Friday, May 29, 2009

Stormy situations

I just checked the weather for this Saturday and Sunday — it shows a chance of thunderstorms both days.
How does your dog do in storms?
I’ve heard some horror stories from dog owners about bad storms, everything from dogs who completely freak out and rampage to dogs that will hide under beds or in bathtubs for hours, shaking all the while.
Unfortunately, it seems rather common for dogs to have an intense fear of thunderstorms.
How these fears develop is, I believe, highly circumstantial.
I could see dogs having an innate sense to take cover during storms — that much would make sense to me, as most wild animals tend to do so in some way.
But nature wouldn’t make dogs flip out during storms. That would be of no advantage to them.
So a fear of storms has got to come mostly from their past experiences.
Sensi does not fear storms. For all the mundane things in this world that make him panic, storms just aren’t one of them. He doesn’t like to be rained on, but he’s game for storm watching as long as it’s from a window or deck overhang.
While I don’t have a lot of experience in calming a dog who is scared by a storm, I do have some general advice and calming techniques that may be worth shot.
1. Don’t make the situation worse by freaking out or feeling bad for your dog. Dogs feed off our energy. Continue with life as normal.
2. If your dog is in full-blown panic mode, give it commands like come, sit, and lay down in a very calm but stern tone. This will help assert your leadership over the dog, and encourage the dog to trust your leadership and behave accordingly.
3. If your dog is hiding, shaking or has finally calmed to the point that he or she is sitting or laying, you might want to try some physical calming techniques, such as:
Pet your dog with gentle, long strokes. Don’t scratch or pat or rub. Start at your dog’s neck and run your hand along its back or belly slowly.
Gently massage or knead the dog’s favorite spots, like the neck or along the spine.
Also, massaging the dog’s cheeks where the upper and lower jaw meets encourages the dog to yawn. Yawning is one technique dogs use to calm themselves down.
At this point, you can also talk to your dog in a soothing tone of voice. Please be sure to make the distinction between baby talk and soothing. Baby talk is high-pitched, excitable speech that does not calm dogs. So if you’re going to open your mouth, make sure the voice that comes out is soothing, calming and reassuring.
Last but not least, if your dog truly turns into a terror because he is terrorized by storms, talk to your vet. Your vet can help you determine if drugs that help calm your dog are the right choice for stormy situations.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Proper puppy shopping

If you’re going to get a dog from a rescue organization, kudos. Do it. I applaud it, and so does most of America. Who doesn’t want to see more homeless dogs get forever homes?
Let’s face it, though. Not everyone is going to the pound for a puppy.
A lot of people want a well-bred, purebred puppy. There’s no shame in that. If you’re shopping for a new, purebred puppy, good for you.
But take heed — your puppy shopping comes with extra responsibilities.
First off, I don’t recommend buying a puppy from a pet store. To all the pet stores out there, sorry. I just don’t trust it.
Pet stores are more apt to get their puppies from puppy mills. Health and behavioral problems abound from dogs produced by puppy mills. Most of us also find the conditions of puppy mills downright offensive. Who wants to support such an inhumane operation?
Secondly, be wary of breeders. Take extra precautions with breeders you find in Classified ads. My feeling on classifieds is, you may find a family who decided to breed their pets responsibly, but you have an equal chance of finding irresponsible breeders or worse, people who traffic puppy mill dogs.
Searching the Internet for responsible, established breeders is another option to find that puppy. There are also a lot of local breed groups, many of which have ties with breed-specific rescue groups, that can be great assets in the search for a new puppy as well.
Here’s some rules for proper puppy shopping that won’t lead you astray:
1. Meet the parents. You should be able to visit the puppies in their home so you can evaluate the living conditions, the people breeding the dogs, and most importantly, the parents themselves. The parents should accessible and well-tempered.
2. Ask for documentation of health testing. A good breeder will not breed a dog that has not been tested for health conditions that are prevalent in that breed — for instance, if you’re getting a lab, ask the breeder to show documents that both parents have been tested and cleared of hip dysplasia.
3. Ask about the puppy’s health and veterinary visits. Most breeders require that they keep the puppies long enough to have taken them to the vet a couple times, and your puppy will come equipped with its vaccinations and sometimes, a microchip. Know what health work your puppy comes with, and know what remaining work you will have to get done.
4. Ask whatever questions you can muster — about the breed, about training, anything, no matter how stupid it may seem. Asking questions is a great way to get a feel for how much the breeder knows and cares about the breed.
5. Use some common sense. There are so many conscientious, loving breeders out there who are so very concerned with bettering their breed of choice. They are often quite attached to their dogs, and many work very hard to ensure their puppies land a good home. If you don’t get that “loving environment” feeling when you visit the puppies, perhaps you should look elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dirty ol’ dog

