Pupdate on Tesla – One Year Later (Part 1)

Tesla turned 2 years old this month. Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that I brought home this lovely yet out-of-control 10-month-old puppy from the Marin Humane Society, with their insistence that she was “not very drivey.” Well, I wanted drivey, and I certainly got it, with drive to spare!

A day at the beach

In the past year, I have spent countless hours in training classes as well as at home and on-the-road training with her in order to shape her into the perfect dog that I’d been seeking. And while I don’t expect (nor want) her to be another Claire, heart dog extraordinaire and quite possibly the best working dog I’ve ever had, she is coming along nicely after all this time. As my colleagues and flyball teammates often say, her brain is solidifying nicely now, though we still have a way to go.

Reactivity and Distractibility (aka being an adolescent herding dog) – One of Tesla’s principal personality points when I first got her was a propensity to chase virtually anything that moved quickly, including but not limited to bicycles, dogs, people, critters, etc. And if she couldn’t chase it, she would bark and howl at a fever pitch.

Exploring on a hike

I learned of this at our first flyball event, a demo just a few short weeks after I adopted her. I had already seen how she was at flyball practice, barking at the dogs when they ran, but this was nothing compared with the highly over-stimulating environment that included adjacent agility and flyball demonstrations. Although she did great on recalls over the jumps, when she wasn’t in the ring, I had to be farther than two football fields’ distance for her to even start to calm down enough to stop barking and reacting! And forget about any kind of focus.

So, I enrolled her in a multitude of classes – all concurrently – and mostly worked on her reactivity. I learned that she was reactive because she wanted to be in the action, so I formulated a protocol incorporating negative punishment , wherein I would leave the “action” as soon as she started to react. In other words, bark = turn and leave the room (as I said “too bad”).

Initially, she was so reactive that I would turn and leave class with her whenever she’d bark loudly. Gradually, I was able to increase the criteria until she was barely allowed a yip otherwise I’d walk her away from the action. After a year, we are still working on this in higher action settings, such as in agility class when other dogs are running fast. Overall, however, she has improved dramatically, as anyone would attest who has previously seen her in action.

Running Partner – My favorite activity in the world has always been running, and running with my trusty canine partner has been my dream since I was a child. (Truth: I was a runner long before it was ever a “thing”!)  I’ve had a number of awesome running partners throughout my life. So, naturally, Tesla was destined to fulfill this legacy of past canine running mates. Boy was I in for an exasperating surprise; on our first ever run together, about 3 months after her adoption (and 1 month after her 1st birthday), I learned that bicycles were more distracting to her than any other known trigger. At a local park trail on that first day, I heard a screaming that I think few besides Cattle Dog owners can accurately describe. Yes, it was a scream, not a bark. A sound that probably still lingers in outer space somewhere.

A family run

The toughest part was that treats are not remotely interesting to her in that context. So, I had to find something else.Taking a tug toy on a run was inconvenient, and potentially dangerous to my fingers in such a frenzy, so I decided to use the run itself as reward. I started – after that first run fiasco – with bicycles at a more “workable” distance, and practiced “leave it”, which she had already learned in other contexts. If she effectively turned her head away (= leave it), I would reward her by marking “yes!” and breaking into a short sprint. If she barked or even tracked the bike with her snout instead of effectively leaving it, I would say “too bad” and stop running, taking hold of her harness and holding her close to my leg. In this manner, I restricted her movement in an improvised Time Out.

It took many months, but we have found success! Now a bicycle can pass us, even at high speed, and I often don’t even have to tell her to “leave it”. We still break into a sprint as reward, but I don’t have to go as long nor as fast as before.

             Tesla effectively “leaving” a bicycle along a running path

The biggest challenge on this training path was a mistake I made on New Year’s Day: I decided to have my annual New Year’s Day run with her on a busy cycling/running/walking trail. I ended up cutting the run short when it turned into essentially two miles of wind sprints. We passed families and extended families along the trail – sometimes as many as 8-10 cyclists in a row! WHEW! Lesson learned. Now when I counsel my clients to avoid the overly challenging situations, I look back on that run and realize that sometimes, things just happen because we can’t predict everything all the time.

