Category Archives: Neat Stuff

Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs

There are many reasons why your dog may not like being rushed by an off-leash dog when he’s on leash. Off-leash dogs are, obviously, the bane of many of my reactive clients’ existence, but senior dogs; those recovering from surgery, illness, or injuries; shy pups and fearful dogs may also find the attention of off-leash dogs upsetting or overwhelming. Even friendly dogs may not appreciate interacting with another dog in such a socially unequal situation – leashes can cause a lot of issues.

Photo by Chriss

Photo by Chriss

So, what can you do if you get rushed by an off-leash dog? First of all, know that it is always okay to protect your dog. Most urban and suburban environments have leash laws, and if your dog is on a leash you are right in keeping your dog safe. You are also completely within your rights to report off-leash dogs to your local authorities. Not only can an off-leash dog pose a threat to you or your dog, but they are also at personal risk from vehicles and other dangers. Even those who live in the country should control their dogs, and if a neighbor’s dog or unknown stray shows up on your property and harasses you or your dog you can and should take measures to discourage him.

The first thing to do if you notice an off-leash dog coming towards you is to evaluate the situation to see if the owner is nearby. If they are, tell them to call their dog. Many people will respond by telling you that their dog is “friendly,” but regardless of their dog’s behavior, if their dog is not under their control and is upsetting you or your dog, it is a problem. Some people have found success in these situations by responding that their leashed dog is not friendly, is shy, is in training, or just doesn’t want to say “hi,” but the most effective phrase I’ve heard of if you want to inspire the owner to collect their dog immediately is to loudly yell “my dog is contagious!”. While I don’t generally condone lying, if it will keep the situation from escalating further you may find that this is a case where it’s worthwhile.

If the owner is unable or unwilling to collect their dog or if there’s no owner in sight, you can choose whether to let that dog meet your dog. Some people only intervene if the loose dog appears to be aggressive and allow friendly-appearing dogs to approach, while others of us do not let any unknown loose dog meet our on-leash pups. Dogs who may appear friendly at first can sometimes become aggressive during the greeting sniff, or may injure your dog by bowling into them or jumping on them. Even my very dog social, friendly pup is not exposed to loose dogs, because I don’t think it’s a fair situation to put her in. Instead, I always intervene and teach my dogs that I will deal with loose dogs so that they do not have to.

So, how can you stop a dog that’s charging you? There are several different strategies, and I choose the method I think will work best for each individual situation. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The gentlest way to discourage visiting is to give the loose dog something better to do. Dogs who seem happy and bubbly are often easily stopped by asking them to “sit.” If the dog complies, you can toss a handful of treats to him and make your escape while he’s vacuuming them up. Even if he doesn’t listen, a handful of treats can be tossed at his face (with the intent to startle, not hurt). When he stops to see what hit him, he’ll realize that there’s food on the ground and devote his attention to eating instead of rushing your dog. This method has worked really well for a few overly-exuberant Labs and Pit Bulls in my neighborhood. It doesn’t stop them from approaching in the future, but it’s the kindest way to give your dog space without the potential fallout that more forceful methods may cause.

If the above ideas don’t work or aren’t possible (perhaps you are out of treats, have a dog who guards food, or feel fairly confident that the oncoming dog won’t be dissuaded), try to startle the loose dog. Step in between your dog and the oncoming dog and use a body block. Square your shoulders and hips, and hold your hand out like a cop stopping traffic while saying “No,” “Stop,” or “Stay” in a firm, low voice. Alternatively, you could carry an umbrella with you and open it in the direction of the rushing dog, which will both startle him and provide a physical and visual barrier. One of my clients painted large eyes on her umbrella, which would pop open explosively at the push of a button. This so startled an aggressive Puggle in her neighborhood that he never again went after her dog.

