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Category Archives: Training

Scary thunderstorms and how to help your phobic dog.

It’s that time of year– hot sticky days that end in frequent thunderstorms rolling through the area. As much as I enjoy thunderstorms, my dog is terrified by them. He hides, he shakes, he wants to cling to me, he drools. It’s really not a great time for either of us. And unfortunately, my dog is not alone. There are many many dogs of all shapes and sizes who are stressed to varying degrees by thunderstorms (or fireworks or gunshots).

I’m lucky in that my dog reacts by hiding and clinging. Other dogs react by being destructive or, worse, by trying to escape the house. It is not unheard of for a dog to jump out an upper floor window to escape something scary and injure himself in doing so. We need to be proactive about these fears and phobias before they get worse and potentially endanger the lives of our dogs.

Thunderstorm phobia is not always a sound-based phobia. Dogs are extremely sensitive to the environment. They can react to pressure changes in the absence of thunder. They may be reacting to the change of the scent in the air. It has also been questioned whether the static charge in the air during a storm bothers them. Some dogs are upset by the flashing of lightning. Regardless, it is not simply a matter of hearing. (Deaf dogs can react to thunderstorms as well).

Storms are scary.

Storms are scary.

It is also important to note that you are not going to reinforce your dog’s fear/phobia by offering him moral support, by talking to him quietly and soothingly, or by feeding him treats. If you’re terrified of snakes and you end up trapped in a room full of snakes, and a friend comes in and puts her arm around you and starts telling you that it’s ok, calm down, we’ll find a way to get through this safely, is it going to make you more afraid of snakes?

Reknowned behaviorist Patricia McConnell has some wonderful blog posts on this subject: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms, and Reinforcing Fear II and Thunderphobia III. Both are excellent reads.

Many dogs, especially when they are puppies, will benefit from some preventative maintenance when it comes to storms. It is important to do your best if you are nervous about storms to remain calm and not pass that anxiety along to your dog. Turn thunderstorm time into a party! Pop some popcorn and toss some in your pup’s direction with each rumble of thunder. Does your pooch have a favorite toy or game? Break that out and have a good time together. Anything you can do to build a positive association toward storms will work in your favor.

If your dog will not accept his normal treats or show interest in his regular toys, this means he’s stressed. You can try upping the ante– offering really delicious treats like cheese or hotdogs (or a bullystick to chew on).

Some dogs, no matter what you do to storm-proof them, are going to end up scared, unfortunately. Breed does appear to play some sort of a role– Border Collies, for example, are especially prone to storm phobia and other sound sensitivities. However, it can happen to any dog of any breed or mix, and it can appear at any time in life– sometimes not until old age.

Fortunately, there are many different options out there to try to help your dog be more comfortable. A lot of dogs prefer to be able to hide during storms. They may be more comfortable in a closet or a basement, for example. Many dogs are attracted to bathrooms during storms. If it’s going to storm and you’re not going to be home, making sure your dog has access to his hiding spots is important. Playing music or leaving the television on can help drown out some of the noise, and closing curtains can block the flashing lightning.

Steve makes his Thundershirt look good.

Steve makes his Thundershirt look good.

There are also many commercially available products which may be of some help. A lot of these products seem to be hit-or-miss. They work amazingly for some dogs, and not at all for others, so you have to experiment a bit. The Thundershirt is one of the most popular available items. It is an adjustable, snugly fitting shirt that provides comforting pressure that may help relieve anxiety (think swaddling an infant). The manufacturer does offer a money-back guarantee if the shirt does not help and you return it within 45 days.

Another interesting product available is the Storm Defender Cape. This cape-type blanket is lined with a special material that cuts down on the static that can build up during a thunderstorm, and prevent the reaction and anxiety that it can produce in some dogs.

Dog Appeasing Pheromones, also known as DAP, can comfort a dog who is stressed. DAP is available in a spray, a collar, or a plug-in diffuser. This is a product that is userful for a dog who is generally anxious, but the spray especially can be helpful for an especially stressful event like a storm.

If all else fails and your dog continues to be terrified of thunderstorms, there are also medications available to help. The downside of medication is that it works best when given an hour or so before a storm hits, so the timing can be tricky (plus you have to be there). However, if you think that is the best option for your dog to get through this summer that has so-far been heavy with storms, give us a call. It’s no fun to be terrified, and if we can help alleviate that terror, we want to do so.

