A Girl’s Just Got to Dig!

Cali, a golden retriever, digs in the sand in her kiddie pool digging pit

Cali loves to dig. She loves to dig deep holes at the dog beach, sending sand flying. She loves to dig through the snow, sometimes over-zealously sending clods of partially frozen grass and dirt flying.

Most of all, she loves to dig in the yard. The first time we planted tomatoes in our raised garden beds, Cali immediately dug them right back up. She’s since learned that the raised beds are off-limits but … that leaves the whole rest of the yard for her, right?!

I now have two or three large pits in my back yard. Any attempt to refill them is met with more digging.

Cali, a golden retriever, enjoys the bone she dug out of her digging pitBut! I have a possible solution. A couple of weekends ago, I built Cali a digging pit. It’s a kiddie pool with sand. I considered other fill materials — wood chips? Pea gravel? I didn’t want something that would get too hot for paws or would harm the grass or the lawnmower if / when some got scattered on the grass.  I thought about getting those plastic balls used in kids’ ball pits but they’re pretty expensive and they squash or puncture easily (not to mention blowing / rolling around the yard!). So I settled on sand. I cover it at night and I don’t get many cats in the yard anyhow with the dogs around.

I bury things — tennis balls, bones.

Koala does not seem to see the point, though she will pull a bone out every so often and gnaw on it.  But Cali seems to like it! She’ll dig something out, chew on it for a while, then wander back to dig for a new treat. As the days grow longer and warmer, we’ll all spend more time outside, so the pit will be uncovered more often. Time will tell whether this diverts Cali from her yard excavations … or simply adds to her digging pleasure.

The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.

I was wrong.

Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.

Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.

But I digress.

Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.

Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.

Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.

Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.

Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.

Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)

When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.

Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…

Dogs to the rescue!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad

I have a confession to make: The real brainpower behind the Thinking Dog blog comes from Koala. She’s shown, above, reviewing drafts of blog posts on her iPad.

She wanted to be sure that no one missed the important news that her distant cousins are going to save humans from themselves by fixing this whole coronavirus mess.

Eight Labradors are learning to use their super power to fight the COVID-109 pandemic: Their noses.

The University of Pennsylvania has a working dog research center dedicated to figuring out innovative ways to partner with dogs. Their latest project is coronavirus-sniffing dogs.

Dogs have already demonstrated their ability to sniff out viruses, which apparently have unique odors — either from the virus itself or from the body’s response — that dogs can detect before an infected person is symptomatic. Dogs are ideally suited for this job. Their detection ability is better by far than available detection equipment, and they can easily travel and work anywhere that humans gather.

Coronavirus-detection dogs could be more accurate than taking people’s temperatures. Their potential to sniff out contagious people who have no idea they are infected could make it safer for people to travel and resume other activities. A similar project in the UK aims to deploy these canine superheroes to airports to screen passengers.

Airports offer so many opportunities for working dogs — I wonder how the vegetable-sniffing dogs, the explosive-sniffing dogs, and the virus-sniffing dogs will all get along. Koala would like to point out that all of these hard-working airport employees deserve potty parity. She’s appalled at the conditions of the airport restrooms she’s expected to use while working and traveling and believes that the dogs who actually work at the airport deserve far better!

Dog Park Kerfuffle

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.
Cali at Jacob’s Island, a Missoula dog park

Are dog parks wonderful places to let your city dog off leash to safely run and play or are they the potential source of serious problems and likely places to pick up infections, get hurt, or worse?

Yes to both.

It’s been a couple of years since I last wrote about dog parks on The Thinking Dog, and an online exchange about dog parks, brought to my attention by a friend, got me thinking about the topic.

First this New York Times piece came out: The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually. Not much ambiguity there. It’s pretty clear where this writer stands.

A response was quickly forthcoming from Marc Bekoff, a person I have studied with and admire greatly: Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park.

The NYT piece raises valid concerns, including the risk of disease or injury. I know dogs who’ve been seriously injured by dog-aggressive dogs at dog parks, and a local dog park was recently closed for a week or so for disinfecting after some dogs picked up an infection there.

The author also talks about the idea that dog parks are for “dog socialization” and explains that that’s not where or how to socialize your puppy. True, and also obvious.

