Author Archives: Almudena Ortiz Cue

Protocols for living with fearful dogs, part 1

Living with a dog that is afraid, especially of people, is very hard.  It is very hard for the people, and of course, a living hell for the dog. While every case is unique, there are certain things people can do to make everyone’s life better.

I am working with a couple who have a dog that is quite uncertain of everyone with the exception of a few people who he has learned to trust.  These folks go through the same issues that most people with fearful dogs have to go through.  They report to me that they cannot have anyone come over for dinner, let alone out of town visitors.  When they walk the dog, their dog will lunge at a passerby regardless of if the person is ignoring the dog, or walking with another dog, etc.  If approached, this dog will lung towards the person.

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 9.57.52 PMMost dogs that are afraid of people are also more afraid when the space is reduced in size, such as the inside of homes. From their perspective, it is hard to get some much-needed distance from the person. Add to that the inherent unpredictability of people moving in the home; be it to get some water from the kitchen sink, move to the living room for an after-dinner chat or simply visiting the powder room. These are things that people do inside their home and things most visitors will do while at the home.  So, if the dog is very concerned about the presence of the person, now throw in a monkey wrench into the mix with the unpredictability of movements from a stranger and you have a recipe for disaster.

In addition, the duration of the visit, will most likely overwhelm the dog and now he is incapable of “keeping it together.”  This is what living with a fearful dog looks like a lot of the times.

My answer to the many scary situations like the one above is to teach both the dog and the family protocols that will give everyone predictability.  I cannot say enough how important predictability is for dogs that are afraid of strangers. My first goal then, is to have the dog relax – to let its guard down sort of speak, under very predictable circumstances. Yes, indeed, following up with the protocols as if someone’s life depended on them is at the crux of keeping everyone safe, and the possibility for the dog to be able to learn new alternatives to the fear induced behaviors.

Normally these new “alternative” and more socially acceptable behaviors are taught to the dog without the presence of scary individuals.  Yes, many times I too have to make sure the dog is comfortable with me, my voice and moving before I can teach the dog appropriate alternatives. As both parties become more confident with their new repertoire, it is time to bring it to the road.  Stay tuned as I dive into more specifics of protocols for fearful dogs next time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Does your dog dig it?

I just came from visiting with a family whose dog decided to take a paw at landscaping design.

The dog was thrilled with the results; the owner not so much.

As I explained to them, unfortunately for us digging comes naturally to dogs. It is part of their ancient wiring that frankly as all natural behaviors, does poorly with our “requests” to stop digging and much better with management.

Most of us do not spend time with our dogs outdoors so that we are able to redirect when they get into mischief, from our perspective and engaging in natural habits from their perspective.

Teaching your dog where you want him to eliminate, areas to avoid such as flower beds and the like will go a long way before he decides what goes on in your piece of heaven.  How many of us take the time to inspect our fencing for possible sensible areas of escape, for example?

So, the expectation then is for our dog to understand exactly what he can and cannot do in the backyard.

There is also another aspect of how our dog’s brain is wired that does not help us much with this situation. Thus, we need to help our dog in order to help ourselves.

You see, dogs are not good generalizers.  Meaning that they do not understand that the rules that apply when you are present also apply when you are gone. When you are present with them in the backyard you are most likely re-directing your dog to “appropriate back yard etiquette.” If you are not, well please do not blame the dog when he begins to dig, makes holes at the fence line or chews your expensive pool furniture.

Ah!  Talking about pools.  Most dogs will NOT, I repeat, will not be able to jump out of your pool. Unless once again, you have taken the time to teach your dog how to use the steps to get out.  So please you need to treat the safety of your dog around the pool as you would with a small child.

Some of the strategies that I discussed with my clients are meant to give them some immediate relief.

First off, if your dog digs your flower beds begin with putting an actual barrier that is not offensive to you and effective in keeping your dog out.  Once that is in place, we need to find a way to satiated the dog’s instinct for digging.  So here is my solution for my client and for you.

Build your lovely dog a handsome digging area that he cannot resist.  You can go all fancy with having someone build your dog a sandbox or you can go low tech and buy a kiddy pool.  Either way, the idea is for the container to be large enough for your dog to get in.  Fill with enough sand that you can hide your dog’s daily chow (if it is dry kibble) so that he has to hunt for each morsel of food while exercising his given right of digging.  If you do not feed dry food to your dog (first off, congratulations are in order!)  you can hide tasty treats in there and even chew bones for your dog to go find.

