Category Archives: Basic Dog Care

Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

Imagine, if you would, that I handed you a great big slice of cake. Let’s pretend that it’s your favorite kind of cake, and it’s homemade with a big scoop of ice cream on the side. You smell the sweet scent of the gooey dessert, and eagerly pick up your fork to take a great big bite. Just as you’re lifting your fork to your mouth, taste buds tingling in anticipation, I grab your fork from you and take that bite myself.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re a kinder, more patient person than I am. Assuming that, I’m going to guess that while you’re annoyed with me for grabbing your fork, you’re not going to knock me out over a single bite of cake (even though it is your favorite kind). I’ll hand your fork back, and you’ll go to take another bite. As you do so, I’m going to stick my hand onto your plate and start smearing your cake around. How would you react? Are you getting more annoyed? How much would you put up with before you physically removed me from your plate before you tried to eat?

Photo by Esteban

Photo by Esteban

It’s understandable that you would be annoyed with me if I kept messing with your food. Putting my hand in your dish and taking your food away from you as you tried to eat would be an indescribably rude behavior on my part. In fact, it’s so rude as to be nearly unimaginable in our society. So why do we do this to our dogs?

There’s a myth out there that we should play with our dogs’ food to teach them tolerance while they’re eating. Like most myths, it’s got a kernel of truth at its center. Guarding is a normal, natural behavior in most dogs, and if they’re not taught to share while they’re young they may become aggressive over resources like food, toys, or bones when they hit adulthood.

It’s easier to prevent guarding than to treat it. But messing about in your dog’s dish while he’s eating is not the way to go about it. In fact, it could make things worse. After all, it’s generally a bad idea to expect your dog to be more tolerant and peaceable about intrusions into his personal space than you would be. Dogs are pretty cool, but they’re still animals, and we don’t live in a Disney movie.

So, how can you prevent guarding in your dog if messing with his food bowl is off-limits? Simple. Just convince him that it’s worth his while for you to muck about with his stuff.

Doing so is so simple that it takes mere seconds at every meal. Just feed your dog as usual. Wait for him to begin eating. Then approach his bowl and toss something better than his dog food in. I use small cubes of cheese or chicken, but you could use anything your dog especially likes. It just has to be something that your dog prefers to his regular food.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, and repeat on a regular basis, and your dog will be absolutely thrilled to have you approach his food bowl. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to do, your dog will begin anticipating your arrival, since it always predicts something good. You’ll see this shift in his attitude reflected in his body language. Instead of eyeing you out of the corner of his eye, stiffening up, or gulping his food down more quickly, your dog will start to wiggle as soon as he sees you approach. He’ll back away from his dish eagerly, excited to see what wonderful gift you’ve brought this time. He’ll be so busy feeling happy that you’re approaching his food that guarding will never even cross his mind.

Of course, if your dog already guards his food, use your own judgment about the safety of this exercise. Generally it’s best to work with a skilled professional if your dog has ever stiffened up, growled, snapped, or bit when he was guarding something.

However, if your dog has not yet started guarding, now is the time to begin these exercises. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a few moments a week of food-bowl exercises such as this can prevent a great deal of problems later on. Do this exercise with new puppies as soon as they can eat solid food. Do it with your adult dog. Do it with foster dogs and shelter dogs. Do it with any dog who doesn’t yet guard, and you can prevent a lot of dogs from ever guarding at all.

Once your dog’s a rock star at this exercise with his food bowl, consider other situations in which you could do the same thing. Practice approaching your dog while he’s playing with his toys, chewing on his Nylabone, or eating a rawhide or bully stick. Each time, make sure that your approach heralds the arrival of a treat that’s much more delicious than what he had to start with. Soon your dog will be happy about you approaching him no matter what’s in his mouth.

Messing about with your dog’s food bowl is every bit as rude as sticking your hand in your spouse’s plate while you’re both eating supper. Let’s get rid of this harmful myth once and for all, and focus instead on teaching our dogs that we are trustworthy, kind, and respectful housemates. Next time your dog is eating, leave him to it in privacy unless you have positive intentions. Next time you’re eating cake, I promise I’ll do the same. It’s only polite.

What Kind of Dog do you Drive?

Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?

Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.

So, which type of dog should you drive?

Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.

Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.

ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.

Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.

Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.

Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.

SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.

Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.

Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.

Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.

So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!

Leadership 101

We hear a lot about leadership with dogs. But what does that mean, and how important is it to our dogs? Like any social creature, dogs use a variety of signals to navigate day-to-day life, and they look to those they live with to do the same.

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Photo by Chris K. Photography

Traditional advice urges owners to eat first, go through doorways first, alpha roll their dogs, force dogs to walk behind them, and engage in similar behaviors designed to artificially increase their rank in their dogs’ eyes. The message drips with fear (not to mention a healthy dose of paranoia): if you don’t work hard to keep your dog down, he’ll stage a household coup. Dogs are social climbers, we’re told, and if we don’t view every interaction as a contest that we must win, our dogs will take advantage of some perceived weakness and take over.