Finally, she delves into the issue of dogs who find dog parks stressful or otherwise unpleasant. She closes with this: “There is no shame in not surrendering your dog to what has become the quintessential urban dog experience: running with dozens of strangers in a small, smelly pen as people stand by, looking at their phones or gossiping,” and encourages owners to spend quality time with their dogs instead.

I have been at urban dog parks that are indeed small, smelly pens where the humans ignore the dogs.

But that is not typical of my dog park experience. And I would never go into a park like that with my dog!

Bekoff effectively addresses the sweeping generalizations in the NYT piece while stating what should be obvious: All dog parks are different.

Many are large, open, wonderful spaces, maybe with woods or walking paths.

Dog park culture varies greatly too. In many, there are regular gatherings of people and dogs who are friends. Many dog park people are conscientious dog owners who are actually paying attention to their dogs. Some even play with their dogs! You can and should spend “quality time” with your dog at the dog park!

Many dog parks have quieter times when dogs like Cali, who wants to play with her tennis ball undisturbed by other dogs, can run and roll in the grass and be free. Now that Cali has her own back yard, she doesn’t need the dog park as much … but when we lived in apartments, she really needed the off-leash time and the exercise.

Not all dogs want to play with other dogs, and not all dog parks are wonderful. But they’re certainly not all bad, either. Wherever you stand on dog parks, and whether or not your local options are appealing to you and to your dog, my bottom line is that over-generalizing doesn’t make sense.

You and your dog need to figure out what works for both of you. If you’re lucky enough to have enjoyable dog parks nearby, go ahead — enjoy some outdoor, off-leash quality time with your dog at the dog park!

 

 

 

Telemedicine comes to vet clinics

Cali attentively watches TV
Cali loves to watch TV. She might like talking to her vet that way.

Vets are considered to be providers of an essential service, so, in most places, they can remain open during COVID-19 stay-at-home rules. Even so, they are looking for creative ways to keep themselves, their staffs, and their patients safe.

Like telemedicine. Or drive-through service — or carhop service, where a tech gets the pet from the car so the driver doesn’t have contact with the clinic staff.

I’m not a huge fan of vet practices where they take my dog “to the back” and I don’t get to see what is done to her, but in these times, I do understand the need.

The telemedicine is more of a mystery. I know many people with two operable thumbs who have difficulty with videoconference tools, what with the mouse, the camera, getting the audio to work … How’s Cali supposed to manage all of that? Then there’s the whole question of how she explains where it hurts … I don’t know.

In all seriousness, the ability to consult and even get medications prescribed via telemedicine can reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 by reducing contact between humans. I’ll be curious to see whether people take to tele-vet services and whether they remain an option after the pandemic ends.

Maybe Cali could get her next vaccination via telemedicine … or avoid that scene with the soup ladle and the urine sample. She’d like that. I hate to be the one to tell her that there are some thing you just have to do in person. Or in dog.

What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

Vet Visits, Training and More — Fear Free

Fear Free logo with silhouette of a dog, a cat, and an outstreched hand reads "taking the pet out of petrified"

While going to the vet may never become your dog’s favorite thing to do once you’ve enticed her into the car, it doesn’t have to be scary. Dog training should always be fun. And there are even things pet owners can do at home to reduce fear and anxiety in their pets.

The Fear Free Pets initiative, founded by veterinarian Marty Becker, is a few years old and gaining a lot of followers.

Fear-based anxiety can lead to fear-based acting out, including aggression. A recent Whole Dog Journal article details the effects of chronic stress on pets and their families. It also lists signs of stress or anxiety that people might not recognize, including drooling or foamy mouth, as well as more familiar signs, like trembling or hiding.

The Fear Free movement offers certification for veterinarians and clinics, dog trainers, and groomers, with a dog-walker certification in the works. The goal is to teach pet professionals to use handling techniques and equipment that are gentle, to reduce the use of restraint and force. The certification programs teach pet professionals to recognize stress and how to acclimate pets to scary procedures, whether getting a shot or having their nails trimmed.

At the vet clinic, some fear-free protocols might include moving the pet and her person into an exam room immediately, rather than having them wait in a waiting area, with other stressed-out animals.

