Sunday, December 20, 2009

Beggin’ by the Christmas tree

When I arrived home from work last night, my husband had finished most of our Christmas wrapping and so, I sat down next to the tree and looked at all the beautiful gifts.
Sensi was, as always, at my side. However, while I picked up and admired all sorts of different presents, he was interested only in a few — his.
No, we didn’t point them out to him. We didn’t say anything to him. We’ve kept everything very low key because there’s no point in getting him all excited when Christmas is still about a week away.
It doesn’t matter though. He knows which ones are his gifts.
He went around to each box, sniffed it, wagged his tail, cocked his head and gave me that look.
“It’s for me. I know it’s for me,” he seemed to say, his eyes glistening and barely audible whines coming out of his mouth. “So can I open it? Huh? Huh? Can I open it?”
Keep in mind that my husband and I took great care to ensure that Sensi never saw any of gifts ahead of time — he was put in a separate room while I brought them into the house and all his gifts were kept hidden behind closed doors.
When he realized there would be no opening of presents, he laid down beside the tree, rested his head on the carpet and let out a big sigh. He laid by the tree for quite a while like that.
I’m reading this new book called “Power of the Dog: the things your dog can do that you can’t” by Les Krantz and it led me to reflect for a moment about how Sensi knew which gifts were his.
The book goes into detail about great powers of the dog, their incredible scent included. It also talks about a dog’s eyesight being different than humans.
You’ll have to read the book for a better explanation than I can recount here, but basically, the same physical elements that allow dogs to see movement in the dark also restrict them from being able to clearly pinpoint objects in their immediate vicinity — things like toys, no doubt.
So if your dog can’t really see that bone he’s chewing on or stuffed animal he carries around, how can he so clearly identify it? Scent is the answer for this one, folks.
My guess as to how Sensi knew which gifts were his, then, is by their scent. Certainly, the Nylabone dental chew bone I got him may have been easily identifiable — perhaps it smelled similar to Nylabone toys he’s received in the past.
But what about the stuffed animals I picked out from Salvation Army? These items probably belonged to unknown children before him. Perhaps they sat around in attics or basements for years before being donated to the store. There were probably hundreds of scents associated with these items — kid smells, house smells, store smells and more — none of which would be familiar to him.
As the book explains, dogs are able to smell the tiniest of molecules. The book uses, for example, walking into a bakery. We smell the scents of baking bread, muffins and icing while our dogs would instead smell the yeast, eggs and different types of sugars used to make the products.
Amazing, right?
On that note, perhaps what Sensi was smelling and recognizing as something for him was not the objects’ most recent scents — human handling, house smells, store smell, etc., — but instead the fibers used to make the stuffed animals, the different felts used to make a nose or plastic materials commonly used in making stuffed animal eyes.
Who really knows. All I can say, without a doubt, is that Sensi was able to identify the four boxes that were his and showed no interest in the dozens of other boxes, despite the fact that they all had pretty much the same outward appearance.
I often say on this blog that if we only knew more about our dogs, we could stop buying into all these warm and fuzzy but vastly untrue myths about our four-legged companions. If we really took the time to learn the truth about dogs, we could simply appreciate them for being the amazing animals that they truly are.
Sensi with his favorite all-time gift from a Christmas a couple years ago, a Jolly Pets Teaser Ball.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A dogless night

