Friday, February 27, 2009

Did you know?

What type of breeds do you think of when the word Terrier comes to mind?
Most people think of little Yorkies, big black and tan Airedales, stately little Scotties, mini-Schnauzers with their bearded muzzles and several other wiry-haired dogs.
These little dogs look a far cry from my short-haired and muscular pit bull, but they’re one in the same. Like the little wire-haired dogs, pit bulls are terriers too.
There are several breeds that count as pit bulls.
There is the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, which is England’s version and the forerunner of the two similar American breeds. That dog is smaller and stockier, and the breed is affectionately referred to as “Staffies.”
Next are the American Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier. For all I can tell, these dogs are pretty much the exact same. The American Staffordshire Terrier, nicknamed the Amstaff, is the only of the two breeds officially recognized by the American Kennel Club.
The United Kennel Club, however, does recognize the American Pit Bull Terrier, which are usually called APBTs.
Both the Amstaffs and APBTs tend to be larger than the Staffies — taller and though stocky, not quite as stocky as the Staffie.
Next in the line-up are Bull Terriers, of which there are several variations.
The Bull Terrier is most well-known for being the white dog with the football shaped head and big ol’ goofy grin that stars in all the Target commercials.
There is a big size difference between male and female Bull Terriers, with males reaching up to 60 pounds but females usually topping out around 30 or 40 pounds.
A distinction is made between White Bull Terriers, who are nearly all-white, and Colored Bull Terriers, who come in a variation of colors.
There is also a Miniature Bull Terrier.
When a place bans pit bulls, all these breeds are banned.
Here’s a fun fact: A Colored Bull Terrier named Rufus won Best in Show (top prize) at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2006. Think about all the places this A-list dog is banned from.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A clunky, careful dog

Sensi might have been the only one in the litter to receive so many traits from the Labrador’s genes. We’ve seen at least one of his siblings full-grown, and there’s no hint of lab in her appearance.
But it’s undeniable with Sensi. He has a broad chest, like a pit bull, but it’s extra deep too, like a lab. His heavy chest runs all the way down to his belly, and it’s always created a balance problem for him.
Basically, my dog has a very large front-end but a relatively small rear-end. He’s extremely top heavy.
This means he doesn’t jump. He’s very uncomfortable on his hind legs. He’s laughably uncoordinated, though I prefer to call him, “clunky.”
Clunky best describes my dog when he runs. It’s a real sight to see. At 90 pounds, he thunders around and the floor shakes. His gait is reminiscent of a horse’s — and not a thoroughbred’s. It’s more like a Clydesdale, without the graceful appearance.
But clunky should not be confused with clumsy. If there is one thing my dog is NOT, it’s clumsy.
He is so careful that it’s downright uncanny.
I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it started with his tail.
Since we got him while we were still so young, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in my husband’s first house, shared with an equally young roommate, there were plenty of beer bottles and pop cans precariously balanced on coffee tables.
Sensi and his giant whip-like tail would take one swing and send all of them flying.
I would gasp in horror — this is Sensi’s greatest indicator that he’s done something bad — and we’d run for paper towels.
Sensi, meanwhile, would slink away and lay down. We’d tell him, “Bad dog,” while we cleaned up the stinky spilled beer and pop.
In what seemed like just a couple months, Sensi developed an acute awareness of his tail when around furniture. He doesn’t stop wagging it, but he’ll let it wag all the way to the left and then stop it short of the right so as to not hit the table.
His careful manner soon applied to everything. He doesn’t step on anything on the floor that’s not his. He won’t get up on the couch if there’s not a open space for him — even a remote control will prevent him from climbing up.
I’m not sure how this all came to be, but Brent and I are constantly lavishing him with praise for his careful mannerisms.
I doubt we’ll ever again be blessed with such a clunky but careful dog.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Sensibull name

People gave us a hard time about getting a pit bull.
“Did you know that they turn on their owners without warning?” someone asked me.
“I heard they were born bloodthirsty,” another would say. “And did you know their jaws lock? Once they bite something, they can’t stop.”
Everyone seemed to be telling us that we were completely insensible to bring home a pit bull. We were sick of hearing about it. So we named our dog Sensibull.
“In your face!” I felt like saying.
In a way, the joke was on us.
Remember my description of Sensi’s all black mother and all white father? Well, there was something I left out.
Sensi’s mother was unusually tall for a pit bull. After she greeted us, the family pulled her away.
“She can get a little protective around her pups,” they told us.
It seemed strange to me because she had been so friendly with us, even as we sat down with the puppies. But I didn’t question it.
I also remember her fur being kind of long, but she had the folded pit bull ears and square face.
My belief now is that they pulled her away thinking we wouldn’t take a puppy if we got a good look at her. She wasn’t a full pit bull. No, it’s my strong belief that she was half black lab.
That makes Sensi three-quarters pit bull and one-quarter lab. And it’s unmistakable.
He’s got webbed feet, the wide lab tail, the deep lab chest and a crazy affliction for water and games of fetch.
He’s truly a beautiful mix. Sensi is a gorgeous dog and such a good boy.
When it comes right down to it, the breed doesn’t matter. It’s all about the dog.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My first baby

