Slice of Life is inspired by the desire and challenge of living our lives in the moment. Days go by, weeks go by, years... but we can still choose over and over again to look at our own lives in small installments. These installments (or slices of life) can be walks taken in the hills, naps or a glass of Rioja. For me, what makes my slices super meaningful is being able to share with others the moments of my day with dogs in play, training or napping where we're all piled up on the bed.

My slices of life are full of events and experiences that are meaningful to me. As a former professional photographer, I still “see” so many pictures (or vignettes) as I interact with my dogs and the world around me on a daily basis. Most of the time I am not capturing these moments with a camera anymore. Instead, I am just showing up... I must say, that I do miss having a register of events outside of my head so that at my leisure I can relish a past moment as I am transported by a visual or written recollection of days gone by.

With the immediacy of all things digital, perhaps I can have my cake and eat it too. I can continue to do my work as a dog trainer and also register here and there moments of living a life in the company of dogs. I hope you will occasionally take a peek, and that my slices of life transport you in a glee of YOUR own!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

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.

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 McConnell 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.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Should your dog wear a head-halter?

Head halters are quite useful tools.  It helps with dogs that are large and strong that pull on leash. But most importantly head-halters are a must for those dogs that for whatever reason lunge and pull towards other dogs or people.

I am amazed to see how, when used correctly, head-halters can become the difference between being able to walk a dog that is too strong and with big displays of aggression and not being able to walk the dog at all.

The way this piece of equipment works is similarly to how a horse halter works on a horse.  Wherever the head of the dog goes, the rest follows.

Case in point:
I am working with a client who has a large dog that at times can lunge at people should a person approach them. This happened while we were working together. I saw my very keen client stop the dog in its tracks and literally prevent him from lunging towards the person- instead the dog sat!

Later that afternoon, I am working with a couple with their dog who has similar displays as the one in the morning. This particular dog was new to the head-halter and part of the training was teaching the dog that wearing it means he gets to go for a fun walk.   During this same session, I see how my clients can readily redirect their dog effortlessly.  They are amazed at the difference in influencing where the dog is looking and even walking.

There is a bit of a learning curve for people working with their dog and a head-halter.  Because the leash is attached to the piece of equipment that rides high behind the dog’s head it is absolutely crucial that people are gentle and avoid jerking the dog around. It is also important to avoid putting pressure on the front of the halter.  This can be easily achieved by being mindful that the clip of the leash should hang below the dog’s chin instead of pulling on the dog with the clip parallel to the ground.

If you are struggling with your dog pulling on the leash, teaching your dog to wear a head-halter can be very helpful. Do keep in mind that your dog will not learn not to pull, but it will make it a lot easier for you to walk him by how you can influence the direction the dog is walking. If your dog engages in lunging and hard pulling as a result of being afraid, the head-halter is frankly the only way I would recommend walking the dog.

Below is a simple training plan that can help your dog become comfortable with the head-halter.  In addition, make sure to follow the instructions for fitting the halter.  There are quite a few brands out there and each one of them fits a bit differently.  A correct fit is indispensable to ensure your dog is comfortable with the halter and that it works as it should.

Introducing the head-halter:
To make your dog associate the halter with good things, get out the yummiest treats you can think of, and follow the steps below. The steps can be done in one session or over several, depending on your dog’s comfort level.

Step 1. Reach through and treat.
• Hold the halter up by the nose loop with one hand so your dog notices it.
• Reach through the nose loop with your other hand to give your dog a treat.
• Repeat until your dog is asking for the treat by sticking his nose through the nose loop.
• From now on, every time your dog sees the halter, treat him. When the halter goes away, stop treating.

Step 2. Nose loop on and treat.
• Again, put the nose loop on, then treat, and remove the halter. But now begin to leave the nose loop on for a few seconds longer each time before you present the treat.
• When your dog is eagerly pushing his nose through the loop as soon as you present it, leave the loop on while you feed him several treats in quick succession.
• Slowly build the duration until your dog happily wears the loop for 5-10 seconds.