 
 

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Dog Bite Prevention Week Part 1: Bite-proofing your dog

My dogs are family.

My dogs are family.

This week is considered Dog Bite Prevention Week, a week in which professionals who work with animals strive to put out good and useful information about dog bites and about how to prevent them. In a country where more homes contain dogs than don’t, it’s an important topic. Dogs bite humans every single day. The good news is that according to the National Canine Research Council, greater than 80% of reported bites require no medical treatment at all. 19.4% of reported bites require minor medical attention, and the last 0.01% of bites are the ugly ones requiring major medical attention.

This is probably not the impression you get from the media. So frequently there are dramatic news stories about children attacked by vicious pit bulls, or police having to shoot attacking dogs. The truth is, a lot of this is media and attention-driven. In 2010, there were 33 dog attacks that resulted in fatality. In contrast, there were 33,041 unintentional poisioning fatalities, and 3,782 unintentional drowning deaths. (Source: NCRC).
According to Janice Bradley’s book Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to be killed by a dog. There are more cow-related human deaths every year than dog-related ones.

So why this great fear of dog bites?

I think it is just something primal in us. As a society, we have in many ways taken the “animal” out of dogs. We’ve tried to turn them into Disney characters– always affable, never dangerous. They are “man’s best friend” and they are supposed to fit neatly into our cultural expectations. But the truth is, dogs are living, breathing, thinking, emotional animals. They are the sum of their genetics and their environments, and when they get into serious trouble, it is almost always the result of human error in one way or another.

The next question: How do you bite-proof your dog?

First off, choose a breed or dog that is appropriate to your lifestyle and experience. If you’ve never owned a dog before, it’s probably not the best idea to go out and get a dog who is going to react to everything he sees in his environment by wanting to bite it. If you have kids, you are going to be better off looking for a dog who likes kids and is pretty go-with-the-flow, not a dog who is scared of his own shadow. If you plan to use a dog-park to exercise a dog, do not choose one whose entire breed is built around fighting with other dogs. Do your research! There are lots of breed-selectors available online that can point you in the right direction. Here’s one from Animal Planet that’s pretty nice. Iams has an interesting breed selector as well.

If you bring home a puppy, it is so very important that you socialize him so that he learns to roll with the punches and tolerate having to deal with new things. Helping him to have plenty of good experiences in all kinds of locations with all kinds of people will set him up to be more tolerant later on, and tolerance is always something we prize in a pet dog.

Buy your dog either from a responsible breeder who is breeding dogs who have been proven to have good temperaments or rescue one from an organization that temperament tests its dogs, and ideally keeps them in foster homes. Meet the dogs. If from a breeder, meet the dogs’ relatives. Make sure you are seeing dogs who are steady and engaged, not dogs who are shrinking back from the world, and not dogs who are aggressively approaching every person they meet. You don’t want to see hard eyes, raised hackles, stiff bodies. Look for fluid motion and appropriate interaction.

Please please do NOT buy your puppy from a petstore, online vendor, or a puppy mill or farm where the pups have lived their whole lives in cages or a pen, rarely handled, and not at all socialized to the world. Socialization in puppies is HUGE and if your pup is not exposed to a variety of people and sounds and experiences and textures under his feet at a young age, life is going to be that much harder for him, and he’s going to be that much more of a bite risk.

Whether your new dog is a baby or an adult, attending a postive-reinforcement-based obedience class dramatically decreases your dog’s future bite risk.

All dogs should go to school.

All dogs should go to school.

One of the biggest factors in serious dog attacks and fatalities is that they frequently involve dogs who are not considered members of the family. These dogs are referred to as “resident dogs”, and while they live on the property, usually chained or penned or relegated to the backyard, they miss out on the bond with humans, they miss out on the opportunity to learn appropriate behavior, and they miss out on the constant mental and physical stimulation of life shared with people.

The dogs with the highest risk of getting into trouble are those who are recently acquired, kept as “resident animals” instead of pets, are chained and rarely if ever let off the chain to lead a normal doggy life, who are not spayed or neutered, not trained, and have had little socialization.

So basically, to bite-proof your dog…. Do the opposite! Include your dog in your family, train him, teach him the ways of the world, let him have good experiences, protect him, and learn to read his body language and what he is telling you. Dogs are pack animals. You are his pack.