One easy way to keep loose dogs away is to use a spray product if they come close. Spray Shield is a citronella product manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. It is aversive to most dogs without actually harming them, and can be sprayed directly at an oncoming dog. I carry this product with on walks and use it to keep especially determined dogs (including those who mean to attack my dog) back. Some people have also reported success using compressed air in this same way. Spray Shield has the added benefit of working to stop some dog fights, so if things do get out of hand you have a safer way to break up a fight than trying to forcibly remove one of the combatants.

In addition to having a plan dealing for loose dogs, it’s important to know what not to do. Whatever you do, don’t use pepper spray. Not only can pain make some dogs more aggressive, but if the wind gusts the wrong way the spray could end up getting into your or your dog’s face and eyes, leaving you incapacitated with an unknown dog rushing you. Not a good situation to be in! Running away is also generally not advised, as it will just encourage most dogs to chase you. Picking your dog up is usually not a good idea, although in some situations you may decide it’s a calculated risk you’re willing to take. Doing so may put you at greater risk and can intensify the off-leash dog’s interest in your pup.

While cases of truly aggressive dogs intent on bodily harm are rare, they do happen. If your small dog is rushed by an aggressive off-leash dog, you may be able to pick him up and toss him somewhere safer, such as in a nearby garbage can, inside a fenced yard, in the bed of a truck, or on the roof of a car. You can also take advantage of some of these safety options for yourself. If you have a bigger dog or if no other options are available, you may need to assess whether your dog would be safer if you dropped the leash so that he can try to get away from the other dog or defend himself. If the loose dog redirects on you (which is rare, but does happen), protect your head and neck. Spray Shield will stop all but the most aggressive dogs, and generally these dogs are only stopped by physically separating them from their victim. One of my clients carries a walking stick on outings after one of her small dogs was killed by a much larger dog who jumped his fence. While the stick may not have saved her dog, it makes her feel more comfortable to have something that she could use to keep an aggressive dog back.

While no single method will work in every case, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better able you’ll be to protect your dog. Remember that it is always okay to stand up for your dog. After I sprayed an aggressive Shepherd who was charging Layla off-leash, Layla’s reactivity towards other dogs on walks actually decreased significantly. Instead of snarling and lunging at other dogs, she began to put herself behind me when she was charged by an off-leash dog, trusting me to deal with the situation.

If you have a dog who is usually trustworthy off-leash, make sure that your dog’s freedom does not negatively impact others. If your dog is likely to rush other dogs, please keep him on a leash or behind a secure fence. Not only could your dog be bitten if he rushes the wrong dog, but he could also be hurt by traffic or by a frightened owner defending their dog. It’s just not worth the risk.

Have you or your dog ever been rushed by an off-leash dog? How do you handle this situation? Please share your stories, tips, and questions in the comments below!

Moving with Minnie

[Note from Sara: recently my friend and fellow Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Katie Kelly, moved with her Shih Tzu, Minnie. I was so impressed by the way that Katie supported Minnie and problem-solved to help her adjust to apartment living that I asked her to write a guest blog post about her experiences. Enjoy!]

Minnie is my little sidekick. She goes with me absolutely everywhere: to the pet store, to the park, and to visit with family and friends. She has also moved with me countless times. We’ve lived in a couple different homes in Rochester, multiple places in Winona, and at one point, maintained residence in Zumbrota as well. However, the two of us had grown accustomed to the private life of living in a house. Neither of us had ever truly experienced apartment living until recently.

Minnie and Katie

Minnie and Katie

In the first couple days of living in our new apartment, I could tell Minnie wasn’t truly comfortable. She would find her hiding places and shut down: she didn’t seek out attention, she didn’t play with her toys, and she didn’t chew on her bones. She needed some time to adjust, and then she’d return to being normal happy–go-lucky Minnie. At least that is what I thought.

Technically, dogs are not allowed at my apartment complex, but the landlord did me a favor and allowed us to take residence regardless. Because of this, I figured Minnie might be the window of opportunity: that she might provide a positive image for responsible dog owners who were looking to rent. As the only dog in the apartment building, I felt that it was important to make a good impression on the other residents as well as the landlord.

