Friday, July 29, 2011

How to stop a dog from digging

So you have a digging dog and you're wondering how to get him (or her) to stop.
Well, I'm of the mindset that you don't — and shouldn't — stop him.
"That's ridiculous," you're all saying right about now. "I can't have him digging up my garden beds every time I let him outside."
I agree that he shouldn't be digging up your garden beds, or digging anywhere you don't want him to. But stopping the digging all together is, in most cases, just not going to work. Not 100 percent.
Fortunately, there's a way to manage to this behavior that will keep your yard and gardens free of holes, and make your a dog a happy little digger in the process too.

Why do dogs dig?
Digging is something we developed many breeds of dogs to do. Terriers are the most notorious diggers. They have been born and bred for centuries to dig up varmint. That urge to dig remains present among many of our dogs, terriers and mutts and all dogs alike. For many, digging becomes an enjoyable, rewarding and sought-after activity. Add in that inherent urge and that's why it can be so darn difficult to get a dog to stop digging.

The tank theory
This idea comes from my favorite author, Jean Donaldson, in her book Culture Clash. I don't have it word for word, but here's the general idea, anyhow: 
Essentially, she says to think of a dog as a machine with a bunch of tanks full of gas. Let's say that one tank is marked "chewing," another is "chasing," another might be "tug of war" and perhaps yet another is "digging."
Each day, these tanks need to be drained. If not, when a new day begins and more gas gets poured into the tanks — as happens every day, regardless — there is no where for that gas to go. It overflows.
So, the tanks represent doggie behaviors that the dog is instinctively inclined to perform everyday.
When a dog engages in those behaviors, the tank is drained. The dog's need for that area is met for that day.
When a dog does not get his tanks drained, the resulting overflow equals behavior problems. He's bursting at the seams, right?
That is where all kinds of behavior problems can develop. Maybe the dog develops a neurotic fixation for something like chasing his tail to try to expend some of that energy and drain his tank.
Maybe he claws at the door handle until it pops open so he can go outside and run.
Or maybe he chews incessantly at his paws until his hair starts falling out because he's bored.
And if he's a determined digger, perhaps he learns to dig at your carpet corners or couch or comforter or just waits until you look away for a moment to dig up your garden.
It's hard to say what the dog's brain will come up with when its hard-wired needs are not being met. The possibilities are endless.

Drain that tank!
For the reason listed above, I do not buy into the theory that we should stop our dogs from engaging in behaviors they are hard-wired to do simply because it inconveniences us.
Instead, you teach the dog to funnel that behavior into something that does not inconvenience you.
I'm all about turning unwanted behaviors into wanted behaviors, regardless of whether it's a hard-wired behavior or just any ol' behavior you don't like.
For instance, Sensi used to bark and bark and bark at pool sticks, and try to grab them, whenever a person made a shot on the pool table. The sound of pool balls hitting each other just sent him into a tizzy.
He was not responding to "no."
My solution? Train him to play pool. Suddenly, it went from "no one wants to play pool when Sensi's around" to "people are coming over because they want to play pool with Sensi."

The digging solution
Digging is one of the easiest problems to start managing.
Step one: Get a sandbox, fill with sand
Step two: Bury a toy in it
Step three: Encourage your dog to dig up the toy, praise him for doing so
Step four: Verbally reprimand the dog ("No! Bad dog!") whenever you see him digging somewhere that is the not sandbox, then immediately lead the dog to the sandbox and encourage him to continue his digging there.
Optional Step five: Reward digs in the right place. Some dogs might need a little treat to solidify for them that digging in the sandbox is the right place to dig. For other dogs, the digging alone may be reward enough.  
This is essentially the same training method as used with chew-training. Even people who don't know a whole lot about dogs seem to have heard about the "When your puppy chews something of yours, take it out of his mouth and insert or encourage him to chew on a dog toy instead."
Same thing, different behavior.
The biggest reward, of course, is that a tank is being drained every time the dog gets to dig in his sandbox. Every tank drained is a behavior problem averted, so drain those tanks!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thundershirt, herbal remedies to help calm your dog during storms, other anxious times