The emptiness in my house was overwhelming.
There was no tail-wagging, smiling dog to greet me as I walked in the door. No pit-patter of paws down the hallway. No big eyes beggin’ to secure a spot on the couch. No four-legged creature to jump up from a deep sleep just to accompany me as I walked to the fridge.
It was a dogless night at my house.
Oh, the emptiness. I don’t know how those non-dog owners handle it.
It wasn’t exactly like we were worried for our pooch, thinking of his loneliness as he spent the night in a cage at the vet’s office or something. In fact, it was exactly the opposite — our dog was out having a doggone good time, getting lots of love and special attention from my Dad.
It was Thanksgiving when my Dad, who just adores my dog, made his request.
“It gets kind of lonely at the house, ya know,” he told me. “I was wondering if I could borrow Sensi for the night — he’s good company. I can talk to him, play with him, even just take a nap with him.”
I was touched. My Dad and my dog really do have a special bond. I have this picture of my Dad hugging my dog and Sensi is clearly hugging him back, his big ol’ pit bull head nestled right into my Dad’s neck.
Of course, I said yes. But even as I said it, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy night.
My husband and I coped in an odd, somewhat comedic manner. He’d call out Sensi’s name, perhaps just to say it like he normally would, and I’d do the same.
Perhaps the worst was when I grabbed my keys to put them in my purse. It was a strong reminder of the associations I’ve made in my life. When I grab my keys, I expect to hear the jingle of my dog’s collar as he leaps up and makes his way to my side to figure out what’s going on, if I’m leaving and if, just if, there’s the possibility I might want some four-legged company on my travels.
But last night, there was no jingle of the collar. No dog at my side, peering up at me with great hope in his eyes that I might just take him on a little trip in the car. I looked at my keys for a moment, sighed and then, with a heavy heart, put them away and went back to what I was doing.
“He’s having a blast with your Dad, Karen,” I told myself. “Don’t be such a loser. It’s not like he’s gone for good.”
Truly, though, his absence last night made both my husband and I think about those awful days that will come after he is gone. As I’ve said before on this blog, my dog is getting into his senior years and what will inevitably come is not lost on me.
“We better have a replacement lined up,” I told my husband last night, half-joking but more serious than I’d like to admit. “I just can’t handle all this emptiness. I need a dog underfoot.”
There was one upside to Sensi’s absence and that was the good night’s sleep that both my husband and I got, considering no 90-pound dog had climbed up between us on the bed to stretch out and steal all our covers.
Which made me think: the next dog will be crate trained. No doubt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don’t unwrap that!

We enjoy watching our dogs unwrap gifts, with a couple caveats — it’s got to be their toys and it’s got to be on our terms.
That means no sneaking under the Christmas tree one week beforehand and stealing arbitrary gift boxes to unwrap.
Think about what the ideal situation would be. On Christmas morning, you pull out your dog’s gifts from under the tree and create a little pile especially for him just as you do for your other family members. You hold one up to him and say, “Open it up, pal, this one’s for you!”
When he’s done unwrapping and everyone’s had the opportunity to coo over how cute and human-like he is, he runs around with the new toy in his mouth, his tail wagging and chest protruding with pride.
Then you say, “Come ‘ere boy, I got another one for ya,” and he trots excitedly back to you, ready to do it all over again.
Keep this entire image in your head and do not stray from it. This is important.
The dog will quickly start making associations, usually “wrapped gift equals toy for me.” After the second or third unwrapping experience, he may completely lose interest in the toy that’s inside and instead move on to the next box, ready to do it all over again.
This is not good. If the dog quickly discards the toy and heads for another box, stop him. You may even give him a correction command, like “No!” or “Bad!” to stop him in his tracks. If you have to, put the remaining wrapped boxes up and out of his reach.
Tease him with his new toys and try to get his attention with them. If he’s determined on unwrapping more gifts, he may move in on the next person and their pile, whether it’s your 2-year-old, 15-year-old or yourself. If he does this, be swift with the correction.
“Bad dog!” as soon as sniffs out a box. “Go lay down!”
Let him sulk for a moment, then tease him again with one of his newly unwrapped toys. Once he appears to have forgotten about those magical wrapped boxes, you are free to give him another one.
The key is in the giving, literally. You want your dog to make the association that he may open gifts once you or another human hand has given them to him and encouraged him to open them, and only then.
This means he may not select his own boxes to open. He may not start unwrapping random boxes on the floor. In order for Fido to unwrap, there must first be a hand extending a gift to him. Not even the slightest of deviations should go unnoticed or without a simple “No!” correction.
By setting up the game this way, your dog has parameters by which he can understand the whole ordeal. Otherwise, how would he know that he can’t open any ol’ gift that’s laying around?
Think about a 2-year-old for a moment. If we never took the time to teach them that gifts can only be opened at certain times and that only certain gifts were meant for them, don’t you think they’d be going around, opening up any wrapped box they laid eyes on?
Dogs are the same.
My sister, by the way, used to put a baby gate around the bottom of the tree for a couple years. Bubba did enjoy stealing gifts every now and again and the baby gate proved to be an effective solution for her.
With time and as the number of children in the household grew (hence meaning there were more birthdays for children where there were not gifts for the dog, providing the dog with many experiences where he was told “No!” when he went to open gifts that were not his), Bubba learned that not all gifts were meant for him. Nowadays, she doesn’t have to worry about him sneaking off with a gift.
So, enjoy an unwrapping experience with your dog this Christmas. Just make sure the only gifts he opens are the ones you hand directly to him.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dogs can unwrap gifts too

