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!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

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.

Most 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!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

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.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

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.

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.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

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. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

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.

So 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.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

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.