Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one is a life diminished.
I have an autonomic disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – POTS for short. It’s a mouthful that means that I have issues with low blood pressure, a fast heart rate on standing, and chronic nausea, among other things.
Having a chronic health condition like this impacts my life, but with lifestyle changes such as keeping hydrated, avoiding standing for long periods of time, wearing support stockings, and eating a diet high in salt, I’m able to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that my heart, blood pressure, and nausea meds help to manage symptoms.
What does this have to do with dog training? Well, quite a bit. You see, my dog Layla has a chronic health condition too. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder – GAD for short – in 2008. This disorder causes her to be hypervigilant, hyperalert, and to have difficulty resting.
Having a chronic health condition like Layla’s impacts her life, but lifestyle changes such as keeping to a set routine, managing her auditory environment, providing plenty of physical and mental exercise, and avoiding anxiety-producing situations help her to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that Layla’s daily sertraline and situational trazodone and alprazolam help to manage her symptoms.
My POTS was not easy to diagnose, but after extensive testing and a definitive tilt table test, it became very clear what my disorder was. Before diagnosis, I often fainted multiple times a day upon standing, and was too lightheaded to work or carry out daily life tasks. Now that I have a diagnosis, my condition can be managed with regular blood pressure and heart rate readings. I simply monitor these numbers from supine, sitting, and standing positions to get a better idea of what’s going on with my body at any point in time.
Layla’s condition was not easy to diagnose either, but after extensive training and behavioral modification it became clear that she needed further help. She simply wasn’t making the progress that a “normal” dog would be expected to make. I kept records on her behaviors and took representative video of her life, which were reviewed by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Based on her symptoms, the behaviorist diagnosed Layla with GAD.
Unlike POTS, GAD doesn’t have handy numbers we can look at. We can’t measure the level of available serotonin in Layla’s brain to see whether she’s lacking. We don’t know whether the early trauma she experienced caused her hippocampus to shrink or her amygdala to become larger than normal. We can’t even begin to test the levels of the complex stew of neurochemicals in her brain.
We can’t measure anxiety-related issues as easily as we can measure heart-related issues. That doesn’t mean that they’re not every bit as much of a physical problem, though. My POTS is not my fault, and I can’t just “get over it” with lifestyle changes and a positive attitude. Layla’s anxiety is not her fault either, and she can no more “get over it” on her own than I can suddenly have an autonomic system that functions normally. Her brain doesn’t function normally, but it works much more normally now that she’s on medications. In fact, that’s a big part of how she was diagnosed. When we tried anxiety medications for her, they made such a huge difference in her ability to function that it was clear that they were correcting a true chemical imbalance. The dog whom I’d never seen sleeping was suddenly able to take naps. She was less twitchy, less explosive, and suddenly all the training we’d done together started to show. Her personality didn’t change, but it was like the static of the anxiety was turned down enough for her to access the skills we’d been working so hard on for the past three years. Before her diagnosis, Layla was frantic the majority of her waking time, and awake much more than most dogs. With medication and a diagnosis, Layla’s condition can be monitored with regular attention paid to her sleep cycle and reactivity.
Invisible disabilities come in many forms. People don’t know that I have a chronic health condition from looking at or talking to me. They also can’t tell that Layla has a chronic health condition from watching her work or play. I look like any other person, and Layla looks like any other dog. However, the physical abnormalities in the way our systems work are very real.
One of my greatest hopes is that someday we’ll be able to measure anxiety, to point to a definitive test and say, “yes, your dog has a neurochemical imbalance that needs to be addressed with medication” in much the same way we currently address thyroid or heart issues. How many dogs like Layla are currently suffering without treatment for lack of a diagnosis or their owner’s misunderstanding of the very real chemical basis of anxiety?
One hundred years ago, my fainting issues would have been seen as “female hysterics” and dismissed out of hand. Today, we look back on that attitude with horror and sympathy for the people who lived with very real autonomic issues.
My hope is that one hundred years from now, we look back on the current treatment of mental health issues like Layla’s GAD with much the same horror and sympathy. When we know better, we do better. I’m so grateful that I was able to do better by Layla. Her life, and mine, are all the richer for it.
Humans and dogs play the same games.
- Denise Fenzi
I can’t always be the person I want to be. But I can try to be the person my dog needs me to be.
This thought hit me as I snuggled Layla the other night. My boyfriend and friends were out, but I’d chosen to remain at home to be with my dog. Layla was struggling with the side effects of some medication changes, and while I knew she would survive if I went out for the evening, I could also tell that it would be very difficult on her. She paced for awhile after Matt left, agitated with the stress of the day, but eventually settled to chew on a toy before sighing deeply and drifting off to sleep.
