Category Archives: Senses

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.

“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970′s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.

naturevsnurture

A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.

naturevsnurture_bold

On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.

naturevsnurture_fearful

These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

The Myth of the “Normal” Dog

Layla has always hated to be touched. Even as a tiny puppy, she would wiggle and jump around in social situations, moving so much that people couldn’t get their hands on her. If she was restrained, she would snarl ferociously and throw her body about, biting repeatedly in a panic until she was let go. This made veterinary exams and procedures grueling. Petting was out of the question, and anyone stupid enough to try hugging or kissing her was likely to get their face bitten.

With repeated conditioning (pairing touch with rewards), Layla has learned to tolerate handling of all kinds. I can pet her, hug her, and even kiss her without worrying about being bitten. She no longer needs to be sedated for basic procedures like toenail trimming or ear cleaning, and even allows me to give her shots or express her anal glands when necessary. She stands perfectly still at the vet clinic for blood draws, resting her chin in my hands while I gently grasp her collar.

Layla tolerates touch, but she does not enjoy it. Like many people with autism or other sensory processing disorders, she appears to be highly sensitive to touches that most dogs would not even notice. Light pressure and casual touches always prompt stress signals, even though she no longer reacts violently to them.

Layla. Photo by SC Studios.

Deep pressure, on the other hand, appears to be very enjoyable to her. Even as a tiny puppy, Layla would crawl under the covers. In fact, this seemed to be the only way that she could truly relax. She can often be found burrowed underneath a blanket, dog bed, or couch cushion. She enjoys wearing coats and her Thundershirt. She also appears to love it when I slide my hand underneath her side as she’s lying down and gently press upward or scratch her, as she will lean into the pressure. Just as weighted vests and blankets appear to help children with autism “dial down” their nervous systems, Layla appears to benefit from any sort of even, steady pressure.

Owning a dog like Layla can be frustrating. Imagine having a pet who never wants to be petted! It can feel like a personal insult when your beloved dog moves away from you every time you stroke or touch her. When I decided to bring another dog into my life, I told all of my friends and family that this time around, I wanted a “normal” dog.

The idea of the “normal” dog is an appealing one to anyone who deals with behavior problems. It’s also unrealistic and unfair. There is no such thing as “normal.” Normalcy is a lie that we tell ourselves, and it causes so much harm. Think of all of your friends and family. Who’s the most “normal” of all of them? Who’s the most “abnormal?”

Normalcy is a mental construct that we build in our minds based on our culture and our individual past history, but it’s also an unachievable standard. There is no such thing as a “normal” dog, just as there’s no such thing as a “normal” person.

Many of the behaviors that we consider abnormal are in truth entirely sane responses to the artificial and unnatural environment that we expect our dogs (and ourselves!) to cope with on a daily basis. Layla’s aversion to touch is an entirely normal response for her unique nervous system. Another one of my dogs, Dobby, seeks out touch and relaxes the most when he can snuggle up with me or with another dog. The way that he desires and is reassured by touch is entirely normal for his nervous system.

In this same vein, separation anxiety is an entirely normal response for a social animal that is kept in isolation for long hours without being taught coping skills. Leash reactivity is an entirely normal response for a dog who desires more distance from people or animals that concern her. When we look at each dog’s genetic make-up, past history, and current environment, we can begin understanding why that dog behaves in the way that he or she does. We can move past the idea of normal or abnormal behavior.

Judging your dog against other dogs you have owned, other dogs of the same breed, or what you know of dogs in general does her an incredible disservice. She is an individual, and comparing her to some ideal dog prevents you from celebrating her as an individual. Just as each of your friends and family members is special and unique, so too is your dog. What charms or delights you about your dog? What makes you laugh? What makes you proud? Is it worth it to shove a square peg into a round hole if doing so will damage the peg?

Words have power, and I think we need to be incredibly careful how we use them. Saying that you want a “normal” dog implies that your current dog is somehow less than ideal, and primes your brain to accept nothing less than your idea of perfection: a standard that no real dog will ever be able to meet.