So here’s the thing: leadership is important to dogs. The vast majority of dogs do best when they feel like someone confident and in control is making responsible decisions for them. But using force doesn’t make you a good leader. It only labels you as weak.

You see, dogs with high status don’t do a lot of jockeying for position. They’re secure in their place, and they just don’t feel the need to butt heads with others.

We do the same thing. The president doesn’t feel the need to make jokes at his assistant’s expense to solidify his political position. The top CEO of your company doesn’t go around reminding middle management that she could fire them at any moment. The principal doesn’t steal the kindergartners’ lunch money to teach them their place. So why do we feel the need to do this with dogs?

Any time we shove in front of our dog at the door, stick our hands in his food bowl just to make sure we can, or haul him behind us on the leash, we’re certainly sending a message. But it’s not the message of calm, confident control a true leader would send. Instead, we’re telling our dog in every way possible that we’re concerned about our status. We’re telling him that we don’t have what it takes to be a great leader, and you can bet that he’s getting that message loud and clear.

The most fighting happens in middle management, whether you’re a person or a dog. If you’re “fighting” your dog for leadership, you’re in essence telling him that you’re middle management rather than the CEO. Is that really the message you want your dog to receive?

So, we know that force certainly isn’t the best way to gain your dog’s compliance and admiration. Your dog isn’t staying up at night plotting to overthrow you. Here’s how you can be the best leader possible.

Frankly, you already have all the tools you need to become a wonderful leader at your disposal. All you have to do is make use of them.

One of our primary advantages over dogs is our ability to use our opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs are like magic to dogs: they can cause door handles to turn, refrigerators to open, and dog treats to appear from sealed packages. They can snap leashes on and off, find just the right spot under the collar to scratch, and operate faucets to refill water bowls. These tasks, and many more, are your ticket to becoming the Grand High Poobah of your household.

You see, great leaders provide for their followers, and dogs intrinsically get this. You’re probably already giving your dog all sorts of wonderful things: fresh water, food, walks, access to the great outdoors, ear rubs, toys, and everything else he needs. To become a great leader, all you have to do is leverage these interactions by asking your dog to say “please” first by performing a simple task (such as sit). Just like with children, “please” will become a magic word for your dog. When he wants anything, simply ask him to sit calmly and look at you first. Voila! Instant leader.

I think Patty Ruzzo said it best. “I don’t know if my dogs respect me or not, but they’re greedy and I have their stuff.” So leverage your dog’s stuff. Stop fighting him. You’ll be amazed at the difference such simple things can make in your relationship.

How do you help your dog to look to you for guidance and leadership? Share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below!

Socializing your Dog: an Illustrated Guide

Thanks to Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for collaborating with me on this socialization poster! You can click on the picture below to view the full sized version. Lili and I have previously worked together to create the illustrated guide to playing with your dog.

SocializingYourDog17x22

Do you have any socialization tips or tricks? Please share them in the comments below!

Opting In

We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).

It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.

Photo by Jesse Moore

Photo by Jesse Moore

We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.

We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.

Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.

One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?

Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.

There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.

If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.

As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?

It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.

Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.

Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie

 

When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Gabe

Photo by Gabe

“Let’s have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do.”  – The Truth about Wolves and Dogs

Fostering Success

For many homeless dogs, foster homes are the springboard from which they find that special home they’ve been waiting for. People get into foster care for many reasons. Maybe they’re not financially ready to adopt a dog, they want to help homeless dogs, they enjoy dog ownership but cannot care for a dog 12 months of the year, they want the training experience that working with many different dogs provides, their dog enjoys the companionship of foster brothers and sisters, they feel strongly about promoting a certain breed, or maybe it just plain makes them feel good. Whatever your reasons for doing foster care, it can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

When I work with new foster homes, I always tell them that there’s no “wrong” way to provide foster care. No matter how you care for your foster dog, you are saving a life, and that’s wonderful. That said, I think it’s very important to foster in such a way that you put the dog’s best interests first.

You see, many foster homes get it backwards. It’s easy to do. When the dog comes into our home, we treat him or her just like one of our own pets. We welcome them in and encourage them to sleep on our bed and snuggle with us. They become comfortable and begin to blossom. We take them to adoption days and share their picture on Facebook, and eventually they find that perfect adoptive home.

And their heart breaks. You see, from the dog’s perspective, he was already home. He has become attached to you, and now you appear to be abandoning him. How is he to know that you were just a foster? How is he to know that this new family isn’t going to do the same exact thing?

