Category Archives: About Us

What To Do If Your Dog Digs

Perched precariously on the edge of the pot, Pan was in his element. Paws pumping, dirt flying, tail waving wildly, he quickly and professionally excavated the area, messily transferring potting soil from inside the heavy clay pot to a wide swath immediately surrounding it.

Pan and Trout dug under our shed to access a nest of baby rabbits. Dogs often dig for a purpose.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” I exclaimed as I turned around, dumbstruck at the amount of chaos a determined terrier cross could cause in only moments when my back was turned. In answer, Pan snorted up at me happily, eyes dancing in delight, before returning to his energetic digging. Gathering my wits, I asked him to “leave it,” which he did with a grin and a play-bow before zooming off in ecstatic circles around the yard. What a delightful time he was having!

Less delightful for me, of course. Only minutes before, I had carefully planted some [dog-safe] bulbs in that very same pot, placing them the proper distance apart before covering them with the correct depth of soil. I looked at them lying on our cement patio. I looked at my dog, bounding around in pure joy. It was time to do some training.

Digging is a common behavior for all dogs, and especially for certain breeds such as terriers and dogs with more primitive roots. There are many reasons why your dog might dig, and one of the first things that you need to do is figure out what’s motivating your pup to let their paws fly.

Most commonly, dogs dig for fun. It just plain feels good! There’s something especially satisfying about the feel of loose dirt or sand between their paws.

Pan just cached a special chewy in this hole. Photo by Matt Helgemoe.

However, dogs will also dig for more practical reasons. Many dogs will dig holes to cache special treasures such as treats or toys, covering their prize carefully after depositing it in the hole by scooping dirt or sand back over it with their nose. You may also see this behavior indoors, when your dog pushes blankets over his food bowl or perhaps even makes the motions of scooping with his nose in the air above a special prize. Dogs also dig due to social facilitation. This is why your dog might start digging next to you in the garden every spring – your digging prompts his interest, and he joins in on the activity. Dogs will dig with one another, too. Some dogs will dig burrows, especially if they are hot. Digging into the cool earth provides them with a more comfortable place to rest away the heat of the day. Some pregnant dogs are determined to dig a “den.” Dogs will also dig to achieve a goal, such as escaping from under their fence to go on a grand adventure, or digging under your shed to get to that compelling nest of baby bunnies.

If your dog is digging for a specific reason, addressing that reason completely resolves the digging. For example, our older dog Trout dug out of our yard multiple times shortly after we moved. Every time we thought we had Trout-proofed the yard, she showed us a new weakness in our fortifications! Luckily, Trout is always supervised, so we were able to quickly retrieve her before she wandered onto the nearby busy road.

Trout’s digging issues were fairly easily resolved through management. We prevented her from digging by burying cement blocks in all of her favorite digging locations. We also used ex-pens to shore up any weak areas where she could squeeze under the fence until we were able to build a better barrier to keep her in the yard. We didn’t just take away her digging options, though. Digging out of the yard told us that Trout was bored, and the world outside her backyard looked much more green than the ground she’d already explored inside her highly-reinforced “AlcaTroutz.” So, we needed to make things more interesting.

Increasing the excitement of the backyard wasn’t difficult, but it did require some minor maintenance. Sprinkling interesting scents in random areas of the yard kept things interesting for Trout. A small handful of used hamster bedding, a few feathers from a friend’s chicken, or the dust from the bottom of a bag of beef liver dog treats were all big hits. Trout also thought that the trail of juice dribbled from a can of tuna was fascinating, and she loved it when we threw a small handful of treats out in the grass for her to find. Of equal enrichment value was our brush pile. After we removed two arborvitae from alongside our house, the brush became a frequent playground for her. She climbed, burrowed, and sniffed amongst the branches for hours. We made sure to position this brush pile well away from the fence so as not to provide a convenient staircase into the world outside her yard, and Trout soon stopped attempting to dig out at all as her backyard became the paradise that she’d always assumed the rest of the neighborhood to be.

Providing enrichment such as novel scents, sights, sounds, obstacles, and toys in the yard is one great way to reduce your dog’s digging, especially if he or she is digging out of boredom. However, I recommend against doing away with digging altogether for the vast majority of dogs. Digging is great enrichment, a great stress-reliever, and wonderful exercise! Instead of forbidding your dog from digging, I recommend that you instead channel his or her digging skills into appropriate outlets.

Trout and Pan dig apart their straw bale.

