HomeBooksEbooksDVDs and CDsProductsOrderingSeminarsPressArticles & BlogsBiographyResourcesContact Us

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Email Announcements
For Email Marketing you can trust



Wilde about Dogs Blog



So You Think You Know About Bloat?
June 26th, 2008

I thought I did. It’s the second leading cause of death among dogs, after all. I knew that a potentially fatal thing can happen when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and fluid, and that it’s often accompanied by gastric torsion—a twisting of the stomach. If the dog isn’t given emergency veterinary treatment in time, he will die. Bloat happens most often to deep-chested breeds, although the cause is still largely unknown. The warning signs include a stomach that’s bloated and hard, and dry heaving without the ability to vomit.

Well, that was the extent of my knowledge until a few short weeks ago when my own dog Mojo bloated. It was late afternoon on the Friday leading up to Memorial Day weekend. (There seems to be an unwritten rule that dog emergencies happen on holiday weekends and whenever else your vet is closed.) Mojo, my now 14 ½-year-old German shepherd/Rottie/Malamute/wolf mix, began pacing and whining. He vomited a little bit of white, foamy-looking stuff. I called the emergency vet, as my regular vet was already gone. The receptionist, after consulting with the vet on duty, told me to simply fast Mojo for twelve hours. Ten minutes later my husband came home from work and I told him what had happened, and that I was worried. As we were speaking, Mojo went outside and spewed a huge amount of that same white foam. We immediately rushed him to the nearest emergency clinic.

A tech took Mojo to the back room to be examined by the one vet on duty, who was busy trying to save another dog who was also having a very bad start to his weekend. The vet came out and told us that Mojo had bloated. I was floored—bloat had never even entered my mind. After all, he hadn’t been dry heaving; he’d actually been vomiting. But he was bloated, gastric torsion and all, and we were told that if emergency surgery was not performed immediately, he would die. The fee they quoted us was incredibly high and, as they warned, the aftercare was going to be very difficult. And he was fourteen-and-a-half. His chances of making it through the surgery were 50/50. Were we sure we wanted them to try to save him? Of course we were!

It was a very long and very difficult weekend, but thank goodness, Mojo pulled through. The first 72 hours after bloat surgery are critical, as many dogs develop heart arrhythmias during that time and die. Did I mention how long and difficult the weekend was? The following weeks involved, as promised, plenty of aftercare, but as my husband said, “He’s the Mighty Mojo Man, he’s a fighter.”

In the course of telling some of my dog training clients about the experience, I was shocked to realize how little people actually know about bloat. Most I spoke to hadn’t even heard of it. I am now on a mission to inform as many of my clients (as well as dog owners I encounter) about bloat, including the common warning signs, as well as the not-so-common ones.

If you’d like to research bloat for yourself, here are some links to get you started:


Mojo is laying at my feet as I finish typing this. He seems very happy to be at home where he surely must know how lucky and how loved he is.

Back to Top

Poised to Rant
July 11th, 2008

I enjoy listening to the radio when I drive, thanks to the wonderfully commercial-free music on XM. But one station I like does carry ads, and I happened across a new one recently. It begins with a woman confessing how out of control her dog used to be. This manic mutt barked relentlessly, jumped on people, and showed all manner of, well, being ill mannered. But he was a puppy, after all, and how can anyone control a puppy? She then confided that they’d tried training, doggy daycare, and even a shock collar, all to no avail.

As they say in the infomercials, “but wait—there’s more!” Know what finally tamed this wild and crazy pup? A pill! Good news, dog owners! Apparently there’s a magical pill that can cure all your dog’s ills! This new doggy downer promises to keep your pesky pooch nice and tranquil so he won’t misbehave. Oh, and did I mention that this pup-proof panacea can put the kibosh on everything from house-soiling to aggression? Perhaps it cures cancer in its spare time. I simply don’t understand why we trainers bother to spend years mastering that pesky behavior modification stuff when there’s such an easy fix available. For the record, the tantalizing tablets come in two versions: one for acute bursts of muttly mayhem, and one that can be given on a daily basis.

Granted, we live in a “tomorrow is the new yesterday” culture, and the media would have us believe there’s a pill to cure pretty much everything, including creative new maladies we never knew existed. Not that there aren’t legitimately helpful medications for dogs. Conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorders and separation anxiety can be treated effectively with drugs such as Prozac and Clomicalm. And herbal and other natural calmatives certainly have their place. But to suggest that a new, over-the-counter wonder cure will address all types of canine behavior issues? Color me appalled. The sad thing is, I can imagine scores of owners—those at the end of their rope with their dog’s behavior, others who simply hadn’t realized how much of a handful a puppy can be—eagerly lapping up this steaming pile of hype.

Frankly, I think the ad is a bit of an insult to trainers. It’s like saying, “I had a broken arm. I tried doctors, but they couldn’t help. Luckily, I found this pill!” What decent trainer can’t fix a puppy housebreaking problem, assuming the owner follows through? Ah…maybe that’s the problem. Following through would require effort. And really, who wants to make an effort when you can vanquish a problem instantly? Have training and exercise become passé? I sure hope not, and I trust that the public will be smart enough not to swallow this particular pill.

Back to Top

Cloned Drug-Sniffing Dogs?
May 12, 2008

If you saw a team of five identical-looking Labrador Retrievers coming toward you, you might just wonder if somebody slipped something into your morning coffee. But it’s not a hallucination—South Korea, the country that brought us Snuppy the Afghan hound, the world’s first cloned canine, is planning to put cloned dogs on duty to sniff out drugs and explosives.

My first reaction upon reading this story was an incredulous, “Why?” After all, the U.S. drug and explosive detection programs do just fine without resorting to cloning. (My second thought was “Why Labs?” but I guess if the reward for detection is a food treat…) According to the South Korean Customs-affiliated dog trainer who was interviewed for the article, it’s difficult to find dogs who are “genetically qualified” to work as sniffing dogs. Normally, only about three of every ten non-cloned dogs the center trains (at a cost of $40,140 each—I’ve got questions about that too, but that’s another story) qualify for the job. So the cloning program would save time and money. Hmm. It makes sense that some dogs are more naturally talented than others at tracking and detection, and obviously some are simply more intelligent and responsive to training. But somehow resorting to cloning strikes me as a bit drastic.

To get a better understanding of the topic, I did a little research. I found an article from the June/July 2003 issue of Customs and Border Protection Today that focused on the Customs and Border Protection Program (CBP) (formerly known as U.S. customs) and its use of sniffing dogs. Apparently, the Canine Enforcement Program finds its dogs in a number of ways. Some are donated by members of the general public. Other lucky dogs are tested and then rescued from shelters where they would have otherwise been euthanized. This begs the question, if we can train dogs who have not been specifically bred for the purpose of being detection dogs or were not even taught from a young age to sniff out narcotics, again, why the need to clone?

The Australian Customs Service takes a different approach: they have a breeding program where dogs are selected for their “genetic ability” to detect drugs, explosives, and other contraband; fifteen litters have been bred so far. This supports the theory that some dogs having a natural ability for this type of work, and seems like a good way to produce dogs who are likely to succeed. Judging from the accomplishments of the U.S. program, a high success rate can also be achieved via selective testing, even when the subjects are shelter residents and owned dogs. Somehow it seems that the $100,000-150,000 it costs to clone each of those Labs could be put to better use.

Professor Lee Byeong-chun, who is leading the team, said his team has so far cloned 20 dogs—and five wolves. Cloned wolves? Somebody please slip something in my coffee…

Back to Top

AVSAB Releases Position Paper on Early Socialization
April 23, 2008

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recently released a position paper on the importance of early socialization for puppies. It states that because the first three months of life are the most important time to expose a puppy to new people, animals, things, and places (in a safe and non-threatening way), “...it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” The paper goes on to state, “While puppies' immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem.” Well, hallelujah! I know trainers everywhere will join me in rejoicing at this progressive statement. The paper even recommends having puppies enrolled in group classes prior to three months of age. Imagine if owners took this excellent advice!

Now, the AVSAB (a group of veterinarians and research professionals who share an interest in understanding animal behavior) should not be confused with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Just because the AVSAB released this statement, it does not mean that vets everywhere will suddenly stop warning owners not to take their pups anywhere until they are fully vaccinated. Of course, not all vets warn their clients against early socialization, but many still do, much to the chagrin of trainers who are trying to help owners produce well-socialized pups who have fewer behavior issues to undo later on. But it’s a start.

I applaud the AVSAB for going on record about the importance of early puppy socialization. The statement is a handy tool for trainers to refer to during those conversations with owners who still feel they should not expose their pups to the outside world at all until the age of sixteen weeks. I suggest printing it out and having it on hand for training sessions. You can read the full text here: http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/puppy%20socialization.pdf

Back to Top

Oprah Exposes Puppy Mills: But is America Listening?
April 8, 2008

It seems that anything Oprah turns her attention to these days is bound to not only get exposure to millions of people, but to engender action. The featured topics are vigorously discussed around the water cooler and in homes, organizations receive donations from around the world, and authors are instantly catapulted into the rarified stratosphere of the Times Best Sellers list. Careers are made, causes championed, and wrongs exposed. So when I heard that Oprah was going to discuss puppy mills, I was thrilled.

The show centered around an undercover investigation by reporter Lisa Ling, who had used hidden cameras to obtain footage of the conditions and practices of various puppy mills. It was horrific. Puppies were crammed into cages with wire flooring, stacked one on top of another. Many looked sick, frightened, and downright miserable. There was plenty of barking and fighting, and of course, plenty of breeding. Females were bred every heat cycle until they were no longer viable. Many were then shot. Replacements were brought in. And the beat went on. Pups were sold, cleaned up, and displayed in pet stores around the country, where the general public would ooh, aah, and fork over wads of cash for the adorable, wriggling bundles of fur.

From the expressions on the faces in the audience, it was clear that many had no idea this type of puppy factory even existed. I’m sure many home viewers were shocked as well, not having realized what they were supporting when they brought adorable Fifi home from that trendy pet store at the mall. Of course, many dog professionals, rescuers and enthusiasts have known about this atrocity for years. The problem is that not only does no one seem to be doing anything about it on a national regulatory level, but the general public, who could easily shut the mills down via lack of demand, seem instead to be shutting their eyes to the problem.

Many years ago I taught group classes through a local pet store. From the time I started, I knew puppies were being sold. Each pup had an index card posted on its glass case indicating the breed, the price, and the breeder. In my ignorance, I truly believed that the pups came from legitimate breeders; after all, it disclosed the breeders’ names and locations, and the manager had assured me that unlike other pet stores, these really were breeders who he had an arrangement with and who he knew personally. But over time I began to notice that the same breeders’ names showed up again and again. A place that breeds that many different types of dogs and those sheer numbers is not a caring breeding facility; it is a puppy mill. Although I cut ties with the store, I was embarrassed to have been so easily duped. But the experience did help me to understand how the public is fooled on a regular basis. Many pet store environments are nice, clean, and downright cheerful. The dogs are groomed, adorable, and seem happy and friendly. But while it’s true that some of the pups have lovely temperaments and are healthy as little horses, many, due to genetics, early experience, or conditions at the mill, are ill and/or have an unsuitable temperament for the average pet-owning home.

