Friday, April 29, 2011

teaching an old dog new thought patterns

Lamar, looking none too happily at Fozzie 
It seems Lamar Latrell is a bit more grumpy about Fozzie since Tashi passed away. Did his old lady exert a calming influence, a balancing dose of old wise woman-ness to this crew of zany boys? Hard to say for sure, but it is certain that we need to find a way to work on the nightly ritual of lunging growling snarling whenever Fozzie comes near Lamar's turf, the bed.

Time for bits of Beggin Strips, cheesy snacks, and organic training treats. Whenever Fozzie comes near and Lamar gets The Look--or ideally, before the eyes have rolled all the way to the side and the lips have curled all the way up--I tell Lamar what a good boy he is, scratch him in front of the ears where he loves it, and stuff his mouth full of yummy snacks. Fozzie gets snacks too, just to remind him that other dogs are associated with good things and not just terrifying noises and hideous snarls.

Relaxing a bit. Right paw just received a paw rub. 
After a few treats, Lamar visibly relaxes. Even more dramatically if I scratch his ears really well too. Eyes drift toward closed, ears sail out slightly, mouth opens and breath deepens. Paws extend, sometimes even touching Fozzie's.
Although it's back to square one every time Fozzie approaches the bed and Lamar's on it, I am hopeful. Its not a deep hatred like Lamar had for Lars; on walks they do just fine together and in the yard they even sometimes romp like lads in the midst of a bromance.
So do we keep looking for a home for Fozzie, so Lamar can someday relax? Do we get another little spunky girl foster dog who might neutralize the testosterone poisoning? If my history with dogs is any indication, the rational solution may not be the one that wins out!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sensible leash walking

I think losing Tashi has made me even less tolerant of unnecessary cruelty and bad dog training in action.

There is this guy who walks his two huskies in my neighborhood and stops in front of my yard just to force his dogs to watch Fozzie while they freak out and while Fozzie freaks out and I try to get him inside. The other day, I got out of my gate to walk Fozzie and Lamar and saw too late that the guy was there with his two huskies, just standing there. Then I heard one of them yelp in pain and I saw that he had it in an alpha roll. Fozzie and Lamar were of course freaking out, and all I could do was yell and beg the guy not to do that to his dogs because he was scaring them and making it worse. He apparently wasn't ready to hear that message, and told me I didn't know what I was talking about. 

So I've created a flyer, just for him, which I've put in a plastic folder attached to the outside of my fence. I seriously doubt he is going to take one, but it was gratifying to write it up in any case. In honor of Tashi, Lamar, Fozzie, those two poor huskies, and any other dog who has a little bit of trouble expressing himself constructively on walks, here's what it says:

Dog Walk Training and Management – Easy Tips for Calmer Dogs and Happier Humans

We love our dogs, but sometimes their behavior just drives us crazy. Barking and lunging on the leash, pulling like mad, ignoring us—they couldn’t be more frustrating if they tried.
The important thing to know about these behaviors is that our dogs are not trying to frustrate us—they are just trying to get what they want in the fastest way they know how. We can get better behaviors by allowing them to get what they want in exchange for doing what we want—and preventing the worst behaviors through good management.

The pitfalls of “Dominance”- based training
Most dog trainers once thought dogs misbehaved because they thought of themselves as “dominant,” and the solution to the problem behaviors was to show them that we, the humans, were dominant. This notion derived from studies of captive wolves done in the 1940s, but it turns out that these animals were poor models either for the domestic dog or for the wild wolf.

Unfounded theories of “dominance” have led to some training methods that can cause behavior problems to become more severe. 

1.   Alpha rolls. Contrary to the myths propagated by some television dog trainers, dogs do not initiate “alpha rolls” to put a subordinate dog in its place. A dog may roll over on its own to appease another dog or a human, but a dog who was truly confident would never force another dog into a roll-over. When we do so, especially when the dog is already scared or stressed about something in its environment, we just frighten the dog more and make it more likely to react negatively the next time it sees the thing it was worried about.
2.   Flooding, or forcing a dog to “just get over it.” If you were terrified of spiders, and someone put you in a room full of really big hairy ones, would you feel better about spiders? You would probably have a heart attack first. Forced exposure to stressors just makes them more stressful.
3.   Harsh physical corrections of any kind. Many problem behaviors are caused by fear and stress, which are exacerbated by harsh verbal or physical corrections.
4.   Choke collars and prong collars. Again, these cause pain, which exacerbate fear and stress, which make leash lunging worse. Try a no-pull harness instead (Easy Walk and Sensation are two brands).