Not like this is big news to dog lovers. Most dog owners, I think, probably have discovered and regularly enjoy watching their dog unwrap gifts.
Before having a dog of my own, I really had no reason to give any thought to the issue. It was while celebrating Christmas with my sister and her dog, a Boxer named Bubba, that I realized watching a dog unwrap gifts can be as rewarding as watching kids unwrap gifts.
At the time, it was just her and her husband and the dog. Bubba really ripped into that wrapping paper and, just like a Boxer, used his forelegs and paws to bang the toy around and aid him in the unwrapping process.
Once the wrapping paper had been crushed under his paws and the toy was in his mouth, he pranced around the room like he was king of the world. He wasn’t just happy to have a new toy — he was also very proud of himself for “discovering” it.
The following year, I had my own dog at Christmastime and I was determined to have him unwrap his gifts. That first year, much like a child’s first year, he wasn’t very good at it. He took small bites at the paper and then spit it out. Once we got the item partially unwrapped, I’d finish the job and hand the prize over to him.
Again like a child though, by the time his birthday came around months later, he had greatly improved his gift unwrapping skills. And by his second Christmas, he was a pro. He went straight for where the wrapping paper had been taped together, carefully punctured the tape and paper with his teeth and peeled back the wrapping — often exposing the gift in one very talented unwrapping maneuver.
I love watching him unwrap gifts and I’m continually amazed by how good he is at it. Sensi tackles a wrapped box in a practically scientific manner — personally, I think it has a lot to do with their sense of smell, but that’s another topic for another day.
Teaching your dog to unwrap gifts comes with great challenges, though.
First, how do you ensure the dog won’t decide to open up all those gifts under the tree while you’re gone at work one day, or sleeping comfortably in bed one night? And just imagine how horrible that would be — iPods ruined by teeth marks, mauled Barbie dolls, toy trucks missing wheels, etc.
And secondly, what if that exuberant unwrapper of yours decides the wrapping paper is quite tasty?
Well, there’s a few things you can be sure of — Gifts will be gone or damaged, Christmas will be ruined and you may wind up paying for an expensive emergency surgery to remove Joey’s iPod or Jessica’s Barbie from Fido’s tummy.
In my next blog, I’ll give some tips on how to make sure you’re canine unwrapper doesn’t ruin Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Puppyrific presents

I have no kids and so, like many people out there, Christmas morning at my house is all about the dog.
Through the years, I’ve found that the packaging of the gifts can be as much fun for my dog as the toys inside them. I’ve also found that I can get my dog an abundance of gifts for a very small cost. So, now on my seventh year of dog-centric Christmases, here are my tips to make the morning a merry one for your four-legged pal:
Just one quick disclaimer — My dog has been trained to rip apart, shred and otherwise destroy things without eating them. If your dog is a shred-it-then-eat-it type-of-guy, some of these suggestions may not be healthy for your dog, as emergency room visits are often the result of dogs eating things they shouldn’t.

1) The (empty) 12-pack of beer gift.
No, I don’t allow my dog to drink alcohol. I have, however, found empty 12-pack beer bottle boxes to be perfect for wrapping. A quick stop by a thrift store or dollar store with anywhere from $5 to $10 will fill the box with those types of toys that your dog loves — you know, the cheap squeaky toys and stuffed animals that they rip apart in a matter of minutes and then you have to crawl around to pick up the remains and throw them away. But hey, it’s Christmas. Why not let your dog shred enough stuffed animals to make it look like it snowed on the carpet? The added bonus of the 12-pack of beer gift is that you can let the dog go nuts ripping into the box to get his toys because, who cares if an empty 12-pack gets shredded?

