FOOD

Dogs love food.  Well, mostly dogs love food.  Food is such a contentious issue.  People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats.  In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.

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Most dogs really love food and spend a lot of time thinking about it. When food isn’t working in training, there are often things we can do to help!

The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”.  The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down.  Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back.  Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day.  Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day!  Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day.  This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating.  In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating.  A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food.  Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike.  At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.

So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”?  Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food!  When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough.  You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again. 

So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play?  Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl.  The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit.  I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is.  The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs.  Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight.  If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl.  Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.

Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl.  This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training.  Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three.  Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class.  Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example. 

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There are so many options when it comes to feeding your dog and it can be tempting to just change foods if your dog is not eating reliably. If your dog is already eating a quality diet, consider trying decreasing the quantity of food that you are putting in the bowl before changing the diet. If your dog is not on a good diet or if they have a medical issue, you should talk to your vet before changing your dog’s diet.

When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day.  Total.  By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups.  His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine.  I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog!  Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal.  That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9.  Whew!  That was cheaper!  I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training.  At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school.  By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class.  Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.

The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats.  A number of things can be at play there.  The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat.  This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too.  Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner.  Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating.  The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us.  Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.

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Both of these ladies are really excited. One of them is happy about her excitement and the other lady is a little more concerned. Neither of these ladies would probably want to eat a sandwich if I were to offer them one, because when you are really excited, you are not really interested in food!

Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too.  When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats.  Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats.  One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class.  This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think.  It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived. 

Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers.  I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like.  I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries.  When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats.  When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble.  I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats.  Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item.  If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat.  In this case, I will offer kibble.  If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread.  I then offer the dog another piece of kibble.  Most dogs will look longingly at the bread.  Hold out.  If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese.  Next I will offer him another piece of kibble.  He will likely look out for another piece of cheese.  Hold out.  When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover.  Then offer more kibble again.  When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver.  I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward.  I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.

Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations.  If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down.  You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit.  To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat.  Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.

 

Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training.  If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them.  I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ).  Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.

As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master.  When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog.  When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits. 

FOOD

IT WILL BE ALRIGHT

This is a special blog I wrote in 2013, when D’fer was misdiagnosed with osteosarcoma.  We were fortunate that time; he did not have cancer.  Now though, I am re-posting this, in honour of Friday, John’s special partner.  She has been diagnosed with carcinosarcoma and she is not expected to live long; hopefully for another 4 months or so.  Right now, John and I are both struggling, but especially John, because Friday is his partner.  They snuggle in bed together, they share a tent at camp and most importantly of all, they hike remotely in Algonquin together.  Friday is a very special friend to my very special man.  It doesn’t feel like it at the moment, but it is going to be okay.  Friday has taught us to love better and to count the love, not the minutes.  Please be patient with us.  We are working on helping Friday to have the best time left and we may not be as on the ball as we would like to be.  Never the less…it will be alright.

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Friday, just having fun this fall on the farm, before we found the lumps in her breast tissue that have been diagnosed as cancerous.

 

Yesterday was a very hard day.  D’fer, my service dog, my best friend, my best and most favourite dog ever, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.  This means that he will soon die, and likely he will, between now and then, suffer some terrible pain.  This means that my heart will break again and again and again as I face the reality of life without the dog who has meant more to me than nearly any being that I have ever encountered.    The sarcoma is located in the head of his femur, it is fairly advanced, and it is quite possible that there is involvement in the pelvis.  This is a fast growing cancer, and it will likely progress to his lungs within months at the outside.  D’fer has an unassociated heart issue, which means that he is not a terrific candidate for surgery, and the only available treatment would be amputation and chemo, and honestly, the results are not favourable even if we were to do this. Never the less, it will be alright.

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D’fer in his prime with the expression I love best.

I am not going to tell you that some spiritual being will save him for me, or that I will see him at the bridge.  I will not tell you what I do or don’t believe about the afterlife.  I am going to talk instead about love and leaving and loss and why it will be alright in the end.

