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Thinking Dog

Sometimes, even I forget that my dogs are dogs. I'm human after all. I make mistakes. Yesterday, Boo reminded me of this fact.
I had just gotten home with my infant, who was sleeping. It was his first real nap all day, and he desperately needed it. Boo was whining, which wasn't surprising since she has separation anxiety, and in fact her whining wasn't all that bad. I settled my infant in his swing so I could monitor him, and then let the dogs out of confinement. They are generally confined in the basement when the family is away, more out of habit than anything else. They raced out of the basement with all the enthusiasm of a dog reuniting with a pack member after an absence. After all, they are dogs!

I told them to Settle, but they were extremely excited, and the stress in my voice only made them want to appease me- and therefore, go through more elaborate greeting rituals! All in all, as I'm sure you can guess, they woke up my infant. I'm ashamed to say that I, being stressed out, compounded my mistake by scolding them. My poor dogs were very confused! They slunk into the office behind me, keeping their distance from me, as I was confusing them and was obviously mad at them. I gave myself a chance to cool off, and then realized my mistakes.

1) Not letting them outside right away to burn off their excitement, and greeting them out there.
2) Doing some calming petting away from my baby, satisfying their greeting ritual and also communicating what I wanted in a way that they could understand more than just the Settle command- that is, helping them to perform the command.
3) Keeping myself calm and unstressed- the very fact that I was stressed out that the dogs would wake up the baby in fact caused the dogs to behave in such a way that they inadvertently woke up the baby.
4) Scolding the dogs for simply doing what I had set them up to do- fail.

Well, once I realized my mistake, about ten minutes later, boy was I embarrassed and ashamed of myself! So I and the dogs made up, which decreased their social stress and made everything right in their world. Dogs are pack animals. They are not "programmed" for us to leave them as much as we do, and when a pack comes back together, you see lots of greeting rituals that serve to strengthen the bond between pack members. Dogs cannot think human and therefore change their behavior to fit our social structure of their own accord. So we need to begin thinking dog. It's very important that when you and your dog are at odds, that you make up to your dog afterward. Lots of calming petting and soothing words from you will help strengthen the bond between you two, and put the world to right for your dog. If you have a chance to observe packs of dogs, you will see that when two dogs have a disagreement, there is an appeasement ritual that repairs their bond. You need to let your dog go through this with you, because they won't understand why you won't let them make up. If we are indeed the smarter organisms, we should begin acting like it and using some of our brain power to Think Dog. 



Happy National Train Your Dog Month!

January is the APDT's National Train Your Dog Month. It's a great idea- a push to motivate people to train their dogs. Inlcuded in their website are some good tips as well as ideas to promote training. I maintain that a well-trained dog has many more opportunities to enjoy the world with their owners than a dog who is not well trained. There is no need to "break your dog's spirit", and in fact you shouldn't! But fear of breaking your dog's spirit is no reason to fail to train your dog. Training should be enjoyable for both the dog and the owner. It's meant to increase communication and trust. In the best of cases and especially for working dogs, it should build a bond of cooperation.

My Boo is more than simply my dog. She's one of my closest friends. She makes me laugh, she snuggles with me when I feel down, she works hard for me, and she plays hard with me. She is my partner in Paw In Hand. I joke that we girls have to stick together, as there are only two of us in a household of 6 males. There are a lot of things I couldn't teach as effectively without her help. She is the dog I always wanted as a child- a dog that would transcend pet status to true friendship. I work hard to repay her for her love and help and partnership.

And yet, I tell people regularly that Boo is not special, except to her family (she is more precious than gold to us). She has humble beginnings- she was just an unwanted farm puppy when we picked her up. She was second to last of her litter- everyone else except her and one other were taken when we came. She has no prestigious breeding or involved puppy raising- simply an unplanned litter on a farm where her mom's owners did their best to keep the puppies from getting into a farm-related accident. She wasn't even pick of the litter! She was a free, dirty farm puppy who needed all her shots and all her training and who threw up everywhere on the ride home, and then spent the next couple days whining incessantly. I have enjoyed training her immensely, and she loves it too. Learning something new is one of her favorite things in the world. This is why I tell people that any dog can be a Boo, with a little training and a lot of love and companionship. By this I mean to say that while no dog will ever be precisely like Boo, any dog can learn to do the things she does and be as valued members of the family as she is. Can you believe I have been offered thousands of dollars for this mutt? (She is not for sale at any price, by the way.)