It’s one thing not to be informed, and quite another to be aware and knowingly justify buying a dog from a pet store. I got a call just two days after the Oprah show aired from a woman wanting training for her five-month-old Chihuahua. She’d recently purchased him at a local pet store. In the course of our training session I mentioned as gently as possible that while her puppy was wonderful, I wondered whether she was aware that over 99 percent of dogs sold in pet stores actually come from puppy mills. I expected shock, or at least mild surprise. Instead, she said, “Oh, I know. But I felt like somehow I was saving him by buying him.” Sure, it’s true that she was saving him from sitting in the pet store window a while longer, and maybe missing out on some socialization. But what she was really doing, like so many others, was enabling the puppy mill industry to keep churning out pup after pup.

Sadly, that’s exactly what we, the dog-buying public, have become: enablers. And it has to stop. “Oh, but he was so cute!” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Impulse buying is no excuse to support the atrocities that are happening behind the scenes every minute of every day. For every adorable pup sitting in that window, there are a hundred others lying in their own filth, suffering. Supply and demand rules our capitalistic society, and if we all stopped purchasing pet store puppies, the demand would dry up. Problem solved. And it’s so easy! We don’t have to take to the streets in protest; we don’t have to donate money; hell, we don’t even have to pick up the phone. All we have to do is stop purchasing pups from pet stores. There are plenty of wonderful, healthy, deserving puppies and adult dogs sitting in shelters and rescues across the country who would love a good home, many of whom will be euthanized if one is not found. For those who want a purebred pup, there are breeders who care about their breed, and plan litters carefully and sensibly. With these options, knowing what we know, there is no excuse. It’s time for dog lovers to stop ignoring the puppy mill atrocity and do something about it.

Back to Top

Robo-Dog and the Docking Debate
March 28, 2008

A Canadian newspaper recently reported on a study carried out at the University of Victoria. Scientists were interesting in researching the behavioral effects of tail docking in dogs—both on the dogs whose tails were docked, and on the dogs who encountered them.

The men used a life-like robotic dog they deemed “robo-dog” (I can hardly wait for the movie) that resembled a black Lab. They brought robo-dog to off-leash dog parks to observe how other dogs would respond to it. In half the trials, robo-dog wore an artificial tail that was roughly the same length as an average Lab tail; in the other trials, the artificial tail was the length of a typical docked tail. In both cases, a motor powered the tail so it could be wagged and held in various positions.

When robo-dog wore the average-sized tail and wagged it in typical, life-is-good Lab style, other dogs approached confidently. When the average-sized tail was held stiffly and upright, other dogs approached less confidently, if at all. This, of course, mimics what would happen with a real dog. (I have to wonder, though, what those dogs thought when they moved in for a getting-to-know-you-sniff: “Hmm, never smelled motor lube back there before…”) In the encounters where robo-dog wore the docked tail, other dogs approached more warily, regardless of whether it was wagging in a friendly manner or held stiffly.

To anyone who understands canine body language and behavior, these results are not surprising. After all, dogs read each other’s body language constantly to discern intent, and the tail constitutes a large part of that display. The docked tail made it difficult for other dogs to read robo-dog’s intentions. The interesting part was what the scientists then postulated, which is that a dog's loss of ability to communicate clearly with other dogs could lead to that dog becoming cautious, remote, and even aggressive. “A dog that lacks the ability to express its intentions with its tail may have to resort to other methods, Leaver says, such as growling, lunging or even biting. Or a dog that is always treated as if it were something to beware of, Reimchen says, may become a dog to beware of.” This makes perfect sense. Imagine a person who was born with a physical condition that rendered them unable to smile or show any facial expression. Chances are, people would find that person very difficult to relate to, even if the person were able to speak. And that person would eventually feel like an outcast, very possibly resulting in a shift in their personality and the way they related to others.

Back when I taught group classes, every now and then I would get a student who went through the course with no smiles, and no facial expression whatsoever. Upon chatting with them later on I’d find that they had been enjoying the class, but it was still unnerving. Performers dread this type of audience member, as there’s no discernable feedback. It worries us when we can’t get a reading on another’s intentions, and it does the same to dogs.

Although the experiment’s findings might not have been all that surprising, they do make an important statement. Many breeders and owners routinely dock the tails of rotties, dobies and other breeds without a second thought. It’s accepted that docking, sometimes along with ear-cropping, is just “what you do” with those breeds. Many feel the dogs look more attractive that way. Docking became such an accepted practice over the years that, until recently, no one gave it a second thought. But what a strange thing to do! The only possible value of docking is cosmetic, and we’re talking about beloved family members here. Would we take a baby and perform unnecessary, painful surgery to amputate part of a limb because we felt it would be more attractive? Would we deliberately do something to young children that would render them less able to communicate clearly with others, causing all sorts of potential problems with the child’s emerging personality and in how others would deal with him/her in the future? Of course not. This article offers one more reason why, just as England and Australia have already done, tail docking, along with ear cropping, should be banned once and for all. http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=396531

Back to Top

“Annabelle….Oh, Ann-a-belle….ANNABELLE!”
March 18, 2008

Yep, that’s what I’m listening to as I sit on my front porch. It’s coming from my neighbor across the way. Our houses are separated by a dirt road, and each sits on top of its own little hill. But noise carries in this canyon like no one’s business, which makes pretty much everything everyone’s business. I see the man standing in front of his house, and although I can’t see her, I can hear Annabelle’s dog tags jingling as she romps along on her merry way. She’s an adorable Petey-looking pit bull who seems to love the Come-and-Catch-Me game she’s trained her owner to play so well.

I go back inside and take a call from a potential client. She’s got a few things she’d like to change about her dog’s behavior, including his selective hearing whenever she calls him. To be fair, he does come when she calls him from one room to another, and most of the time if he’s in the back yard. But take him to the dog park and let him get started playing with other dogs, and…well, you can guess the rest. Of course, calling him at the park usually means he’s going home. Smart dog.

My husband, having been married to a dog trainer these last twenty years, laughs when he hears the neighbor calling for Annabelle, and says, “Yep, if she doesn’t come, just call her again louder, that’s it…” It is funny, though, how many of us humans seem to subscribe to that philosophy. When my training clients call their dogs more than once, I gently mention that a dog can hear a potato chip hit the carpet in the next room; it’s a pretty sure bet your dog heard you calling the first time.

This is all amusing in a way, but its gravity becomes apparent when you realize that having a solid recall can mean the difference between life and death for a dog. Years ago, when my German Shepherd Soko was seven weeks old, I began training her to come when called. Sure, the training sessions were as short as her attention span, but we play-trained at it for mini-sessions each day. We kept practicing as she grew, moving gradually to more distracting environments and more difficult situations. There were lots of wonderful treats, games, praise and petting that happened whenever she complied, although she never knew which to expect.

All of Soko’s training paid off one day when my husband and I took her to the beach. That particular stretch of beautiful southern California beach was just downhill from the Pacific Coast Highway, an extremely busy freeway. Parking happens along the tiny shoulder that borders the cliffs leading down to the pristine sand. After I parked, my husband opened the beachside door of the tiny, boxy Honda Civic Wagon and bent down to tie his shoelace. Quick as a flash, Soko was over the back seat, out of the car, and headed into traffic. My first urge was to chase her. But I stopped, heart in my throat, and in my best “we’re training now” voice, said, “Soko, come!” Already partway into the first traffic lane, she stopped on a dime, turned, and came to me. Profuse praise followed. Soko passed away two years ago, but she had such a solid recall that I half-expect if I called her now, she’d come bounding out of the Great Beyond.

It takes a lot of work to get a solid recall, but I can’t think of anything more important to teach our dogs. And it’s really not that hard—just practice, more practice, and make it fun while we’re at it. Just ask Annabelle…

Back to Top

A Eulogy for Heyoka
February 25, 2008

Heyoka, a mostly-wolf mixed with malamute, came to live with us ten years ago. He had been one of forty-something wolves/wolfdogs at the rescue center I worked with, having been given up by a private home at the age of two to three years old. At the center, he had been pen-mate to a female wolf/Samoyed mix named Sequoia. As much time as I spent socializing with the rescue’s permanent residents, there were still so many wolves and wolfdogs that it was impossible for any of them to get enough individual attention.

Heyoka and Sequoia came to live with me when I needed to find a companion for Phantom, a large black wolf I had rescued. No, I hadn’t wanted to bring home a wolf, and they’re certainly not “pets,” but Phantom would have otherwise been euthanized. We’d had a strong bond via the private home he was rescued from (he’d never let anyone but me touch him, including the people who had originally purchased him and the three subsequent homes they tried to place him in).

Phantom, Sequoia, and Heyoka got along well. Sequoia, always very social with people, kicked those boys’ butts and kept them in line. She was an alpha bitch in the best sense of the word! But from the beginning, it was obvious that Heyoka was the real leader. One look at him and you instantly knew that you were looking at an old, wise soul. He never bullied the others, though, and when Phantom, with his eternal teenage bratty personality, would go too far, all Heyoka had to do was give the tiniest of lip curls and Phantom would roll over on his back.

Heyoka had been extremely skittish around people from the time he had come into the rescue center. He’d been given up by a home with a man with a young boy, and we hadn’t known much else. He would not allow anyone to pet him. It took years of patience at my home, living in the palace of a pen my husband and I had built for the three, for me to be able to touch him at all—and then it was only on his terms. A soft stroke of his chest and the side of his face through the chain link before I entered the pen was comfortable, and as long as the others were around for security, I could stroke him on those areas from inside the pen as well. He always ran up to the gate with the others when I approached the pen. Once I entered, knowing that he didn’t want to be reached for, I would crouch down and turn my head slightly away, and he would come over and lick my face, and sometimes “scent roll” on my head—especially when I had just colored my hair!

Heyoka was with us for ten years. Two years ago sweet Sequoia passed over, and then it was just the boys. Heyoka developed a lot of stiffness in his back end, which was helped somewhat by various medications. Recently he developed neurological problems. He could not stand up for very long at a time and when he did he would walk mostly in circles. He stopped eating and was no longer himself. After a veterinary examination and a pronouncement of definite neurological damage that had almost no chance of getting better, I could not let him continue to suffer. Last Wednesday, February 18, a friend who is the only other person Heyoka felt at all comfortable with came with me to the vet’s office. She had loved Heyoka as well. It was ironic that sedated and lying there on the vet’s floor awaiting euthanization was the only time I had been able to really stroke him and hold him the way I had always longed to. I told him how much he was loved, and we both sent gentle loving energy to him as he passed over.

Wolves have always been associated with the full moon. The night Heyoka was euthanized, there was a full moon whose brightness was shadowed by a rare lunar eclipse. It is only fitting. I know Heyoka’s light is shining on in a place where its love would blind us all.