Family dogs who bite very frequently give you plenty of notice (unless this notice has been punished out of them) but you have to know what you’re looking for and you have to respect it. A dog is growling at you over a toy is communicating important information. And this should be a red flag that you need to contact a trainer ASAP so that you can learn how to change your pup’s reaction to your approaching his toys. A lot of bites could be avoided by learning to recognize stress signs in your dog and by seeking help as soon as you notice the beginnings of the problem, not after somebody gets bitten.

Hopefully this post gave you a basic overview of why dog bites happen and ways to “bite-proof” your dog. But what about bite-proofing your child? Stay tuned. We’ll look at that later in the week.

 

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In Praise of Difficult Dogs: Luce’s Story

lucesurveyWhen they say that pit bulls aren’t necessarily a great choice for first-time dog owners, they really do mean it. They’re very high energy, they’re smart, they’re demanding, and they’re frequently not good with other dogs. Oh, and they’re really really strong. But I fell in love with the breed anyway, and so when I was in a position to bring home my first dog, I went to the shelter and picked out a cute little young adult pit bull with silly bat ears and a charming snort.

Oh, I had no idea what I was getting into. Not a clue.

I took her home, I named her Luce, (Short for Eleusis, pronounced like “Lucy” without the y). I fell in love.

But oh, was I in trouble.

“Naughty” doesn’t even begin to cover what she was. The first thing she did when set loose in the fenced yard was check each individual board in the privacy fence to make sure it was secure. Not all of them were. She escaped. We fixed that board, she found a new loose one. She managed to crawl underneath the neighbor’s shed. I have no idea what she hoped to find there– adventure, perhaps. Or something to eat.

Her favorite game was to run like a maniac all over the yard and bite my legs on the way past. She was not being aggressive in any way– she was simply playing in a manner that works for playing with other dogs, just not for us tender-skinned humans. It hurt. She thought it was hilarious.

But the hardest thing to deal with was her extreme reactivity to other dogs while on leash. She would pull, she would scream (and I mean scream, not bark), she would lunge. It was scary and embarrassing.

I was completely out of my league, and I knew it.

I was left with the decision of whether to give up and return her to the shelter and an uncertain fate, or to enroll her in obedience class and try my best.

We started Beginner Obedience a few weeks later, and I had no idea that I was embarking on such an incredible and life-changing journey.

We started out our classes completely segregated from the rest of the group. Here is the first thing I learned: a dog who is freaking out (known in trainer-speak as “Over threshold”) cannot learn. Their brains are so busy freaking out that nothing else gets through. So when I was yelling and jerking her leash to try to make her stop carrying on, I was wasting my energy– she could not hear me anyway.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

Food is good. Yelling is dumb.

We were set up behind a barrier. Luce knew the other dogs were there, but she couldn’t see them. So while she was distracted, she was able, with the use of high value treats (hot dogs, cheese, meatballs) frequently delivered for the smallest bit of attention on me, so start to calm down and actually learn some stuff. Sit, down, stay, leave it– all those important Dog Skills.

(A note about rewards: They have to be highly rewarding TO THE DOG. While we like to think our dogs work for our love and affection, really they prefer food or toys. Each dog is different– a dog who goes nuts for cheese may not care about hot dogs. A dog who is not accepting a reward that he typically does is probably over-stressed and you need to take a step back in your training and find the place where he’s not stressing.)

The second important thing that I learned was that heavily rewarding the behaviors that I wanted was a whole lot easier and more effective than trying to punish out the behaviors that I didn’t want. It is much easier for a dog to learn a specific behavior to do than to try to figure out from many options what not to do. In this case, I was looking for attention on me.

For her to learn this, she needed to learn self-control.

Self-control is a really hard thing for a lot of dogs, but it is at the heart of so many behaviors that we want, from walking politely on a leash without pulling to responding to a “leave it” command instead of snatching a dropped pill off the floor. We did a lot of work with Luce lying on a mat on the floor (bathmats work great for this) while I rewarded her heavily with wonderful tasty food for being calm and staying on her mat as I gradually increased the amount of distraction..

So proud!

So proud!

The absolute best resource for this is Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. There is also a handy audio version.

