The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

...so help me, dog.

Giving a dog medication can be unpleasant, for both the owner and the dog.  If taking his daily dose makes your dog upset, please give him a head's up that it is coming.  Here's how, and why. 

One of my dogs needs medication, twice a day.  He isn't as hungry as he used to be, which the medication helps to address.  Unfortunately, his lack of appetite means I can't just hide the pill in a bit of tasty food.  So I have to "pill" him - that is, I have to open his mouth and pop the pill in.  Luckily for me, we've worked on this in the past and although he finds the procedure to be a bit unpleasant, he doesn't find it horrible. (If your dog needs to be pilled this way and finds the procedure to be scary or awful, please contact a good, positive trainer.  They can help make this chore much easier, more pleasant for your pup, and safer for you.)

I always make sure to give him something he does like and want right after I pill him - I scratch his head, neck and back for a few minutes.  He has learned to anticipate the scratches, and over time, this could even make him enjoy being pilled.  If he were hungry, I would give him food afterwards, since food is almost always better than patting from a dog's perspective.  But then again if he were hungry, I would not have to pill him in this way in the first place.

When it is time to give him his pills, and before I start to head towards him, I always say "Sorry, pill time."  Why would I do this?  It feels counter-intuitive.  Wouldn't it be best to wait until the last possible moment, keeping the pills hidden in my hand... and then when he is not expecting it, get the job done?  Isn't the warning just prolonging his discomfort?

But here is where our intuition may be failing us.  I say "sorry" so that he does know what to expect.  I am telling him that this time,  but only this time, I'm coming over for doctoring.  My hope is that every other time I approach him, he will be able to say "ah, mom is coming but I know it's OK, no pills, because I didn't hear that phrase."  

I love it that when I approach my dogs, it sets their tails a-thumping.  I'll do whatever I can to protect the thump-thump-thump.  I want to make sure that if there is anything that simply can't be avoided and is a bit unpleasant for my dog, I tell them the truth. 

Canine Criminality: A paint-by-numbers approach to fostering delinquency

Does your dog thieve from the dustbin when you're at work?  Mine does, and I wanted to share the complete and whole honest truth about how I trained him to do so. 
I'm talking about you, Mischa. 

 

If your dog simply refuses to use his innate safe-cracking skills to plunder your garbage bin, take heart.  With a few simple steps, you can change your Polly-Anna into a perfect pirate. 

Step one.  Increase the level of difficulty slowly.

Your dog needs to succeed relatively often, especially in early training.  For example, once your budding convict has learned how to open your cabinets with ease, make the cupboard door harder - but not impossible - to open.  Install a new latch which requires a firmer tug, but not a handle that needs to be turned... not yet, anyways.  You'll get there, I promise. 

If success eludes your apprentice thief he may simply give up and live a law-abiding life.  Going slow now ensures that your dog will be willing and ready to knuckle down later when you install multi-component locking hasps.

Step two.  Ensure there are generally goods to be plundered.

You must ensure there is something delicious for your dog to "find."  Confirm that a good supply of mature rubbish awaits behind every locked door.  Now is not the time to be finicky about taking the garbage out to the garage ...unless, of course, you'd like your dog to ransack that location too.  Think big! 

One catch:  if garbage availability is slightly random (Tuesdays and Fridays he gets garbage, Wednesdays he gets nothing, for example) this will actually be beneficial to your cause.  It will teach him to be persistent in checking the cabinet, even if there are many days in a row without success.  Many, many, many days.  In fact, you can train him to keep checking the cabinet for the rest of his crooked life by using this handy technique. 

Step three.  Put the behaviour on cue.

For accuracy, your dog should only thieve when you are not around.  Broad daylight robbery must not be tolerated.  In essence, the "cue" for him to plunder is the human is absent. 

You have several training options here.  First, you may simply ensure the dog is never rewarded for thievery when you are there: the garbage is empty or placed up and away.  The dog eventually learns that IF human is home THEN garbage is empty.  However, this type of learning can be frankly frustrating (imagine you have a complex shift-work schedule that no one will explain.  To map it out, you have to head to work as often as possible and see if you get paid for that time.  Not fun.)

