Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving me the run-around

I’ve said before that dogs are always studying us closely, picking up on things we don’t even notice about ourselves to help them determine if “good things for dogs might happen.”
Here’s a cute example of how my dog turned the tables on me, using his observant manners to train me and modify my behavior.
I call it the run-around.
This might be a topic for another blog, but I enjoy two games with my dog that most people hate or say shouldn’t be played at all — chase and tug. (I can just hear the jaws of the anti-pit bull peoples’ mouths hitting the ground, thinking about my defenseless, girly-self playing such dangerous games with a pit bull, at that!)
Think what they may, I look at the games as another good outlet for my dog. Plus, they make him smile and I love seeing him smile and look all happy.
Anyhow, the chase game has been going on for years. In the old house, he used to run circles around the couch. I’d run half way in one direction, then turn around and head in the other. He’d do the same, and we’d repeat this for a couple minutes until I tired out and sat down.
He signals the start of this game by running up to someone with a toy in his mouth, doing a play bow and then taking off in the opposite direction as fast as he can.
At the new house, the couch is against the wall so he chose a new circle — around the TV. This is a very small circle, and from very early on, he’d sometimes bolt down the long hallway toward the bedrooms and see if he could get me to follow.
I usually did not.
Sensi is most playful after breakfast and again after dinner, but the morning play routine is definitely more energy-packed. On the weekends when I’m home in the morning, I put forth a good effort to play with him and try to relieve some of his extra energy.
Also on weekend mornings, I do laundry.
Sensi began following me back to the bedroom, where I generally sort, fold and hang up all the laundry, with a toy in his mouth. Once or twice, with laundry basket in hand, I’d chase him back down the hallway.
He really liked this.
In fact, he liked it so much that he began making sure whenever I walked down that hallway, he was at my side with a toy in his mouth, ready to be chased back down the hallway. He’ll sit and wait patiently for me to finish whatever I’m doing, be it hanging up clothes, folding towels, etc.
A few months ago, he tried something new on me — instead of running straight back down the hallway, he went into the bedroom across the hallway from ours, through the jack-and-jill bathroom connecting it to a second bedroom, then back out in the hallway and towards the living room.
This has now become a daily routine, beyond just laundry-time.
Once, twice or more times a day, I chase him from the living room to my bedroom, then from my bedroom through the other bedrooms, back out into the hallway and again to the living room.
It truly is the run-around because it circles pretty much our entire house.
I have to laugh at the thought that Sensi totally created this game, shaping my behavior from first getting me to jog after him while returning from the room with laundry basket in hand to what has now become a multiple-times-a-day jog around the house.
The funniest thing about this chase game is, it really doesn’t matter who is chasing who or whether one of or both of us have a toy in possession.
In my next blog, I’ll explain why this really doesn’t matter and perhaps, just perhaps, I can change some peoples’ opinions regarding the merit of chase and tug games.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can you train an old dog new tricks?

Can it be done? Can you really a train an old dog new tricks?
My answer is an emphatic yes.
The degree of work involved in doing this varies, however, depending on the amount of positive-reward training the dog has gone through in the past.
A dog that has a lot of experience with positive-reward training will be super-adept at learning new things regardless of his age. It is, effectively, because the dog has a set of expectations when that cookie jar or fannie pack full of treats comes out; he expects that will be asked either 1) to do something he already knows how to do, or 2) will be asked to figure out what new behavior you want from him.
Positive-reward training is, from your dog’s perspective, a game of trial and error. He tries to figure out what you want from him and when you reward him, he is closer to understanding what it is that you want.
A dog with a long history of positive-reward training will instantly click into trial-and-error mode when all the signs add up that you’re playing this game — signs being things like treats in hand, or in pouch, and vocalizations coming out of your mouth that perhaps he doesn’t understand.
I’ve never met a dog who, with a history of positive-reward training, didn’t fall in love with what the dog perceives as a very fun game that brings him lots of goodies. And so, the dog — young or old — is usually thrilled and fully engaged to be playing this “game” where he learns new things.
Take my dog, for instance. I don’t know if a week has ever gone by in his life where he didn’t do some kind-of positive-reward training, be it for learning something altogether new, reinforcing old commands or for behavior modification.
He’s almost 8-years-old now — an old age for his size — and yet he can figure out what new behavior I’m asking of him within a matter of minutes after we start a training session. He’s been playing this “game” for so long that he knows how to read and follow my body language for hints of what I’m asking him to do. Training him new tricks is so easy that it’s hard not to do it.
Right now, Sensi is honing his tracking abilities through a simple game of hide and seek, learning to crawl on command and we’re perfecting the command that asks him to go get a toy from his basket and bring it to us.
I am constantly seeking out new ideas of things to train him specifically so I can keep that positive reward training going, and my reason — it is such a healthy outlet and stimulus for my old man, and likely his most favorite “game” of all.
So, if you practice positive-reward training with your dog — and remember, dogs do best with short training sessions of 5 to 15 minutes, so it’s low-impact on you too — you get a dog that learns to love learning and will become a pro at learning new tricks, even into old age.
If you haven’t done positive-reward training with your dog, now is a good time to start. It doesn’t matter the age. But the less experience the dog has with the “game,” the slower you need to move.
Start with something simple, like a sit-stay or, depending on his current repertoire of tricks, a paw shake or even just a sit, if it’s not something he’s already mastered.
I’ve seen older dogs that have no experience with positive-reward training be very slow starters to catch on to the game. The best thing to do is to keep the training sessions short and upbeat. Inexperienced dogs can get frustrated and bored easily, which is why it’s important to start with something they’ll have an easy time picking up on, keep the session short and end on a good note.
Lastly, this note is very important — don’t ask your dog to do more than he’s ready to. Move slowly, one small step at a time, and if your dog is really having a tough time, take a step back and make the game a bit easier and more enjoyable for him.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Doggie dental health