It is boring and it is repetetive but it works. Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program builds extensively on Karen Overall’s work. Although it was initially intended as a program for dogs who play sports, it has many “real life” applications, and many people with reactive dogs have had great success with it. The puppy book is a bit easier to follow and works great for adult dogs as well as pups.

It didn’t get better overnight. It took time, patience, perseverance. It took a lot of not giving up even when I wanted to. I took class after class and worked with Luce outside of class, and eventually there were very obvious results. My instructor started encouraging me to do rally obedience trials with her. I laughed and said they can have my leash when they pry it from my cold, dead hands. She said that conveniently, the first level is all on leash.

And so began my journey into the world of dog sports. At Luce’s very first trial, we finished in second place. Together we would go on to earn six rally obedience titles, 4 rally obedience championship-level titles, two traditional obedience titles, and two national rally rankings. She retired– she’s 11 years old now– with the alphabet soup of ARCHX Luce CD CD-H RA RLV RL3 RL2X RL1X CGC TT.

Wall of glory.

Wall of glory.

Not bad for a crazy little red pit bull that somebody threw away. I hope the journey was worth as much to her as it was to me.

Further resources for dealing with reactive/difficult dogs:
When Pigs Fly Dog Training
DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space
Dr. Sophia Yin
Local behavior consultant Barb Demerest

 
 

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Learning to love the world: socializing your new puppy

Everybody who has ever loved a puppy knows how impressionable they are when they are babies. A puppy’s mind is so malleable, and there is so much for him to learn! The time between the ages of four and sixteen weeks are probably the most important of a dog’s life- this is when they are learning what kind of place the world is. This is the time when they are the most accepting of new things, the most adaptable to the weirdness that is the world we live in. After the age of 16 weeks, that window closes. Everything past this point is not the same. Yes, you can teach an older pup or an adult dog how to adapt, but it is not with the natural acceptance of a pup in his prime socialization period.quillchunky

There also exists during this same time a fear period, which happens generally between the ages of eight and twelve weeks. During this time, anything that scares or traumatizes the puppy can be especially damaging. A pup will typically be more suspicious and worried in general during this time, so it is important to show him what a great place the world is in a way that he finds fun, rewarding, and– most importantly– safe.

Many people think of socialization as being with other dogs or with people only, but it is so much more than that! You want to expose your pup– in a positive way!– to anything he might encounter in the future. Think big. Think outside the box. But also think keep it fun. Keep it safe. You do not want to scare your puppy. You do not want to put too much pressure on him to interact with new things if he is timid or shy. Too much pressure can make it into a bad experience. Remember: with socialization, it is all about making it a positive experience!

People. Socializing your baby puppy with a wide variety of different people will set the stage for him to be as friendly and outgoing, as welcoming and accepting, as possible when he grows up. You want to give him positive experiences (think tasty treats! think toys and play!) with people of all ages, from toddler to the elderly. You want to expose him to people of different ethnicities. You want to expose him to men with facial hair and women with sunglasses. You want to expose him to people in uniform, to people who use a cane or a walker to get around, to people wearing hats or carrying umbrellas. Dogs are not good at generalizing– just because he’s met one person does not mean that he has come even close to meeting them all. The more rewarding and fun experiences you can give him with all different types of people, the happier a dog he is going to be.

A great place to do this is at a shopping center. You’ll meet all different types of people there. Just hang out outside of the stores and, as long as your pup is happy and comfortable, invite and encourage people to come over and meet him. Tiny tasty treats can go a long way into making strangers more inviting. Remember to keep track of your puppy’s emotional state, however. If he is cringing away or trying to hide, you are pushing too hard and need to back off. Maybe have someone toss treats to him from a few feet away instead of approaching closely. Maybe find a place with fewer people or less commotion. You do not want to push your pup out of his comfort zone. This needs to be a happy thing for him, not a stressful one.

Different environments and different footing. Oh the places you’ll go! You want to introduce your pup to them young. Take field trips. Let him walk on dirt and grass, on sidewalks in town, on wooden decks and slippery floors. Some stores, especially hardware and feed stores, will let you bring your pup inside– just make sure that you ask first. There are all kinds of things for him to see and hear and experience out there. Use your imagination!beanrosie

Sounds. The world is full of sounds, and they can be scary if the dog is not used to them. Get your pup used to the sounds of the world– the vacuum cleaner, the sound of traffic while you’re walking down the street, the sound of a band playing in the park or the radio blaring.

