Author Archives: connieswaim

About connieswaim

Dog trainer, writer, reader, lover of fine wine

Kids and Dogs: A failure to communicate

Last night I went to a wiener roast that included a lot of my extended family. There were eight children under the age of 10 and four dogs; two of which had never been there before or met the other dogs. Because it was a wiener roast there was food everywhere. I got out of the vehicle and my stomach lurched. To the dog trainer in me, this looked like a dog/kid disaster waiting to happen or possibly a dog/dog disaster, but I felt it was more likely the dogs would figure out how to coexist rather than the dogs and kids.

kids and dogsStatistically I know kids are far more likely to be bitten than adults. The Centers for Disease Control says kids between 5-9 years old are especially at risk and that boys are twice as likely to be bitten than girls. Many of those bites are to the face and the vast majority of those bites are from dogs the kids know or at least dogs everyone assumes are ok to be around kids.

The following is an excerpt from an ASPCA article entitled Teaching your Dog how to Behave Around Kids: “Although dog bite fatalities are extremely rare and most bites don’t result in injury or medical treatment, children are the victims of half of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites in the United States every year. One study estimates that about a third of these bites are delivered by the family dog. Dogs often bite children on the face or neck, and these bites sometimes result in permanent scarring or disfigurement. Irrevocable emotional damage is often done as well. Many parents consider any tooth-to-skin contact with a child a major breach of trust—perhaps even grounds for euthanasia—and some people develop lifelong phobias of dogs after being bitten during childhood.”

The ASPCA has a pet recommendation guide based on a child’s age, and dogs don’t even make the list of recommended pets until children are 10 years old. But, kids and dogs are part of our way of life. Everyone wants “a puppy for the kids to grow up with.” We want a dog to protect us and our children from harm. We expect the dog to understand that our children are just being kids and shouldn’t be harmed for their transgressions.

So, why do dogs bite kids? First, this is by no means some scholarly scientific paper. These are just my own observations. But, what I tell clients and what feels right to me is that dogs bite kids because dogs are dogs and kids are kids and sometimes they have a “failure to communicate.” As a matter of fact when I see dogs and kids interacting I often hear the voice of Strother Martin in my head as he says to Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

For example, last night my four-year old nephew had a Woody doll. And this is a toy he loves – a lot. He was sliding down a slide and Woody was being flung all about and in one arc Woody came close to the face of a boxer. The boxer looked at Woody, not as the beloved toy of a 4-year-old, but as a super awesome amazing tug toy that just flew near his face. Obviously, the boxer thought someone must surely want him to play with this toy. The boxer grabbed the toy, the 4 year old let out a howl and pulled back. I’m sure the boxer imagined that a game of tug was now in order, but the four-year old only saw a dog trying to take Woody. The four-year old charged at the boxer screaming and kicking. Luckily, enough adults were present to stop the four-year-old from hurting the dog and to stop the dog from hurting the four-year old. Nothing bad happened except some hurt feelings on the adult side as everyone tried to decide who was at fault – dog or child.

Whenever I talk to a client who is upset because their dog has either bitten a child or growled at a child I always get the same picture as what I saw last night between my nephew and the boxer.

  • A dog sound asleep on a couch with nowhere to go when a 5 year old approaches and smacks the dog on the nose because the 5 year old wants to be on the couch.
  • A dog hunkering under a kitchen table while eight nine-year-old girls crowd in the kitchen for a birthday party and someone decides the dog should be in the festivities and reaches under the table and grabs the dog to drag it out from under the table.
  • A dog on a leash on the Monon when a 6 year old waving an ice cream rushes forward to give the doggie a hug.

In these three examples the dog did bite the child involved. Luckily, my nephew was not bitten, but what would have happened had he pursued the boxer hitting the dog in an effort to save Woody?

You could say in the above examples that the parents should have been watching the child. Or that the dog should have inhibited its bite. (depending on which side of the issue you feel most strongly about). But, what I think is that it is hard to be a parent and watch your child 24/7. When I was watching all of those little kids running around last night, there was absolutely no way someone could be on top of the situation every single second. And is it fair to ask a dog to do something that it isn’t asked to do with any other species?

If a horse bites a person, very few people freak out. If a chicken runs at a child to scare it off or if a goat butts a child to get it out of the way, people accept the fact that farm animals are just acting as animals. If a cat bites someone, most people seem to just say, “well, it is a grumpy cat, the person shouldn’t have been petting it.”

When a dog bites, especially if it bites a child or other family member, it is “man’s best friend” biting. It is Lassie biting Timmy. It is unthinkable.

Which is why I try to tell everyone who attends my Learn to Speak Dog class that they have to be their dog’s advocate and try to make sure situations such as the above just don’t happen because the dog always loses. In the three examples above where the dog did bite the child, the dogs were all euthanized. It was just too traumatic for those parents or dog owners to think they owned a dog that could possibly injure a child.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide an answer because I don’t think there is an answer, short of making sure dogs and kids never interact, which isn’t fair to the thousands of dogs and kids that have no issues together. But, hopefully it helps you think and remember that your dog has teeth and no matter how wonderful you think he is, the correct answer in his mind may be to sometimes use those teeth.  And if you are a parent, to realize that a dog should not have to put up with a child hitting it, shoving it, hugging it or dragging it. While some dogs may put up with this behavior, it doesn’t mean the dog is enjoying it or that every dog will behave the same way.

And remember, it didn’t end well for Luke in the movie — a failure to communicate can be devestating.