For added benefit go outside and document your dog’s amazing capacity to find by sniffing, pawing and the like the last morsel of food. Make your own entertainment.  Do keep in mind that for this to work you must first remove the possibility of your dog digging where he began to dig- your flower beds.

Lastly, make it a habit of spending time with your dog outside so that you can teach him what is acceptable and what is not.  If you spend time playing with your dog most likely your dog will begin to associate the place where the activity takes place with you as the place where fetch takes place and have less of an inclination for mischief and decoration.

Now, if you tell me that your dog is being destructive because it spends oodles amount of time outside because you are gone all day… well then you have bigger fish to fry.  We cannot truly and fairly expect our dogs to not behave for such long periods of time without us providing acceptable outlets.

Trouble in Paradise part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s post on same household dog fights.  As I mentioned on that post, having to manage and live with dogs that are injuring one another is not a picnic.  It can be very stressful for the dogs as well as the people. Also, depending on the severity and frequency of the fights, one needs to consider the imminent danger to people. I once consulted with a young couple that had a baby and two of their four dogs were getting into bad fights.  One of the things that made this case so complicated is that the husband did not want to do much in the way of managing the dogs or training and refused to let go of the dog that was causing the injuries.  The wife was mortified to learn that the chances of their child being in between two fighting dogs once he started crawling was definitively a possibility. Of course, this sounds like an extreme case when it comes to someone getting seriously hurt; not all cases are like this.

To begin with, I suggest that dogs are taught to be comfortable wearing basket muzzles so that when they are not being closely supervised and in proximity of each other at least they will not hurt one another.  The idea is to get the dog comfortable with wearing the muzzle, and not simply plop the muzzle on and be done with it. It goes without saying that people must be very diligent in making sure that the dogs are wearing the muzzles.  I know that it’s really hard to be on top of everything all the time, but the reality is that this is what it takes to have dogs that are fighting regain an ability to co-exist peacefully.

Both dogs need to also learn some basic obedience so that they can reliably go to their crate or a bed when asked to do so. They must also learn to take turns going in and out of any door or exiting the car. Since these are amongst the typical situations where dog fights take place.

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 6.50.50 PM

If the fights have been a result of either one of the dogs guarding an object be it a toy, food, snack, they should not be allowed to have any of these items together.  If what they guard is a location such as a bed or a person, things change a bit here, but in essence the same rule applies.

Once these measures are put in place, dogs need to be taught that in fact, their nemesis actually produces really good stuff for them!  One can achieve this by the careful orchestration of presenting valuable resources only when the other dog is present.  Again, really careful management must be in place.  I would argue that while doable to do it with only one person, it is always best to have one handler per dog.

Now, if one of the dogs is the one that is constantly harassing the other, intimidating or controlling the other dog’s movements we must then also be super proactive in teaching the bully that any intimidation will result in social isolation. This protocol works wonders when again folks have been taught what to look for and are willing and able to follow up implementing the protocol every single time the dog engages in any intimidating behaviors towards the less fortunate dog.

Please forget the nonsense of “supporting the alpha” advice that is still given by many veterinarians and dog trainers that have not looked into the scientific literature regarding social dominance. Moreover, how does one know which one is the “alpha”?  As some of my clients have attested they are confused as to which dog is the alpha as they try to implement rules and protocols that require they support the alpha.  I cannot say this loud enough!  Not only will these measures not work, but most likely they will continue to make the life of one of the dogs (the one that folks consider the subordinate) a living hell.  How unfair is this?

When it comes to behavior we must think critically.  Rarely is behavior simple in its expression. Dogs are one of the most sophisticated species when it comes to their social relations. For us to imply that we can delve into the intricacies of their complex social relationships with simplistic advice- such as being the leader and supporting the alpha, is really a rotten proposition.

If you have dogs that are fighting in your home, consider carefully all your options. I disagree that love is all that dogs need in order to resolve this issues.  Sure, love is nice but they need understanding of who they are as a species and as individuals.  They need our care and for us to be true advocates so that they can remain safe and thrive in the household.

