Very Different Energy

15-month-old golden puppy Orly curls up on a large bed, with her head on the pillow
Orly loves to curl up on my bed

Life with (only) Orly has settled into a new routine. Her energy is very different from Cali’s — or Cali-and-Orly’s together.

Cali was the world’s best alarm clock. She was extremely accurate, for one thing. And her way of greeting the morning was to grab a toy and do a happy morning dance.

Not Orly. Orly sleeps on my bed (whether I want her to or not … she’ll just wait until I am asleep and jump on up). When I decide it’s time to get up, I have to nudge her awake and encourage her to get off the bed to go outside. She then frequently greets the morning, and the neighbors, by barking. I promptly bring her back inside. Where she often goes back to bed.

The rest of our morning routine isn’t so different from life with Cali: Exercises, breakfast/coffee, walk.

The walks are different, though. Cali had several spots where we all stopped each day so she could sniff and catch up on the news. Orly is not a newshound, I guess. She hardly ever stops to sniff or even do her own business. And her pace is a lot faster than Cali’s. Like Cali though, Orly has definite opinions on where we should walk.

She’s less inclined to hang out in my office while I’m working, unless I am in a meeting. She seems to really like Zoom meetings, especially if she can find one of her two favorite toys (the ones with the loudest squeakers).

Some days, she heads out mid-morning for a hike with her dog friends; other days, we take a walk together at lunchtime. Most workdays are rounded out with treat toys, snuffle mat, chewing on an antler, or sighing noisily to indicate how boring she finds me. Or all of the above.

She often paces and nudges me to let her out, only to want to come back in a few minutes later. Or she’ll go out and start barking at any movement — a car in the alley, neighbors doing what neighbors do, a squirrel taunting her. The restlessness and pent-up energy are typical of any young golden retriever, but the barking is a relatively new, and very unwelcome, development.

Two golden retrievers rest, their heads nestled against one another.Weekends we try to get out for a longer walk, often picking up Spirit so the girls can play as they hike. The girls are always delighted to see one another.

Orly is definitely more social (with dogs) than Cali ever was. Cali had her few close friends, but as she aged, she pretty much would play actively only with Orly.

Orly wants, and seems to need, frequent high-energy play. With the dogs in her hiking group, with Spirit, with neighbors’ dogs. (Fortunately, we are surrounded by puppies and adolescent dogs of all sizes and types.) I’m trying to get her together with her buddies often, but she’s at that age where there are simply never enough playmates and activities to truly tire her out.

Like Cali, Orly loves human visitors, though she seems to have forgotten Cali’s trick of always greeting people with a toy in her mouth. Rather than the squeal and dance Cali greeted loved humans with, Orly is more likely to try to give visitors a little kiss on the cheek … which means she sometimes forgets to keep all four paws on the floor. She might instead gently take the visitor’s hand in her mouth.

Despite her boundless energy, she does have an ‘off’ switch, and she’s able to keep herself occupied in between adventures. She rarely indulges in destructive behavior, though she’s destroyed a few toys, and she is a menace to anything growing in the back yard — a trait she shares with her littermates. She seems (thankfully) to lack her siblings’ genetic tp addiction, though.

Having a young, energetic dog is getting me out for more frequent, longer, and faster-paced walks, all very beneficial. I’m thinking ahead to spring and summer, and wondering whether agility would appeal to Orly. I bet she’d excel at nosework, too. Obedience … not so much.

Checking In on Cali

Cali and Orly, both golden retrievers, snuggleCali is done with her first round of chemo, so I thought I’d give everyone an update.

She did really well with the first two infusions. A little tummy upset, not wanting breakfast the day or two after; some indigestion. Tired. But she rallied after a few days and was back to her usual appetite and energy levels. Most important — even on the “down” days, she was cheerful, silly, and playful.

Golden Cali holds a pink stuffed toy and wags her thin tailThe third infusion hit a little harder. The digestive stuff stuck around for longer … and I started noticing clumps of fur everywhere. Now, flying furballs are a daily hazard when you live with two goldens, but this was different. Her once-magnificent, full tail is a thin wisp (but it still wags just fine!); she has bald patches on her throat and near her ears, and thinning fur all over. I’m looking into getting her some fleece sweaters for the looming Montana winter.

Fur loss is an unusual — but not unheard of — side effect of chemo for dogs. Also skin discoloration (dark pigment). Cali is experiencing both. She’s also more tired. On our off-leash walks, she’ll still run and play with Orly … for the first 10 or 15 minutes. Then she walks more slowly with me while Orly bounds through the forest. These walks are getting shorter.