Don’t forget your dog on Game Day!

Super Bowl Sunday ranks only behind Thanksgiving in terms of food consumption and the average Super Bowl party is attended by 17 people!

batman food

Can your dog leave a plate of food this tempting for very long?

So, what this tells me is that on Sunday while the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers are battling for football supremacy, there are going to be LOTS of plates of unattended food or platters filled with tempting things sitting on the edges of counters. While I could find no statistics for dogs related to the Super Bowl, I’m betting there is an increase in the number of emergencies at vets mostly related to dogs eating foods they shouldn’t.

A Super Bowl party has to rank as one of the worst things most dogs could attend. So, if you are hosting a party and you have dogs, pause between chopping the avocado and wrapping the weenies to think about the best plan of action for Fido.

While we all love our dog and want to show him off to our friends, many dogs actually aren’t party animals. While there are those dogs that thrive on constant attention and don’t care how many people fill a room, they are most likely the exception rather than the rule.

So, think about this: You have a room full of people and the normal places your dog likes to hang out are going to be taken. Suddenly half the room explodes in shouting and people jumping up screaming at the television. What is a dog to make of this? Some dogs may become scared and want to run and hide, but suddenly find their exits out of the room blocked by strangers waving plates of food and screaming. The dog may start barking, causing someone to miss the ever important instant replay and then someone absent mindedly reaches down to try and quiet the dog and gets bitten! While this probably doesn’t happen at every party, it is certainly within the realm of possibility. Your dog is dealing with a lot of stress. Or someone may actually yell at the dog to shut up, forgetting that the dog does not speak English and has no idea why people are jumping up and down and screaming. An ill-tempered friend whose team just did something he didn’t like could lash out at the dog.

But, maybe you own a bomb proof dog or one who just loves parties and being in the middle of the action. The Super Bowl party still may not be the safest environment. Dogs are opportunists. If they see an opportunity for food many of them will take it, no matter how great their training background is. After all, a plate of bacon-wrapped weenies sitting unattended at nose level must be meant for the dog right? Otherwise why would we have left it there? So, a well-meaning guest suddenly tries to save the plate of weenies only to be bitten by a dog that suddenly doesn’t want to give up such a great prize. Remember, many dogs don’t like to share, especially with strangers.

Then again, your dog may be bomb proof and he would never dream of guarding a plate of weenies from a human who wanted them back. But, what about taking the plate of weenies to the corner and eating them all while everyone is glued to the halftime show waiting to see if there will be a costume malfunction? Often hors d’oeuvres have toothpicks holding them together. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that your dog could eat the bacon wrapped weenies as fast as he can (certainly he has to eat fast because the room is full of other opportunists who may come for the weenies at any time). Nothing says a trip to the emergency vet more than a dog that eats a bunch of toothpicks.

Chicken wings are another staple of Super Bowl parties. Now, I feed my dogs raw food, including raw chicken. I give my dogs raw bones. But, I am NOT going to let my dog have cooked bones, especially tiny bones such as those from a chicken wing. They could splinter and hot and spicy barbecue sauce may cause the dog to burn his tongue or at least have severe tummy upset.

For the host and hostess of the Super Bowl Party, game day is going to be stressful. You will most likely be spending all day cleaning, cooking (or at least defrosting), etc. The dog may not get his customary walk or a much shortened walk. So, he is already going to be antsy before the people start arriving.

Game Day is NOT the day to decide you need to train your dog not to jump on everyone who comes in or bark at them. However, you might start training now for next year’s Super Bowl party.  And if your dog has never worn clothes before, now is not the time to dress him up in your favorite team’s jersey.

And if your party includes kids under the age of 13, be sure and set some rules and be alert. Dogs are hard to resist for kids and if suddenly it is quiet and you wonder where the dog and kids have gone to, please go check it out. You don’t want to find Fido in the corner being covered by kisses from a well-meaning 5-year-old.

So, this has been a long list of scary scenarios and what not to do. What should you do with Fido? Well, if he loves people and isn’t stressed by a lot of stuff, let him come out and say hello. But, he might like it better if he was in a crate in a back room until after all the guests arrive. That way he isn’t stressed by the constant ringing of the doorbell and all the new people. He can come in after everyone is settled and say hello. Let your guests know they should NOT feed the dog a snack, no matter how sad the dog looks and believe me, your dog knows how to play a crowd. Perhaps you could give everyone a dog approved snack and let them feed that to the dog. Don’t make the dog do a trick for every treat though. Your guests aren’t saying please and thank you every time they grab a deviled egg. Just hand the dog a dog biscuit and let him enjoy himself.

If the game is tense and lots of people are jumping up and down, your dog may wish to go back to his crate and chill out. Give him something to do. This is the place for a great raw bone, a Kong stuffed with treats (and frozen to make it last longer) or an elk antler. You want something that is fun and will last a long time.

Remember, if there is really a wardrobe malfunction at halftime, it will be replayed. So, take Fido for a quick walk to relieve some of his stress. Or maybe go outside for a quick game of fetch.

Remind guests that your dog may not be above stealing and to keep a close watch on their plates. Keep your food trays well back on the counter to prevent counter surfing or keep them in the oven or the refrigerator and ask guests to just go an extra step in getting their snacks.  7-11 stores report a 20 percent increase in the sale of antacids on the day after the Super Bowl. You will be the one cleaning up after your dog if he over indulges. Cleaning up dog puke while you have a hangover the next day won’t be fun.