These outdated methods have been replaced by simple, effective methods based on modern behavioral science and endorsed by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and other professional societies. Following these few basic principles will help turn your times together from exercises in frustration to experiences of joy.

Set your dog up for success
If you know your dog is going to “lose it” in a certain situation, don’t expose him to that situation before he can handle it. If you do, you are just allowing him to practice the behavior of “losing it.”

Work sub-threshold
If you know your dog hates bicyclists or other dogs, don’t force him to experience these things in large doses. Instead, expose him to his triggers at levels he can handle. This may mean showing him another dog or bicycle at a distance, or for just a second or two before you walk in the other direction and go someplace safe.

Desensitize and countercondition
If your dog seems to hate other dogs or bicyclists, he most likely is reacting out of fear of these things. He lunges and barks because he wants them to go away. The way to change the behavior is to address the fear, by pairing the feared thing—in small doses—with a pleasurable thing. Find a food item that your dog really loves (cheese, lunch meats, hamburger, etc.) and give your dog tiny pieces of it as he watches the thing he fears from a distance.

Outline of leash reactivity training
Be vigilant on your walks, so you notice the other dog –or bicyclist or tall person in a big coat--before your dog starts reacting. When your dog notices the other dog—but before he gets excited about it—stop and feed your dog treats at your thigh. 

If you don’t catch it in time or that dog/bicyclist/tall guy with a beard is approaching you, then you should just “Turn and Go.” Some ways to do this:
    • Walk up on the leash. When you get to your dog’s shoulder and he looks at you, talk to him in a happy, singsongy voice as you turn with your dog and walk in the other direction, away from the dog/bicyclist/tall guy with a beard.
    • Practice at home saying his name, or some happy word you choose, and treating him when he looks at you, so you can use this on walks
    • You can also go across the street or behind a car to avoid going right past the trigger. 
    • As he gets more relaxed about his triggers from one distance, you can move closer while giving your dog those small treats. Eventually, you may be able to continue past the trigger while calmly treating and praising your dog. 
    • You can also redirect his attention when other dogs approach. Have him touch-target your hand: put your hand out next to his face, say “touch!” and when his nose touches your hand, say “Yes!” and treat. This is a good way to keep his attention focused on you and on doing something that makes him feel good, so he’s not focused on the other dog.
Once you are ready and have practiced treating your dog at a safe distance for a while, and she is starting to be calmer around other dogs, find opportunities to let your dog practice being calm around other dogs. Praise and treat her when she sees another dog and doesn’t react. Don’t push your dog too fast and go beyond his limits, though; if that does happen, go back to a safer distance until he’s ready to move on.

Reward that which you want repeated, ignore that which you want to fade
Dogs will do what you want if you provide proper motivation. If your dog is not food motivated, find something (a belly rub? A game of tug?) that does motivate him. If your dog is usually food motivated but won’t eat in a given situation, it is because he is too scared and stressed—back up and work sub-threshold. 

Kirsten Stade
Mindful Handler, Peaceful Dog
(301) 920-0679

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tashi delek, 1996-2011

Tashi delek, Dingo, Little Big Dog, Madame Grumplit passed away yesterday under an azalea bush. Her last days were not comfortable, but the vast majority of her 15 years on this planet were filled with adventure and enjoyment.
When I adopted Tashi from Taos Animal Shelter, I had been coming to the shelter for weeks, noticing this quiet, shy little dog with the satellite dish triangle ears. On this day, I asked where the little brown dog was and was told she was outside in her pen. It had just snowed the night before and the little brown dog was up on a mound of snow, barking at something in the distance. I came into her pen, kneeled down in the snow, and this little dog came around behind me and put her front paws up on my back in a playful hug.  
The shelter folk said that there was a connection between our spirits, and I do believe there was.
Those first years, she was a little spitfire, growling at everything that moved, getting into scraps everywhere we went. She was also a free spirit, and when we went on hikes I'd sometimes have to get back in the car and drive without her so she would run after me and tire out, before I could catch her and get her to go with me.  

Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about training and the popular "wisdom" at the time was all about dominance and alpha rolls. 

So she had to endure some of that, those first few years in New Mexico. I'm sure it did nothing but make her a more angry and a more rebellious young woman. Fortunately, by nature I am not very good at displays of "dominance" so Tashi never got much more than the light version.
I think Tashi enjoyed the four months we spent in New York, after Taos and before Santa Fe. 