"Death is not the extinguishing of the light... it is the
putting out of the lamp because the dawn has come." 
~ Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore

Back to Top

Early Education - For the Two-Leggeds
January 26, 2008

My husband and I were watching a television show recently called “Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” (It should really be called “Can you Still Remember A Dang Thing from Fifth Grade?” but that’s another story.) We got into a discussion of subjects that are taught in schools but never used in real life, in all but a few cases. I mean, really, when’s the last time you employed calculus to solve a problem? Or found yourself shouting the elemental name for salt as you grabbed it off the shelf at the market? That got me to thinking about the subjects that should be taught, things that would actually prepare kids for life and, heck, maybe even create better adults in the process. There ought to be classes on how to balance a checkbook, how to change a flat tire, and, without a doubt, how to care for a pet.

It’s been shown that many criminals who perpetuate crimes against people abused animals as kids. Last time I checked, at least one in three American homes had a pet. One in three! With all of those parents getting pets for their kids, why are we not preparing the kids for how to treat them? Education doesn’t have to be complicated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be drudgery. When I was Executive Director for a local wolf/wolfdog rescue center, we used to bring a wolf (or wolfy-looking wolfdog) with us to classrooms, scout groups, and other kids’ organizations. The kids learned about wolves, that they were not pets like dogs, and about why we should respect and protect wildlife. Naturally, seeing a wolf was the main attraction, but the information got out there just the same.

Some dog trainers offer programs where they bring a dog to the classroom and teach exactly what I’m suggesting—that dogs are social pack animals, that they have basic needs like attention and exercise, how to interact with them safely, and to treat them with respect. We’d have fewer kids kicking dogs and riding them like ponies, fewer frustrated trainers, and fewer aggressive dogs if this type of program were a required part of every school curriculum. Although that might not happen anytime soon, we as trainers can still make a difference. We can offer to bring a dog to the classroom, to the boy scout troop, to whatever local kids’ groups are around. They love this stuff! And don’t underestimate the impact this type of presentation makes. By teaching kids how to interact compassionately with dogs, we offer a model for how to treat not only pets, but other people.

Back to Top

Alpha Roll or Alpha Role??
December 16, 2007

If you’re a dog owner, you might have seen television shows or read books that recommend a technique called the “alpha roll.” This old-fashioned method for “showing the dog who’s boss” or punishing a dog for bad behavior consists of forcing the dog onto his back. Once there, variations include standing over the dog, staring at him, growling at him, or simply pinning him until he “submits” and stops struggling.

Proponents of the alpha roll claim it helps dogs to understand who is the leader. The maneuver is based on what wolves do to each other, they explain. As it turns out, the original information about wolves “alpha rolling” each other was based on observational data gathered from a study of wolves that was later disproved. On a personal note, in addition to being a professional dog trainer, my background includes working with wolves and wolfdog mixes at a rescue sanctuary. In my fifteen-plus years spent with these animals, I never once saw one force another onto its back to prove dominance. What I have seen is one wolf look at another and curl a lip ever so slightly; that tiny, subtle signal was enough to start the other wolf angling his head and body away. If that lip curl turned into an agonistic pucker (that National Geographic “look at my pearly whites” expression), growl, snarl, or intensified in any other way, you can bet the wolf on the receiving end would eventually end up on his back—voluntarily. The key word in that explanation is “voluntarily.” If a wolf truly forces another wolf onto its back, it’s not a discussion about rank—it’s an aggressive act that may well result in injury or even death.

Some people believe that dogs view us as other dogs when we perform the alpha roll. Let’s get real. Dogs simply don’t view us as other dogs. (Thank goodness for small favors—that butt-sniffing greeting would get old fast!) But for the sake of argument, let’s say they did; would you really want your dog to be frightened of you, and think that your intention was to cause him harm?

Take it from me, a 5’2” petite woman whose dogs all outweigh her, and who has worked and lived with both dogs and wolves: you can absolutely establish leadership without using physical force. The majority of it is in your demeanor. Some people are natural leaders. They are calm and confident, and when they have something to say, the communication is clear and direct. Think Clint Eastwood. A strong leader does not need to prove a thing, and is certainly not a bully. In fact, the dogs or wolves you see squabbling for rank are the wanna-be alphas, the middle-rankers. With your own dog, be consistent in your rules and boundaries, and keep your verbal communications direct. Use hand signals if your dog has been taught what they mean, but keep other gestures to a minimum so as not to confuse him.

Control the resources—food, treats, toys, access to walks, and anything else your dog finds valuable—and ask him to do something to earn each one, even if it’s a simple sit. If your dog does something you don’t like, respond appropriately. That might mean he gets a time out for nipping at your child’s pants leg, or, if he’s vying for your attention by jumping up, you simply ignore him. What those responses have in common is they teach dogs that those tactics simply don’t work, which results in the unwanted behavior happening less often. They also don’t include a human scaring the dog by physically manhandling him.

By taking the alpha role rather than using the alpha roll and other strong-arm tactics, you will earn your dog’s trust and respect, and enhance the bond between you.

Back to Top

A Puppy For Christmas?
December 3, 2007

It’s that time of year again. The holidays have traditionally been a season of joy and good cheer. But “ho, ho, ho” has also turned into “buy, buy, buy” and “give, give, give.” Malls are full to overflowing, television commercials seem to broadcast nothing but sales, and everyone is feeling the pressure to purchase gifts for their loved ones. Inevitably, for many families with children, one of those gifts will be a puppy.

A puppy! What child wouldn’t be thrilled to find a wriggling, fur-covered bundle of joy under the tree? It IS a lovely scene to contemplate. Allow me to offer a few other things to contemplate as well, from a trainer’s point of view. We are, after all, the ones who receive a slew of phone calls every January from families who purchased Christmas pups. Those same families who were starry-eyed and rife with anticipation are now facing the reality of living with a small, very dependent creature who demands attention, soils everywhere, and has shredded some of those other lovely holiday gifts by now.

I’m not so much of a grinch that I’m going to try to talk you out of giving your children a puppy. But if you’re going to give a puppy as a gift, do your research. Find out about things like what the breed you’re considering was bred to do. For example, if the dog you are contemplating is bred to hunt (such as retrievers), herd (like border collies, Australian shepherds, corgis), or do some other active type of work, you’re most likely going to have a very active little puppy on your hands who, without a job to do, will create one in your home—one that has a title like Deputy of Destruction, or Rover’s Redecorating Service. Active breed dogs need a lot of exercise. If you’re looking for a small lap dog, look for a breed that was actually bred for it. Don’t assume that all small dogs are lap dogs! Many small breeds were actually bred for hunting and other physical activities, and some do not have the “soft” temperament many parents want—terriers, for example, are tough and feisty as a rule, rather than soft and cuddly, like, say, a Bichon Frise.

There are good books on the market for breed research—one I especially like is Paws to Consider by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson—and lots of information on the internet. Dogtime.com in particular has lots of good information on specific breeds, in addition to an in-depth quiz to match you with an appropriate breed—kind of like computer dating! In addition to those sources, call a breed rescue. Those are the folks who will give you both sides of the story, the ones who will tell you the potentially troubling characteristics as well as the positive ones.

Now, with all this talk of breed, I don’t mean to suggest that you need to get a purebred dog from a breeder. That’s fine if you’d like (and if you do, research the breeder carefully), but there are so many perfectly lovely dogs sitting at shelters and in rescue groups that it’s a shame not to consider one. I know, you’re thinking, why are those dogs there in the first place? They must be defective somehow! While it’s true that there are some bad apples, many of those dogs were turned in because of unfortunate circumstances such as divorce or moving from a home to an apartment. They’re good dogs who simply got tough breaks, and deserve another chance. If you choose to adopt, consider hiring a trainer to go along with you to temperament test the dog. A trainer can screen the dog for things like friendliness with children, aggressive tendencies (for example, to guard food from others), and other characteristics, and help you to decide if this is the dog for you. (Need to find a trainer near you? Go to www.apdt.com.)

Another thing to consider, especially if you are a working couple, is whether you really want a puppy. Now, you know kids will love a sweet, adorable dog who’s a few years old just as much as they would a puppy—kids love dogs, period! And with an adolescent or adult dog, chances are you won’t have to go through that not-so-fun housebreaking period. Even if you do, it’s not the same as with a young puppy who simply can’t hold it overnight—oh yes, did I mention that’s like having an infant all over again. Here comes the No Sleep Express!

Another advantage to adopting a grown dog is that you know what that dog’s personality will be like. Even when you adopt from a breeder, there are differences in temperament between pups in the litter. Some are bold and outgoing, while others are shy. Many of those traits become amplified as the dog matures, which can be problematic in some cases. With an adult dog, what you see is what you get.

Whether you decide to buy from a breeder or adopt, don’t rush the decision. Sure, that holiday pressure is on. But here’s an idea: rather than rushing and chancing not getting the right dog for you, go out and buy a large, cute stuffed animal, put a big, red bow on it, and a card that announces “We’re getting a dog!” Believe me, the kids will be thrilled at the very notion even without the dog being there. The stuffed dog approach buys you time to discuss as a family what type of dog is right for you, and after the parents have narrowed down the choices, the kids can be part of the decision-making process.

One last tip: there is a lot you can do now, before you even bring that puppy home. Dr. Ian Dunbar has written an excellent book called Before You Get Your Puppy, and believe it or not, it’s completely free! You can download either a text-only version or the complete book with photos. Doing your research now will be the best guarantee of not only a happy holiday, but a very happy new year.

Back to Top

Emergency Preparedness
November 29th, 2007

Most of us never think about what to do in an emergency until it happens. Some people put “grab it and run” kits together that contain passports and other important paperwork, as well as items of sentimental value. But what about emergency preparedness for our pets?

You might have heard that southern California has been on fire for the last three days. The area I live in was heavily involved. We were evacuated, and came within 100 feet of losing our home. The entire experience was a nightmare for everyone, humans and animals alike, and could have been a lot worse. But I did experience the very real panic that sets in when a fire fueled by 90 mph winds is racing toward your home, people are screaming and running everywhere, and you’re trying to get family and your animals safely out of harm’s way.

We should all have emergency preparedness kits together for our pets. Here are a few ideas on what to include:

- Food enough for at least a few days (even if you feed raw, have some kibble on hand)
- Supplements/Vitamins
- A first aid kit
- Medications (including syringes if necessary), short-term tranquilizers such as diazepam if your dog is the nervous type
- One crate for each pet that will fit in your vehicle along with the rest of your belongings, or a trailer hitch and trailer to tow it.
- Bags to clean up after your pets
- Extra set of tags incase your dog’s ID becomes lost
- Photo of your dog (awful to think about, but necessary if he or she becomes lost)
- Another nice thing to include would be Comfort Zone in collar or spray form, to help keep your dog as calm as possible.

If your dog does not normally wear a collar with tags in the house, it should be kept in a place where you can grab it and the leash easily.

You should also have an evacuation plan and a “buddy system” in place with friends who can be called on to help move your pets out if necessary, and/or provide shelter until the emergency has passed. Their contact numbers should be stored in your emergency preparedness kit as well. (If you only have them on speed dial on your cell phone and you’re in an area that doesn’t get reception, you’re out of luck.) It’s also good to know which hotels in your area accept pets, should it come to that. And having an emergency radio with you (battery or crank operated) will allow you to listen to reports to find out which areas have been set aside where people can bring their pets, should you need it.