And after the game is over, and the guests have gone, take the toothpick out of the bacon-wrapped weenie and give the weenie to the dog. He earned it. And if you are one of the six percent of Americans who call in sick on the Monday after the Super Bowl, give your dog some extra TLC.

The Christmas puppy

Every Christmas Eve, we went to my maternal grandparent’s home. While the food and presents were great, it was the ride home that we most looked forward to. My brothers and I would watch the sky hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer.  We would speculate on what we might be getting and who would get up first in the morning. The 45 minute drive was one of excitement and merriment.

So, you can imagine my parents’ surprise one year when they heard their six-year-old daughter sobbing uncontrollably in the back seat on the drive home instead of watching for Santa.

“What’s wrong,” my mom asked.

“I forgot to tell Santa what I really wanted,” I sobbed.

“Oh dear, what was it? Maybe he will hear you,” my mom helpfully said.

“I want a puppy. I want a puppy more than anything,” I cried.

Well, needless to say, Santa did not have any extra puppies on his sleigh that year. Although, I found out later that had my parents been able to think of a way to contact Santa and get the puppy, they would have done it. I guess I was really heart breaking to hear as I sobbed on my way home.  But, 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve is not a good time to try and find a puppy.

And what child doesn’t love the idea of a puppy popping out of a box or a kitten in a stocking? Never mind that A. an animal could die wrapped up in a box overnight (not to mention just chew out of it) and B. kittens might shred the stocking, but they are not going to sit prettily in it until a child comes into a room. Christmas is such a magical time that we often forget that reality doesn’t always match the pictures in our mind.

It is the reality that comes with that cute puppy or kitten that often leads to heartache and perhaps even finding a new home for the animal in the days or weeks after Christmas. So, if you are thinking of getting someone you love a living, breathing animal for the holidays this year; ask yourself if you are prepared for the reality rather than the Christmas card image in your mind.

Are you prepared for the puppy or kitten biting or scratching your child when it gets hugged too tight? The trip to the emergency vet on Christmas day if the animal decides to eat the tinsel from the tree?  Cleaning up puppy poop and pee while your home is filling with relatives and friends for the annual Christmas gathering? Walking the puppy in the sleet and snow? Watching the puppy eat your new shoes or perhaps take another trip to the emergency vet once the puppy eats Barbie and her playhouse? All of these things can happen. Or maybe you just decide the puppy should live outside, which makes life easier for you, until a few months later you realize you have a totally unsocialized adolescent dog that you can’t control, so it’s off to the pound.

Getting a pet should be a family decision. The person who most wants the pet and who will be the pet’s caretaker should be the one to pick the pet out. While you may think your mom is lonely and just needs a cat to keep her company, what if your mom has been waiting to tell you that she now plans to travel extensively or that she never really liked the cat you had growing up, she just tolerated it because you loved it? Does your child want a puppy or the idea of a puppy? According to the ASPCA, children under the age of 10 may not be ready for a puppy or a kitten. Read their recommendations here.

While the holidays can be a good time to get a pet because the entire family is home and the kids are out of school, what is going to happen on the day you go back to work and the kids go back to school?

Above all, think carefully about the fact this is an animal, not something you can return to the store if it isn’t the right size. It will live for years and cost lots of money in annual maintenance. If you are ready for a new pet, get a gift certificate and take the entire family with you to choose the new family member. Consider getting the pet a week or two before Christmas so it has time to settle into your home before the hustle and bustle of Christmas or go looking for a pet on the day after Christmas. After all the toys will be old news by then and the kids may have more time to spend with the new addition.

And while you are thinking, ask yourself if a puppy or kitten is the right fit for your family. Maybe a mature animal will make more sense. One that may not need lots of potty training or a cat that may be past the desire to take apart the Christmas tree. That puppy or kitten is only going to stay cute and tiny for a very short time. It might make more sense to get something that is an adult so you know what it is going to look like and act like as an adult. Not to mention, if you adopt an adult animal, you are saving that animal’s life. Everyone wants puppies and kittens and any animal past that “cute” stage is often overlooked. Christmas doesn’t have to be just about your family and the perfect gift; it could also be about giving a gift of a home to an animal in need.

Choose wisely and you will have a story for Christmases to come not to mention the love and devotion of a new four-legged friend.

Photos from Polly’s Christmas Present, story and pictures by Irma Wilde, first published in 1953.

Make sure Halloween is all TREATS for your dog

If you are planning on taking your faithful companion trick or treating this year, make sure the experience is a treat rather than a trick for your dog!

According to the Ultimate Guide to Halloween Statistics people spent $310 million for pet Halloween costumes in 2011! Of course this is a very paltry number when compared to the $1 billion spent on children’s costumes and $1.21 billion spent for adult costumes, but still a not insignificant amount.

We obviously love taking our dogs everywhere and many dogs love going with us. But, Halloween can be very scary in a real sense for some children and dogs. We’ve all seen children screaming when coming face to face with a clown or some other scary object on Halloween. Your dog may not be screaming, but he still could be very nervous about the entire process.

Here are some tips for having a great Halloween for you and your four-legged friend.

#1 If your dog is nervous or already has issues meeting new people; Halloween is not a good time to be taking him for a walk. Just leave him at home in a quiet place and work on training him on other days so he gets used to meeting new people and going new places. That way he will be ready for next Halloween.