Family dog – I chose Tesla as my next dog because she fulfilled my top 3 criteria:

  • She’s well-socialized with people and dogs (as long as nobody is running.)
  • She loves children – yes, loves them. She pulls to greet them. The first time she and my daughter made eye contact, the look of pure joy on her sweet face and completely wiggly happy body were a thing of beauty.
  • She’s built like an athlete, with the heart to match – and true to form, she is maturing into a great competitive sports dog.

Of course, the chew toy training, potty training, etc. were as I expected for an un-trained adolescent dog, so no challenges out of the ordinary there. But she was not quite the perfect house dog.

Playing fetch

Tesla was originally rated by a shelter evaluator as a dog not well-suited for families with children under 10 years. As many of you know, my daughter, Shelby, was just over 3 years old when we got Tesla. We had a lot of work to do for them to be safe together, including teaching Tesla not to nip at Shelby when she moved. I closely supervised (and still do) all interactions, calling and implementing Time Out’s whenever she even thought about nipping at the kid’s clothes. After several weeks of this, I watched her turn her head to start to nip at Shelby’s skirt, and I called “Time Out!” Before I could get to her, Tesla put herself in time out up against the fence. I started to count out the 30 seconds, but only got to 26 before I took pity on her – she looked so upset – and I verbally released her. At the release, she immediately recovered her composure, and went back to running in the yard, but keeping her distance from the kid. She hasn’t nipped at Shelby again when they are both in the yard moving. And now, we can even go on runs together without a problem. This is excellent progress for an adolescent dog.

Still work to do. I have had many a client adopt a dog similar to Tesla, and become frustrated when they cannot resolve these behavior challenges within the first few weeks. It is a hard thing to say, but it can take many months to resolve reactivity in a dog, and sometimes longer depending on the dog’s genetic predispositions and background. (That’s right, nature and nurture.) What I can say is that it has been absolutely worthwhile to work through Tesla’s challenges to achieve what I have achieved with her thus far.

Next week, Part 2 – Tesla’s career training

Dog Park?

Dog parks are a popular destination for many dog owners, even those who have large yards in which to play at home. These parks allow dogs to romp, off-leash, in a fenced environment. For many owners, it is also a place to meet and connect with other dog lovers. To keep your dog safe, follow these simple rules and remain alert for signs of danger.

Dog parks offer an opportunity to let your dogs stretch out and run

Have a solid recall (come when called). This will assure that you are able to call your dog out of danger if needed. If you don’t have a solid recall, consider other alternatives to off-leash parks, such as training classes, or smaller play groups, where you can safely practice your dog’s recall before letting him play off-leash with dogs you don’t know well.

Observe the humans. If people are chatting with backs turned to the dogs, stay away. While it’s perfectly fine to chat with other dog owners, it’s more important to watch the dogs as they interact. Stand facing your dog, and talk to people at your side. If the other owners are watching their dogs, it’s a safe bet that they are looking out for their welfare.

Observe the dogs. Look out for dogs that challenge others, stand over or mount others or bully others. If you see such a dog, you might consider leaving rather than risking your dog’s involvement in a scuffle. Keep in mind, also, that many dog owners do not understand dog body language, so they may not even be aware that their dog is being a bully or an impolite brat. Rather than argue with the owner who insists that his or her dog is “friendly”, it is often better to just leave the park if you are uncomfortable with the interactions between your dog and another. Your top priority is to respect your dog’s needs, so if he doesn’t appear to be enjoying the time, you should honor that.

