehicle that his feet are far, far away from the wheels. If he runs too close to you at first, utilize a second person to run alongside him on the opposite side as the vehicle and reward him for maintaining distance. You can even have your helper put him on a second leash if necessary. Dogs should be 4′ – 6′ away from the wheels for any motorized vehicle (such as golf carts).

Your dog’s safety should always be your number one concern, and if your dog ever begins to show any inclination to chase or bite at the wheels, pull on leash, or engage in any other behavior that may be dangerous, it is your responsibility to immediately stop doing roadwork and re-assess your dog’s suitability for this activity.

Dogs love running. However, keep your dog at a trot the majority of the time you are doing roadwork. While it’s okay to occasionally go a bit faster if your pooch enjoys it, trotting is the best speed for safety and conditioning. Make sure to warm him up and cool him down during each session.

For active, well-trained dogs, roadwork can be a lot of fun and is also a great source of conditioning and exercise. My dogs enjoy doing roadwork alongside a bike on local bike paths in the summer, and alongside the car on abandoned dirt roads in the spring and fall.

Have you ever done roadwork with your dog? Share in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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Lions suffocate things. Tigers sever the spinal cord. Dogs rip crap apart.

- Ken McCort

“Get to” or “Have to”?

As a culture, we tend to view tasks that need to be done in two different ways. There are “get to” tasks, those that we enjoy and that we look forward to, and there are “have to” tasks, which we do because they need to be done but which we don’t look forward to in the least.

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

Get to or have to? Dobby loved heeling. Photo by Kelvin Andow

This mental dichotomy starts early, and only gets more pronounced as we age. Much of adulthood is made up of “have to” tasks. We “have to” go to work, pay taxes, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, and go to bed at a decent hour so that we can get enough sleep. Those of us who are lucky also have lots and lots of “get to” tasks, but ultimately we are meant to see adulthood as quite a bit of “have to.”

The difference between “get to” and “have to” tasks all has to do with motivation. “Get to” tasks are reinforcing in and of themselves. They’re enjoyable, which is why we look forward to them. “Have to” tasks, on the other hand, are reinforcing only in the sense of relief we feel when they’re done. Finishing a “have to” task feels good, because there’s a sense of completeness. Until the “have to” task has been finished, it looms over our head.

Sadly, our society often views “get to” tasks as somehow less important than “have to” tasks. Our culture places great significance on doing the Responsible Thing, which is equated with something unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m a bit of an outlier in that my day-to-day work is made up of “get tos” rather than “have tos.” The very fact that I’m excited to start my day with blog writing, email responses, book keeping, and client appointments makes me a freak.

Dog training also tends to be divided into a “get to” VS. “have to” mentality. We want our dogs to understand that they absolutely must come when we call them, walk nicely on leash, urinate outside, and greet others appropriately. They may get to learn agility, perform tricks, or participate in other “softer” things, but basic manners training is often approached in much the same way we approach education for our children. In both cases, any use of force or coercion is justified as a necessity so that the learner understands that life is made up out of “have to” moments and that disobedience or thinking outside the box is out of the question.

But is this really the best way?

Research has shown that we can achieve our end results either way. Both the use of remote (electronic shock) collars and the use of reward-based training using treats and toys were equally effective in curing dogs of livestock chasing. Dogs trained using clicker methods are equally as reliable in performing complex service and guide tasks as those trained using traditional choke collar corrections. Children who are given a chance to follow their passion, explore their interests, and learn in a collaborative classroom environment are every bit as successful in their academic endeavors (and their careers throughout their lives) as children who are given a traditional compulsory education.

As a culture, I think it feels uncomfortable for us to explore these facts because there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance present. Growing up, responsibility was often equated with “have to” moments for most of us, and the fact that we can achieve our goals without compulsion therefore flies in the face of everything we were told. I’m here to tell you that it is possible, and it is okay if that idea makes you feel uncomfortable. Isn’t a little mental discomfort an acceptable price to pay for not having to hurt, intimidate, or compel those we love?