Dogs become accustomed to the surfaces they spend the most time on.
As a puppy, Sensi always had a patch of grass to pee on. When Brent moved into a place where construction had caused the lawn to be torn up, it was a little difficult getting him to understand that he could pee on dirt too.
He learned, but he stills prefers grass — and not just for the potty. Sensi loves to lay on the grass, roll around on it, stretch out and sunbathe in it. He just loves a good plush lawn.
Outside our house, Sensi certainly has a couple choices as far as surfaces go. There’s the lawn, the concrete porch and the dirt driveway. We’re used to him choosing the lawn to spend his time on.
During the past weekend, Brent and I began digging up our overgrown and neglected garden beds. They stretch from one end of the house to the other.
Last week, Brent tore out 10-plus dying, browned bushes that I have loathed from the time I first set on eyes on the house. The garden beds were ripped up with mounds of dirt and holes where the roots were. Cleaning and evening out the beds was a lot of work.
As we started working on it, Sensi was passing the time in the usual way — lounging around on the grass. But the sun got hotter and shade disappeared.
I figured he’d go hang out on the cool concrete porch. I was wrong.
For the first time in his life, my dog figured out that dirt — which he doesn’t care much for — can be good for something. As we turned up the soil in the beds, he realized the dirt was nice and cool, and softer than the concrete.
We kept a few burning bushes, and one of them provided a spot of shade. The shade also happened to be covering a spot where another bush’s roots left a big hole.
He curled up in the hole, enjoying the cool dirt and shade. And he stayed there practically all weekend, even after the hole was covered up.
I’ve seen lots of dogs dig themselves out holes in the dirt to keep cool in the summer. I know it’s common. I know I shouldn’t be surprised.
But you don’t my dog. He avoids dirt. He always has — even back when he was a puppy, searching for a spotty patch of grass to pee on.
So I was surprised. After six years, he’s finally discovered that dirt is good for something.
And now I’ve got myself a dirty ol’ dog.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What was that noise?

I don’t do well with scary movies.
The suspense gets me every time. My heart starts beating a hundred miles a minute, I feel like I’m about to keel over and I just reach that point where I can’t keep my eyes open.
Nowadays, I don’t try to push myself through it. If my husband puts a scary movie on, I’ll grab a book or photo album, maybe do some laundry. Something, anything — even junk mail — to turn to when I can’t take the suspense any more.
But when I was younger, I stuck it out. My friends would get all geeked for a good thriller and I’d plaster a smile on my face and grab a stuffed animal to hold on to for dear life.
Remember Psycho? Oh yeah, I’ve seen it. In fact, I have a complex from it.
That famous scene where the girl gets stabbed in the shower has never left my memory. Every time I shower, if I so much as hear a pin drop, my heart starts racing.
The sound of the shower curtain being ripped away, that horrible scary movie music and the big knife all replay in my mind.
It used to be pretty bad. If I heard a noise, I’d have to jump out of the shower — soapy hair or not — and check out the bathroom, making sure the door was locked. I’d turn off the water and listen closely, trying to pay attention to any noises that might sound like an intruder.
This morning, I heard a loud thump while I was in the shower.
My stomach dropped, my heart raced. My husband was gone for the day. What was that noise?
I reassured myself — if someone was in my house, especially in my bedroom, they’d have to get by Sensi before they could do any damage.
I didn’t hear Sensi bark, so, I told myself, “It was probably just the dog jumping down from the bed.”
Sensi does not normally leave the bed until I’m done getting ready. In fact, he waits until the hairdryer is clicked off before he wakes.
I think he covets those precious morning minutes when he gets the bed all to himself. He stretches out, uses our pillows, rolls around in the blankets.
When I got out of the shower, I looked into the bedroom, expecting to see Sensi laying on the floor. But he wasn’t. No, he was in the bed, as usual.
So what was that noise?
I continued on with my morning routine, putting my contacts in. That’s when I walked to my nightstand to grab my chapstick and there it was. My explanation.
Sensi had gotten off the bed — the thump I heard was most definitely him jumping onto the floor — at which point he puked ALL over the place.
The pile of lumpy, fresh, smelly puke stretched from the bed to the door.
And that, folks, was how my morning started.
Hope the day gets better from here ...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Touch those paws