Second, and perhaps a more gracious option for your fledgling filcher, you can watch for any thieving behaviour when you are in the kitchen and actively let him know that the time is not right.  Wait for him to head towards the garbage cupboard, and only then move the garbage away or gently lead him out of the kitchen.  These actions are very informative for your dog - they let him know "not now."  He will then reasonably ask himself, "OK, when?"  You have nicely set the stage for him to learn that when you are gone, the time is right.

Step four.  Act like you had no part in it.

When you pop home en route to a business lunch with your new boss in tow only to find your collection of recently-tossed Justin Bieber posters decorated with glitter-painted macaroni spread around the living room floor, it's imperative to act innocent.  "I have no idea how he managed to get into the dead-bolted and barricaded cabinet!" you can gasp in mock horror.  Rest assured, however, in your knowledge that you have indeed played a part in creating this lovable monster.  You simply followed the plan. 

Photo: By Tedmen123 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Four Things Humans Do That Dogs Love

Of course our dogs love us - they are social creatures who readily form bonds with humans.  But your dog wants you to know that you can actively enhance his or her life with these four easy tips. 

Dogs and puppies love well-run positive classes, and the skills obtained there create a much more peaceable environment at home, too.

Dogs and puppies love well-run positive classes, and the skills obtained there create a much more peaceable environment at home, too.

Take me to a fun, positive dog class

Anyone who has taken an obedience class from a dog trainer who uses treats and toys (and avoids corrections and other intimidating techniques) can tell you how much their dog loves class.  They seem to know it's Dog Class Day hours in advance, and are slavering to get into the building.  We have had dogs who refuse to leave the room when class is done - they want to be trained more!

Make me work for my supper

It seems counter-intuitive to consider that dogs love working for their meals - isn't it nicer to give them free food in a bowl?  Dogs are generally under-stimulated (read: booooored by life) though, so putting their canine brains to the task of eviscerating a stuffed and frozen dog bone, or pawing their way through a puzzle toy, is as satisfying to them as a good book, a great movie, or a trek through Skyrim is to us.

Walks on leash are perfect for letting your dog sniff - that is, take in - his world.

Walks on leash are perfect for letting your dog sniff - that is, take in - his world.

Exercise my nose with walks

Although leash walks do not fulfill most dogs' need for physical exercise, they present a wonderful smorgasbord of good smells (to say nothing of the interesting people, other dogs, cawing birds, and scampering critters).  Sniffing new scents tires out a dog's brain, which means more sleepy-time at home.  As a lovely side-effect, using their wondrous noses helps dogs' brains to stay healthy as they age. 

Keep me safe from toothy temptation while delivering the chew toys

Dogs like to chew.  Their tastes differ - some love teak table legs, others enjoy sinking their teeth, quite literally, into a good book, still others prefer laundry (clean ...or otherwise).  Dogs need to be given legal chewing outlets, and your local pet store will have a bounty of chewies for your dog to audition.  Before they have developed a solid history of chewing solely legal items, they need to be kept safe from their illegal chew temptations: a dog-proof room or crate.

Finally, your dog wants you to make it easy on yourself.  You have enough on your plate.  Slip in a longer walk on days you don't work late.  Make a few stuffed dog bones at once and freeze them, to dole them out effortlessly during your busy work week.  Pick a dog class where kids are welcome, so they learn the ins and outs of changing behaviour too, without you needing a sitter. 

These tricks of the trade should make your shared life easier and more peaceful by tiring out your dog's brain.   Enjoy!

This post was written as part of the #Train4Rewards Blog Party, hosted by Companion Animal Psychology, a wonderful blog written by the inimitable Zazie Todd.

Bottom photo: Moska - Hasanov | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Let Sleeping Dogs...Lie?

Some dogs do not appreciate being rudely awoken.  In fact, some dislike even the most gentle touch when they're lumbering through a doggy dreamscape.  They might startle awake and growl, snap, or even bite. 

The Urge To Fix

Consider relocating your dog’s bed to a low-traffic area or out-of-the-way nook, as long as he’s comfortable and happy with the switch.

Consider relocating your dog’s bed to a low-traffic area or out-of-the-way nook, as long as he’s comfortable and happy with the switch.

When our dogs behave aggressively towards us, it is frightening and upsetting.  We very legitimately feel the need to change things, and as soon as humanly possible.   But this wasn't always the case.