The website notes that many shelters, vet clinics, and pet professionals practice force-free and anxiety-reduction techniques without pursuing certification. It’s certainly worth asking about when shopping for a vet, a groomer, or a positive trainer.

The initiative is a fantastic extension of positive, no-force training approaches into every area of dogs’ and other pets’ lives.

The Fear Free Pets website offers resources for pet owners, including COVID-19-related information and resources. While professionals pay for the courses and certification, pet-owner resources are available for free. There’s also a search function to help pet owners find fear-free professionals nearby (Cali’s vet, whom she adores, is one of a half-dozen Missoula-area vets who are certified).

Can Dogs Get (or Transmit) COVID-19?

Several weeks ago, some alarm followed reports of a dog in Hong Kong that seemed to carry the novel coronavirus.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot, but not nearly enough, about this highly contagious virus.

Can dogs carry the virus and transmit it to their humans? Can dogs get sick with it?

  • The CDC states that there is no evidence that pets have become infected from contact with infected humans, but recommends good hygiene around pets (of course!); a small number of pets have been found to test positive after contact with an infected person, but there is no known pet-to-human transmission of COVID-19. Find more info from the CDC on COVID-19 and pets on their FAQ.
  • There is also no evidence that humans can or have gotten COVID-19 from pets.
  • It does not seem to sicken dogs.
  • There is some evidence that cats and ferrets might transmit the virus to other cats / ferrets, but that was in “lab experiments in which a small number of animals were deliberately given high doses of the virus” and not cause for alarm; that information is from a recently published, not peer-reviewed, study.

In any case, humans who are infected should limit interactions with pets as well as with other humans and wash their hands frequently.

Obsessively neat?

Koala, a black Lab, considers playing with one of everal toys
So many toys; so hard to choose

It’s always interesting to teach a dog a new skill and see where she takes it.

When I taught Jana that she could make choices, she started weighing in on where she wanted to go on walks. She’d put on the brakes, hard, if I tried to head in the “wrong” direction, for example.

Koala has built on many of her skills, adding new dimensions. She’s great at finding shortcuts to places that she and Deni walk to frequently. She quickly learns regular routes. Those skills come into play when they travel: She can find their hotel room after being in it once. She also uses her search skills — and her excellent nose — to find a trash can anywhere she happens to need one.

She learned to put away her toys some time ago. Cali has learned this as well. They both know to bring a toy and drop it into the toy basket. Usually, this is a mercenary exchange, with treats demanded after each successful toy drop as well as a final, larger paycheck at the end. It also requires considerable encouragement and cheerleading.

And Koala routinely gets her treat ball when it’s time for puppy lunch. When she’s emptied it, and when Deni asks her to, she brings it to Deni to put away.

Recently, though, Koala did something unexpected. She selected a toy, chewed it for a moment, decided that she wanted a different one — and put the first one away before choosing another. She did this twice before settling in with her third choice, an antler, to chew.

Has she become obsessively neat? Has she finally figured out that if she leaves her bones scattered on the floor, people trip over them (and if so, does she care)? Or is she worried about being unemployed while she’s in Montana, since Cali has a lock on the best two local jobs?

As I look at a living room scattered with Cali’s toys, I wonder whether there’s enough work to support two dogs in the toy-cleanup business.

Cali’s Job Search

A much-younger Cali struggles to hold a large pink stuffed owl
Cali is much bigger now and has an easier time putting Owl into his basket.

A few months ago, I wrote about Cali’s goal of becoming a visiting “therapy” dog.

Cali is, of course, perfect for the job, and we were about to schedule our supervised visit, the last hurdle to becoming certified. But then … a pandemic happened. Coronavirus has put all visits on hold indefinitely.

Cali was casting about for a job to tide her over. She’d been laid off from her newspaper-fetching job since the end of October, when the local paper wanted to more than double subscription prices.

Coronavirus takes away, and coronavirus gives.

The Missoulian called last week with a special offer to help people keep up with the news. We resubscribed, and Cali was able to get her paper-fetching job back. Good thing she was quick to apply, because Koala is coming back for a long visit, and we all know she would want that job too.

Koala is going to have to scramble, because Cali has taken over the toy clean-up job as well as the newspaper job. Cali now puts her favorite toys — Owl, Hedge, Duckie, and Piggy — into their basket every night before bed.