Step 3. Nose loop on, buckle and treat.
• Ask your dog to put his nose through the loop. Then hold one neck strap behind his neck so he feels a light pressure. Treat. Take off the halter, stop treating.
• Repeat this until your dog gets only one or two treats and is still comfortable. (Over please)

• Now add the second strap. Don’t close the buckle yet, just hold the two straps. Apply light pressure and treat. Remove the halter and stop treating.
• Repeat this until your dog gets only one or two treats and is still comfortable.
• Close the buckle and immediately offer a small avalanche of treats. Praise lavishly. Keep it short—after a few seconds remove the halter and stop treating.
• Repeat until your dog can comfortably wear the halter for 10 seconds.

Step 4: Wearing the head-halter and treat.
• Put the head halter on your dog and immediately feed him his dinner. (Have his dinner ready beforehand.)
• When he is done, clip on the leash and immediately go for a lovely walk. Take some treats and treat him throughout the walk. (Have your shoes on and be ready to go.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What can we learn from lateral (right or left) tail wagging in our dogs?

Perhaps you have read somewhere about a few studies conducted regarding what is called laterality which is defined as the predominance of one side of the body over the other. Laterality has been observed in many species among them in dogs.  Dogs do have preference as to which side of their body they use in certain circumstance, for example, when using their paws, gazing at people and sniffing.

Is laterality also present in how dogs wag their tails?  There were a couple of studies that looked into this:

Interpretations of Quaranta et al. 2007 “Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli” Current Biology, 17, R199-201. DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2007.02.008 and Siniscalchi et al. 2013 

“Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs.” Current Biology, 23, 2279–2282. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.027.

The Quadrant et al study, which was the first, concluded that there is asymmetrical tail wagging in dogs. They interpreted this data by claiming that right wags expressed positive emotions as in the dog being “happy” such as when the dog saw the owner.  Tail wags to the left meant, according to researchers, that the dog was afraid or in fear thus representing negative emotions.

The second study, consisted of showing the study’s dog videos or the silhouette of dogs wagging their tails. In this study researchers wanted to verify if dogs experienced different emotions depending on which side the dog they were viewing wag its tail.

Some questions that come to mind as a result of these studies findings:
1. Does the data (and methodology) used in the study support the observations of laterality and their intrinsic emotions?
2. How should we interpret the rest of the dog’s body and its communication when presented with these different stimuli?
3. Was there a clear consensus as to what the researchers meant by “lateral movement of the tail- the sway of the tail?”  What about dogs that lift their tails first and then sway one side or the other?
4. As you can appreciate, reaching a conclusion from observing a dog’s reaction to a particular stimulus such as a tail wag to the right or left to “knowing” what the dog is actually feeling: happy or positive emotions or sad or fearful hence negative emotions is a big leap of faith.

While most of us are “dying” to know more about dogs we must still tread very carefully when either formulating studies or interpreting the data from such studies.

I am left wondering if a simplistic claim or finding as in: right wag = happy, left wag= sad can really shed some light in understanding really complex issues such as how dogs relate (and feel) towards other dogs as well as other species: feline and humans?  What about establishing some co-relation with these two sets of emotions with complex neurological/brain functions?

As students of canine ethology and behavior, should we not also take a closer look as to the methodology employed and the findings of studies before we begin to jump with excitement at the possibility of having learned something new about our subject of interest?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Oh my, thunder!

It is the rainy season here in New Mexico (yes, we do get rain in the high desert) and with rain often comes thunder.  Deuce has always been afraid of noises such as thunder, gun shots, fireworks and the like.

This is actually very typical especially for working breeds. The reason is frankly not really well known but it appears to have to do with some genetic predisposition.

Thunder phobia- as it is also referred, to can be very debilitating to dogs.  They can truly develop a phobia and injure themselves as they try in vain to escape the noise, lighting or any other trigger that they have already learned to associate with a thunderstorm.

