Friday, July 29, 2011

Grooming adventures

This week I had a very anxious, very matted little grooming client. 

I want to be extra slow with the anxious ones and do extra counterconditioning, but at the same time I want to minimize their time spent on the table, which is stressful in itself. But when the fur is that matted, I have to spend so much time getting through it that the pup gets that much more stressed out. 

I managed to shave the matted entirety of the dog, but clipping the nails just wasn't going to happen. The human came back and we tried to make progress together, but when the dog needs so badly to be groomed, and the person doesn't want to come back every day for the next few days at least working on counterconditioning, I think you are best off having the vet sedate the pup then do the nails. 

Fortunately, that same afternoon I had the pleasure of grooming Mars and Zoey, two sweet-tempered Golden doodles. 

Zoey has the most endearing habit. When she doesn't like something you're doing--like lifting a back paw and shaving the fur on it--she looks back at it and wags. What a gentle creature!

The best part? When Fozzie met the doodles, he just wagged and sniffed! Not a hyper wag and sniff either--just a very gentle exploration. 

Maybe the doodles just bring out the best in everyone...but even more, I think Fozzie is just a good creature who likes other creatures and will interact with them calmly if set up for calm interactions. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Owney the Railway Mail Service Dog

I have been reading Amazing Dogs:A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, a compendium of stories about little- known acting dogs, talking dogs, mathematician dogs, and traveling dogs of history. The book is a very thoughtful gift from my mom.
Photos from

I had just read the section on Owney, the adventurous mutt who traveled the Railway system in the 1890s, when I learned that the Smithsonian Postal Museum was unveiling an Owney stamp and having an Owney-fest this week, and the Washington Humane Society needed volunteers to be there. 

What I didn't realize was that the real, taxidermied Owney himself is there and that I would get to meet him.

I find his story very touching--imagine a little terrier-mix just jumping on a train, lying down on a mail bag, and riding to a station far away. Sometimes disembarking for a meal at a pub, beloved by postal and rail employees who sometimes tried to take him in and give him a stationary home, but always following his heart back onto the train for another ride. 
He's supposed to have traveled 140,000 miles around the world. 

What an indomitable spirit!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

more great resources on "aggression" and reactivity

Two more things I came across on the subject of fear- and sensitivity-based apparent aggression say essentially the same thing: don't worry about reinforcing these behaviors by rewarding a dog when he's acting out. The treats, far from reinforcing the behavior, will work to countercondition the emotion that precipitates the behavior. 

Dr. Sophia Yin, whose website is full of practical, clear training and behavior tips and instruction, shows us in this video that treating a dog when he growls out of fear and sensitivity diminishes the growling, rather than reinforcing it--and prevents a full-blown reaction from ever occurring. 

And on the Fearfuldogs blog, there is a great post on a very progressive shelter that invites visitors to treat dogs even when they're barking. Yes, contrary to the usual exhortation to only treat when dogs are calm, treat them when they're barking and don't worry that you'll teach them to bark even more.

Why? Here's how I would explain it. Dogs in shelters are freaked out, stressed, and probably much of the time over threshold. Many of them are way too stressed to ever give a sit or a calm behavior when they see strange people walking past their kennels, and at that degree of stress they are not in a state where learning is possible. Give them treats and you'll start to change the emotions they feel when they see strange people. Once the emotions change, the behaviors will follow. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From guarding to sharing

Resource guarding is one of the most common reasons people give up their pets to shelters. 

Let's say the family dog is chewing on a bone, and the family's young child approaches to give the dog a hug at that moment. The dog is really into his bone and doesn't want to be bothered, so he gives the child a warning stare and the lip goes up in a snarl. The adult in the family wants to let the dog know that this behavior won't be tolerated at all, so she takes the bone away and delivers a stern NO! 

Lizzie is available for adoption from
And lo and behold, the next time the pooch is chewing on something and a person approaches, the pup not only snarls but snaps, because he's been taught that he is not safe to chew on his bone when people are around. 

Next stop, the shelter--where he will likely be killed right away since owner surrenders, especially with behavioral "issues," generally aren't given any time at all. 