Re-homing is a good option when the family realizes they do not have what it takes to tackle all what it will take to make the dogs be in good terms again. And if an appropriate alternative is found – which is really not that easy.  On occasion euthanasia, might be a consideration. In my professional opinion, all possibilities need to be explored with good judgement as well as honesty as one- size- fits- all approach is not really a consideration.

Trouble in paradise

We are at the vet’s office having Rio’s bandage changed when an acquaintance walks through the doors with her dog.  Her dog appears somewhat shaken-up and has a bloody injury close to his eye.  “What happened?” I inquired.  They tell me that this is the fifth time their dog has been attacked by their other male dog.

Yes, these dogs are also “friendly”; they play together, snooze together and then the attacks occur. The level of injury is quite severe. The other dog never gets injured so it is one dog that is always damaging the other dog.

Clearly the owners are very distraught, and knowing this cannot continue as it has been.  They tell me that as young dogs, the dogs did not get into fights, but suddenly the series of fights took place.  What makes it worse is that according to them the fights are becoming more damaging.  We continue to talk as they try to piece together the events as neither one of them was at home when the fight took place.

So far they have not been able to identify the triggers for the fights. What is clear is that they have decided that they cannot subscribe to the super tight management (perhaps through the lives of these dogs). I don’t blame them.  This kind of management is really brutal and never 100% foolproof. My heart goes out to them because they love both dogs, but they are painfully aware that having one of their dogs constantly having fear of being attacked and getting attacked is more than anyone can handle.

Now they are on the phone trying to find out who can help them out while they find a permanent home for the one that is creating the injuries. It is, of course, possible that they might find an appropriate home where this dog can be an only dog.  But the reality is that unfortunately there are too many dogs and not enough homes.  Sad indeed.

I tell them that I have worked with several cases like this where household dogs are fighting.  These cases are some of the most challenging to resolve.  Many times, the answer is rehoming or euthanasia.

I’ve come to bear the understanding that wolves -the genetic past of our dogs very seldom will take in a lonely wolf that is looking to join another pack.  Wolves, while living tight-knit, sometimes go solo in search of another pack that he can join. On occasion, this lonely wolf is admitted into the pack, but that is not the norm.

Clearly our dogs are not wolves, but they still share some genetic wiring of their wild past; wiring that comes to bear in their social relations.

The fact that we choose which dogs we like and which dogs we want to share our lives with is really immaterial to our dogs being able to co-exists.  Simply put:  it is really not “normal” for canids to just get along because someone said you have to.

Even when dogs are well matched to live together close observation and management in the form of having some rules the dogs have learned and implemented can go a long way in keeping harmony in the household. Most folks either are not aware of the underlining conflict between their dogs, and as such respond when the relationship has gone sour.

My concern, of course, is for the dog that is constantly being harassed, intimidated and physically injured in his own home. Can you imagine how stressful this must be?  How detrimental to the well-being of the dog?

Just this morning Deuce walks towards Rio who is totally engage with a Kong and demands in his doggie manner for some of what she is having. I immediately called him away so that he stops bugging Rio and re-directed him to his own crate where his own goodie awaits.

The thing is that if we start on the right foot, the chances of having dogs that do not push their weight around or that choose to not escalate the conflict, but instead diffuse when things are not going their way is quite doable. But as stated -unfortunately most people do not consider the “wild” side of their furry companions when they decide to add one more dog to the mix.  In addition, dogs that initially got along well while young might find themselves as ferocious adversaries once maturity is reached.

My recommendations to those folks that want to bring another dog into their family or that have more than one dog in the midst is to begin to pay attention for any signs of conflict between the dogs such as one dog trying to manage the other dog’s movement by blocking its movement, any posturing with a stiff body or any other displays of aggression such as growls (when this is not in the context of play) sneering, etc. when competing for any coveted resource.

If the dogs are already fighting, owners must find a way to stop the fights by separating the dogs.  In addition, the dogs need to learn alternative ways of expressing desires for things they want such as food, toys, attention and the like. Tight constant management as well as behavior modification must be implemented if we want to stand a chance at a possible reconciliation between the dogs.

Ideally also people get dogs of different sex.  While this is not always possible it might help with the overall relationship and to keep fights at bay as most fights take place between dogs of the same sex.

Size might also be a consideration.  Of course, the smallest dog as a norm, has less than a fighting chance when being confronted by a larger stronger dog.

