Sunday, September 25, 2011

Exercise v. Stimulation

Today I was walking with a friend and was positively gushing about the games I've been working with based on Melissa's (from Doggie Prodigy) recommendations. And let's just say that, in my 10+ years working with dogs, I have yet to see anything yield such dramatic results.

That led to a comment by my friend, something to the effect of, "I'll tell you what would solve 'the problem' with most dogs. Exercise!" I bristled a bit, I must admit. Barely hidden in her comments neatly punctuating my litany of reasons why mental games are so important was a barely concealed disdain for games.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this: If I had to choose which dog is likely to be easier to rehabilitate, a dog that hasn't been exercised or a dog that hasn't been mentally stimulated, I'll tell you--paws down--the dog that hasn't been exercised will be much easier to rehabilitate. In fact, change his diet and give him some exercise, and he'll be back on track in no time. The under-stimulated dog, on the other hand, will take longer. In some cases, years. I've got a few of those dogs in my house right now.

After all, a dog that hasn't been mentally stimulated is unlikely to understand how to interact with human and other animals; she's more likely to be labeled "unadoptable" or to be euthanized because she can't adapt to her adoptive home. I've heard stories, spoken with the adopters who thought they did everything they could. And they did, based on the common assumption that exercise is enough.

It's not.

Dogs have a symbiotic relationship with humans. Until recently, they performed chores, whether it was herding or pulling carts or participating on a hunt. Now, they sleep on posh beds, bark like mad when someone comes to the door, and get walked twice a day. And we generally accept the dogs with that life as "lucky."

But, with the exception of being fantastic companions, the majority of them don't really do anything .

Is it enough? As we assign them fewer "chores," we're seeing a spike in behavioral problems. It's no coincidence. (Check out Lisa Giroux's "Mental Stimulation for Dogs" for a fuller discussion.)

And I can tell you this: The minute I started introducing toys into the rescue class I teach at AllBreed Obedience, 30% of the students sought out toys through Doggie Prodigy. Thirty percent! They tracked down Melissa at the Renaissance Festival and Bark and Roll even though I knew her only as "some lady selling interactive dog toys at local festivals and dog-related events."

I bought a few products (beginning with the Tornado and the Aikiou) for myself after watching a particularly withdrawn dog, Milo, come out of his shell when I placed a game in front of him. I started introducing Doggie Prodigy products to friends, and guess what? I can't keep up with their hunger for more! They're waiting for me to buy more toys.

Why? Because, whether your dog is reactive, shy-fearful, a fast-easter, submissive, withdrawn, or some combination of these and other behaviors, these toys will work. Most significantly, you'll see an improvement in your relationship immediately. You'll see a more confident dog, a happier dog. And that will help you build a stronger and more satisfying bond with your dog.

You might want to try a toy yourself.

P.S. Make sure you play with your dog rather than use the game as a babysitter.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

AllBreed Obedience has star power

Calvin--a star is born
Last month, the Woodbury Bulletin started a trend that is still continuing. It ran a story about AllBreed Obedience's acting class.

A reporter from the Saint Paul Pioneer Press checked out the class with cameras in tow. Watch for the article in upcoming weeks.

And last week, Fox 9 news ran the story, as well. (Nice work, Deb!)

Even though my foster dog Calvin didn't make the final cut, I'm thinking he's got the chops for a future in show biz. Don't you?

And, you know, it's never too late to sign your star up for an acting class at AllBreedObedience. It's a great way to build a strong bond with your canine companion--and we all know how I feel about building a strong bond.

Plus, acting dogs get paid. :o}

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rescue dog -- Delta dog

Last night, my remarkable rescue dog Sarah was Delta Society certified. To show you just how far she's come, here's her story. . .

Three years ago, Sarah came to me as a foster dog, emaciated, afraid of people, and, I believe, dying. After eating a high-calorie diet for three months as she recuperated in my home, she managed to put on 11 of the 25 pounds she needed to gain, only to lose all of the weight and more when she developed a minor skin infection. Her body was simply too weak to fight it. Luckily, I was able to find a holistic vet, Dr. Fred Pomeroy, who treated her with herbs and supplements and saved her life.