Brent and I were so excited to see the puppies, we were like school kids being let out for the summer.
One all black dog and one all white dog greeted us at the door. They licked us, tails stinging our thighs. These dogs were friendly, which we knew was important in picking out a pit bull.
Plus, they came from a family with kids ranging from teens to tots.
Under the kitchen table, we saw what looked like a lumpy fleece blanket of black and white. There were 12 puppies in all, each a mix of black and white except for the runt, who was a chestnut color.
Brent and I wanted a male, and we were really partial to the white pups. We started inspecting them for cuteness and found most all the girls were white and most all the boys were black, ironic since the mother was all black and father was all white.
When Brent called me over to look at a puppy, I was surprised to find he had warmed up to a mostly black one.
I picked up the sleepy puppy, but he didn’t even open his eyes. His little body just rolled around lifelessly in my hands.
I tried to wake him by propping him up on all fours, but it didn’t work. Like Bambi on ice, he slid right back down to a sleeping position.
A few minutes later, he groggily cracked his eyes open to peer out at me, but not even that lasted long.
I liked that the puppy was a he, and I really liked that he was the biggest pup in the litter. Plus, all his white markings were symmetrical.
I liked his sleepy manners too.
And in that instant, we weren’t just looking for a puppy, we were bringing a puppy home.
That’s how we got Sensi.
In March, Sensi will be 42-years-old in dog years (or 6 in human years). His face is peppered with white hairs and sleep is his number one priority, but he’s still my first (and so far, only) baby.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Deciding on a dog

As long as Brent and I have been together, we’ve talked about getting a dog. We even used to visit to shelters, which basically amounted to torture because neither of us had a living situation where we could bring home a dog.
One day, though, we almost did. It was a litter of black lab mix puppies. As we sat and played with them and picked them up, we went from visitors to adopters.
Brent began filling out the adoption form while I cuddled with our new puppy.
When it was all done, we approached the counter and waiting excitedly as the person examined every last line Brent had filled out.
“Sorry, we can’t adopt to you,” she said curtly to Brent.
“What?” he was flabbergasted.
“Nope. We only adopt to people who promise to spay and neuter,” she said.
Brent had marked the “unsure” box next to spay/neuter question.
“Well can I change my answer? I can neuter him. I just didn’t know it was required,” he pleaded.
“No, can’t do it. Sorry,” she said and walked away.
It wasn’t meant to be.
Months later, we started the “puppy talk” all over again.
Brent and I both wanted a pit bull ... kind of. I wanted a huge mastiff and Brent wanted a little bulldog, and we figured a pit bull was middle ground we could both agree on. Neither of us bought into the myths about the dogs being inherently blood hungry.
A while later, Brent heard about a litter of mostly white pit bull pups through one of his co-workers. We had an anniversary coming up and thought, what better way to spend it than playing with some puppies?
We weren’t 100 percent on getting one, we told ourselves.
We were just going to look (yeah right).
Read more tomorrow.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hand signals

If you don’t think you talk with your hands, I challenge you to tie them together, strap them down to your body and try carrying on an animated conversation.
I’m more than willing to bet your hands will struggle against their restraints, dying to throw themselves around with the ebb and flow of your voice.
We all do it. It’s OK. It’s not like we’re in a public speaking class.
Dogs naturally communicate more through body language than they do vocalizations or anything else, so you can bet they’ve got their eyes fixed on those hot little hands of yours.
They watch ‘em like a hawk, and they can probably tell things about what your next action is going to be or what you want from them based solely on what your hands do.
It would be amazing if dogs could somehow evaluate us.
“Before you walk out the door, you stick your hand in your coat pocket and jiggle your keys,” Sensi would tell me. “And you want to be left alone when you bite your nails.”
Dog owners put so much emphasis on having their dog respond to vocal commands, and I was no exception.
That is, until I read that when training, dogs usually learn first to associate the desired action with a hand signal. The hand signal later becomes associated with the vocal command.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter. You still throw out that hand signal with the vocal command and don’t even notice it.
Think about the “sit” command. You naturally hold your hand in a fist above the dog’s head, the dog naturally sits so he can get a better look at it. The hand signal then becomes that motion of putting your hand, with a closed fist, above his head.
For fun, do the routine of commands with your dog, but pay special attention to what your hands are doing.
Then try the routine with hand signals only.
The cool thing about hand signals? I can tell my dog what to do without even opening my mouth. It makes people think he can read my mind. Ha!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

Please note: The blog that published in Saturday’s pet section was edited for space concerns. The full blog is below, and part 2 follows. Thanks for reading!

Sensi was a little more than a year old when we gave him the OK on a behavior that would come back to bite us in the butt (or rather, the wallet).
It all started with an old can of pop that someone left on a window ledge in Brent’s room.
It was his first summer at the rental house and, as the temperatures began skyrocketing, the bugs came out in all their glory.
While we were watching TV with the dog, I felt something itch my neck and I scratched without thinking about it.
It didn’t go away, so I scratched again and this time, I felt something. To my horror, there was a large carpenter ant crawling up my neck.
I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat about creepy-crawly things, and I jumped off the bed as I knocked it off. The dog, surprised, jumped up too, wondering what in the heck I was doing.
“Oh my God, hun, look,” I said to Brent, my husband.
He turned around and our eyes focused on the parade of ants marching single file on his headboard. They crossed the headboard, went up the wall, across another and down the window until finally reaching their destination — the old pop can.
Our eyes weren’t the only ones focused on the ants and their march to the pop can. The dog noticed too.
I reached for a shoe, Brent grabbed a magazine and we started an ant massacre.
“Arf!” Sensi barked, now clearly excited.
We weren’t paying any attention to him. We were, after all, fighting a war against some rather large and grotesque ants.
So Sensi made a decision for himself — he was going to help. He busted through our weapons of shoes and magazines and started eating the ants. He scarfed one down and moved on the next.
Brent and I looked at each other. “He’s better at this than we are,” Brent said.
“Is there any reason why he can’t have ants?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Brent replied. “They’re a good source of protein, right?”
So we gave him “good boys,” and encouraged him to keep going. While we focused on the areas Sensi couldn’t reached, Sensi took care of every ant that was at dog-level.
Before we knew it, Sensi had cleaned the room of ants. It was impressive.
His love for preying on bugs continued to grow, and we never thought of any reason to put a stop to it.
“Just protein, right?” we’d say to each other, laughing at our dog’s antics.
One day, though, we found a very good and very expensive reason to stop Sensi’s love for eating bugs.