Layla does not fit into our society’s concept of a “normal” pet dog. She doesn’t want to be touched, she opens gates and refrigerator doors, and she kills and eats any small critter she finds. That’s okay! She’s a fascinating individual, and I feel incredibly honored to know her. The relationship that we’ve built based on her uniqueness is special, and will never be replicated with any other dog. The more I listen to what she “tells” me, the more I learn about that wonderful spark that makes her who she is.

Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

Lessons from Shedd: Whistle While You Work

At Paws Abilities, we use clickers in our training program. Whether working with a new puppy, an experienced competitive obedience dog, or a dog-aggressive and anxious pooch, we find that the clicker serves to clarify and speed up our training program. The trainers at Shedd and other zoos and aquariums worldwide agree.

A trainer at Shedd holds his whistle in his mouth, ready to mark this Beluga whale for performing the “elevator” behavior on cue. Photo by John Kroll.

Clickers and other marker signals are referred to as bridges in the animal training community. This is because the click sound “bridges” the time between when the animal performs a correct behavior and when the trainer is able to deliver the reward.

Any signal can be used as a bridge. We use clickers in dog training because they are cheap, easy to use, and distinct. Many marine mammal and pinniped trainers use whistles, as the sound carries through the water and leaves their hands free to handle training tools or deliver fish. Advanced animals can be transitioned to a verbal bridge such as “yes” or “good” for known behaviors. Verbal markers aren’t recommended for novice trainers or animals as they are less distinct and precise than a mechanical signal, but can be helpful for more advanced teams in certain situations.

Bridges do not have to be auditory. I use a “thumbs up” signal for my dogs, and we oftentimes use this same signal for deaf dogs in our program. A flash of light or the vibration of a collar could also serve the same purpose. Many of the animals at Shedd were conditioned to a tactile bridge, where the trainer would pat the sea lion or dolphin on their side in a specific way to mark the behavior they liked.

Whatever bridging stimulus you decide to use, Ken emphasized that it’s important for it to be distinct and easy to replicate. It should serve no other purpose in the animal’s environment.

So, why use a marker signal at all? What makes the clicker or whistle so powerful?

Marker signals allow trainers to be accurate and precise. By clicking or whistling at the exact moment your animal performs the correct behavior, you can help him to learn more quickly exactly what it is you like. It’s often difficult or even impossible to deliver a food reward or secondary reinforcer to the animal at the precise instant he does what you want, but by using a marker we can still communicate to him exactly what earned that reward.

Furthermore, the bridge can be transferred from trainer to trainer easily, allowing a wider variety of trainers to work with one animal. When an animal understands to listen, watch, or feel for the bridging stimulus, he concentrates more fully on the task at hand instead of focusing on the food or other reward.

Novice trainers often worry that they will need to carry a clicker with them for the rest of their dog’s life. Nonsense! The clicker allows us to teach your dog more quickly and easily. It’s simply another teaching tool. Once your dog understands the behavior, it’s easy to fade the clicker.

What bridging signals do you use to train your dog? Do you use different signals in different environments? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Relax Already! How to Condition a Relaxed Response.

One of the biggest challenges for owners of easily stressed or aroused dogs is effecting behavior change. While it’s important to manage your dog’s stressors to decrease the issues associated with chronic stress, management is not always easy or practical. Unless you can change your dog’s behavior, you may find yourself struggling with lifelong behavioral issues as your dog struggles to deal with day-to-day life.

One of the most helpful changes committed owners can make is to teach their dogs how to relax. While this may seem silly at first, it’s a sad truth that some dogs are simply unable to relax. Conditioning a relaxed response will enable your dog to better deal with stressors, as he will be less aroused or stressed in general and thus further from his threshold.

Photo by Matt

Before beginning to teach your dog to relax, it’s important for you as the handler to understand what relaxation is. Simply put, relaxation is the opposite of stress. Relaxation is not sleepiness or laziness. A dog can be quite active, running through the woods perhaps, and still be quite relaxed. On the other hand, I frequently see extremely stressed dogs who are sleeping or resting. These dogs will lie down, scanning their environment, then drop off to sleep briefly, only to wake with a start moments later and repeat the cycle. In these cases, the dogs are so mentally exhausted that their brains are shutting down, but also so incredibly stressed that they are unable to relax into a deep or restful sleep. This is incredibly sad.