In our grandparents’ time, leaving sleeping dogs alone was a common-sense safety practice.  Kids were taught to avoid close encounters with flames, spinning machinery, and sleeping dogs.  In other words, it was not seen as pathological or the tip of any iceberg.  In fact, it was normal enough to spawn a proverb: "let sleeping dogs lie" (meaning do not bother to rekindle an argument or bring up a bad situation, despite it being unresolved).

Today, dogs who react this way may be at risk for rehoming or worse ... no matter how normal the behaviour.  We humans have always collectively decided which species-typical dog behaviours are tolerated, and our tolerance in the 21st Century is lower than it used to be.  However, when it comes to dogs who are growly bears before coffee but are otherwise angelic, we can stop to consider whether we might – safely and responsibly – take a page from our grandparents’ book. 

If you have a "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" dog, do a risk assessment for your particular situation.  If this risk assessment suggests you need to change your dog's behaviour, please contact an accredited, positive trainer.  They'll use techniques like desensitization and Pavlovian conditioning to change how your dog feels when bumped awake. 

A risk assessment for your dog should include:

  1. Are there kids in your home?  How old? 
  2. What does your dog do when awoken - growl? Or something more active?
  3. Is your dog's preferred bed in a high-traffic area?
  4. Do you have many house guests, and are they dog-savvy?

Finally, if your dog has previously been fine when the alarm clock goes off but is growling or barking now, get on the phone and book a veterinary check-up. 

Doggy Telepathy: How to Teach Your Dog To Read Your Mind

    *Actual mind-reading results may vary.

Often dog owners will ask me, in a legitimately frustrated tone, "how can I get him to stop doing that?  Why won't he just listen?"  In some ways, this is the equivalent of asking "why isn't he reading my mind, and doing what I want?"  The behaviour in question is usually some variant of barking, pestering, jumping up, begging, pulling, whining, pottying inside, playing keep-away... you see the pattern.  Behaviours that are not dangerous, but are really, really annoying. 

Fear not, frustrated owners.  There is some good news.  It's generally very efficient, not to mention relieving, to just put on a smile, pull out a how-to manual, and train the dog to do something else.

But ... doesn't he need to learn that what he's doing is wrong?

A gorgeous Golden Retriever in dog class learns that sitting, instead of mobbing, gets her what she most wants at this moment:  that morsel of food in her owner's hand.

A gorgeous Golden Retriever in dog class learns that sitting, instead of mobbing, gets her what she most wants at this moment:  that morsel of food in her owner's hand.

Dogs do what they do to get the things they want.  If your dog is jumping up on you, he likely wants to greet you in a friendly way and lick your face.  If your dog begs at the table, he wants some of your delicious forbidden supper.  If your dog does not come when you call, he wants some more loose play time. We have complete control over almost everything a dog wants, so we can simply use this smorgasbord of good things to change the way our dog behaves.  In fact, by giving dogs what they want, we might have accidentally and lovingly created the monster in our midst! How?

  • Our dog approaches the table and a naughty guest gives them a bit of food, or they find a dropped crumb.  Outcome: Begging!
  • Our dog jumps up on us and we pat them or "play" (by pushing them off).  Outcome: Jumping up!
  • Our dog comes up to us when we call them and we punish them by clipping on the leash and ending fun for the day.  Outcome: Keep-away!

"That's all well and good, but what do I do?"

Changing these behaviours can be a one-two punch.  One: Take the thing your dog wants (food, greeting, loose time) and use it to reward behaviours you want, when you want them.  Two: Set things up in advance, to prevent your dog from earning that reward by misbehaving. 

 

Current behaviour

Current reward

New behaviour

New reward

Jumping up

Face time!

Sitting politely

Face time! (or cookie)

Begging

Food

Laying in his bed

Stuffed food toy (better food)

Pottying inside

Relief

Pottying outside

Relief and cookies

Dancing away when called

Fun loose time

Coming when called

Cookies!  (and only rarely does fun end)

 

If possible, take a good, positive dog class to get the skills needed to train specific behaviours.  Then ask your dog to do a new, acceptable behaviour when he would normally misbehave, and reward. 

When you see the new behaviour take over from the old, it will feel like he's reading your mind.  In fact, go ahead and tell your friends and family that he is.  You earned it. 

justdoggiethings...