Got a puppy? A new rescue?
Start holding paws (like holding hands) with them.
Sound goofy? It’s actually a fantastic idea.
A lot of dogs become sensitive about their paws being touched. This makes it extremely difficult to trim their nails.
Some dogs will become uncomfortable, others may squirm and pull away, and still others may completely flip out, screaming as if the act is torture.
To help ensure that your new puppy or rescue dog will behave nicely for nail trims, it’s good to start by touching their paws often.
When they’re laying down, put a hand over their paw. Or just reach out and grab their paws, gently, every now and then. Always praise them when they let their paws be touched.
The more you touch their paws, the more they become desensitized to having their paws touched. They learn that there’s nothing to fear when their paws are touched, and nothing bad happens either.
It’s a small thing, but something that can have a lifelong impact on your dog.
Start introducing them to nail clippers in the same fashion.
Don’t just pull them out one day, grab your dog, hold him down and start clipping away.
Pull out those clippers, set them on the floor and let him sniff them. When he does, give him a treat. Maybe touch the metal part of the clippers to his nail and give him another treat.
Do this several times before you do the first clip.
With Sensi, I used to give him a tiny treat for each nail that was clipped. Nowadays, he gets one after both fronts are done, and another after both backs are done.
For years, his nail clipping behavior has been excellent. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t like to have his nails trimmed.
However, when I pull out the clippers, he sadly lays down and gets in position. I don’t even have to ask. He waits patiently as I clip his nails, and when I’m all done, he bounces around like a wild dog.
We always play a quick game — fetch or tug or something — after nail trimmings too.
So, while he doesn’t love to have his nails clipped, he behaves beautifully for it and that beautiful behavior never goes without a reward.
And as far as his paws go, anyone can touch them. He thinks it’s as normal as the grass being green.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Notorious terriers

In my previous blog, What’s better, treats or toys? I wrote about how some dogs are motivated more by their prey drive than their food drive, and how it can be more effective training these dogs by utilizing that prey drive.
Terriers are notorious for their prey drive. Most were bred to be ratters — digging out rats from holes in the ground — or other types of small game hunters.
One terrier breed in particular has quite the reputation for its prey drive making it difficult to handle.
No, it’s not the pit bull.
It’s the jack — that little, wiry-hired dog best known as the Jack Russell Terrier. Recently, the American Kennel Club changed it’s name to the Parson Russell Terrier.
After the sitcom Frasier featured a Jack named Eddie, the popularity of the breed skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, many of these dogs ended up in shelters after their owners discovered their dogs to be high energy, independent, squirrel-chasing little troublemakers.
The prey drive for this breed is very strong. They are well-known to become obsessive over birds, squirrels, rabbits or any other kind of small game that frequents their yards.
Their independent streak makes it even more difficult to get a handle on these dogs.
As barnyard ratters, jacks were used to living an independent life. Because of that history, they have a great propensity to be independent-minded — meaning, of course, their minds aren’t always on what their owners want from them.
They’re also small little bundles of energy. These dogs can be on the go longer than the Energizer Bunny.
So what makes a good home for a jack? Someone who can give them daily exercise and keep their minds stimulated in other ways too.
Training games that incorporate their prey drive and athleticism are great ways to both build a strong, respectful relationship with dogs of this breed, and keep them well-balanced and well-behaved.
I’ve written about one local woman who gets her jacks involved in agility competitions. She reports that all of her jacks have excelled at this sport, and that it gives them all the stimulation and exercise they need.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What’s better, treats or toys?