While not common, this scenario has happened a handful of times over the nine years of Layla’s life. Just as there are times when I need her to anchor me and help me discover the joy in small things, sometimes she also needs some extra help. And isn’t that what a relationship is all about?
Balancing our needs with the needs of those we love is never easy. It’s important to remember that dogs are their own selves, individual as each of us. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own little peculiarities. Their individuality is part of what draws us to them, even as their alien culture sometimes confuses us or sets us at ends. We’ll never know what it’s like to live in their world of scent, just as they’ll never understand the joy of a sunset over a lake. But we can still connect over our shared interests, and that’s a pretty biologically amazing thing.
A good number of the training challenges I encounter are due to an imbalance in the human-canine relationship. While some give and take is healthy, when one side pulls more than the other side can bear, problems come to light. Often this is a case where neither party is a good match for the other. Perhaps the human wants an agility dog who will love the excitement and competition of a trial, while the dog just wants to hike in the quiet suburbs. Or sometimes it’s the dog who’s pushing, needing more and more physical and mental exercise while the person just wanted a snuggly companion to relax with on the couch after work. Mismatches like this can learn to live together, but making a better choice of companions in the first place would have saved a lot of heartbreak and frustration on both parts.
But what if you’re already stuck in a mismatch? Not all relationships are meant to last, and that’s as true for people and dogs as it is for people and other people. It’s sad that people are often guilted into keeping a dog who is a truly awful match for them.
Understand that I’m not saying that dogs can be thrown away or changed out like shoes with each new season. However, if you’ve found yourself in a truly unbalanced match with your dog, I think that rehoming that dog can often be a very kind and responsible choice. If your dog will not be able to live happily or safely with you but can do so with someone else, one of the best things you can do for that dog is to help him or her find that perfect match. Living in an unbalanced relationship solely because you’ve been taught to believe that a dog is a lifetime commitment is at its best selfish, because you’re letting your fear of what others will think interfere with your dog’s right to live in the best home possible for him or her. At its worst, this sort of situation often resembles the most abusive of human relationships, with one party for all intents and purposes held hostage by the other’s needs. It’s not healthy, and it’s a very strong thing to recognize that and take steps to repair it… even if those steps lead to the rehoming of your dog.
If you’re in the difficult position of considering whether to rehome your dog, it’s important to take an honest look at the situation and to do your homework. First of all, honestly explore whether your dog is a safe and suitable candidate for rehoming. If your dog has a bite history or has significant behavioral issues, consult a qualified trainer to get their opinion on whether your dog should be rehomed. In some states, you can still be held liable for your dog’s behavior (including bites) even after rehoming him or her to a new owner with full disclosure of any history of aggression. Other behavioral issues than aggression also deserve a thorough evaluation. Separation anxiety or fear issues can be very difficult to live with and modify, and if you, the person who cares for your dog the most in the entire world, are unable or unwilling to put the effort into solving these issues, what makes you think that someone else who doesn’t yet have that bond will do so?
Finally, do your homework. There are lots of rehoming options out there, and it’s important to choose the one that will be the best for your dog. If you’re rehoming your dog privately, make sure to thoroughly check references and perhaps perform a home visit before giving your dog up to anyone. Be honest about your dog’s personality and history, and ask open-ended questions to get a better idea about the sort of home your dog will be living in.
Rehoming a dog is never easy, but if done responsibly it can often be the very kindest option when there’s just not a good match between dog and owner. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, if you do need to rehome your dog for any reason, please be honest to yourself and others about what happened. Make sure to do your homework in the future so that you can make a better match with your next dog.
Layla would have been a horrible match for most families. She’s simply not what people usually look for in a pet. She’s quick and smart, but also anxious and touch-sensitive. She doesn’t tolerate fools (human or canine) and isn’t afraid of making a point with her teeth. That said, when I adopted Layla I made the sort of match that most people dream about. Instead of being at odds, our personalities complement each other. We understand one another and work well together. I’m forever grateful to her previous owner for recognizing that their relationship was never going to work. By giving Layla up, she gave both Layla and myself an amazing gift. She gave us each other.
May every family be so lucky.
Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.
We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.
The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.
As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.
The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.
So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!
Basically we are all looking for someone who knows who we are and will break it to us gently. -Robert Brault
Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).
It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.
The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.
So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”
The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.
Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.
Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.
The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!