Sunday, November 18, 2012

Getting your dog ready for houseguests

With the holidays coming up, I'm getting ready to have a house full of guests, including a 3 year old toddler.  So let's talk about what we dog owners need to do to make these visits relaxing and successful for the guests and the dogs.

I have 3 dogs, and by the time you add in 3 more adults, one toddler, and two more adults who aren't staying with us but who will be here at the house when they aren't sleeping at their hotel, that's a crowded situation.  With us, that's 7 adults and one toddler.  So the first thing is to be willing to confine the dogs a lot more than usual.

Recognize that having all of these people and all of this new stimulation is a very unusual situation for your dog, so don't expect the same level of obedience and attentiveness to you that you usually get.  And frankly, no one wants to hear you correcting or scolding your dogs, so lower the bar for them, and don't ask as much of them in this situation as you might be tempted to.  "Manage the environment" and confine them.

In our house, even though my dogs are good with kids and have never bitten anyone, we have a solid rule-- if there is a toddler about, the dogs are crated or kept out in the side porch unless we are specifically supervising.  We only bring in one at a time, on leash, and we personally supervise.  We tell the parent, "It's your job to supervise the child, and my job to supervise the dog".  I ask them to try to keep the child using "our quiet voice" and avoid screeching.  What do I look for?  I make sure we don't accidentally set up a situation where the toddler is approaching a dog whose back is facing a corner or a nearby wall (accidentally cornering the dog).  I give the dog room, an escape route if she's suddenly uncomfortable. I have the dog lie down, and let the toddler approach quietly.  I'm RIGHT THERE the whole time, watching my dog's body language to see any signs of stress or anxiety.  I have treats, and I am rewarding frequently.  I want my dogs to hope children will come around because when they do, the treats flow.

If the child is old enough to offer a treat, I show them how to "make a plate" with their hand, and "lower the plate so the dog can lick the treat off".  I demonstrate first, then I have the mom demonstrate.  This serves as a "warm up" for the dog, who by now knows what to expect from the child. 

Let's talk about leash handling.  I keep the dog on leash the whole time, and hold the leash about 12" from the collar, so the dog cannot bolt up (remember, the dog is on a "down" command).  I'm squatting.  Almost all dog bite incidents with children happen in the child's face, so you don't want to be standing up when the child's face and the dog are down by your knee. You have no control at that distance. Get right in there by your dog's head, so if the child suddenly gets super excited (as toddlers sometimes do!) and explodes into movement or thrilled squealing you are already at your dog's head and can provide calm reassurance and-- if necessary- grab a collar and prevent the dog from lunging at the child.  Children at that age have not yet mastered impulse control.  If the child bursts into motion that would be a good time for the mother to scoop her up into a hug-- ie, remove her from the dog who may be wondering what the heck just happened.  Sometimes, for example, a small child will be so thrilled after giving a dog a treat (and after feeling the dog's nose touch her hand as the dog takes the treat) that the child will squeal and start jumping up and down-- landing, perhaps, on a paw or a tail. So at the first sign of that, quick parental intervention is in order.  Talk about this kind of thing in advance with the parent so the two of you can work as a team. 

Do I sound overly cautious?  I should (though I try to exude calm and not convey any concern).  I want my family to know that I take the safety of their child very seriously, and while we don't go through this routine in other situations I want to err on the side of caution in order to make sure we never ever have a scary situation.  I don't ever want my family to be hesitant or reluctant to visit our home.  And I don't want my adorable niece to have a bad experience.  When she's older and more predictable, we'll lighten up, but at this age I want to give her fun, very controlled dog interactions.  Most people don't realize what kinds of situations result in a dog snapping at or biting a child, and most people are too casual about the interaction.  My dogs don't really know this child, so that makes it all the more important to provide what may seem like a ridiculous amount of supervision. 

When we have house guests we need to respect the fact that this is a situation that isn't trained for very frequently, so our dogs are not going to be fluent at handling it well.  If they are fluent at it, you can be pleasantly surprised but please don't expect it of them.

Dog bites with children often happen when the adults are distracted by something and the poor unsuspecting child does something innocently that makes the dog uncomfortable.  We don't have children so when you add in the other guests, our dogs are not used to having so much stimulation.  They might get crabby and might be inclined to complain about stuff that normally might not bother them.  Err on the side of caution.

This is the perfect occasion to crate your dogs and give them a break from all the activity.  If they do want to come in, use a secure indoor tether, and tether them out of the foot traffic (you don't want someone to trip on your dog).  If  your dog is not used to being tethered, the time to start this training is right now, way before the guests arrive.  My dogs enjoy being tethered in the room but only if I or my husband is within sight-- if we both leave the room and leave them with the other guests, they have worried looks when we return.  And again, I would not do this with a toddler in the house-- only with adults.