The initial introduction is also really important. Planning how to go about this can again aid in making sure the relationship gets started right.  Next week, I will give you some ideas on how to manage this important step.

Is it really “high prey” drive?

In the world of dog training, a dog that chases balls, bikes, cats, or a dog that tugs with power and determination a dog with a high-prey drive. Trainers even speak about their preference for having such a dog as a competitor in a myriad of sports or even just as their pet companion.

Now the interesting part is that the concept of high prey-drive aims to describe behaviors that are intrinsically different from one another. The term has become a catch-all description leaving us with de facto little information as to what the dog is actually doing.

When working with clients, I ask a bunch of preliminary questions to better help me understand what their dog is doing in certain circumstances as well as an overall description of what their dog has already learned.

For example: I want to know if the dog is comfortable in its crate. Does he plays with toys, and if so, what kind of toys and what kind of play? Say that we have a dog that “plays with balls” still this pronouncement is too general.  What exactly is the dog doing with the ball?  The reason behind my questioning is a regression of the topic here, but the search for specifics is not.

The scientific field of ethology and behavior have long ago moved away from using the concept of “drive” to describe what is actually taking place.

Back in the 1900’s it was believed that they were energizing internal sources that produced specific drives, which in turn, produced specific behaviors.  Other scientists considered the presence of drive exclusively when it involved food acquisition behaviors.

It was not until the 20th century that the use of the concept of drive was abandoned as research now showed that the body is not involved in producing internal energies that give way to specific behaviors as drive theory once claimed.  In addition, research showed that behaviors actually correspond to different internal systems such as the feeding system.  Moreover, behavior is a result of complex interplay of these many internal systems and not a result of a specific energy stored in the individual. The expression is also determined by external motivators – and not only internal processes.

So, where does all this leave us?  Recent studies have failed to find any co-relation between behaviors that traditionally have been thought to be related to prey drive.  This all points to the complexity surrounding the motivation behind behavior and how that in itself cannot be encapsulated in a vague concept as prey drive.

For clients desiring to change behaviors in their dogs, we are better served in looking elsewhere than attribute their presence to prey drive.  We must then observe what is taking place and under what conditions, so that we can decide on a better alternative (or alternatives) for behaviors that are deemed too dangerous to the dog or others, obnoxious etc. Importantly so, I would argue, is to also find alternatives that fulfill some, if not all, of the needs of the dog while engaging in these behaviors. This is the ideal scenario, of course, where we can substitute and teach new alternatives to an expression while the dog’s needs are also being met.

Excessive Anything

As I have previously written, we are smack in the middle of Rio’s recovery.  She needs to wear a cast for 4 for more weeks. She cannot lick, or worse, chew on it at all. The recommendations are for her to wear a really cumbersome Elizabethan collar all the time to prevent her from doing the above. Frankly this part is the most taxing for both of us.

When I am watching her, she gets to take a break and we both breath happily. This morning I gave her a Kong with a hard-boiled egg for breakfast.  I watched her as she diligently licks and licks the toy to extract every bit of the egg.  Once she is done with the Kong, I notice that she is less active and most definitively not wanting to lick her cast-bound leg.  Now she is snoozing. Aww she looks so content and relaxed that I don’t even want to take her just yet for her daily car ride, which she loves.

I have seen this before, but now I am reminded of it close at home.  When dogs are stressed or anxious for whatever reason Kongs or any other food dispensing toy- especially the ones where dogs need to use their mouths rigorously to extract the food, satisfy a pretty basic need in them.

IMG_3159So many of my clients have dogs that are dedicated barkers, lick themselves, chase skateboards or cars with gusto only as an obsessed dog can muster. As part of our training and modification plan, I strongly suggest they feed their dogs out of these toys.

When they are motivated enough to do it, they readily notice the benefit the chewing and licking – in short, the positive effect it has on their dog’s overall demeanor and behavior. I have never heard anything different.

They might be, of course, important physiological reasons behind the high return in behavior from such a simple activity. For now, I will stick to observation and experience on how we can help ourselves by helping our dogs when we provide outlets like this which pay big dividends.

I get that most people feel really taxed with a myriad of daily chores. However, this “chore” is like anything else we choose to subscribe to in our day to day lives, be it meditation, fitness, eating well or else.  All of these activities require our commitment, and we commit to them because we find them valuable. What we can do for our dogs should not be any different.