I hope you take Boo's story as inspiration. Get out there and connect with your dog. Train them, love on them, and teach them the skills they need to be the companion of your dreams, your dream dog. They will love it!


The Feline Side

It's been a while since I last blogged- a month, in fact. One wonderfully busy month, in which I was able to help lots of dogs, and lots of owners. It's great to know that my name is starting to get out there, and even better, to be recognized positively! I haven't yet had a cat client, but that's not too surprising. Around here, cats are basically let to themselves for better or for worse. That doesn't mean they live outside necessarily, although a lot of cats in Dubuque county do spend at least part of the time outside. However, even strictly indoor cats rarely get to experience much besides the daily feeding and litterbox scooping and maybe some petting or playtime with their owner.

Cats can do so much more! They have a simply amazing sense of hearing (did you know they hear better than dogs?) and they can probably smell about 14 times better than we can. They too can be trained, a fact that baffles most people. I think it's a concept that is baffling simply because most people locally don't even think about training cats. Cats are thought to be too independent to train, and it's very unusual as a concept to even try. But those tigers and lions you see in shows: those are trained cats. If we work that hard to train a wild animal, why not a domestic pet who lives in your own home with you?

Cats operate very much on habit. That is why litterbox training for so many people is so easy. The cat develops the habit of eliminating in a litterbox while they are young, and then carry that habit on, barring complications (see my discussion on litterbox issues). However, the same basic principles that apply to dog training also apply to cats. Rewarding behavior we like increases the likelihood the cat will repeat the behavior, and punishing behaviors we don't like reduces the likelihood that the cat will repeat the punished behavior. Now, I mean punishment in the behavioral sense here, not physical punishment (cats don't respond well to that). What I mean is that if we take away something good or introduce something unpleasant, this is a punishment. You also need to be aware of the environment- is the behavior itself self-rewarding (such as scratching your new couch)? If so, we need to manage the environment to keep the cat from having access to the environment in which the unwanted behavior occurs (so, no access to the couch) in every instance in which we are unable to watch him. Otherwise, we need to replace the inherent reward (scratching) with something unpleasant.

For instance, when he was a kitten my cat Friendly loved to scratch the one stair in our house that is carpeted. The stair steps down from the landing to the carpeted office, so we would shut the office door sometimes to keep him out, but he started finding his way back into the office to scratch the carpet on the stair. So we went out and spent something minimal (maybe $1.50?) on a roll of double-sided tape and covered the side of the step where Friendly liked to scratch with tape. This way, when he went to scratch on the step whether we were there or not, the tape would stick just a little to his paws (something that is very unpleasant to a lot of cats). It took a while of re-taping the step every once in a while, but we didn't even finish the roll and now we have a cat who ignores the step and will instead favor his scratching pads (which we are very happy about). 

Cats can learn more than just house-manners though. They can also learn obedience, just like dogs. Every cat, in my opinion, should know his name and come to it. This makes life so much easier on you when you can simply call your cat and have them come running. Why not teach them other cues as well? This learning builds a bond between you and your kitty, enhances your relationship, curb boredom and boredom-related misbehaviors and antics, and is often fun for you and your cat! 

So get out there, and teach your cat something new this week!


In Sickness and In Health

I've been thinking a lot lately about health and its effects on behavior. In part, this is because my entire family is sick, and the catalyst to taking everyone to the doctor was the baby wheezing and the toddler's more violent behavior change. What used to set off whining now set off temper tantrums, including hitting, kicking, and biting. Now that he's on meds, he's back to his usual sweet, two-year old self. If you think about it, don't you get irritable when you don't feel well?