Separation and attachment issues are two of the most common issues I am hired to work with in adopted dogs, and these issues are far, far more common in dogs who come from foster homes than from shelters. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

As a foster, it’s important to think about what you’re teaching the dog. Are you really preparing that dog to succeed in his new home?

Remember, most of us in the rescue community are truly “dog people.” We don’t mind fur on the couch or paw prints on the linens. We don’t blink when a new puppy cries for half an hour in his crate or a senior dog needs to go outside multiple times in the middle of the night because he just can’t hold it anymore. We naturally know how to set dogs up for success, gating off the litter box and blocking access to the front door. We read body language well, and subconsciously adjust our own body to make a timid dog more comfortable or redirect an aggressive dog before he escalates from mild warnings.

We do all of this, but your foster dog’s new family won’t. And we need to prepare our foster dogs for that.

I want my foster dog to think that his new home is way cooler than mine was. That means that I set him up for success right from the start. I don’t know whether my foster’s new family will allow him to get on the furniture, so I teach him to sleep on a dog bed and stay off my sofa. Sure, my dogs are allowed on the couch. That doesn’t mean I need to extend the same privilege to my foster dog. I don’t know whether the foster dog’s new family will have a fenced yard, so I teach him to toilet quickly on a leash. I don’t know whether my foster dog’s new family will want him loose in their house overnight, so I teach him to be content sleeping in a crate.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

As much as I love my foster dogs, they are not my dogs. Treating them as if they are is nothing less than selfish. I am only a caregiver, preparing them for bigger and better things. So I treat them differently than my own dogs, caring for them kindly and fairly but not letting them get too attached to myself or my other dogs. I train them and teach them that people are gentle and trustworthy. I teach them that good things happen when people handle their paws, mouth, or ears, that wonderful things happen when people reach towards their food or toys, that crates are comfortable and safe places to rest quietly, that sitting and looking at people works wonders, and that calm behavior in the house results in great rewards. I take them on field trips and introduce them to new people and places. They learn so much.

And then they get adopted, and they go home. Their new family gives them more privileges and attention than they had from me, and they quickly become attached. They bond with their new owners, and while they’re very happy to see me whenever we encounter one another for the rest of their lives, they are also quite clear whose dog they are. My heart breaks for dogs at adoption days who only have eyes for their foster parent, because I know that the dog is going to feel heartbreak when they get adopted.

Consider what you’re preparing your foster dog for. Teach him to succeed. Then let him go gently, and watch him blossom under the love and care of his new family. There is no better feeling, and no bigger service you can do for that dog.

What’s Important to You?

For a professional dog trainer, my dogs are not very “well trained.” They wear Freedom harnesses on walks to keep them from pulling. They get excited when visitors come over. They bark when people come to the door.

purplepenRecently, I posted a picture on Facebook of my youngest dog, Mischief, with purple ink on her paws from a pen she had just destroyed. A good friend of mine was very concerned, and contacted me privately. Perhaps I might be hurting my business, she worried. Wouldn’t people be less likely to hire me if they saw that my puppy was destructive? What kind of dog trainer would let her dog do something so blatantly naughty?

Well, I would, for one. I love bragging about the amazing things my dogs can do, but I’m also not afraid to share their less impressive moments with the world. I thought Mischief’s pen murder was cute and funny. The pen had fallen from my desk and she did what any curious young dog would: she picked it up and chewed on it to see what it was. She doesn’t chew on other things that she finds on the floor such as my shoes, dirty clothes, or furniture, because I’ve taught her that these are not appropriate things to put in her mouth. If I wanted to teach her not to touch pens on the floor, it would be easy to do, but since pens rarely wind up on the ground it’s not something I worry about.

Here’s the thing: we each train what’s important to us. What I find important with my pets and what you feel are a priority may be very different, and that’s okay. Our pets become part of our family, and every family has its own unique rules and priorities. As long as your dog fits well in your family, it doesn’t matter what skills she knows or doesn’t know.

It’s important to me that my dogs travel well, and indeed they all ride quietly in the car, usually sleeping for most of the trip. They don’t bark out the car windows or pace restlessly. It’s important to me that they have rock-solid leave its, so most of my training sessions involve toys or treats on the ground, which my dogs ignore unless I give them permission to grab them. If we walk past roadkill or animal feces, my dogs respond quickly and happily when I tell them it’s not theirs.

As a family, we have certain rules that I expect my dogs to follow. It’s important that they enjoy their crates, and all three dogs are happy to hang out in their kennels whether I’m home or away. With my odd work hours it’s vital that my dogs not wake me up when I’m asleep unless it’s an emergency. When I’m sleeping, all three dogs curl up and sleep too, whether it’s 2am or 2pm. They never pester me for meals or wake me up, even if I want to sleep in.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Your priorities are probably very different, and there’s nothing wrong with that! If you want your dogs to walk on a loose leash, you can have a dog who walks politely by your side on nothing but a flat collar. Maybe having the leash yanked on or using a harness bothers you, and if that’s the case we should fix that issue. It doesn’t bother me if my dogs walk ahead of me, so I let them. We all enjoy our walks, so there’s no reason to change their behavior.