Of course, I am not saying that your dog eating out of these toys will resolve all behavior problems. But I am saying that doing so will be a very solid foundation to help with whatever emotional or behavioral problem you need to work through with your dog.

If I can keep that collar on Rio for less time, it makes total sense to bite the bullet and spend a few more minutes every morning serving her meal this way. Below you’ll find a training plan to help your novice dog learn how to eat this way. If your dog has had more experience you can look at my suggestions as well so that your pup gets as well a nice dose of mental challenge.

Teaching Level

  • Fill a size – appropriate KONG® for your dog with kibble or your dog’s food.
  • Give the toy to your dog for her to experiment getting the food out of it by rotating it, pawing it, etc.
  • Feed your dog her whole meal out of KONGS once she is adept at getting all the food out and appears to enjoy the activity.
  • At this level, it’s okay to encourage your dog or even help her a bit by rotating the KONG® yourself so food comes out.

Beginner’s Level

  • Make the extracting of the food a bit harder by stuffing the KONG and then placing a harder item such as a piece of jerky, dry liver, frozen banana chip, etc. in between the kibble.

Advanced Level 1

  • Increase the level of difficult by wetting the kibble ahead of time so that it swells and becomes a “mush.” You can wet with water or something special such as chicken broth, etc.
  • Serve to your dog.

Advance Level 2 / During Warmer Months:

  • Prepare KONG® as you did for previous levels but freeze overnight or for a few hours.
  • Allow KONG® to thaw for about 1 hour before serving.
  • Best to serve in a crate or outside to avoid a possible mess.

Recipe Examples Courtesy of Jean Donaldson, From The Academy For Dog Trainers

Tight Version (more advanced) Stuffing

  • Layer 1 (deepest): roasted unsalted cashews, mild cheese chunks, freeze dried liver bits
  • Layer 2: dog kibble, cookies or Liver Biscotti, Cheerios, sugar-free/salt-free peanut butter, dried banana chips
  • Layer 3: baby carrot stick(s), turkey and/or leftover ravioli or tortellini, dried apples, dried apricots

Pack as tightly as possible. The last item in should be a dried apricot or piece of ravioli, presenting a smooth “finish” under the main hole.

“Lite” Version:

  • For cashews, substitute crumbled rice cake; for freeze-dried liver, substitute Caesar croutons; for peanut butter substitute fat-free cream cheese.

The goal is to feed your dog at least one of his daily meals via a food dispensing toy.

Dealing with our dog’s frustration

My dogs are inside their crates working a juicy bone as they always do when I have a client at my place.

I finish up and I come to let them out. After leashing Rio up, we go outside.  The dogs love going outside to find out who was here and whether they left any treats on the ground.

Deuce is ahead of us and Rio and I are struggling. Okay I am struggling with trying to keep her to walking, and not running with her cast on. She is pulling hard and I am asking her to chill.

I begin to ask her to sit and when she can control herself a bit we walk, and then she sits and we walk, and she sits and we walk.  This sort of works, and as a result of not really working all that well, Rio is getting very worked up. Okay, I think, time to return her back to her “outside” crate as I cannot risk her injuring herself over this.

I put her in the crate and I go inside. She is not happy about this and begins to bark in sort of a complaining mode. Gosh, lots of sympathy for this girl, she does not understand why her world has been turned upside down, and from her perspective definitively not for the better. My heart sinks.  Rio, I tell her across the window, this is just a bleep in your very long life, you will not remember this time later on, you will be running and having fun as we do… Rio is still barking.

I am tempted to go outside and ask her – okay tell her to be quiet, because I am kind of embarrassed that she is creating such a ruckus at 2pm.  But then I stop.  I ask myself, doesn’t she deserve to express her frustration?  It is so clear to me (and those who know me well) that I would be the one expressing my frustration regularly if I was in Rio’s shoes.

This dog has been such a trooper thru her recuperation. She follows directions closely; I can put her on a down stay and she will stay put until I come back into the room. I can ask her to walk slowly and measured by saying “easy” as we sort of trot down the stairs.  She eats all her meals with gusto and appreciates the attention we give her, and her ability to still get on the sofa with us while supervised.

Yes. I conclude, Rio has every freakin’ right to express her frustration. I let her bark for a about a minute or so as I am peeking thru the window.  Then I come out and I invite her to come in for a treat in her containment area. She follows me excited about the prospect of getting something special- something Deuce will not get because he is still outside exploring, this indeed makes whatever it is more special.