How you do this depends on your available space and how much your dog likes to dig. Those with less space can use a single straw bale sprinkled liberally with treats to create a fabulous digging surface (let your dog tear the bale apart, don’t bother spreading it out yourself). A wide, shallow rubbermaid tub can also be filled with shredded paper, strips of fleece, or even playground sand, and provided for your dog once a week (or more) in an easily-cleaned room of your home (bonus: it’s quite satisfying to vacuum up all of the spilled sand afterwards). Or, you can go to the gold standard in doggy delight: create your very own digging pit.

A digging pit is a clearly defined area where you not only allow, but encourage your dog to dig. You can mark this out with wooden planks, cement blocks, flags, or other landscaping materials. I decided to go with a large box made of treated cedar planks, which was situated on a gravel bed in my backyard. In my last several homes, our digging pits have been made up of a children’s plastic sandbox (with a lid to keep out brave but suicidal neighborhood cats, whom my terriers may not have greeted kindly on their turf), a bed of straw under a deck, and a sand/clay area where nothing but a couple of determined hostas grew, which I marked out with fist-sized rocks in a large square. Look at your available space, and determine what you can provide.

Add interesting items, like toys or treats, to your dog’s digging area to keep them coming back.

Now comes the fun part! Most dogs are delighted to discover that there’s an area where they can get their legal digs out. Make the area extra enticing by burying prizes for your dog to find. Hard biscuits, dental chews, bones, toys, and bully sticks are all good candidates. Start by making it really easy for your dog to “win” in their digging pit lottery by sprinkling some small treats on top of the dirt or sand in that area. As your dog starts to show some interest in the magic treat spot, let him or her watch you as you theatrically bury a larger biscuit under a very shallow layer of substrate. Then, encourage your dog to get it. Help him dig, if he seems hesitant! Remember, social facilitation is huge for dogs, so when he sees you digging and hears you encouraging him to join in, he’s much more likely to get into the game. Really make a big deal over him when he digs up the treat, regardless of whether he used his nose or paws to extract it.

As your dog gets better at the digging game, you can make the challenges you provide for him harder. Bury prizes more deeply, or do so when he’s not looking so that he has to use his nose to find them. Planting “surprises” in the box once or twice a week will keep him heading back to the same spot over and over to see what fun he can [quite literally] dig up each day. It’s okay – even good! – if your dog doesn’t find anything most of the time when he digs. As long as he keeps getting rewarded for digging in your designated area on occasion, he’s going to keep playing the digging lottery in that special spot that sometimes pays off.

Providing your dog with a designated digging pit isn’t enough to stop him from digging in other areas, however. As Pan proved with his potted planter excavation, dogs need some additional training to learn where they are and are not allowed to do their yardwork.

This is easily accomplished with supervision, redirection, and most of all, consistency. After his joyful hole creation, I watched Pan carefully. Anytime he started to dig in off-limits areas of our yard, I interrupted him with a cheerful “leave it!” or “oops!” and an invitation to run to the sandbox. Anytime he went to the sandbox on his own, I praised him profusely. Sometimes, I ran over and planted a prize for him to dig up. Sometimes, I ran over and dug with him, using my hands or a small trowel to dig alongside him (a reward even better than food for Pan, who relished the chance to do something fun together). Sometimes, I’ll be honest… I lay in my hammock and simply praised from afar, too comfortable to get up. Hey, dog training doesn’t always have to be a lot of hard work!

Pan’s nose is still sandy from caching his deer antler.

Our first “aha!” moment actually happened late at night. I was finishing up some bookkeeping indoors when Pan asked to go outside. He’d been given a new deer antler chewy earlier that day, and when I opened the back door he ran to retrieve this prize from where he’d buried it under his dog bed in his crate. I waited patiently while he found a spot to pee in the yard, antler in mouth. He then ran over to his sandbox, where he spent almost fifteen minutes under the light of the moon carefully excavating a hole, depositing his treasure, and covering it with layers and layers of sand. He came back in with his head covered in sand, a big smile on his face. Mission accomplished! He could sleep easily, prize cached in a safe location. The next morning, my husband reported that Pan dug his antler up first thing before once again conscientiously caching it under the sand.

Over the course of a month, Pan’s digging attempts in other areas of the yard became both less common and less intense. However, his digging in the sandbox continued on, strong as the day we’d built it. He cached treasures, dug up treasures, and oftentimes dug just for the delight of the sand beneath his speedy paws. I replanted the flower bulbs, which grew quickly in spite of their early and abrupt departure from their home. Pan left my pots of plants alone. He left the soft earth where a tree stump had been removed alone. He joined Trout in digging under our shed to devour a nest of bunnies, and we added gravel, landscape boulders, and an ex-pen around the back of the shed to keep our suicidal long-eared guests safe. He gave up on the shed and went back to his sandbox. I stopped having to issue “leave it” reminders.

