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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.


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Again I am late with my blog post, and again you have my apologies! I am not intending this to be a trend.

I've been thinking a lot recently about continuing education, possibly because I took my CPDT exam on Saturday and previously was studying to prepare for the test. Again and again in my head I hear the famous quote from Isaac Newton, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

I too, have stood on the shoulders of giants, and there is no shame in that. It is only by learning from others, their weaknesses, their strengths, that we better ourselves at all. It is only by apply what we learn that we shape a better world. I have learned a lot from the people I've worked with. I learned a ton about behavior and reading body language in both cats and dogs while working at the shelter. I learned a ton about training from Pete Murphy, who is now the lone trainer at the shelter. I have also learned a ton by training on my own with my dogs, shelter dogs, and teaching classes. I have gotten so many ideas from other trainers in books or in podcasts, and sometimes I find those ideas work for me and I incorporate them into my classes and teachings. Sometimes they don't work for me, but either way I learned something.

Sometimes I feel people wonder why they should learn from someone who's still learning. Well, my answer to that is that the best practitioners in any field are still learning- there's a reason doctors call it a "practice". There's a phenomenon that I have been aware of for a long time and am constantly wary of. It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, people with a lot of skill in a particular field tend to underestimate their skill and knowledge in that field. However, those without a lot of skill and knowledge tend to overestimate their skill and knowledge because they don't know how much they don't know. It's an interesting phenomenon that those with true skill have a tendency to suffer from doubt and indecision.

This is why I'm constantly studying and reading and trying to learn more and more and more. I want to have the best knowledge at my fingertips to use when I can. There's a saying, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", that I consider to be true, and I do not want to find myself with only a hammer to hold.

So who are my giants? Patricia McConnell, for a start, and Ian Dunbar, the father of modern dog training. Add in Brenda Aloff and Sarah Kalnajs for their work with body language. And you may as well add in Jan Fannell for her holistic view of dogs (though I don't agree with all of her views, the way she ties everything together is amazing and wonderful). Then there's Malcolm Gladwell for his investigations into how the brain works and the little intricacies in our perceptions of reality- his books Blink and the Tipping Point are each a must read! It's impossible to list all of my giants, because there are so, so many. And I hope I do them justice by climbing on their shoulders and maybe seeing an inch or two farther. This is why I don't mind if you climb on my shoulders- maybe the inch or two farther you might see will change how we view the world.

Outside Dogs

I'm sorry this blog post is a little late, but for me, family trumps blogging any day, and my family was in a bit of turmoil this weekend. While we were all there supporting each other, I asked my brother if there was any topic he thought I should blog on. He wanted to hear about outside dogs, so this blog post is thanks to him!

There are many people in the area with outside dogs, and if this is done correctly, it can be fine. On the other hand, if this living arrangement is incorrectly handled, both dog and owner suffer. The bare minimum standards, according to Iowa law, are that dogs who are confined outside need access to food, clean water, and shelter from the elements.

The first thing to remember is that dogs are pack animals. They like to live together in family groups, where there are a lot of rituals performed to enhance bonding and keep the group cohesive. One of the biggest troubles outdoor dogs face is not getting enough attention. Lots of people I meet who see my dogs (a 70 lb Lab and an 80 lb Rott mutt) are surprised that they are indoor dogs. I think of this as an opportunity to educate them on dog's social needs.

An indoor dog is often impossible to ignore without trying. They are always there, interacting or trying to interact with their owner. They are always watching you, learning from you. An outdoor dog needs his owner to make the effort to ensure he gets adequate social time with the family. If you are outdoorsy folk, this may not be a problem for you- just incorporate your dog into your outdoor activities. However, if you tend to hang out inside rather than outside, this can cause a problem. 

Outdoor dogs who are understimulated and need the attention of their owner often display behavioral symptoms (indoor dogs, by the way, will often show similar symptoms when they are bored and understimulated). They will often begin to engage in problem barking (eliciting barking complaints from the neighbors), chew on their shelter or anything else around, and/or become territorial, perhaps to the point of engaging in aggressive behavior. They are often so excited to finally get the human companionship they crave that they are unruly and truly obnoxious once they get it, often encouraging the owner to quickly return to the house away from their "unmanageable" dog. Thus a cycle can easily develop where the dog becomes more and more isolated from the family and thus engages in more and more troublesome behavior.

Dogs truly need human companionship to lead full and happy lives- it's not an option for them, it's a necessity. With a regimen of exercise and training to give the dog enough physical and mental stimulation, adding in enough quality human companionship to fulfill the dog's needs, many of these problem behaviors will go away with little trouble. Companionship is key for dogs, and anyway, isn't that why we got the dogs in the first place?