Reward-based training – the kind of training and behavior modification Paws Abilities employs in all of our classes and private consultations – is all about providing your dog with “get to” opportunities. It’s about building a common language between you and your dog so that the two of you can collaborate as partners to tackle any problem or challenge. It’s about joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Done well, it’s also not only as effective as any “have to” method, but more effective.

Reward-based training is the difference between a reliable recall and a reliable and joyful recall. Any training method out there, followed religiously, will result in a dog who will come when you call them away from any distraction. Training methods wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t work, so whether you use rewards such as treats, toys, and Premack moments or use a more traditional method such as a remote collar, long line attached to a metal (choke or prong) collar, or walking your dog down, regular practice and consistency will give you results.

The difference between the methods is how your dog feels at the moment you call. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement respond instantly with great joy, excited that they get to perform a recall. Dogs trained with methods based on punishment or negative reinforcement respond instantly because they understand that they have to come to prevent unpleasant consequences from occurring. The end result is the same – a dog who spins on a dime and races to his owner – but the emotional baggage is very, very different.

I want to emphasize that last point, the end result. I often hear from people who say that reward-based training didn’t work for their dog because they rewarded a few recalls with treats or toys and their dog still didn’t develop a reliable recall until they employed the use of aversives. Because “get to” moments were so rare (or even nonexistent) in many of our educations, we seem to deeply distrust them as a culture, and that shows in responses such as these. Reward-based training, done properly, absolutely works as well as compulsive training: study after scientific study has proven this. Throwing a few treats at a behavior without proofing it and building up to high-level distractions isn’t good training, and it’s therefore every bit as likely to fail as improper use of a remote collar or long line method.  The problem lies not in the method itself, but in your application of that method.

The take-home message here is pretty cool, in that it opens up a whole new world of possibility. We can teach those who rely on us without resorting to force or intimidation. We can help to shape their world into one of exploration and wonder. We can transform every day into a stream of delightful “get to” moments in which they can feel fulfilled by using the skills we’ve helped them develop. We can, in fact, even do the same thing for ourselves. Adulthood doesn’t have to be about “have to” moments. Your dog’s obedience, your child’s education, and your own life can be based on “get to” opportunities without sacrificing the end results. All it takes is a little perspective, a little knowledge, and an understanding of motivation.

Choosing a Boarding Kennel

[Note: Recently, I asked my friend and colleague Shalise Keating of A Dog Spot to write about picking a boarding kennel. Here's what she had to say...]

Sara asked me to share some of my thoughts about picking a boarding kennel.  I have to admit that my dogs have never been to a boarding kennel but I own and operate a boarding kennel of my own.  As I designed the kennel and thought about how I wanted the kennel to be run I always kept in mind what a kennel would have to be like in order for me to feel comfortable having my own dogs stay there.

Layla and Mischief running in the exercise yard at A Dog Spot.

Layla and Mischief running in the exercise yard at A Dog Spot.

If I needed to look for a kennel to board my dogs at I would start looking well before the time I needed to leave my dogs.  Then when I was ready to make vacation plans (or needed to board due to a family emergency), where my dogs would stay would already be taken care of.  Touring kennels with or without your dog along is a good idea.  If you take your dog along be sure to have your vaccination records along and take note if they check your records or not.

I would want to know how many dogs the kennel can take in at one time.  How is your dog going to feel about staying with that many dogs?  Some kennels can house more than 100 dogs at a time.  I have one dog who would think that it was simply grand to hang out with a whole bunch of dogs for a week, but the other two would find 100 dogs to be pretty overwhelming.  If you are traveling over a holiday you can count on boarding kennels being full.

Ask who takes care of the dogs and what kind of experience and training the caregivers have.  Will the same 1 or 2 people care for your dog each day or will they have several different caregivers thoughout their stay?  If they will have multiple caregivers, will your dog be comfortable with that?  Some dogs will be fine with lots of people caring for them and others will not.

