Friday, August 14, 2009

Pit bulls and parolees

I was all set to blog about the body language of fearful dogs today, but then I came across a story on our Petropolis page about a new reality show airing next month on Animal Planet.
It’s called “Pit Bulls and Parolees” — a very fitting name as it appears the show will be about just that.
A California woman runs Villalobos Rescue Center, where she works on adopting out 225 pit bulls and providing jobs for parolees, who work with the much-maligned dogs.
I’ll be tuning in to watch this show, and I hope I like what I see.
If I do, then it’s another step in turning the tide of public perception regarding my favorite breed, pit bulls.
In the past few years, there’s been a lot publicity that has begun showing that this breed is just as capable as any other breed of producing good dogs.
First, there was Cesar Millan with his show “The Dog Whisperer.” People got to see, probably for the first time, how massive numbers of pit bulls live amongst one another, not restrained in the least bit, without a problem.
And they got to see his mascot, the old and sturdy pit bull Daddy, help rehabilitate other dogs — from tiny Chihuahuas to other pit bulls and everything in between.
Then there was the Michael Vick scandal. A quote from the article on Petropolis says it best.
The owner of the shelter, Tia Maria Torres, said:
“As horrible as it was, it changed everything for the pit bull. Shelters are looking at the dogs differently, the public has a lot more empathy and adoption rates are going up. The dogs that died at his hands were the sacrificial lambs. Almost like war heroes, they died for the rest of the dogs.”
National Geographic did a series on how most of the Vick pit bulls were able to be rehabilitated and rehomed, despite their miserable and abusive past.
And closer to home, there’s the story of the pit bull mix Madison who was set on fire by teens at barely 8 weeks old. For all she’s been through, she’s well on her way to being a shining example of all the breed is capable of.
I hope the good publicity continues.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is that a fearful dog?

Here’s a scenario to think about:
You walk up to a very handsome black dog. He’s holding his tail low, but it’s wagging. You don’t notice that as you get closer, the tail gets lower and lower but starts wagging with greater velocity.
All that matters to you is, you’ve seen a wagging tail. That’s a sign of friendliness and happiness, right?
The dog not only appears to be smiling, but his tongue starts going the closer you get. It’s out and licking at your pant leg before you even get close enough to make physical contact.
Wagging tail, licking tongue. Must be a friendly dog.
You don’t notice that his hair has poofed up a bit a long his back — it’s too small of a change for you to pick up on. You don’t notice his rounded eyes darting back and forth, whites of his eyes showing while he avoids making direct eye contact with you. You don’t notice that his ears are glued back against his head.
All you see is a handsome dog with a wagging tail and a licking tongue. A friendly dog.
So you reach your hand out to pet this friendly dog, and WHAP! You’ve been bitten. It was instantaneous. You are left in a state of shock, holding your bloodied hand and wondering what the heck happened.
It happened so fast, you didn’t notice that the dog recoiled at the sight of your approaching hand before rebounding and sinking his chompers squarely in the palm of your hand.
The dog bit quickly, broke the fine skin on your hand, then released and ran away.
What happened? Why in the world would this friendly dog bite you just after wagging and licking?
The answer, of course, is that you’ve just approached my dog, who is extremely fearful. And this is how he reacts.
Most people do not believe me when I tell them Sensi is a fearful dog.
They see a happy, handsome, laid back, relaxed and impeccably well behaved dog. My dog does not give the appearance of being fearful, at least not the type of appearance people recognize.
I, on the other hand, can see a bite coming a mile away. It didn’t always used to be that way, though.
I searched and searched for answers as to what was making my adolescent dog suddenly become aggressive. Was he dominant? Was he protective? Was he picking up on something bad about a person that we didn’t have the instincts to know? What in the world was making my dog freak out and become aggressive in the most unexpected situations?
I gathered all the information I could about different types of aggression. None of it fit Sensi and the behaviors he was displaying. I felt like I was at my wit’s end.
Then I read an article about how a fearful dog may react to a new person, and the article was a play-by-play of exactly every motion made by my dog. From then on, I knew what I was dealing with.
But oh boy, did it take a lot of time to learn how to deal with it.
Tomorrow, I’ll go over some of the physical displays dogs engage in while scared.
Knowing all the ways your dog is trying, usually in vain, to tell you it’s scared is the first step in learning to deal with a fearful dog.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The fearful dog