Too often in our dogs’ lives, we forget to let them be dogs. We forget that they’re intelligent, autonomous beings with their own likes and dislikes.

Layla chomps on a crab apple that she’d cached in her straw digging area.

Activities like barking, chewing, chasing, and digging aren’t intrinsically bad. The problem comes not from the activities themselves, but from when and where your dog engages in them. Rather than punishing normal and natural canine behavior out of your best friend, consider instead whether you can direct it into a more appropriate channel. Consider how very good that activity feels to your dog. Consider how that activity benefits your dog: in the feeling of fulfillment from carrying out a centuries-old instinct, in the discharge of pent-up energy or anxiety, or perhaps in the cascade of dopamine that enjoyable activities releases. Why take that away from your best friend?

What opportunities do you provide for your dog to dig? Please share your stories in the comments section below!

Case Study: Bear’s New Lease on Life

Written by Sarah Griffin. Thank you to Sarah for sharing Bear’s journey!

I have a fearful dog. At this point in his life, I expect surprise when I say that to strangers. I hear it all the time: “Really? But he’s so happy!”

In most situations, my fearful dog no longer appears to be fearful. He still is, but I’ve built a bond of trust with him based on positive associations with scary things. For the behavior geeks among the readers, I’m referring to classical conditioning! For the rest of us, let me sum it up this way:

Every time a very scary thing appears, a very good thing appears immediately following it– and the very good thing must be so good that it can take his attention away from whatever it is that’s scary. Over time, how he feels about the very scary thing will change for the better, because it will have become a predictor of very good things. Here’s the part we like best as owners: as his feelings about the very scary thing change, his behavior changes too.

So how does that work in the long term with a “problem dog,” and why do we at Paws Abilities believe in this method? Let me take you back to the dog before the training.

My German Shepherd, Bear, is a rescue from a city shelter where he was slated for euthanasia. For the whole two hour drive home from the shelter, he cowered in the back of my car on the floor. He did not want me to touch him. He did not make a noise. Upon getting inside my apartment, he lay down in the corner of the bed, hid behind a stuffed animal, and shivered. Even if I hadn’t snapped a picture, that image could never leave my mind. This is that picture.

(Caption: Bear’s safe spot on his first day home.)

Now, take a look at a picture from about two years later.

(Caption: Now Bear likes to go out on adventures in the winter more than I do!)

Here, Bear is bounding through the Minnesota snow, tongue lolling out of his mouth, ears only back because of how fast he’s running. He’s being recalled back to me to go out further on a walk, and he loves it. His tail is up, his eyes are on me, and he’s happily responding to my cue from a distance with distractions all around.

What changed?

Very good things happened. Every time we saw a person, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw another dog, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw a car, he got a very good thing. You get the picture. For two years, I rained treats from the sky at almost anything he encountered.

Bear is an extreme example, so don’t worry! Not every dog will require anywhere near as much work. Perhaps your dog hates those Wednesday tornado sirens, and that’s her very scary thing. Think about what very good thing would help your dog cope with those sirens. For Bear, the very good things are often food! Bits of cheese, deli turkey, licks of cream cheese, pieces of leftover meat, a potato chip… Think outside the box. A very good thing has to be special, after all, for it to qualify in the first place. However, this list is only made up of things my dog likes– your dog may prefer a game of tug to a handful of cheese.

(Caption: Bear at Paws Abilities’ north Rochester location, smiling his big, goofy smile.)

Helping a fearful dog requires consistency, patience, and a lot of rewards, but I can’t give you a better testimonial than Bear’s. With lots of work and lots of love, my shy boy not only has a life, but he has a good one.

Need help expanding your fearful dog’s world? We are experts at confidence building, and can help you put together a customized program to bring your wallflower out of his or her shell! We have all sorts of options to help fearful dogs, ranging from private lessons to group classes.

Already worked through fear issues with your furry friend? Tell us all about your journey in the comments section below!

Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability

Recently, my young dog, Pan, snarked at another young dog at a playgroup event. It was entirely my fault: I didn’t set Pan up for success. [It was also absolutely embarrassing, since I was wearing my Paws Abilities polo shirt (“seriously, she’s a dog trainer?”).]

Dog-dog relationships are one of my specialties, but I make mistakes too. As much as I’d like to be a superhero, I’m only human. My dogs, too, are not perfect. They’re only canine, and their social behaviors with other dogs are entirely normal and manageable.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

We humans get into a lot of trouble with dog-dog relationships in our society. We expect our adult dogs to act like puppies forever, and we expect every dog to love every other dog. We judge and label dogs who display entirely normal, species-appropriate behaviors as “bad dogs” because they dared to growl or show teeth, and think that dogs who jump all over other dogs wildly are displaying entirely sweet and benign behaviors.

