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Friday
Jul292011

Family Honesty

Since having my own two little boys, my focus has understandably shifted towards other families. I used to be much more daring and risky. "I'd love to train tigers!" I once told my husband. He responded with, "I'd like to see you come home alive at the end of each day." Two boys later, no more tiger-training dreams for me. I still think they are gorgeous, spectacular animals, but I am comfortable and satisfied admiring them greatly, but from a distance. The same goes for most wild animals. I love the thrill of seeing a lion, an elephant, a giraffe, a wolf. I seek out these sorts of experiences. However, I do not plan to get very close to them- we can keep a mutual barrier of space. I do not have dreams of owning a bear. Nor do I feel the need to see a deer, even an orphaned fawn, grow up in my house. That job is best suited, I believe, to those who know the work the best- those wildlife rehabilitators. I once thought of joining their ranks, but my path went elsewhere, and I do not delude myself into believing I can do their job as well as they can.

However, this misbelief, this over-confidence and absence of understanding the risks involved in owning an animal puts many people (and pets) in conflict every single day across the nation. Our animals are not human, and while we surely do love them, we should not treat them as human. We can treat them with love and respect without bestowing humanity and its quirks, responsibilities, and thought patterns on our dogs and cats. 

Most often, this sort of conflict begins with the idea that the family dog especially (but it could be the family cat) would "never bite". You've heard it- perhaps you've even said it: "Fido wouldn't hurt a flea!". In fact, as my experiences at the shelter taught me, any dog or cat who has teeth can bite. Plain and simple. That doesn't mean we should pull all their teeth or that all pets should be banned. It also certainly doesn't mean we should act toward our pets with anything other than love, respect, and consistency. It doesn't mean that the risks outweigh the benefits of pets. It does mean we should be honest with ourselves about the inherent risks in having an animal in the same house with, or even just around, a child. Once we are honest with ourselves, we can create an environment in which a bite is much, much less likely to occur. This helps everyone relax, creates much more respect in the environment, teaches kids about compassion and responsibility, and could save your pet's life. 

I love my cats, and I love my dogs. However, if I thought that there was a real, present danger, of their precense with my children, I would have to choose my kids. I would have to rehome my pets, which is not something I plan to do and is something I hope I never have to do. But if it's a choice between a high likelihood of my kids getting bit or worse, or rehoming the pets, I have to choose rehoming my cats and dogs in order to save my kids. Consequently, I am always watching my animals as they interact with my kids, praising behaviors I like and redirecting behaviors that could potentially evolve into dangerous ones. I'm also constantly watching my toddler, educating him about how to deal with pets and how to handle them so that their stress is low and everyone is happy. Just like with my pets, I praise behaviors I like from my toddler and redirect those that could be dangerous.

I have also identified when my dogs might bite, and this is something I encourage every dog owner to do. Take stock of your dog's fears, anxieties, and weaknesses. Be honest about past encounters your dog has had- don't gloss over bad ones or make excuses. For my own pets, I know that my toddler loves to ride Lenny, because he's big and he just lays there and takes whatever is dished out. However, this is an activity that can quickly become out of hand and cause pain for Lenny, in which case there's a chance he might bite. Lenny's risk of biting goes up when he is scared or in pain, just like any normal dog. So we've redirected this behavior, and simultaneously taught my boy to hug Lenny and taught Lenny that hugs are awesome. It's not just enough to teach the toddler, because while we humans often enjoy a good hug, many dogs are scared by such restriction of movement. By always managing the environment and by teaching Lenny to be comfortable with hugs, if not enjoy them, we create a situation in which the risk of a bite is minimal.

When my brother was 3, I remember, he got bit by a dog. The dog was a young Cocker Spaniel, a teenager in the dog world, but he caused my brother to get stitches in his cheek. Long after the stiches were removed, my brother carried scars, both physical (you'd probably be able to see the scars today even, if my brother didn't wear a beard) and emotional. For quite some time, my brother froze whenever a dog came near him no matter the size. The freezing panic was an improvement from the panicky crying shrieks that he'd give in the immediate days after the bite whenever he saw a dog. How's he now, a couple of decades later? He is still a little guarded of dogs, but no longer panicky. My point is, no 3 year old - indeed, no child- should have to go through that. Why did he get bit? He wanted to pet the dog, and the first opportunity he got was when the dog was eating. 

The bite could have been prevented in so many ways. My brother could have been given ample time and opportunity to pet the dog before the cocker went to eat. The dog could have been confined so no one could be near him while he ate. Even better, the dog could have been trained that being petted and handled while around food is not a threatening thing, but a good thing. It's a great thing to desensitize your dogs to being handled and petted and fussed over while they are eating, and in fact I give my dogs a dose of this "vaccine", so to speak, periodically, just to make sure they are good. When and where I grew up, the attitude was "well, dogs bite to protect their food. You just don't pet them while their eating." Indeed, a little prevention and management could have completely avoided the whole situation- and still can here and now!