This scenario, so tragic, could so easily be prevented. What makes it such a common trajectory is that the way to train a dog not to resource guard is the exact opposite from what seems intuitively obvious. We have to counter our own instincts to react to guarding behavior by angrily taking the resource away, by instead giving the dog more good stuff, and with a smile on our faces. 

Though Fozzie overall has incredibly good bite inhibition--despite his wildness at first, we've always been able to trust that his mouth will be soft with people--he did, at one time, visibly stiffen and sometimes growl when he was chewing on something and a human approached. Though his tension made me, in turn, feel tense, and if I was already feeling testy it was tempting to growl back, I made an effort to stop, take a deep breath, and use the reasoning skills my prefrontal cortex developed over 10 million years of evolution rather than myself descending into limbic system reactivity.

Following a loose adaptation of Jean Donaldson's protocol in "Mine!," here is what I did. 
  • Fozzie had a delicious chew and was enjoying it on the couch. 
  • I approached Fozzie for some lovin', and saw his body stiffen, the whites of his eyes show, and that nose wrinkle up just a bit more. 
  • I didn't say a word, but instead went into the kitchen to get some cheesy treats, hot dogs, or something else even better than what he was working on. 
  • I approached Fozzie again, sprinkled the yummy hot dog bits all around his nose and the chew he was working on, and walked away, the whole time with a relaxed, happy posture, saying something like "here's your yummy snack!" If I had been really worried that he'd lunge and bite as I approached, I would have tossed the treats from a distance. 
  • I repeated, each time coming a bit closer when I delivered the snacks
  • When he was starting to relax, I placed my hand on the bone and then gave more treats. 
  • Then I took the bone away, put some peanut butter on it, and returned it.
With Fozzie, it literally took 3 approaches before he was looking up at me with a wag and loose body posture when I approached him and his bonie, allowing me to take the bonie, sniff it, and return. Even though he no longer stiffens when I approach, I still give him good stuff when he already has something good sometimes just so he remembers.

5 minutes of work to implement training that could save a dog's life. 

Note that if your dog guards his stuff from other dogs--not from humans--this is a different situation best handled through management. Feed your pups in separate rooms and give them chews separately. You can try some counterconditioning to make them associate each other with pleasant things, but don't worry too much that this is a personality flaw that needs to be trained and modified. 

Even if you have a dog who doesn't resource guard, please don't take the bone away without giving something else good in return. These very effective methods are how our dogs learn that sharing is fun, and they don't need to worry when humans come near their precious possessions.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bliss on the Potomac

With the abominable heat we've been having, Florian knew some intervention was needed this weekend to save my mood. A trip to Berkeley Springs and then to a series of absolute paradise spots on the Potomac was just the thing. 

This weekend Florian wanted to check out Green Ridge State Forest, so after going to Berkeley Springs and bringing the dogs in to little shops while we shopped for Nepalese garments and fragrant soaps, we headed off in search of swimming holes. 

The first we accessed off a hidden, tree-covered road off the main road near Paw Paw, which dead-ended in a hidden parking area next to the C&O Canal. One branch of the Potomac there was wide and shallow and warm.

On the other side of the C & O trail, which featured some of the spooky old stonework I love, was another branch of the Potomac and a nice deep spot where some people were swinging in off a rope but we went off in search of relative solitude. We found a place of wide, warm, clear water, gorgeous stratified rocks climbing up to join the jungle, and silence in the shimmering afternoon. 

A place just deep enough for Fozzie to go in, wading most of the way, then try his paw at swimming. Which he did like a pro! Paddling about, still with that nervous face, but venturing in again and again just for the fun of it. 

That place just felt magical, with the warm rocks and the sweet fragrance I can only describe as like the desert after a rain, because I used to smell it so often in Santa Fe. 

Could have stayed there all day, but we had to find a campsite. After a long drive on a windy, rutted road through the forest, Lamar in the back looking alternately carsick and comatose, we came upon a campsite with nicely maintained parking spaces and picnic tables right by the river, complete with spooky-looking abandoned stonework and historic plaques.