Consider alternatives. Remember that, like people, every dog should not be expected to get along with every other dog. Have you gotten along with every single person you’ve ever met? Have you never had an argument? Personalities can clash and, in a park full of strangers, this likelihood increases. To avoid this, try meeting at a local park with friends whose dogs are known to get along with yours. Or if you still prefer the dog park, go at times when there are fewer dogs. I recommend groups of 8 or fewer, ideally. (Although doggy day cares have larger groups, they are typically managed by more experienced professionals, and for the most part, these dogs have gotten to know each other much better.)

Dog sports are another great option. A wide variety of sports are available including Agility, Flyball, Rally Obedience, Canine Freestyle (dancing), Dock Diving, Tracking, Herding, Disc Dogs (Frisbee) and many others. Dog sports encourage better relationships between you and your dog, allow your dog to play off-leash in a more controlled and fun environment, and teach dogs that playing with you is more fun than playing with other dogs – an invaluable lesson in case you need emergency obedience some day.

Happy playing!!

Let’s Go Hiking!

While we are in the middle of winter here in California, and the days are chilly, the weather on most days is beautiful to be outdoors with your pooch, and may actually be better for the dogs than during the hot summer months. For those dog owners living in colder climates, many love to head outside to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air in spite of the freezing temperatures.  Among the fun, outdoor activities available, hiking is one in which we can often include the family dog.  It’s important to be sure that Fido is not only safe, but welcome at any park that we choose to attend with him.

Sunol Wilderness offers great hiking for people and their dogs

Sunol Wilderness offers great hiking for people and their dogs

To start, be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and a water bowl. Collapsible dog bowls are readily available and easy to carry along with your water bottle. If Fido does not usually get much exercise, use discretion when taking him out. An out of shape dog can quickly suffer from heat stroke, even in moderate temperatures. Noticeable signs of heat stroke include excessive, rapid panting, a darkened tongue, and vomiting. Keeping Fido hydrated and in shape will help to avoid this. If the day is particularly hot, it may be a good idea to leave him at home.

Protection against fleas, ticks and mosquitoes is also essential. Many treatments exist, but the most effective are available from your veterinarian. Regardless of protection, be sure to check for ticks after you have been outdoors.

Ed Levin

In addition to grand vistas and challenging hills, Ed Levin also has an off-leash dog park.

Finally, be sure your destination allows dogs before taking him along. Following are a few local trails that are dog-friendly:

Lexington Reservoir and Los Gatos Creek Trail – Entrances in Los Gatos as well as at Lexington Reservoir offer variety of paths for all experience and fitness levels.

Sunol Wilderness Part of the East Bay Regional Parks district; offers a variety of trails including a wide trail to a rocky gulch known as “Little Yosemite”. Beyond the trailhead, dogs are allowed off-leash.

Fremont Older Open Space – In Cupertino, the view from atop Hunter’s Point is beautiful, though the dogs will mostly appreciate the fresh air.

Uvas Canyon This Santa Clara County park is in the South County and offers variety of trails including a Waterfall Loop.

Windy Hill – Part of the Midpeninsula Open Space system, this park includes lovely ponds and trails to Skyline Boulevard.

Ed Levin – Part of the Santa Clara County parks system, dogs are allowed on leash on most trails, and there is also an off-leash dog park within the park.

For more dog-friendly hiking trails in your area, check out Bring Fido. And if you are in the Bay Area of Northern California, there is also Bay Area Hiker.

Happy hiking!

Time to Retire

Soul dogs – or “heart dogs” as many people call them – are few and far between, even among those of us who surround ourselves with dogs. I have been fortunate to have two of them, both working champions, best friends, constant companions…

Sebboh, my first heart-dog, was adopted when I graduated from college. A shepherd-lab mix with a touch of husky, she was my constant companion, traveling with me everywhere I went between my home in Santa Barbara and my friends and family, dispersed across California. She was the dog that led me to discover agility and flyball in 1992, and brought me into the world of professional dog training that same year. I even traveled with her to South America for a year, to live in Chile on a work assignment. Without her I’m certain that I would not have made all the wonderful friends I still have in Chile as well as throughout California. In addition to agility and flyball, Sebboh and I worked with an organization offering pet assisted therapy, and she enriched many more lives as we visited nursing homes and hospitals across Santa Barbara.