The truth is that no one loves your dogs like you do, and they are coming to visit you, not your dogs.  So be willing to make some special accommodations for your guests' benefit.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Shaping a dog to play the piano

Dogs love to learn new things, and I took advantage of my Borzoi's tall height to "shape" her to play the piano. This was quick to do and it's now one of her favorite tricks. It's an example of "target training" (the target in this case is the piano). She got a click-treat for interacting in any way with the piano, and I soon changed the criteria for nose contact, then nose contact on the keys, then enough pressure to make a noise.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What we can learn from hurricane Sandy about disaster planning for pets

I’m watching the news from the east coast where hurricane Sandy is hitting. The mayor of Philadelphia said they have more than 360 people and 28 pets in their two shelters. Millions of people are without power.

So let’s have a serious talk about what you need to do now in order to be one of the few people who can navigate evacuations well with your pets (either from fire, from earthquake, or whatever may befall us on the west coast).

Let me start by saying that I firmly believe that every dog should be trained to be happy hanging out for a few hours in a comfortable crate. This is not something you should let lapse after your puppy housetraining is done. Having a crate-trained dog gives you much better options when it comes to evacuations.

My friend Nancy had to evacuate her home with her elderly Lab, Mozart. She had very little time, and in her haste she forgot her cellphone. Those of us who knew she was having to evacuate were trying to call her to offer her accommodations, but she didn’t get any of our messages. The small evacuation center that was provided for fire evacuees would not allow them to bring their dogs in. She had packed her SUV solid with her possessions, so she could not even recline her seats to sleep in the car. She ended up laying a blanket on the concrete in a parking lot, and trying to sleep like that with her dog leashed to her. It was miserable. And it was totally unnecessary.

Everyone should own a crate that folds up flat. In a hurry, you throw the crate into your car with your dog and other supplies, and you head for shelter. Because you have a crate trained dog, you have many more options than people with pets who aren’t used to being crated.

Don’t think you can impose a crate environment on your dog who isn’t used to being crated in the midst of the incredible stress and chaos of an evacuation center. Your dog may freak out, and will bark and panic and make the environment impossible for everyone else concerned. You need your dog to be cooperative, calm, and quiet.

This “call for crating” is especially relevant to healthcare workers or first responders who are obligated to drop everything and assist in emergencies, often for days at a time. It is a Joint Commission requirement that hospitals provide some kind of accommodation for the pets of their staff who are asked to come in and dedicate themselves to assisting for days at a time during a disaster (in these circumstances, the staff typically doesn’t go back and forth from home, and roads may in fact be impassable). People who report for duty with their well trained, crate trained dog will provide a much safer, calmer environment for their pet. The familiar bed and the familiar crate will help the dog remain calmer than it would otherwise. During a disaster, hospitals have enough to deal with without having to also try to handle out of control, unrestrained pets. Don’t let your pet be one of them.

In the rampant California fires a few years ago, I heard that county animal shelters were offering shelter for the pets of evacuees. How, I wondered, did they have the space to offer shelter, when we know their kennels are already full to the brim with dogs and cats who are hoping to be adopted? Were they suddenly euthanizing them? I would never want my dog’s need for shelter to possibly cause the euthanization of unadopted animals in the county shelters. And I can only imagine how stressful it would be for my dogs to be separated from me and put into a county shelter kennel, with other dogs who are panicking at being put there as well. Instead, my dogs will be safely crated with their own beds and water bowls, and I will reduce my impact on the emergency response system. I’ll have access to them, I can move them around as needed, and can retain much more control over their care and welfare.

Every dog—EVERY dog should be crate-trained. It makes it easier for your friends to take your dog in during an emergency. It makes it easier for you to travel and vacation with your dog. And it gives you a lot more control and options during a disaster.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The cure for empty nest syndrome

It's almost June, and many of my friends have children who are graduating from high school and heading off to college at the end of the summer.  All of these friends have at least some degree of angst about cutting the apron strings because they've been very involved, and very devoted parents.  The amount of time and energy they have dedicated to the details of their child's life is enormous.  So when that child goes happily off to college, it represents a huge change for these women.  What will they direct their very competent, very active energy toward now that there isn't a young adult underfoot who needs it?

Never worry, I've got JUST the answer.  We need you over here.  Now is the time to apply to become a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (also known as CCI).  This wonderful organization is similar to Guide Dogs for the Blind in many ways, but instead of training dogs to assist people who are blind they train dogs to have a different skillset that assists people with other kinds of disabilities.  For example, some recipients of these dogs are deaf.  Some use wheelchairs.  Some have had a stroke and can walk more safely with a dog at their side and able to retrieve items for them. 

My friend Kathy Huben became a puppy raiser about a year ago, and is turning in her first pup (JoJo) who is returning for the next stage of her training (known as "advanced training").  Kathy found the experience of being a puppy raiser so life-changing in such a wonderful way that she has already signed up to raise another one. 

Some people think that they could never handle the emotions involved in letting your pup return to the CCI center for its 6 months of advanced training.  But like Kathy, many of our puppy raisers already have their own pet dog in the home.  They stretch their comfort zone by taking on a CCI puppy in addition to their pet dog, and while they do in fact love their CCI puppy with all their heart, they realize that it's an 18-month assignment and that the puppy has a wonderful destiny ahead of it.