Ask how they handle a dog that is not eating well.  Often when dogs are stressed they won’t eat.  How long do they let a dog not eat before trying to do something about it, and then what do they do to encourage them to eat?  How do they keep track of this if you are considering a larger kennel that has several caregivers working?  This is especially important if you have a very small dog or a dog with medical issues who needs to eat.  Even if your dog is a chow hound don’t assume that they will eat right away while being boarded.

Before we opened up for business I would have advised you to ask how much exercise the dogs would get each day.  I would have assumed that if the dogs got enough exercise, they would be tired, and that a tired dog in a boarding kennel would be a happy dog.  After doing this for a few years now I would instead advise you to ask what kinds of things the kennel does to minimize stress for the dogs who stay with them.  The answer is probably pretty complicated, and good exercise may or may not be part of the answer depending on the dog.  A young active dog will benefit from a couple of good sessions of exercise but an older dog might really enjoy sitting on my lap while I answer e-mail.  Keeping stress to a minimum is important and being sure the caregivers have the knowledge to adapt to the needs of different dogs is important.

Ask what a typical day looks like for a dog in boarding.  What time is the first and last chance to go outside to potty?  How many time a day does the dog get out?  Do they get to spend any time outside of their kennel run?

Be sure the kennel is clean.  Clean helps keep the germs away.  It really shouldn’t smell like urine or feces, and if it does, ask about it. Maybe someone had an accident recently.  Kennels should NOT be cleaned with a high pressure washer as that causes germs to become airborne.  It’s okay for kennels to be spayed down with a hose, just not a high pressure washer.  We scrub our kennels down by hand.

Does the kennel require vaccinations? Do they check to be sure that all dogs staying with them are up to date? Which vaccinations are required?  Most kennels are going to be real sticklers about this and require annual vaccinations with no exceptions.  I don’t think that pet owners should be railroaded into having to vaccinate their pets.  We require vaccinations but we are happy to make exceptions on a case by case basis.  Some dogs have had bad reactions to vaccinations and so vaccinating them puts their health at risk. Just have your veterinarian write us a letter explaining the situation.  There is some pretty good evidence that some vaccinations are good for much longer than the recommended 1 year.  Some owners will have a blood test done to check for titers (immunity) for diseases that we vaccinate for and will make vaccination decisions based on titer results.  Even if a dog staying with us has a good reason to not be vaccinated, we still require regular veterinary care to show that the dog is healthy, or is being properly cared for if they have some kind of health issue.  Good air exchange, proper cleaning techniques, and keeping stress levels down can help lessen the chance of diseases being spread in a kennel environment.

[Sara's note: my dogs are boarded at A Dog Spot, and I always feel comfortable leaving them there. Shalise, Jill, and Sandy are patient when I call everyday for updates, and post pictures of the dogs playing in their large exercise yard. The dogs are happy to see me when I come to pick them up, but aren't frantic or exhausted for days afterwards as they would be if they were stressed at the kennel.

Do you board your dogs? If so, where do you board them and how did you choose that facility? How do your dogs respond to boarding? Please share in the comments section below!]

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by nutmeg66 on flickr

Photo by nutmeg66 on flickr

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would the world be like without dogs?”

- Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Why Dogs Hump (Spoiler Alert: it’s not all about dominance)

Last summer, I house-sat for my parents while they went on vacation. Neither of their pets, a 14-year-old cat and an 11-year-old dog, do well being boarded, and it was much less stressful for me to stay with them than it would have been to send them somewhere.

I brought my dogs with me, so it was a very full household. Their elderly Lab cross, Duke, already knew Layla quite well. However, he wasn’t as familiar with my youngest pup, Mischief. This posed a bit of a problem.

Duke

Duke

You see, like many dogs, Duke tends to default to humping when he’s stressed or unsure. Any time my dogs would start to play, Duke’s lips would stretch back towards his ears, his brow would furrow, and he would grab Mischief with his front paws, attempting to mount her. With the forty-pound size difference between the two dogs, this did not make Mischief happy. Being a fairly socially savvy dog, she would spin around to face him when he did this, the doggy version of “knock that off,” and if that didn’t work she would escalate to snapping at him, saying, “no really, I mean it.”

