In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.


Not Quite Ready

Koala, a black Labrador, lies down in a stone-tiled shower
Koala is always in search of a cozy place to rest.

Koala loves her crate. Deni thought that she might be ready to move to the big-girl bed, which is a really nice hammock bed with a cozy blanket on it. Deni put the hammock bed next to her own bed, and she moved Koala’s crate way far away. Koala likes to be near Deni, so, Deni hoped, the position of the beds would be an incentive for Koala to try the grown-up bed.

No dice. Koala slept in her crate.

Oh, sure, she tried out the bed. She spent part of the night there. She lay down on it when Deni told her to. But first chance she got, she crept into her crate. She likes her crate.

She even started stealing off during the day for little naps in her crate, which she never used to do.

“What’s the big deal?” I asked Deni. “Why can’t she have her crate?”

“It takes up too much space” was the response. “It’s ugly.”

Well. Dora, Cali’s sister, loves her crate too. She still sleeps in it most nights. She loves her nice dog bed in the living room, and she enjoys cuddling with Mom and Dad on the bed, but she loves her crate. Some dogs just love the feeling of having a private room.

Cali might still love her crate, too, if she had one. But her puppy crate was borrowed and went back to the dog school when Cali, Jana, and I moved out of Cali’s puppy home four years ago. Cali has moved a lot, and the crate was a casualty of that first move. She’s never seemed to mind, but if she’d had the choice, who knows?

Koala is adjusting to the hammock bed. She does seem to like it. But she also likes her crate. I think she should have the choice. But I am a big believer in giving dogs choices. And, of course, I don’t have to trip over a huge crate every time I want to get clothes out of my closet, so I do understand Deni’s desire to get rid of it.

It’s too soon to know who will win this battle of wills. My money’s on Koala though.

The Value of a Tennis Ball

Cali, as a very young puppy, runs through a tunnel holding a tennis ball.
Cali was a young tennis ball addict

Cali showed her entrepreneurial spirit this week when she decided to buy a tennis ball. Cali adores tennis balls. She loves chasing them, holding them, drooling on them. She especially loves getting one really wet and drooly and then rolling it in the dirt she’s carefully prepared by digging a new hole in the yard. She then tries to sneak it into the living room. She’s not allowed to have tennis balls in the house.

I also like tennis balls. When my shoulders feel stiff and sore, I use a tennis ball to loosen the muscle cramp. I learned this trick from Jana, who loved to position a tennis ball under her shoulder and then roll it down the length of her spine while wriggling on her back. My yoga teacher advised using a tennis ball for this as well. There are two ways for people to do this: lying on your back on the floor, with the ball under your shoulder; or standing against a wall with the tennis ball pinned between your shoulder and the wall. Both work. The problem with the floor version, I have found, is that Cali cannot resist temptation, and she tries to steal the ball from under my shoulder. I end up with no tennis ball and a lot of drool on my neck. So I use the wall method.

The other day, there I was, leaning into the tennis ball. Cali was on her bed, watching intently.I think that part of the appeal for Cali is the “breaking the rules” aspect of getting her teeth on a tennis ball inside. She got up, rooted around in the blankets a bit, and found her Kong. Cali has two Kongs, and at the time I was working on the tennis ball, I knew that one was empty and one had a big chunk of a biscuit inside.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

Now, Cali has only recently become a fan of Kongs. Jana was an early Kong addict, and by the time Jana was about 6 months old, there was nothing that I could pack into a Kong that she couldn’t devour in less than 30 seconds, leaving the Kong sparkling clean. But as long as Jana was on the scene, I could not give Cali a Kong. Cali is more leisurely in her approach to Kongs. She’ll work at it for a few minutes, get some of the food out, then abandon it. A few hours later, she’ll find it and work some more. It’s more of an all-day snack than a quick nosh. She’s also more likely to dribble bits of whatever is in the Kong onto the floor, the carpet, her bed … Jana would not let a drop or a crumb escape.

Cali picked up one of her Kongs, walked over to me, and sat. She looked at the shoulder where the tennis ball was, then looked me in the eyes. Back to the shoulder, back to the eyes. Then, still holding the Kong in her mouth, she poked her nose at me a few times, looking me right in the eyes. Oh, I said, are you offering me that Kong? I held out my hand. She placed the Kong in my hand and looked at the tennis ball shoulder again. I handed her the tennis ball. Purchase complete, Cali walked back to her bed, smiling.