I conferred with Cali’s medical team — her regular vet, her specialist vet, and her chiropractor vet (who is an emergency vet here in town). We did some bloodwork and a scan, and everything looks good; she has no visible tumors. Even so, we decided to skip her fourth infusion, since side effects tend to get progressively worse.

We’ll soon move on to the next chemo, which is two daily pills: A chemo pill and a pain pill. If she tolerates it, she’ll be on it for the rest of her life. They are very low-dose pills and have to be sent from a compounding pharmacy, so I am waiting for the info on how to get them.

Cali’s still taking her magic mushrooms. We’re working through the bucket list and squeezing in extra ice-cream dates with friends whenever possible, And Cali and Orly continue to wrestle, play, and gobble treats.

Unacceptable!

2 golden retrievers run in a huge meadow with tall grassesTo say that Cali is a “good eater” and not at all fussy about food and treats is to vastly understate. Which is why I was astonished when she rejected proffered treats recently.

We have a hierarchy of treats. This is an essential element of training and motivating dogs to do the right thing. The harder the “right thing,” the better the treat. High-value treats — treats that dogs will do anything for, must be reserved for the most challenging situations, or they lose their value.

I have special treats that I use only for off-leash recalls. This can be practice in an enclosed area or, more commonly, when we’re hiking in the wide-open spaces around our Missoula home. For more ordinary moments, and for walks in familiar places, I use doggy trail mix, a try-your-luck mixture of second-best treats like freeze-dried liver, lower-value, but still delicious, treats we find at the local holistic pet store, and “filler” treats — Charlee Bears and Cheerios, usually. These take on scent and taste from their better cousins in the doggy trail mix jar and are usually accepted eagerly by Cali and Orly.

I would have said “always accepted eagerly” until yesterday.

The weather was dicey, and I wanted to get them out for a run. When the rain paused, I grabbed girls and leashes, and off we went. Astute readers will note no mention of grabbing the good treats. Indeed. The dogs noticed that too.

I always have a handful of doggy trail mix in my coat pockets, and a reserve supply can usually be found in the car. So we’re walking along, dogs off leash, me periodically calling them back and offering treats Continue reading

Cherry Season

Golden retriever pup Orly has a cherry dangling from her mouth
Orly tries to figure out how to eat a cherry

It’s the tail end of cherry season in my yard. I’m providing this hyper-local report because cherry season in this part of Montana is just getting going, but the cherry tree in my yard is done for the year. And I did not get a single cherry.

The birds and squirrels got most of them, but Orly and Cali had their share too.

Cherries are not great for dogs, so for a couple of weeks, I battled the dogs over this. I lost.

I spent a lot of time cleaning up fallen cherries and dropped partially eaten cherries from the ground. This is indeed as much fun as it sounds like it would be.

Nevertheless, those cherries get into every corner, under every leaf and vine, and into the far reaches of the yard. I even saw one hiding under the deck stairs.

Cali is pretty laid back and eats the ones she finds. She’s fully adopted the Koala approach to gobbling them whole, and that is what she taught to Orly.

Orly gazes up at the cherry treeOrly is a whole different animal. Orly became especially adept at finding cherries; she has an admirable tenacity that I wish she’d apply to more beneficial ends. She spent long stretches of time nosing around the weed-filled, overgrown patch around the cherry tree, apparently with much success — and much effort. Then one day, a cherry fell at just the right moment.

And Orly discovered gravity.

Or she discovered that if she waited long enough, the cherries came to her. The end result is the same: She’d sit, rapt, watching for falling cherries to land in her mouth. Or on her head …

The cherries weren’t even fully ripe at this point, and there were a lot of them. I was looking forward to picking a few pounds; this was the first year the tree has had any fruit at all in a while.

One day, I looked up and saw the perfect shade of red. I called on some friends and we planned to pick the cherries.

But … that afternoon, the squirrels, the birds, and Orly were all very busy.

The next morning, I got out the ladder and looked into the branches. Not a single flash of red. That’s right; the tree had been picked clean!

And, like clockwork, the first few ripe raspberries appeared that very afternoon.

The girls aren’t getting too many of those, unfortunately, because they destroyed most of the raspberry bushes in the yard. I’m getting a nice amount from the surviving canes in the back alley, though, safely out of dog reach.

