Monthly Archives: May 2012

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”  — William Arthur Ward

“My Dog LOVES Other Dogs”

“My dog just LOVES other dogs!”

If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this phrase! Often uttered as a lunging, whining, adolescent dog drags her owner towards my dog, or worse yet as an off-leash dog makes a bee-line towards us, it usually spells trouble. Here’s the thing: my dogs do not want to meet rude, over-the-top dogs, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, I consider my dogs to be more well-socialized than these canine Tarzans, even though they’re quite likely to snark at the “friendly” dog who jumps on their heads.

Photo by Karen Rodgers

Our society seems to have lost sight of what appropriate dog-dog interactions look like. The idea that every dog should want to play with every other dog they meet is ludicrous. Dogs who don’t fit into this narrow view of dog sociability are viewed as disturbed, aggressive, or in need of “rehabilitation.” A mature dog who snarls and barks at an adolescent puppy who plows into her is corrected by her owner and told to “play nice,” when really all she wants is to be left alone.

No other species is held to these standards, not even our own. Imagine if you were walking down the street and a strange man started running towards you. As he raced towards you he started shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey you! Hey!” at the top of his lungs. Now imagine that when he reached you, he grabbed you up in a huge bear hug and spun you around, lifting your feet off the ground, while shouting “Hi! Hey, hi! Hello!” as loudly as he could. How would you react? Would you feel justified in responding defensively? Would you feel better about the interaction if his wife ran up behind him and told you, “He just LOVES new people!”?

This creepy interaction is no different from what many dogs are forced to tolerate every day. Look at it from your dog’s perspective. She’s walking along, enjoying the sights and smells of her neighborhood, when another dog appears in the distance. The dog is straining at the end of his leash, and as soon as he sees your dog he starts yipping and whining.The second he gets close enough, he starts jumping all over your dog while still whining. His owner proudly tells you how much he LOVES other dogs, and when your dog snarls at him, the other dog’s owner pulls him away with a hurt, “He just wanted to say hi.”

Over-excitement like this is not a hallmark of a well-socialized dog. We understand that we must teach human children to behave calmly and politely around others, but sometimes forget that the same basic principles apply to raising our dogs. Social behavior includes the ability to just hang out calmly with members of one’s own species.

We’ll talk later this week about what to do if you have a “canine Tarzan” who doesn’t understand how to greet other dogs politely. In the meantime, let’s drop the idea that every dog should love every other dog they meet, and stop holding them to such impossible standards. I expect my dogs to tolerate other dogs who aren’t getting in their faces, just as I tolerate the close proximity of strangers in an elevator. But if they don’t want to make friends with every dog they meet, that’s okay. In fact, it’s downright normal.

Can You Reinforce Fear?

“Don’t pet or reassure your dog when he’s afraid. You might reinforce his fear.”

How often have you heard this advice? It’s a common recommendation in the case of fearful dogs. Owners who support their fearful dog are guilt-tripped into thinking they’ve caused (or at least worsened) their dogs’ issues.

Photo by Mike Sagmeister

While the idea that fear can be reinforced seems reasonable, closer examination reveals just how ridiculous and inhumane the idea that fearful dogs should be ignored really is.

Let’s pretend that you’re waiting in line at the bank, minding your own business, when an armed robber enters the building. You and the other customers are held at gunpoint and in fear for your life. After a tense stand-off, the robber gives himself up to the police and you run out of the building into the arms of your friends and family.

If your loved ones hug and comfort you, are you going to be more afraid next time you’re held at gunpoint? Didn’t they reinforce your fear?

Think about it: fear sucks. It doesn’t feel good to be afraid, and the aversive nature of the emotion means that it’s really difficult to make an animal desire to be afraid. We feel fear because we believe ourselves to be unsafe, not because it’s been rewarded in the past.

There’s actually some pretty compelling science that shows that, rather than reinforcing fear, using rewards in a fear-inducing situation can overcome it.

Consider a rat living in an operant conditioning box in a laboratory. The rat has learned that when a light goes on in his cage, it means he’s going to receive an electric shock. When the light goes on, the rat huddles in a corner of his cage, clearly terrified. Now let’s say that every time the light goes on, a food pellet is dispensed into the rat’s food bowl right after the electric shock. What would you expect to happen?