After about 20 minutes of Rio settling back down, I put on her leash and we walk outside for the allowed time which is still very restricted.  She gets to sniff and look for treats closer to home.  I see her nose working overtime as she is completely absorbed trying to ascertain if she has met this dog before; if she has met my client.  Oh, would you want to know all that they can smell?  We sure know that dogs have exquisite sense of smell- especially if you are in the hound family as she partly is.

I regress. So back to dogs expressing frustration. One of the things to consider is if the dog is so frustrated that the dog is literally re-directing the frustration onto someone else, such as a person or another animal next to them. This of course is not want we want or should encourage.

Thus, paying attention to the behaviors that accompany the state of frustration is very important.  I would argue that frustration is closely related to overall arousal (an autonomic response of the nervous system) as such, when I am working with a dog that for whatever reason is expressing frustration I need to watch closely that the frustration is not preventing the dog from learning – our main objective.

The take-home message is that some frustration is totally acceptable and even expected when dogs are experiencing something that is frustrating to them:  access to another dog, a person, chase after a rabbit and the like.

Frustration is also part of learning something new, but again, if the dog is so frustrated when training then something has to change. Pronto!  Often I will give a dog an opportunity to collect itself by removing him from the training session as I assess how to best proceed.  This is important mostly when dealing with emotional issues including fear or anxiety. Knowing when too much frustration is detrimental to the well-being of the dog and the learning process requires experience and constant observation, but a great place to start is to observe what kind of behavior(s) is the dog engaged in when feeling the frustration.  This will provide a clear map as to how to proceed in most cases.

Deuce, Stop. Lie Down.

I am behind a closed door and I cannot attend to it at that moment. Deuce has followed me around and now he is lying on the other side of the door gently pawing it and barking.  I asked him to stop (the barking and pawing) and immediately after that I tell him what I want him to do instead.

The cosmos loves a void. And where there is a void something will come and fill it.  When it comes to our dogs we need to make sure that we decide what should take place in the void left by the behavior (s) we don’t want.  The dog is rushing at a visitor, who is at the door, then jumps effusively at your guest. Your face turns red in aggravation and even shame for your dog’s behavior.

So, what is it that we normally do instead of telling the dog what we would rather they do?  Most likely we yell in frustration NO!!!! STOP THAT…  confusion will reign.  Your dog completely at odds as to what is a better option.

If instead we get into the habit of

1. Deciding what we want our pup to do in those sorts of circumstances (So we can stop immediately what we don’t like.)

2. Replace with what we want.

This is called a re-direct.  Ideally our redirect also can serve as an antidote for the behavior we don’t want.

If I ask Deuce to lie down, I know from experience he will just relax and wait for me to get to the door to let him in or just walk away.  In other instances, we need to use what is called a DRI which stands for differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior.  In plain English, just reinforce for something else that will de facto prevent your dog in resuming in the unwanted behavior.

The typical example is asking a dog to sit instead of jumping on the guest. Or feeding the dog treats as the bell is being rung so that it cannot bark, since barking and eating treats are incompatible actions. The other fantastic bonus of using this sort of rational in training is that as whatever the environment reinforces (and yes, that includes us) will become the preferred behavior offered.

So why is it then that we insist in just stopping what we don’t like in a young child or in our pet instead of redirect for a successful outcome?  Our own behavior can be motivated by several factors.

Perhaps we are exasperated because the behavior that we don’t want happens over and over again and now we are not even thinking of re-directing. Ignorance of this important rule of learning or multitasking?  And so, the list goes on.

I would add where we put our attention, we put our energy. One strategy that works for me is to take something like a behavior re-direct and practice it until it becomes a natural response- even when busy, frustrated or just lack the time of focus to give my dogs clear instructions.

One thing though to keep in mind, that we can only re-direct the dog to do something that the dog has previously learned.  And do keep in mind that sometimes folks think that because the dog responded once or just a few times to our insisting verbal cue does not mean that the dog has actually learned what we mean.

A dog might have learned a sit (put butt on ground) AND a stay (remain in that position until released) however, the stay part has more to do with the dog being able to sustain the behavior for a particular length of time and this is something that requires a lot of practice.  It is hard for dogs to sustain duration without practicing.  Your dog is not willful or a jerk because he breaks the sit (or else) ahead of you, it just means that he is undertrained.