After I lost Sebboh at the ripe age of 12 years, I thought I’d never have another such dog and promised myself that I’d never love another dog as much. Boy was I mistaken! Along came Claire, a lovely blue merle border collie pup, in the year after losing Sebboh. Claire is very different from Sebboh, yet in many ways, much the same.  A much higher energy and faster dog, Claire forced me to actually learn how to handle a dog in agility! No longer would it suffice to just be the runner that I am to keep up with my dog along a course! I had to learn to front cross, rear cross, threadle… not to mention manage to do all of these things ON TIME! It was a challenge, but we managed it together.

Clearing a tire jump in agility

Claire was a fantastic flyball dog as well. Earning her FGDCh (Grand Champion) she anchored many teams and loved to run fast just for the sake of running. Many a time in her early career, she would re-run herself even if we didn’t have an early pass, just because she loved it so much. Over the years, she became more consistent and continued to love it.

Running over hurdles

Flyball fun

Like Sebboh, Claire is a fantastic running partner, too. I’ve been a runner since I was 12 years old, and have always loved running with my dogs.

Claire is nearly 13 years old now, so I understand that she is getting up there in age, but we have continued to practice flyball and agility, and only recently did I decide to start running her at lower jump heights in the preferred category in agility to make things easier for her. She was still enjoying all the sports.

Herding

At our first herding trial

Unfortunately, last week, as we were preparing for our morning run, I suddenly noticed that Claire was having a hard time standing and keeping her balance. An emergency veterinary visit resulted in a diagnosis of Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome. We are very fortunate that it’s an extremely mild case, manifesting as mild dizziness and ataxia. The prognosis is very good for a complete or mostly complete recovery. But it is doubtful that she will return to actually competing in sports. That is the most difficult part for me to come to terms with: losing what may be the best sports and working partner that I’ve ever had.

Just before our first herding trial

The Soul Dog’s Kiss

Retirement should be fun and happy, but for a working dog, this can be challenging. She will need things to do in order to remain sane, so I’ll bring her back to agility classes to keep her mind working. I also hope to be able to start running with her again at some point, but we’ll see how that goes. I will miss having her by my side as much as I do, but I will do all that I can to help her retirement be as enjoyable as it could possibly be. I think that my friend/student said it best in an email note:

“Her sporting legacy carries on in all the people & dogs she’s been a role model for in your classes!”

I continue to give thanks that her prognosis is good, and in spite of her forced retirement, I look forward to several more great and fun years with my “curly girl” Claire.

Exercising Your Dog

We all know that exercise is important for all dogs, regardless of breed or temperament. I’ve also explained that, for many dogs, mental stimulation is also necessary to prevent them from going “stir crazy” around the house.

A fun play session

Even with a large yard to run around, an intelligent dog may require more mental stimulation in order to calm down in the evening. While a simple walk may not do, a walk around the neighborhood, combined with obedience exercises, could calm such a dog both mentally and physically.

Highly active dogs such as the working breeds often require even more than this. There are many options available today to work out a dog, including dog sports such as agility, flyball, and disc dogs, as well as breed-specific sports, such as herding and hunting.  If you’re not sure which sport to choose for your particular dog, your dog trainer could offer some suggestions.

Of course, time can often be a limiting factor in the exercise that our dogs get.  If this is your situation, due to work, travel, illness, or whatever the reason, there are many services available to support you in your endeavor to have a healthy and fit dog that can settle down around the house.

Doggy day care is a modern service where you drop off your dog for a day and he is allowed to play with other dogs in a supervised environment. Dogs are tested in advance for temperament and must be fully vaccinated.