The truth is that dog tolerance levels are variable, and will change with both age and experiences (good or bad). There is also a genetic component to most dogs’ sociability with others of their own species, so all of the appropriate socialization in the world will not necessarily make every dog socially adept and friendly.

So, what does “normal” dog-dog behavior look like? Think of dog sociability as a bell-curve.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Dog Social: most puppies start here. They generally enjoy and seek out other dogs, and tolerate (or sometimes even encourage) rude behaviors from other dogs like humping or barking in their face. As dogs mature, almost all of them will move to the right of this trait. Truly Dog Social adult dogs (those who really appreciate the company of almost every other dog) are quite rare. Unfortunately for the species, this is the trait we expect all dogs to exhibit, even though it’s a fairly abnormal occurrence in the vast majority of mature dogs.

Dog Tolerant: slightly to the right of Dog Social dogs are those who are Dog Tolerant. Many puppies who will grow up to become Dog Selective or Dog Aggressive start here, before sliding to the right as they mature. This is also an incredibly common place for adult dogs to end up after maturity. Dog Tolerant dogs get along with most other dogs. They may be playful or neutral, but they generally have a pretty long fuse and good communication skills. Dog Tolerant dogs also tend to do well on leash around other dogs. They require normal supervision and limited direction from their human guardians.

Dog Selective: just as common as the Dog Tolerant adult is the Dog Selective one. While a rare and concerning trait in well-socialized puppies who have not had bad dog-dog experiences, this is a very normal place for an adult dog to end up at maturity. Dog selective dogs will often have a circle of “approved” dogs or types of dog that they do well with. Scuffles may break out quickly, and these dogs often have very short fuses. They may dislike certain play styles or types of dog on sight, and may be less than stellar on leash with other dogs. These dogs often dictate the rules while playing and may seem like the “fun police” or the “instigator” in group situations. They require a lot of supervision and positive direction from their owners to succeed with others of their species.

Dog Aggressive: this trait is highly abnormal in puppies, and fairly uncommon in adult dogs. In fact, it’s about as uncommon as truly Dog Social adult dogs. Dog Aggressive dogs often have a very limited circle of dog friends (perhaps only one or two housemate dogs), or may have no dog friends at all. They have quite poor social skills and can be quick to spark up on leash. Dog Aggressive dogs need additional support, patience, and direction from their guardians to succeed in dog-dog interactions.

So, where does Pan fall? As an eighteen-month-old intact male terrier cross, he’s matured into a very normal and manageable Dog Selective boy. He can be rude and pushy with other dogs, and is frequently inappropriate about intrusively sniffing or licking new dogs’ genitals if not redirected. He is also highly aroused by both meeting and playing with other dogs. He most enjoys interacting with opposite-sex partners under thirty pounds, but has dog friends of both genders and of various sizes. He does well with other dogs on leash when he is in “working mode” and generally handles on-leash greetings appropriately. Pan currently takes corrections from other dogs well if he meatballs into their space, but I suspect that he will become less willing to cede space as he continues to mature.

Dog sociability is not a fixed trait. As a dog matures, he or she will often quite naturally become less social and tolerant. There are many developmental changes that happen between sexual and social maturity, and most dogs will continue to display these changes until two to three years of age. Proper facilitation of dog-dog introductions and friendships can change your dog’s sociability for the better over time, and bad experiences can quickly make things worse. Good leadership and direction is important to set your dog up for success with their species.

As Pan’s handler, I failed to set him up for success when I allowed him to continue an aroused interaction with a male hound puppy who was larger than him. When the puppy jumped on and mouthed him too hard, he responded appropriately by correcting this behavior… then continued to go after the puppy [quite inappropriately!] until he was physically removed. Once on leash, he immediately calmed down and was able to focus on me, even with the puppy mere feet away. While this incident was over within seconds, it’s the sort of thing that, when allowed to happen repeatedly, will continue to shift Pan further towards the Dog Aggressive end of the spectrum. In fact, many of my clients could tell similar stories of how their dog initially enjoyed playgroups, the dog park, or doggy daycare, then became pickier and more likely to scuffle as adolescents, only to end up with a more serious incident as a young adult prompting them to call me.

Regardless of where your dog falls on the sociability spectrum, it’s your responsibility as their guardian to set them up for success. Remember that these traits are flexible, and that thoughtful management and slow introductions can shift your dog further to the left of the spectrum. Just as I have zero interest in frat parties, my adult terrier crosses are less than enthusiastic about the idea of a free-for-all play environment… and that’s entirely normal and okay.