If you offered your dog a tennis ball in one hand and a treat in the other, which one would he choose?
Answer that question, and then think about how the answer affects training.
If your dog would rather have the treat, then use food to train him.
But if he’d rather have the ball, use toys for training.
Dogs have two major drives — prey and food.
In the wild, these were one and the same. But for domestic dogs, they’re different.
There’s no chasing down and catching a food bowl. However, the prey drive is still quite a big part of many dogs.
Realizing what motivates your dog more — their food drive or their prey drive — is a big step is finding the best way to train your dog.
Most dogs are like Sensi. He’s very motivated by food, and also pretty motivated by his prey drive. For the most part, I use treats to train him. Every once in a while, I’ll use a toy as a reward. It doesn’t really matter.
Even more dogs are incredibly food motivated. Golden Retrievers are notorious for it.
But every once in a while, you come across a dog who just can’t get his mind off that squirrel in the backyard.
This is the dog who carries a ball in his mouth at all times. He lives for games of fetch. Birds catch his eye and drive him nuts.
Brent’s former roommate brought home the first dog of this sort that I’d ever met.
The dog has literally dropped treats right out of his mouth when my hand touched his favorite ball. At Christmas, I got him some pig ears and toys. The pig ears — unbelievably irresistible to most dogs — laid untouched on the floor while the dog ran circles with his new toys.
His owner immediately set out to train him some tricks. He used treats, and it worked, but only on one condition — he and the dog had to be in a room with no toys or the dog would pick up a toy and simply lose interest in the training games.
These dogs can be very difficult to train with regard to recalls and commands like drop-it.
The easiest way to teach such a prey driven dog a solid drop-it command? Games of fetch with two or more tennis balls.
Simply throw one ball, and after the dog gets it — whether he returns to you or goes running in circles with his ball — show him you have another.
He’ll return, and usually, will drop the ball in his mouth while he waits for you to throw the other.
Once he’s off chasing the other ball, pick up the one he dropped, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A clean bed

It’s common knowledge that dogs don’t like the same scents that we do.
Give them the choice of duck poop or a flowery perfume, you can bet they’ll choose the duck poop.
When it comes to laundry, I’ve always wondered if they prefer things worn and with their scent on it rather than with the clean laundry soap smell.
Yesterday, I’m pretty sure I got my answer.
I don’t wash the cover to Sensi’s dog bed all too often, and he’s got two blankets that he sleeps with as well.
While I was cleaning on Sunday, I thought it was just about that time to give his stuff a good wash.
Meanwhile, Sensi was outside practically all day.
It was a perfect day for a black dog. It wasn’t humid or even hot, yet the sun was out in all its glory.
Sensi alternated his time between helping Brent chop wood and sunbathing.
How does a dog help chop wood?
Well, it’s not much of a help. He steals all the logs and creates his own wood pile, chewing each one for awhile before placing it next to “his” other logs.
By the time evening set in, the sun was hidden behind clouds and the temperature was a little chilly for my dog’s old bones.
At the same time, my mom arrived — I cooked her dinner for Mother’s Day — and Sensi gravitated to her. He knows she’s a pushover when it comes to attention, and he can always get her to play with him.
She left a few hours later and, as I brought the rest of my laundry to the bedroom, Sensi followed me.
He sniffed his bed, wagged his tail, then climbed in and laid down. And he didn’t get up for the rest of the evening.
Granted, he was tired from the sun and being outside all day. But still ...
The order of his favorite places to sleep are: 1) our bed, 2) the couch, and 3) his bed.
Had he spent the rest of the night sleeping on our bed, it wouldn’t be strange. But in his bed? That’s strange.
So I think this settles the question for me.
Would a dog rather have a freshly laundered bed or blanket, or something that smells of his own scent?
Freshly laundered, for sure.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Update on the garden challenge