If we believe that fear can be reinforced, we would expect that the rat’s fearful behavior would become worse, since we’re giving him food when he’s clearly in a fearful state. However, this isn’t the case at all. In fact, over time the rat stops cowering as much when the light goes on, even though he still knows he’s going to get shocked. He’s learned that pleasant things will follow the unpleasant thing, and while he’s still afraid, he’s less so than he used to be.

This isn’t to say that your response to your dog’s fearful behavior may not increase his anxiety. Fear is highly contagious, and if you’re nervous or uncertain yourself when you try to reassure your dog he may very well become more upset.

I oftentimes see this with owners who pick their small dogs up when the dog shows nervousness around other dogs. While there’s nothing wrong with picking your dog up if he feels unsafe, how you do so can be a big deal. If you scoop him up and clutch him tightly in fear, he’s going to think, “wow, mom’s really upset. I was right, that dog was dangerous!”  If, instead, you calmly pick him up while chatting to him in a cheerful and relaxed tone, you can begin to teach him that you’ll keep him safe, but that the entire situation really isn’t a big deal.

What this means in a practical sense is that there may be times when it’s better not to reassure or pet your fearful dog: but only because you’re upset yourself. Calm your own emotions before you attempt to calm your dog, and you’ll both be better off. And by the way, be careful what you tell your dog. Dogs aren’t stupid, and telling your dog that he’s okay when he’s very clearly not isn’t going to solve the problem. The best way to reassure your dog is to show him by your actions that you will protect him from the scary situation by avoiding it altogether or by removing him to a place where he feels safe. Asking a fearful dog to cope with something that he feels threatened by isn’t going to make his fear magically melt away, and may in fact further sensitize him.

The bottom line is that dogs don’t want to feel afraid, any more than we do. Fear isn’t always reasonable. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t get that. Forcing them to face their fears because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of snakes, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a ball python on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that it can’t hurt you.

So next time your dog feels afraid, go ahead and pet him. Heck, feed him some pieces of hot dog and break out his favorite tug toy! As long as you’re calm and relaxed yourself, you’re not going to make his fear worse. Who knows, maybe you’ll even help him feel better. Your dog deserves your friendship and support, so please give it to him. You’re not going to reinforce the fear. Honest.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Matt

“No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.” 

 Louis Sabin

Thunderstorm Phobia: a Case Study

Since I adopted Layla in late winter, it was several months before I became aware her thunder phobia. The first time a thunderstorm rolled in, my 8-month-old puppy panicked. She screamed and threw herself at doors and windows, trying frantically to escape the loud rumbles. I held her in my arms to keep her safe, and she trembled uncontrollably at each boom. It was clear we had a problem.

At that time, I was relatively new to dog training. Initial attempts to utilize counter-conditioning techniques failed, since Layla was too panicked to be interested in food or toys. All she wanted was to escape or, barring that, to hide under a blanket, pressed tightly against me. She was inconsolable during these events.

After finding references online to the use of melatonin to treat thunderstorm phobia and later reading a Whole Dog Journal article on the same topic, I called my vet for advice. Melatonin is a hormone which is involved in circadian rhythms. Marketed as a “natural” sleeping aid frequently used by jet-lagged travelers, it is generally regarded as safe for people, although like all supplements should only be taken with a doctor’s (or in our case, veterinarian’s) approval. My veterinarian recommended that I try a dose of 1.5mg with Layla, increasing the dose to 3mg if needed.

The melatonin allowed Layla some relief, putting her into a state where she was still nervous but was able to eat treats. I began counter-conditioning exercises, feeding her a small treat following every rumble of thunder (yes, every rumble… even those at 2am). We used a similar technique when fireworks were going off.

Over the course of nearly two years, we continued to work on Layla’s response to thunderstorms. While she no longer panicked, she was still apprehensive. At one point, she had a breakthrough panic attack when I was working on the Fourth of July. In spite of her melatonin and a stuffed Kong toy, she attempted to claw her way out of her crate, breaking several toenails and splitting one all the way up to her toe. The blood-splattered crate looked like it belonged in a horror movie, and Layla limped for several days afterwards as she would not allow me to remove the painful split nail (she chewed it off before her vet appointment to have it removed under sedation).