<a href='http://www.123rf.com/photo_3525356_dog-walker.html'>katemichaela / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Dog walkers often take groups of dogs out together

An alternative to day care is a dog walking service. Advantages to these services include controlled socialization to people and other dogs, better health, and the opportunity to take care of their “business” away from home, where the dog walker will dutifully scoop it up. Dog walkers can also offer basic obedience training to keep your dog sharp, as well as covering daily feedings and light medications if you are not able to be home during the day.

As the Romans said, “Mens sana in corpore sano”, that is “A healthy mind in a healthy body.” It applies to dogs as well as people!

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Last week I gave you a short run-down of canine body language, and how to respond to certain canine cues and signals. But, why is it important to understand your dog, or other people’s dogs, for that matter?

Of course, safety is the number one reason, and for this reason, several organizations have cropped up to explain canine body language in order to reduce dog bites to people, and particularly to children. In addition to safety, there is also the responsibility to your own dog to keep him safe and comfortable – what I call “respecting your dog”. In other words, beyond simply training your dog to understand and respond to your cues, actually allowing your dog the opportunity to communicate back to you is also important.

Respecting your dog means remembering that, in many cases, behavior that many consider “stubborn” may actually be a true lack of understanding of the cue being given; behavior that may be considered “insolent” could actually be a result of fear or pain; behavior that some consider “naughty” may actually be an attempt to communicate discomfort.

Years ago, in the days when leaving a dog on a “down-stay” outside a store was perfectly safe, I used to walk with my German shepherd dog, Nick, to the grocery store on errands for my mother. One summer day, he decided to stop walking nicely and tried to pull me across the parking lot; I grew frustrated as he forged ahead, insisting that he heel next to me and wondering what was going on with him. Days later, I was headed back to the store with him, only this time, I was barefoot. I took one step onto that pavement and immediately understood what my poor dog had tried to communicate to me – it was BURNING HOT. I had ignored my dog previously when I should have “listened” to him, and I felt terrible in that realization.

I often see clients with nervous or fearful dogs who tell me that their dog won’t stay on the “correct” side of them in certain parts of a neighborhood, or that the dog will pull on leash to pass certain houses (with resident barking dogs.) Instead of allowing their dog to switch sides, or speeding up the pace to allow their dog to get past that scary barker, they insist that their dogs are just being difficult. I’ve also witnessed unwitting owners reprimanding their tiny, frightened dogs for growling at the huge dog who suddenly stuck his face into their space. Recognizing your dog’s challenges and working with them instead of against them, this is respect!

In addition to being able to understand and respect your own dog, understanding canine body language can be tremendously beneficial in keeping you safe in encounters with strange dogs. Many a time I’ve had people tell me that they were frightened of dogs, and that all dogs hated them. I’m convinced that it’s not coincidental. When you take into account a fearful person’s response of eyes wide open and staring directly at the object of their fear, it is no wonder dogs respond poorly. In dog language, direct, face-on eye contact is usually considered a threat display, and many dogs will respond accordingly if a person looks at them this way. Dogs, on the other hand, turn their faces away from the thing they fear, while keeping their eyes on it sideways. This often results in the whites of the eyes showing, or what is known as “whale eye.”

Most of us want the best possible relationship with our dogs. Understanding our dogs’ body language and opening the door for two-way communication with them is a great first step toward taking our relationships to the next level.

Surf’s Up!

I often get updates on the dogs with which I have worked, telling me how well they are doing or showcasing some special talent. Few things give me more satisfaction in my job than to see a dog that has grown into a focused athlete or performance dog. Seeing a former student perform an amazing Canine Freestyle routine, or run a clean and fast agility course, or finish a successful flyball race. Although most dog sports are considered “individual events”, I consider them all team sports, as the dog and handler must work in close communication in order to succeed.

Of all of the dog-handler teams that I have coached, Abbie and Michael are among those that make me the most proud.

