Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Should I get an Invisible Fence?

I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.

A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.

How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?

Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.

Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.

So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:

  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards visitors on the property. This is by far the most common problem owners of invisibly fenced dogs encounter. This is also absolutely predictable from a behavioral standpoint. In our human example at the start of this article, you saw how this problem could develop over time.Even dogs who have a very clear understanding of how these collars work and who know the boundaries of their yard will make mistakes from time to time. Remember that dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-4 year old child. Would you expect a young child to always remember exactly how far they were allowed to venture?Dogs are most likely to make mistakes when they are excited, such as when people or other dogs walk past. At this point, classical conditioning (the Pavlov stuff) takes hold: the dog experiences a sting from the collar when he happens to be looking at that dog or person, and associates the unpleasant sensation with that dog or person. If this happens multiple times, dogs will naturally begin to react negatively when they are in their yard and they see a person or another dog. They do this not because they’re a bad dog, but because they have made negative associations with similar situations in the past. Some dogs will become fearful and tremble, hide, or shut down, but most respond aggressively in these situations, warning the person or dog away by barking. If that doesn’t work, they may escalate to lunging, snapping, or biting in their attempts to drive away the thing that they believe to be responsible for their pain.
  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards people or animals off the property. Closely following the problem of unwanted behaviors on the home turf is the likelihood of these behaviors bleeding into all social interactions. The connection between a dog’s sudden behavioral change towards people on walks and his owner’s use of an electronic containment system isn’t always readily apparent, but some detailed history taking will usually reveal the relationship between the two. In fact, one of the questions on my intake questionnaire for every behavioral case includes which tools an owner has used for their dog. It’s so common for fear or aggression issues to develop 4-8 months after the installation of one of these systems that I find it necessary to screen for it.
  • Noise phobias. Just as a dog may associate the approach of people with being shocked, many dogs will become sensitive to the beeping sound that predicts this sensation. This becomes a problem when dogs generalize this connection to similar sounds. Think of all the beeping noises in your everyday environment: your microwave, your computer, your phone, your alarm… we live in a world of beeps. Now imagine that you expected to get stung every time you heard one of these noises. What a terrifying existence! This fear can cause dogs to become generally anxious, where they are always on edge, or can cause less obvious problems. If the dog associates a beeping sound with a certain behavior, he will often become reluctant to do that behavior again out of fear. If he associates it with a person, he may act nervous around that person in the future. Likewise, he may begin avoiding areas of the house in which he frequently hears beeping sounds because he doesn’t know where the boundaries in that area are, or he may freeze in fear upon hearing a beep, afraid to move lest he cross a boundary and receive a shock.
  • Fence darting. Some dogs may not ever display fearful or aggressive behaviors as a result of their confinement with an underground fencing system, but will push the boundaries of that confinement. Many predatory or excitable dogs are quite willing to take the shock in order to chase a bunny or squirrel or to rush a dog being walked past. Unfortunately, they’re usually not as willing to take a second shock in order to come back into their yard. Other tricksy dogs will test the fence, waiting until the collar no longer beeps. Once the battery dies (and there is no more beep at the edge of the property), the dog is free to roam at will. Speaking from experience (I worked at an open admission shelter that took in stray dogs picked up by animal control), electronic fences aren’t a reliable way to keep a determined dog in one place. Shelters and impound facilities are full of dogs wearing invisible fence collars.
  • Generalized fear issues. Young or sensitive dogs may react very badly to the introduction of an underground fence system. These dogs sometimes become fearful of their yard and are unwilling to go outside. Many of these fearful dogs will lose or backslide on their housetraining as they would rather soil the house than risk going outside, which they have associated with pain.
  • Safety concerns. Even if your dog doesn’t ever leave the yard and never experiences any unwanted behavioral fallout, it’s important to remember that the use of an electronic containment system doesn’t protect him from outside dangers.  Aggressive dogs, coyotes, or other dangerous wildlife can still enter your yard and attack your dog, whose ability to maneuver and avoid them is limited when he’s wearing his collar. People can also enter your property, either to willfully molest your dog (which is rare, but does happen, especially with groups of children) or not knowing that your dog is there. If your dog injures someone who has come onto your property, you could be liable. Unattended dogs may be stolen from their properties by people who remove the dog’s collar, then resell the stolen dog or use them as “bait” dogs.