#2 Don’t buy a costume for your dog an hour before you plan to take him trick or treating. Get the costume as far in advance as possible and let your dog get used to wearing it. Have LOTS of tasty, high value treats on hand. You want your dog to think wearing the costume is fun. When taking it off and on make sure the dog gets lots of treats and GO SLOW. If your dog appears nervous about wearing a costume, just have him touch it or drape it over his back at first with lots of good rewards for tolerating it.  Once the dog is comfortably wearing the costume, let him walk around in it on leash for awhile so he gets used to how it feels.

#3 Think of less is more costumes, especially if your dog isn’t used to wearing clothes. Batman HATES wearing clothes. So, one year we went as Batman and Robin, only I dressed up. Batman had on a Batman plastic utility belt around his middle, and that was it. Another year Batman went as a seeing eye dog so I just had on his leash and I dressed as a blind person. On the other hand, Condor, who doesn’t care what happens as long as there is a chance to play ball, got dressed up as the Big Bad Wolf disguised as Grandma complete with wig while I dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood.

#4 Take lots of dog treats with you so your dog gets lots of positive reinforcement when meeting new people. Remember, even if your dog loves meeting people, he is going to be on a walk with people dressed in all kinds of weird costumes and doing all kinds of weird things such as lurching, talking funny, and just meeting people behaving in a manner the dog may not be used to.

#5 Watch for signs of stress. If your dog starts yawning, licking his lips a lot, staying at the end of his leash behind you, etc. he may be telling you he isn’t having a great time. Watch for your dog to turn his head away from something or someone. This could be his way of saying he wishes the thing in front of him would back up. Before you go trick or treating, make sure you know what your dog looks like relaxed. Watch him in the house and see where he carries his tail, where his ears are, what his forehead looks like, etc. If you know what he looks like relaxed, you will be able to spot times when he isn’t relaxed more easily. If you see your dog is getting stressed, STOP. Don’t force him to go on. You want the experience to be fun for the whole family. You wouldn’t force your 3 year old to continue if she turned out to be terrified so don’t force the dog. Remember, there is always next year and if we stop before we terrify the dog, we can work on it for next year and do some training. The biggest thing to remember is just because your dog’s tail is wagging it doesn’t mean he is having fun! Dogs wag their tails for lots of reasons, and not all of them mean he is happy.

#6 Be your dog’s advocate. Don’t let people just run up and pet him. Your dog relies on you to be his voice. Don’t be afraid to step in front of your dog or in some other way block him from rude people or rude dogs rushing into his space. Don’t get so caught up in the fun that you forget your dog is on the other end of the leash! I’ve seen people talking in groups who totally forgot their dog was there and then seen a small child approach the dog without the owner having a clue. Don’t let a growl or snap be your first indication that something is not going well. Do NOT take your dog trick or treating on a flexileash. You want him near you.

#7 If this is your dog’s first Halloween experience make plans to keep it short or at least have a backup plan in place in case your dog isn’t having fun.

Let’s not forget the dogs at home. Batman HATES people coming into our yard. If he is in the house and he sees lots of people in the street he starts barking and getting very agitated. On Halloween, Batman goes into a crate in the back of the house with a tasty big bone to chew on. Or, he goes out front with me and we do some obedience stuff as kids come up so Batman has a job to do and isn’t worried about why I am letting all these strangers onto our lawn.

If your dog barks at the pizza man, then he is going to bark at the kids and seeing a bunch of people in weird outfits at his front door is not going to make him happy. Let him relax far away from the action with his own version of a treat. If the doorbell sets your dog off, great your trick or treaters outside so they don’t have to ring the bell. There is nothing worse than your dog going ballistic every time someone rings the bell or knocks (however, you could train your dog to hear that sound and go lay down quietly on a mat).

And above all: DO NOT give your dog Halloween candy. Don’t leave it on the counter or the table or anywhere he can get it. Make sure the kids don’t leave their candy out where the dog can get it.  It is going to smell delicious, but chocolate, especially lots of really dark chocolate can be bad for your dog. Things like gum, suckers, anything sticky can also cause serious issues. You don’t want to end your Halloween at the Emergency Vet.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Dogs sleeping on the bed — oh my

Almost every day a client gives me a sheepish smile and starts a sentence with, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but my dog sleeps on the bed.” So, I want to share my own secrets –so do mine.  Not only do some of the dogs sleep on the bed, some of them get up on the couch too. Not to mention, if they are polite, I’ll throw them some scraps of food from my dinner plate. Oh, and Batman almost always goes through the doorways first. And you know what? I’m happy with this arrangement.

Batman and Bandit sleep on the bed. So far, I have not noticed any signs that either one of them is trying to dominate me. Even after three years, shy Bandit flinches if I even look at him while he is on the bed. Sometimes Batman wants to see if he can have the spot with the pillow, but all I have to do is say, “Bat, move” and he does (although sometimes he sighs).

And yet, thanks to popular television shows and several dog training books, there are lots of people out there who think it is wrong to have their dog sleep on the bed, walk ahead of them, or get a treat from their plate.  I attended a training class a few years ago in which the instructor said on the first day that anyone who was letting his or her dog sleep on the bed or get up on the furniture was never going to have a well-trained dog.

Here is what I say: If you are happy with your dog’s behavior, then be happy and don’t worry what someone else says is right or wrong.

OK, I’m going to throw out some caveats. If your dog sleeps on the bed and he growls when you try to get into bed, or if he snaps at you if you ask him to get off the bed, that’s a problem.  If your dog tries to put his face in your plate while you are eating or doing something else to bother you during meal times, that’s a problem (unless of course you don’t mind). But, if your dog is polite and you like the situation, then don’t stress it.