Abbie poses with surfboard

Michael, Abbie and C

Among other things, Abbie is a Guinness World Record holding surfing dog. I met Abbie and Michael years ago, when they showed up in my basic training class. Abbie was a young Kelpie, and Michael’s first dog, adopted from the Humane Society Silicon Valley. She had been found near death along the side of the road and taken to the shelter. Being drawn to high drive dogs, I saw the potential in her right away, and set my mind to encourage Michael to get involved in dog sports or other activities. My thought was to keep Abbie’s busy mind as occupied as possible so that she would not become a problem for him. He picked up the proverbial ball, and ran with it, moving through my series of classes into sports preparation. What I loved about Michael was his desire to learn as much as he could about working with his high energy dog. He would frequently call me with questions, or asking for training suggestions on certain topics.

When he announced that they were moving to San Diego, I was sad at not getting to see them, but wished them well and asked Michael to keep in touch. As with many clients, though, I did not really expect to hear from him. I was pleasantly surprised to continue to get notices from him about the various activities that he was doing with Abbie, including achieving her Canine Good Citizen certificate and Junior Herding Dog title.

But the really exciting news started coming when Michael introduced Abbie Girl to surfing! Unlike many dogs who are trained very gradually, Michael put Abbie on a board just as a way to rest when they were out swimming in the ocean. Abbie took to it right away, and has been a surfing fanatic ever since.

Abbie catches a wave at Surf Dog competition

As I always emphasize in my classes and with my clients, dog training, particularly in sports, is all about relationship. And when people have nervous dogs, as Abbie was when she was young, I tell them that they must do all that they can to convince their dogs to trust them completely. One of the keys to the relationship that Michael has with Abbie is what he now calls “Trust, Not Training”. This does not mean that he does not train Abbie, but it does mean that he won’t convince her to do something that is against her nature or frightening for her. Instead, he has taught her to trust him completely, and she happily and willing does things for him – and with him – because her trust in him is exceptional.

With this philosophy, Michael has accomplished with Abbie what many people wouldn’t dream of, and he takes her with him on all kinds of excursions from hiking and mountain biking to surfing and paragliding. His work with her has landed them commercial spots, including a segment on the Dogs 101 TV program, as well as a lovely piece for the San Diego tourism board.

Michael continues to promote Abbie’s accomplishments and has since landed spots for her in movies, including the 2010 feature film, Marmaduke. Through the bond that they share together, Abbie and Michael can accomplish anything, and I consider them role models for anyone who loves dogs and truly wants a relationship with a dog that is beyond just “master and dog”.

If you are interested in following Abbie Girl in her continuing adventures, check out her Facebook Page and Website (coming soon).

How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?

Choosing a New Canine Companion for Your Household

 While most of you reading this already have dogs, you may be considering getting another dog, either now or in the future. When first considering this, most people think in general terms: “I want… a big dog; or a dog that doesn’t shed; or a dog that needs little exercise”.

While these are valid questions, they are the tip of the iceberg. Whether you want a purebred dog or a mixed breed, a rescue or from a breeder, there are many more questions that you should ask yourself and your family prior to bringing home a new canine companion.

If you have a dog already at home, the first question to ask is, “does my dog need or want a sibling?” Some dogs simply don’t do well with other dogs at home, even if they enjoy playing with other dogs outside the home. If this is the case, you may find yourself with more problems than solutions. It’s also important to keep in mind that, similar to people, dogs have different personalities, and most cannot be expected to get along perfectly with every other dog they meet. (Do you know of any adult human who has never had an argument?) When considering another dog, consider your current dog’s personality. Is he pushy? Overly shy? Is she rambunctious and playful? Ideally, it’s a good idea to take your dog to meet the potential sibling in a neutral place to be sure they are going to be compatible.