Be careful what you wish for: part 2
Throughout the years, Sensi’s passion for preying on bugs grew stronger. Nowadays, Brent and I can’t even pick up a fly-swatter without our dog going full-blown into bug-hunting-mode.
All the years of carefree bug killing came back to haunt us on another hot and sunny summer day.
We had visited Ruger’s owners (read Comfortable ANYWHERE) to have coffee on a Sunday morning — a normal routine for us. Brent and I had plans to shop at the mall after coffee and our friends offered to keep Sensi while we were gone.
As we watched Sensi carousing around the backyard with his pal, it was a no-brainer. Sensi would stay and have fun, Brent and I would shop.
On our way home, our friend called.
“There’s something wrong with your dog,” he told Brent. “He’s red and swelling.”
Brent told him we were on our way and said it was probably just his food allergies acting up. Our friend challenged him on that, so Brent handed the phone to me.
“Seriously, he’s fine,” I told our friend. “He gets red and rashy, like hives and stuff. He probably just found one of Ruger’s bones. Don’t worry about it. We’ll be there soon.”
Just as I was feeling very proud of myself for not freaking out — my usual course of action in these situations — the phone rang again.
“He’s not fine,” our friend said sternly. “He needs to go to the vet now. His tongue is swelling and we’re afraid he’s going to suffocate. So your only choice is, which clinic?”
There are only two options for emergency vets on a Sunday, and we chose the closest one — Michigan Veterinary Specialists in Auburn Hills.
We pulled in the parking lot just before our friends did, and I’ll never forget watching my dog get out of the car.
“That is not my dog!” I said in shock. “That cannot be Sensi.”
The dog they had on the end of the leash was giant, black, wrinkled puff ball. This dog had a head at least one and a half time’s larger than Sensi’s, and with all the wrinkles, it looked like a Shar-Pei. The eyes weren’t even visible, tucked behind massive wrinkles.
But as the dog licked me with a swollen tongue and began scratching his head against my legs, reality set in. This was my dog.
Mere minutes and hundreds of dollars later, Sensi got a shot and Brent and I got instructions to buy some Benadryl on the way home.
So what happened?
We can’t be sure, but Brent and I both believe that he ate a bug, or at least tried. Probably a bee.
The right side of his face, especially by his mouth, was the last part of his body to stop swelling and revert back to normal.
Consider it a fair warning. Eating bugs is not, “just protein.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jolly Pets dog toys

So aptly named. These toys really do make my dog a jolly guy.
Jolly Pets is a line of pet toys made by Horsemen’s Pride, Inc. The toy that makes my dog the jolliest is called the Teaser Ball.
Most important to owners, this is a durable ball. It’s a very tough, hard plastic.
The Teaser Ball is also aptly named. It has a few circular holes in it large enough for your dog to take notice that there’s another ball inside.
Sensi has a one track mind with these balls: “Gotta get that ball out. I see that ball in there. I hear that ball in there. I gotta get that ball out. I’m gonna get that ball out.”
The first Jolly Ball Sensi ever had was the 8-inch variety (they make four different sizes to satisfy all dogs). It was rare to see Sensi without that ball.
He played with it. He chewed it persistently, even though it got him nowhere fast. He rolled it and tossed it and pawed it. He even slept with it — see the photo.
It took him just about a year before his persistent chewing finally paid off and he was able to pry apart the outer ball.
For all his happy moments, I’ve never seen him so proud as he was in those few minutes he carried around that rubber ball in his mouth.
He pranced through every room, upstairs and downstairs, twice before he ripped the inner ball (it’s soft rubber) to shreds.
We replaced it with the 10-inch Teaser Ball for Christmas that year. Opening that box became his second most prideful moment. He paraded the house showing off that ball day after day after day.
And on the fourth day, he figured out how to get the inner ball out.
The holes are bigger on this ball and he could fit his paw through it. Somehow, he used a combination of his paw and mouth to get that inner ball out.
Still, the Teaser Ball persists. He often picks it up to play with, entice us to play with him, or just go on a parade to show off his extra large toy.
This pet toy company makes a whole line of toys, all of which I’d love to try out.
This company also makes toys for zoo animals like Rhinos and horses too, so if you’re looking for a tough toy, trust me, nobody does it better than this company.