My rules are simple. If the dog isn’t bothering me and if he responds to the cues I give him, then I’m happy and he’s happy. Batman knows if he sits a foot away from me while I eat, the chances are good he will get something. If he bothers me while I’m eating, he is asked to get off the couch and he gets nothing. He also can’t growl at any other dogs or cats that might be near while I’m eating as that causes the food to go away completely. If I need more leg room in the bed, he can move or get on the floor.

When we go for a walk, if I ask Batman to “sit,” he will. If I need him to stop pulling me, I can ask him to “heel.” Otherwise, he can do whatever he wants at his end of the leash. I’m pretty sure instead of planning on how he will dominate the world; he is really just sniffing for squirrels.

So, have fun with your dog and don’t lose any more sleep. Believe me; your dog isn’t going to take over the world, at least not until he gets opposable thumbs.

Don’t ignore your dog’s early warning signals

When the “check engine” light comes on in our vehicle, most of us take notice and take the appropriate steps to have the vehicle serviced. We do this because the vehicle manual tells us that ignoring this light could mean serious damage to our vehicle down the road.

Unfortunately, with dogs we often ignore the many “check engine” signals the dog gives us until everything falls apart. Then we are left trying to decide what happened and can we fix it. If we can’t fix it, then it generally means euthanasia for the dog.

This week I got two phone calls that illustrate this point.

Call #1: A 2 year old cocker spaniel bit a neighbor’s child. The bite did not break skin, but left a bruise. The dog has been growling at non family members for most of the year that the family has owned the dog. But, the dog is great with the family. The bite happened on the family’s front porch as the neighbor child was being invited into the home. The dog charged out the door and when the little girl raised her arm up, the dog leaped up and grabbed it.

Call #2: A six month old mixed-breed puppy is growling and snapping at a 4 year old in the home. The family has had the puppy for four months. They called when the puppy grazed the 4-year-old’s cheek with a tooth and left a scratch. The puppy was fine with the 4 year old for the first month the family said, and then it just started growling “out of nowhere.” The family is afraid of the puppy and it is now living outside.

The woman who called with the cocker spaniel was crying the entire time she spoke with me. She LOVES this dog; however, her husband says the dog has to go. The woman in call number two wants the dog gone because the family thinks the puppy is dangerous.

Once a dog has a bite history, it is difficult to do anything. As a general rule, rescues won’t take dogs that have a bite history. Rehoming the dog could be difficult due to liability issues. And there just aren’t sanctuaries out there waiting to take in the beloved pet that now bites people.

In talking with both people, it was clear to me the dogs in both cases gave lots of early warnings that they were scared and needed some help. Unfortunately, the owners didn’t have the resources they needed to understand the dogs needed help.

The time to reach out to a trainer or behaviorist is when the early warning light comes on. By the time the break down happens it can be much more difficult, if not impossible to help the dog.

Dogs communicate to us constantly. Unfortunately, they aren’t speaking English. They understand us much better than we understand them. Yet it really is fairly easy to begin to understand your dog. It just takes some observational skills. Yes, that means you have to actually LOOK at your dog and see what it is doing. If you learn nothing else, at least learn what your dog looks like when it is relaxed and happy. Where are its ears, its tail, how is it standing on his feet or how is it laying down, what does its face look like? Once you know what your dog looks like relaxed, it will be much easier to know what your dog looks like when he is not relaxed.

Left: This dog is happy. The photographer has been giving him treats. His face is relaxed, his tongue is out.

Let’s picture this. Say you know that when your dog is relaxed his tongue is hanging out, his face is relaxed and when he wags his tail his entire butt moves.  He will look something like the dog above. But when the 4 year old approaches the dog, it closes its mouth, turns its head or wags its tail without the entire butt involved. This is a change in behavior. The dog is no longer as relaxed as he was. The dog is saying “you make me nervous, please don’t come any closer.” If the 4 year old keeps coming, the dog may suddenly turn and sniff its butt, or point its ears back and have its weight distributed so it can flee away from the child. Again the dog is asking the child in the only language it has to stop approaching.

Right: The photographer got too close to the dog. Suddenly he became more nervous, closed his mouth and turned to look away from the photographer. He is saying, “too close, please back up.”

Luckily, most dogs tolerate rude behavior for a long time, but all dogs have a point in which they are just tired of the 4 year old in their face, or the neighbor kids constantly wanting to pet it or strangers coming in and saying “oh, you are so cute I just have to pet you.” To the dog, he has been communicating for a long time to please stop. So, when those early signals are ignored he brings out the growl, the lip curls or the bite.

I love dogs that growl. The growl is all of your car’s warning signal lights coming on at once. If that happened you would sit up and take notice. You wouldn’t just take out the fuses and hope the car keeps running fine. Yet, when a dog growls, most owners get really upset. They yell at the dog for growling. Growling is often the dog’s way of saying, “listen, you are obviously not the brightest dog in the pack, and you have ignored every other signal I’ve given you, so I am going to growl, so sit up and take notice.” If we punish the dog for growling and he needs to say something really important, all we’ve left him with is a bite. And then I get the call from the upset owner wondering why suddenly their loving family dog has bitten someone.

If you notice your dog seems unhappy around new people or nervous around the kids, call a trainer. Don’t wait. Get help before all the warning lights come on.


The problem with just “one more cookie”

Often when people see my German Shepherd, Condor, they ask me if he is ill. At first I was perplexed by this question, until I found out people thought he was ill because they thought he was too skinny. You can actually see Condor’s “waist” (called a “tuck” in dogs). You can also see the outline of his last rib. He isn’t sick; he is just the right weight.