Once you’ve decided on the ideal companion type for your current dog, ask yourself and your family the following:

  • How much time do we have to spend with a new dog?
  • Do we want an active dog or a sedate dog?
  • What do we want to do with our dog? Dog sports? Family outings? Quiet time in front of the TV?
  • Do we have space for an active dog? A small yard? Or do I want to run daily with my dog?
  • What size of a dog do we have the space for at home?
Kovu Jumps

If you’re seeking a high-energy, smart and affectionate boy, Kovu may be your ideal companion.

Keep in mind that space and size are not always directly related. A large, quiet dog might easily live in an apartment, while a smaller, but highly active dog may need a much larger yard – unless someone will run with him regularly. And some homeowners associations and apartment complexes have size restrictions as well.

Additional considerations include the size of your family; ages of the children; how often you have visitors; the general activity level of the household; and other pets who may need to be considered, such as cats or other small animals. A high energy dog with a strong prey drive may not be a good choice if you have a cat, for instance.

Adidas runs on the beach

If a smaller sports dog is more to your liking, consider Adidas, a terrier mix.

Once you’ve decided on the size, activity level, and temperament of the dog you want, your work is not finished. Consider doing more research on your chosen breed(s) or mix. Google, talk to breeders and enthusiasts, go see them at shows and ask lots of questions.

Finally, the decision of whether to get a puppy or an adult dog is also important and there are advantages to each. With a puppy, you can start “from scratch”, training it up exactly as you want. With an adult dog, the potty training and destructiveness are often completed, but it may be difficult to know what he’s been through, and there may be some re-training required.

If you are considering a dog for dog sports, consider checking out our High Drive Dogs Listing Service. And check out your local shelters. The ideal sports dog often has a preference for humans over other dogs and takes direction easily. If the dog you are considering is in foster care, ask whether he or she is able to focus on tasks or whether he gets easily distracted by the environment.

Whether you choose a puppy or adult dog, do your research and consider carefully. Picking a dog or puppy because it’s really cute, or is the color you like, can have disastrous consequences if the temperament is not a good match for your family. Given the choice between looks and temperament, I will choose the right temperament every time, and I strongly recommend this tactic.

Where will Fido stay?

Choosing a Kennel or Dog Sitter for the Holidays

I hate to admit this, but it is time to be preparing for the holidays. While many of us will be off to visit family and friends across the country or abroad, some of us will not be able to take our dogs (and other pets) along with us. The question for pet lovers is “what do we do with our pets while we’re away?”

Of course, a luxury resort would be great!

While bringing pets – particularly dogs – on a trip can be fun, it’s not always practical and, may not really be in the best interest of the pet. Before deciding to bring Fido or Fluffy along, consider what his accommodations will be and how much time can be devoted to him. Will he be left alone for long periods while you’re off doing family things? And just as importantly, will your high energy pet be welcome if he gets stressed out and starts to destroy things, or bark or whine excessively? If these are concerns for your dog, then leaving him home may be less stressful for everyone.

Once that decision is made, the next question is “who should care for him?” Many people opt to have a neighbor watch over the home. This is a good option if you have a dependable, caring neighbor who knows and loves your pets. Unfortunately, during the holidays, neighbors may also be traveling or busy with their own families, so they may not even be available.

The next best thing to being home with your pets is to have a home service care for them while you’re away. Look for a reliable service and ask for references.  There are services in most communities that will watch over your pets and take care of other household needs such as bringing in mail, putting out the trash, and watering plants. There are many advantages to this type of service, but the most important is that your pets won’t have the added stress of being away from their home. For many dogs and cats, this is far less stressful than a kennel environment.

If an in-home service is not for you, the next option is to kennel your pets. The advantage of this is that your pets may get more supervision than in your own home. If your dog is sociable with other dogs and with people, there may also be doggie day care and boarding options available in your area. Keep in mind that the quality doggie day care providers all require pre-admission evaluations, and most require at least a few day visits prior to any overnight stay to reduce the likelihood of the dog becoming overly stressed during his stay. So get in touch well before your departure date in order to be ready in time.