She always loved her grandparents, and she enjoyed going to Riverside Park and running with the pack. Those were the days that she used to tear across a big field, up and down a huge hill, leading a racing team of dogs in a happy chase. Where did all her aggression go? She did just fine with those New York pups.  I would come home from the park with bruises on my calves from her nipping at me like I was one of her bovine charges.   

She did mellow out with time, or maybe it was the addition of Lamar that allowed her to relax and enjoy more. I will always remember that first night I brought Lamar home, how he was lying on the brick floor of my little studio in Santa Fe, and Tashi came right over and stood on him, just put her little front paw on his shoulder. 

They have been a happy couple ever since. 


By the time we moved to Portland, Tashi was more well-adjusted and Lamar was more the problem child.
Tashi did well in the Pacific Northwest, running around the National Forests, connecting with our hippie friends, watching the sunset over the beach, checking out hot springs.

What a wonderful road trip companion she was, sticking that head with those antenna ears out the window, snuffing in the fresh breeze, always eager to check out the next place.

Loved the water, loved the desert, loved the forest.  Swam in the ocean, swam in lakes and rivers.

Ran around those big parks in Portland and got her face all scratched up in blackberry bushes, loving every minute.

Adored the ocean, though unlike her friend Lamar, was smart enough not to drink it.

Accompanied her mom back and forth on road trips 

to Santa Fe and all the way back to New York before I left for the summer in Guatemala

After Portland, Tashi had no problem adjusting to city life while her mom went to graduate school. A couple years of good food, cuddling with Grandma and Grandpa, and hanging out with the NYC dogs again. Summers upstate with the grandparents, long days lying in the sun

Then Mom got a job in DC, so it was off to the "Berkeley of the East Coast"--Takoma Park, MD and the house that Florian and I have worked on over the years to make it the ideal place for dogs.

More hikes, camping trips in the Shenandoahs and on the beach and in Berkeley Springs and in Fredericksburg.

Daily walks to our favorite unofficially off-leash wooded parks and streams that make this area even better for dogs than all those places we lived in the wild west--who would have thought?

Those summer days by Aunt Nancy's pool. Tashi's been just more and more mellow, but still with that spunky grumpy spark she's always had.

Right up until her last few weeks, wagging and romping a bit with Lamar,  

wagging and wiggling when her people come home, sniffing, wagging, and touching noses when we returned from a walk with the other dogs, that she could no longer go on.

She's been so patient with all the foster dogs--grumping and growling at them when necessary, but wagging a lot too.

When we got the diagnosis that she was not long for this world back in January, my hope was that she would make it until the spring so she could enjoy some days of lying in the warm sun outside like she loved. Yesterday was the first really warm day of the year, the sun was out and the birds were singing and flowers are in bloom. How auspicious that she got to die on such a day.

When I found her, her face was at peace, more at peace than it had been her last few days. 

Tashi delek, may you and all the Buddhas light up the Pure Land with the magnificent radiance of auspiciousness! Go easy on the squirrel bodhisattvas! We miss you my piglet but we'll always be together.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tashi delectable

Tashi's full name is Tashi delek, which means auspicious blessings in Tibetan. I named her a few days after I adopted her in Taos, NM, where I was studying Tibetan Buddhism. Her name is used as a greeting and farewell among Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and I wanted to give her a name that would be a bell of mindfulness for her whenever she heard it...and a name that would help her achieve an auspicious rebirth when it was her time to leave this world.

In January, I took Tashi to the vet after a few weeks of coughing that was first diagnosed as kennel cough. The diagnosis this time was a grossly enlarged heart and a recommendation to euthanize as soon as possible.

We've had an extra two months of lying in the sun and going for nice hikes on the Potomac and along our favorite trails. Most importantly, we've had time to cuddle, connect, say the Amitabha mantra together, make peace with what lies beyond. 
Tashi along the Potomac in February

I disagree with the advice of that vet, and of many of my dog-loving friends who say that its better to end a dog's life too soon than too late. Tashi has no doubt endured some suffering these two months, but she has also experienced joy and comfort. She's gotten to do her favorite things, eat her favorite foods. Who knows what goes on in a dog's mind? Who knows what spiritual projects she is trying to complete in this lifetime?

Of course some of my reasons are selfish. After 14 years, how could I put myself in the position of ending this dog's life? It wouldn't ever be easy, but after these weeks at least I know I've packed as much joy into her life as possible. And I know that if I do assist her passing from this world, it won't feel quite so premature.

I don't know what this week will bring. Maybe she will pass peacefully on her own, or maybe I'll feel ready to make that decision for her. Until then, we are going to fill her life with the auspicious blessings that I hoped would adorn her years on this planet when I named her 14 years ago.