Where does your dog fall on the sociability spectrum?

Case Study: Learning to Relax

Written by Katie Kelly, CPDT-KA, ABCDT

When I was looking to adopt a second dog, one of my top priorities was to find a dog who was dog-social. I already had Minnie, my small reactive Shih Tzu, and I needed to make sure that she and my future dog could safely coexist. Having a dog-social dog would also mean a canine partner to join me at work, providing demonstration and help with behavior modification for my client dogs.

Finally, I found Jasmine. She was dog social, a good dog-sport prospect, and (most importantly!) she passed Minnie’s test. She was dog-social, alright. I found myself frustrated with many of the same problems my clients have with their dogs. Jasmine wanted to greet everyone! She would zip to the end of her leash and whine at any glimpse of a dog in view, and became very excited about people as well. This not only made her look intimidating to some, due to her pit bull type features, but it was extremely tough to go anywhere with her. I would repeat over and over to myself, “at least she’s social. At least she’s social. At least she’s social.” But there was more.

Jasmine

Jasmine

Animated beings were not the only things Jasmine got excited about. She would zoom in circles any time she touched a leaf, or felt the crunch of the snow beneath her feet. If I was out and about with Jasmine, she could never just stand still. If I stopped to talk to a friend, Jasmine would get fidget, pace, and whine until we moved on. At one point, when out on a walk, she got so excited about sniffing a tree that she zoomed around the tree multiple times until she broke the clip on her leash, and ran off in a frenzy. Gone. Thankfully, she found me again once she was able to calm down. During moments such as these, she began to worry me, as she appeared out of it, incapable of any sort of mental response. At that point, I began labeling her as “hyper-reactive,” meaning she over-reacted with hyperactive behaviors on a regular basis with everyday situations.

Eventually, after some conversation with my veterinarian, Jasmine was put on anti-anxiety medication. Once the medication took effect, I was able to work on teaching Jasmine to relax. This was life changing for Jasmine.

At first, I started in my home. I helped Jasmine realize that it was okay to go lie down on the floor like a normal dog, rather than feeling the need to seek out constant attention. Then I began to take the skills Jasmine was learning at home and apply them in our training classes. I specifically took the “Focus and Control” class, where the goal is to maintain connection, teach impulse control, and condition the dogs to relax.

One of the best parts about our “Focus and Control” curriculum, is that we teach dogs to drive to a mat, and lay down. Mat training is wonderful all by itself, but we also add a relaxed emotional response. The mat becomes a soothing comfort that can easily transport from place to place. This gave us the ability to take our training out into the real world!

I practiced relaxation with Jasmine everywhere: out in pet stores, café patios, out on walks, and at friends’ houses. She became much easier to take places. Whenever she began to escalate, I would begin some sort of relaxation technique, sometimes with the mat and sometimes not. Over time, I was seeing less and less reaction to the things that once overstimulated her.

While Jasmine is an extreme example, teaching relaxation is beneficial for every dog. Giving a dog the skills to cope and settle in everyday situations can prevent many behavior issues, such as anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. It is also beneficial to their overall health, as stress affects our dogs in the same ways it affects us humans. Lastly, dogs who can maintain emotional stability are much easier to train, as they have a higher capacity to process and retain information.

Jasmine (right) helps "little Jasmine" (left) learn to relax around other dogs at Day Camp!

Jasmine (right) helps “little Jasmine” (left) learn to relax around other dogs at Day Camp!

Today, Jasmine is off medication. Her daily overreactions now only happen on very rare occasions, and in those moments she is now easy to redirect. Her stable personality is perfect for day camp, where she now helps other dogs learn to relax in her presence, a skill that can be extremely difficult for those super social dogs!

These days I stress the importance of canine relaxation to my clients. It is also a major focus in our day camp programs: Puppy Headstart and Canine University. Could your dog benefit from a little more down time?

Marmaduke “Nose” Reusche – in memory of a good dog

Duke CGC TT, March 2002 – September 27th, 2015

Every trainer has a story about their crossover dog. Duke was mine.

Duke was adopted by my parents when he was 9 months old. He had been found as a stray and was never claimed by his original owners. We started training classes within a couple weeks of bringing him home, and my life changed forever.