I looked at my newly purchased Kong and discovered that it was the one with the biscuit. I pulled the biscuit out and called Cali back to me. She came, leaving her new purchase safely on her bed.

You’ve overpaid, sweetie, I told her. Here’s your change. She accepted her change, ate it, and returned to her tennis ball.

Dog trainers know that the dog gets to decide what a worthy reward is for any task. Cali is more obsessed with tennis balls (and less obsessed with food) than any other Lab or golden retriever that I’ve worked with. But she knows what she values and how to get it. She also knows that a Kong has value, and that one with food is worth more than one without. She doesn’t seem to understand scarcity and how it should affect value, though; we have lots and lots of tennis balls, but only two Kongs. To her, a tennis ball clearly has more value than even a Kong-with-snack, even though one is scarce and the other is common.

Or maybe the joke’s on me: She might also know that she’ll get the Kong back, filled with biscuits, each morning when I head out the door. So it’s not a scarce resource after all.

Now really, who’s the smart one here?

The Education of Will

Photo of the book cover of The Education of WillPatricia McConnell wrote on her blog about her frustration that most bookstores place The Education of Will with the pet books. She’s right. It’s only partly a dog book; a wonderful dog book, by the way. It’s also a memoir. But far more powerful than either of those, it’s a book about overcoming trauma, understanding how experiencing trauma affects every aspect of the survivor’s life and behavior — and gathering the courage, compassion, and forgiveness to face the trauma and heal.

Though chock-full of stories about Will, Dr. McConnell’s troubled border collie puppy, and sprinkled with tales of other traumatized and terrified dogs she has helped over the years, The Education of Will is primarily Dr. McConnell’s story. It is deeply personal; writing in is courageous and testament to her ability to examine the worst experiences a person can have, work through them, and share them in all their frightening, embarrassing, horrifying detail.

If you’re a dog person, you should read this book — and Dr. McConnell’s other books, her blog … If you are a human being, you should read this book. If you’re a dog with fear-based behavior problems or a dog who’s experienced trauma, you should read this book (ask your human to help).

Will, as an eight-week-old puppy, reacted to sudden noises with explosive terror. Dr. McConnell has no explanation for this; he did not, as far as she knows, experience any trauma in his first weeks. He was terrified of other dogs, particularly if they were inside his house. However, he adored any and all people. Her work with him was painstaking and slow; they experienced frustrating setbacks, as it is not always possible to control a frightening environment and avoid noises, dogs, injuries, and any previously unknown triggers.

As I read the first chapters, I wondered whether I’d have the patience and skill to work through problems like Will’s. I thought about how the agony of his early weeks and months affected his overall quality of life and that of Dr. McConnell’s other dogs. I wondered whether there are more than a handful of behaviorist or trainers who could cope with a dog like Will. I know that there are literally thousands of dogs like him.

Unfortunately, many dog owners see the behavior of a dog like Will — lunging, barking, maybe snarling or even biting — as aggression. It often manifests as aggression, sure, but at its core, it is fear. In her work with aggressive and fearful dogs, Dr. McConnell had to face her own fears as well as convince the dogs’ owners that their dogs needed compassion and patience as they worked to overcome the fear underlying the dogs’ aggression.

Too often when dogs act out, trainers perpetuate the myth that the dog is “being dominant” and that owners need to “be the alpha.” This approach only encourages responses, like yelling at the dog, hitting him, or administering leash corrections, that are likely to exacerbate the dog’s fear and escalate the aggression. Fearful and traumatized dogs need lots of patience, gentleness, and understanding, not violence or punishment. Some will recover; many will not. Will is so lucky to have landed with Dr. McConnell — as are the thousands of clients and dogs she’s helped throughout her career.

This is the best dog book and non-dog book that I have read in a long time. In case you are still wondering where I stand: Four paws up. Read this book!

Are Raw Diets Safe?

Jana holds her food bowl in her mouth

A recent Canine Corner post by Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-known writer on canine cognition strongly suggests that they are not. I’d like to present an opposing view of this often contentious question.

Full disclosure: I feed Cali a partially raw diet; I did the same for Jana for several years and she thrived on it. Cali’s sister Dora recently added raw food to her diet, and she’s healthier and more energetic than I have ever seen her. Other dogs I know have had similar experiences. So, with some caveats, I favor raw or partially raw diets. How’s that for hedging my bets?