Although it’s difficult to remain calm, try to appear and act so for your pet’s benefit. We all know that dogs pick up on our stress. There is nothing calm about the speed with which we need to act in an emergency, but being prepared makes it that much easier. Remember too that your dog might feel stressed out and nervous for a few days after experiencing a traumatic incident, so pay special attention to her needs.

If you have additional tips for emergency situations or suggestions for what to include in the kit, please feel free to add them. The safer the better, for all of us.

Back to Top

Training at the Taronga Zoo
September 28th, 2007

On a recent trip to Australia, I had the privilege of taking part in a “behind the scenes” tour of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Trainers for various animals introduced us to their charges, and patiently explained how the animals had been trained for various husbandry tasks, and in some cases, tricks. We even had the chance to get up close and personal with a few of the residents.

The very first animal we were introduced to was tiny, but made a huge impact; an adorable koala bear. Now, despite their teddy-bear looks, koalas are normally anything but cuddly. But this 8-month-old, who had never grown bigger than a breadbox, was a special case. One of the zookeepers took her home each night; they even shared a bed! I was lucky enough to get cuddly koala kisses, something I won’t soon forget.

Two otherwise lovely sun bears had a personal hygiene problem—dental plaque. Previously, the bears had to be anesthetized so a tartar scraping could be done. But thanks to the fantastic trainers at Taronga, the bears now actually open their mouths, place them gently around the bars of the cage, and hold the position long enough for the trainers to use a spinning-head toothbrush! It really was impressive. Another bear, a giant Kodiak, had been taught to present nails through the bars and hold still so the trainers could clip them.

Seeing what the zoo trainers had accomplished made me think about dog owners who complain that we can’t get dogs to behave or perform certain behaviors. Just this morning, I was working with a favorite client. This mother and daughter have a beagle who had previously bitten a few people, some in the face. (I’m happy to say the beagle’s attitude has changed a lot, and he’s even asking for tummyrubs now, which he never would have done before.) One of the things they thought Lucky couldn’t be stopped from doing was darting through the front door as soon as it was opened. Because Lucky’s potty spot was the front lawn, this particular piece of bad behavior was rehearsed at least a few times daily. They showed me how once the door was opened, Lucky would dart out as long as the flexi-leash allowed, then immerse himself in the smorgasbord of scent that is heaven to a hound. There was no way, they assured me, that Lucky could control himself long enough to sit still with the door opened even a crack. Well, it took less than five minutes for Lucky to get the message that if his butt wasn’t on the floor and didn’t stay there until he was released, the door just wasn’t going to open. And he did wait, door wide open, until released.

The good behavior Lucky achieved can easily be accomplished by any good trainer, so long as the owners are willing to practice with their dogs. The old adage “don’t complain, train!” is true. Very few behaviors are impossible to train, so long as you learn the techniques and put in the practice time. If you don’t believe it, just ask the bears!

Back to Top

A Beautiful Poem
September 20th, 2007

I just got back from the Australian APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) conference, at which I was keynote speaker, met lots of wonderful Aussies (the two-legged kind), and had a great time. Part of the speaker duties included judging a contest which consisted of a number of displays on the theme of senior dogs. Entries could include photos, text, and pretty much whatever the contestants wanted, so long as the entries were on topic. One included the following poem by an anonymous author. I found it very touching and thought some of you might enjoy it as well.

We Have a Secret

We have a secret, you and I
That no one else shall know,
For who but I can see you lie
Each night in fire glow?

And who but I can reach my hand
Before we go to bed
And feel the living warmth of you
And touch your silken head?

And only I walk woodland paths
And see ahead of me
Your small form racing with the wind
So young again, and free

And only I can see you swim
In every brook I pass
And when I call, no one but I
Can see the bending grass.

Back to Top

It's Magic! Or is it?
September 4th, 2007

As a dog trainer and canine behavior specialist, I am well aware of how much work it takes to train a dog to reliability on certain behaviors, and the amount of time and effort involved in modifying serious behavior problems. The average dog owner, understandably, is not. It’s easy to see how pet owners could easily be dazzled by a well-crafted television show or in-person demonstration of training prowess without realizing all that goes into that seemingly effortless display.

No, this isn’t about slamming any particular television show or trainer. What it is about is the reality of what it takes to have a successfully trained, well-behaved dog. The production of any television show, regardless of topic, entails many hours of filming, painstaking re-shoots, and careful editing to create the final broadcast-ready episode. On a dog training show, viewers never see the prep work trainers do with the dog, or the scenes that have been deleted either because something just didn’t work with the dog or with the production itself. And some parts of the training process are never filmed to begin with; viewing lengthy behavior modification processes that take time, such as desensitization and counterconditioning, would be about as exhilarating to most people as watching paint dry. Sure, the methods work, and they’re based on sound, humane principles—they’re just not very exciting.

What viewers end up seeing is a glossy, produced version of the trainer’s efforts with the dog. Sure, there are setbacks that make it to the screen; we need some drama, after all. But for the most part, improvement seems to occur with amazing ease. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily; it’s interesting, and it shows us what can be accomplished. And to be fair, some problems can be fixed within the confines of a thirty- or sixty-minute time frame. The unfortunate part is that many viewers see the process as instantaneous and nearly magical. The obvious extrapolation is that their own dogs can be trained out of long-standing, serious behavior issues such as aggression in a very brief period of time, and that those results will be long-lasting without any further effort on their parts.

As far as basic obedience skills, clients whose dogs I train are often amazed at how quickly I can get their fur-kids to sit, lie down, or master a simple behavior such as “leave it.” Am I some sort of genius? A canine wizard, perhaps? Nope. The truth is, any trainer worth their salt ought to be able to get those particular behaviors fairly quickly. What looks like magic to the owner is simply the cumulative result of years of experience, careful honing of skills, and the ability to communicate clearly with dogs.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of egos in the dog training world. It would be easy enough for a trainer with good skills to represent him- or herself as some sort of doggy magician with special powers. While that might be tempting, it’s not really helpful to clients. It’s not about the trainer getting the dog to behave, but about teaching the owner how to get the dog to behave. After all, owners are the ones the dogs ultimately need to listen to.

At the end of the day, reality is not about dazzling, instant results. Sure, a good trainer can make it look fantastically easy, but the real magic lies in educating the public about the realities of canine behavior and training, and being able to teach owners to create magic with their own dogs.

Back to Top

"They'll Turn on You!"
August 7th, 2007

“I’d never own a (insert breed here), they’ll turn on you!” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that sentiment, I’d be blogging from a beach in Tahiti. Breeds commonly mentioned in that dismissive, breedist phrase include dobermans, pit bulls, rottweilers, wolf hybrids (okay, not an actual “breed,” but still), German shepherds, and others.

An unfortunate regurgitation of the old turn-on-you myth recently surfaced in website comments posted in response to the tragic incident at the home of actor Ving Rhames. In case you haven’t heard, while Rhames was out of town shooting a film, four of his dogs—three bullmastiffs and an English bulldog—were loose on the grounds. The 40-year-old groundskeeper, who had known the dogs for two years, was found dead on the property, covered in bite marks. The immediate conclusion was that the dogs had mauled him to death. Now there is talk that a heart attack is suspected as well; currently, the cause of death is inconclusive, and animal control is waiting to determine the fate of the dogs. Regardless, the incident was horrific and tragic on many levels.

As to the dogs, neighbors said they never felt threatened by them, and characterized them as “generally friendly.” Bullmastiffs are, in fact, known for a gentle temperament, and for being good with children. The ones I have trained over the years have been nothing but big bundles of brindle mush. However, Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant Ray Lombardo’s immediate statement after the Rhames incident was, “Law enforcement has reported on stories before, where homeowners have had their dogs, what they call family dogs, turn on them or their children. This appears to be another tragic incident along those same lines." We will probably never know exactly what happened that night. A man is dead, and he was covered in bite marks. I am not defending the dogs. But the story begs the question, do dogs really “turn” on people?

There is no question that dogs bite and even, on occasion, maul people. But they don’t turn on people “for no reason,” any more than people do. Here are a few possible explanations for sudden onset aggression in any dog, of any breed:

1. The dog was giving stress signals or warnings that the human missed. Growling is obvious (although some people still unwisely ignore it), but more subtle signs include lip licking, yawning, or turning away of the head and/or body. These signals are easy to miss if one is not trained to look for them. If a person keeps handling a dog in a way that is stressful, or proceeding toward a dog when the dog is giving warning or stress signals, the dog may well take action.

2. There is some history of mistreatment or harsh physical coercion between dog and person, and the dog has had enough. Or perhaps a child had been incessantly teasing the dog, and the dog was pushed past its tolerance level. (I remember watching a video of a trainer jerking a dog repeatedly, and harshly, for not performing a heel correctly. The dog finally had enough and bit the trainer. Did the dog “turn” on him? Nope. In fact, the dog’s response was totally understandable under the circumstances.)

3. The dog is not feeling well, or has an injury or medical condition.

4. Pack behavior; this is one possible explanation for what happened at the Rhames home. For example, if the groundskeeper had a heart attack while interacting with or being in close proximity to one of the dogs, and fell on the dog, that dog might have bitten defensively. Seeing the dog biting the man, the other dogs might have “packed up” and joined in. Does that mean all dogs will do this? No, but pack instinct is strong, and it is a possibility.

Troubling as well in the responses to the Rhames incident were statements to the effect that anyone owning a mastiff or pit bull must be crazy, or be making up for some personal insecurity. It’s true that some people do get those breeds for the wrong reasons. And I’m the first to agree that there are individual dogs—and not just of those breeds, by the way—who are so aggressive that euthanization is the only option. But to make the sweeping statement that owning a pit bull, mastiff, rottweiler, any other “tough” breed is just asking for trouble or (enter pejorative statement here) is not only rude, it’s ignorant.

It is true that an aggressive pit bull or mastiff can inflict a lot more damage than, say, a pissed off Chihuahua; believe me, there are plenty of those too, you just won’t hear about them on the 5 o’clock news. There is a definite responsibility and liability that goes along with owning any dog, but that is amplified when the dog is capable of severe physical damage.

Barring a freak circumstance such as a brain tumor or sudden physical ailment, by the time a dog bites a person severely, that dog has had plenty of practice. A common progression is for the dog to begin showing aggressive tendencies during adolescence; it may begin with growling, air-snapping, then perhaps lunging and nipping/retreating, and without intervention, move on to tentative and then increasingly harder, more confident bites. It is unfortunate that some owners excuse their dogs’ aggressive tendencies or play them down until someone like the neighbor’s child (read: someone who might cause a lawsuit) gets bit. In any case, the dog’s aggressive behavior could hardly be called “sudden.”

The bottom line is that in most cases, “The dog turned on him!” is simply not an accurate assessment of the situation. And the fact that the dog was of a certain breed might make a difference in the extent of the damage, but it is certainly not the sole reason for an incident. Good breeding practices, along with the way an individual dog is socialized, trained, and treated have a lot to do with the resulting temperament. I would personally like to see “deed legislation” as opposed to breed legislation; the actions of the dog should be on trial rather than the dog’s breed. Owners must take responsibility for, and should be liable for, their dogs’ actions. Promoting accurate information to the public about dog behavior, particularly aggression, can help to stop breedism and finally lay old myths such as “they’ll turn on you” to rest once and for all.