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ramp1Duke introduced me to clicker training. He loved going to classes, and tried so hard to be a good boy. Learning wasn’t easy for Duke, as he had the canine equivalent of some sort of learning disability. He learned well in the moment, but struggled to retain new information from day to day. In spite of this, he enjoyed a steady stream of obedience and agility classes. The more treats, the better! He learned tricks and eventually even earned his CGC certificate (on our seventh try).

face4Duke was my first instructor in reactivity and anxiety. To say that Duke lacked social skills with other dogs was an understatement. Other dogs made Duke anxious, and he would charge at unfamiliar dogs on walks. When he met a new dog, Duke would hump whichever end he encountered first, the commissure of his lips pulled back anxiously, ears back and eyes wide. If corrected by the other dog, he would fight back noisily but without doing damage.

P1020088 - CopySlow introductions proved that Duke could do quite well with doggy friends, and the controlled environment of class worked well for him. He did well with a string of foster puppies and became good friends with Layla, Dobby, and Trout as I added new dogs to my canine family. At home with my parents, he enjoyed being the “only dog” most of the time, and viewed their cat Trouble with the mingled apprehension and respect that only curmudgeonly old cats can provoke.

 

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duke9Duke’s chief joy in life after food was to be with his people. A true velcro dog, Duke was deeply unhappy when left home alone and loved nothing better than to spend time with those he loved. Anxiety medication and stuffed Kongs helped to manage Duke’s separation anxiety throughout his life, and he eventually came to view his crate (complete with orthopedic dog bed and an ever-present stuffed Kong) as a comforting place. He would even sleep in his crate when his hips were bothering him.

duke11As Duke aged, he settled into a comfortable and happy routine with my parents of evening walks with my mom and sharing popcorn with my dad. He loved getting his butt scratched, even if it sometimes hurt his sore hips. He played with his quacking duck toy, shaking it angrily whenever anyone would leave the house. He barked – oh how he barked! at noises and sometimes at nothing at all. He would get stuck barking, standing in the living room and unable to see out the front window to know what he was barking at, but still fulfilling his self-appointed sentry duties nonetheless.

sprinkler2Duke’s love of food drove him to steal and eat a veritable feast of food and food-like objects in his youth, and despite some close calls (activated charcoal when he ate the bottle of ibuprofen, treatment for pancreatitis when he got into the entire pan of apple crisp, diligent monitoring until he passed the chunks of ceramic spoon-rest), food was ultimately not his downfall. He became all-too-familiar with hydrogen peroxide and would run when he saw the brown bottle come out. Stories of Duke’s dietary indiscretions became the stuff of legends. “Remember that time he ate ten pounds of kibble at once? He looked like he was pregnant!” “Or that time he ate an entire bag of Hershey’s kisses, wrappers and all, and his poop was festive for days…”

roll4Duke was not an easy dog. He was anxious and reactive and naughty. Duke was the best dog. He was the sweetest, and so kind with children. He was a loyal and faithful family companion who loved nothing more than to be with his people, in the center of a crowd. He didn’t demand attention. He just wanted to be included. He loved to sit on laps, all 70 pounds of him. He loved to lick faces. He loved to show off his tricks for treats – sit, down, settle (tail too!), balance up, and shake. He was not an easy dog, but he was a good, good dog. He was our good dog.

We miss him like hell.

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Good Dogs Wear Muzzles Too

We were walking our dogs outside a rally obedience trial several years ago when my friend froze. “Watch out!” she said sharply, “There’s a muzzled dog across the parking lot!” I looked, and sure enough someone was walking their dog in a comfortably fitted basket muzzle. The dog was on a loose leash with soft, relaxed body language, intent on his owner. I chuckled and went back to watching my own dog. “I don’t know why you’re worried,” I said, “That’s the one dog at this show that I’m the least concerned about.”

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she's going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she’s going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Our societal perception of muzzles is shifting, but the prejudice is still present in many communities. The thought is that only “bad” dogs wear muzzles, and if a dog is wearing a muzzle he or she must be a mean animal with horrible owners.

I’m here to tell you that this perception is antiquated and untrue. Great dogs wear muzzles all the time, and there are many wonderful reasons for teaching your dog to be happy and comfortable in a basket muzzle. The Greyhound community has had this right for years and years, and I can only hope that the rest of us will catch up soon.

Conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle is a fairly straightforward process, and is something that I recommend all dog owners put the time into. The chances are good that your dog will need to wear a muzzle at some point in his life, and having him react happily to the appearance of the muzzle is a great way to ensure that you’re not adding stress to what may already be a difficult time in the case of an accident or injury that requires painful veterinary treatment.

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So, why might your dog wear a muzzle?

Safety of your dog: some dogs engage in behaviors such as pica (eating inedible items, such as gravel or sticks) or coprophagia (eating feces) which could be dangerous to their health. While a muzzle may not entirely stop your dog from engaging in these behaviors, it can definitely slow him down and allow you the necessary time to intervene. Muzzles can also be helpful for scroungy dogs on special diets.