How about this one? Someone afraid of a one-toothed, arthritic, elderly Chihuahua? In fact, there are quite a few folks out there who are scared of dogs regardless of size. There are also people more scared of little dogs than big dogs. Just because you know your dog is not likely to bite you doesn't mean that others know that, or that he's not likely to threaten people he doesn't know! Rarely do people check a growling dog to see if they have teeth. Now, don't get me wrong- this is a tragic situation and I do feel for the dog owner. However, I can also understand the other side of the story. It's our jobs as pet owners to help our pets show their best side of themselves in public. Sometimes this means leaving them at home. Other times it means not giving them the freedom of being leash-less. And always it means some kind of training and education, especially socilization. A great majority of "aggressive" animals are triggered by fear- not the desire to bite! By mitigating the fear (or eliminating it entirely), we greatly reduce the likelihood of a bite. By also controlling the environment, we can nearly eliminated the possibility.

For instance, Boo was very well socialized all through puppyhood, and her socialization continues today, even though she's an adult. She has worked wonders as a therapy dog, but when she first saw elderly people, she was not the wonder-dog she is today. She was afraid, and so we focused on intensive socialization to friendly older people, to wheelchiars, to walkers, and to the sights and sounds of a nursing home. Now, nursing homes and senior centers are among her very favorite places to be, and she has friends at several places around town. Lenny on the other hand, was not very well socialized as a puppy. He went into intensive socialization as soon as I brought him home, but he still has a tendency to bark loudly when startled, and gets a little wild-eyed around strange things and people behaving oddly. As such, I have no intention of turning him into a therapy dog- I doubt he'd enjoy it, and I don't think I could minimize the risk of a bite as much as I'd like. How likely is he to bite? Very unlikely, but not as unlikely as I want. The same is true for my cats- ZugZug would hate therapy and would be very stressed out in an unfamiliar environment, while Friendly is less so, especially if someone is petting him.

 

So my take home message for the day? Believe that your pet can (and maybe does) have bad habits or the potential to do some damage. Once you accept that fact, you can help your pet by controlling the environment so that your pet stays less stressed, less fearful, and therefore, less likely to bite.

 

Saturday
Jul162011

The Beginning

It's been a hard decision with lots of back and forth, but I'm taking the plunge! It's always a little scary when you decide to do something new with no idea whether it will work or not- even if that something new is a dream of yours. I love pets and I love families- I love teaching both ends of the leash, so I'm setting out to do exactly that. I loved working at the shelter, but I need time to be a good mom as well as to start this new training opportunity up, so I had to say a hard good-bye. The folks at the shelter are wonderful people who have been very good to me. However this way, I can have more time to devote to volunteering (and training the dogs to increase their chances of adoption) and fostering in the future. 

In some ways, one could draw parallels between this new path of mine and the new path of life for an animal getting adopted. Of course, I chose this, but still there are some similarities. The change comes with a certain amount of excitement combined with trepidation. A lot of folks don't expect the amount of stress their newly adopted pet experiences as they travel to a new home and find themselves in a new family, possibly with other animals. They don't know what's happening, and they may or may not know the rules of the house. They don't know if they will be best friends with the resident pets or children, or if they will have to learn to tolerate each other. Similarly, I don't know whether my business will take off or fall flat. All I can do is do the best I can and see what happens- and that's exactly what I plan to do. 

I believe in continuing education, and to that end, I'm always reading more about learning theory, motivation, and the science behind dog training. I do not have the same views as every other trainer, but I try to respect them and their views, and I hope that respect shows through. I think personality and how you go about trying to get an idea across to people is a big part of the business, besides the science and knowledge. After all, you can read the right books for maybe $30 and learn a lot of what I'm going to tell you. Or you can pay me and I'll teach you and show you how to execute a certain plan of attack or why one method might work better than another. I can also direct you to other good resource books so you don't have to waste money on books that might be less than gems- I'll do that for you. :) I may not always have the answers, but I have a bunch of resources and I will try to find the answers to your questions if I don't already know them. Learning is a big part of the teaching- I never want to think I know all there is to training pets!

I look forward to working with you and your pets- not just dogs, but the cats too! I love seeing the look on people's faces as they suddenly understand new information, and I look forward to seeing that look a lot! Look for me around town- I'll be getting the word out, and if you know anyone I should meet, let me (and them) know!

See you around!

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