Recognizing what your dog looks like when he or she is relaxed is important to your progress. Every dog is different, so remember that we are looking for a dog who is not stressed, but may not necessarily be sleepy. Most dogs will exhibit soft eyes; loose muscles; still or softly wagging tails that appear heavy, with the base relaxed; and a gently open mouth. You should note a lack of muscle ridges, especially around the brows and mouth. Relaxed dogs will breathe deeply and evenly, with the speed dependant on the activity level of the dog.

So, how does one condition a relaxed response? One of the best tools we’ve found in our behavior practice is the Protocol for Relaxation, written by Dr. Karen Overall. This protocol is a set of biofeedback exercises designed to teach dogs to relax while stuff happens around them. While originally written for dogs (and cats) with severe anxiety or aggression issues, the protocol works equally well to teach slightly excitable or anxious pet dogs how to chill out.

The protocol is designed to go at the dog’s pace. Dogs should be able to hold a relaxed sit or down stay for 15 seconds prior to starting the protocol. It’s important to realize that this is not an obedience exercise. The goal is relaxation, not merely compliance with the stay. This means that owners should not progress to the next task set until the dog is able to be relaxed through the current task set, regardless of the dog’s ability to hold his position. Furthermore, if the dog chooses to slide into a down from his sit position, he should not be corrected for doing so.

I often start this exercise with the dog lying on a mat. You may choose to speak softly to your dog through the whole protocol or to remain quiet: it depends on which is most helpful to your dog’s relaxation. Experiment with your dog and see what works best. Move slowly and smoothly while doing the various tasks, and reward your dog after each individual task.

Over time, the Protocol for Relaxation can bring about a powerful change in dogs who could not previously relax. As your dog learns to relax in the context of the protocol, you can help him generalize this behavior to new environments by taking his mat on the road and going through the protocol in new locations. Remember to decrease your expectations when you go anywhere new, and always be ready to leave if you determine that you’ve pushed your dog too far.

Have you done the protocol with your dog? How did he respond? Please share your experiences in the comments section!

Calming Aids: Thundershirts and Anxiety Wraps

Pressure is calming. We know this: we swaddle infants, use weighted vests for children with autism, and hug grieving friends tightly. Cattle are loaded into squeeze chutes for ease of medical care, and fractious cats are wrapped tightly in towels for grooming or vet procedures.

Pressure can be calming for our dogs too. Slow, deep strokes calm most dogs down while quick, light pats are more likely to amp them up. There are several different commercial garments available that claim to calm stressed, anxious, and fearful dogs. The two most common are the Thundershirt and the Anxiety Wrap.

Photo by Emily Penguin (note: this shirt is fit quite loosely, and should be adjusted more snugly for better effectiveness)

While there is little to no published research regarding the efficacy of these garments, anecdotal evidence suggests that they may be helpful for some dogs. That said, they will not (and should not) replace appropriate behavior modification or medication for severe anxiety. In addition, they do not work for every dog, and may actually make some dogs more upset.

It’s important when introducing any body wrap to observe your dog carefully. Be aware of the difference between a relaxed dog and one who has shut down. Some clients will report success, thinking that because their dog is lying down and not moving he has become less anxious. However, upon examining his body language we often realize that the dog is still just as uncomfortable, but feels inhibited by the new sensation of pressure on his torso and thus is unwilling to move.

Not sure whether your dog would benefit from one of these wraps? Try dressing him in a snug t-shirt, and observe his reactions. If he seems comfortable in the t-shirt, he will likely do well with the wrap as well. The Thundershirt has a money-back guarantee, so if it stresses your dog you can return it to the store you purchased it from for a full refund. Make sure to try it on first when your dog is calm and relaxed, since you will not be able to accurately gauge your dog’s reaction to it during a stress-inducing situation.

If a Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap appears to help your dog, remember to use it regularly during pleasant, stress-free times so that your dog does not come to associate its use with aversive events. If you use the Thundershirt for car anxiety, for example, make sure to have your dog wear it occasionally when he is working on a stuffed Kong toy at home, or he will learn that it always predicts frightening car experiences and may begin to dislike it.