Please note: There will be no blog posting Friday, but not to worry! I will be updating the blog around midday on both Saturday and Sunday. An excerpt from Sunday’s blog will also be published in the paper’s pet section — go online to see the full entry.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Change that tone

I have a fantastically growlish tone of voice that I use when my dog has done something bad.
“SENSI!” I bark at him. “Get over here!”
The tone is all he needs to know he’s in trouble.
Though I keep my dog on leash and in his own yard, mishaps do happen. Especially at our previous place, which had several acres of land. In the very back of the property, I’d unclip his leash and let him run around.
And there were many times that he ran off after a squirrel, rabbit or deer.
I’d start barking out his name and different commands.
“Come!” I’d yell in my deepest, throatiest voice.
I could yell to no avail, but that dog would not come back to me.
One day, Brent and I were returning to our place and had Sensi in the truck. It had been a pleasant evening and I opened the truck doors, getting ready to grab Sensi’s leash.
In a split second, he saw a rabbit and catapulted himself out of the truck, hitting the ground at full speed. He disappeared into the swamp, leash and all.
Brent and I canvassed the swamp — I didn’t even take off my high heels before I stepped into the mucky ground. We were both calling him with our strongest, most growling voices.
We must’ve been back there for an hour. Dark was about to fall, my heels were covered in mud and my dress socks were absolutely ruined.
I felt so desperate. I started worrying that he’d chased that rabbit through all 18 acres and reached the road. I just wanted to see him or hear him, just a sign that he was back there somewhere.
The desperation changed my voice.
“SensEEEEE,” I called, my pitch getting higher for EEEs.
I heard rustling and made the high-pitched call again. And through brush came my muck-covered dog, running at me as fast as he could.
I wondered if my tone had anything to do with it, and years later, I’ve learned it definitely did.
Whenever I call Sensi that way — inside, outside — he barrels toward me at the fastest speed his clunky body can muster.
Try a different tone with your dog. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Comfortable ANYWHERE

Sensi has a particular need for being comfortable.
The available space on the couch has to be large enough before he’ll climb up. Most dogs beg for food; Sensi begs for blankets. He is a master at arranging throw pillows so one is under his chin and the other is at his back.
Lay on the carpet? Only if it’s in front of a warm fire.
Lay on the dog bed? Only if there’s no space on the couch.
Comfort is king to my dog.
If it’s amazing to watch how important being comfortable is to my dog, then it’s even more amazing to watch how unimportant it is to Sensi’s friend, a Britney named Ruger.
This dog is never uncomfortable.
He can lay down on kitchen table chairs, balance precariously on benches, be held like a baby ... the list of odd places this dog has fallen asleep in is never ending.
At about 55 pounds, Ruger is small beans compared to my dog. I haven’t been able to lift my dog since he was six months old, which makes Ruger feel like a lapdog to me. And that's good for Ruger, who thinks he is a lapdog.
When sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with our friends, I’ll invite him into my lap. He jumps up, sits down and then lets himself be manipulated in the world’s most uncomfortable position for dogs.
I lay him with his back on my legs, belly up and neck propped against my shoulder. With his legs sticking awkwardly into the air, Ruger is in heaven. As I rub his belly, he conks out for a good nap.
We’ve caught him falling asleep while falling off things. The look of bewilderment on his face when he hits the floor is unforgettable, and hilarious.
Another favorite position of Rugers can be summed up as “half there, half here.” Ruger loves to sit staircases with his butt and back legs on one step and his front legs on the next one down. My friend reports that he has slept through an entire night like that.
Ruger wants to be next to or in the lap of his people at all times, and at any cost. Around a table that had bench seats, he climbed up to hang out with his family. When he got sick of sitting, he went ahead and laid down. Of course, his legs did not fit on the bench.
This didn’t bother Ruger though. He just let them hang.
As we laughed, I scrambled for my camera. Enjoy the photos!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Challenge the charger

I have stopped dogs distances of 30-feet away from me without making a single sound.
I believe anyone can do it, but I have to put a disclaimer on this.
There’s always a chance it won’t work. I tend to think, though, that if it doesn’t work, you’re just back in the situation you would’ve been in anyhow — a dog is charging you and it’s going to approach you and you better just hope it doesn’t attack or that someone comes to your aid before it does.
So why not try to stop it? What have you got to lose?
Remember in my, “Be Polite!” blog how I wrote that eye contact and greeting a dog head-on creates a confrontation, a challenge, in the doggie world?
In this situation, you want to purposely use those things to challenge the charger.
And you want to behave like Sensi did when we were walking with the Pomeranian. Stick your chest out. Be proud. Feel in charge. Well, don’t just feel it, BELIEVE IT. Believe you are in charge and in control of the situation.
I always try to stop a dog as soon as I see him. Don’t bother waiting until the dog gets close. The further away, the better.
When I spot the dog, I quickly and instinctively step in front of Sensi or move him behind me or to the side. It is critical that in this situation, you are in front of your dog. If you’re not, the charging dog will be paying attention to your dog’s signals and not yours.
I assume my “power position.” Generally, I’ll put one foot forward, straighten my shoulders, stand as tall as I can and stick one arm straight in front of me with my hand giving the “Stop!” signal.
Sometimes I make a growlish, bark-like vocalization. “Eh!” I might growl.
The offending dog usually comes to a quick and complete stop. If it doesn’t, I take another step forward to let the dog know that I mean business.
Do not blink while you’re locked in eye contact with that dog. Don’t move. Don’t move your head. Don’t look at your dog. You must stand like a statue and you must NOT break eye contact.
Wait for the offending dog to give a signal that he doesn’t want to fight with you. If that dog turns its head sideways or looks at the ground, that’s what he’s telling you.
As soon as you see this — don’t waste a millisecond and I am serious — make your move.
“Get!” I’ll yell, moving forward slightly and waving him off with my hand.
The dog will likely turn around and head away from you, but beware, this is not the end.
Stand your ground for at least one more minute. Watch that dog.
Chances are, as soon as you turn around, he will too and he’ll start coming back at you.
So be ready to turn around and do it all over again.
It doesn’t really matter how many times I’ve done this — and I have done it sometimes on a daily basis — I never feel comfortable.
I’m always hiding my fear, my rapidly-beating heart. But I do it for Sensi, and I know it’s the right thing to do.
Got a dog that doesn’t seem like the kind to wait patiently for you to handle the situation? Give it a try anyhow. You might be surprised how your dog behaves when he sees that you’re providing leadership.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The charging dog