Gentle handling. Puppies don’t come automatically tolerant of being handled and manipulated in the ways we need to do for grooming and healthcare. They don’t necessarily come with the desire to let you look in their ears, look in their mouths, touch their feet and trim their toenails. Now is the time to start teaching them! You can save yourself so many headaches down the road by touching your puppy all over now, but doing it slowly so as not to scare him or intimidate him, all the while popping tasty treats into his mouth so that he associates the strangeness of having all his parts checked with Good Things For Dogs. Now is the time to get him used to having his nails trimmed, to being bathed, to being groomed, especially if he is of a grooming-intensive breed.

And last but certainly not least, other dogs. Socializing your pup with other dogs is possibly the most fun part of all of this– puppies are so much fun to watch when they’re playing– but you need to be very careful with how and where you do this. You want to expose your puppy to dogs that you know to be safe and healthy. You want to create a safe and controlled environment– not one that could become scary or dangerous. And you want to keep in mind that your pup needs socialization the most during the time when he’s not fully vaccinated, so you want to control who and what he is exposed to from a health standpoint as well.

Puppy class is a fantastic option for this. I cannot say enough good things about well-run, positive-reinforcement-based puppy classes. A good puppy class will confirm current vaccinations for each puppy, minimizing risk of exposure to diseases like Parvo. A good puppy class will manage interactions between puppies so that no puppy is allowed to bully or be bullied. The controlled interactions will give puppies the socialization they need but without much of the risk of getting hurt or scared. This is exactly what puppies need!beanpuppyclass

Dog parks, on the other hand, are not a good place at all for socializing your pup. In a dog park, you have no proof of vaccination status. You don’t know what diseases or parasites are lurking there in the dirt and the grass. You also have no idea what kind of temperaments the dogs coming into the park at any given moment are going to have. There is such a great risk of your puppy being hurt by an intolerant adult dog, or scared by excessively rough play. These things can have lifelong implications if they happen at the wrong time or to the wrong puppy. It is just not worth the risk.

So the take away from all of this? Get your puppy out in the world. Show him all there is to see and teach him that it’s all good. Be free with your rewards. Be creative in your adventures together. And above all, have fun with him!

 
 

Getting your scratch on.

Happy kitty.

Happy kitty.

We love kitties. But it can be tough to live with them when they’re destroying your house. Previously, we looked at some ideas to help with inappropriate urination, which loses many cats their home. Another problem we see a lot in pet cats is destructive scratching of furniture, carpets, drapes, etc. This can be a frustrating problem. Who wants to have their new furniture destroyed, after all? No one. Hopefully this post will give you some ideas of how to discourage your destructive scratcher from scratching what you don’t want him to scratch, and instead turn his attention toward things that are appropriate for scratching.

The first thing to look at is what and where your cat is scratching. Does he like to scratch on a verticle surface (the back of your sofa) or a horizontal one (your carpets)? How high up does he scratch? What kind of surfaces is he seeking out? Soft ones? Rough ones? What rooms of your house? All of these things will give you clues to help you select an appealing, more appropriate option for your kitty.

There is a seemingly endless array of cat scratchers available in petstores and online. They run from expensive and elaborate cat trees to inexpensive carboard pads. There are carpet, sisal, and wood options. There are things that lay flat on the floor and others that sit at an angle. If you can imagine it, somebody probably makes it.

Cats scratch for a number of reasons. First off, it’s good for their claws. It helps them shed old claw coverings and keeps their nails healthy. It is also a good way for them to stretch their back and shoulders. And last but certainly not least, it is a way for them to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands in their feet, and so when they scratch on a surface, they are leaving their scent calling card behind.

Kitties in a kitty tree.

Kitties in a kitty tree.

Scratching is a completely normal and healthy behavior for cats. We just need to figure out how to channel it toward the right targets.

Using the clues you obtained by noticing what and where your cat is scratching, buy some things that you’d like your cat to scratch, and that might appeal to him. Take into consideration texture, and whether he likes to scratch on horizontal or verticle surfaces. Make sure that the surface is large enough for him to really stretch out while he scratches. Make sure your choices match his natural preferences. Many cats like rough surfaces that they can shred (so be sure you don’t get rid of a favorite scratching post when it’s well worn in!) If you have multiple cats, you will want to provide scratching options in multiple locations. Different cats have different preferences, and this will also ensure that there will be appropriate scratching surfaces available if one cat takes “ownership” of a certain item (remember that scent marking thing?).