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Coren; I’ve read most of his (copious) work on canine intelligence and relationships with people; I’ve even taken a graduate seminar with him. He’s a psychologist, though; not a nutritionist, so I am skeptical of his advice on canine nutrition.

His column starts with a terrible story about someone who fed raw until her child got salmonella; he then goes into detail about why many veterinarians recommend against raw diets and how the people who feed raw diets tend not to trust vets. I have no idea if the statistics he quotes are accurate or representative. But it doesn’t really matter.

I go to my veterinarian, as I go to a doctor, for medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of medical problems. Just as my doctor might advise me to lose weight or warn that my weight could cause health problems, I’d expect my vet to warn me if my dog were severely overweight. (If my golden retriever were underweight, I’d already know there was a problem!) If a medical condition indicated a particular dietary restriction, I’d expect the vet to tell me that, too. But if I needed more detailed diet advice, I’d go to a dietician, not my internist. Similarly, when I seek nutrition information for my dogs, I look to experts who specialize in canine diet and nutrition.

In most cases, that is not the vet. Surprised?

Just as vets are the wrong address for questions on behavior and training, the vet is not the best source of information on canine diet. Of course, just as some vets are also certified companion animal behaviorists, some take an interest in nutrition and become experts, even board-certified nutritionists. But these are the exception. And the nutrition courses that vet schools offer are unlikely to focus intensely on canine nutrition; vets learn to treat many species of pet and farm animals.

I’m fortunate that one of Cali’s vets has taken a deep interest in canine nutrition and has continued to study nutrition and new research throughout her career. This vet firmly believes in and advocates a raw diet for dogs. She urges low-carb diets, too, and, since most kibbles have a lot of carbs, she’s not a huge fan of kibble. She argues, convincingly, that fresh, real food is far more healthful, and, based on dogs’ ancestry, a more natural diet for dogs than hyper-processed cooked kibble.

Another source of in-depth information about canine diet is The Whole Dog Journal. It takes no advertising, so is not beholden in any way to pet food companies. This is markedly different from the average vet, who sells (and profits from) so-called “prescription” diets and who may also push a particular line of foods for all their clients. The Whole Dog Journal publishes detailed reviews of canned, dry, and dehydrated raw dog foods every year. It has published several articles exploring the pros and cons of raw diets as well. (See: Raw Dog Food and Salmonella Risks and High Pressure Processing and Your Dog’s Raw Food, for example.) When evaluating commercial foods, WDJ asks probing questions of the manufacturer; it has a fairly high bar for including a company in its list of acceptable or recommended foods. I’ve said it before: If you don’t subscribe to The Whole Dog Journal, you should!

Recently, a nutritionist who works with Deni’s guide dog school recommended a raw diet for Koala, Deni’s guide. Koala has “leaky gut,” and the nutritionist said that the raw diet was easier for her to digest than kibble and would allow her gut to heal. I found that interesting because one of my hesitations with raw diet was that I thought it was recommended only for dogs with a healthy digestive system. But Koala is doing very well; she has not had any of the issues — vomiting, stomach upset, etc. — that she had consistently on a kibble diet.

I still would be very careful about introducing a raw diet to a dog with a compromised immune system, but I think it is a healthful and desirable option for most dogs.

What is my other area of concern? Well, the story that Dr. Coren based his blog post on illustrates it nicely: safe handling.

The woman in the story let her young son feed the dog, handling the raw food. I don’t eat meat or seafood, but when I did, I would not have trusted a child to handle and prepare it safely or to thoroughly clean the utensils that had been in contact with it. Similarly, I would not let a young child feed Cali her raw food or do the cleanup. I wash everything carefully, just as I would with raw meat if I were cooking that for myself. It seems like common sense. But if I had young children in the house, I probably would avoid a raw diet just because it would be harder to enforce the safe handling protocols.

So, all that is a long lead up to this: I think that raw diets are perfectly safe if handled with proper care. The presence of Salmonella in some samples does not worry me; eggs and chicken commonly carry some Salmonella. Many dogs “shed” Salmonella and other pathogens in their feces; that is not an indication that they are sick and most never have symptoms. But it is an argument for picking up your yard often — and washing your hands afterward. Dry foods have more recalls for Salmonella contamination than raw dog foods, though that might just be a question of volume. Lots more dry food is out there than raw!