“He was just coming over to say hi,” breathlessly explains the owner of the off-leash dog. “He’s just so friendly, he just has to meet everyone.”
Newsflash: the dog was not coming over to make friends.
If you want to read about how dogs make friends with other dogs, read my previous blog titled, “Be polite!”
A dog that charges another dog, running head-on towards it, is not being friendly. Whatever is driving this dog to charge, it is most certainly not a goal of a making a new pal.
Charging is generally a sign that the dog is challenging what he sees as an intruder. In most cases, dogs charge other dogs because of territorial matters.
In the wild, one dog charging another dog that it does not know would end in either a fight, or the non-charging dog receding and running off.
But when we have our dogs on a leash, they don’t have the option to run away. And understand that if you begin running with your dog, the charging dog will just keep on chasing you to prove his point.
Of course, a charging dog isn’t always out to stake his territory and chase off an offender. In some situations, it’s just bad doggie manners.
Dogs that don’t have enough socialization or spend enough time with other dogs don’t have the opportunity to hone their social skills and learn proper doggie manners. I have had a friendly dog charge at me too, but for all my dog-walks, it’s only happened once.
Unfortunately, these bad doggie manners elicit the same response from your well-mannered pooch as does the territorial charging dog: fear, instability and aggression.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s a small dog either. I once had two very small dogs run from their owner’s porch to the sidewalk Sensi and I were on. They barked the whole way and when they got to my dog, one started nipping at his feet while the other ran underneath his belly to sniff his behind.
Poor Sensi was about ready to have a heart attack. He was so scared that he started trembling and, with his tail tucked, he peed all over that little dog that had gone under his belly.
As his fear continued to escalate, he got closer and closer to becoming aggressive.
This is a scary thing for me. Just imagine: my pit bull or any other large dog could seriously injure or even kill a tiny dog like that with one bite. And then who’s at fault? My dog, which was properly restrained and walking nicely beside me on a leash, or the little dog, who aggressively charged at my dog?
The answer is, of course, my dog — simply because he’s a pit bull and the average person has little to no understanding of canine behavior, therefore they don't understand that it's not about a dog's size, but its attitude and behavior.
The public, hearing about the situation, would respond, “Those poor little dogs got attacked by the pit bull? See how awful those pit bulls are, they’ll even bite a tiny dog like that!”
Public opinion is never in my favor. This is something I accept.
And, it’s one more reason why I realized that I needed to be the leader. I need to protect my dog from chargers when we’re walking.
Monday I’ll talk about how I try to do that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Learning from Sensi: part 2

Why did Sensi decide to take charge of the situation I described in Wednesday's blog?
The energy that both Jazzy and I were emitting left him no other option. Jazzy was acting fearful and very unstable. And I, worried about Jazzy, was behaving in the exact same manner.
Dogs, at least nine out of ten, are born followers — not leaders. This is necessary in the wild so that cohesive packs can form.
In the wild, there is usually a rigid hierarchy to a pack that rarely changes. However, it is only stable because the pack leader(s) keep order. If that order were to be more loosely kept, the canine roles would change swiftly and frequently.
This is because dogs naturally step up to the plate and change roles with the goal of keeping the pack successful and cohesive. It is no different in our homes.
However, we humans, unlike wolves, do keep loosely structured hierarchies. And our dogs are always stepping up to the plate when they don’t feel we’re providing leadership. Unfortunately, most dogs are very uncomfortable with this role.
Sensi most certainly is.
I’m not sure why he took it on successfully in that day’s instance. Perhaps Jazzy’s presence instilled some protectiveness or confidence in him that he doesn’t normally have on walks.
Previously, the scenario would play out like this:
Sensi and I walk along, minding our own business. Dog runs out at us. My heart is pounding, I’m nervous and fearful and don’t know what to do. Sensi latches on to my energy and also becomes unstable, tucking his tail, crouching and looking fearful.
The dog’s owner tackles their dog just in time to avoid a bite from Sensi, whose fear is escalating to aggression because he’s entering fight or flight mode and, being that he’s on a leash, flight isn’t an option.
That’s way it always played out in the past, and I’m not sure why he took the pack leader role on that particular day, but it certainly isn’t characteristic of him.
I did learn from Sensi, though, that his behavior is how I am supposed to be behaving. Instead of becoming scared and tense, I needed to be taking control of the situation.
Sensi, after all, looks to me for leadership and on our walks, I simply had not been providing it.
One thing is for sure, you don’t want your dog assuming the leadership role. Most dogs, like Sensi, don’t know how to handle it and will behave in ways that are aggressive or otherwise undesirable. If that dog who jumped the fence and charged us had not understood Sensi’s body language, he would’ve been greeted with an attack.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about what the dog who charges at you is communicating, and on Monday, I’ll explain how I handle charging dogs.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Learning from Sensi