Safety of others: if your dog has a history of snapping or biting at people or other dogs, the muzzle can serve as a part of a comprehensive management plan to improve community safety. Even if your dog doesn’t have this history, if the stakes are high (for example, introducing two dogs of very different sizes or introducing a newly adopted dog with an unknown history to children for the first time), a muzzle should be considered.

A visual “keep back” signal: along those same lines, a muzzle can also deter unwanted interaction. Layla walked in a comfortable basket muzzle for a couple years, not because I felt that she was likely to bite someone, but rather because the appearance of the muzzle served to keep unfamiliar people from approaching to pet her, which made her uncomfortable. It also served as a great visual signal for people walking their dogs that Layla may not appreciate being rushed by their “friendly” but unmannered pet. She loved the space her muzzle created for her!

Owner comfort level: muzzles can also help the opposite end of the leash. If you tend to get tense or worried in social situations with your dog, muzzling your pet may help you relax. Remember that dogs are highly empathetic, and tense owners are one of the best ways to create tense dogs. This can become a horrible spiral – the owner tenses up when their dog approaches someone, the dog becomes stressed due to the owner’s behavior, the dog snarks, and the owner’s worst fears are confirmed, setting them up to become even more stressed during the next interaction. While a muzzle should never be used as an excuse to put a dog in a situation you know the dog can’t handle, knowing that your dog can’t cause damage may help you to remain calm in situations that your dog would otherwise rock.

Legal requirements: if you travel with your dog, there may be locations that require the use of a muzzle if your dog is to be permitted in public areas or on public transportation. A dog who is comfortable in his muzzle may find doors opening up for him!

Dog sports: some sports require muzzles, and in other sports muzzles may be an option. Layla, for example, wears her basket muzzle when she lure courses. While she has always coursed alone rather than in a group, she has a history of grabbing the lure at the end of the course and snapping the line. This is frustrating and time consuming for those hosting the event to remedy, so Layla now wears her basket muzzle to course so that we have a brief window of time to catch her at the finish line before she can grab the lure and snap the line with a terrier head shake.

layla_muzzleDog’s comfort level: because muzzle conditioning is done using reward-based methods, dogs come to love their muzzles. This can have a wonderful “bleed-over” effect, where the dog feels happier and safer wearing his muzzle because it’s always been associated with good things. The power of this emotional response can be incredible when introducing dogs into potentially stressful situations. Simply placing your dog’s muzzle on before a new situation may help to color that entire situation as safe and positive.

Whatever your reasons for muzzle training your dog, I encourage you to consider this useful tool as part of your dog’s comprehensive care plan. As for the dog at the rally trial? He continued to be happy and relaxed all day, and I complimented his owner on her dog’s lovely demeanor. Good dogs wear muzzles too.

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Four: Training

Last week I discussed the management techniques I used to keep Trout and Layla safe and separate after their recent fight and resulting injuries. I cannot emphasize how very important management was in our success – without it, I doubt we would have ever been able to get the two girls back together. That said, there was still some work to be done. Today, I’ll cover the training and behavior modification exercises that we employed to reintroduce the two dogs to one another.

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Starting right away, we began to do short sessions with the dogs on opposite sides of their gates or ex-pens. We would take the blankets off the gates so that the dogs could see one another, walk them within sight of each other, then feed them lots of treats. After 10-20 seconds of treating, we would walk one of the dogs out of sight and immediately quit feeding both dogs. The premise was simple – good stuff only happened when the other dog was present.

When we first started these exercises, the dogs were noticeably worried. Trout frequently stared at Layla and sometimes growled, her posture stiff and upright. Layla avoided confrontations, looking away and licking her lips, clearly frightened. This behavior on Layla’s part was quite surprising to me. In the past, she’s always been eager to engage if another dog started something, but I suspect that with her increasing age (she’s nine years old) and injured leg she just wasn’t feeling up to another confrontation. When Trout growled or postured, her handler instantly stopped treating or paying attention to her and walked her away, while Layla’s handler praised and treated her for avoiding conflict while also moving her further away. We never allowed growling or posturing to continue for more than a second before intervening. Remember, practice makes perfect – and we certainly didn’t want Trout to get better at these behaviors!

Within a couple days, these positive conditioning sessions began to show real results. Trout’s posturing became less intense and Layla’s appeasement signals likewise lessened. Both dogs began to visibly brighten when they spied their housemate on the other side of the gate or ex-pen, looking for their treats. They also began to signal in friendly ways towards one another, sniffing from a distance and returning calming signals. We praised them enthusiastically for any pro-social behaviors, and Trout especially seemed to really need this extra reassurance that she was doing well.