I awoke at 5 a.m. this morning to the feeling I was being restrained, or that at least my legs were.
Then I heard the rain and thunder. A strike of lightning lit up the woods outside the bedroom window.
Groggy as I may have been, I knew what was happening to me.
I was being spooned by the dog — his heavy head and big front paws squarely over my calves — who was seeking some reassurance that this storm wasn't going to barrel through the window and get him.
The storm was in full swing when we got up this morning — the claps of thunder loud enough to even make me jump, and I love storms.
Sensi stuck to us like glue this morning, even laying down on the rug outside the shower while we cleaned up.
Once we shut the windows (we leave them open when it rains because we have 6-foot overhangs and enjoy the sound of the rain) and gave him his Buster Cube, though, he was over it.
I'm lucky that, for all Sensi's intense fears, storms aren't one of them.
In his old age now, he jumps a little at a loud clap of thunder and likes to be near us when it's particularly nasty outside. But there's no panting, no drooling, no shaking, no hiding or whining or even tail tucking. Pretty lucky, I know.
Lots of folks have dogs who may not have any other fear issues, but go absolutely bonkers when a storm rolls in.
If you are one of those folks — or if you're trying to mitigate other situations that create anxiety and fear for your dog — here are a couple suggestions from a reader that might help you out.
"First is the thundershirt," wrote Jessica Meier, who has trained dogs for obedience competitions for more than 20 years. "This really helped my Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. He has since passed away, however, he enjoyed wearing his shirt!"
I love the Thundershirt idea. Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, talks about the impact a good squeeze and embrace can have on settling both animals and autistic people. Read more about that in my blog post, Storms on their way, how will your dog react?
"On my Toller Annie, his granddaughter, I use Animal Essentials Tranquility blend," Meier continued. "It is an herbal tonic. It works like a charm."
I have heard a lot of good things about herbal calming solutions for dogs.
So, if your dog has anxiety issues, those are couple things to think about.
I'd love to hear your dog-thunderstorm stories! How does your dog react in a thunderstorm?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rant: Things that make me mad

Sorry I was absent last week — things get busy. No worries though, because I'm back and I'm in heck of a mood today.

Rant 1: What are you thinking???
I know of a little dog who likes to chase after cars. Incredibly, his owners do not seem bothered by this. The little dog is never restrained to his yard. On more than one occasion, I've seen him nearly get hit by another vehicle or had to slam on my brakes — to the point of fishtailing and leaving skid marks — to avoid hitting him myself.
In recent weeks, I've also seen him going through garbage left by the curb — two times, to be clear. Same neighbor's garbage.
And so, in reference to the dog's owners, "What the heck are you thinking???"
Maybe they don't really like the dog.

Rant 2: Ignorant defense of pit bulls
Okay folks, you're getting on my nerves. If I hear, "But pit bulls are the sweetest, most loving, gentle dogs in the whole world" one more time I am going to scream.
I am, first and foremost, a huge pit bull supporter. I own one myself, I love him, I love the breed.
But I am not ignorant and I'm getting sick of hearing these "sweetisms" uttered by people who are.
Not every pit bull in the whole world is the sweetest, most loving, most gentle dog ever. And you know what folks, how you raise a dog is a large part of the equation, but it is not the whole equation.
So add "It's all in how you raise them" to things that could potentially lead to me screaming.
A lot of it is how you raise a dog. How you raise a dog can trump genetic predispositions.
But let's not go around espousing this theory that pit bulls are the greatest, sweetest dog in the world and any old person can own one and as long as he/she loves the pit bull, the pit bull will be the greatest, sweetest dog in the world.
There's more to dog ownership than love.
And no, I don't happen to believe that every person out there makes a good pit bull owner.
The stakes are higher. You need to not just be more responsible than the average dog owner, but you need to have a lot more good knowledge than the average dog owner.
So let's stop playing this game and be honest.
Pit bulls can be great dogs when they have a great owner. Some of them can be great dogs even when they have a bad owner. But some of them can be bad dogs when they have a just mediocre owner, and I think we see a lot of that in our society.
Probably because someone told a person with a big heart that pit bulls are just misunderstood sweethearts that make the greatest pets in the whole wide world, and that person brought a pit bull home thinking it'd be just like raising any other dog — just love it and it will be great; don't worry about training, don't worry about socialization, just love it.
The thing is, everyone should know that every dog needs more than just love. But with pit bulls, if that's all you're doing, you run the risk of allowing dangerous behaviors to develop.
And so especially with pit bulls, you need to be a better-than-average dog owner.