It was a beautiful spring day when one of Sensi’s best friends, a little white Pomeranian named Jazzy, had come over to visit.
I love walking Sensi and Jazzy together. In fact, she’s my favorite dog to walk with Sensi. The two of them walk proudly side-by-side, and by my side too. It draws a lot of strange looks too, a 90 pound, short-haired black dog with a teeny-tiny long-haired white dog.
What can I say? Opposites attract.
Our odd trio was just approaching the end of the long driveway and about to turn on the road when I saw the other dog.
For a moment, I wanted to laugh at this goofy, skinny brown dog trying to shimmy over his wood fence. But then he tumbled forward, landing on the grass about 10 feet in front of us. Once he got his footings, he started running toward us.
Jazzy was going nuts. She was yipping like mad and twirling in circles while she backed up on her leash. I was worried she was going to back right out of her collar.
I tried reaching to pick her up but she kept scooting away in fear. I was so focused on her that I didn’t even noticed what my dog was doing.
As I was reaching for her, I looked back at the dog to see what was happening just in time to watch him come to a screeching halt about 4 feet in front of us.
He literally slid on the grass, locking his skinny legs and turning his body sideways. Once he was good and stopped, he tucked his tail, wheeled around and ran in the opposite direction. He realized he couldn’t get back over the fence and took off in a sprint around the house, presumably heading toward the front door.
I was a little bewildered at the dog’s change in direction when I looked at Sensi. That’s when I saw what he was doing, and the best I can describe it is this: If you could make a statue of a dog looking proud and regal, that’s exactly what Sensi looked like.
He was standing tall, with his head and ears erect and chest pushed forward. His eyes were locked in a dead stare forward. His tail was curved up, but as still as stone, just like the rest of his body.
I realized that he was communicating very clearly to the other dog.
“I am in charge of this group, and you are not welcome,” he was saying.
Tomorrow, I will explain why I think he took this position when he never had before, why is it bad to allow your dog to take this position, and how I learned from Sensi to behave properly on walks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Penny-dance

Before the weekend, I wrote that Sensi would be thrilled to see the Halti.
I was so focused on the drama of the black lab confronting us that I forgot to report on what a good boy Sensi was.
He was very excited to see me pull out my boots and his walking gear. As I was putting on my boots and had his leash and Halti next to me, I finally said it.
“You wanna go for a walk?” I asked him.
My question garnered the Sensi-dance, which I should really call the Penny-dance.
Sensi was raised around a mother and daughter pair of Britneys owned by some friends of ours. The daughter, Penny, had two quirks about her that I’ll always remember.
One, she wouldn’t greet anyone at the door until she had her stuffed animal in her mouth.
Two, she did a little dance every time before she went outside. The Penny-dance goes like this: Penny walks to the door, asks to go out. You walk over. “Wanna go outside?” you ask. Penny does a play bow — where she puts her front paws down but sticks her rear in the air (It’s dog body language for “let’s play” or “I’m friendly”) — and then jumps around, doing play bows in every direction.
Both Penny and her mother passed away a few years ago, but I like to think that they live on in Sensi because they passed social traits and behaviors — like the Penny-dance — on to him.
The neatest thing is that our friends got a new puppy, also a Britney, and Sensi taught him the Penny-dance. So now Penny lives on in their new dog too.
After Sensi danced around his leash, he sat nicely for me to get him all hooked up. Then out the door we went — with me exiting first, of course — and he walked calmly at my side. He even waited patiently for me to deal with the lab; no pulling, barking or further antagonizing the other dog.
He was so good that on Sunday, he even got a round of compliments from Dad.
“You were a good boy, Sensi. Such a good dog,” Brent said when we returned home, earning Brent a bunch of "thank-you" licks on his face from our four-legged friend.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Weekend walks

I kept my promise this weekend and walked Sensi on both Saturday and Sunday — of course, not without a little drama.
My house is on a corner lot. Our driveway comes out to one road that borders us to the north, and private road runs along the front of our property to the west.
I chose to walk along the private road as the other road is a very narrow, twisting dirt road. In winter conditions, it’s plain ol’ unsafe to be walking down it when vehicles have a tough enough time without dodging walkers.
As soon as the weather breaks and the road improves though, I’ll be ditching my private-drive walks.
First off, the road isn’t long enough. Both Sensi and I were unphased by our walk, and we’re used to feeling a little winded by the time we return home.
Secondly, there’s a dog.
Near the end of the private drive, there’s a home on a hill with a long driveway. It’s on a curve, and after I had rounded the curve and continued on my way, I heard barks behind us. I looked over my shoulder but didn’t see anything. I made mental note to keep a lookout for dogs on my way back.
Sure enough, as Sensi and I were on our way back I spotted a big black lab barreling down the driveway, barking all the way. By the time it reached the end of its driveway, Sensi and I had just made it past. But the dog was still coming.
So I turned around and confronted it, positioning myself in front of Sensi and locking eyes to challenge the dog. The huge lab stopped dead in its tracks and stared back at me.
My heart was thumping as I tried to stay collected, knowing I couldn’t show the dog any fear. After a minute or so, he began looking away but wasn’t budging. I took advantage of his sign of submission to give a command.
“Get!” I growled at the dog, shooing him with my hand.
He turned around and started back up his driveway.
I waited a moment and then turned Sensi and I around too. As I looked over my shoulder though, the dog was coming toward us again.
I turned around again and faced off with the dog for a few more minutes. When he finally turned around again, Sensi and I were able to gain some ground before he started back after us.
He followed us for a while before stopping to pee on a tree and turning around to head home.
My heart pounded the whole way home.
On Sunday, my husband walked with me to help build my confidence.
Of course, we didn’t see the dog or any others.
I wish, oh how I wish, that people would just keep their dogs restrained to their yard.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The wonderful, magical Halti