So many of our companion dogs are overweight, that people often stop and take notice of a dog that is the correct weight and immediately think it is sick or someone is neglecting it.

In February the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) released a survey from veterinarians that said 53 percent of dogs and 55 percent of cats were overweight. WOW! That’s more than half of our pets.  The study also found that many people do not realize their pet is overweight and when asked said they thought their pet was at an ideal weight.

When I talk to people about their pet’s weight, most people smile sheepishly and say something like, “but he looks at me with sad eyes.” Believe me, I know that look. Batman gives me that look and I have to constantly battle his weight. Because he does so many demos with me and he is out in public so often, he gets more treats than he should.

According to APOP treats are a major problem in combatting pet obesity. “Treats continue to be a major contributor to weight gain in pets.  An online poll conducted in October 2011 by APOP of 210 pet owners found 93 percent of all dog and cat owners gave treats. 95 percent gave a commercial treat with 26 percent reporting they gave their pet treats three or more times a day. “Treats are the silent saboteur of slimming down.” Remarks APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward. “Those tiny treats are often hiding a significant amount of calories.” Ward suggests offering single-ingredient rewards or fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetables.”

Consider these examples from the APOP article:

■A premium pig ear (231 kcals) fed to a 40-pound dog is the equivalent of an adult human drinking six 12-ounce Coke Classics™ (840 kcals).

■A typical dog biscuit (25 to 27 kcals) fed to a 20-pound dog is the equivalent of an average adult human eating two Keebler EL Fudge Double Stuffed Sandwich Cookies (180 kcals).

YIKES! Batman ate two pig ears the other day during a demo. No wonder I’m having trouble with his weight.

Now the big question: why should you care if your pet is overweight? You love him all rounded and happy right? Well, if you love him, you should care. Overweight pets face the same health problems as overweight people. And if you own a breed that is prone to hip and knee problems, then you should especially pay attention to weight. I try and keep Condor at or slightly even below an ideal weight because he is a German shepherd and they are prone to hip issues. Plus, Condor is a working dog. When he is out on a search, he has to do a lot of running, jumping, etc. He is an athlete and I have to keep his body in condition for an athlete.

Obesity also adds up at the veterinarian’s office. The August issue of Angie’s List newsletter is devoted to pet issues, including obesity. This is from the article on obesity, “Obesity-related conditions drive up vet costs, says Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for Petplan, a highly rated pet insurance company that provides policies nationwide. Treatment for arthritis –a condition exacerbated by aging and extra weight pounding joins – increases vet bills by an average of $2,000 a year. Benson says surgery such as hip replacement that runs $3,000 to $6,000 per joint, drives costs higher still.”

Overweight pets also become diabetic; have high blood pressure, etc.

Another issue is that many pet owners feed their pets exactly what it says to feed on the side of the dog food bag. Dogs are individuals. A coach potato dog doesn’t need as much as a dog that plays catch all day.  I change how much my dogs eat daily. If Batman is looking chunky, he gets less. If too much of Condor’s back rib starts to show, he gets more. On days when I do a lot of demos with Batman, and he gets a lot of treats, he just doesn’t get a meal at all.

I will leave you with two more examples from the APOP website:

■According to Dr. Ernie Ward, a 95-pound male Golden retriever is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 184 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 214 pounds.

■A 10-pound Chihuahua is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 242 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 282 pounds.

So, if you love your pet, watch his weight and don’t let his sad eyes sway you.  Chances are he will live longer if he is at a healthy weight and you will enjoy those sad eyes for a few more years.


Going “off leash” isn’t the best goal for many dog owners

One of the things many of my clients ask for is a dog that is reliable off-leash.  It seems most of us have an idyllic vision of our dogs romping in the park, having fun, and then instantly returning to us when necessary.

Unfortunately, the reality of off-leash work rarely matches our vision. I’m not saying an off-leash recall is impossible, far from it. But, it takes a LOT of work. Even then, there is always the possibility that your dog will see or smell something that trumps coming back to you. In many locations it is actually illegal for your dog to be off leash, so be sure you know your state and local municipal codes.

The reason an off-leash recall can be so difficult is that our dogs love to run and chase things. Many of them are hard-wired to chase small animals or birds. Some dogs hit a scent and just have to follow it, no matter what we might be telling them. In order to combat this, you have to be more fun than a squirrel or a rabbit or the scent of a female dog in heat. You want your dog to know that coming back to you means LOTS of totally awesome cookies, or a big game of tug with a favorite toy. This doesn’t happen overnight. There are even great trainers who have dogs that even after years of work still don’t have a recall that is 100 percent reliable. My personal belief is that there is no recall that is 100 percent reliable. There is always going to be something, somewhere that makes your dog want to investigate or chase.

This is why I always have a talk with my clients who put down as a goal on the first day of class that they want to let their dog off leash in the park and have him or her come back to them.

Let me give you a few scenarios.

