Scarred for Life

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.
Not even an ice-cream cone can erase the traumatic memory of a late dinner.

After more than 20 years of dog parenting, it finally happened. I did the unthinkable.

Dinner was late. Very late.

Sometimes dinner is a little bit late if I am out; often, dinner is extremely early because I am going to be out.

Dinner is supposed to be served between 5 and 5:30. Cali thinks it should be served earlier (and then again later) but we agree to disagree. “A little late” or “acceptably late” — acceptable to the humans, that is — is anytime up until about 7.

One evening, not long ago, I was busy with some stuff. Cali was off doing her own thing. Then, around 8 or maybe (could it really have been?) close to 8:30, I wandered into the kitchen … and noticed that I had not given Cali her dinner. I have no excuse.

When I called her, she dragged her weak, starving self into the kitchen. I apologized profusely and gave her dinner. All seemed to be, if not well, on the mend.

But.

Since then — it has been several weeks — I notice that Cali is anxious if 5 pm passes and there is no food in the bowl. She keeps a closer eye on me. She starts reminding me to stop working earlier and earlier. Then she leads me to the kitchen.

I think she’s scarred for life.

The anti-jackpot

In dog training, there’s a concept we call a jackpot. If the dog does something really wonderful, we “jackpot” them with lots and lots of treats, effusive praise (if they like that sort of thing; Cali just rolls her eyes and asks for more cookies).

Similarly, dogs might jackpot themselves, inadvertently or very intentionally. For instance, the dog who trolls the countertops … and one day discovers that she can reach something wonderful: someone’s momentarily unguarded snack, half a loaf of banana bread, the roast chicken that’s cooling on the counter.

That dog has become a counter surfer for life.

The jackpot, whether delivered by a willing human or self-administered, is highly memorable. The event that immediately preceded it becomes, by association, highly memorable. Better yet, it could happen again.

That’s why Cali tries to walk me to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream stand with free dog cones, every day. Her pleasant experiences there could happen again.

That’s why dogs return to that spot on the dog beach where they found that really cool dead fish to roll in last time … or last year. It could happen again.

That’s why, ahem, feeding the dog a piece of pizza crust just once sets you up for a lifetime of sad puppy eyes, drool on your shoes, and a dog who races to fetch a $20 bill whenever the pizza deliverer appears. (That’s what I hear, anyhow …) It could happen again.

Cali’s traumatic experience with late dinner was her anti-jackpot. It was truly, unbearably horrible, the opposite of an exciting jackpot experience. But even more memorable. And it could happen again.

 

 

Silence, Please

Profile of Cali, a golden retriever, and her silicone-wrapped tagThe Whole Dog Journal recently ran an article about everyday things that irritate dogs. I was pleased to see one of my pet peeves on the list: Jangling tags.

The constant jangling of dog tags is annoying. It’s annoying to me, and I can get away from it. Imagine how the dog feels?

I’ve used many tricks over time to eliminate the jingle-jangle:

  • Silicone or neoprene cover for one or more tags
  • Silicone edging on the tag
  • Rubber band to hold the tags together
  • Stick-on dots to separate the tags

The little covers or edging — you can order tags with the edging or buy little slip-on silicone frames for common tag sizes and shapes — are the most effective, but any of those solutions will reduce the noise. You can also now buy silicone dog tags! Next time Cali loses her tags, I’ll replace it with one of those!

Reducing the number of tags helps too, of course. Cali wears an ID tag with her phone number and her Montana dog license (she’s very proud of that one!). And that’s it.

The noise can be problematic in unanticipated ways: The WDJ article describes a dog who refused to eat because the noise of the tags banging into his metal dish was so unnerving.

It’s an easy fix. To find out other irritants you can eliminate from your dog’s life, read the Whole Dog Journal article (regular readers should all be subscribers by now; it’s the best $20 you’ll ever spend on your dog!).

Pandemic Puppies Are Hitting Adolescence

Young Cali, a golden retriever, runs through a tunnel holding a tennis ball
Cali, now 8, took ages to grow up!

Wow, all those pandemic puppies people got last spring are now hitting that wonderful adolescent stage. You know, where they have boundless energy, no sense, and no memory of anything you’ve taught them?