We’ve all had the experience of being around a dog with such wretched breath that it turns your stomach from even a few feet away.
Generally speaking, when a dog’s breath smells that bad, it’s a more serious problem than a dental chew bone can take care of. Usually, it’s a sign that the dog’s teeth have begun rotting.
If the bad breath smell and the fact that your dog’s teeth are or may begin rotting isn’t enough to encourage you to take care of your dog’s canines, then perhaps knowing that regular dental care can add years to your dog’s life is.
Sensi is now approaching his senior years and his breath has begun to get a bit smelly. For years, I relied upon brushing his teeth with doggie toothpaste and a regular toothbrush every once in a while.
Nowadays, I brush his teeth more than just once in a while — once a week, is more like it. If I can prevent that smell from worsening, it’s worth the five or ten minutes it takes to give his teeth a good brushing.
Plus, God knows I want to keep him around for as long as possible. If a weekly brushing can add a year or two to the time I get to spend with him, I’ll do it.
Even if you regularly brush your dog’s teeth, there’s still an extra measure you may want to consider.
Your veterinarian can perform a full dental cleaning service on your dog’s teeth. Think of it in terms of people — we get our teeth cleaned once a year, why not do the same for our dogs?
And just think of how much more useful the service is to our dogs, who don’t brush their teeth twice a day, floss to get out all that kibble stuck between their chompers or use a mouthwash to keep things fresh in there.
Let me note here too — don’t use human toothpaste, mouthwash or even flavored floss (if you think you might actually be able to floss your dog’s teeth anyhow!) on your dog. It can be poisonous for them. Buy doggie-specific products.
Back to the teeth cleaning service at the vet’s office though — it’s expensive. It usually runs around $300.
Why so expensive? One word: anesthetic.
Think about it. In order for vet to do a thorough cleaning of your dog’s mouth, he or she has got to be able to get that mouth open and get it to stay open without that wagging tongue trying to lick those human fingers away.
So, anesthetic is needed to put the dog out for awhile so the cleaning can be performed. And the anesthetic is pricey, pricey, pricey. Generally, it’s well over $100 just for the sleep-inducing drug.
Even so, it's well worth the price.
I encourage everyone — if you can afford it — to make this investment in your dog's health.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My farting dog

I love that on this blog, I can stray from all the seriousness of newspaper articles and have a little fun with less-than-tasteful topics.
Farting dogs are no big surprise to any of you, I’m sure. Anyone who’s owned a dog knows of their ability to empty a room. We all share our stories — inevitably, you run into the person who’s dog appears to scare itself when it toots.
“He jumped up and looked back at his butt like, ‘What the heck was that?” says an adoring and laughing dog owner.
My farting dog story goes back to when Sensi was a puppy. Years later, it’s still funny.
Brent was living with a friend at the time and his friend used an automatic feeder for his two dogs. Sensi, about four months old, was still getting puppy chow in a bowl a couple times a day.
We knew that Sensi couldn’t figure out how to work the automatic feeder. It was an antique-looking kind of feeder where the dog pushes in the door to access the food. Sensi never seemed to bother with it. He was always happy enough with his puppy chow delivered via doggie food dish.
We never had any sort of concern about him learning to use it either. We figured that at some point, he’d just start eating out of it.
I was at work — back then, working as a waitress — one night when Sensi first figured out how to use the automatic feeder.
I remember getting there at about 10 p.m. and my eyes went directly to my dog, who was splayed out on a pile of laundry and looked fatter than I’d ever seen him before. He didn’t even get up to greet me, just smiled and panted while I crouched down to pet him.
“What is wrong with him?” I asked Brent. “He looks bloated.”
Brent and his friend began cracking up.
“I didn’t think it was that noticeable!” Brent said, laughing.
The guys filled me in on how Sensi had learned to use the automatic feeder. By the time they realized he was standing there eating from it, only God knows how long he had been gorging himself.
They let him continue eating for a while, at first a bit proud that he’d learned how to use it. But then, they realized he wasn’t stopping and eventually they had to pull him away from the food trough.
It was all over for Sensi by then though.
Brent said Sensi had gone to the bathroom several times that evening, but it wasn’t enough. Sensi was bloated and he retired to laying on the laundry pile, as stretched out as can be, and hadn’t moved much since.
As they were filling me in, Sensi ripped a huge fart, sighed as if he were relieved and rolled over to lay on his other side.
The guys started cracking up and I was laughing too.
“He’s been doing that all night!” Brent told me. “Ever since he finished up going to the bathroom, he’s just been laying there and he farts, sighs and rolls over. Wait 10 or 15 minutes — he’ll do it again.”
And he did, like clockwork. Fart, sigh, roll over. Fart, sigh, roll over.
Not so different from us humans, I suppose.
It was a long and smelly night, but Sensi was feeling a world better by the morning.
He continued to eat out of the automatic feeder, but never again did he overeat.