Place your new scratching posts and pads in the locations where your cat is scratching. This is important. Yes, it might be unsightly for a while, but eventually you’ll be able to slowly move them to a more convenient place. In the beginning, though, you want to give your cat every chance you can to make the correct choice. You want to make the new items as welcoming and appealing as possible. If your cat enjoys catnip, a sprinkle of dried catnip or some catnip spray might be inviting. Do not try to force your cat to scratch on the new items. That could scare or offend him and turn him off to them. Let him find it on his own.

And to help him, you want to make his usual favorite spots less appealing by covering them with something like aluminum foil or double-sided tape. On flat surfaces, you can also use a plastic carpet runner placed pointy-side up to discourage little cat feet.

Again, this is not forever. When your kitty is happily scratching away on what you want him to be scratching, you can start to fade away the offensive things, being careful to monitor the situation to make sure that he continues to scratch where he is supposed to. Make the changes slowly and let him make the right choices a number of times before changing things more. With patience and perseverance, you really can train your cat to scratch only appropriate objects and not your new couch.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Behavior, Cats, Training

 

Let the games begin!

With the Olympics in progress, I thought it would be fun to go over the huge variety of different dog sports out there for people to participate in with their dogs. There are so many games out there to play with your dog, whether you’re competitive-minded or not. Anything that gets you out doing something fun with your dog is a huge benefit to you both, so check out this list of dog sports and see if there is one that fits you and your dog’s personalities.

Zipper working a serpentine on a rally course. Photo by Kevin Devine Photography.

Zipper the MinPin heeling a serpentine on a rally course. Photo by Kevin Devine Photography.

No matter what sport you choose, the first place to start is almost always going to be a basic obedience class. Obedience classes aren’t just for teaching your dog to sit and down and stay. They are where you learn how to effectively teach your dog. How to communicate with him. How to get the behaviors you want, and get rid of the behaviors that you don’t. Once you learn this skill, you can apply it to anything, from sitting for petting from strangers to running an agility course at a high speed.

The easiest sport to transition into from beginner obedience is typically Rally Obedience. Rally Obedience is such a fun sport. It combines elements of obedience with a course set-up similar to agility. You never know what you’re going to get, and you have to put thought into what the best way is to navigate through the course. In the Beginning Level, the dog is on leash. You can talk to him the entire time you’re out there with him. You follow the signs that tell you what to do at each station (all kinds of turns (90, 180, 270, 360); all combinations of sits, downs, and stands; heeling through cones, and in the upper levels things as complicated as sending the dog over a jump or having him change positions from a stand to a sit with you at a distance). This sport is offered by a number of different organizations including the AKC, the UKC, and Cynosport. In Cynosport, you are allowed to feed your dog treats in the ring to reward him. All three organizations allow mixed breed dogs, but they do need to be registered with the organization in order to compete.

Cherrybomb the Doberman performs the recall to front. Photo by  DPCTZ.

Cherrybomb the Doberman performs the recall to front. Photo by DPCTZ.

For those people who are very detail-oriented and enjoy precision, traditional obedience may be a good choice. In traditional obedience, the game is much more rigidly structured. You may only speak to your dog at certain times. Straight sits, perfect heel position, and all the picky little details are judged much more stringently in traditional obedience. But it can still be a fun game. In the Novice level, dogs perform a heeling pattern called out by a judge both on the lead an off, a figure 8 around two people, a stand while the judge does a very minimal “exam” while the owner stands six feet away, a recall across the ring, and group sit stays and down stays. In the upper levels, things get far more interesting. There are jumps. There is retrieving. There is picking out a specific item from a group of similar items based solely on scent. It’s a lot to learn, but all that work with your dog is priceless, as long as you are both enjoying it. Again, there are a variety of organizations that offer Obedience trials. The most popular and competitive is AKC, but the UKC also offers it, as well as an organization called CDSP which offers a more laid-back environment, allows you to talk to your dog in the ring, and will allow certain judge-approved exercise modifications for dogs with physical concerns.

Steve, a Border Collie, at full speed. Photo by Jim Geiser Photography.