How long does that stage last? Jana’s was about 5 months. Cali’s? closer to 2 years … Then one day something clicks into place and you have a wonderful adult dog. If you’ve done your homework, that is.

If you didn’t get training when your dog was a puppy, you might find yourself on a long waiting list now. Even if you’ve raised puppies before and know how essential early socialization and training are, the pandemic poses significant problems.

Last spring, many dog training classes were shut down. How do you go to puppy kindergarten on Zoom? Sure, you can learn to teach the pup to sit on cue and wait before bolting out the door by following online lessons, but — like human kindergartners — pups need to play with others to learn how to be a nice dog.

They also need to interact with people. All kinds of people — all ages, ethnicities, genders, sizes, shapes — and wearing all kinds of clothing, walking with different gaits (or using wheelchairs or walkers) … it’s nearly impossible to get that kind of exposure while socially distancing.

The extended work-from-home time was beneficial to housetraining and developing a close bond with a new puppy, but is that dog able to handle being left home alone?

Get creative!

It’s possible to find workarounds to some of these issues. A trainer referenced in a recent NYT article suggests hanging out in a park with a long leash (15-20 feet) and asking willing passers-by to greet your puppy.

As far as encouraging independence, crate training is always a good idea — then ensuring that the pup spends some time alone each day, crated with a fabulous treat. I like stuffed Kongs, but there are dozens of great treat toys that you can safely leave with your dog in a crate. Avoid anything that looks like the dog could chew off a small part (whether a toy or an edible, like dental chews or rawhide) and swallow it. Smear or stuff it with something irresistible. Peanut butter works for a lot of dogs.

Do this while you are at home, but also start leaving the dog home alone for short periods. Take a no-dog walk, run errands, whatever is possible where you live. Gradually extend the dog’s alone time, and don’t make a huge fuss when you return or release the dog from the crate. It shouldn’t be a big deal to leave the dog or reunite. Just part of an ordinary daily routine.

If your dog has become a wild child and you don’t know what to do, look for online training — try the APDT’s trainer search. Even if you can only get an online class or a phone consultation, professional advice might be the best way to resolve any behavioral issues before they get deeply entrenched. Please choose only a positive trainer, though, and be prepared to put in some time and effort. Changing behavior takes time (whether it’s the dog’s or the human’s — or both!).

Hats off to ‘Thoughts of Dog’

Book cover of Thoughts of Dog shows simply drawn yellow dog with stuffed elephant

Thoughts of Dog is more than a book or a calendar. It’s a peek into the mind of a loving, sweet, sometimes silly golden retriever and their human. The dog, who is nameless, has a constant companion named Sebastian (Sebastian is a stuffed elephant). Dog also has a human of course.

That human is named Matt Nelson.

And they are simply brilliant.

Nelson & dog capture the human-dog relationship perfectly. They’re poignant, laugh-out-loud funny and sardonic in turns. Always spot-on.

Nelson got started sharing his uncanny dog wisdom a couple of years ago (don’t know HOW I missed it …) with “We Rate Dogs.” You can see some examples on this blog post: 50 Times People Asked To Rate Their Dogs, And Got Hilarious Results.

Calendar page showing dog saying "Today I waited patiently while the human checked little boxes to try to change the world"I first heard of Thoughts of Dog when a friend shared a page from last year’s calendar. I immediately ordered the 2021 calendar.

Highly recommended whenever you need a lift or a laugh.

Please Leash Your Dog

Golden Cali and Lab Koala enjoy a fall hike. On leash.
Hiking on leash is fun!

On a single walk last week, Cali and I were approached by two unleashed dogs. One, a young, friendly, waggy mix, telegraphed youthful enthusiasm and friendliness and even wary Cali was happy to say hello. The second was far more territorial, larger and, to both of us, a bit scary. Neither listened to their human’s call. Nothing bad happened, but things could so easily and so quickly have gone wrong.

Those two were dogs I’d never seen before, but on our usual walking route, there are many frequent flyers. Or runners. The dogs who “always” stay in their yards … except for every single time I have walked by. The ones who growl menacingly when we approach — even where we already know to cross the street and make a wide detour. Walking in our beautiful neighborhood park, we’ve met multiple off-leash dogs, including the young golden who never fails to growl at Cali. Always off leash.