A week or so after moving, she was coming around little by little. But instead of turning into the superstar I had hoped for, she started to become the stereotypical little yappy dog. I actually set up a video camera to see how she did when I wasn’t around, and I found she would bark incessantly, finding it difficult to calm herself. Then it hit me. I had just moved this five-year-old dog, accustomed to household living, into an apartment building. While it wasn’t too much of a change for me, I soon realized that it was a drastic change for Minnie. In her mind, there were loud scary noises coming from every direction. She had no idea who was making these noises, nor what they predicted. I started to truly hear it. There was door banging, knocking, stomping feet, and conversation in the hallways. Minnie didn’t have the capability to seek out or make sense of any of these things.

We started counter conditioning. I wore my treat pouch every moment we were in the apartment. Every time there was a slight noise, I would press the clicker before Minnie had the chance to react to it and treat her with high rewards. If Minnie did react, I’d call her or lure her (depending on the severity) away from the door and started treating her until I could see her physically calming down. However, this wasn’t enough. What happened when I was gone? Surely, all our hard work would go down the drain as those loud noises would stir her up without me there to help her cope.

We tried the Thundershirt, the DAP collar, the DAP diffuser, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, rawhides, bully sticks, and Through a Dog’s Ear classical music. I tried in every possible way I could think of to keep her busy, and to keep her feeling secure and calm. I thought of taking her to daycare, but she is fearful of other dogs. I figured the stress of daycare would just carry over to our home environment and make things worse.

I decided to shoot around for ideas. An idol of mine, who has an incredible amount of knowledge in canine behavior, was very helpful. She had mentioned everything above, and when I told her I had exhausted those efforts, she recommended the Manners Minder. Genius!

The Manners Minder is a treat-dispensing machine. I created a colorful note outside my door that let my neighbors know that I was working on Minnie’s issues and also invited them to be a part of the solution! Alongside the note, I taped the remote control that directly dispensed the treats from the Manners Minder. Inside my apartment, on a table next to the door, was the almighty, praise-worthy, treat dispenser (as Minnie saw it). While I was at home, I could see people were already willing to send Minnie magical treats. They’d walk by (with the associated stomping, talking, and slamming doors) and press the button on the remote taped outside my door. The machine would beep letting Minnie know that treats were on the way, before dispensing them before her very eyes! This machine allowed me to go to school, and while at home, Minnie could be counter conditioned by others who made those scary noises outside the door!

People = treats! My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie's Manners Minder.

My neighbors were very generous about using Minnie’s Manners Minder.

I had to laugh because there were times where I’d check the video camera and watch her progress when I’d get home from school. Many used the remote, but there were also instances where people walked by without using it, and to my surprise Minnie still wiggled her way over to the door expecting goodies. Those loud scary noises finally started to predict good things, and she no longer felt the need to bark.

Finally, Minnie was truly able to relax and feel comfortable in her new home.

Bathing Your Dog

Having worked as a groomer for three years, I notice dirty dogs. Dogs who smell, dogs whose fur feels gritty or oily, and dogs with matted hair all bother me. However, working as a trainer, I also understand how difficult it can be for some people to bathe their dogs, as well as the reluctance people may have to bring their dog to a professional groomer. Here’s how to make bathtime easier on everyone.

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Most dogs should be bathed regularly to keep their skin and coat in good shape. If your dog lives indoors, it’s also important to keep him or her relatively clean for sanitary reasons. How often you bathe your dog depends on many factors. In general, dogs should be bathed at least once a year, and no more frequently than once a week. Corded or hairless breeds may have different needs, so if you have one of these breeds make sure to talk to your breeder. I bathe my own dogs every 6-8 weeks (or more frequently if they roll in something icky).

If your dog isn’t a big fan of bathtime, do some prep work to make your job easier. Feed your dog in the bathtub (or wherever you plan to bathe him) to create positive associations with the area. Make sure that you use a non-slip mat or other grippy material if the surface your dog will stand on becomes slippery when wet. If you need to leash your dog during bathtime, use a martingale-type leash. If you must use a slip leash, never tie it to anything.