  • My dog Batman has several obedience titles. He is 8 years old and we do a lot of work together. About 80 percent of the time I am comfortable with him off-leash coming back to me. But, I have seen him run across a road right in front of an oncoming car. It happened when I let him out of my van in my own driveway. Usually Batman gets out of the van and runs to the front-door of the house, but on this day, there was a rabbit in our yard that I did not see. Batman took off after that rabbit faster than I could have imagined and no amount of me asking him to come back to me was getting through to him. He dashed across the road and barely missed getting hit by a car. I almost fainted I was so stressed and the driver of the car was so shook up he had to stop.
  • Sparkles was a dog I had before Batman. I often took her to my parent’s house when I went to visit and she and I would go hiking in the woods. But, Sparkles had some kind of sight hound in her. When she saw a deer she would just take off, no matter what I said or did. Usually she came back after she couldn’t see the deer anymore. One day she didn’t come back. I think she probably scared up another deer and then another and kept chasing them farther and farther away. For three days I looked for her. I went to all the neighbors; I drove in ever-widening circles stopping to call her name. Every morning I got up hoping she would be on the front steps. Every evening I went out one last time calling her name. On the fourth day she came back, but she was in bad shape. Some other animal, most likely a coyote had been after her. My veterinarian thought by the bite wounds that Sparkles must have gotten under a log that gave her some protection as only her lips and face had bite marks.  After a few weeks of antibiotics she was fine.
  • One of our adopters came in today to let us know that the dog he adopted was doing great, but he said she had been hit by a car last month. She was off leash and suddenly darted into traffic. The man said that always before the dog had come back when they called her, but this one time she didn’t. The dog is going to be ok, but she required some extensive medical attention.

I’m sure you’ve all seen a dog dead by the side of the road. That could have been any of the dogs I’ve written about here, it is just in these cases the dogs were lucky.

If you are still determined to play with your dog off leash, take some precautions. Make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing a collar with ID tags. Start with very easy recalls in an enclosed area and then add distractions such as someone throwing a ball, riding a bicycle or walking a dog by. You want to add these distractions while you are still in a safe environment before you take your dog to the park. Have something your dog REALLY wants and when he or she comes back to you, give lots of praise and give them the treat or toy. Consider having your dog drag a 30 foot long line. If the dog is dragging a long leash, your chances of catching up to it are greatly improved. Watch your area for distractions that might tempt your dog and start asking your dog to come back to you before he or she sees that distraction.

Also, make sure your dog has something other than a recall that he or she is good at. I have been saved many times because Batman has a very good Down. I can yell down and he will no matter what (as long as it isn’t a rabbit or a squirrel). Some dogs will come back if you ignore them and walk away from them.

The number one thing to remember is that if your dog gets loose and you do get it back, have a HUGE party. Lots of praise, treats, tug, whatever the dog wants. No matter how mad you are at the dog, never, ever punish it for returning to you. It will just make the dog decide that coming back to you wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

As long as you are playing with your dog, having fun and loving him, he won’t mind if he is never off-leash romping in the park. Being safe is much better than a dead dog by the side of the road.

Sifting through the ever-changing world of dog trainers

One of my clients called yesterday to tell me that she was getting conflicting advice from another dog trainer. My client’s veterinarian had suggested she see a person the veterinarian called a specialist and the specialist told my client she was a behaviorist, which does sound important. But, when the specialist started giving my client advice that conflicted with what I was telling her, my client was understandably confused.

I feel bad for my client. There is so much conflicting information in the world of dog training. One old adage is that the only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what the third trainer is doing wrong. Sadly, I think that is more often true than not.

So, what is a person with a dog to do? How do you sift through all this confusion?

While this short post is overly simplistic, I hope it will help. First, let’s break the dog training world into two big groups.

1: The group that thinks dogs need a forceful hand that will dominate them and show them their place in the pack. This group may often use a punisher as a means to get the dog to comply. This group often uses words such as “dominance,” “alpha,” “leader of the pack.”

2: The group that uses a positive reward system and does not use punishment as a means to teach a dog something. This group talks about learning to read a dog’s body language, using the dog’s favorite food or toy to get the dog to work and many members of this group are quickly distancing themselves from anything that has the word “alpha” in it.

Each group has dozens (if not hundreds) of sub groups. I have belonged to both groups. Like many trainers I started off in Group 1 years ago. I believed the dog trainer who told me the choke chain was not really hurting my dog; I believed the trainer who told me the electric collar was not shocking my dog the same way it would shock me because my dog had fur around his neck; I believed the trainer who said the prong collar was humane.

Then one day I looked at my dog. He was shivering, drooling and miserable. I was trying to make him do something he didn’t want to do. The trainers around me wanted me to keep pushing the dog and MAKE him obey. My dog was terrified. Suddenly, I thought, “this is my friend, this dog loves me and has given me years of fun and yet I’m making him miserable.” Was it the task I was asking my dog to do that making him miserable or the way I was teaching him the task? I came to the conclusion that it was the way I was teaching him. As I stood on that training field, I realized I felt as miserable as my dog. As a matter of fact, I was crying.  I was hurting him, if not physically, then mentally. In that moment, I changed to Group 2. It wasn’t actually overnight, but it was on that night that the change began. I stopped charging the electric collar, I kept “forgetting” to bring my prong collar and I started going to seminars on dog behavior and training. I became a seminar junkie.

The more I learned about dog behavior the more I moved into the Group 2 camp. Here was a form of training that would never hurt my dog. My spirits lifted. My dog and I began exploring clicker training, which is in Group 2. According to the website, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.”

My dog, Batman, could not be happier. In the years since I switched to clicker training, the bond between Batman and I has strengthened tremendously. My younger dog, Condor, only knew a few months of any kind of training from Group 1 and he just certified as a Human Remains Detection Dog.