Back to Top

You Can't Always Get What You Want
July 29th, 2007

I love Trader Joe’s fire-roasted red peppers. Why am I telling you this, and what the heck does it have to do with dogs? Bear with me. The other day, after applying my usual level of culinary finesse, I had assembled the greater part of a simple sandwich. The only thing lacking was a handful of those delicious peppers. I fished the brand new jar out of the fridge, grabbed the lid, twisted, and…nothing. I applied some muscle. Still nothing. The lid was apparently unimpressed by my history as a former bodybuilder. Salivating like Pavlov’s dog, I ran the jar under hot water. Tapped on it. Danced a jig. Nothing, nothing, nothing! Turns out the Stones were right—you can’t always get what you want. I wonder what my reaction would have been, had I not been prepared by life experiences to deal with frustration. Perhaps, in a pepperless fit, I would have smashed the jar into bits, splattering the white kitchen tiles with angry streaks of fire-roasted red.

Dogs, like people, need to learn early on how to deal with frustration. If they don’t, when faced with a difficult situation, they are apt to do the equivalent of what children do, which is to throw a tantrum—only dogs have bigger teeth.

A dog who has not learned to tolerate frustration may threaten or actually bite when prevented from getting what he wants (e.g., to go toward another dog), or when being forced to do something he does not want to do (e.g., get into a vehicle, or have nails clipped).

Some puppies have a naturally low frustration tolerance. When the pup doesn’t want to be held, you’ll know it! The pup squirms, vocalizes, and may even nip in order to be released. Many a well-meaning owner, not wanting the poor fur-kid to be unhappy, will immediately put the pup on the floor. What has the pup learned? That if he explodes in a puptacular tantrum, he’ll get what he wants. What hasn’t the pup learned? Frustration tolerance.

Just like the child who grows up to be what one might term a “spoiled brat,” never having been refused much of anything his adorable little self desired, dogs can turn out the same way. Giving a dog everything he wants, along with neglecting to teach self-control and frustration tolerance, is a recipe for disaster.

Impulse control exercises can be enormously helpful in teaching frustration tolerance. It can be as simple as teaching a puppy that he must wait for a release word before he can break his sit to go eat. Waiting at doorways or curbs until given the cue to proceed is great practice as well. Also, simply not giving in each and every time a dog wants attention teaches valuable coping skills.

Teaching dogs to tolerate things they don’t necessarily love is the other part of the puzzle. For example, puppies should be taught to accept handling and restraint; it’s simple, and there’s no force involved. The pup simply doesn’t get released until he becomes docile. Gradual steps can be taken to teach dogs to accept things like brushing and nail-clipping. Side-stepping an issue by saying, “Oh, he really doesn’t like that” is setting up a potentially volatile situation for the groomer or vet who eventually ends up having to handle the dog. Of course, the stress to the dog and people could have been avoided by teaching the dog to tolerate those things early on.

It’s not easy to deny our dogs (or our children for that matter) things they really want, or to get them to accept things they really don’t want. Because we love them, we want to give them whatever will make them happy. But teaching dogs to deal with frustration may be one of the best gifts we can give. So, it’s true, you can’t always get what you want. But by teaching frustration tolerance, you just might find, as those wise gurus of rock proclaimed long ago, “you get what you need.”

Back to Top

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match...
July 15th, 2007

I recently visited a client who was very concerned about her new puppy, and rightly so. The nine-week-old corgi was an adorable bundle of energy that belonged in a working environment, not a pet home. She was born to be a ranch dog; or perhaps, living in a city environment, an agility dog. What she was not ever going to be was the docile, cuddly fur-child the woman had longed to snuggle with and coo over. It just wasn’t who this rambunctious herding breed pup was.

Within mere seconds of my stepping over the kitchen gate, the puppy launched herself at my pants legs, pulling at them with a surprising amount of tenacity and strength. When verbally reprimanded, she would growl and back off for a split second, then go right back to what she had been doing. When the woman tried to cuddle her, her “sweet baby” squirmed, vocalized, and sank her teeth into the woman’s hand. She showed me a number of tiny scabs that made her look like a human pincushion.

The day before our appointment, the woman had informed me that things were way better since she’d had a talk with the puppy and explained things to her. Lest you think that “had a talk with” is a euphemism for physical violence, let me assure you that this woman is a very nice, kind, non-violent person. In fact, you might term her “soft,” the way you would a dog with a soft temperament. She really did have a verbal chat with the pup. Later she told me she realized that wasn’t really going to solve the problem, but apparently it had seemed, in her mind, to have an effect at the moment.

The puppy had been in the home for just over a week when I saw her. Naturally, the woman was already emotionally attached, the husband less so. There were no kids. But I could see that the woman’s personality and the dog’s temperament were not a good match. This was a dog that my trainer friend who does schutzhund with her German shepherds would have adored. Drive, drive, drive! But she was not a good prospect for a middle-aged woman who just wanted a dog she could cuddle with; it was a mismatch from the start.

I was straightforward about my opinion. Because the pup had come from a breeder, and the breeder was willing to take the pup back and give her one with a softer temperament, that is what I suggested she do. It’s not that behavior modification couldn’t have solved some of the issues, or at least lessened them; but this was going to be a lifetime project, likely to worsen (and possibly become a more pronounced aggression issue) when the dog hit adolescence. Should the woman struggle through the next 15 years with this dog out of a sense of duty or guilt? I don’t think so. The pup was still young enough to be placed into another home, and the woman deserved the calmer companion she had envisioned.

It’s easy to understand emotional attachment from an owner’s point of view, even when a dog behaves in ways that are completely unacceptable. Trainers who handle aggression cases often see dogs who have inflicted puncture wounds, sometimes multiple ones, and are still living at home because the owners love the dog so much. Yes, behavior modification is possible. Yes, there are many, many success stories of modifying the actions of dogs who have demonstrated violent behavior. But there are also many dogs who should never have stayed in the homes they were in because they presented such a threat to others. In particular, homes that have children should not also include a dangerous dog. Management—keeping everyone safe by managing the environment—is never going to be 100%. Life happens, especially when there are kids involved. Doors get left open. Gates are left unlocked. Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt. And sometimes the danger is not to the people, but to the dog. I have visited homes where kids were kicking, pulling at, and doing everything short of torturing the dog. In those cases the dog needed to be rehomed, for its own safety.

I don’t mean to suggest that trainers should waltz into a home, declare, “Eh—not the perfect match” and casually advise the owner to give up the dog. But just as in any relationship, sometimes things are not meant to be. If a human partner were a bad match, the relationship would eventually end. If one person were being physically violent toward another, particularly if there were kids involved, the parent would take the necessary steps to protect the children.

Although it can be difficult, we must take a step back from the emotional aspects of these situations and make recommendations based on what is best, and safest, for everyone involved. Of course, a dog that bites has very few options. Unfortunately, that mythical ranch where dogs can forever run free, regardless of bite history, doesn’t exist. As far as rehoming, there’s not a long line of people waiting to adopt a dog who bites. Sometimes the options are not pretty. But we can stack the odds in our favor from the beginning to give dogs and people the best chance at a happy life with an appropriate companion. Finding a knowledgeable breeder who understands the pups’ temperaments and makes good matches with prospective owners; taking a trainer along to the shelter to temperament test potential adoptees; doing research on the breed and how it fits with your lifestyle; these are all things that can help to make a good match from the start.

Back to Top

Dog on the Loose! Part Deux
June 29th, 2007

Ironically, this morning, just days after posting my blog about what to do in an emergency “dog on the loose” situation, I encountered one. On my way to see a new dog training client, just around the corner from the woman’s home, a Viszla ran across the road in front of my Jeep. I saw the dog in plenty of time not to hit her, but I kept an eye on her as she ran onto a nearby lawn and began to sniff the grass. She was wearing a bright blue collar with ID tags. With a sigh of acknowledgment that I was surely going to be late for my appointment, I pulled over, figuring I could at least phone the owner and hold on to the dog until the owner could claim her.

As I got out of the Jeep, the dog bolted away from me and darted down the sidewalk. I heard a voice half a block behind me yelling, “Millie! Come!” I yelled, “Is that your dog?” to which the teenage girl answered, “Yes!” She ran down the block after the dog, leash in hand. The dog was, of course, much faster, and was unfortunately headed toward a wide, busy intersection. Holding my breath while simultaneously saying a silent prayer that the dog would not be hit, I watched her streak across the road. Once safely on the other side, she continued to run. I motioned to the girl jump into my Jeep so we could chase her dog down together.

On the next block, a woman had pulled over after almost hitting the dog. I convinced her to help us in the chase (and it took some quick convincing—she also had somewhere to be). After fifteen minutes of pulling over at strategic points and trying to corral the dog, we ended up with a standoff. The dog was on a street corner. The woman in the other car had gotten out and was standing so as to block the dog on one side. A neighbor had joined the chase and was attempting to block the other side. The girl filled in one gap, and I formed the fourth corner of a makeshift ten-foot square around the dog.

Millie was obviously distressed, looking from one person to the other, obviously trying to gauge where her best chance of a quick escape might be. Instead of advancing on her, I crouched down, opened my arms wide, and said very calmly, “It’s okay, Millie. Come here, that’s a good dog.” Apparently the gods of canine communication were smiling down on me, because Millie walked right into my arms. The girl was then able to leash her.

Thankfully, this story had a happy ending. But it made me realize that in my previous blog about loose dog emergency measures, I neglected to address how to get the dog all the way to you so that you can actual grab her.

Ironically, most of us do the exact opposite of what will have the desired effect: we face dogs directly, lean forward, and make waving motions. All of this looks confrontational from the dog’s point of view, and probably scary as well. The best course is to face away from the dog, crouch slightly, and pat your thigh while calling the dog to you in a high, happy voice. Use at least a few syllables, like repeating your dog’s name. If you try it right now with your own dog, I bet he or she will come running, even if you haven’t trained a formal recall yet. It’s the high pitched, repetitive sounds that draw the dog, as well as the non-confrontational body language. The open-armed approach can work as well—in Millie’s case, she perceived me as a safe harbor in an otherwise stressful situation.

Happy training, and here’s to dogs staying safely in homes and behind gates—I don’t want to be writing a third installment anytime soon!

Back to Top

Emergency! Dog on the Loose!
June 22nd, 2007

Regardless of how careful we are to keep a watchful eye, doors secured and gates closed, life happens. Dogs get loose. Even the most responsible owner may one day find herself with heart pounding, frantically chasing her beloved fur-kid down a busy street, pleading with the dog to stop and come back.