Psychologically, her recovery was much slower. Uncomfortable being in the same room with me if I was holding food, she'd panic and bolt. Part of her tongue was missing from an injury I could only guess at, and it was clear she had suffered profound traumas in the breeding facility that had been her home before coming to Second Chance Animal Rescue. I've been told she lived in a horse stall, and evidence suggests the conditions were deplorable. Her coat was dull, but her eyes flashed fear at the slightest unexpected movement. She was emaciated and terrified. I don't know anything else.

She was vetted and spayed immediately, after which I picked her up and brought her to my house and discovered a huge hematoma, which threatened to need another surgery to drain. In an effort to avoid that, I'd curl up with her, pulling her bony body to me every few hours and placing hotpacks on her abdomen to bring the swelling down. Eventually she learned to enjoy our ritual. She'd relax ever so slightly and hold her leg so I could hold the warm towel against her sunken belly.

Little-by-little I fell in love with her. Maybe it happened when I placed those towels on her, or maybe it occurred as I celebrated each ounce she gained. Maybe it happened when she tried to die as I willed her to live--until a very wise friend, Deb Schneider, told me it was time that Sarah start to fight for herself. I know that I loved her when I accepted that she might not make it. Three months into our journey, she took a turn for the worse. With bloody diarrhea and vomiting multiple times a day, she couldn't keep food down. I agonizingly braced for her inevitable death, but it didn't come.

After six months, she had put on 20 pounds, but still cowered when people approached her. I could see the pain in her eyes and could not approach her with food.I tried taking her to obedience classes, where she literally stood stock still for every hour of an eight-week class, at the end of which, she couldn't even sit. Still, I continued to train her, a daunting task, as the only way I could reward her was by stroking her ear. Treats would send her out of the ring.

Eventually, she completed a few dog classes--but we never returned to obedience. I couldn't teach her to sit reliably or to lie down on cue, even with Janey Shaddrick's outstanding guidance and remarkable patience. I didn't really care, either. She was, after all, alive.

After ten months, my partner Bob and I decided to adopt her as a Christmas present to one another, and Sarah has lived with me ever since.

I consider Sarah one of the greatest blessings I have ever had. In a home with dogs coming and going--170 fosters in ten years--Sarah speaks dog more eloquently than any dog I have ever met. She's the dog I curl up with when I'm having a bad day. She grounds me and makes me kinder. She touches virtually every one who meets her. In fact, early on a woman I rather randomly encountered described Sarah as "a beacon of light" that would draw people to her. It's true, too.

She also told me Sarah and I could change the world.

So I shouldn't have been surprised last summer when I took my mother (who has Alzheimer's) on a walk at a dog park and Sarah focused exclusively on my mom's well-being. That day, I brought my mom on a trail we had no business walking on and only realized my error when we could neither return nor continue safely. Noting the uneven, treacherous path well before I did, Sarah paced between us, nudging me persistently as if scolding me for failing to protect my mother, and circling my mother, perhaps to prevent her from falling.

Eventually, we did make it out of the park safely, but watching Sarah as I tried to assist my mom, I began to consider the fact that this untrainable dog might just have the makings of a therapy dog. So I talked to Bobbi Stark, a Delta certified trainer at AllBreed Obedience who knew Sarah, and surprisingly, she agreed. We decided to teach Sarah basic obedience commands, and then Bobbi would complete a therapy class with her. When we began, an amazing thing happened: Sarah began to take treats from us. After three years, she finally overcame her fear of food.

She also visited a nursing home, where she instinctively learned how to great people and maneuver around wheelchairs. She visited a woman who hadn't spoken in ages, and this woman conversed with us coherently as her caregiver watched on in slack-jawed amazement. Sarah was a natural.

And then Bobbi passed the therapy class with Sarah on her first try, followed by Bob, who passed on his first try, too!