Rant 3: Doggie dental care
Doggie dental care is important. Yes, I support dental cleanings. I would never discourage anyone from taking care of their dog's teeth.
But here's the thing — a dental cleaning can be a pretty penny because of the anesthesia involved.
And for the last year or so, I've been inundated with requests from all types of groups to write more about doggie dental care, and plug this person/group/product when I do. And when I say inundated, I mean inundated. You would cringe at my inbox.
For every request I get, I can't help but think of the financial motivation behind it. Especially since I've watched the market grow — going from "hardly ever do you get a request" to "Oh my goodness, everybody and their brother has something to say/sell/offer/advertise with relation to pet dental health."
It's becoming overwhelming.
For the record, take good care of your dog's teeth. Brush them regularly with doggie toothpaste. If you can, get a professional cleaning performed by a veterinarian. The impact is far reaching.
But, be a skeptical consumer. The market is on overload now with dental products. Do your research and choose wisely.
In my house, the most important dental care products for my dog have always been the simplest: 1) Dog toothbrush, 2) Dog toothpaste.
And yes, we would like to get Sensi's teeth professionally cleaned. I recommend checking into that as well. Talk to your veterinarian about it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lessons from a shelter dog: Patience is key to improving dog behavior

Last Friday marked the third week my friend Allison and I have volunteered walking dogs at our local dog rescue, K-9 Stray Rescue League in Oxford Township.
It's hard to believe this Friday will be a month.
Walking rescue dogs is no easy task. There's a lot of pent up energy to go around.
Two weeks ago, I had what I call a "swimmer and spinner."
This young beagle/lab mix had all fours spread out as far to the side as possible as soon as I clipped the leash on him and brought him out of his pen. It looked like he was trying to swim on concrete — hence the "swimmer" part of my nickname.
What that actually achieves for the dog is a lower center of gravity (his belly and chest only a couple inches off the ground once he started 'swimming') and that means more strength to pull against the leash.
When we finally got out of the yard, he began 'spinning.'
He would leap forward against the leash and, with me standing still behind him, would rear up on his hind legs like a horse when he reached the end and spin around.
Then he started doing circles around me, spinning once or twice along the way and pulling like a freight train.
I wasn't sure I could actually hang on to the leash while he was behaving that way, and I also did not want to give that behavior my stamp of approval.
So I stood there, and stood there and stood there. The dog flat-out wore himself out spinning in circles around me.
We only moved forward when he stopped.
Miraculously, we were walking like a regular ol' human-dog pair in no time.
"I can't believe this worked out," I said to Allison, walking a different dog beside me. "I really wasn't sure he'd settle down."
And let that be a lesson to all of you, and especially those of you adopting a dog from a shelter — patience can have the biggest impact on behavior at times.
Sometimes, you just have to let a dog completely exhaust a behavior (and in my case, wear himself out in the process) before the dog realizes the behavior is not working as a means to the end he desires and gives up on it.

Vince, Shepherd mix
Big beautiful shepherd mix for adoption
Meet Vince, an approximately 3-year-old Shepherd mix.
I met Vince last Friday. He was the first dog I took out.
Vince is a very big boy. His adoption profile says he is about 90 pounds, but he may have packed on a few more since that posting. Vince is big.
Of course, that's what caught my attention — the big dog lover I am.
Like the dog above, Vince needed to work out some energy when we first got going on our walk. He did not swim nor spin, however. Instead, he bounced like a boxer.
Based on his bounciness, my money is on boxer definitely being a part of his mix, even though it doesn't look like it. As I state in the video, I wouldn't put past there being a bit of some sort of mastiff in Vince's make up too.
Vince's adoption profile says he is slightly insecure. This could be true, though I'm not sure it's a very serious problem.
Vince, see adoption profile
He did climb up on a big semi truck when a driver from a nearby business slowed down to offer the dogs some treats. He did not, however, take the treat. He did take the treat, and sat nicely for it, just a second later from my own hand.
Comparing him to the fear my dog has shows that his insecurities are minimal at best. My dog would have never even gotten close to the semi truck, nonetheless put two paws up on the steps to the cab. My dog also will not take treats from a stranger, and really, I was a stranger to Vince. Yet he took a treat from me.
So, a little insecure? Sure (because he wouldn't take the treat from the driver) but not to any sort of extreme. I had some concerns that his social skills around other dogs weren't fabulous either, but paired with the right dog, he could make a great playmate.
Vince's moment to shine was when we started jogging down the road. He fell right into step next to me and zoned in on the forward movement, not pulling, not getting distracted, just trotting merrily beside me.
Vince is an incredibly handsome boy with great potential.
If you've got the right home for him, learn more by going to Vince's adoption profile.