The next spring, I consulted with a board certified veterinary behaviorist about Layla’s anxiety issues. My biggest regret is not doing so sooner. In spite of the high cost of a consultation, this is the single best thing I’ve ever done for my dog’s quality of life.

Our veterinary behaviorist recommended discontinuing the melatonin and switching to two anxiety medications, clomipramine and alprazolam. The clomipramine is a tri-cyclic antidepressant that is given daily, and the alprazolam (Xanax) is a benzodiazepine that was to be given situationally during thunderstorms or fireworks.

These medications did not sedate Layla, but they did cut through her anxiety. Her personality didn’t change at all, but she was suddenly able to make it through even noisy thunderstorms without freaking out.

Suddenly, the counter-conditioning exercises began to work. After each rumble of thunder, Layla would perk up and wag her tail hopefully, waiting for her treat. She began to seek me out during thunderstorms, happily bouncing up to me with a ball or tug toy in her mouth for a play session.

After less than a year of counter-conditioning exercises (which only happened during storms or fireworks), Layla’s alprazolam dosage was cut in half due to her great progress. Six months later, we discontinued it altogether except for during especially noisy fireworks.

To this day, Layla no longer shows any concern during even the worst thunderstorms. In fact, she usually sleeps straight through them! She is likewise unconcerned about booming fireworks (although whistling ones, which appear to hurt her ears, do still bother her). Her calm example has also helped countless foster dogs relax during storms.

Recently, my new puppy began barking and trembling during loud thunder booms. Before her anxiety reached critical levels, I began doling out “thunder treats” to all three dogs, tossing a piece of hot dog or string cheese to each dog following every rumble of thunder. Layla enjoyed the treats, but was somewhat bored by the whole game, lying on her bed with her head on her paws. After a couple sessions, the puppy began reacting to thunder with tail wags and happy body language instead of uncertainty, and we’ve now reduced these sessions to sporadic reminders.

While several of the details in Layla’s case are unusual (she was very young to show such a strong phobic response, and her initial frantic reaction of trying to escape is much different than the subdued and cowering response many dogs show), her case is not so different from many of my clients. Getting a veterinary behaviorist on board to prescribe the appropriate medications allowed Layla to reach a state where she was no longer too panicked to learn, and once that learning had taken place we were able to reduce and eventually eliminate that medication (she is still on a daily dose of a different medication for unrelated anxiety issues).

Thunderstorm phobia is excruciating for many dogs, but it doesn’t have to be. Like Layla, even the worst cases can be improved with a dedicated team made up of the dog’s owner, veterinary behaviorist, and trainer. Your dog does not have to suffer: help is available. If your dog is distressed by thunderstorms or fireworks, please get them the help they need. It will all be worth it the first time you watch your dog sleep through a thunderstorm, completely unconcerned by the noise surrounding them.

Thunderstorm Phobia

Thunderstorm and other noise phobias are a common behavior problem I’m called on to address, and are very treatable. They’re also one of the problems that I find owners to be much less concerned about then they should be, despite the very real risk they pose to dogs. Here’s the take-home message: if your dog has a noise phobia, it is inhumane not to address it. Let’s talk about how to do so.

Noise phobias often develop later in a dog’s life, with the majority of the cases I see becoming critical between the ages of 4-8 years. Once a dog begins to display noise sensitivity, this issue tends to continue worsening until it’s addressed. Dogs become more and more sensitized to the noise, sometimes also becoming concerned about other triggers that they associate with that noise, such as grey skies, lightning, rain, or changes in barometric pressure.

Noise phobic dogs may pace, pant, whine, tremble, attempt to escape, or hide. Many of these dogs choose to hide in bathrooms, often wedging themselves behind the toilet. Some dogs become much more clingy, wanting to be held. Regardless of the exact behaviors they exhibit, these dogs are suffering.