I have tried several things in conjunction and I am finally making a dent in how much distress thunder events have on Deuce.  Here is a rundown of what I have in place:

1. Use of crate as a “safety/comfort” zone
2. Use of a thunder shirt or storm-defender cape
3. Use of melatonin (I buy a spray that delivers 3mg) delivered prior to storm if I am around and increase dosage based on his inability to cope with the storm.
4. Masking the noise and the visuals of the storm as much as possible
5. Comfort him when he wants to be comforted by proximity and even touch (which he normally can do without)
6. A very relaxed attitude that telegraphs to him that everything is A-Okay

I cannot say enough about the importance of play when it comes to un-sticking this boy from his concerns from a storm.  Even though it might not be practical to do this all the time; when I am not at home or if we have a terrible storm at 3 am the effect of engaging in some real fun games during some of the storms will help in building his confidence and erode the bad association surrounding storms.

Sometimes we play outside if it’s just thunder.  We might kick the ball or just hang out acting super chill and relaxed. Tug is a super big favorite and he will engage in this game anytime and everywhere.

Lately I have been playing another fun game for both of us in the comfort of the living room.  Deuce and I go sheepherding so he not only has the instincts needed to do such an “important” job, but he and I can communicate with the typical signals used while herding.

I use, of course, a ball as stand-in for the sheep but proceed to send Deuce in “out-runs” after his ball just as if he were herding sheep.  I can send him clockwise or counter-clockwise, send him off and then ask him to come back to me before getting to the “sheep”.

He has learned to relax so much that I think that he is secretly hoping for a storm to come!  We can play like this for a few minutes, take a break and resume.  The important thing here is to override Deuce’s nervous system from going into flight mode as if facing what he perceives as an incredible threat.

The best way I can describe this is building resilience for adversity.  Similar to any behavior, autonomic responses can be short-circuited so that they hopefully and as a result of many, many exposures, the association to the scary event is lessened.

Perhaps in some cases we can even reverse the response to one of relaxation and play.  Play BTW, is incompatible to fear (how cool is this?????) So if your dog can play he is not experiencing fear.  Yes, we can build that response as well:  build the play slowly and as the dog begins to cope better you can increase the play so that in time it will take the place of the distress under stressful circumstances for your pup.

Good news is, you get to play too and all of it for a good and important cause! 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Good Lad, Deuce Good Lad! When dogs chase cars

Living with a Border collie is frankly a lot of fun! There is so much about the breed that I enjoy.

I personally love dogs that are intense in focus and great team players. Of course, like any breed, they also come with their challenges such as their possibly obsessive disposition for toys & balls and obsessing over ball playing.  Here is where a bit of common sense and management are really important.

Not only is throwing a ball all day long not sustainable, but it is also not good for the dog. You might have to manage this obsession by picking up all the balls so that you can break that pesky habit.  In addition, make sure your herding dog has other outlets for mental and physical energy not only the throwing/retrieving of balls.

But how about herding dogs wanting to herd EVERYTHING? How much fun is that?!  Having your herding dog herd your small child, guests, the cat if you have one, along with cars, bikes, joggers, horses, chickens… (sigh!)

Yes, let’s talk about dogs that chase cars. This, of course, is a pastime and a tendency of a lot of dogs not only Border collies. You see, movement in general triggers predatory instincts in many animals.
Clearly car chasing is a no, no activity.  So how then can we teach a dog not to chase cars in the first place?  And what if they already do?

You are definitively better off if your dog has not gotten into the habit of chasing moving objects such as cars, bicycles or runners. The easiest yet tedious way to do this is to manage the heck out of your dog when in the presence of any of these triggers. Yes, this might mean that you need to keep your dog leashed so that he cannot physically engage in the sport of chasing all of the above.  This is REALLY important.  Whatever your dog practices he will get really good at it. So, prevention is key.

Use distance at first when you are teaching your dog not to chase, this will make it easier on both of you.

Also, the size of the object moving as well as the direction of the object in relation to the dog will make a difference in the dog thinking of the moving object as a prey.  This is why most dogs chase cars when they are passing them in parallel not when they are coming at them. The same can be said for a car, person or bike moving away from the dog.  So be alert.

The problem many people experience and why they might want to work with a trainer is because their beloved pup is already chasing all that moves! Chasing is a natural behavior for a dog - indeed the second behavior in the predatory chain of all predators!  Having said this, you can still work on re-directing your dog to other behaviors instead of chasing.  What we are after here is what is called an incompatible behavior.  For instance, your dog cannot chase and at the same time hold a down/stay.