Seems there is an endless number of these out-of-the way historic and spooky spots to discover, all dog-friendly because apparently not many people have discovered them yet, or maybe there are so many of them that each one maintains its seclusion. 

Yesterday, we found more. One accessed after a bit of a hike along an overgrown two-track trail, where we stepped over huge freshly fallen branches. 

The air was still thick, but cooler; a relief to see signs of a recent storm since it had been utterly dry and hot where we'd been the night before, not 10 miles away. 

This was the place where Fozzie swam out to join us in places that were just over his head, and chased rocks thrown for him by Florian until he was way more exhausted than he realized, and literally sunk under water as we led him back to shore. I had to run and hoist the poor thing up by his harness. 

Fortunately, he seemed unscathed by his near-drowning as it didn't stop him from swimming out for more. 

And the best part? Fozzie was off-leash, almost the whole weekend. He ran like a banshee as soon as I first let him off, like he's been waiting his whole life just for the freedom to stretch those muscular legs and go. But he came back to us, even came right up to me and waited patiently while I put his harness back on. I would have kept him on a leash if there had been a bunch of people around for him to harass with his kisses, but the places we happened upon were so secluded and wonderful I felt the pups could run and swim free to their hearts' content. 

Such a source of joy to see them so happy and fulfilled.

After living in places like Santa Fe and Portland, OR--places known for their outdoorsy populace and their ease of access to outstanding natural beauty--it still amazes me how incredible this area is for the accessibility of hiking, swimming, and stunning rocky scenic watery and vegetated vistas. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summertime grooming

I've written before about how Lamar seems to be getting even more testy about Fozzie's presence of late, and I've been wondering about what other factors could possibly be making Lamar more sensitive. 

Pat Miller at Peaceable Paws has a good article about dog-to-dog aggression as the product of too many accumulated stressors, some of which may have nothing to do with other canines. 

At first I thought Lamar was mourning Tashi's passing--which would be perfectly understandable, since she was his old lady for 10 years. Now I'm wondering if its the heat, particularly since poor Lamar gets these icky skin rashes in the summer.

Time for a bath! I used my usual hypoallergenic dog shampoo, followed by a bit of tea tree oil rubbed into my hands then over his still-wet belly and all the spots with sores. 

His skin certainly looks better, and the sores have gone away. Has the snarling at Fozzie improved? Well...not so much. But seeing the improvement in his skin--and seeing some of the matted, foul-smelling, uncomfortable pooches that  come to me for a much-needed grooming--did remind me how important it is to just do some simple maintenance for our pooches, especially when the hot weather brings fleas and irritability. 

Some helpful DIY tips for grooming your own pup:
  • A Furminator is the best thing in the world for removing large quantities of undercoat and keeping them off your couches and floors. It can be kind of harsh on the skin, so watch out for redness, do in short sessions, and pair with treats.
  • Don't wait until your dog's fur is matted and desperately needs the groomer! Use a slicker brush or pin brush to brush your dog thoroughly, esp. in spots prone to matting (like a Golden's ear fringes or a Labradoodle's fur under the collar)
  • Use Tea tree oil for minor skin rashes, itching, dandruff, and fleas. Dogs don't love the smell but neither do the bugs.
  • Eucalyptus oil is another great one for fleas. Or use Dr. Bronner's Eucalyptus soap. 
  • Benadryl will calm minor itchies and redness; consult your vet for proper dosage based on weight. 
Though I don't think Lamar properly appreciated what I did for him at the time, I do think he's happier now for having had a good scrub.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Basic class at the shelter

By way of continuing education, I have been assisting with Basic Manners class at the Washington Humane Society. Great to see the same material, taught slightly differently. Its impossible to watch a class taught by another trainer and not learn something new and useful. 

For instance, trick training! What better way to liven up a basic training class than to throw in a trick or two? Tricks are also wonderful ways to channel doggie energy and provide mental stimulation and exercise. In my opinion, tricks are as important as any basic training, and for the same reasons--they help build the joyful human-pooch bond, cement positive human leadership, and add to your repertoire of "favors" to ask for in exchange for something you want your dog to do. 