I bet that 99 percent of you would say that, without a doubt, you could tell if a dog is fearful.
You’d pick the little Chihuahua or Yorkie who can’t stop shaking. The big dog with the tail tucked so far under it appears to be glued to his stomach.
And you’d coo at the dogs, “It’s OK, sweetie, you little pumpkin wumpkin. You’s so sweet, it’s OK.”
Even if you didn’t know them, you’d be cooing at them, trying your human best to let them know that you are a nice person and would never hurt them. Perhaps you’d reach out to pet them and knowingly scratch under their chin, remembering that it’s not good to pet a fearful dog on top of its head.
You think you’re pretty well versed in identifying and handling a fearful dog, don’t you?
You think all that dog needs is a lot of loving and someone to protect it from all the things that make it fearful, and then, the fear will just go away.
Well, you’re wrong. The fear will not just go away.
Worse, when it comes to handling a fearful dog, you have only fraction of the knowledge you need to be both successful and, most importantly, safe.
Like human emotions, fearfulness in dogs varies greatly depending on dog’s inherent personality, early socialization and lifelong experiences, and their current environment.
It is possible to have a very fearful dog who would never bite. It is also possible to have a dog who shows very little evidence of fearfulness, but then bites out of fear once in his life. And of course, there is the fear biter — the dog who bites regularly out of fear.
The telltale signs of fear also vary greatly. Generally, all dogs will use the same signals, but they will use them differently depending on the situation and depending on the dog.
Fear can be a hard one to figure out. Often, by the time a human realizes a dog is fearful, the signals emitted by the dog are so extreme they simply cannot be missed.
But, by the time the dog has taken his signals to such an extreme, the situation has become dangerous.
The biggest mistake humans make is thinking that a fearful dog is like a fearful person, that a little coddling and comforting can make it all better.
Most people never realize that in dogs, fear often drives aggression.
And just the opposite scenario is also often overlooked — most people never realize that much of an aggressive dog’s behaviors are driven by fear.
We just don’t usually make the link between fear and aggression.
This is unfortunate.
Being the owner of a fearful dog, I could ramble on forever about fear. I will try not to do that. Keep reading and I’ll try to shed some light on this subject, without overdoing it, I hope!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Rehabbing food aggression: part 2

Once you’ve made some positive steps and notice your dog is a bit more comfortable with you around the food dish, there is still more to do.

• Rather than giving the dog its meals all at once, divide it into three portions. Give the first portion, let the dog eat, then ask it to back away from the dish, sit, and stay. Then, give the dog its second portion of the meal. Repeat.

• Practice hand feeding often. At first, you may want practice tossing kibble or treats to your dog. Work your way up to extending an open hand towards him, holding kibble, and allowing him to eat directly from your hand.

• Give the dog an exchange at feeding time. Have something delicious on hand, perhaps a little wet food or some cooked chicken. When the dog is eating, wave the other dish with the more delicious food near enough so he can smell it. Once you’ve got him begging for that food, put that dish down on the floor. When he begins eating from it, pick up his other food dish. Of course, when he finishes his tasty little treat, give him his regular food back.

• Get the rest of the family involved. Just because the dog is learning that you are not a threat to his food source does not mean he’ll assume all family members are non-threatening. Dogs don’t generalize, so get everyone involved in the training exercises you are working on — just be sure not to involve children until the dog has loosened up a bit, and be very cautious. Use common sense. Do not let children do any exercises that could put them in danger, and be sure to supervise every second of the training.

Object guarding
Oftentimes, food aggression goes hand-in-hand with object guarding. If your dog is growling at you when you walk near his food dish, he may also growl at you when walk near his bone or stuffed animal.
After all, the dog views both food and toys, especially real bones or rawhides, as resources.
The greatest way to overcome and proof against object guarding is the exchange game. Whenever the dog gives up a toy, he gets something better — a treat or another coveted toy. You are teaching him that releasing toys to you is rewarding for him.
Check out this article, which offers valuable insight to rehabilitating both food aggression and object guarding.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rehabbing food aggression

As discussed in previous blogs, dogs owned by hoarders may have food aggression issues.
If the dog was in a situation where there were tons of other dogs, and perhaps not enough food to go around, survival mode would’ve kicked in.
Any food morsel a dog managed to grab for itself would be dearly guarded from others. After all, it sometimes becomes a matter of life or death.
I admit, I do not have much experience with food aggression. I actually have more experience with the other end of spectrum; getting fearful or bored dogs to stop refusing to eat!
I believe, though, that some basic laws of socialization can apply to food aggression.

1) Do not use an automatic feeder. This is a big no-no. As humans, we think, “Once the dog realizes that food is always available, he won’t be aggressive anymore.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember, dogs do not have the capacity for analytical thought.
An abundance of food will not rehab their aggression. Instead, the dog will become super aggressive and protective of the feeder.

2) After feedings, when your food-bowl-protective-little-monster is off somewhere else in the house, pick up the dish. This way, at feeding time you are not trying to reach down and swoop the bowl up, which could create a potential bite from the little monster. Be sure your dog is not around when you pick it up. Put the bowl up somewhere that the dog cannot reach it.

3) At feeding time, call the dog. Allow him to watch you fill his food bowl, but ask him to sit. This is a perfect time to work on perfecting the dog’s sit-stay. He must sit and stay until you give the release command. He must not move an inch when you put the food bowl on the floor. Once the food is on the floor and he is still sitting and staying patiently, go ahead with the release command. (I use “OK” and it means, whatever I’m asking you to do is now over)

4) Stand near the dog during feeding time, but allow him whatever distance he feels comfortable with. Don’t stand so close that he growls at you between bites. If that means four or five feet, or even ten, do it. But each day, gradually inch forward.