How we treat thunderstorm phobia will depend on many factors, including the severity of the dog’s anxiety, the ability of the owner to carry out behavior modification plans, whether or not we’re currently in thunderstorm season, and the dog’s living environment. The individualized plan I put together often includes multiple facets. Here are a few of the more common treatment options that can help:

Dog Appeasing Pheromone: Sold under the brand name Comfort Zone, this is a synthetic version of a comforting pheromone that mother dogs release while puppies are nursing. It is available in diffuser, spray, or collar forms, with the diffuser being the most helpful option for most of my clients. This pheromone can help to reduce mild anxiety in some dogs, although it doesn’t work for every case. Usually clients who report success with this don’t notice a huge difference initially, but report that when the diffuser runs out after about 4 weeks they realize that it had been helping.

Thundershirts or Anxiety Wraps: these special wraps work on pressure, fitting very snugly around the dog’s body. Some clients have also used snug t-shirts with similar success. While not the miracle cure that most people hope for, these can again be helpful for some dogs with mild anxiety. They work on the premise that deep pressure can help calm the nervous system – much the same way that swaddling an infant or using a hug vest for a child with autism can be helpful. Be aware that some dogs shut down when wearing these garments. While a dog who has shut down may appear calm, they are not in a positive mental state and the shirt is likely doing more harm than good. If your dog refuses to move or to eat treats while wearing the thundershirt, it is not the correct tool for him, regardless of how “calm” he may appear to be.

Through a Dog’s Ear Music: This special music is designed to have a physiological calming effect based on bioacoustical research. Before using it during thunderstorms, we play it for several weeks during times when the dog is calm and relaxed to further associate the music with pleasant feelings. Playing it during the beginning of a storm may help some dogs to become less panicked.

Changing the Association: regardless of which of the other therapies we use, this behavior modification is absolutely necessary. The basic premise is simple: thunder predicts good things for your dog. How we implement it is highly individual. Some dogs enjoy having their frisbee tossed after each rumble of thunder, while others learn that thunder makes pieces of chicken and cheese rain from above. (By the way, these exercises aren’t a bad idea to do even if your dog doesn’t currently exhibit noise issues, since they can also be preventative.)

Medication: a truly panicked dog cannot learn, so treatment of thunder phobia often involves the use of medication. There are many different anxiety medications available, and teaming up with a vet who is knowledgable about the different choices is critical for success. Please note that acepromazine, a medication that some vets still prescribe, is never an appropriate choice in cases of anxiety or aggression. An appropriate anxiety medication should not knock your dog out, but rather should simply cut through the anxiety so that he can begin making new associations.

Anxiety medication puts dogs who are too distressed to learn into a state where they can do so. Oftentimes medication in these cases is only temporary, and can be weaned off once the other treatments have done their job. Some clients are resistant to the idea of using anxiety medication. It’s important to remember that anxiety oftentimes has a physical cause, and treating your dog with anxiety medication is no different than treating a heart condition with beta blockers or diabetes with insulin.

Other Treatment Options: As I mentioned before, treatment of thunder phobia is highly individual. Some of my clients have benefitted from other treatments, such as TTouch massage, essential oils, mat or crate training, soothing praise from their owner, tug sessions, relaxation training, setting up a safe room, and the like.

The good news about thunderstorm phobias is how very treatable they are. Like any other training, the sooner the behavior issue is addressed, the faster the behavior modification goes. A dog who’s just starting to show some mild concern will be much more easily treated than a dog who panics and squeezes himself under the toilet while trembling violently, although the latter can absolutely be helped. Contact us to set up a private training consultation if your dog shows signs of thunder phobia.

Next week we’ll share a case study of a severely thunderstorm phobic dog. In the meantime, does your dog show any signs of anxiety during storms? What helps him the most? Did you do any preventative work with your puppy or newly adopted dog to prevent storm anxiety? Please share your stories in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“A Brittany pup once chewed a hole in an expensive hunting coat.  I scolded him at the time.  Now he is 20 years gone, and that patch never fails to bring tears to my eyes.”

–Aaron Fraser Pass

Killing Them With Kindness

I love dogs. I have to: my profession isn’t known for being a particularly lucrative or stress-free one. Trainers who don’t adore both dogs and their humans burn out quickly.

That said, I don’t find images of roly-poly puppies appealing in the least. Round pug and bulldog bellies don’t make me smile, and pictures of winning show Labradors not only don’t impress me, they make it difficult for me to keep from grimacing in concern.