Of course, having your dog reliably trained to come when called under any circumstances is ideal, and is a goal that is well worth working toward. But in the meantime, here are a few tips and tricks for a “dog on the loose” emergency situation:

- Unless you’re an Olympic athlete, or your dog is very slow, old, out of shape, or short-legged, stop chasing him! You’re never going to catch him. Instead, try reverse psychology: run in the opposite direction, making lots of fun, happy, high-pitched sounds. “C’mon, Buddy! Catch me! Wheeee!” Try clapping your hands or slapping your thigh as well. If your dog chases you, run all the way back into your house and close the door after you are both safely inside.

- If you have another dog, leash him up and go retrieve your rambunctious runaway. Chances are your dog-on-the-loose will come closer with your other dog present, and hopefully either get close enough to leash, or at least follow you both home.

- If your dog enjoys car rides, hop in the car, pull up alongside him as though nothing is wrong, and issue an invitation in a happy voice: “Wanna go for a ride?”

- Granted, this one is sneaky, but it works, assuming you have a bond with your dog: fall down and pretend to be hurt. Whimper like a hurt puppy! Your dog will immediately drop the keep-away game and come running over as if to say, “Time out! Are you okay?” You will then have one chance to grab him before he’s on to you!

Whichever method you use to get your dog to return, resist the urge to reprimand him once he’s there. You might feel angry at the time, but you want your dog to be glad he came back; if you scold him, what are the chances he’ll want to come back the next time?

In the meantime, keep training that excellent recall so that if your dog ever bolts again, emergency measures won’t be necessary.

Back to Top

Modern Muttly Monikers
June 8th, 2007

See Spot. See Spot run. See Spot run out of steam as a popular dog name, along with Fido, Rex and Lassie. Today’s muttly monikers are creative, humorous, and sometimes downright odd. Consider the following categories:

Playing Against Body Type: At a rescue center I worked with, we had an enormous white German shepherd/wolf mix. His name was Tiny. At the other end of the spectrum, a training client’s teacup Chihuahua was named Goliath. And a perfectly proportioned, pert and cute teacup yorkie I trained is named Quasi Modo.

Human Names: Bob. Bill. Hank. Sadie. Are they your friends? Co-workers? Nope. They’re dogs. Somehow I find watching someone instruct their poodle, “Bob, stay!” a bit disconcerting. Then again, I once dated a guy named Spike. Who am I to question anyone’s taste?

Meaningful in a Foreign Language: Dulce, the pomeranian, is as sweet as her name implies. There are many “Bella” golden retrievers who are just that. A real original is a cockapoo named “Malaika,” which is Swahili for “angel.”

Named after a Fictional Character: I know of a beagle named Nemo. With the popularity of Beauty and the Beast came a slew of Belles. And let’s not forget Scooby! I’m still waiting for a Dumbledore. Or maybe a He Who Shall Not be Named.

Living up to their Names: Many dogs named Angel are just that, while a Chihuahua I trained named Cujo certainly lived up to that moniker. Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of destruction, has at least a few four-footed followers that do her justice. Diesels seem to be little tanks, and a lab/dalmatian mix named Trauma turned out to cause quite a bit of it to his owners.

Appropriate to Country of Origin: Yo quiero Taco Bell, and apparently so do many Chihuahas. I have known Chihuahuas named Paco, Chico, and Chiquita. Many English bulldogs are named Winston, after Winston Churchill.

Sports: Thanks to the popularity of Kobe Bryant, there are many four-legged Kobes running around. Many are Labrador retrievers. (Naturally, dogs named Kobe excel at retrieving the ball!) Then there’s Butkus, an English bulldog named after football player Dick Butkus. Come to think of it, there was a bit of a resemblance.

Famous People: A regal female black lab I worked with is named Latifa. A great dane was named Hendrix. At the other end of the musical spectrum we had the yappy musical stylings of Satchmo, the yorkie. (He was no Louie Armstrong, trust me.) I know of two American pit bull terriers named Brad Pitt--both very handsome, of course. My own dog Mojo’s full name is “Mr. Mojo Risin’.” Classic rock fans (and those handy with anagrams) will recognize his famous namesake.

Cute, Original, and Just Plain Strange: I love it when dogs have cute or truly original names. Here are a few I have heard over the years: “Zoom Zoom,” “June Bug,” “Valentine,” “Yetzel,” “Lamb Chop,” “Pixie Sticks,” and “Jack Frost” (a westie, not a jack russell terrier). “Chicken,” oddly enough, is German shepherd. But first prize in the “Just Plain Strange” category must go to a lovely couple I worked with recently. Their terrier is named Mandy Patankin. They gave the dog this name (and call him by his full name) because the husband, according to his wife, “has a habit of calling everyone Mandy Patankin anyway.” I have no explanation for this.

What are some of the strangest/most creative dog names *you* have heard?

Back to Top

Gimme Shelter
May 28th, 2007

In the 90s, I spent many hours each week at the Los Angeles city shelters. I began as a volunteer and eventually became a volunteer coordinator, training other volunteers. One comment I heard over and over from the visiting public was, “How can you stand to be here day after day? It’s so depressing!” Well, it’s true that there are aspects of shelter work that can be upsetting and even depressing. But I cannot express how fulfilling volunteering at a shelter can be, on so many levels.

If you are a dog trainer or other canine professional (e.g., dog walker, groomer, vet tech), volunteering at a shelter is the best hands-on education you can get; and it’s free! You’ll deal with a variety of breeds, sizes, and temperaments on a daily basis. Your handling skills will improve immensely, as will your ability to read canine body language. Your own body language around dogs will improve as well. You’ll become better able to make quick judgments as to which dogs might be dangerous, and develop an ability to put fearful dogs at ease. (Tip: If you’re a trainer, rather than announcing that fact from the get-go, have the attitude that you’ll do anything that needs doing. Fit in and learn the ropes first, then work up to offering your training skills.)

If you are not a professional, but simply someone with a love in their heart for dogs and a desire to help, shelter work may be a good fit for you. Most shelters have a program to train new volunteers; at the least, you should be taught the shelter’s rules and regulations, and safe handling procedures. Depending on the shelter, and your desired level of hands-on involvement, your activities might include:

1. Taking dogs out for walks. Walks give the dogs crucial breaks from confinement, keep them calmer by providing exercise (good for you, too!), are mentally stimulating, and help to keep the dogs sociable, and therefore more adoptable. Walks are also an excellent opportunity to practice training skills.

2. Sitting in the pens. Some dogs are too timid or fearful to go out for walks just yet. Simply sitting quietly with them, helping them learn that people can be trusted—or simply helping them over the trauma of suddenly finding themselves in a strange, new environment—can make a huge difference in their chances of being adopted. (Letting the dogs warm up to you at their own pace is crucial.) Pen-sitting is also a great shelter activity if you have limited mobility.

3. Adoption counseling. Some shelters have staff members who counsel potential adopters, while others have volunteers who perform the task. Either way, you might be allowed to bring dogs out for the public to interact with. This is a great chance for you to socialize with others, improve your people skills, and help to match the right dog to the right family.

4. Contacting breed rescues. An amazing number of purebred dogs are euthanized in shelters every day. During my time with the Los Angeles city shelters, I called purebred rescues to come and bail dogs out on almost-daily basis. Contacting rescue groups (which are not limited to purebreds, by the way) is an easy, hands-off approach to saving lives, and takes very little time out of your day.

5. Adoption events. Many shelters bring dogs out into the community for adoption events. As a volunteer, you would stand with an assigned dog and tell potential adopters all about the wonderful dog you are handling. This is a rewarding way to be directly responsible for a dog finding a new home.

I won’t lie; there are aspects of shelter work that can be challenging. The most difficult is becoming emotionally attached to a dog and then finding that the dog has been euthanized. I know, it sounds awful, and it is. But—and this is a big but—think of all the dogs you could help. (There are shelters that have much lower euthanasia rates than city and county shelters, and, some city/county shelters have higher adoption rates as well.) Although I had my share of difficult moments, I also had many, many moments of pure joy at seeing a dog I had taken a personal interest in find a loving home. Just think how good it would make you feel to know that you were personally responsible for saving a dog’s life.

I received a few photographs via email recently from a couple I had helped to adopt a shelter dog six years ago. They were writing to let me know that the dog was still healthy and happy, and that they were grateful for the assistance in finding their beloved fur-kid. I smiled as I looked through photos of Bailey grinning from the deck of their boat, chasing a ball in the back yard, and being cuddled on the couch. You just can’t beat that. Go check out your local shelter’s volunteer opportunities—you’ll be glad you did.

Back to Top

Soko's Addiction
May 8th, 2007

I have a confession: Soko, my German Shepherd who passed away last April at the age of 13, was an addict. Yes, friends, if she could have stood on a dog house in a yard filled with her canine peers, she would have barked out, “My name is Soko and I am a tennis ball addict.” No doubt the malamutes would have woo-woo’d a warm, “Welcome, Soko!” The other Shepherds would have nodded knowingly. The Border Collies, of course, would simply have stared.

Many German Shepherds are tennis ball addicts, although the proclivity is certainly not exclusive to the breed. Soko’s habit took form when she was a mere pup. Responsible dog-parents that we were, my husband and I wanted to provide plenty of mental stimulation and exercise. There were enticing chew items, rubber toys, tug toys, sheepskin-covered fuzzies and, of course, tennis balls. Soko liked the chew toys well enough; after all, what fur-kid doesn’t appreciate a well-stuffed Kong? But nothing ever seemed to thrill her. That all changed the day we tossed the tennis ball. Soko’s eyes lit up; her tail wagged wildly; she virtually levitated with joy. From the very first fling, she was hooked!

An instant addict, Soko craved the ball. She had to have it as much and as often as possible. And we, doting dog-parents that we were, became her enablers. It started innocently enough with a toss here, a throw there. Playing ball was good exercise, and made everyone happy. But Soko began to carry the object of her affections with her constantly. It was like Linus of the Peanuts cartoons with his security blanket. We thought it was cute, and allowed her to do it. I joked that we would bury her with that ball in her mouth.

Many years later, we noticed that Soko’s teeth were looking worn. Someone even asked whether I had had them filed down by a vet! Now, there are people who actually have their dogs’ teeth filed down under the mistaken assumption that it will stop aggression—a ridiculous, completely inhumane thing to do, not to mention that a dog can still do quite a bit of damage even with filed teeth—of course we hadn’t done that. But her teeth did look that bad. Imagine what a rotten dog-mom I felt like when I realized it was Soko’s beloved tennis balls that had caused the damage. After that, we no longer indulged her green, fuzzy obsession unless we were playing with her. And we tried to substitute other balls for her to carry around. I believe the accurate canine-to-English translation of her response was, “Talk to the paw! Where’s my #%@# tennis ball?”

The problem with tennis balls is that the green, felt-like material that encases the plastic ball is very abrasive. I suppose it has to be in order to bounce well on tennis courts. Ironically, my mother, who is 84 this year, still plays tennis two hours a day—so perhaps an addiction to tennis balls runs in my family.

Nowadays when I go to a training client’s home and spot a tennis ball among the dog’s toys, I am sure to caution them about the potential for worn teeth, lest their dogs get “tennis-ball mouth,” as the result of this nefarious addiction has been called. Like any other addiction, it’s always a good thing when the experience of one can prevent it from happening to others. I consider spreading the word part of Soko’s legacy of community service.