Watch a video of Vince!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Training your hunting dog

The orange flowers are Butterfly Weed!
Training a dog to hunt has always been one of those mystery areas for me, and in part because of that, it's also something I find intrinsically interesting.
While working on the feral hog story, I got in touch with Mike Schippa. He's president of Michigan's chapter of the Versatile Hunting Dog Federation.
The federation is a group of people who train dogs to do a variety of hunting-related tasks.
Often, we think of Labradors as waterfowl specific hunters, pointers for field work, beagles for rabbits, etc. But Schippa said lots of dogs can excel and quickly switch between many different types of hunting.
The group is also part of a wider association of hunting dog groups that are taking part in a stewardship program that allows them use of the Highland State Recreation Area in exchange for volunteer work to improve the park.
It's a neat partnership. As the daughter of an avid hunter, I take a lot of pride in our state's hunters who care deeply about conservation and the environment. This is another example of group of folks doing just that — and providing their dogs with jobs to boot. These are the things that make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
That's Mike Schippa in the foreground
Check out the story I wrote: Michigan hunting dog group trains at State Park in Highland.
Also, did you notice those beautiful orange wildflowers in the photo and video? That's called Butterfly Weed. It's a flower I first photographed in the property behind the house my husband used to rent. I fell in love them then and have been overjoyed to catch sightings of them along the roadside or in parks here and there. They're in bloom right now.
Oh yeah, I also picked up two during a recent visit to American Roots native plant nursery in Brandon Township. I'm naming one Pride and the other Joy.
Sorry ... I've drifted away from my usual dog-centered musings ...

Video of the Michigan Versatile Hunting Dog Federation at work

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Getting a dog to behave around fireworks: treat therapy

It's year three of using treat therapy to combat my dog's extreme anxiety about fireworks and this year, we've had a major break through.

The bad behavior
Fireworks go off. My dog leaps from where ever he may be, barking, hair raised and bee lining it toward the nearest door or window. Barking only increases. He goes from one window to the next, checking every opening in the house, barking and barking and barking. He does not pay attention to anyone or anything. Anxiety does not diminish, but only increases in intensity. It's awful.

The past two years
We live across the street from a lake. Lake people love fireworks. The first year, Sensi damaged a window beyond repair. We had to do something about his anxiety. I started using treat therapy — year one, not a whole lot of progress. Year two, showed good progress — it was easier to calm him down, he began anticipating treats. But progress is a relative term.

This weekend
With four people around to help distract and dispense treats, we made great progress. Fireworks started going off Saturday at dusk and continued for a couple hours. As quickly as possible after every firework, we called Sensi, asked him to sit and gave him a treat. By the end of the night, even if he ran to the door or window to bark, he would stop himself just prior to barking and instead turn around to look for a treat. This means the association is finally gaining strength — he is actually connecting, in his head, that those big booms can equal treats and all he has to do is find a person and sit before them. The downside? Boy is it ever a lot of work. The night is basically dedicated to treat therapy. That's why having a couple friends around to help pitch in as treat dispensers really helped. I don't think we could've made such good work on the boom-treat association if we didn't have the help.

A better idea
When fireworks go off outside, we have no idea that it's about to happen. We aren't watching the people setting them off and we have no way to anticipate the exact moment a firework will go off.
This means we can't have perfect timing.
Timing is everything with training and behavior modification, and if your timing isn't perfect, your training won't be easy.
With something like fireworks, you want the dog to be eating the treat as the firework is going off — not a second later after the dog has taken off to bark out the window.
My plan to fix this is to create a DVD of a fireworks show I filmed over the weekend. It's really all the same to him, anyhow. He barks just as much for that pesky furniture store commercial that has fireworks in it as he does for the fireworks outside.
With the DVD, we'll be able to work on this more than just a couple weeks out of the year and we'll really be able to nail our timing and get the message across to Sensi with a whole lot less wear and tear on the both of us.

Watching his coping mechanisms change
One of the most interesting parts of this whole behavior mod process is seeing the change in how he copes with the anxiety brought on by fireworks.
He previously went right into a threat display, which would continue relentlessly. In the worst of times, he became destructive — as in the case of the scratched-beyond-repair window.
Last year we saw that threat display decrease substantially. He only used it for the really loud booms. I saw him actively engage in treat therapy — during a long session of fireworks, he had nose buried in the food I was shoveling toward him. As soon as the helpings ran out, he wasn't running away to refocus on the fireworks as you'd think would happen. Nope, he was nosing the food bowl with the intensity of a crack addict on a crime spree. I could see willingness on his behalf to learn a different way to cope with fireworks.
This year, he's gotten so much better that he no longer wants to run to the doors/windows at all — he wants to stay lying down by us to get his treats — but lying down conflicts with the anxiety he feels for the fireworks. When a loud boom goes off, he gets his treat and then has to cope with the "I want to get up, but I know it doesn't yield the best reward" scenario. So he whines like he's in pain until the next firework pops off.