Photo by Chuan

Last Friday, I posted some pictures of one of my dogs, Layla, lure coursing. I mentioned that there was something that concerned me about these pictures. Here’s the dirty secret: my dog was not in very good shape to be engaging in such strenuous physical activity.

Anyone who looked at Layla’s pictures would be hard-pressed to see this issue, as it was relatively minor. Layla had gained 3 pounds over the winter, going from 30 to 33 pounds. This sounds like a small change, but its effects were noticeable. This slight weight increase in my small dog would be similar to a 150 pound person gaining 15 extra pounds. With just this slight amount of weight gain, Layla was at a higher risk for joint or muscle injuries. She was much more sore after coursing, requiring a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Her performance suffered slightly, with her speed decreasing. The strain on her heart and lungs was greater.

Here’s a picture of Layla lure coursing when she weighed 30 pounds, compared to 33 pounds (click to view larger images). Can you see the difference?

Layla coursing at 30 pounds. (Photo by Lois Stanfield)

Layla at 33 pounds. (Photo by Lois Stanfield)

I often get asked which brand or type of dog food is the best one. This question misses the bigger issue. Here’s the thing: what you feed your dog doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much you feed.

Excess weight kills dogs. Purina recently ran a ground-breaking 14-year-long study on the effects of weight on dogs, and the results were sobering. Dogs who were kept lean lived, on average, 2 years longer than their slightly-chunky littermates. These lean dogs also showed fewer signs of aging and suffered less from hip issues, arthritis, and heart problems.

We’re killing some dogs with kindness, and it’s incredibly sad. I feel the same horror at seeing a morbidly obese dog as I do at seeing a starving animal with his hip bones and spine jutting out. It’s all about balance.

How can you tell whether your dog’s at an appropriate weight? A lean dog will have ribs that are easily felt as your run your hand down his side. If you have to press or dig to find ribs under a layer of fat, your dog is likely overweight. If your dog has a short coat, you may be able to see the last rib or two. Your dog should also have a definite tuck-up when viewed from the side, where the belly “tucks up” between the rib cage and the hind legs. If your dog’s belly is level with or sagging below the level of his rib cage, he may need to lose a few pounds.

So, how can you keep your dog at a healthy weight? Barring certain medical causes for obesity, the formula is simple: feed less and exercise more. Forget about feeding your dog the amount that the dog food bag recommends. I’ve never had a dog eat the amount of food that the pet food company lists. Instead, feed the amount that works to keep your dog at a healthy weight. If he seems to be losing too much, increase his food a little. If he’s getting a bit chunky, cut back. Make sure to make any changes slowly, never changing the amount you feed by more than 10%. Don’t forget that you can always ask your vet if you have questions.

A lean dog is a healthy dog, and healthy dogs live longer. I love dogs, and I want my dogs to live long, healthy lives. I want the same for my clients’ dogs, and know that they do too. Feeding your dog the correct amount to keep him lean is one easy way to improve his quality of life, and to extend that life.

Does your dog need to lose a few pounds? What do you do to keep your pets at a healthy weight? Do they eat the “recommended” amount of food from the pet food company, or did you need to tweak that amount? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Lure Coursing

Thank you to Lois Stanfield for those wonderful images of Layla lure coursing!

Waiting to run. Dogs run naked (no collars allowed) for safety, so I taught Layla to tolerate being restrained by the scruff of her neck and a hand on her chest while she waits for the signal to go.

Right off the line, Layla’s already well over 30mph. This is why a solid warm-up routine is so important to avoid stress on the muscles and joints.

Ever wonder why Greyhounds and other sighthounds have a slightly roached (rounded) back? This photo shows why that structure can be helpful for dogs who need to sprint.

Most dogs sniff the lure (which is a white plastic bag) when they catch it. In true terrier fashion, Layla prefers to grab and shake it just to make sure it’s really “dead.”

Can you spot what’s wrong with my dog in these pictures (hint: it has to do with her physical appearance)? Answer on Monday!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dean Searle

“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog.  You are his life,           his love, his leader.  He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.  You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”

— Unknown