Have you ever used a shirt or wrap for your dog? What were your experiences? Please share your stories in the comments section below!

Calming Aids: Dog Appeasing Pheromone

We’ve written about the importance of recognizing your dog’s stress level and how to institute a cortisol vacation for chronically stressed dogs. However, lifelong avoidance is neither practical nor helpful. So, what are some things you can do to lower your dog’s overall stress level?

Today we’ll begin discussing some helpful calming aids that may make a difference in your dog’s ability to relax. Understand that these tools are simply that, tools, and will not fix any behavior problems in and of themselves. Training and behavior modification are still necessary, but may be more effective when paired with these remedies. Remember that every dog is different, and what helps one dog may not work for another.

One of the most innocuous calming remedies available is Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or Comfort Zone, a synthetic version of a pheromone released by mother dogs when puppies are nursing. Pheromones are chemicals that influence one’s emotional state, and are processed through the olfactory lobe. D.A.P. appears to help comfort and reassure some dogs.

One thing that I like about the company is the fact that their product has been studied in clinical trials. Many over-the-counter calming remedies have no scientific evidence as to their efficacy, and are in truth the canine equivalent of snake oil. D.A.P. has been found to reduce barking and increase resting behavior in shelter dogs, promote relaxed behaviors during vet exams, and reduce signs of thunderstorm phobia, among other things.  More research into the product is needed before we can say with complete certainty that it does what the company claims, but anecdotal evidence seems to support these claims.

Several forms are available, including a collar, spray, and diffuser. I recommend the diffuser for most of my clients. Many clients report little to no observable change when they begin using D.A.P., but then report that when the diffuser runs out they realize that it has indeed made a difference. There are no reported side effects to this remedy: it either helps, or it doesn’t, but it’s not going to hurt anything to try. The diffuser covers a 650-square-foot area and usually lasts about four weeks. I use one for my own dogs when introducing a new foster into my home, and believe it to be helpful.

As with any successful product, there are now several knock-off versions of D.A.P. available on the market. In general, clients have not reported success with these products, and at this time I recommend sticking with the name brand.

Have you tried Comfort Zone with your dog(s)? What did you think? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

K9 Nose Work

K9 Nose Work is a sport that was designed by Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt, and Jill Marie O’Brien. With over 50 years of detection work between the three, their focus was on designing a fun, inclusive activity that allowed a wide variety of dogs to use their instinctive abilities. This sport borrows from the activities of explosive, drug, or cadaver detection, allowing the dogs to experience the enjoyable sniffing part of these activities without the liability or risk of real detection or SAR (search and rescue) work.

Photo by bermudi on flickr

A wide variety of dogs attended our Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar, and watching the different dogs work was the highlight of my weekend. K9 Nose Work is open to all dogs: shy dogs, old dogs, three-legged dogs, reactive dogs, high-drive dogs, deaf or blind dogs, hyper dogs, distractible dogs, anxious dogs, and regular everyday dogs. Any dog who is crate trained can participate, and every dog who participated in our workshop loved it! Timid dogs gained confidence throughout the day, and distractible dogs became more focused as they learned the game.

It was amazing to see how tired and happy the dogs were at the end of the day. Even though the dogs didn’t work for very long at once, they were exhausted! The combination of physical and mental exercise contributed to satisfy the dogs’ exercise needs, but I think that this alone doesn’t explain how very tired many of the dogs were. Rather, fulfilling their instinctive need to use their noses scratched a much deeper itch and wore them out in the same way that a long day of working tricky behavior consults wears me out. The dogs weren’t merely tired: they were fulfilled. They had successfully done something they enjoyed, and this promoted satisfaction at a deeper level than a mere game of fetch or walk around the block.

K9 Nose Work introduces dogs to the search game by having them search for a favorite toy or treat. This reward is hidden in a box in the search area, and the dog must find the target box among a variety of other boxes or items to get their reward. As the dogs gain proficiency at searching, more challenging puzzles are presented to them. The owner takes a very passive role at this time, allowing the dog to use their natural problem-solving abilities and gain in confidence and independence.