We still have a long ways to go. He is still under a lot of anxiety about the fireworks, even if treat therapy has done wonders to modify his behavior.

It's one of those situations where changing the behavior comes much more easily than changing the underlying emotional state, which he is clearly still struggling with.

I'll take some video of us doing the fireworks DVD training. In the meantime, wish us luck!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Has your dog ever caught a critter?

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how my dog dug to China in hot pursuit of a mole. He didn't get it, but he did get himself covered in mud and earned himself a bath far too early on a Sunday morning.

If only he'd gotten the mole, I wrote, I wouldn't have been so mad about the whole ordeal.

Well, I'm not sure, but I think he might've got one this week.

Much like that Sunday morning, I let Sensi outside early Wednesday for his after-breakfast potty break and noticed he was spending longer than usual outside. This time, I didn't waste a moment going out after him. I slipped on my sandals and ran out the door, calling his name as I closed the door behind me.

But this time, he came charging at me. He was not dirty. And so, I praised him for responding so beautifully to my call, let him inside and forgot about the whole thing.

A couple hours later, I decided to sit outside on the porch to enjoy the gorgeous day. I let Sensi out with me and he meandered over to the side of the house where he last dug for the mole. My view was obstructed and I couldn't see him, but once again, I thought, "Gee, he's been over there for a while now. Wonder what he's doing."

I walked around the garden beds to see and found him lying on the grass — unusual for Sensi. He only likes to lay down on sod. Our grass is not carpet-soft, however, and he's only ever laid down on it a couple times in the three years we've lived there.

So again, I praised him — bending down to give him a good neck rub. As I bent down, the direction of my body twisted a bit and that's when I saw it. A dead mole, lying belly up, about three feet in front of Sensi's face. He wasn't lying down because he thought the grass looked good for it. Oh no, he was keeping an eye on the dead animal.

A few feet beyond the little mole carcass was a rip in the grass. It looked like the mole had been traveling along in one of his holes when snap! Something just grabbed him up, ripping the mole out of his little hole and leaving an mole-sized opening in the top of the tunnel.

Did Sensi do this? I think so. I'm not sure. But here's the behavior history that makes me think why he's responsible:

1) He got bathed the last time he dug for a mole — definitely a punishing consequence. Perhaps this led him to try a different method of getting the mole, hence the rip-out?

2) The mole had no external injuries. This totally screams Sensi's name. He doesn't know what to do with real moving prey. The closest he's ever gotten to "real moving prey" is the baby bird last summer that tried to fly out of the nest. And what did he do with that? He bumped it with his snout, catapulting the poor thing further in the air before it crashed down on our driveway and died. And then he didn't know what to do with it. I think the chances are good that if he did catch something, he'd toss it around like a toy and leave it.

3) Why would my dog leave a dead animal? We've come across dead mice and rodents here and there on our walks over the years. Like all dogs, he's tried to roll on a dead animal, but I've always been there to tell him no. He doesn't try anymore. He understands that, "Mom says leave dead animals alone."

4) Was fear of getting caught with a dead animal the reason he came running so fast toward me when I called him from his morning potty break? Maybe.

Now, my biggest doubt that he's the responsible for the dead mole comes from the fact that he simply has never caught any critter ever before. Even the baby bird was a fluke. He bumped it and the resulting fall on concrete is what caused its death — very different from chasing, seizing and holding prey.

Then again, what else would rip a mole out of its tunnel and leave it for dead on my lawn? Any wild predator — from the feral cats to the raccoons — would've eaten it.

I guess it will always be a bit of a mystery. If Sensi is responsible, I approve of the way he handled the situation. He didn't destroy the yard to get the mole, he didn't sink his teeth into it and he didn't drag it back to the front door. He just laid there, keeping an eye on it.

My Aunt and Uncle's cat and dog used to work in tandem to catch rodents. The cat would catch it, the dog would steamroll it and they'd both stand proudly by the front door with the dead rodent between their paws.

I never thought I'd have a dog-critter story to tell. Catching critters has never been my dog's strong suit.

But I know lots of dogs live for chasing down a chipmunk, so tell me, what is your dog-critter story?