Back to Top

You Get What You Reward
May 8th, 2007

I just returned from a training appointment with one of my favorite clients. Cory and Carol are a forty-something couple who have a twelve-year-old son and a Golden Retriever named Vinnie. Perhaps it’s my Brooklyn roots, but the dog’s name strikes me as funny and adorable. The dog is both.

I first met Vinnie when he was a young pup. The family and I had done some basic training, and set rules and boundaries to help get Vinnie’s behavior off on the right paw. Today Vinnie is five months old, and I was called in to help brush up on leashwork. After the outdoor training, Carol asked about some in-home manners issues. Apparently, the adorable, attention-seeking missile that is Vinnie likes to play fetch in the early evenings. This almost always coincides with the time the family is settling in on the plush leather couch in front of the television to relax. I suppose it’s no fun to be expecting Gray’s Anatomy only to have a dog shove toys into portions of your personal anatomy instead!

“He brings a toy over and if we don’t respond by throwing it, he shoves the toy into us over and over,” explained Carol.

“And what do you when he does that?” I asked.

“Well, at first we ignore him, but eventually, we toss the toy for him.”

So if Vinnie pesters the family long enough, they comply. Smart dog! He’s trained the family well, wouldn’t you say?

As we sat on the couch chatting, Carol added that Vinnie also seeks attention by placing one paw, then the next, then his entire body on the couch. As she relayed this information, as though demonstrating, Vinnie did exactly as she described. Carol kept talking as she surreptitiously petted Vinnie, then pushed him down after ten seconds or so. When I pointed out that Vinnie was being rewarded by the petting, Carol looked surprised, as though she hadn’t even realized she had been petting him—and she probably hadn’t. Cory chimed in that he, his wife and his son do tend to pet Vinnie before asking him to get off the couch. It was a lightbulb moment for the family; they realized that tossing the toy for Vinnie whenever he pestered them long enough, and petting him whenever he climbed on the couch, was rewarding and thereby strengthening the very behavior they were trying to stop.

We approached the problem behaviors in a few ways:

1. As a pre-emptive course, Vinnie would receive play and attention before the family’s normal television-viewing time, so that he was pleasantly tired out by the time they were ready to relax. He could also be given a stuffed Kong or other chewie to keep him busy during the family’s down time.

2. Vinnie would be given brief, frequent down-stay practice sessions during the day, so that he would soon have an alternate behavior to pestering/couch-climbing. The family would also practice intermittent down-stays during the evening relaxation period, so everyone could enjoy the evening. In the early stages, Vinnie could be tethered to the coffee table if necessary, where the family could interact with him but he could not jump on the couch. (He would be introduced to the tether in a positive manner by pairing it with stuffed Kongs and attention.)

3. We taught “not now,” which clued Vinnie in that whenever he heard those words, no further attention would be forthcoming.

4. No more rewarding Vinnie’s escalating attention-seeking behaviors! Now, whenever Vinnie approached the couch with the toy, if a family member wanted to play, they would ask Vinnie to sit or perform another known behavior, then toss the toy. If the person did not want to play, they could simply tell Vinnie “not now” or ask him to do a down-stay instead.

5. Any time Vinnie voluntarily lied down by the couch he would receive petting and attention.

This family’s situation is typical of ones trainers see every day. Regardless of how loving a family is toward their dog, or what intelligent, nice people they are, the little things that contribute to the dog’s behavior issue often go unnoticed.

Whenever your dog is displaying a behavior that you want him to stop, ask yourself how the dog is being rewarded for the behavior. Dogs, like kids, do what work, and eventually give up doing what doesn’t work. Attention-seeking in particular can be tricky, as attention consists of looking at, talking to, or interacting with the dog. So if you look over at your dog and say “Stop that!” you’re still giving attention.

Dogs are being trained around the clock whether we think it’s “training time” or not, and you get what you reward—so be sure to watch your own actions, as well as rewarding your dog for doing the right things.

Back to Top

Protein Requirements in Senior Dogs - You Might be Surprised
April 26th, 2007

As a dog trainer, enthusiast and dog-mom, I try to keep up on the latest developments in canine behavior and health. In fact, I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to researching the latest findings. So imagine my surprise when I learned that what I and so many others had believed about older dogs needing less protein in their diets is untrue. My own thirteen-year-old dog has been eating Innova Senior dry food for quite some time. I like the brand; it has healthful ingredients, no fillers, and no artificial preservatives. (Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the company.) What the senior version does have is 18% protein, and from everything I’d read over the years, that seemed appropriate. My “aha!” moment happened while reading an article in The Whole Dog Journal (Dec. 2006, Diet and the Older Dog). The article’s subheading caught my eye: “New research is changing the way the senior dog should be fed.” The author went on to explain that because senior dogs’ systems are less efficient at metabolizing protein, they actually need more protein than previously thought. If they don’t get a high enough level of protein, muscle wasting can occur because the body breaks down the muscle tissue to get what it needs. The fact that I have not been supplying enough protein to keep Mojo’s muscles from wasting is ironic, as we take him for hydrotherapy exercise once a week. Had I kept him on the low-protein food, it would have been working at cross-purposes with the exercise. And he has had quite a bit of muscle wasting over the years. Some of that is natural, but the low protein assuredly didn’t help.

One concern in feeding older dogs a high-protein diet has always been the potential effect on kidney function. It has long been believed that feeding a food with a lower protein content would protect the dog’s aging kidneys by lessening the workload. Recent research, however, proves that the right type of protein does not damage the kidneys, and feeding a lower protein diet does not protect them. In fact, even senior dogs who only had one kidney and were fed a high protein diet outlived seniors who were fed a low protein diet. A similar finding was made regarding long-held concerns about high protein and liver disease. Some doubted the benefits of the low-protein diet for seniors long ago: back in 1994, in an article in Veterinary Forum (September 1994), Dr. Delmar Finco stated that "benefits from a reduced protein diet typical of existing canine geriatric products have never been proven, and the possibility exists that reduced protein diets are not in the best interest of the geriatric patient."

My initial concern in switching Mojo to a higher-protein food was that even with the coming exercise he might gain weight, which would place stress on his already-weakened back end. But my worries were unfounded, as protein and carbohydrates actually supply the same number of calories. Plus diets that are high in carbohydrates contribute to inflammation, which is the last thing an older, arthritic dog needs.

I am currently switching Mojo over to a version of Innova called Senior Plus, which has 24% protein. There are other quality brands available that have higher protein levels for seniors as well. Of course, your vet should be consulted about any potential changes in your dog’s diet, especially if there are pre-existing medical conditions. I am letting my dog training clients with older dogs know about these developments, and Mojo and I are grateful to have found out as well.

Back to Top

Dogs: The Pawsitive Force that Connects Us All
April 17th, 2007

I’m headed back to L.A. on a cross-country flight after presenting a seminar in New Jersey. It was great fun, and featured two other speakers as well, one of whom was Dog Star Daily’s own “International Roving Reporter,” Roger Abrantes. The audience was mostly made up of trainers, but also included shelter and rescue workers, petsitters, a few owners, and a veterinarian. We all had one thing in common—a love of dogs and a desire to help them. Whether the audience was nodding knowingly at a situation only a “dog person” would understand, laughing at a story that could have been their own, or eagerly learning about training techniques that might help a dog in the future, it was evident that a connection was made.

When the seminar was over, one of the hosts, Sybil, drove me to the airport. Both hosts had been wonderful to work with and we’d had a lot of fun, but now the talk turned more serious. We chatted about how our dogs were both seniors, and we couldn’t bear the thought of losing them. Sybil said she’d attended an agility seminar where the presenter declared that when your dog passes away, you’d trade all of those great agility runs for just one more day with your dog. Sybil’s eyes misted over as she spoke, and I felt a lump rise in my own throat. I recalled the last APDT conference when, in her parting speech, Patricia McConnell talked about the pain of losing her beloved border collie. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

After four hours in flight, I needed to stretch my legs. I strolled down the aisle and, as is wont to happen to dog trainers, found myself in conversation with a man about his dog. He had a “Beagle/dog with attitude” cross, as he put it, who “smelled bad.” No, he didn’t mean the dog somehow missed a steak that had been left out on the kitchen counter; he meant the dog literally stank! I asked what brand of food the dog was eating and the man struggled to remember the name. I took a wild guess, and he shouted, “Yes! That’s it!” A brief discussion of canine nutrition ensued. I made a few suggestions as to other brands, and just as I mentioned Canidae, the male flight attendant materialized in front of me. “That’s what I feed my dog!” the now-perky, formerly-surly attendant proclaimed. Just twenty minutes earlier, paying for lunch with a bill that required five dollars in change had produced a grimace. He now had a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Thank you, Magical Powers of Dogdom.

A gentleman who was seated across the aisle had been listening and nodding along during our kibble conversation. When I commented that he seemed familiar with the topic, he replied that he had done a lot of research into which food would be best for his German Shepherd, as the dog had unfortunately had extensive medical issues. The Shepherd had died last year, and the man was considering getting a puppy. When he spoke about how he used to drive his dog out to a large park area, hike a mile in and let his dog run free, his eyes lit up. He suddenly looked happy despite the long, turbulent flight that had us all pretty exhausted.

Once you have children, it seems you are automatically enrolled in a special club with a language all its own, and a strong sense of unity. It’s the same with dogs. We can laugh together about our dogs’ antics, sympathize when dogs are ill or die, and share excitement over a new puppy. Regardless of race, age, background or lifestyle, dogs are a pawsitive, tranformative force that connects us all.

Back to Top

Puppy Prodigies
April 10th, 2007

I am blown away. I have just come from visiting a web site that showed videos of very young puppies being trained. You’re probably thinking “young” means four months old, maybe even three. But nooo! These puppies started their training at the age of 20 days. For those of you just waking up and not wanting to do the math, that’s just under three weeks! As you might imagine, there was lots of luring involved. But the pups demonstrated enough motor skills and mental prowess to learn the skills, and those early-learned behaviors were built upon consistently; by the ripe old age of six-and-a-half to seven weeks, the puppies were doing tricks like “shake” and “spin,” manipulating a light switch on cue, and opening a door by pulling on an attached rope tug. Don’t believe it? See it for yourself at the Puppy Prodigies web site.www.puppyprodigies.com/VideoClips.htm

The organization behind the web site trains assistance dogs. That explains why behaviors such as turning off light switches and tugging—for example, on a person’s jacket zipper—would be important for those pups as adults. While those behaviors are not ones I normally teach my pet dog owner clientele, it would probably surprise many of them to learn that puppies of that age are capable of learning such things. In fact, a large segment of the population still subscribes to that old myth about dogs not being trainable until they are six months of age. That one started back in the day when training classes were mostly choke chain based, and no one wanted to damage a young puppy’s neck. But even nowadays, many classes will not accept pups under four months because of vaccination issues. Why wait, when training can still be started at home much earlier than most people think?