If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.

Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?

[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn’t, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you’re still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]

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!

A Case for Kongs

If every dog in the world could be given one toy, I think the Kong would be the way to go. A Kong toy is shaped somewhat like a rounded rubber pyramid with a hollow center. Kongs have three chewing “levels” – red for beginners, black for tough chewers, and blue Kongs, which are the toughest level and are available only through veterinarians because they are radio opaque (which means they will show up on an x-ray if the dog swallows them). There are also special, softer Kongs made for puppies or senior dogs. These Kong toys have a marbled appearance, with white mixed into the pink, blue, or purple color.

Kong toys are extremely durable, which means they can go from the microwave to the freezer to the dishwasher and back again without breaking down. They stand up well to almost every dog, provided you choose the right size and hardness level for your dog’s tenacity of chewing. Kong toys bounce erratically when thrown and provide a great chew toy.

The thing that puts a Kong toy head and tails above the competition, though, is their hollow center. Kong toys can be stuffed with an amazing variety of food items. This is a great source for mental exercise! For dogs who are left home alone all day, consider throwing out your dog’s food bowl and feeding solely from Kong toys.

There are certainly other brands of toys that resemble Kongs available, but the Kong is the “original” toy and is the one that seems to work best for most dogs. There is one Kong knock-off on the market which may be of interest to some people though, and that is the “Squirrel Dude” toy manufactured by Premier/PetSafe. This tough purple toy (yes, it resembles a squirrel) improves on the Kong design by adding four small rubber prongs which line the inside of the toy’s hole. These prongs make it much harder to get food back out of a Squirrel Dude toy once you’ve stuffed it in. A Squirrel Dude toy is not for a beginner to puzzle stuffing, but can provide a nice challenge to dogs for whom a Kong toy no longer gives any challenge. The Squirrel Dude toys can be further customized by lopping off one or more of the rubber prongs with a sharp pair of scissors, so that you can adjust the toy’s level of difficulty.

To clean your dog’s Kongs out, use the cleaning brushes that can be used for baby bottles, or just scrub around inside the opening with your fingers. Kongs are dishwasher safe, but be warned that tightly lodged food can easily sneak through an entire dishwashing cycle. Make sure your dog’s Kongs are cleaned regularly to prevent food from spoiling.

Next week we’ll discuss Kong stuffing options, as well as other games to play with these toys.

Do you use Kong toys for your dog? Please share your favorite Kong stuffing recipes, games, or other tips and tricks in the comments below!

Busting Myths About the Gentle Leader

Earlier we talked about why I use and recommend the Gentle Leader head collar. There are quite a few myths out there about it, so let’s explore those now. Some people say that it’s inhumane. They say that dogs hate it. I frequently hear that it’s dangerous, since a dog could injure his neck while wearing it. All of these statements are untrue.

Let’s start with the accusation that the Gentle Leader is inhumane. In order to be inhumane, a device must cause pain or injury or it must be frightening to the subject. The Gentle Leader does not cause pain in dogs any more than a regular horse halter hurts horses. There are no sharp prongs that dig into the dog, nor are there electric shock currents to zap him. It doe not frighten the dog with sudden jerks, jabs, sprays, or noises. It works on simple leverage, much like any of the front-attach harnesses. When a dog pulls on the Gentle Leader, he finds his head guided around in a circle so that he ends up looking back at his handler.

Next, the risk of injury. This accusation always strikes me as funny, since when my dog injured her neck and upper back, the veterinary chiropractor specifically recommended that I use a Gentle Leader on her to minimize the chance of re-injury. Layla was actually paralyzed for a short while due to 2 herniated discs, and the risk of re-injury (including becoming paralyzed again) was unknown. My vet was concerned that a standard collar or harness would put pressure on her injured discs, especially if she lunged or jerked on the leash suddenly, and didn’t want her to wear either one.

People who claim that the Gentle Leader can injure a dog usually express concern about a whiplash-type injury to the neck if the dog hits the end of the leash quickly or with great force. They say that the Gentle Leader will snap the dog’s neck. This ignores simple physics. If a dog hits the end of the leash while wearing the Gentle Leader, it will start to turn him towards you. If he has a lot of force behind his lunge, that force will flow through all of his body, turning him further towards you. This means that a dog walking to the end of the leash may just be turned slightly towards you, with his body still facing the direction he was going, while a dog lunging to the end of the leash will end up with his entire body facing you. I believe the risk of injury to actually be less with a Gentle Leader, since in a standard collar the dog would receive a harsh jerk to his sensitive throat at the end of a lunge.