Sensi and I walked frequently when he was a puppy. I loved showing him off.
One time, a lady even opened her front door and hollered out at me, “Excuse me! Miss! What kind of dog is that? He is just beautiful!”
I yelled back, “Thank you! He’s a pit bull.”
She turned around and slammed the door behind her. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to own a pit bull, that pretty much sums it up.
Sensi grew big fast. He was 90 lbs. by the time he was 9 months.
That first winter, he spotted a squirrel run through a fence and decided he was going in for the chase. He took me right along with him — through a three-foot-tall snowbank and face first into a chain link face.
Later that winter, I thought I’d make light of situation by letting him pull me down the icy roads. He loved it. I locked my legs and he trotted merrily, pulling me along for the ride. Until he a saw a squirrel and I, again, face planted a snowbank.
When spring broke, I set about training him to walk properly on a leash. I had read that the best way to do this was to basically walk in circles. Whenever the dog pulls, you turn around and go the opposite direction. The dog is supposed to learn that he has to follow you.
It didn’t work. We walked circles for hours. One of Brent’s neighbor’s came out — probably concerned for my sanity — and asked what we were doing. She looked at me strangely as I tried to explain. I imagine she and her husband laughed heartily at my hours of circle walking.
I went to the pet store determined to buy a prong collar, which I didn’t really believe would work on Sensi, who doesn’t seem to feel any pain.
Next to the prong collars and choke collars was the Halti.
The Halti is just one of many brands of gentle leaders.
What’s a gentle leader? Think of a horse’s bridle and how it goes around the head. Now imagine that without the bit (the mouthpiece). That’s pretty much what they are.
The Halti is a little different from the rest because it hooks into the dog’s regular collar, meaning if the dog somehow wipes off the Halti, he’s still not free from you. It also has a loop around the mouth that tightens if they pull on it.
Gentle leaders work.
If the dog pulls, he’s pulling against himself, not you. Think about it. You’re leading the dog by his head. If he pulls, all it does is pull his head.
It’s so amazing that I can hold on to the leash with my little pinkie finger.
Sensi learned in one walk how far ahead, to the side and behind me he can go without pulling on himself. He now chooses to walk right beside me, and instead of trying to chase after squirrels, he zones in on the idea of traveling as a pack. That’s the type of mental exertion Cesar talks about.
He doesn’t hate the Halti either. Sensi associates the Halti with walks, which he loves, so he sits and waits eagerly for me to put the Halti on.
He’ll be thrilled to see the Halti this weekend.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My promise

I admit it — I’m a total Cesar Millan junkie.
I wore my husband out on watching “The Dog Whisperer” years ago. He makes a valiant effort to tolerate watching it, though the marathons are understandably tough for him.
I am only afforded this tolerance, I believe, because I make an effort to tolerate video games, Sportscenter and sports.
A few years ago, Cesar and the Halti (I’ll write about the Halti in the next blog) really got me motivated to walk Sensi.
It was about this time of the year when I made a promise that I would walk Sensi every day so long as the temperature was above 40 degrees and it wasn’t raining.
I stuck to that promise, starting the year in a winter coat and gloves. We walked every day right after I got home from work. It was a good thing, and not just for the dog.
By the time fall came, another college semester had started. It was harder and busier than the one before. Then snow came. Then zero degree temperatures. Before I knew it, months had flown by without a single walk.
Sensi and I now walk periodically. By periodically, I mean almost never.
I have doubted Cesar’s advice at times. Sensi, after all, is more concerned with blankets and the couch than anyone else in our house.
Nowadays, that couch is reflecting worse on my body than on Sensi’s. So I made another promise for another year of walking — same rules as last time.
We’re going to break 40 degrees this weekend, so we’ll see if I hold up to my promise.
Of course, I should be able to skip Saturday. I do have that not-if-it’s-raining clause.

Be polite!