That’s not to say that the handler is unimportant, though. Rather, the dog learns to work as a team with his handler. Once he finds his target object, he communicates to the handler where it is in order to receive his reward. Handlers also learn to work as a team with their dog. Each dog has a distinct search behavior, and learning to read your individual dog’s changes in breathing, tail set, speed, or ear orientation is incredibly important if you are to be a good team mate to your dog.

Dogs eventually learn to search for their target scent in a variety of contexts. Competition involve four separate search elements, with a different target odor (100% essential oil placed on half a cotton swab) introduced at each level. The container search requires the dog to find the target odor in one of twenty identical containers (cardboard boxes, clean/empty paint cans, suitcases, etc). The interior building search requires the dog to work in an indoor area (such as a science classroom or office building), and the exterior search presents the target odor somewhere in an outdoor location. Finally, the car search requires the dog to find the target odor somewhere on the exterior of a vehicle (multiple vehicles are included, and only one has the target odor). Dogs solve complex problems, such as scents placed underneath or on top of objects or hidden inside novel containers.

Want to learn more about K9 Nose Work? Check out the NACSW website! We are also looking forward to holding nose game classes in the Rochester, MN area based on the information we learned this weekend. The dogs approve!

I smell what you mean.

Humans are visual animals. We rely on our eyes to gather information about the world around us. Our language of understanding relates to our vision (“I see what you mean.” “Look here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different view of the matter.”). Large areas of our brain are devoted to processing visual information, and appearances effect everything from our personal relationships to the way we do business.

As important as vision is to us, so too is scent the primary focus for our dogs. Dogs have 220 million + scent receptors, compared to our measly 5 million. Large areas of your dog’s brain are devoted to olfaction, just as ours are devoted to vision. Our dogs have a very different way of relating to their world, one which we can only guess at. If they were to talk to us, they would likely replace our visual references with olfactory ones (“I smell what you mean.” “Sniff here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different scent of the matter.”).

Simon ‘Kelp’ Keeping

This past weekend, Paws Abilities Dog Training hosted Jill Marie O’Brien and Kimberly Buchanan for an Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar. Watching the dogs learn about this fun and fascinating sport was a real treat. Dogs love using their noses, and they’re extraordinarily good at doing so. Whether they were searching for a toy or treat, the dogs all exhibited incredible talent and problem solving abilities.

Dogs can sniff out drugs, explosives, and cadavers. They can alert their people to the presence of bedbugs, wood rot, or cancer. They can predict the onset of a seizure. They can find the one stick you touched amongst a giant pile of sticks or the pheasant you shot from across a field. They can track criminals, lost children, or foxes.

Using their noses is as fulfilling and enjoyable to dogs as using our eyes is to us. The joy you experience from looking at a meadow full of wildflowers or a gorgeous sunset over the lake is likewise experienced by your dog when he comes across a pile of raccoon scat or a squirrel carcass. One has only to watch the blissful expression on a dog’s face as he closes his eyes and lifts his head to sniff the wind to know how very important the sense of smell is to him.

Scent travels much like fog or mist. It falls from the source, rolling along the ground and dissipating the further away it goes. It is affected by temperature, air currents, and other objects. It bounces off surfaces and pools in low-lying areas. It may be vacuumed up along a wall or be pushed about by the wagging of a tail or the scuffing of your feet on the grass. Our dogs allow us to access the otherwise unreachable world of scent. Watching a dog work a scent back to the source tells us how the scent molecules are moving and gives us a peek into this incredible, alien world of olfaction.

There are many different scenting options available to dogs and their owners. From letting your dog explore new smells on a walk in a quiet field to teaching him to find your car keys to competing in tracking or K9 Nose Work or even training scent articles in competition obedience, we can offer our dogs many chances to use their natural abilities. Scent work can calm and focus hyper dogs or increase a timid dog’s confidence. It can give older or handicapped dogs a fulfilling job to do and reactive or aggressive dogs a safe chance to play.

Later this week we’ll explore the sport K9 Nose Work in more depth. In the meantime, what nose games do you play with your dog?