Here’s the truth: the Premier company and the co-inventor of the Gentle Leader, Dr. R.K. Anderson, have investigated numerous claims of neck/whiplash injury caused by the Gentle Leader since it was first put on the market, and have never been able to confirm a single case. If the Gentle Leader was hurting dogs, we would know by now. It’s just not happening.

Lastly, we come to the claim that dogs hate the Gentle Leader. This is most often due to incorrect fit. If the back neck strap is not adjusted snugly enough, it will slide around and annoy the dog. This may also cause the nose band to be adjusted too tightly, which is restrictive and will also annoy the dog. If your dog doesn’t like his Gentle Leader, check the fit! You should only be able to fit one finger under the neck strap, and the nose band should be as loose as it can go without coming off.

I can tell you that in 8 years of professional training with thousands of dogs, I have only found 2 dogs who I felt were too upset by the Gentle Leader to use it. Both dogs were Pit Bull types, and one ended up having an infected tooth. The other one had some scars on his face and was generally wary about having his face touched, so likely had some past history of pain there.

It’s true that dogs often need to adjust to the Gentle Leader. However, in my experience, dogs don’t paw at a Gentle Leader any longer or more violently than puppies paw at their very first collar or harness. I find that this adjustment process goes incredibly quickly and is just not a problem. Simply associating the Gentle Leader with pleasant things for 1-2 days will usually do the trick.

I hope this helps to clear up all of the common misconceptions about this great training tool! Like any tool, the goal should be to only use the Gentle Leader while training, then transition away from it. Have you heard any of these myths before? What training tools have you found to be the most successful when working with your dog? I look forward to hearing from you!

In Praise of the Gentle Leader

The Gentle Leader is a special collar that fits on a dog’s head, much like a halter on a horse. It’s one of my favorite training tools, and also one of the most misunderstood among both the general public and professional trainers.

I use the Gentle Leader for every foster dog who comes through my doors, and it’s rare for a dog not to be as comfortable wearing it as a regular flat collar within 2 days. The secret? I put the Gentle Leader on before pleasant things (mealtime, walks, playtime, Kong time, etc), and take it off when the pleasant activity is finished. I also ignore any pawing. I find that many owners unintentionally reward this pawing because they pay attention to it. My dogs are trained to stick their noses through the nose loop of the Gentle Leader as soon as I hold it out, and they do this happily because they know it means Good Things Are Going to Happen.

So, why do I like the Gentle Leader? For me, this management tool makes the training process quicker and more effective. If I can control my dog’s head, I can control my dog’s focus. I’m able to redirect him if he becomes focused on a squirrel, another dog, or a biker outside. I’m able to teach him right from the start to walk on a loose leash, not to bark, and to sit politely for greetings. There’s a reason veterinary behaviorists and well-known professional trainers use Gentle Leaders with their own and clients’ dogs. They work. They’re humane. They’re effective. They save owners time and prevent dogs from engaging in bad behavior until the dog is trained.

The Gentle Leader is a must-have for working with aggressive or reactive dogs, but I also use it in basic training with all puppies and adolescents, or with untrained or strong adults. There are so many uses! A Gentle Leader and drag-line in my house allows me to teach house manners quickly and easily.

My goal is always to train every dog to a point where he doesn’t need any equipment (including a collar or leash). I find that the Gentle Leader is a great place to start the training process, but I don’t stop there. I work with the dog and teach him to walk nicely on leash, ignore distractions, and greet people politely. Once he knows these skills, we fade the Gentle Leader and the dog instead wears a flat buckle collar on his neck. I could certainly teach these skills on that flat collar to start with, but I find that dogs just learn faster with the Gentle Leader, and it’s easy enough to fade.

In the future, we’ll discuss some of the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding the Gentle Leader, other training tools I use, and some of the training games I play using the Gentle Leader. In the meantime, please comment below with your thoughts. Have you ever used a Gentle Leader (or any other brand of head collar), and what did you think? Did your dog adjust easily to it? What other training tools have you found to be helpful?