We’re often greeted by loose dogs, gamboling about in their (unfenced) front yards or “just” going from home to car or car to home. Doesn’t matter. During that 30-seconds of freedom, terrible things can happen. I live on what passes for a busy street in Missoula, and too often to count, across-the-street neighbor dogs, heading to the car, have been distracted by Cali (on leash). These dogs don’t look both ways before plunging into traffic.

It’s not only the danger to the loose dog that bothers me.

The dynamic between a leashed dog and an unleashed dog is very different from two leashed dogs meeting, though I generally try to keep my distance from unfamiliar leashed dogs as well.

When an unleashed dog approaches, the leashed dog can’t get away. Even when the approaching dog seems friendly, one of the dogs could decide there’s something unsavory about the other and the encounter can turn ugly, fast. Or maybe the leashed dog is inherently anxious — or dog aggressive. Or simply having a bad day. The owners of the unleashed dog have no way of knowing, even if they’re 100% certain that their dog is universally friendly, cheerful, and loving toward all of dogkind. And humankind. (Note: this is not possible; not even Cali is that perfect.)

Unable to escape the oncoming dog, the leashed dog’s only recourse is aggression — a growl, maybe a lunge.

But, if both dogs are leashed, either human can quickly head away. The dogs can get out of one another’s range. Ironically, with both dogs leashed, neither feels trapped by the encounter. Neither feels trapped because the encounter is avoidable.

Dogs don’t need to say hello to every dog they see. Mostly, they don’t want to either.

Cali is very specific about which dogs she wants to greet. Goldens and most Labs are ok. Anyone smaller than she is, preferably female, is ok. Doodles of all sizes, though, are out. She’s got a bizarre set of rules, true. But that’s her right. She doesn’t have to be social with anyone on four feet. By leashing your dog, you keep your dog safe and respect both dogs’ right to choose not to say hello.

When the approaching dog is attached to a human, both dogs can choose: They can stay close to Mom or head out to say hi.

The same is true when humans approach without dogs. Some dogs want to greet every human on the planet (hi, Cali!); others do not. If Cali weren’t leashed, she’d run up to every single person we encountered.

The human has choices too, when the dogs are leashed. While I choose not to let Cali get close to unfamiliar dogs, I confess to letting her greet humans who seem amenable (which means they look at her, talk to her, reach out a hand to the nose that is straining toward them). But when humans seem immune to her charms, we give them a lot of space (who’d want to meet those people anyhow?).

Please leash your dog. Cali will thank you. And your dog will be safer.

 

Treat Everyone Like a Dog

cover of Treat Everyone Like a Dog with a happy cattle dog puppy

While I do think that I’d like to come back as the dog of some of my friends and family members, this column isn’t about that. It’s actually a book review!

Karen London, a well-known (& wonderful) dog trainer’s book, to be specific: Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life. An added bonus: Patricia McConnell wrote the foreword.

It’s really a book about changing behavior, which is a topic I write about a lot in my real life, where I work for a bunch of online learning companies. Corporate training is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. Parenting is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. And dog training is pretty much about … shaping and changing behavior.

London does a brilliant job of explaining how to change specific behaviors (in dogs), why the techniques work — and how to apply them to similar situations with humans, whether those humans are your children, spouse, coworkers, friends … It sounds manipulative, but it’s no more (or less) so than the tactics we’re probably already using — and which are not working.

London talks about motivation, using positive reinforcement to motivate as well as reward, and why fear of failure can be so crippling in influencing what dogs (and people) do. Her emphasis is on positive methods of changing behavior and she draws a clear contrast between the shift to positive approaches in dog training — and the lack of a similar shift in human educational and workplace settings.

The book will teach you about things like the jackpot effect and intermittent reinforcement and why it’s so hard to change behavior when a dog (or human) is sometimes rewarded for the very behavior you’re trying to eradicate.

The book is filled with funny and familiar stories and examples. It’s got to be the best book on learning theory I have ever read. Her section on “learning styles” initially had me worried, but her take on it makes far more sense than the thoroughly debunked idea of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners! She talks about the value of short, spaced lessons, rather than trying to learn a new skill or complex material all at once — another topic I encounter over and over again in my work.