Deuce our Border collie got in the habit of chasing cars early on when being walked in Santa Fe.  His habit was so pernicious that it was frankly a drag to walk him.  I knew that I had to do something about this.

I did basically what I explained above:  I manage him so that he was on a leash whenever the possibility of a car was in the horizon.  Lucky for me he did not chase bikes or joggers, basically ignores the bikes (good lad Deuce, good lad) or wags his whole body in anticipation of meeting the person. So, I just focused on cars and, of course, trucks which were his ultimate favorite!

I began by teaching him to lie down in a sparse-trafficked road with ample space to one side so that we did not have to be close to the cars.  As the car was passing by, with me holding the leash ever so tight and my foot on the leash that was next to him on the floor, I began to pay him handsomely with high-value treats (here is where you bring the chicken, salmon, left over rib-eye etc.) during the duration the car was in our view.

After this we continued walking with me repeating the drill over and over and over again. Yes, it is needed a drill.

But my efforts were paying off and to my surprise a couple of years back we were vacationing with the dogs in Colorado.  As we were crossing the parking lot of our hotel, Deuce was adamant about lying down.  It took me a couple of seconds to realize that a car was ever so slowly turning into the parking lot behind us and Deuce had learned the lesson:  I see a car, I lie down.

On this particular instance, it was frankly impractical to have him lie down as we were just finishing crossing and the car was trying to come in. Nevertheless, I paid Deuce for his brilliant decision.

I continue to work with him every time he is around cars but it is much easier now.  He will lie down on his own as demonstrated above, or I can just ask him to do so and I pay him on occasion. Now it is also great to see that many a times, he’d rather sniff and pee than chase cars.  I have effectively changed his association he had with cars for another reinforcer and more acceptable behaviors: sniff & pee.

When we come to a street that has heavy traffic I go back to helping him by gently asking him to lie down and just pay as the cars go by.  He can handle this now and we continue onward on our walk.  There is a great bonus in working with our dog this way since you are not only teaching your dog some really important skills that might save his life, but I can tell you that you will also see drivers smiling at the brilliancy of your dog.

PS: Deuce in this photo with John is wearing a coat to keep him cool AND looking cool. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Is Your Dog a Barker?

 Barking is a natural behavior in  dogs and one that  most people dislike the most.  Part of it is because of how stressful noise is in general and in part frankly because we fail to understand what barking is all about.

Barking is not simply just noise coming from our dogs or embedded with one significance.  Once again we need to look at what is going around to help us determine what is behind the barking.

Let me expand:
A dog might bark because they want to create distance from something that concerns him, dogs bark because they are playing and wanting attention, because they need help with something like getting food out of a Kong that proves too difficult for them.

Overall a dog barking serves as communication, and as such, the frequency and pitch also varies depending on why the dog is barking. As you can probably tell there is so much more to barking than “let’s just annoy the humans”.

My friend Luren shows up for the agility class with her pup Elsa- who is pictured in this blog.  Elsa has two main reasons why she barks- at least in the context of attending a class.  She is concerned about new people and their proximity as well as the general movement of people.  She also barks because she wants attention and hopefully a treat. No, she does not get a treat for barking, people!  Luren is a very savvy pet parent to Elsa and knows exactly how to teach Elsa that barking for attention is a no go.

Luren and I work together using a TTouch Calming band.  You can see Elsa wearing it in the picture.

The calming band does not prevent the dog from barking, drinking water, eating treats or even tugging!

What it does do is to bring “awareness” to the dog’s muzzle/mouth area.

There is more to this than I will comment on as to how this works but what is important is that it does.

What we saw with Elsa was quite remarkable!  Once she was comfortable with the calming band around her muzzle - which did not take that long to adjust to, we noticed that Elsa was able to “settle” more easily and to just observe what was going on around her without barking.  We continue to work with the agility exercises we were previously working on and again Elsa was able to work with Luren.

Luren continued having Elsa wear the Calming band throughout the week on walks as well as when Elsa was contently enjoying a chewy.

There is so much that the Tellington TTouch method can offer you in helping your pup settle, relax and just be more confident overall. If you are curious you can go to or contact me would love to tell you more.