So, when my mom moved into an Ecumen care facility last week, I began to wonder if I could test Sarah. Last night, on a bit of a whim, I did just that.

And she passed.

So now Sarah, my amazing, lovely, rescue dog has been certified to work as a therapy dog with three handlers. Do you know how remarkable that is? She's already visited a nursing home regularly, and I'm working on setting up visits to a memory care unit. We're also talking about working with her in hospice care. Or maybe a veterans' hospital. Or cancer center. Who knows where Sarah will take us?

I constantly feel humbled by this dog and so completely grateful to know her.

Thanks to every one of you who helped her find her way.

Photo by LS Originals

Friday, May 20, 2011

To correct or not to correct?

Just yesterday I was talking with my friend Janey about different training styles, what works, what doesn’t, and . . . egads! Are people really still using shock collars?

Now, you should know that Janey’s training style is very soft--much softer than mine, which led to a debate about whether or not dogs need a correction word.

When I think about a correction word, like “wrong,” as folks at AllBreed do, I state it much as I would to give direction to someone helping me with dishes. Say my friend Kris was over, and she was drying a dish and asked, “This goes under the sink, doesn’t it?”

I might reply, “Wrong. It goes in the cupboard above the stove.” To me, this is an effective way to redirect my helpful friend without any emotional charge (or repetition--"wrong, wrong, wrong"). I simply convey the information and move on. This form of correction works well with dogs--well, most dogs, anyway.

Janey, however, claims that some dogs don’t handle any correction well; they melt down, and she’s absolutely right. This is particularly true for rescue dogs that have been traumatized at some point in their pasts or dogs that don’t have a lot of confidence, yet.

In those cases, try something softer. For the dog that isn’t quite doing what you want but has a fragile ego, try giving the dog some direction, “sit,” “stay,” or even “heel,” and then look at the dog quietly until he complies. Clearly, this approach may take a longer time than the correction word, but it can be a good strategy to work with some dogs, provided you’re in a good, calm state of mind when you train this way. No sense building on the dog’s natural agitation by trying this approach when you have limited time.

By the way, you might want to try working on one of these commands while you’re watching TV. If your dog is with you—preferably leashed for this activity—you’ve got at least the length of the TV show to get this behavior.

Once your dog sits, praise him lavishly, of course. “Nice sit!”

And don’t forget to let him know when he’s done so he can move on to another activity, say a walk to the park or a game of frisbee . . . or a nice long nap.

Ahhh, the life of a dog.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A heartfelt thank you to Andree Tracey. . .

When I was at the dinner party mentioned in the following post, I met Minnesota artist Andree Tracey, whose work, by the way, is incredible. Anyhow last week, she wrote this entry
in her blog about my rescue work with Second Chance.

Thank you Andree!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rescue rage aka Giffy's rescue commandments

This post comes to you fresh of a facebook rampage to rescue. Now, don't get me wrong. I love to rescue dogs. I'll go to great lengths to do so, forego food, give up prime bed real estate, step in poop. And I do most of that with a smile--and a somewhat sticky spring in my step.

But seriously, what's with these facebook panic fests? You've seen them, haven't you? I want to rescue dogs as much as the next gal or guy, but I'm not willing to:

1. Break the law,
2. Ruin relationships with law enforcement or animal control officials, or
3. Bully people

to do so.

I will not engage in name calling, either.

So, let's take a pledge, shall we? Let's save as many animals as we can--sans self-righteousness, judgment, disdain. Let's work together to change the system, to ensure that heatlhy animals are euthanized less frequently and that when they are, it is done humanely. Let's educate people without proseletyzing and work toward a world in which humans no longer mistreat, abuse, neglect, or torture animals. Until we reach that point, let's band together to create tougher, carefully considered laws to protect animals. To start, spread the word or get involved with reputable organizations like AnimalFolksMN or Minnesota Voters for Animal Protection.

Maybe then we can work toward a world where

every pet is loved and well cared for,
no animal is born to die,
no creatures suffer.