And my favorite reason: for fearful or shy dogs, a trick can become a huge confidence builder, a way to bounce out of scary situations. Teach a dog a trick she really enjoys--like Sit up and Beg, High Five, Speak, Whisper--and you can use it to distract her when she's about to react to a trigger, or recover when she just has. 

The other really cool thing I learned in class: look how great Queen looks in her pink leash and collar! Amazing trick to remember for those hard-to-adopt black shelter and rescue dogs: deck 'em out in pink to bring out their luster and personality. Queen's people rescued her just a few weeks ago from Washington Humane Society's New York Avenue shelter. Now she's excelling in class and looking fabulous. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More reactive dog ideas

Some more reactive dog training tips are offered on this site. Thanks to Francine for passing it on!

This is from Kathy Cascade, one of the T-Touch instructors who works with Linda Tellington-Jones herself. I really like the mindful presentation, the consideration of equipment, and the step-by-step instructions. Though the description is of how to use a "T Touch labyrinth" and other formal setups we may not all have access to, the general ideas can be adapted to any situation. 

To paraphrase and reiterate:
  • Reactivity is most often based on fear. Work with it by building confidence and reducing stress
  • Reduce tension on the neck, which increases stress. Dual points of contact--head halter plus no-pull harness--are a great way to do this.
  • Allow adequate space (work sub-threshold)
  • Allow the dog to look at other dogs, but not stare
  • Start by following a neutral dog at a safe distance
  • Graduate to parallel walking with a neutral dog--at a safe distance!
  • Reward calming signals--looking at the ground, sniffing, shaking it out, yawning.
Note that there is some controversy about Turid Rugas' notion of "Calming Signals"...some will say that these signals, which Rugas says are signs of calm that can be rewarded and encouraged, are actually signs of stress of which the dog does not have so much conscious control. 

I think the key, as always, is whether the dog is sub-threshold--if we become experts at observing our dogs' body language, we will know whether the yawn/sniff/shake is a sign of stress or of calm...and whether the dog is in a mental state conducive to learning or whether we just need to turn tail and go somewhere safer!


This morning Foz and I went for a walk alone together to try out our new skills. We saw three dogs: with the first, he lunged and barked and didn't care about the hot dog I tried to lure him away with. The key here was that we didn't have enough time to redirect before the dog was too close--often the case on narrow trails.

For the second, the person was standing with his dog off the trail a ways. We approached, Fozzie started to stare, and I guided his nose away with the head halter so he was looking in the other direction. We then walked away a few paces, calmed down a bit with hot dog, and repeated a few times. He was definitely calmer the next couple of times.

The third was a senior dog, and Fozzie started to rear and bark, at which time we put more distance between us and redirected the head. The human on the other end of that leash then started to talk to me, which normally is way too much for Fozzie, but this time I just talked to the guy while focusing on Fozzie, redirecting his head.

We were able to approach closer, and finally I even let Foz stick his head under the low fence between us and sniff the dog. He wagged, sniffed, and we walked away calmly.

  • The way I used the head halter seemed very harsh! It did get his attention away, but it was also definitely what I would call an aversive--especially in light of the tender, raw area that is already on top of his nose. I don't know how I feel about this as a positive trainer! Maybe its a case where when nothing else works, use of an aversive is preferable to surrendering an animal to the shelter (not that Fozzie's in any danger of that, but a lot of dogs are because of their lack of leash skills)
  • Some trainers are adamant that dogs with issues should not be allowed to greet on-leash. But in Fozzie's case, it seems to calm him and put him in a better frame of mind, so he responds better to dogs he sees subsequently.
I would love to hear what other trainers think about these issues!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A renewed commitment to work on reactivity

Fozzie and I are working hard to give him more practice on finding better responses to other dogs than being a lunging, yodeling little man. We are seeking out friends and neighbors with dogs to give us more structured environments in which to practice looking at dogs without getting so excited. 

As I have said before, Fozzie's case is different from the reactive dog work I have done before because he is not scared of other dogs--he really likes them. Likes them so much that he can't stand being on a leash and not being allowed to greet them!