There’s a lot of great information packed into this book. I suggest reading and digesting it chapter by chapter — and trying out some of the strategies on your dog (or your kid!). You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah! 

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!

Waiting for Raspberries

Golden retriever Cali sits next to the raspberry patch, waiting for berries to ripen
Some day, my berries will be ready …

Cali is a raspberry fiend. When our bushes have raspberries, she’s constantly nosing through the canes, looking for ripe, almost ripe, or just about any berries she can reach. She somehow manages to avoid the thorns.

Throughout the winter, she also kept nosing around, trampling the canes and occasionally chewing on one. I kept telling her that she’d be sorry in the summer because if she ate the bushes, there’d be no raspberries.

I was wrong. I was completely ignorant of the benefits of a dog nosing through, trampling, and chewing on raspberry canes. Our patch is bigger and stronger than ever. And both old and new canes are loaded with potential raspberries. They are not even at the stage of underripe berries as I write this, but within a few weeks … Cali will be stuffing herself.

She’s excited. Every day she goes to check on them. She conducts a thorough inspection of every cane. She sniffs every emerging berry. She sits patiently next to the canes — for hours — waiting for them to ripen.

We’re going to have a bumper crop of raspberries. I hope that the humans get to eat a few.

Social Distancing When You Can’t See the Distance

Deni walks along a path with Koala, a black Lab. Deni wears a face mask.Guest post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala gives me advance warning when we are about to cross paths with another dog. I can feel added tension in the rigid handle attached to her harness. She keeps walking us straight down the sidewalk, but as the person and dog get closer, I can feel Koala rise up. She walks on her tippy-toes, restraining herself from sniffing as we scoot past the dog.

A person alone on the sidewalk is way less interesting; as far as Koala is concerned, they might as well be a trash can to walk around. In that case, Koala is likely to walk by without giving any indication that there is something that needs my attention. It isn’t until I hear footsteps that I realize that the obstacle we are passing is a living, breathing human being.

In this period of cautiously returning to public contact, what my guide dog communicates has become an urgent matter of concern. Guide dogs know how to squeeze and weave themselves and their partners around any obstacles. They aren’t likely to understand the concept of staying six feet away from others. So, the question for people who are blind or visually impaired is: How can we manage social distancing when we can’t see the distance?

I’ve found that the answer depends on how crowded your community is and on whether the guide dog team is navigating outside or inside.

In areas with lower population and more attuned neighbors, if people see a guide dog working in harness, they may naturally cross the street or provide space. In high population areas or or where sighted people are more focused on their phones than on other pedestrians, the guide dog handler will have to take a more proactive approach.

When walking on harness outside, if the guide dog signals that another dog is nearby, the handler should ask the person approaching to keep the distance. “Please stay six feet away,” is normally all that is required.

It’s harder when your guide gives no warning, and the handler suddenly finds herself  shoulder-to-shoulder with someone on the sidewalk. Again saying, “Please stay six feet away,” is kinder than shouting, “Can’t you see that I’m blind?”

Working a dog in harness inside in the COVID-19 era provides new challenges that most guide dog teams can’t overcome on their own. Some grocery stores have designated aisles as one-way. Any place open for business has six-foot markers for people standing in line at the check-out counter. People with visual impairments are not likely to see any of this. It is kind for sighted shoppers to offer directions, but unfortunately, many sighted people just stop and stare.

The blind or visually impaired person can do some advance planning to make the trip to the store as efficient as possible. If the store has special hours for vulnerable populations, it is good to take advantage of the smaller crowd and the likelihood that the other shoppers will also be working to keep distance. This is one time that it is a good idea to call the store in advance, explaining to the manager that the need for employee assistance. That helper can quickly locate items and help the guide dog team stay out of the way of others, while everyone maintains a six-foot distance.

Some people have pulled out their long white canes as an additional signal for sighted people to keep the right distance. Others who aren’t coordinated enough to handle the dog in harness on one side and cane on the other – I’m one of those – may need to provide additional visual cues for those around them. Vests, tank tops, and tee shirts that say “BLIND” or “VISUALLY IMPAIRED” in high contrast are used by athletes and are available at ruseen.com. These draw more attention to disability than most of us would like in our daily lives. But at this time in the world, it is better to be noticed than infected.