Think about it. You can help.

A respite from the storm

I've been remiss in my posts lately because the post I have been working on has been dark, heavy. After all, the road to rescue is painful, often the result of failure after failure on the part of dogs' human companions. So let me tell a different story today, the story of Roxy.

Last night, Bob and I were invited to share fondue with Kate and Greg Pickman of Pick2 Design and Advertising, two members of the three-person family who adopted Roxy (the handsome girl pictured here--and at the bottom of their webpage).

Anyhow, to state that Roxy is thrilled to be living in her new home (since July), would be an understatement. She greeted me at the door with an enthusiasm that I never witnessed when she was my foster. She ran between people joyfully; she frolicked, attempted to find her toys so she could show them to us, and generally exhibited the behaviors of a well-adjusted dog that has never experienced disappointment. But that's not Roxy's story.

Roxy, a Wheaton terrier cross, and her littler mates came to Second Chance through a puppy mill. She was one of the cutest pups you could imagine (which, by the way, may be the kiss of death for dogs because they're frequently pushed aside for the next novelty that comes along after they've grown). Not surprisingly, Roxy (then Shelby) was adopted quickly. I can't tell you much about her original family because I wasn't her fosterer, but I can tell you things didn't go well in her first home.

Roxy was returned within months and was reported to have developed problem behaviors, nipping, if I recall correctly. But another family was waiting to adopt her. This was a youngish couple--no kids. They doted on Roxy, took her for walks, brought her to dog parks, treated her like the child they didn't have. And then, you guessed it, they had a child.

Relegated to the front porch where Roxy barked incessantly at passerbys, over time, she grew jumpy, reactive, and overly protective of the woman and child. It escalated until last year on St. Patrick's day Roxy was left chained outside on a busy street where she did the unthinkable: bit a drunk rollerblader passing by her. Roxy was once again returned to Second Chance, and this time she became my foster--probably around the 160th.

She was reserved, uncomfortable, and disengaged. I was kind to her, let her spend time back yard where she would sun herself, but she was withdrawn from the large, boisterous pack at my house, a bit like Ferdinand the Bull. (You remember him, don't you?) And so, when there was considerable interest in her, I was very pleased.

But the first prospective adopter had so much on her plate, including a husband who was ill and a dog that didn't seem to fit well with Roxy. (Trust me, over time, you can spot these things.)

And the second's dogs were not all that interested in adding one to their pack. Still, I held out for the right home. Roxy deserved that much, after all.

And then Kate called me. She told me that she had lived with a challenging dog--which Roxy, by this time, had been labeled as. She had a large, fenced yard, and Roxy would be an only dog. Her son was a gentle, kind young adult. And she and her husband worked at home! Over multiple conversations and a visit, we discovered that Kate, Ron, and their son would be the perfect family for Roxy.

And they are, too. Plus they make a mean fondue!

So, what's the message of this post? I don't know. Maybe that problem dogs don't always start that way. I'm certain that Roxy didn't. Rather, their human companions betray them, and when the dogs behave predictably, their families dispose of them. But Kate and Ron and their son demonstrate that unconditional works as well on dogs as it does on humans. Maybe it seems too simple, but there you have it. Roxy is happy; Roxy is home. And maybe that makes all this heartache just a little more bearable.

I'd write more, but I must be off--to help save a dog. Big surprise, right?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Behind the bars

A month ago, a friend and I went on an rather unsavory field trip to animal control in order to test the temperament of a Pomeranian after the dog coordinator for Second Chance Animal Rescue, the group for which I foster, called and told me that the dog may be too shy-fearful/aggressive to rescue.

Side note: I'm a sucker for Poms. In fact, I began fostering after my beloved Pomeranian, Mandy, fell down the stairs and died when she was 8 years old.