As she became less insecure around Layla, Trout’s posturing and growling melted away. This is an important point. Frequently, owners think that their dogs are growling because they’re pushy, mean, or status-seeking. However, much like Trout, these behaviors are often an indicator of a problem with insecurity. Imagine, then, the damage that can be done by punishing a dog for growling or otherwise displaying their discomfort. Not only would punishment have potentially suppressed growling and other very useful indicators of Trout’s comfort level, but it also would have completely reinforced her belief that she was correct to worry when Layla was around. By pairing Layla’s presence with good things (treats! praise! neck rubs!) and viewing any growling as information that the dogs were too close, we were able to quickly change Trout’s reaction to Layla for the better.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and other signs of tension. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and close her mouth – both major warning signs. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

At this point, we began taking short walks multiple times a day – just halfway to the corner at first, then all the way to the corner. We started by walking the dogs across the street from one another, moving them in the same direction but allowing for plenty of parallel distance between them. Both dogs were given treats for looking at the other dog in a soft manner, as well as receiving frequent rewards for walking nicely. If either dog began to look tense or nervous, we immediately veered further away from one another, giving them even greater distance. When they were both soft and relaxed, we moved slightly closer, lessening the distance between the two.

Within a week, the two dogs were able to walk side-by-side in a relaxed manner. They began sniffing each other as they walked, and following one another to especially enticing smells. They started to urine mark over special smells together. While they were still kept completely separate inside, their outdoor walks allowed them to start interacting as a team once again.

Inside, we continued to experience problems with guarding. Both dogs guard resources (food, toys, special resting places), so we had to be very aware of potential triggers. If either dog growled or stared at the other, the offender was immediately but calmly escorted to a crate or room for some alone time, while the dog who had been growled at was rewarded liberally with treats and praise for not responding. In just a few days, Layla began to run to the treat cupboard and wait for a reward during the rare moments when Trout happened to growl, and both dogs began to posture and threaten the other less frequently.

To begin working on reintegrating the dogs indoors, I returned to one of my favorite tools for behavior modification – the Protocol for Relaxation. This step-by-step protocol teaches dogs to relax while stuff happens around them, and both Layla and Trout were already quite familiar with it. I started running through the protocol once or twice a day, at first with the dogs lying on mats on opposite sides of a baby gate, and later with them side-by-side but with Trout tethered. After a week of successful protocol repetitions, when both dogs were looking soft and relaxed on their mats, I untethered Trout. Outside of training sessions the dogs continued to be kept separate, but while we were actively working on the protocol they were able to be loose together, relaxed on their individual mats.

These three main exercises – positive associations on opposite sides of the gate, parallel walks, and the Protocol for Relaxation – set the stage for a successful reintroduction. Within a week, we began allowing the dogs to pass by one another off-leash without interacting when switching them into different areas of the house, and later began to allow short (2-5 minute) periods of time when they were loose together but heavily supervised. We continued to keep them apart for the majority of the time, but built up the amount of time they could be around one another gradually.

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together!

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together and all healed up!

Reintroduction after a serious fight is a slow process, but it was worthwhile in the end. After a month of gradual reintroductions, we were able to take the ex-pens and baby gates down completely. The dogs continue to be separated if left unsupervised (something we’d done prior to this incident as a matter of course), but are otherwise peacefully coexisting once again. Three weeks into this process, the two began playing together once again, at first with frequent breaks and exaggerated body language, and then with more relaxed signals as they once again became comfortable with one another. Today their interactions have returned to the pre-fight levels of peace and playfulness.

While I’ve coached many, many clients on reintroductions such as this, I’ve never before experienced inter-dog issues with my own pets at such a serious level. I can empathize with the stress and anxiety of dealing with dogs who don’t get along. My mantra for clients in similar situations has always been that “slow is fast,” and Layla and Trout were proof that this is indeed the case. Anytime we tried to rush through exercises or pushed the dogs, things fell apart. Allowing both girls time to heal, physically and emotionally, and setting them up for success with one another, gave them the tools to progress at their own paces and eventually to rebuild their relationship. We’ll continue to be vigilant in avoiding situations that could trigger a repeat of their fight, however I feel confident in saying that the dogs are better equipped to avoid conflict in the future due to the hard work we put into helping them succeed during this time.

If you’ve ever experienced inter-dog aggression in your own household, I hope your experiences at reintroduction were every bit as successful as ours. Remember, slow is fast, and it’s important to work at your dogs’ own paces. Feel free to share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments section below.