For long-coated dogs, make sure you can get a comb through your dog’s fur before you bathe him. Washing a matted dog causes the mats to tighten up painfully. If your dog is matted, shave the mats prior to bathing him. Never try to clip a mat out with scissors, as tight mats can pull at the skin and you may cut your dog.

Choose a quality dog shampoo. I use Cloud Star’s Buddy Wash or the Furminator Shampoo for my dogs, as these do not cause any allergic reactions with Layla. Use a tearless shampoo for your dog’s face and head. Dilute the shampoo (about 1 part shampoo to 10 parts water) before using it, regardless of what the label says: diluted shampoo penetrates through the coat better and is easier to rinse off, not to mention being more cost effective. If your dog has an especially greasy coat or has anything messy stuck in their fur, a small amount of plain Dawn dishwashing detergent can be added to the shampoo to cut through the oil. Note that this may dry your dog’s skin out, so don’t overuse the dishwashing liquid!

I smear peanut butter or cheese whiz on the side of the bathtub to keep my dogs still and content during bathtime. They stand quietly and lick at their special treat while I’m washing them. Wet your dog down thoroughly, then apply the diluted shampoo, starting with their head and working backwards down the body. Rinse in the same direction. If the dog is especially stinky or dirty, wash them twice.

Following the shampoo with a conditioning rinse will keep your dog’s skin and coat healthier, make long-coated dogs less prone to matting, and may reduce shedding in some dogs. I use the same brands of conditioner as I do shampoo (Cloud Star’s Buddy Rinse or the Furminator Deshedding Solution). Work the conditioner into the coat, spending extra time working it into any problem areas (such as behind the ears, where longer fur is likely to tangle), then let it sit for a short while before rinsing it thoroughly.

Towel or blow dry your dog, then let them enjoy the post-bath zoomies!

Does your dog enjoy baths? What products have you found helpful, and do you have any other bathing tips to share? Please comment 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!

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!

7 Things to Do With a Kong

We’ve talked before about how useful Kong toys can be to provide mental exercise, as well as some ideas on how to stuff them. Here are more ideas on how to get the most out of your dog’s Kong toys!

Photo by OakleyOriginals on flickr

  • Freeze it: Any wet or sticky food can be frozen into a Kong toy to provide a longer-lasting “Kongsicle.” Keep several prepared Kongs in the door of your freezer so you always have one ready at a moment’s notice for unexpected visitors or any other time when you might appreciate a puppy pacifier.
  • Microwave it: Mix some cheese in with some dry treats or kibble and microwave long enough to melt the cheese. Let the Kong cool before giving it to your pooch. This creates a very gooey treat that takes dogs a long time to extract.
  • Hang it from a tree: thread a rope through your dog’s Kong, and tie a knot in the rope on the small end of the Kong. Position the Kong toy with the large hole facing upwards, and fill it with your dog’s food. Throw the other end of the rope over a tree branch and hoist the Kong just high enough that your dog can easily reach it, but will need to jump up and bat at it to knock food out.
  • Scavenger hunt: stuff your dog’s meal into one or more Kongs and hide them throughout the house or yard.
  • Use it for grooming: A Kong filled with peanut butter or low fat cream cheese can give your dog something pleasant to focus on while you’re brushing him, trimming his nails, or attending to any other grooming tasks that he finds onerous.
  • Crate training: make your dog’s crate into a “magic Kong place” and you’ll create a dog who loves his crate for life!
  • Ice bucket Kongs: fill a bucket up with water or broth and one or more stuffed Kong toys, then freeze it overnight. In the morning, dump the giant ice cube into a kiddie pool or put the entire bucket in your dog’s crate. As the ice melts, your dog will discover the delicious Kong surprises inside.
These are just a few ideas of fun things to do with Kongs. Have another great idea? Please share it below!