Up next will be a bumper crop of blackberries, many of which are in dog reach. I’m training to prepare for the competition …

Orly eats cherries that have fallen onto a silver tarp near the tree

Orly Is a “Tween”

7-month-old golden retriever Orly sits with 2 other dogs
Orly was on-leash and well-behaved during her first group hike (Photo by Missoula Dog Mom)

Humans aged about 9 to 12 are often called “tweens.” Not quite teenagers, they are also no longer little kids.

In puppies, this period seems to start at about 6 months. Orly is very definitely a tween.

She is impulsive, curious, and has no common sense. She can be very toddler-like, pouting when she doesn’t get what she wants — and sulking when pouting doesn’t produce results.

She also has little toddler tantrums, getting bursts of mischievous energy when she’s over-tired. During these phases, she’s most likely to needle Cali relentlessly, badgering her to play, tugging on ears, tail, collar until I intervene.

She’ll continue these outbursts, acting up and acting out, until she finally collapses and falls asleep. Often very sweetly snuggled partway onto my lap.

Then there’s the early adolescent behavior: She seems compelled to investigate everything, meet everyone. She pulls in every direction, following any sound or scent, chafing at the leash, wanting the freedom to explore.

She’s also started hanging out with the cute boy (dog) next door, mooning over him and chasing around the yard, whether ours or theirs. But she also barks grumpily at any other dog who comes near her fence or her yard.

Adolescence for golden retrievers (and many other dogs) means a dog with enormous energy and curiosity who still makes poor decisions. Unfortunately, it can last until age 3 … or beyond.

I’ve been working hard on her recall and make sure to have lots of treats with me whenever we’re outside. She’s still pretty good, but I know that adolescence often brings a temporary hearing loss and lack of comprehension of names, recall cues, and other requests and demands from nearby humans.

With all this in mind, I have started letting Orly go on “real” hikes, the kind where dogs get to be off leash sometimes.

Her first group hike (on leash) was a huge success: She got a good report from the hiking guide and came home tired and happy. Over the next few hikes, she’ll get to know her fellow hiker-dogs and begin to taste off-leash freedom with the group.

I’ve also started taking her to “safe” places to hike off-leash with Cali, me, and, sometimes a friend or two. Our first foray was hugely successful. She instantly came back every time I called her, didn’t dash off to say hi to any of the “new best friends” ahead of us on the hiking trail, and didn’t annoy Cali (much).

The hikes are fun for all of us, and a great way to burn off a tiny fraction of her excessive energy. I’m looking forward to a summer filled with on- and off-leash hikes. I hope that Orly remembers her name, the meaning of “Come here!” and the taste of top-quality treats throughout, so we can all safely enjoy the summer.

News Flash: Not All Golden Retrievers Retrieve!

Golden retrievers Cali and Orly stand on grass, surrounded by tennis balls
WHAT are we supposed to do with these?

Reporters at two of my favorite media outlets, the Washington Post and NPR, seemed surprised by results of a study released this week that discovered that the behavior and personality traits of individual dogs are highly variable — and can’t always be predicted by breed.

Both stories homed in on the fact that — get ready — not all retrievers actually retrieve! Shocking, right?

Not to a person who lives with two steadfastly non-retrieving goldens!

I immediately turned to Cali and Orly, closely related goldens, and said, “They’re talking about you.” They both love to chase tennis balls … but bring them back? Not so much. Several of Orly’s siblings are avid retrievers, though, so it’s not even possible to predict by litter.

The study concluded that “behavioral characteristics ascribed to modern breeds are polygenic, environmentally influenced, and found, at varying prevalence, in all breeds.” In simple English, that means dogs are dogs. Common dog behaviors can be found in any dog, regardless of breed or breed mix.

In truth, some traits are far more prevalent in specific breeds, as the combination of genes that influences some behaviors (think herding or, er, retrieving) are closely linked to physical traits that breeders have sought and shaped over generations of that breed. But there are no guarantees.

In addition to genetic influence, a dog’s environment has a lot to do with behavior. For some traits, the study said, “breed is almost uninformative.” The example cited in the study, a trait that is enormously influenced by environment and early experience, is “how easily a dog is provoked by frightening or uncomfortable stimuli” — that is, reactivity to other dogs, strangers, noises, or other unusual and unpredictable things.

I attribute Orly’s high levels of confidence and curiosity about everything, as well as her unabashed adoration of any human or canine she encounters, to the combination of her great breeding and exemplary early-puppyhood experience.