My suggestion to you then, is to make a list of behaviors that your dog can do instead of “x” behavior and that you begin to ask just after you said NO to your dog for that well learned one.  Be ready now, for your dog to respond in kind and for you to pay your pup, otherwise your dog will not begin to offer the behavior you want because it is not being reinforced.

One of your dogs is injured, but you have two (or more) dogs. How are you going to handle this?

As I am writing this I am sitting next to my two dogs. They are both lying down, but Rio unfortunately is wearing one of those very cumbersome Elizabethan collars.  She just underwent surgery a week ago and we are looking at to 8 -10 weeks of lying low with little in the form of physical activity and lots and lots of management.  On the other hand, Deuce is not recuperating, and as such, he is ready to do what we do every morning – chasing after the ball or hiking.

Yep, sometimes I am overwhelmed.  I am constantly having to plan when and how to go from one activity to the next while working with clients as I try to keep my sanity. I guess this is a good example where I need to really dial up my “Zen”.  Zen in taking some time to take stock in how to move Rio safely from one spot to the other, in remembering to wrap her cast when it’s wet outside and she needs to go pee in a hurry.

Having systems in place is very helpful.  My systems include ways by which I can keep all the medication times and dosages straight. The same goes in planning what to do with her when I am outside exercising Deuce. Instead of throwing it all in at the last minute, I establish new routines. Simple things such as Rio not being able to eat out of her customary food bowl, can really wreak havoc on the list of do’s & don’ts that we need to follow for her recuperation.

Besides deciding what kind of activities she can still do so that she gets some mental stimulation, and as best as possible keeping her life as intact as possible, I also make sure I follow the household routines for Deuce.

Yes, there is also the emotional component:  it is hard to go play with your healthy dog (s) while the other one rests in her crate. When I feel a bit down I quickly remind myself of our ultimate goal behind the surgery:  Rio will be able to do all the activities she loves to do, but with being pain free. I even tell her (more for my benefit, mind you, than hers) that this is not her new life, just her new life for right now and that we will get through this together by focusing on what needs to happen and keeping the eye on the big picture: no (more) pain and back to lots of fun as we did before.

It is also important to take stock of activities that both dogs can enjoy such as chewing a tasty bone, getting some one-on-one training or even getting brushed for tasty treats.

I cannot say this enough, slowing down has been tremendously helpful in keeping my sanity as well as rolling with the punches. Of course, it helps when John can then dedicate some one-on-one attention to both dogs.

A solution, of course, is one can also hire competent help when the need arises. Perhaps someone that can stop by and give Rio a break from the plastic (hideous) cone and take her out to eliminate.  Or what about having a favorite person read a story to her, while Deuce and I go sheepherding?  Or having someone come to take Deuce for a walk?

It is important too to not underestimate physical touch and closeness. In my case, one of my dogs wants it because she is not feeling totally “normal” and the other is stressed due to thunder in the vicinity. I take a big sigh and relax into my role of caregiver as I gravitate like a tired planet around the sun between the two dogs, delivering words of encouragement as well as some TTouches.

When fear strikes, distract

It is unfortunately that the idea that we can reinforce fear in our pets is still so prevalent.  Frankly, nothing can be further from the truth. Think about this:  Fear is an emotion, involuntary for the subject feeling it, so how then can we make a dent on it by consoling our pet? This is an important message because many, many dogs can do with less distress and fear if we realize that we CAN influence how they perceive their environment with our behavior, and as such help them cope better. But that is way different than us reinforcing their fear.

If it was so easy to override or even eradicate fear just in how we interact with our dogs, the world would not be full of dogs that are fearful of people, other dogs and a myriad of situations. Fear is also adaptive; it is there to keep us out of harm’s way- in other words hardwired in us and every other living animal.

So, let’s look at some prevalent situation where the idea that we are reinforcing fear still abounds: We take our dog to the vet, the staff tells us that our dog does much better when we are not around. It is indeed less “fearful”.  What is this all about?  I can argue that it is so much easier for staff to do their job behind the scenes sort of speak, without the owner interfering and telling them how to do their job.  However, is there some truth to the fact that the dog appears less apprehensive when the owner is not around?