5) When he is done eating, approach the bowl and toss a treat in it. Do not bend down or get closer than is necessary.

If you’re feeding your dog twice a day and you’re practicing this exercise at every feeding, the dog will gradually become more socialized to the idea that human+food dish=good things.
This is a good start. Be patient. It may take a lot of time.
Remember, all canine rehabilitation needs to be done in baby steps.
Tomorrow, I’ll go over some more advanced techniques that can be used once the dog’s aggression around the food dish has been toned down a bit.

An IMPORTANT note on the sit-stay
A dog just adopted from a hoarder will probably not have a clue what a sit-stay is.
I recommend working on this during day one of bringing the dog home, just for a couple minutes here and there. Don’t make a production out of it.
It’s a very low impact exercise, it’s rewarding for the dog if trained properly with lots of positive reinforcement (treats, games), and it’s so very helpful in so very many situations.
If you can’t get your dog to perform a sit-stay at feeding time during the first few weeks, involve a second person in your feeding routine.
This person will hold the dog on a leash. Once you put the food on the ground and have given your release command, the second person may drop the leash.
Allow the dog to eat with the leash on.
Remember, safety is first. The purpose of the leash and sit-stay is to avoid any situations where your hands and face are near the food dish at the same time the dog is.
The long-term goal, of course, is to be able to do just that. But in the beginning, you have got to play it safe.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The remarkable recovery of Madison

I interrupt my series on getting the dogs owned by hoarders adjusted to normal life to write this special blog about a little pit bull mix named Madison.
In 2007, she and her littermates were cruelly burned by, allegedly, some teenagers in Detroit. She was the sole survivor and had serious burns on about 80 percent of her body. If you haven’t seen my full story, be sure to check it out (it’s in today’s edition).
The follow-up on Madison, who we reported on when the accident happened, was a very long story for me to write. And still, I just didn’t feel I included all the wonderful and interesting things I learned about the dog.
Saundra Hewitt, the surgeon at OVRS who adopted Madison, is great. She’s funny and down-to-earth, and here is a list of things she shared with me about sharing her life with Madison.
• With half of Madison’s body being hairless, winter time requires some clothing for Madison. Several of the staff members at OVRS have bought her stylish outfits, from light jackets to full-blown snowsuits that cover Madison’s rear legs.
“You have to keep in mind, I’m a surgeon,” Saundra said. “We don’t put bows in our dog’s hair. We don’t put clothes on our dogs. I had no idea what to do.
“I had an ER doctor who sent me a coat (for Madison), then she went out and bought like 10 of them. So I get up in the morning, I put on scrubs and then I have to figure out which outfit she’s going to wear today?”
• Saundra lives near the clinic and often walks to and from work. During one winter day, Madison was wearing one of her coats that does not fully cover her hairless butt and legs.
Saundra was walking home and decided to carry her tired dog, who thoroughly enjoys being carried with her front legs over Saundra’s shoulder, just like a child.
“This lady (in a car) pulls around me, I could see she’s really agitated,” Saundra said. “She pulls into the ditch and she’s laughing so hard because she just saw a bare bum and thought it was a kid.”
The lady was on the phone with police, reporting Saundra because she mistook Madison’s bare butt for a child’s.
• Madison’s injuries have not slowed her activity level one bit. Saundra reports that Madison has two speeds — full speed and no speed. Around 8 or 9 p.m., she tires out and begs to cuddle with Saundra.
Many people, seeing Madison’s hairless and injured rear end, feel sympathetic for her. Saundra said many people will make, “Oh, poor dog!” comments while they’re walking, even despite the fact that Madison pulls around both Saundra and her other dog, an aging Border Collie.
• Madison does almost everything every other dog does, with a few exceptions. She can only tackle a couple stairs at a time, and while she jumps at frisbees with no problem, she sometimes has problems sticking the landing.
• The staff at OVRS love having Madison around, so much so that many of them eagerly share their lunches with her.
Madison knows when lunchtime is, and she long ago figured out how to get out of the baby gate that kept her in Hewitt’s office during the day.
During lunchtime, it is reported that Madison can be found going room to room, getting a bite of everyone’s sandwich.
• Back to wintertime issues: Madison makes quick business of going potty when it’s cold out. Hewitt has ramps installed going to her door to make it easier for Madison, but in the winter time, the door has to stay open until Madison has finished going to the bathroom.
“She comes running up that ramp and she’s ready to go inside — she’ll run right into the door because she can’t stop very fast,” Saundra said.

Having personally met Madison, I’m very happy to learn that she’s got a fantastic home and some wonderful friends at OVRS.
Behavorist Theresa DePorter said it best:
“I think it’s inspiring for us to see her from beginning to end,” she said. “We can realize that we can all, dog or person, overcome whatever it is.
“Whatever this dog can do, we’re going to do it to the highest level and treat her as normal as possible.”