So my motivation to save this little dog was pretty high, and Kathy, who recently lost a dog unexpectedly herself, agreed to accompany me. The two of us entered the kennel quietly and sat on the rugs we brought while attempting the lure the currently nameless dog out of the corner. Aware that she would be euthanized if she bit either of us, we carefully approached her wearing gloves. Eventually, I was able to stroke her a bit and pick her up. Kathy even handled her paws, and at one point the little dog, whom we renamed "Ella," lifted a leg so Kathy could scratch her better. But in the facility, she was absolutely terrified.

As difficult a place as animal control is to see, it helps put things in perspective when a new dog enters my home. (To get a vague sense, check out this video, especially from 2:00 on. Note: There are few accurate depictions of animal control facilities on YouTube.) Since most of our dogs come through animal control, I find it helpul to see what their world is like once they become a stray. It goes something like this:

1. The dog's person relinquishes him/her, is hospitalized, or is arrested. . . OR a random person finds it in an unexpected place and calls animal control.

In the latter case, animal control officers come to the site and capture the loose dog, sometimes using a pole with a loop at the end. Anyhow, it's pretty traumatizing, from what I've seen--even
when animal control officers like those in this video are thoughtful in their approach.

2. The dog lives in a loud, cold kennel/run at an animal control facility for a set amount of time--unless it is reclaimed by it's person.

In my part of town, the dog stays in animal control for 5 days before it is euthanized. The facility itself is cold, loud, scary, containing rows of cement-floored runs. The has no bed or toys, and its run is cleaned using a high-powered hose. It is not walked or exercised during its stay.

3. While the dog is the facility, it can be assessed by a handful of rescue organizations, and if it is very, very lucky, it will be chosen to leave with one of those groups. That's what happened to Ella. She was sprung and fostered by Kathy, who helped her calm down after her terriying ordeal, and now Ella's in a permanent home.

4. But what about the majority that aren't claimed? Well, they wait. And wait. And when the facility is full or their time is determined to be up, someone walks up to their kennel wearing a lab coat and leather gloves, loops a leash around their necks, and takes them for a final walk, which ends behind a closed door.

I wish I could say their last moments were peaceful.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What's normal?

A friend of mine recently took in her first foster, a miniature poodle relinquished to Whipstaff Ranch after a local breeding facility decided to "liquidate its stock."

The good news is: The majority of the 1,200 dogs and puppies reportedly at the facility have been safely placed into rescue groups that will medically treat, socialize, and place them in loving homes. And happily, these dogs are less fearful than most of the puppy mill dogs I've worked with.

Still, like all mill dogs (and shy-fearfuls), they create training challenges. Gracie, my friend's foster, didn't know how to walk up stairs, had not been potty trained, didn't vocalize, didn't play, and my friend bemoaned, "Will she ever be normal?" Well, that presumes a "normal" set of dog behaviors exists, but although Gracie may never be as confident as some dogs that have been loved and cared for all their lives, her prognosis is promising.

The first step is to start training her and to push her outside of her comfort zone a bit. That doesn't mean it is wise--or even responsible--to throw her on a leash and take her out for a walk. Many a well-meaning rescuer has done just that and ended up with a loose, undersocialized dog, a very dangerous situation for the dog with low odds of a good outcome. In fact, these dogs can be so fearful that they can even get loose from fenced yards or lost in them when they panic.

Start slowly. Rather than throwing a potentially traumatized dog on a leash outside (which it may have never experienced), attach a leash on her collar when you are home and can superverise to make sure she doesn't get tangled up and hurt herself. Let her drag the leash for a half an hour or so. After the dog becomes comfortable with the leash attached to her collar, pick up the other end of the leash from time-to-time to desensitize her a bit. Generally increase the amount of time you walk her on leash inside before venture outside into unsecured areas.

To take this approach a step further, try "umbilical training," during which you attach the dog's leash to yourself for an extended period of time, usually a couple of days. Umbilical training is highly regarded by many rescue people I've met, and we use it to help build confidence in undersocialized dogs, to help unfocused dogs connect, and to aide with potty training. I've used it myself with terrific results.