The research will surprise you!  I just learned in one of my continued education webinars, about research done in the context of pediatric clinics and how young children react to their parents cues in relation to the event. Some findings are similar in dogs.

This is what the study found:  When parents had an expression of concern this cued the child that something bad was going to happen to them.  If the parent consoled the child using phrases such as: “it’s okay,” “you will be fine” etc.  the child took a reason to be concerned or afraid as well.

In addition, it was not only what the parent might say to the child but the tone of voice used.  If the parent used a lower (opposite of high pitch, singsong) intonation, the child did not take this as a cue that something bad was eminent. Moreover, the children did much better when the parents gave the child instructions instead of consolation such as:  lower your arm, put your sleeve down etc.  Of course, if the poor overwhelmed parent (or clinician) looked concerned the child would be concerned too. So, it takes more than intonation, apparently.

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 6.15.31 PM

But get this: above all, children did much, much better in the concern realm (not in how much pain they felt) when they were being distracted!  Ah, bingo!  If the parent and the clinician were able to switch gears and instead of consoling the child they distracted the child, the child did not get tipped off to the concern the parent felt.

Does all this sound familiar with our dogs??? Well as a matter of fact, there is also research done in dogs that points to similar findings as in the pediatric clinic. Let me elaborate:  Even though we will NOT reinforce fear in our dogs when they are already feeling afraid, dogs, as any highly social animal do take cues from other social animals- in this case us, as to how we are experiencing the event. I would argue, but I can’t say that there is research to back my claim, that the more bonded the dog is to the person, the higher the level of influence one can have – for better or worse. It is quite likely that this is in effect what is going on at the vet’s clinic, when we are told that our dog does better without us.  We have a history with our dog that the vet staff does not have. Because of this, our behavior will influence our dog’s behavior greatly.  Of course, just as in the case with the clinician and the children, if the staff can also “act” matter of fact this will aid the dog in not taking in cues of danger from another social animal thus making it for an easier experience.

How does this work in the day to day life with our dogs?  I will give you an example:  Rio had to have a major operation yesterday – you will hear much more about it in future posts.  When we arrived at the clinic which she had visited twice before, she began to shake and was making attempts to exit via the front door.

Of course, I was crushed!  I began by giving her some simple directions such as, sit and down as I was filling in her paperwork.  Once I finished, we walked towards the sitting area. Here I gave her some pats and encourage her to look out the windows.  The area was empty, except for a man that was waiting for his own dog.  Rio jumped on the stoop and made her way all the way looking out the windows.  Perhaps she was looking for another escape route! (LOL).  I noticed that she was not shaking at this point but more than anything exploring and engaging with the outside surroundings.

If you have worked enough with your dog and he knows a couple of tricks- and a trick could be anything frankly, you can ask your dog to engage in the trick (s) when he is concerned.  Of course, it is mandatory that your dog really enjoys the trick and has been reinforced in the past for performing it.  The other advantages of doing something like this when concern strikes, is that your dog is being successful (and who does not want to be successful doing tricks right?) and when dogs are successful their confidence expands- nice!

Just like with the young kids (not sure the cut-out age of the children in the study) dogs as well as many other species such as horses and cats, respond differently to our tone of voice.  Dr. Patricia Mc Connell wrote her PhD thesis on this very same topic. Her research points out to the importance of tone and inflection in communicating (emotion) to our animals.

The take home message then, is to be really mindful of what you say to your dog- avoiding phrases that your dog already associates with “trouble” such as “you’ll be fine,” “it’s okay” and instead speak gibberish or engage in phrases that are positively meaningful for your pup such as:  Yes, soon we can go for a walk…   or “where is Deuce???”

Also, mind your intonation (skip the baby talk please!) and instead use a lower tone of voice versus a high-pitch, singsong intonation.

What I have personally found works best is to act (yep, and you will have to fake it till you make it) really matter of fact – as if you are clueless to the events unfolding, coupled with taking deep breaths, walking with a loose body yet confident body language while you engage your pup in some fun activity or just plain distractions. If your dog is really afraid you might not be able to distract her from what she is already feeling, however I urge you to give her some support by engaging with her in the most neutral & matter of fact performance you can muster. Dogs do take cues from us ALL THE TIME. So being mindful in how we are responding in stressful situation for our dogs will influence how they perceive the situation.