Fozzie is doing very well with our practice, probably because I am working harder at really setting him up for success and having a few more boundaries on what he can do. Here is what we're working on:
  • Don't allow him to stare at other dogs. Use the head halter to pull his face away when he starts to, allowing the head halter to be loose at all other times. 
  • Take deep breaths. When I do this, if he's calm enough to notice, Fozzie tunes right in. A great way to exploit his incredible sensitivity to human emotions.  
A difference from my old way, that is of style more than substance: don't let him pull me around. 

This statement has been hard for me to embrace, since it reminds me so much of the old-school "dominance"-talk. But I know it wouldn't hurt to incorporate a little more tough love into my own style at times, at least with certain kinds of dogs. At least with this dog, who can be a strong-willed young man.

I am impressed with Fozzie's ability to relax in tough situations when given the chance, and with his attention when I make myself interesting enough. He is generally so distracted around stimuli. A few times, I have had him sitting and looking right up at me, and lying down and flopping over on his side even when other dogs are visible.

We have some work to do, but honestly I am surprised and pleased at his ability to focus when he knows what is expected of him. 

I'll say it again, Fozzie has been my best mentor yet! 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Snoot Loop

Fozzie has already completed a fantastic Reactive Agility class, which gave him a great chance to do agility work while protecting him from situations in which he would feel reactive. And we have been working regularly with the skills I learned from coaching reactive classes at Your Dog's Friend, which are exclusively positive and focused on working below a dog's threshold.  These methods have worked wonders for fear-reactive dogs.

But Fozzie has a different issue, which is that he is so excited to see other dogs that he can't bear the frustration of being on the leash. So he still rears and lunges and barks when he sees another dog on-leash, although he calms down, and 99% of the time simply sniffs and wags, if allowed to greet said dog.

I got a Snoot Loop as another training accessory.


We've been using it, but it rubs poor Fozzie's nose raw! After two walks he had a red swollen scar that lasted for a few days after. It did seem to calm him down a bit, but only because he was too preoccupied with the discomfort to pay as much attention to his triggers! 

Too busy pawing his nose, rubbing it against Lamar, sticking it under water.

So do Snoot Loops and other head halters work simply by means of aversion? If so, are they really different from prong or choke collars? The company, which seems very good, is sending me a piece of Polartec to cushion Fozzie's nosie from the Snoot Loop.

Dad doesn't make me wear that thing!

We will continue to explore the question of equipment--my hope of course is that working in more structured ways around other dogs on-leash will be just what Fozzie needs to learn calmer ways of responding when he sees other leashed pooches on our strolls.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Prey drive

Fozzie's most recent applicant was a woman who sounded absolutely wonderful. Lifelong dog lover, lived with pooches all her life, has a mere four of them now. Lots of space, lets the dogs on the bed, no young children or cats. Works at home, on a farm north of Baltimore, two grown kids live and work with her. Sounds like paradise!

Tempting hors-doeuvres for a certain pit mix
One small catch. This farm she lives on? Its a horse farm--and she wants a dog to be able to hang out in the barn with her. The other four are apparently not to be trusted around horses (they include a pit, a min pin, a heeler, and a terrier of some sort) and she misses canine companionship when she's out with the equine people.

How is Fozzie around horses, she asked? Good question!

We know he's an eager mouser. A little too interested in Ingamar and Flower, and a menace to neighborhood feral cats when unsuspecting canvassers or Jehovah's witnesses come by and fail to latch the gate with the obsessive care I know to devote to it.

But horses? Aren't they just a lot--bigger--than a mouse or a cat or a budgie? Will that pit bull brain see a horse and register "Yum--lemme get it!" or "Whoa that's big! Get me out of here?" or--ideally--"That's very pretty! Let me lie down and watch for a while."

Only one way to find out. Saturday trip, up to Belair to the fabulous Fat Chance Farm with Fozzie. Beautiful place, way off the beaten path. Vast corrals on rolling hills with beautiful horsies grazing.