When I worked with service dog puppies, I found that puppies who lacked extensive early socialization and encounters with all kinds of people, animals, noises, smells, sights, and places rarely succeeded; they lacked the confidence to go into any and every situation where they could be called on to accompany their partners. Even organizations that carefully breed potential guide and service dogs find that, despite strong genetics and comprehensive early puppyhood programs, some dogs don’t make it. Again, no guarantees.

What the study does show, though, is that stereotypes are unreliable indicators of dog behavior and we should look at dogs as the unique individuals they are!

 

Is Orly’s Puppy License about to Expire?

Golden retriever Cali relaxes on the people bed, a no-puppy zoneOrly’s Puppy License seems to be on the verge of expiring.

Puppy License is the very broad leeway that adult dogs grant to young puppies. It’s why they let the puppies chew on them, despite those Baby Shark teeth. It’s why they let puppies climb on them, steal their beds and toys, and generally behave rudely.

As puppies grow, though, adult dogs raise their expectations. This seems to be happening with Cali and Orly.

The other day, Cali appeared willing to maim Orly over a treat toy. After the quite serious warning she received, Orly wisely backed off. Still a little puppy, though, her next choice was less wise: Orly thought she’d munch on some electrical cords instead.

Oy. Of course this all happened while I was trying to participate in a work meeting … (with apologies to everyone else at the meeting, I quickly stepped in to save Orly from electrocution or a Cali chomp by picking her up!). Fortunately, my entire team at work consists of dog lovers.

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed Cali setting more boundaries and issuing more warnings. Ever-cheerful Orly will back off in the moment, but she hasn’t seemed to realize yet that Cali is serious.

I step in to enforce Cali’s boundaries as needed, but I do want them to work things out themselves. I also make sure that Cali is always free to leave the room where Orly is, and that Cali has special places and privileges that do not include a spotlight-stealing baby sister.

No Quick Fixes

a medium-sized whit and tan dog chases a bird
Photo from Honest Kitchen

When dealing with a dog behavior issues, the options usually include training, often including some sort of equipment or tools; and, for some problems,  medication.

No matter which combination you choose, thought, there’s also time. There are no quick fixes. A single consultation with a dog trainer is not going to transform your dog.

I have recently talked with dog owners dealing with significant issues: Severe anxiety in one case and high prey drive in two other cases. All of the humans are deeply committed to their relationships with their dogs and willing to work toward a solution.

Though I don’t love the idea of medicating a dog to address a behavior issue, in the case of severe anxiety, I think that might be needed. If a dog is so anxious and quick to respond to whatever is triggering her anxiety, the right medication might be able to take the edge off of that anxiety and get the dog into a state where training is possible. I suggested that this person talk with her dog’s vet about options.

Tools or equipment for controlling a dog or getting her attention won’t help if the dog is not able to focus on anything but the trigger. And aversive equipment like a slip collar (or worse, a shock collar) would simply make things worse by adding a painful negative association to the already terrifying trigger.

I do not think that medication alone is a solution; the dog can learn new ways to respond to a trigger. The medication is a crutch to help get her there, allow her to focus on training. Depending on the dog, the trigger, and the level of anxiety, it’s possible that the dog won’t need the medication after training.

Prey drive is a tougher issue. I’m not aware of any medications that would help here. I think this is a question of a lot of behavior modification work, along with lifelong management of the dog’s environment to avoid letting the dog chase and catch a prey animal.

In these two cases, I suggested that the humans find trainers with experience dealing with high prey-drive dogs and who use tools and training approaches that they, the owners, are comfortable using on their dogs.

The training process can take a long time — weeks to months — and you’re never going to eradicate the dog’s prey drive. You might get to a point where the dog behaves in a way that you can live with, but you’ll always need to be aware of the triggers, whether it’s squirrels, cats, cars, or (worst case) “anything that moves” and be prepared to manage the dog’s response.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for these dog owners who each really want to do the right thing for their dog — and who are investing time, effort, and significant money in working on significant problems. They are all examples of the best of the dog-human relationship.

 

Peer Pressure

Black poodle Maisy and golden retriever Cali wait for a bagel shaped dog treat
Cali and Maisy share a doggy-bagel snack after playing outside.

One of the first things I learned in dog-training school was the ways that dogs synchronize with their humans. That’s why using an upbeat, energetic voice can get dogs amped up for a training class — and a low, calm voice can help them settle down.

But I’m increasingly finding examples of how dogs synchronize with their doggy friends as well. I first saw it with Maisy, Cali’s BFF, who clearly takes her cues from Cali when we’re on walks.