Of course, knowing that Duke was likely to hump Mischief when he became anxious or excited, my boyfriend and I were able to prevent this behavior most of the time. When Duke started to circle towards Mischief, we would say his name, redirecting him to move towards us for praise and petting. When we had visitors over and Duke hit his limit of the amount of excitement he could stand before he could no longer make good choices, I put him on leash. If we couldn’t supervise the dogs, one or the other of them was crated.

Humping is a common behavior in dogs and is seen in both males and females, whether they are fixed or not. While it is most often attributed to “dominance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Dominance refers to priority access to a resource, and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access to food, toys, space, or anything else tangible. So, why do dogs hump? Here are the most common motivations behind humping in dogs:

Arousal: Once a dog hits a certain level of excitement, that energy has to go somewhere. Some dogs express their joy by doing “zoomies,” where they tuck their butt and sprint as fast as they can in circles. Some bark. Some hump.

Anxiety: Like Duke, most humpers whose owners seek my help are quite anxious. Anxiety leads to arousal, and as we saw above that leads to humping. Technically, canine behavior experts call this a “displacement” behavior. When the dog becomes anxious, he or she may scratch, sniff, dig, or hump. People display displacement behaviors too (although luckily humping is not usually one of them!): we check our phones, play with our hair, or look at our watch when we’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

Play: Play is interesting. When dogs or other mammals play, they mix up a bunch of behaviors in new sequences. These behaviors have very useful roots: chasing, stalking, and pouncing are useful hunting behaviors; mouthing and wrestling are useful fighting behaviors; and humping is a useful sexual behavior. Some biologists believe that play is practice for the real world. By mixing all of these useful behaviors up with some other signals that mean “just kidding, I’m still playing and not really planning to eat you for dinner,” dogs get a chance
to practice moving their bodies in ways that could increase their chances of surviving a situation where the behaviors were needed for real.

Status: While this is a common attribution for humping, dogs almost never use humping as a form of status seeking or as a display of status. In fact, in over ten years of training, I’ve only met one dog who appeared to use humping as a means of status seeking. (And even in that case, the dog was also pretty insecure, so the humping was more likely caused by her anxiety than by her desire to climb the social ladder.)

It just feels good: Frankly, dogs just like to hump sometimes. All mammals masturbate, and some dogs will hump a favorite toy or pillow. From a behavioral standpoint, there’s no reason not to let Fido or Fifi have a little “me time” on occasion behind closed doors as long as it’s not causing problems. Before Dobby’s seizure disorder took over his life, he and Mischief would often hump each other when they were playing. As long as both dogs seemed okay with it I wouldn’t interrupt them (although I would ask them to take it outside). That doesn’t mean it’s always okay, though: I draw the line at humping people, and if my dogs do this I redirect them and teach them more appropriate ways to interact with humans.

So there you have it. Humping is a normal doggy behavior, albeit a somewhat embarrassing one for those of us on the other end of the leash. As for Duke, he’s long since stopped his anxious and inappropriate response to Mischief. Now that he’s gotten to know her better, he can play appropriately with her without resorting to humping. In fact, he just spent the past five days with her, and didn’t need to be redirected a single time… a relief for everyone involved.

Does your dog ever hump? Why do you think this happens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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“A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things-a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.”

-John Grogan, Marley and Me

On Euthanasia: What Happens After

Up to this point, we’ve discussed many aspects of euthanizing a beloved dog. To review, we’ve talked about making the decision, scheduling the appointment, and what will happen during the process itself. Today I’d like to discuss another important consideration: what happens after your dog is gone, including considerations for those of you with multiple pets.

Photo by Kelvin Andow

Photo by Kelvin Andow

After your pet is euthanized, you can choose to spend some time with the body if you would like. No vet should ever rush you after your pet has been euthanized, and you can take as long as you need to say goodbye. I spent a few moments sitting with Dobby, then brought my other two dogs out to see his body. If you have other pets, you can decide whether to let them see the body or not.

Remember that animals don’t grieve in the same way we do, so your pets may not appear to notice the body or may not respond to it in a way that looks sad.