Steve, a Border Collie, at full speed. Photo by Jim Geiser Photography.

For dogs and owners who enjoy a faster-paced game, the sport of flyball may be just what you’re looking for. In flyball, teams of four dogs race one another over a course of four jumps to the flyball “box” which pops out a tennis ball for the dog to catch before racing back. It is fast and LOUD and chaotic and a ton of fun. Flyball is a sport that dogs of all sizes, breeds, and mixes can play, but is best suited to small and medium dogs. Dogs need to be interested in tennis balls and able to focus on a job in the midst of barking and running dogs. But you start off slowly in training and gradually build up to the point of chaos.

Flyball seems to be becoming more popular in our area, with classes being offered at many different training centers. Check out the North American Flyball Association website for more information on the sport and to locate a team or a tournament to watch near you. (Many are held at the York Expo Center or In the Net in Palmyra. They are free to the public, and well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

Deemer, a Border Collie/ Jack Russell mix playing agility. Photo by K. Bell

Deemer, a Border Collie/ Jack Russell mix playing agility. Photo by K. Bell

Agility combines both technical skill and speed. In agility, dogs navigate courses consisting of jumps, tunnels, and sometimes equipment called a dogwalk and an a-frame that they have to climb, and a teeter-totter that tips under their feet. There are a wide variety of different “games” varying from one organization to another. In some games, the handler gets to make up their own course with certain point or equipment requirements. In other games dogs have to take the jumps and obstacles in a certain order. Open to dogs of all sizes and shapes, there’s a venue suitable for everyone.

Agility takes a lot of time and work to do well and to do safely. Dogs need to understand how to handle the equipment in a safe manner, and handlers need to learn how to direct their dogs to turn and discriminate between obstacles. And to stay at the start line (that’s a hard one!). It can be overwhelming and awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it is a ton of fun, and there is always a new challenge to face.

Truly I think there are few things as beautiful in the world as watching a sighthound lure course.

Vesper the Whippet at high speed. Photo by K. Bell

Vesper the Whippet at high speed. Photo by K. Bell

In this game, dogs chase a moving lure around a pre-set course. Mostly trials are for Sighthounds (Greyhounds, Whippets, etc) but it is a game that appeals to many different breeds (herding dogs! terriers!). The AKC has even made lure-coursing available to all breeds through their Coursing Aptitude Test, and several training clubs in the area hold classes or fun events where your dog can try the sport on for size.

Last but not least in this overview of a number of the games out there to play with your dogs (part two coming soon– there are SO MANY OPTIONS!), is the brand new sport of Barnhunt. In Barnhunt, dogs of all sizes and breeds and mixes are released to locate and signal where on a course of hay bales and loose straw rats are hidden in secure tubes.

Is there a rat in there? Photo by Melissa Sheehan

Is there a rat in there? Photo by Melissa Sheehan

Many dogs are natural hunters, and this game encourages to use their noses to sniff out vermin. There have long been terrier-only games that included searching out rats, but for the first time, it has been designed in a way that allows dogs large and small to participate. Dogs love being given an outlet for their natural instincts, and Barnhunt plays perfectly into the very essence of being a dog.

I hope you enjoyed this summary of just a few of the dog sports out there to play with your dog. I have a list of half-a-dozen more for another time, but if something on this list inspired you or sparked an interest, I hope that you pursue it. Maybe a child in your household would find one of these sports fun– there are junior handler programs for many of them. Whatever you think when reading this, I hope it encourages you to get out there and do something with your dog that will enrich both of your lives.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2014 in Dogs, Just for Fun, Training

 

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“It’s all in how you raise them”

How often do you hear this phrase uttered? As a pit bull owner, it’s one I hear all the time, and it drives me crazy. Because it’s not true.

Well, it’s partly true.

Luce's secret: She was adopted from the shelter as an adult.

Luce’s secret: I was adopted from the shelter as an adult.

A dog’s temperament and behavior are based on a variety of things. Genetics do play a part. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have all the different breeds we have who perform the wide variety of functions that they do. We have breeds who were designed to be protective. We have breeds who were designed to hunt and kill vermin. We have breeds who were designed to retrieve birds without damaging them. We have breeds that were bred specifically to be companion animals. In order for these different types of dogs to breed true, to be predictable, there needs to be at least some genetic component to temperament.