I will admit that I occasionally found parodies of the "justgirlythings..." meme (and the related "thingsboysdowelove" meme, both popular a few years ago) to be funny - especially those that cleverly highlighted how variable, hard-working, strong, and generally laudable women actually are.  As a dog trainer, farmer, and archaeologist, I occupy an alternate reality than the usual subjects of those photos.

A few days ago, I saw a squabble brewing on a walk with a crew of my Alaskan husky sled dogs.  The dogs came bounding over when I called them (due in no small part to a pocket full of home-baked dog treats, used to reinforce recalls).  When I explored to see what had caused the ruffled feathers, I found - unsurprisingly to most dog owners - something frozen and disgusting.

The head pugilist of the crew was LuLu, and a more stately, friendly, social, and beautiful dog you simply could not find.  "Just doggy things," I thought to myself.

As a dog trainer, the behaviours that cause my students and clients the most frustration in their dogs are really "Just doggy things."  Natural behaviour that doesn't quite work in our human world.  This doesn't mean we cannot or should not change the dog's behaviour - no one wants a dog jumping up on a frail neighbour, and no one wants a dog to bark loudly for twelve full minutes before supper.  Training is good for our dogs' brains and keeps the peace in our houses.

But sometimes, celebrating the very nature of our dogs, in their wonderful, laughable dogginess, helps to remind us that these are only behaviour "problems" to us. 


How much is that doggie in the rescue?

Rescue work with dogs makes me grateful every minute of every day.

I'm lucky to meet these resilient and audacious dogs.

I'm lucky enough to have the means and space to run a small sled dog rescue with my partner.  We have enjoyed countless hours on a dog sled, the thrill of which is unparalleled, in my view.  As a way of paying this love forward we obtain, train, and place dogs from racing kennels into pet homes. 

I'm also lucky enough to be connected to people who work in shelters, pounds, and rescues around the continent.  These colleagues are hard-working (generally overworked), underpaid, under-appreciated, and absolutely essential to the quality of life of hundreds and hundreds of dogs.  There are no thank-you cards big enough. 

I am fiercely grateful for our adopters, even those who ended up returning a dog.  They have brought a sled dog into the circle of their family.  They are loving, they are caring, they ask questions, they go for long walks.  And they send pictures. 

And finally, I'm grateful for each and every person who inquires about our dogs.  Most do not end up adopting a sled dog, because they are just not a good fit.  Many of our dogs are not good with cats, they love hard exercise just as much as they love snuggling time, they tend to be a bit 'skittish' or anxious, and they almost always roam, given the chance (oh those sled dog genes... the answer to "should I head north or south" is usually both lots now.)  Some people want another dog for their recreational sled dog kennel, and we only place in pet homes.  Some are sure we have mislabeled the dogs as Huskies and they want our Border Collie cross or Saluki cross.  Some have toy dogs in the home, or cats.  Some want an intact dog to have puppies. 

But each time an email comes in, it is the start of a conversation where they open themselves up just a tiny bit - a small, breathtaking vulnerability exposed.  "I want that dog."

The initial email almost always reads "How much is that dog? When can I pick them up?", but as we get further into our conversation, I come to realize they are saying "my last dog passed away.  I'm ready."  Or maybe "my husband has been gone five years.  I'm ready."  Or "I jog by myself at night.  I'm ready."  Or "I'm 25 now.  I'm ready."  Often, it's a version of "I'm drawn to the mystique of sled dogs, and I have room in my house and my heart. I'm a bit unsure about the reality."  Each email is an opening for me to shine a light on the parts of their lives that make them a good choice for a sled dog home, or not.  I am the dog professional in the equation, after all.  I do this (I hope) by being the most respectful, gentle, and thoughtful person I can be, no matter their approach.  Before I hit send I review my wording with a critical eye.  The interaction is inherently unequal because I have the dog and the decision-making power.  Any response to an adopter can be read as judgmental despite my intentions.  Judging another human is not in my job description, nor is it generally my right.  My job is to educate and empathize, just as much as it is to place these sled dogs in the homes that are the best fit for all parties.

So a big thank-you to everyone who asks How Much Is That Doggie In The Rescue.  Our interaction might only be a single email, but I welcome the view you give me into your life, however small.  It's special and I treasure it.  And even if you do not end up with a sled dog, or any dog for that matter, I hope we are both improved by knowing each other. 

Happy trails!