There are many people in Group 1 who say that clickers are ok for tricks or clickers can’t be used to teach a dog everything. As a matter of fact an instructor at the Human Remains Detection seminar I was at told me Condor actually “hated” the sound of the clicker. He told me “real” working dogs had to be taught using other methods. I ignored him and kept my clicker on. Later that afternoon I sat in the shade and taught Condor to “shake” with both paws with my clicker, and all the while Condor had a big, sloppy grin on his face. The way he kept working and looking at my treat bag did not seem to be the face of a dog who “hated” the sound of a clicker.

My best advice to anyone confused by all the types of training is to do research. Find a trainer who is certified through some type of organization. Then look up that organization to see what they stand for. Some groups allow a trainer to put initials after their name for just the price of an annual fee; other groups actually have classwork and hold their members to standards. For example, I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy, which is a six month course that requires its students to have a score of 90 or higher in order to pass and become certified.

Talk to any trainer you wish to hire. If you like the trainer, chances are you will like the training. Ask to meet the trainer’s dog and see a demo. I can tell a lot by a person by their dog and I’m sure you can too. Ask the trainer why he or she choose the type of training they believe in and what their training background includes.  Sit in on a class before you sign up with a trainer; make sure you like how he or she teaches. Look at the dogs in the class. Are they happy and working or shut down and terrified?

Above all, don’t get suckered in by words that sound impressive, but don’t mean much. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this to say about the word “behaviorist.” – “Behaviorist: This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling unless preceded by “veterinary” or “applied animal.” This term is not attached to any specific qualification or level of schooling. It can be used by anyone including someone with no formal education in companion animal behavior.”

 Whatever you do, don’t despair. Training your dog is important and it is worth finding the right person, even if the search can get confusing.

Condor certified as a human remains detection dog

Two years of training paid off this weekend when I certified my dog Condor as a Human Remains Detection dog. Condor and I are members of a volunteer search unit called Midwest Search Dogs. Events such as 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing made people much more aware of search dogs than they were in the past, but search and recovery is nothing new. In World War I, the Germans trained some dogs to go out and indicate whether a person lying in a battlefield was alive or dead so medical personnel would not have to risk their lives evacuating a dead soldier.

Most search units are volunteer organizations. The dog handler has to bear all of the expense of owning the dog, training it and all the travel expense of going to any area he or she is called out to search. Training a search dog is not for the faint of heart. On average it generally takes two years to get a dog to the point where he or she is ready to certify. Most units train twice a week, plus if your unit gets called out, you may have to leave work on a moment’s notice. Lots of people like the idea of being in a search unit, but few people join units once they find out how much work is involved.

Some people do join with thoughts of glory. But the reality of many search units is that you will spend your days searching, but never finding. I have been on two official searches as what is called a “ground pounder.” My job was to walk an area and help the dog handlers and to be another pair of eyes looking for a lost person. On one search it was in the mid-80s and humid and I hiked in rough terrain for hours, getting eaten up by bugs, covered in ticks and finding nothing but a snake and two turtles. In the other search the weather was in the 20s, the terrain was again rough and I fell down a hill, sliding on my butt the entire way down.  

Searching and not finding is still extremely important as you help eliminate areas, but the only glory at the end of the day is your own satisfaction of knowing you did a good job.

On the plus side, you meet some extraordinary people and you form a bond with your dog that is like no other. If you are working a dog that is searching for something, you have to know that dog. You have to know what it means if he turns his head, slows down, speeds up, changes the way he breaths, moves his tail, etc.

Most units in the Midwest have dogs that track or trail, air scent or find human remains. Tracking dogs follow a scent until they find the person the scent belongs to or until they lose the scent. Air scenting dogs are sent out into an area and asked to locate any human scent other than the scent of the people who are walking with the dog. Human remains dogs are asked to go out in an area and see if they can locate a body. Certain geographical areas such as mountains require specialized search dogs such as those than can do wilderness or avalanches. Some dogs and handlers specialize in working rubble, such as what would be left behind in a disaster. Areas with lots of water require a dog that can find a body under water.

While many dogs on search units are purebred dogs bred for their abilities to search, there are a significant number of rescued dogs. And one common theme you will find in the rescued dogs is that they were almost always dogs that were on euthanasia lists, or dogs that had been returned to a shelter numerous times. That’s because the dogs that excel at SAR want to be busy and have a job, meaning they are not the kind of dog that just wants to sit at home and lay on the couch with you. One of the dogs I met this weekend was from a shelter. Her handler was her fifth owner and the shelter had said that if it didn’t work out this time, she would be euthanized. When I met her she was a very happy dog and she certified as a tracking dog this weekend. One of my teammates has one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever seen and it had been traded around several times before she got the dog because the dog was considered a “bad” dog. I met several people this past week who had both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois that were from rescues.

If you are looking for a dog to do some serious work with such as competitive obedience, agility, SAR, etc. look for the dogs in the shelter that volunteers are having problems with. Or ask the shelter staff if there are any dogs that love to play so much that no one wants to take them out because all the dog wants to do is play tug or fetch. Those are the dogs you would want if you want to be competitive or serious about what you are doing. You want to find a dog that is smart and has something he loves so much that he will work for it. For Condor that is a tennis ball. He will search as long as it takes in order to win the reward of me throwing his tennis ball for him. For other dogs it is a flying disc or a tasty morsel of food.

If you decide you want to explore search and rescue, do a Google search for units in your area. Look for a unit that requires its members to certify through a nationally accredited organization and a unit that believes in positive training methods. The people in the unit will be people you will be spending a huge amount of time with, so it is also important to find a group in which you fit in personality wise. There are a number of Yahoo groups that discuss SAR.