I've also been seeing some cases where medical issues are impacting behavior. One dog I was working with had some severe aggression. After three passes through the vet, we found out she had a parasite causing some extremely irritating itching. We figured out that even though the parasite wasn't the whole cause of the bad behavior, it was certianly contributing. Treating the parasite helped us treat the behavior, and this little doggie is well on her way to recovery. Another dog I met was dealing with some pretty serious pain. When he was tired and stressed, he used his teeth as the only method he could think of to let us know he didn't feel like continuing to work. 

Whenever there is a sudden unexplained behavioral change, one of the first things I think of is a possible medical cause. That's why I often send people with sudden behavior problems to the vet as one of the first things I tell them. Without treating the underlying medical condition (if there is one), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to treat the behavior. By treating medical condition and behavior simultaneously, you get a much better, more thorough, and often faster result. 

So look closely at your pet if you see a sudden shift in behavior. Does your dog have an ear infection or some medical condition causing pain? Does your cat have a urinary tract infection, leading him to urinate outside of the box? Take them to a vet, tell them what you're seeing, and ask for a thorough health check- not a cursory overview. Being thorough pays off- as does a holistic treatment of health and behavior together.


Happy Adopt A Less Adoptable Pet Week!

This week is Adopt a Less Adoptable Pet Week, brought to us by Petfinder. Black pets, Deaf pets, FIV positive cats, Puppy mill dogs, there is a long list of criteria that shelter workers find tend to make pets less adoptable to the public, even though they are wonderful animals. In honor of this week, I'm going to highlight a few "less-adoptable" or "more-loveable" pets you can find at our local shelters!


Here's to you, Bella! This wonderful young pup is only 10 months old- so why is she on my list? She's black, she's a pitbull/husky mix, and she's been in the shelter for a while. She simply doesn't show very well because she is so excited to play, and comes off too strong. Plus, with the misconceptions about pitbulls, she finds it hard to attract someone who will love her for the rest of her life. So if you are interested in a younger dog who would love to play all day with you, go to the Dubuque Humane Society and ask to see Bella (Lady)!


Hats off to you, Pat! Coonhounds don't tend to get adopted very quickly around here unless they are very well trained. Pat is an older coonhound, about 8 years old, and the shelter doesn't have a lot of information on her.  She too has been looking for her forever home for a while- almost 4 months, actually. Find her at the Dubuque Humane Society.


Then there's Baby. Baby is a 2 year old tiger shorthair cat who was adopted as a kitten and then brought back to the Dubuque Humane Society as an adult because the new baby was allergic to her. Adult cats just can't compete with kittens- kittens tend to fly into homes, while adult cats have a harder time finding a home to love them forever. Adult cats have a lot of advantages- many times they are already litter-trained, they have less of a scratching desire a lot of times (although they do need to have a scratching post or pad if they have claws), and they are often quieter and calmer than kittens, which could make for an awesome lap cat! 


Other cats that tend to have trouble getting adopted are the teenage cats. The Dubuque Humane Society has a whole room called Kitty City that right now is full of cats about 5 months to about 8 months, I think. My son and I went to visit them yesterday, and he had a blast picking them up and snuggling them, letting them leap on and off his back, and exploring their wonderful ramps and toys with them. All of them were very well-behaved and tolerant of my toddler. If you're in the market for a cat or know someone who is, I would highly recommend checking these guys out- they are keepers! 


Disclaimer: My foster kitties are not "less adoptable pets" as they are only about 9 or 10 weeks old by now, but there are three still at the shelter! Amigo, Aries, and Argos have a plexi-glass cage in the Critter Room at the shelter to play in. Amigo is a spunky orange tiger who likes to take his time before loving on you, and Aries and Argos are both super out-going, super friendly kittens. Aries is my son's favorite- they love snuggling with each other and playing together! Argos is black, but don't let his coloring dissuade you- he will keep you laughing as he races from one end of your house to the next!


So the take-home message this week is to get out there- visit your local shelter, and keep an open mind. Hidden inside that dog who's bark-bark-barking at the fence when you approach could be a wonderful family companion who is ever grateful to you for a forever home. Lenny is that "less-adoptable" dog, and he's currently laying at my feet in a home that would never be as complete without him.