How to forge a Poke-A-Bot

Or, Pestering Prospers when Paid

Cream is now a playful and active 11-year-old retired racing sled dog.  She came to us when she was two years old, right out of a competitive racing kennel.  She was, in sled dog terms, 'skittish.'  She didn't like interacting with us, she didn't like approaching us.  She pranced away, ducked her head, flew upstairs if we looked at her - all the hallmarks of an anxious dog.

As Cream aged, she got a variety of nicknames, including CreamBot.  When she was four or five, she started poking us with her slender nose, and the Poke-A-Bot was born.  Having an anxious dog initiate contact is such a big deal that we would immediately lavish her with praise, and pet her in the way she likes - a good scratch on her chest and neck.  We noticed, much to our delight, that she would poke us more and more.

And more and more.

And then she started to poke our guests.  Our shocked amazement that she poked a guest would always prompt them to shower her with affection.  It felt special, having an anxious dog with such a colourful history poke you so determinedly.  As a bonus, she seemed to get the most enjoyment from poking parts that were, in human terms, a mite irreverent.

Poke-A-Bot is a perfect example of how humans foster a dog's behaviour, intended or not.  We trained Cream to poke us by reinforcing it - "paying" her - with something she likes.  We inadvertently followed all the rules of reinforcement - we waited until she performed the behaviour of poking, then immediately afterwards we coughed up reinforcement.  And true to the laws of animal learning, nose touches increased.  As time went on, the poking was easier to ignore, so we only paid attention to the firmer prods.  You guessed it:  the firmer prods soon replaced the tentative bops. 

 

If You Pay A Pestering Poke-A-Bot, Pestering Proliferates.

The moral of the story is, if your dog is pestering you, you are likely paying it somehow.  Teach your dog to do something else to get that reward instead.  If you're stumped, call a pro.  We are here to help.

No Kisses Under the Mistletoe: Shy dogs at Christmas

We all have an image of our dog at Christmas.  He is wearing a silly costume, going from guest to guest with a basket of cookies held in his mouth, impressing people left and right.  Perfect!

The fly in the Christmas ointment is that many dogs are shy.  They are a bit scared of new people, or new situations.  They may tolerate a busy Christmas, but they do not enjoy it.  Insisting our least-favourite in-laws will be comfortable on the lumpy pull-out bed is one thing.  Insisting our shy dog participate in an event that scares them or makes them wholly uncomfortable is entirely another. 

Luckily, we can protect our shy dogs with just a few arrangements during party nights so everyone can stay in the holiday mood. 

Do you have a shy guy?

How can you tell if your dog is feeling like a true social butterfly during your party?  Some dogs will put up with patting even if they are not really comfortable, and some dogs may be fine with two or three people, but a roomful is too much.  This can create situations that are both dangerous and sad - any dog can and will bite if scary things stack up one on top of another.  The easiest way to tell is to watch your dog's body language. 

 

I Love People! I'll Party!

  • Approaches your guests on his own steam, tail wagging.
  • Loosey goosey floppy movements.
  • Goes from person to person asking for patting (or... a bite of that delicious-looking baked stuffed squash).
  • Greets your guests like he greets you.

 

I am not a party animal.

freeimage-17237016-high_cropped_lowres.jpg

Simply put, if your dog doesn't approach your guests to greet them as a matter of course, he's telling you almost everything you need to know.  You may also see:

  • Tucked tail, hunched body.
  • Panting, even though it's not warm.
  • Lip licking, yawning out of context.
  • Glancing or looking away.
  • Hiding. 
  • Is different with guests than with you.

 

OK, I have a shy guy.  What can I do?

Your dog's (and your guests') safety is paramount.  Make sure your dog has a place away from the action where he can escape - upstairs, guest room, behind a gate - and mention to your guests that if your dog exits, he needs alone time.  If your dog is very shy, pack some delicious food into a few stuffable toys, tire him out before your guests arrive, and let him have some nice alone time safely behind a closed door.  "Listen" to your shy dog - if he approaches guests willingly, let him.  If he does not, protect him.  Watch out for well-meaning guests who might corner your dog by holding his collar or preventing escape - intervene swiftly, improvise an excuse, and whisk your dog away.

With a bit of effort and organization, you and your shy guy can have a wonderful, fun holiday season.  Enjoy!