Trainers often receive calls from pet owners when their pups are three or four months old, usually to solve puppy-related issues such as potty training and nipping. Many owners are surprised to hear that they can start training basic obedience and manners at such a young age. I’m glad the Puppy Prodigy site exists, because now trainers have a place to send people in order to see just how much very young pups can learn. Imagine if we all started training puppies on basic manners and obedience at such a young age. What better-behaved dogs we would have if the word got out!

Note: At the time of the original writing of this entry, the web site mentioned had many more videos to view. But stay tuned, as they will be on the site again. Worth the wait!

Back to Top

Mojo's 13th Birthday
April 6th, 2007

Mojo is my baby. Sure, he’s a 120-pound, fur-covered baby, but my baby nevertheless. He’s a gorgeous combination of malamute, german shepherd, rottweiler and wolf. Long, thick black hair with sparse tan markings, tall and long-bodied. Amber eyes and a thick, bushy tail, just a bit wolfy-looking. When he stands on his hind legs, he is taller than I am—okay, with me being 5’2” that’s not saying much, but still. Mojo doesn’t stand on his hind legs much these days; today is his 13th birthday.

We got Mojo at the age of six weeks. It was after the southern California earthquake. The aftershocks were making everyone very nervous, including us, so my husband and I decided to head for solid, stable New Mexico for a short vacation. Our goal was to land in Albuquerque and drive up to Santa Fe, but we got snowed in and couldn’t leave Albuquerque. Looking through the local newspaper in our hotel room, I noticed a classified ad for “wolf hybrid puppies.” Having worked with wolves and wolfdogs, this caught my eye, although I had no intention of purchasing a pup. I am not an advocate of wolfdogs as pets, but I thought it would be interesting to go visit. Besides, we had nothing else to do.

The pups were of very low wolf content. The mother, Diva, was a sweetheart of a low content malamute/wolf mix, and the father, a rottie/German shepherd mix with a bad attitude. You’d think as a professional dog trainer that the father’s temperament would have dissuaded me from even considering purchasing a pup, but noooo… despite my initial intentions to just go see, we had been looking for a companion for Soko, our then-eleven-months-old German shepherd. And we fell in love with Mojo, who at the time was named Fester. Fester! Can you imagine? They’d named the litter after characters in the Adams Family. His sister was named Pugsly. Next thing we knew, we were making plans to take the newly christened Mojo back to Los Angeles.

Even as a young puppy, Mojo was huge. Although the airline regulations assured us that a small sized crate would have plenty of space for an eight-week-old pup, when we actually tried to stuff his sixteen-pound body inside, it became obvious that Mojo was just too big. Tufts of fur sprouted crazily from the crate in all directions. We traded up for a medium, and flew our now-comfortable puppy to his new home.

Mojo was an adorable, confident, playful pup. Unfortunately, by the time he was six months old, one of his back legs was dragging badly. It turned out his hip had practically no socket to speak of, and surgery was necessary—expensive surgery, a triple pelvic osteotomy. More than a few people actually advised me to put him down instead! Sure, I told them, I’ll take your kid with me and we can do a two-for-one deal…sorry, but this is my kid, and you don’t abandon hope when something is wrong, you fix it! So we did.

As he developed into an adolescent and then an adult, Mojo’s temperament revealed some traits from his father’s side, and others from his mother’s. He seemed to have inherited his mother’s absolute loving sweetness toward humans, and his father’s obnoxious attitude toward other dogs. I’m sure his penchant for bullying wasn’t helped by the fact that Soko, although older than he was, was so submissive that Mojo never learned as a young pup not to push other dogs too far. (Because of his developing hip issues, even at a very young age, we had to limit his play with other dogs.) Over the years, as a dog trainer, I learned a lot by having to work Mojo through his eventual aggression toward other dogs.

The years passed, my husband and I bought a home, and Mojo and Soko had about as good lives as dogs could hope for. They both got lots of love and affection on a daily basis, along with all the everyday basics to keep them healthy and happy. Soko’s big thrill in life was to chase the ball, and she got to play daily. Mojo’s big thrill was to wait until Soko started to chase the ball, then chase her and drag her to the ground by her collar. I had to teach Mojo that throwing the ball was his cue to come to me instead. What a brat! He was smart, though. Through clicker training, Mojo learned tricks like “turn out the lights” and “say your prayers.” And he turned my husband, who was raised in the south where dogs were hunting dogs more so than pets, into a real dog-lover.

This past April, at the age of 13, Soko passed away. My labor of love dedicated to her was a book called “Help for Your Fearful Dog.” Soko had many fears and anxieties throughout her life, and she taught me so much that I now pass on to my dog training clients. Mojo took her passing fairly well, although he did become a bit more clingy toward me and my husband.

Mojo’s back end has been weakening for some time. He’s losing muscle mass, has arthritis, and that old metal plate and pins in his hip. In addition to his various daily supplements, we take him weekly for hydrotherapy, where he walks on a treadmill while submerged to the chest in water. At those sessions he also gets massaged, stretched, and even balances on a doggie equivalent of a balance board. Then he comes home and naps. We joke that he’s like a little fur-covered rock star. We’ve also done “pulsed signal therapy,” which is meant to reduce inflammation and help stimulate the growth of cartilage. Of course, this involves great expense as well as an hour drive each way, but those are small matters when it comes to helping a family member you love and cherish to be in less pain and hopefully live a longer, healthier life. And although he is practically deaf now, if I lay my head on Mojo’s side and sing to him, he can feel the vibrations and still breaks out in that great doggy grin.

And so, on Mojo’s thirteenth birthday, I gaze at this bundle of love lying by my feet; this beautiful, joyful being who gives unconditional love, who can be made to smile by a mere tummyrub, who enjoys life to the fullest. He lies by my feet as I write my books, stretches out beside me as I do yoga (yes, downward dog is his favorite pose), and he is always, without fail, thrilled to see me when I come home. If that happens to be mid-day when he is snoozing, he’s in half-asleep doggy heaven, melting in the throes of welcome-home snuggles. He really is my best buddy, and is one of the most laid-back, loving dogs I have ever known. If we were all more like Mojo, the world would be a better place. And for however much longer Mojo is on this earth, we have been truly blessed to share our lives with him.

Note: This was originally written on 12/18/06. Mojo is still doing great and lying at my feet as I post this. He sends fondest woofs to all.

Back to Top

Dog Food Ads: Hope or Hype?
April 2nd, 2007

Have you ever seen that dog food commercial where the puppy scampers up the wooden porch steps to the adoring child? Thanks to the magic of television, the dog is then an adult, walking up those same stairs to the now-teenager. Fast-forward another few years and the dog is a senior, climbing slowly toward his loving adult owner. Do the math, and you know what comes next—reaching for the Kleenex.

Tugging on our heartstrings is one of the many tactics used by ad agencies to encourage us to purchase specific brands of dog food. A recent television and print campaign features a string of ads that promises to “turn back the clock” on canine aging. Any woman with a bathroom cabinet full of wrinkle creams and skin serums knows how effective that promise is. (I’m pretty sure a few of mine are supposed to not only build collagen, but make me coffee in the morning.) Is there any truth to these pooch promises?

Whether it’s wrinkle-relaxers or dog foods, the only way to know for sure is to be an informed consumer. Yep, you’ve got to learn how to read labels. By law, dog food manufacturers must list the ingredients in descending order of bulk weight, so the first thing listed is what there is supposedly the most of—I say “supposedly” because some sneaky manufacturers break the ingredients down into parts and list them separately because if they were combined, they would weigh more and so have to be placed higher on the list. Dogs are primarily carnivores, so the first two ingredients should have something to do with meat. A whole meat source like “chicken” or “lamb” is preferable to meat “meal” or “by-product.” (I’d tell you what’s in “by-products” but you’d likely lose your net-surfing snack.) Look for foods that don’t have corn high on the list, and preferably not at all. Corn is a common allergen, as well as not having much nutritional value; it also has an effect, through a series of chemical reactions in the body, on seratonin levels in the brain. This can contribute to the opposite of the desired calm behavior.

A great place to learn about what to look for in dog food ingredients is The Whole Dog Journal. It regularly contains articles on the subject, and even compares specific brands to help consumers make good choices. Articles from back issues are available for download at the website, whole-dog-journal.com.

So the next time you’re in the supermarket and see a bag of dog food that boasts glossy photos of fresh veggies, think twice about what’s actually in there. Chances are that any semblance of those veggies is as far from being in that bag as the fountain of youth is from being in that jar of wrinkle cream. It might not be glamorous, but a little reading and research is what will actually help to keep your dog young and healthy.

Back to Top

Dog Performs Heimlich on Choking Owner
March 28th, 2007

You might think someone got into the catnip here, no, but you read that right…A Maryland newspaper reported that forty-five-year-old Debbie Parkhurst was enjoying an apple at home when a piece got lodged in her throat. She attempted the Heimlich maneuver on herself to no avail. Luckily, as Debbie frantically beat on her chest, Toby, her two-year-old Golden Retriever, leaped into action. Like any self-respecting young retriever, Toby jumped up, put his front paws on Debbie’s shoulders, knocked her to the ground, then began to jump up and down on her chest. (Trainers, insert collective cringe here.) Lo and behold, the apple dislodged! Toby then began licking Debbie’s face “to keep her from passing out,” as she said. Never mind that Toby had slammed into her so hard that Debbie had pawprint-shaped bruises on her chest—he’d saved her life!

That story reminds me of another that was reported a few years back. A man was out in the woods with his dogs. They were standing in a clearing when a bear appeared and began to attack the man. According to the man, one of his dogs saved his life by “luring the bear away” toward the dense forest. Not jumped in front of him, but ran toward the woods. Now, call me cynical, but I’m guessing the dog’s thought process was less "I must lure this beast away to save my master!" than it was "Bear! Run!"

Allow me to add my own story of a dog’s response to a human in distress. One icy winter day, I slipped while walking down the ramp that covers the steps leading out from our back door (the ramp was for Soko, our German Shepherd, who had hip dysplasia). I slammed into the ground hard, and in an unfortunate position—I was pretty sure I’d broken my ankle. I was clearly in distress, crying in pain, unable to stand. Now, here’s where you might imagine that my loyal Shepherd saved the day. Did Soko run for help? Grab the phone and pound out 911 with her paw? Whimper in concern and cover me with her body ’til help could arrive? Hah! She ran and got her ball, dropped it at my feet, and looked at me as if to say, "So are ya gonna get up and play or what?" Hmm… Perhaps she had cleverly calculated that since I always stand when throwing the ball, her actions would magically help me become healed and upright again. Uh…no. Trust me, I have no delusions as to her intent. I loved that dog, but Lassie she was not.

Did Debbie Parkhurst’s dog really intend to save her life, or were his actions due to excitement, perhaps combined with a serendipitous lack of training? Did the dog in the woods selflessly place his own life at risk, or was he simply high-tailing it to safety? You can guess the answers from a behavioral standpoint. So, okay, the owners’ perception of their dogs’ actions might not be realistic, but the bond between them is surely as real as it gets. Turns out Debbie had rescued Toby from a dumpster as a pup, so maybe they saved each other. And perhaps the belief that these dogs saved their owners’ lives isn’t so far-fetched after all—because in the big picture, on an emotional level, dogs really can save our lives.

Back to Top