We’ll make sure Santa is well received in your absence!

Remember that most pet care providers book up well in advance of the holidays. Don’t wait until the last minute to make arrangements or you may be left with few options. If you’re in doubt as to what would be best for your particular pet, your local trainer or behavior counselor may be able to provide advice as well as referrals to the best options in your area.

 

I’m OK. Are you OK?

The little dog, some kind of terrier mix, nervously paced back and forth in the shopping cart at the pet store where I was in between class sessions. I had been called up by the cashier to talk to them about their dog’s behavior problems at home, where he was destructive and had house soiling challenges, though he’d been previously housebroken. As I began to talk with the couple, I could already sense the hostility between them. Then, like a volcano, it erupted. At the tops of their voices, they shouted at one another. Shoppers heading to the cash registers turned 180 degrees to find other things to buy rather than continue to approach. I was stuck there, looking down at the now trembling little dog, desperately wishing to send him a telepathic apology, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t”. What this couple needed was a marriage therapist, not a dog trainer.

While this true account is an extreme example, the gist of the problem is not unique in the work of a dog trainer or dog behavior counselor. Periodically, I work with families trying to draw me into their disagreements, with comments such as “can you tell (a family member) that she has to (fill in the blank)”. On other occasions, I’ve arrived at sessions that were supposed to include all family members only to have someone blatantly missing from the meeting, or clearly annoyed by my presence. This is the least enjoyable part of my work, and at such times I wish I could just hand them the business card of a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to contact instead.

Anthropologist, Brian Hare, recently demonstrated in studies that dogs are masters at reading human social cues. While many of us who grew up with dogs already knew this, it is nice when someone does a scientific study that validates what we know in our hearts. While there are many benefits of this, including the ease of training and the connections that this allows us to make with our canine companions, there are pitfalls as well. Specifically, dogs that have close connections with their humans will be affected by their emotions, whether positive or negative.

When I was in high school, my German Shepherd Dog, Nick, was particularly attuned to my ever-changing adolescent moods. One day, when I was sad about who knows what, I took him for a walk in the park. Once off-leash, he ran full speed toward a puddle of water. The puddle turned out to be deeper than he’d thought, resulting in his stumbling and getting his entire face wet. When I giggled lightly, he stopped, looked at me, and then proceeded to repeat this behavior several times until I was heartily laughing out loud. Laughing is good, sad is bad. Any dog with a close human relation understands this.

Smile and the world will smile with you...

This being the case, we have to consider that our dogs may be affected by our other emotions as well. My Border Collie, Claire, leaves the room whenever there is football on TV, because in her 12-1/2 years of life, my San Francisco 49ers have unfortunately had more bad years than good years. She doesn’t like it when I yell, even if it’s at the TV.

But what is there to do? We can’t change what we feel, or suppress our emotions just for the sake of our dogs, right? Of course not, but I do recommend doing what you can not to have loud screaming fights in the presence of your dog if you can avoid it. More importantly, try to be aware of how your behavior and routine affects that of your dog. A change as seemingly minor as a job change, which we may think is transparent to our dogs (we still get up, go to work, etc.) can actually affect our dogs if they sense that our mood has changed.

If you are having problems with your dog’s behavior and you think that it may be at least partly due to challenges you are facing yourself, consider the possibility that a personal counselor or a life coach may be as worthwhile an investment as a professional dog trainer. In less stressful times, try to remain diligent about continuing your dog’s physical and mental exercise routines to reduce his or her stress level. Playing games can be mutually beneficial, whether it is a nice game of ball retrieving, a hearty tug of war with a favorite toy, or your favorite dog sport.

I read a reminder recently that, in a plane going down, it’s important to first make sure that your own oxygen mask is securely in place before you can effectively assist others. Using the same principal with regard to your dog can go a long way to keeping everyone’s stress levels at bay. Do what you can to improve your mental and emotional stability, and your dog’s behavior should reflect this positive change.