Layla took a brief look at Dobby’s body, then flirted with her vet. Since I have done multiple compassion holds (where an unadoptable dog spends their final days or weeks in my home), Layla is very familiar with the process and I believe she understands euthanasia. In the weeks after Dobby was gone, Layla was visibly brighter and more playful – a response I didn’t expect. She appeared to feel a sense of relief that he was gone, which makes sense when we consider that she’d been in essence walking on eggshells around him for the past year so as not to provoke him. Layla started playing with toys again, something she hadn’t done for over a year, and was wiggly and snuggly.

Mischief was very excited and waggy when she came outside. She sniffed all around on the ground and sniffed Dobby’s body, tail wagging. She paused for a brief moment and stiffened up when she got to his face, which she sniffed once with a still tail, then she moved away and started sniffing the ground with her tail wagging again. While this may not have looked very much like grief to us, her behavior in the days following Dobby’s euthanasia was very depressed and she needed a lot of extra reassurance. I do think that she was aware of what had happened. She slept a lot for several weeks after Dobby’s death and asked for a lot of extra snuggles. She seemed especially lost at night, when she would pace and wander. She had previously slept curled up with Dobby, and really seemed to miss her snuggle buddy. Dobby also used to groom her regularly, licking her face and the insides of her ears and nibbling on her neck and shoulders. I invited Mischief to sleep with me, and she would crawl under the covers and curl up by my belly gratefully.

Every dog responds to loss differently, and your dog may show relief like Layla, depression like Mischief, or no change at all. Just like people are very individual in how we cope with grief, so too are dogs. During this time, stick to your dog’s routine as closely as possible and let your dog’s behavior drive your response.

You will get to choose what happens to your euthanized dog’s body. You can keep the body to bury personally, have it buried at a pet cemetery, or choose cremation (either individually or with a group of animals, and with or without the ashes returned to you). I chose to have Dobby’s body cremated individually and will get his ashes back. It can be helpful to think about this decision well in advance.

Remember to take care of yourself afterwards. Allow yourself time to grieve. I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend and a best friend who each took a day off work to spend with me so that I wouldn’t have to be alone afterwards. If you do not have family or friends who are supportive of the grieving process, the ASPCA offers a free pet grief hotline that you can call. Many animal shelters and humane societies also offer pet loss support groups that you could go to.

One topic that often goes unaddressed when a pet dies is the sense of relief you may feel afterwards. I know many pet owners who have felt guilty when they experienced this, especially in the case of a behavioral euthanasia, and want to address it.

While I feel very sad about Dobby’s euthanasia, lonely without his special presence in my life, and a little guilty that his final moments could not be more peaceful, I also feel relieved that it’s over. I would do it again – all of it – in a heartbeat for the chance to be with him again, but I also have to admit that daily life is simply easier without the constant management and care that Dobby required. In his case, the management happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize how very much I was doing to keep him and others safe until I no longer needed to do it. Simple tasks like letting my dogs outside and getting ready to leave for the day are no longer fraught with a list of checks and double-checks that I had to take as a precaution. I no longer have to worry about little things that could cause Dobby to become stressed and therefore have a seizure. I feel like I can breathe easier with him gone, even though at times each breath hurts because I miss him so much.

Feeling this relief doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person or that I didn’t love him like crazy, and if you find yourself feeling this way there’s nothing wrong with you either. Sometimes it’s just as hard to live with our beloved dogs as it is to live without them, and acknowledging this doesn’t make the love we feel for them any less real.

In the end, euthanasia can be one of the kindest things we can do for the dogs we love. I hope that this series has helped you to better understand and prepare for the process with your own beloved companions, or has brought you peace if you have already been through it with a pet. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t ever get easier. Please feel free to share your own experiences with our community in the comments section below. Sharing can be healing, and there’s been a lot of love in the comments this past month.

I’m incredibly grateful that I had the chance to know and love Dobby, my sweet, earnest, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I’m also grateful for the chance to get to know your special dogs through your comments. Thanks for the love.