Maisy often gets very excited or anxious around unfamiliar dogs, and she used to get that way around unfamiliar people, too. But when we all went walking together, Maisy saw how much Cali loves meeting new people.

Instead of being nervous when a stranger approaches, Cali strains toward them, entire body wagging an eager hello. Cali has not figured out that not all humans want to pet the dog.

At first, Maisy would watch, uncertain and ready to bark, while Cali greeted people and made new friends. Cali convinced her to try it though, and Maisy has decided that saying hello and getting pats and compliments is fun. She’s not quite sure about other dogs yet, but then again, neither is Cali.

The next example of peer pressure and inter-dog dynamics came during playtime. When there are two dogs, they play together well; when there’s a third dog, two tend to gang up on one.

Unfortunately, Cali is often the gang-ee.

She and Koala often play well together, though sometimes Koala can be a little … pushy. Cali’s pretty confident about telling her to back off, and, if that doesn’t work, Cali literally takes her ball and goes home. Well to her little hideout in the back corner of her yard.

Maisy and Cali play very well together. They are BFFs.

BUT.

When the three of them are together, Koala and Maisy become like the mean girls in middle school. They grab Cali’s tail and play tug. They each grab an ear. They behave like brats.

When all three are together, I have learned to organize separate play pairs. Cali and Koala each get a chance to play with Maisy — without each other. And Maisy goes home very tired and happy.

 

How Do I Find a Good Dog Trainer?

A prong collar
When choosing a trainer, ask what equipment they recommend.

New dog, adolescent dog, older dog who has suddenly started doing something you cannot live with … when people need a trainer, where should they turn?

First, a caveat: If an adult dog’s behavior changes suddenly — uncharacteristic aggression, for example, see your vet to rule out any underlying health issues before deciding it’s a training issue.

I can make specific recommendations locally, where I know several excellent trainers. But more generally, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Look at the trainer’s credentials. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer. In a recent review of trainers in one area, nearly all of the websites I looked at gushed about the “trainer’s” love for animals and how they had dogs their whole lives. So what? That doesn’t make you a qualified trainer. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has widely recognized certifications that check knowledge or (much better but far less common) check knowledge and skills. A number of small or locally focused programs teach people training skills and knowledge; the APDT website has a helpful matrix comparing these.
  • Look at professional memberships. Organizations like APDT (Association of Professional Dog trainers) and PPG (Pet Professionals Guild) require that people meet specific criteria to become professional members. While membership alone does not guarantee that the trainer has specific knowledge or skills, it does show that they care enough to learn and to jump through a few hoops more stringent than setting up a website or getting a business license.
  • Trainers who also have some education on animal behavior and psychology get bonus points, especially for complex issues like aggression or anxiety.

When you’ve identified one or more possible trainers, interview them. Ask what their training approach is and what, if any, equipment they recommend. Avoid anyone who talks about “being the alpha” or showing the dog who’s boss. If a trainer tells you to put a prong collar on your puppy, run the other way. If you’re having a specific issue, such as high prey drive or excessive anxiety, ask about their experience with that problem. If they offer classes, ask if you can watch one.

Other resources to consider:

  • Local dog training clubs — these can be wonderful or very disappointing. You might find a great selection of classes from trainers with broad-ranging experience. If there’s one where you live, it’s worth a visit.
  • Recommendations from your local humane society or pet rescue — there might even be classes onsite, and shelter trainers are likely to have experience with dogs with a wide range of issues.
  • Recommendations from friends with well-trained dogs — be careful here; your dog’s needs may be very different and your friend’s trainer might not be a good fit. But it’s certainly a place to start.

Notice that I am not suggesting that your vet is a great resource. She might be. She might not. As with nutrition, behavior and training are not areas where vets tend to get a lot of education — unless they specifically seek it out. Some do; many do not. If your vet is also a certified animal behavior expert then by all means, consult with her. Otherwise, she might not know any more about the local trainers or what would help your dog (behaviorally) than you do.

When you choose a trainer, pay close attention to your dog’s reaction as well as your gut feelings about how the first lesson(s) unfold. If your dog seems scared, don’t go back. I remember a friend telling me once that her dog ran and hid whenever the trainer came over. Clear sign that that was not the right trainer! And, obviously, if you don’t feel like you are making progress after several meetings, you might need to look for someone else. There are lots of great trainers out there, but it might take a few tries to get the right match for you, your dog, and the specific issues you need to resolve.