But that’s not all there is to it. While genetics might dictate a range of traits your dog might display, each dog is an individual, and socialization and training can help dictate where in that range your particular dog will fall. A dog who is genetically prone to being shy might not ever be a social butterfly, but with careful socialization, he can learn to be braver than he would have been if he’d been kept at home and not exposed to anything else in the world.

Socialization starts on day one. Where your dog comes from matters! Being raised in a home and exposed to all the hustle and bustle, the sounds (tv, doorbell, vacuum cleaner), the people (of all ages and genders please!), and the experiences of everyday family life will result in a different puppy than one raised in a cage or a barn, segregated from real life, rarely handled, and not exposed to all the different parts of the world they are going to encounter later on. A good breeder provides all different kinds of stimulation– different surface textures, different toys, different places. All of these things will contribute to a pup who is more accepting of a wide variety of circumstances later on.

Once your pup comes home, it is important that you continue that socialization with all different kinds of people– men, women, children of all ages, men with facial hair, people wearing hats– anything you can think of. You want them to experience different textures under their feet. Different places. Different (known, healthy, puppy-safe) dogs. Puppy class can be an absolutely unmatchable opportunity for all of this, but you need to make a concerted effort to continue all those things outside of that one-hour-a-week class. You also want to choose a puppy class in which vaccines are confirmed as being up to date for all puppies.

The important thing to remember with socialization, though, is that it needs to be safe and happy for your pup. If you’re stressing and scaring your puppy, you are working against him. Do not force him to do things he’s afraid of. Take his individual personality into consideration. Reward him heavily for accepting new things. Have strangers feed him tasty treats. Be upbeat and happy so that he will follow your lead and be less likely to worry. You don’t want to give him the impression that the world is a scary place– you want to teach him that the world is a really cool place where weird and unexpected things sometimes happen.

Dave: a pup who was raised right.

Dave: a pup who was raised right.


The puppy socialization window starts to close around 18 weeks. After that point, socialization is harder and pups are less accepting. But all hope is not lost! It is just a longer, harder process. Even adult dogs can learn to be more accepting of the world around them, of things they find scary. But it is so much easier to do when you’re starting with a baby puppy.

Training is another part of the puzzle, and how you train your dog matters. Dogs who are trained using heavy-handed corrections and punishment are frequently more aggressive than dogs trained using reward-based methods. Well-respected veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin has a couple of really nice books available with a positively, dog-friendly approach both to starting your puppy off right as well as for dogs of all ages. These methods are based on the science of learning, but don’t let that scare you! They’re user-friendly and practical and both books are very easy to understand and apply.

I hate the labels “good dog” and “bad dog” as dogs are just animals and behavior is just behavior, but often times the difference between the two is the owner’s ability to recognize a problem early on and their willingness to seek help from a professional before things progress to the point of, say, biting. A puppy who tenses up and holds his head over a toy or a chewie (or his food bowl!) when you approach is a dog who could turn out to be a biting resource guarder in the future if the problem is not addressed or if the problem is addressed with punishment. Resource guarding is a completely normal behavior in animals! But it is not appropriate in our pet dogs, so we work on changing their response to being approached.

Owners who learn to recognize the signs of stress in their dogs are given a fantastic tool in heading off problems before they start. A good trainer will be able to teach you what to do after you recognize that your dog is stressed, and how to change his reaction to that stressor, but not if you don’t know enough to seek help.

Dogs are so much a product of everything– experiences, socialization, training, and genetics. No part can be discounted, and no part can be fully blamed. “Good dogs” are born and raised and responsibly owned. No part exists in a vacuum.

Need more proof? Look at the dogs who were rescued from Michael Vick’s notorious Bad Newz kennel back in 2007. Those dogs were bred to fight. They were raised in the ways that would make them the “meanest” and the “baddest”. They were not nurtured or loved or cared for like a pet dog would be. And yet a number of them went on to become certified Canine Good Citizens; several of them are even certified therapy dogs! Something about them was right even when all was wrong in their worlds. And they were fortunate enough to end up in the hands of people who were willing to help them bloom.

Learn how to help your dog bloom. Learn how to understand him, how to work with him, and how to help him be the best that he can be.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2014 in Behavior, Breeding, Dogs, Puppies, Training

 

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