The bottom line is, we eat food — as do our dogs — from an imperfect system that exists in a world full of germs and pathogens. We therefore should take precautions with all of our food. A raw diet has many, many benefits for dogs, and, if you can afford it and handle it safely, it is something that I think is worth considering.





Superdogs in St. Petersburg

Four caped, colorfully painted superdog statues

A pack of canine superheroes is visiting St. Petersburg. It’s a fundraiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs, a guide dog school nearby in Palmetto, FL. Packs will soon establish their territories in Sarasota and Tampa as well. These caped Labrador crusaders are doing their bit to help humanity; the public (that’s us) is invited to vote for our favorites. Each $1 vote trickles a bit of cash to the guide dog school. Each hero was decorated by a different local artist. No voters are illegal, and stuffing the ballot box is recommended. Vote early and vote often! Actually, there is no early voting. Vote online from June 6 through Sept. 18.

The vanguard of what will ultimately be 50 canine heroes took their positions in early March. Their packmates will join them over the next several weeks. When every dog has her (or his) den, the Superheroes on Parade website will post maps, enabling dog lovers to find their favorite pups.

Lots of cities have hosted “decorated sculpture” parades for lots of good causes, but in my opinion, superhero dogs are the best yet.

A Step Too Far

No tech gadgets for this dog!

In December, I wrote about Mood Collars. Shortly after, I heard about another product that goes even farther — it is essentially a Fitbit for dogs. Actually, it’s more than that. It is a comprehensive health, mood, and activity tracker. Big Brother for your pup.

According to the website, the gadget attaches to the dog’s collar and measures your dog’s movements, also recording whether the dog is eating, drinking, sleeping, pacing, etc. Data are sent via wifi to the company’s server. The data are crunched like a good bone, providing info for you, the owner, to access from a dashboard.

Is your dog stressed? Appropriately active? Scratching a lot? Watching too much TV? Ordering pizza on your credit card?

Ok, it doesn’t monitor TV consumption or shopping habits, which is unfortunate, because I think that Cali is addicted to nature shows. But it does have algorithms that, the website claims, can suggest whether the dog is ill, if he’s not drinking enough, or if he’s itchy. The website is chock-full of high techy buzzwords, like “machine learning” and “onboard neural network”— words that crop up in my work all the time, but have no place in my relationship with Cali. It touts the “wellness matrix” developed by vets, which it pairs with data gathered on your dog, over time, to decide whether your dog is active enough, too active, anxious, or showing signs of illness. It sends you alerts, notifications, and suggestions, and you can also monitor the dashboard.

The techy and impersonal nature of this bugs me. Yes, I’d like to know if my dog is sick or anxious, but I am not sure I need to measure “key health and happiness indicators on 6 axes of freedom” to know that; I just need to spend time with her. Of course I want to know if she barks when I am away, though I suspect that my very human neighbors would let me know if she did. The claims to be able to detect “diseases such as hyperactivity, cognition troubles on senior dogs” and “anomalies such as arthrosis” by analyzing a dog’s activity and comparing it with a profile for his age and breed are dubious at best. Some things just can’t be done via remote technology, a thought that occurred to me this week as I filled out a survey from my own healthcare provider. Would I have preferred a phone or video consultation to my office visit this week, it asked. Um, no. Acupuncture by video probably wouldn’t work. Neither does caring for your pet via app.

Even though I leave Cali home while I am at work, I still spend enough time with her to know her as an individual. She’s not a line on a chart. She’s not identical to every other 56-pound dog or every other 4-year-old golden retriever. She’s Cali. I’ve known her since she was 8 weeks old. I can tell if she’s itchy or anxious. I don’t need a $200 gadget to tell me. But the gadget’s Kickstarter campaign has more than 300 supporters, so somebody thinks it’s a good idea.

To be fair, I can see some uses for it. It’d be a useful way to collect research data, since owner reporting is not very reliable. This gadget could help me figure out if Cali really is a return-anticipating dog who knows when I am heading home, which would be cool. Beyond that, though, I am not sure it adds anything that a good dog-person relationship doesn’t already uncover. Sure, if I had my dog in a kennel, I’d like a way to keep tabs on the caretakers, provided that there was wifi in the kennel. But I don’t leave her in a kennel; I leave her with dog sitters whom I trust— and talk to regularly. Besides, Cali already thinks I spend way too much time staring at screens when I should be outside, throwing a ball for her or walking through a park with her. She’s right.