Remember, though, that mill and shy-fearful dogs are easily intimidated. Add time and activities gradually, as they become more confident, but don't coddle them so much that they don't have any motivation to come out of their shells.

So, why not try it? Let your mill or shy-fearful dog drag the leash while you supervise, and work up to umbilical training.

And good luck, Gracie!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Connecting with your dog

As I sit here in Dunn Brothers, I overhear two conversations in the background. The woman to my right expresses her initial frustration with a rescue dog she adopted that didn't bond with her immediately. Now the dog eagerly tries to wake her up each morning. The second describes a dog that runs from door to door when family members leave. She finishes her narrative with, "She is a good dog."

I kid you not. I'm overhearing two conversations, and they're both about dogs.

But dogs do get anxious, for a lot of reasons. And rescue dogs are particularly prone to that sense of disconnect. I can't tell you how many dogs have come into my home that refused to make eye contact for months.

Not to worry. There are ways to increase the connection and, thereby, reduce everyone's stress.

If your dog is anxious--whether or not you brought him home this week or six years ago--try working on your bond. Do you take him for walks? If so, do you get his attention regularly throughout? Does she look you in the face when you stop at corners? If not, try a simple exercise, called "Right here."

If your dog is food motivated, show her a treat, and place it between your eyes. Then say, "Right here," tapping the bridge of your nose with your treat, if you like. When your dog looks you in the face, praise her immediately. "Nice!" Then hand her the treat. Do that a few times, and your dog is bound to start checking in with you more often. And that will lead to a more connected dog. Trust me.

And now, I'm off to more eavesdropping.

Until next time . . .

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rude dogs

Whenever I mention the term "rude" in terms of dogs (a term I first heard from my friend Janey at Rogues and Rascals--Thanks, Janey), I can see people visibly recoil. "Surely my dog isn't rude. He just wants to say 'hi,' but other dogs are always attacking him." Tell you what: If you find yourself saying that, chances are, you've got a rude dog.

The problem is, rude dogs look pretty friendly to the human eye. After all, they run up to other dogs and greet them with a friendly nose sniff, tail wagging. That's not rude, is it?

In dog language, a dog that approaches another dog directly while openingly looking into his face is challenging him. Chances are, that dog being greeted will snap or lunge to indicate its objection to this overly familiar and challenging greeting. To start getting this under control, ask your dog to sit and face you when another dog is approaching her--and praise her lavishly when she does. If you do let her "greet" another dog, make sure their greeting is respectful. Let the dogs sniff one another from behind, and never, ever let her approach strange dogs by going nose-to-nose. When a dog graduates to a nose-to-nose greeting after multiple meetings, watch for signs that either dog is becoming agitated, and don't let them greet one another for more than a couple of seconds.

To build safe greeting behaviors, help your dog focus on you, and create situations to help her succeed.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reactive dog intro

I've been meaning to write more regularly. And you can see how that's been going, but it's a new year, and I had a great day talking to talented and committed folks at AllBreed Obedience in Woodbury about rescue dogs, which is exactly what I needed to energize me to "get on" this. Our focus today was really "reactive" dogs, which I'll get to more extensively in the upcoming weeks.

Suffice it to say that there is no pattern to reactive dogs. They can be overly assertive or rude, shy and overwhelmed, responding to long-standing issues resulting from experiences they had as a puppy.

Your first challenge, when deaing with reactive dogs, is trying to get to the bottom of it. So, watch your dog a bit. What triggers her to react negatively? Does she begin to pant when you pull out the vacuum cleaner? Does he become agitated when he encounters another dog on ther street?

Once you've identified the triggers, pay some attention to your dog's behavior. Do his haunches go up? Does he pant or salivate? Is she trying to make herself seem larger than she really is? Or does she get in fights? These are all clues that will help you understand how to deal with a reactive dog because, like football teams, not all reactions are created equally.

Once you can understand the triggers and recognize the behaviors, you can develop a plan for changing the pattern, which I'll talk about more soon. But now I'm off to deal with Bob, my boyfriend who is gloating because the Packers won.