Similarly, maybe you want your dog to behave impeccably when visitors come over. Fine! Teach him how to do so. I rarely have visitors, much less those who aren’t “dog people,” so it’s not a priority for me. I actually prefer to have dogs who bark when people come to the door because I don’t live in a great neighborhood and this makes me feel safer. If you want your dog to be quiet when people ring the bell, you can teach him that.

When I work with clients on a one-on-one basis, I ask that they fill out a behavior questionnaire before our first appointment. Besides collecting information on their dog’s day-to-day life, this questionnaire asks what their training goals are. It also asks whether that client is considering rehoming their dog if they cannot fix the problem behavior as well as whether they’re considering euthanasia.

These last two questions are some of the very most important, because they help me figure out what that person’s priorities are. Some people are at their wit’s end when they can’t housetrain their puppy and are ready to rehome him if they can’t solve the issue immediately. Others are horrified that I ask these questions and wouldn’t dream of rehoming or euthanizing their dog, even though he has a multiple-bite history and has been declared a dangerous dog by the city. While it might be easy for us to pass judgment on the former owner for “giving up” on their dog over such a “minor” issue, for that person the issue might not be minor at all.

I once worked with someone whose dog was highly aggressive towards people. This person lived in the country and didn’t care about her dog’s aggressive behavior at all: it was easily managed by crating the dog when she had the occasional visitor and by muzzling her during yearly vet visits. So why did she hire me? Her dog had killed one of her chickens, and that was unacceptable to her. We taught her dog to leave the chickens alone without ever addressing her aggressive behavior towards people, and my client was thrilled with the training.

As easy as it may be to pass judgment on other people who do not share the same priorities as you, it’s neither kind nor fair. If your dog is not fitting into your family, work to change that by teaching them how to succeed in your household. If you don’t care whether your dog holds a perfect sit-stay while you open the door, don’t let anyone else bully you into obsessing over it.

We bring dogs into our families as friends, companions, and playmates. Enjoy your dogs for who they are, and for who they have become with your guidance and support. Enjoy their individual personalities and the special, unique bond that you have with them. Your relationship with your dog is one-of-a-kind. Cherish it, and never let someone else tell you that there’s anything wrong with it just because their priorities are different.

Missing Layla: the dangers of xylitol poisoning

Even with Dobby and Mischief asleep next to me, my house feels empty today. It’s easy to take what you have for granted until it’s not there, and today I’m missing Layla like crazy. I’m lucky that this isn’t a permanent loss, but only a temporary one. Layla is spending the weekend at the emergency vet clinic, and the house is empty without her.

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Layla was lucky. Last night, she got into a pack of gum containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Had I not caught her eating the pack and recognized the danger, things may have turned out very differently. My house might have been empty forever. Just the thought of losing her feels like a physical blow.

Xylitol is an artifical sweetener frequently used in sugarfree gum, candies, and baked goods. It has some oral health benefits for people and is frequently used as a sugar substitute for people who cannot have real sugar. It’s also highly toxic to dogs.

Even a small bit of xylitol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar. The first symptoms of xylitol poisoning are oftentimes vomiting, glazed eyes, weakness, lethargy or depression, and ataxia (balance issues). These can be followed by seizures and coma. Larger doses can lead to hypokalemia (decreased potassium) and liver failure.

As soon as I found Layla eating the gum, I gave her hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. While my other two dogs both threw up, Layla didn’t, and was rushed to the e-vet where they were finally able to get her to vomit about 45 minutes after she ate the gum. By that time she was feeling poorly enough to be cooperative with several strangers handling her, inserting a catheter and taking blood.

As of this afternoon, Layla’s prognosis is good. Her glucose and liver values are great, and she’s being kept on fluids and continually monitored. If she continues to do well, she can come home Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Layla was lucky. She was lucky that I recognized the danger soon enough to get her treated before she began showing serious symptoms. She was lucky to have a great veterinary team ready to help her. She was lucky that I have enough in savings to cover her treatment and hospitalization so that she could get the care she needs. She was lucky that she’s otherwise strong and healthy.

Not every dog is as lucky as Layla.The number of cases of xylitol toxicity continues to climb each year as this ingredient becomes more common as a sugar substitute. Many dogs don’t make it. Poisoning from other common human foods, including chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and onions are also sadly too common.

It’s empty in my house today, but it won’t be forever. Layla was lucky, and she will be coming home. Please make sure to keep toxic substances out of reach of your pets so that you, too, can continue to enjoy the company of your best friend for many years to come.