Did you know that when you say hi to a dog, you’re more than likely scaring the heck out of it?
Yes, it’s true and I’m on a lifelong campaign to enlighten my fellow humans.
Here’s a polite human-to-human greeting: Two people walk to each other and meet face to face. They shake hands or make some sort of physical touch while making eye contact. They speak to each other.
Here’s some interesting facts about dogs you should know.
Head-on encounters generally means two dogs are threatening or challenging each other. Locked eye contact means, “the fight is on!” Physical touch is inappropriate unless it’s a nose buried in a butt. A dog that touches its head or mouth to the top or face of another dog’s head is making a dominant gesture. Vocalizations are not part of a dog’s greeting.
So when you walk straight toward a dog head-on, the dog sees you as confronting it. When you lock eye contact, the dog sees you threatening it. When you reach out to pet its head, the dog sees you trying to dominate it. Connect the dots. You’re freaking that dog out!
How do dogs introduce themselves in a polite manner?
They begin sending signals to each other from far distances away. If the signals are friendly, they may move closer together, traveling in half-circles to avoid head-on confrontations and making sure not to lock eyes.
If all the signals being sent between the dogs are friendly, they’ll move in for a proper sniff of one another’s rear-ends. Now they’ve been formally and politely introduced.
Dogs do grow accustomed to a human’s greeting and become very comfortable with greeting their owners and even other well-established canine friends in the human fashion.
However, we should not assume that a dog we do not know will accept our threatening and socially-unacceptable greeting.
Give new dogs the opportunity to sniff your pant leg before you overload them with “oohs” and “good boys” and lots of excited patting and eye contact.
It’s the polite thing to do.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Positive rewards & problem solving

I know people who don’t believe in positive reward training. There’s lots of you out there — you who believe that the best way to teach a dog to behave is just to punish it when it does something you don’t like.
I disagree.
Using positive reward training teaches your dog to problem solve and gives them an outlet to do so.
Here’s the scenario:
You have a treat. Dog is looking at you. “What does she want?” the dog wonders. You say lay down. The dog sits. You say lay down. The dog whines. You say lay down. The dog sighs. You say lay down and point at the ground. The dog looks at the ground, whines again. You say lay down. The dog gets bored with this game and lays down.
You give the dog a treat, and now the dog is thrilled — happy and exuberant and ready to do it again.
With every positive reward exercise, your dog is learning to exhibit different behaviors until he gets the one that is rewarded. It’s a process of elimination for him, and it’s problem solving.
Sitting didn’t work, so I whined. Whining didn’t work, so I sighed. But when I laid down, I got the treat. Problem solved.
Would you rather your dog apply his problem-solving abilities to trying to figure out what you want from him, or trying to figure out how to turn door knobs or open garbage can lids?
Take your pick, because his problem-solving skills are going to come out in some form.
I prefer the one that makes life easier for both me and the dog.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Make ‘em work for it

With no children (yet) to buy for, Sensi is a spoiled dog on Christmas morning.
And like kids, he often finds the box his toys are wrapped in to be more entertaining than the toys themselves.
One year, after he had finished destroying the boxes, de-stuffing the stuffed animals and shredding the tennis balls, I tried to focus his attention on the expensive toy I’d bought him: The Buster Cube (usually $10 to $15, depending on the size).
The Buster Cube was made by someone who is a genius, I swear.
It’s a cube made of hard plastic, designed to be difficult to carry and nearly impossible to chew. There’s a hole on one side of it. You put dry food in the hole, and then the cube spits it back out for the dog a couple pieces at a time as he rolls it around.
Sensi wasn’t sure what to make of this odd toy and he avoided playing with it — after all, he couldn’t carry it or chew it or throw it around, so what was he supposed to do?
Well, I had to show him.
For about an hour, I crawled around my house on my hands and knees, pushing The Buster Cube around. The dog was interested in my strange behavior, so he followed me. He got excited about the pieces of dog food that were coming out of the cube when it was turned over just right.
After a half-hour, the knees of my jeans were wearing thin and I thought he’d never catch on. I’d stop pushing the cube and encourage him to do it, but he’d just stare at me in anticipation.
“Do it again Mom!” he would’ve said if dogs could talk. “Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!”
I kept working with him at it, even pushing the darn cube with my face to see if maybe he’d catch on.
In a split second, a light bulb clicked on in that dog’s head and he was off.
He raced around, pushing that cube so hard it flew in the air, banged against the walls and made all sorts of racket.
No matter about the worn out knees in my jeans — teaching him how to use that cube has been priceless.
It’s healthy for dogs to work for their food, it’s natural to them and it stimulates them and gives them exercise. Bonus, bonus, bonus.
My message: get a Buster Cube and invest a little time teaching your dog how it works.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Some like it hot: part 3

My sister’s boxer, Bubba, is a 6-year-old fella who has an unwaivering attachment to her three children, ages 4, 2, and 8 months.
He also has the same hair-less undercarriage dilemma that my dog has.
My sister and I often jokingly exchange stories about our dogs’ cold weather antics, and she told me one recently that was really amusing.
Like most boxers, her dog was born with a docked tail — a wagging and wiggling little thing that’s only a few inches long. He is very sensitive about his tail, which my sister refers to as “Bubba’s stub.” Touch it and he tucks it, then turns around and gives his offender a pouty glance.
When it’s down, it lays flat against his rear and covers his — yes, I’m going to write it — butthole.
We humans can only try to imagine what it must be like to have that sort of open exposure to the elements.
Bubba has little control over his stub. Whenever he walks, the stub stands straight up and waves from side to side.
“So he was outside with us when we were playing in the snow with the kids, and he wanted to run around with them,” my sister said. “But every time he moved, his stub went up and the cold air was apparently bothering his butt.”
My sister reported that her dog tried to keep his stub down for some protection from the elements, but it wasn’t working well for him.
The stub would go upright with each step.
He’d stop, lower the stub and try walking slowly again. This went on and on, she said.
“We couldn’t stop laughing, even the kids,” she said.
After I hung up the phone with her, I walked over to my dog and gave him a pat.
“At least you’ve got a tail to cover your rear, pal,” I said.