Kris was not there when we arrived, so we took a walk on one of the lovely trails through the woods and picked scads of raspberries. Got to hear Florian scream like a 12 year old girl when we saw a precious little garter snake.

And then...


Running gaily, mom and foal together.

Lamar was quick to growl and bark, but Fozzie?

His response was more complex. Stopping, staring, definitely interested. Getting a good look, as if to make sense of it all. The horses were definitely interested in the dogs, coming closer to check them out. Or maybe they were interested in us, since they probably have a clear association of humans=carrots/apples/oats/yummy horse snacks.

And when they got close enough....that's when Fozzie got a little too excited. Then we got the good ol' Fozzie rearing up, yodeling, and barking.

So Kris and I agreed that Fozzie is probably not the best candidate for a horsie companion, despite my hopes.

The whole thing has given me a chance to learn more about prey drive. What is prey drive? There is a good discussion of it over at the Happy Pit Bull Blog. Working dogs need it to work, and it can be channeled into productive dog activities like Disk Dog and Agility.

I was not expecting that a horse would figure in a doggie brain just like a rabbit or a parakeet..but I suppose Fozzie is smart enough to know who the herbivores are.

Back to the drawing board, Fozzie! I hope we can find another adopter who will love you, give you lots of space to run and cuddle, but who has no tempting fauna for you to get into trouble with!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Renaissance man

As always, Fozzie has been a hardworking little scholar of all things new, different, mischievous, good-smelling, or that might possibly run away or make squeaky noises. 
Just what Uncle Johnny wanted!
Fortunately, he is a reliable lover of new people, so no worries about having house guests. As long as they happen to be house guests who enjoy face washes, lap dances, and leg humps, no problem at all!

He loves to go on our little weekend trips, and if allowed to sit on my lap and hang his nosie way out the window, he can refrain from launching against the inside walls of the van and smashing against the windows in pursuit of passing cars! Yay!
Alternatively, we may use a bit of Good Management. If dog cannot handle freedom in van, tie dog to handle on back of seat. Problem solved.

First stop, the beach. Fozzie started to figure out, but didn't quite learn, that he can swim. 

Still pretty scary, so the discovery that he was in deep water prompted frantic flailing paws splashing and flapping wildly. 
We also discovered a new trick to handle his leash frustration when he encounters another dog--just run deeper into the water! He was so confounded by the novelty of the situation that he forgot to rear up and yodel. 

This past weekend, it was time for a mountain journey--our first trip to the Shenandoahs in way too long. 

Fourth of July festival at the Bryce ski resort, tie-dye T-shirts and gemstones aplenty for sale, and the opportunity to stare in awe at a St. Bernard. Then the mountain, our favorite forest road in the George Washington National Forest,  fresh mountain springs with water that tastes like...well, like a mountain spring, and swimming holes! 

What a relief in the sweltering heat and mugginess to have a nice flat rock to spread out a towel on and have a pizza and a cool bevvie, and a deep, clear stream to relax into.

Nice and deep, water a perfect temperature, ideal for paws to flap around in. A great place for humans and dogs like Lamar--who channels his inner Lab whenever given the chance to go for a leisurely dip, dog-paddling laps and joyfully pursuing tossed sticks at every opportunity-- to swim. 

And for Fozzie, another learning opportunity. 

The first swimming hole was way too deep. Foz ventured in to where he could still stand, and when it started to get deep, he did this adorable thing where he flattens out, as if to dig his paws in deeper and lower his center of gravity. 

We took a chance at letting him off the leash, and he stuck around as long as we were in the swimming hole, standing in the shallow water at the sides and barking, too upset at this bizarre thing we were doing to stray far. 

When that spot was overtaken on the second day by Fourth of July weekend revelers doing backflips into 6 feet of water, we ventured downstream to a less deep, but no less idyllic, spot.

And there, as mom waded with her prodigal foster dog on leash, Fozzie ventured in above his little head, stuck those front paws out stiffly, and began to paddle. 

Still nervous (but don't dogs always look nervous when they swim?) but not panicking this time, seeming to enjoy himself. 

What an accomplishment for our little athlete.