Like letting go of a child who's going off to a wonderful future at college, letting go of a CCI puppy doesn't involve any pain or death or suffering.  If you've ever had to put a dog down at the end of it's life, don't even associate that experience with puppy turn-in because it's completely different (and much, much easier, I'm happy to say).

Take a look at CCI's website, and contact me if you have questions and would like to learn more about becoming a volunteer puppy raiser for this amazing organization.  It's the perfect cure for empty nest angst!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Brushing my dogs' teeth with a Sonicare toothbrush

I've been giving some thought to the best way to care for my dogs' teeth.  I don't have the right equipment or lifestyle, sadly, to feed a raw diet to my dogs, and since one of my dogs is a Borzoi (a breed with some sensitivity to anesthesia) the idea of having their teeth cleaned with the help of a vet who will put them under for the procedure is unattractive.

I could brush their teeth with a manual toothbrush, which two of my dogs will tolerate, but I don't feel I am going a very thorough job, and I confess that we don't have time to do this for all three dogs every day (by any means). 

My large dog, a Borzoi, has not been trained to allow me to brush her teeth, and I've decided (and I can't believe I'm saying this publicly) to train all three of them to allow me to brush their teeth using a Sonicare toothbrush.

The ultrasonic sound waves do a much better job of breaking up the tarter on the teeth and dislodging bacteria than a regular toothbrush.  We use a Sonicare on our own teeth, so why not on our dogs?

I'm going to put together a comprehensive training plan which I will share with you.  I'm doing a lot of traveling this year for my job that pays my mortgage, so this is going to be a slow effort.  Anyone out there want to join me?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

FDA Warns: Pets Being Poisoned by Treats-- Manufacturers Refusing Recall

Dated 2/1/12:

Animal owners are once again at the mercy of pet food companies, as their pets are being poisoned by the very people that they trust to keep them healthy. Once again, claim pet owners, their beloved and innocent family members are dying from eating food items that US companies are importing from China.

For the full article including a list of the products involved, click here: 

Here is a nice video showing how you can make your own healthy dog treats:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Borzoi in a 1936 Ziegfield movie

 This video from a Ziegfield movie in 1936 caught my attention because it's got a team of Borzoi used as props to dance around.  They look fairly unimpressed and if you watch closely the one on your right goes out of position and turns to the side at one point (they apparently stop the camera and reposition him, and continue the dance).

Once the dogs move forward, you can see the taped off "mat" section which is meant to let each dog know his mark.

Think through the training that would have to happen to pull off this performance (I wonder how many takes it took, and how many trainers?). 

I live in a house that was built in the 20's, and I have a Borzoi with the same coloring as these, and actually, truth be told, I do in fact dance around like that every morning as I'm feeding the dogs and getting my coffee.  Yes, it's just another Ziegfield day in Los Angeles!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Got a good deal on dog treats

My dogs LOVE these treats, and I love them too because they're like healthy dog crackers.  I can break each one up easily into tiny pieces for individual rewards, and can keep them in my pockets without their making my pockets gross.  They're made from the same Natural Balance semi-moist food my dogs love (which I also use for treats, but can't keep as easily in my pocket since it's moist and perishable).

So I was a bit shocked the other day when I saw the price of these at a local big-box pet supply store go up to over $7.00.  At the rate we go through these, I had to do something. 

So I came home and checked to see how much they cost at that same store's online website.  They were cheaper there (annoying!!) but there would also be shipping.  I did some further online research and am happy to tell you about the deal I got at .  I bought 15 bags of these, plus 4 bags of high-quality Evo treats for a total of $100.11.  And guess what-- if your purchase is over $100 the shipping is free.  Oh, and I did I mention there was no tax?

So the bag which would cost me $7 plus tax at the big-box store cost me just $4.49 by buying it online.  When you have 3 dogs AND you train and reward as much as I do, that's a good deal.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Becoming a patient trainer

What training skill do you hope to develop in 2012?  I'm not talking about a new behavior in your dog, I'm talking about a skill for you, the trainer. 

May I suggest patience?

Most trainers (especially beginners, but even the advanced trainers) have a tendency to go too fast for their student (the animal), and to feel frustrated when the student is not learning as fast as the trainer wants him or her to learn.  That reaction, by the way, is very frustrating for the student as well.  The answer is to adjust to the speed of the student and learn to be patient.  Scrutinize your systematic training plan and make sure it is GREAT in terms of its adherence to rate of reinforcement (ie, treating frequently), and its clarity about the particular criteria you're shaping (ie, are you working right now on distance?  Duration? Distraction level?  Desensitization to a trigger?).  Lastly, check to make sure the timing of your click is fast enough-- it should happen at the exact moment of the desired behavior (and then follow quickly with a reward).

I enjoy following the work of animal behavior graduate student Mary Hunter, whose blog is engaging and does a beautiful job of illustrating the exact same concepts you are trying to learn as a person training a dog.  You can find it here: 

So how do you develop patience?  I find the most effective way is to keep explicit records of your training.  More on that in the next post.

Happy 2012, and may you and your dog have a richly satisfying life together.