Last week, in my blog The next training challenge, I wrote of how I’ll be attempting to train my dog to not use the garden as his personal toilet.
I later wrote Catch'em in the act, which details how to stop the unwanted behaviors that your dog engages in when you’re not around.
The two blogs are linked, and here’s how:
Do you think I go outside with my dog every time nature calls?
No way.
So, in order to train him to stay out of the garden, I’m going to have to repeatedly set him up.
Training him not to go in the garden while I’m around is a piece of cake. I just tell him no and ask him to come whenever I see him put a paw in the dirt. Eventually, he learns the garden is off limits ... while I’m around.
Training him that the garden is off limits when I’m not around is the tricky part.
Fortunately, I think it’ll be a lot easier to set him up with this one than with the garbage can, which I described in Catch'em in the act.
This is because the garden runs along the front of the house, and there are windows above it.
All I have to do is set him off on the chain to do his business, then follow him from one window to the next without him catching sight of me.
Every time he heads for the garden, I need to be ready to open the window and shout, “No! Bad dog!”
The downside is, I will have to do this every time he goes outside — no exceptions — until I visibly see him being successful in going out by himself and not going in the garden.
And not once, or twice, but several incidents of success will have to occur before I believe my job is done.
Would you spend the time to do this?

Monday, May 4, 2009

My canine co-worker

Those of you who read the paper regularly already know who this blog is about — our affable office canine, Norton.
Norton is a service dog, a beautiful yellow lab and golden retriever mix, who helps out Jerry Wolffe, our Voices of Disability columnist and West Oakland reporter.
I’m not sure how long it’s been, but it seems like Norton first came into the picture a few years ago.
It sure is nice to have a dog in the office.
At our morning news meetings, Norton reminds us all of us his presence — by no means intentional, though.
As he lays under the conference room table, he naps and, inevitably, begins dreaming. That’s probably when the noises begin, little grunts and stifled barks.
It’s nice to break from the serious news of the day and laugh at Norton’s rumblings.
One day, I walked into work early in the morning and only Jerry and a couple other people had arrived in the office. No one who sits in the row of desks before mine had arrived, and as I passed the empty aisle, something caught my eye.
“No, Norton, no!” I hollered, a knee-jerk reaction for me. “Bad dog! Drop it!”
The innocent-looking dog froze, staring at me while a staffer’s peanut butter sandwich was sticking half-way out of his mouth. A bit of napkin was hanging from his lip too.
Norton had quietly snuck away from Jerry, and of all the dogs I’ve met who are food motivated, Norton takes the cake.
While Jerry was rather upset at his dog’s antics, I couldn’t stop laughing.
It’s just not something I ever expected to do at work, and it’s a welcome bit of humor in my day.
I couldn’t be happier to have a canine co-worker!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pit bulls in the news

Last week, I got on my soapbox to defend pit bulls after the uncle of a boy who was fatally mauled by his parent’s dog said that the breed was “sent by satan.”
Don’t expect me to always be on the pit bull’s side.
I am a reasonable person.
In Waterford Township, where a pit bull ban is in place, a man has been making headlines because he apparently can’t keep his pit bull under control.
First off, I am not in favor of breed bans. But all the same, the law is the law and this man is not following it.
Despite the fact that officials knew he had a pit bull, he was not ordered to get rid of it. That’s kind.
But instead of taking this opportunity to be a breed ambassador, to disprove stereotypes that all pit bulls are bad and all pit bull owners are irresponsible, he chose to reinforce the stereotype.
His pit bull obviously didn’t receive a proper upbringing, as its history of threatening the neighbors shows it has some aggression issues.
And, instead of trying to rehabilitate the aggression issues while keeping the dog safely restrained to its own yard, he let it continue to get loose.
The dog has bitten at least one person and threatened others. Most recently, one neighbor was threatened by the dog twice in one day.
To make a bad situation worse, the man earned himself disorderly conduct charges when he dealt with officers called by the neighbors.
Now it’s a horrible situation, but it gets worse.
This pit bull, who obviously doesn’t have a good temperament, was bred. She has nine puppies.
Why? Why would you breed a dog with a bad temperament?
I am saddened and disappointed by this man’s irresponsible actions.
I can only imagine how his neighbors must view pit bulls and their owners now.