2) The you’ll-never-get-me puzzle gift.
I like to go all out on these gifts. Take a tasty, very smelly morsel — a stinky rawhide, pig’s ear or lamb’s ear or something of that sort, and wrap it up in an old but clean rag which you have no intentions of keeping. Wrap it up really good. Tie those knots as tight as you can. Maybe use a second rag to create a double layer, or even a third. Then, maybe put it in an old margarine bowl or something that you wouldn’t mind being ruined. Finally, put it in a box (another empty 12-pack?) and wrap it up. Your dog will be entertained for hours as he works his way through the puzzle to get the treat! (He may need some encouragement from you if he’s never worked his way through a puzzle before.)

3) The good-luck-getting-these-tennis-balls-out gift
My mother actually deserves the credit for this gift. Years ago, she began stuffing tennis balls in anything she could find — those long 12-pack pop can boxes, empty Capri Sun boxes, cardboard tubes, partially-ripped open stuffed animals, etc., etc. Just look around your house. My favorite is the partially-ripped open stuffed animal. Up the ante on this one by getting him a new stuffed animal, cutting a small hole that’s just big enough to squeeze some tennis balls inside of it and then give a few cursory stitches to close up the hole enough so that the balls don’t drop right out, but not so well-closed that you can’t see the tennis balls. When your dog finds the stuffed animal, point out the tennis balls to him and encourage him to get them out. He’ll love the challenge and the reward!

4) The where’d-your-present-go gift.
Who said all gifts have to be placed under the tree? Take one of your dog’s smelly gifts — bones work well for this, so do Kongs stuffed with peanut butter and rawhides, pig’s ears, etc. — wrap it and hide it. Unless you and your dog regularly practice games of hide-and-seek, I wouldn’t hide it too well. An obscure corner of the room, behind the magazine stand, underneath a desk or table or partially covered by a blanket are some good examples of dog-friendly hiding spots. Once your dog has opened all his gifts, tell him he has one more and get him all pumped up about it. You may need to help him look around a bit but don’t totally give away the hiding spot. Get him close enough so his nose can smell the bone or Kong, but let him find it on his own — his reaction will be worth it!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The chase game: a dog’s perspective

My belief is that games of chase, just like tug, can be a very rewarding energy-outlet for your dog, if played properly.
Of course, I have to preface this blog by stating that you need to know your dog. The game of chase stems from the wolf’s hunting of prey in the wild, and certainly, it is not a good idea to let your dog chase a child, other small animals, or even you if you think such a game could inspire your dog to move from the act of chasing to attacking.
Secondly, it’s always good to train your dog that there’s a difference between chase and keep-away. I don’t like keep-away. It’s pretty simple to nix the keep-away aspect; just stop playing whenever your dog insists on keeping the toy away from you and more than likely, he’ll learn and learn quickly that keep-away is a surefire method to stop the fun.
No dogs like to stop the fun!
When I began playing chase with Sensi, it was generally in small, indoor areas. I’d chase him around a bit, then ask him to bring the toy to me and drop it, then throw it for him and switch the game to retrieve for a little while.
He likes to do the circle thing, where both parties end up doing half-circles because they keep meeting each other and having to turn around and go in the opposite direction.
The half-circle thing gets boring quick, so every once in a while, I’d head off in the opposite direction, running into a bedroom or down a hallway or just somewhere else to give the game some diversity.
What did I find? That even if my dog is the one with the toy and I have nothing, if I turn around and run in the opposite direction, he will follow.
The other day, I even picked up a toy and took off running from him. He had a toy in his mouth too and never dropped it. We were just two idiots running around together while hanging on to dog toys.
So here is what I think — Chase does not necessarily mean that the dog is prey and you are chasing it, or that you are prey and the dog is chasing you. As I warned before, if you think your dog may assume you are prey if you run, then don’t play this game and even better, address this behavior and change it before your dog attacks someone.
My thought is that to the dog, the game of chase is more about you and the dog working together like a pack to get the prey. It doesn’t really matter who has a toy or if you both have a toy or who’s leading and who’s following, it’s simply about the action of running around chasing something like members of the same pack.
Many behavior experts have the same view of tug — it’s not you verse the dog, but rather you and the dog working together to rip apart “dinner,” which, in this case, is a tug rope.
I can’t stress enough that you really need to know your dog, though. Many dogs will move from chasing prey to attacking prey. If you’ve got one of those dogs, I recommend working with your dog to establish what is an acceptable prey to chase (the ball) and what is not (humans, cars, etc.).
If not, chase is more than just a game to your dog and is instead a behavior that could eventually lead to injuries, both for the human and the dog.