Over the years, I have held many special dogs close to my heart.  I didn’t think there would be a dog after Buddy who would mean as much to me as he did.  Buddy, majestic and beautiful, smart and strong, taught me about love and caring and change and accepting and working hard and being real with myself.  He accompanied me on endless adventures and trips through learning and things I could not have ever expected.  Buddy sure was special and he carried me through things I did not think I could survive.  And then one day, he could not get up and he lost control of his bladder while I was out.  He was very elderly then.  He had to lie in his own urine and wait till I came to rescue him.  He was too big to lift into the bathtub and he was too sore to get in of his own accord.  The next day I helped him to die, in my living room.  That last day, I double dosed him on pain meds and played ball with him.  I read him poetry.  I napped with him.  And when he died, I thought my heart would break forever.

I thought there would be nothing that could ever come close to touching my heart the way that Buddy did.  I grieved deeply and long and hard and publicly for Buddy.  I still have pictures of him around the house, and at first every time I looked at them, I would cry.  Now I can look and I smile when I remember the walks, the journeys, and the learning.  I just didn’t think then that there would or even could be anything remotely close to the love I felt for Buddy.

Then along came D’fer.  Deef was supposed to be John’s dog.  He had other ideas.  He was an annoying and frustrating puppy and adolescent.  He was an accidental service dog.  And over the years, over time, he and I developed a dance together that is unique, that is special.  The dance has etched itself onto my heart and into my head until I cannot think about what is next.  In some ways, D’fer taught me to remember Buddy not with grief but with joy.  Surely, there cannot be anything better than the love that D’fer and I share?  Maybe there isn’t.  But maybe there is something else.  Maybe what Buddy did and what D’fer is still doing is not teaching me to be a better trainer, not teaching me to be a better person.  Maybe what they have done is teach me to love better.  While D’fer did not replace Buddy in my heart, he taught me something I have told others in a very profound way.  True love doesn’t divide; it multiplies.  Buddy prepared me to love D’fer.  D’fer has prepared me to love other dogs, and maybe, if I am lucky, he will have prepared me to love another dog as deeply as I love him.  Once again, it was alright.

Five or six years ago, I lost my Dad.  He was unexpectedly hospitalized due to a collapsed lung and suddenly without warning we were faced with a diagnosis of bullous emphysema.  Essentially, his lungs had large holes in them, making it impossible for his body to take in enough oxygen to live unassisted.  Over the weeks he was in hospital, I wanted the minutes.  I hoped for the time minutes.  I wanted just a few minutes to talk to my father.  Those minutes were not possible.  Over the weeks he was in the intensive care unit, D’fer took me to visit him.  In one of my dad’s few lucid periods he asked who I was.  I told him I was his daughter, Sue, and he looked right at me and said “no you aren’t…where is your dog?”  When I showed him D’fer, he relaxed.  He knew me, because he recognized Deef.  D’fer facilitated that last minute with my father, a gift so precious.   That last minute was a gift that D’fer made possible for me.  In his patient way, he showed me that the minutes that counted were the minutes in the moment.  Love is the minute we get.

I don’t believe that D’fer is afraid of death.  I know he doesn’t like the pain, but we have good chemical control over the pain.  I know that when we take the pain away, the joy and curiosity and intelligence and wonder that make D’fer special are still there.  Last night, after we gave him his first dose of gabapentin, he started to dance around the kitchen where my desk is.  He wanted me to play.  In my grief, I didn’t want to play, I wanted him to lie down and rest and not tax his body.  I was thinking about the one more minute attitude; I just want every precious minute with my special boy, and I was crying because I know that there aren’t a lot of minutes left.  D’fer is wiser than I am.  He always has been.  He doesn’t want one more minute.  He wants to play frisbee.  He wants to go search for things.  He wants to run around.  And really, his minutes are love.  He loves me, he loves life, he loves his frisbee and his friends.  When he is pain free he just wants to be himself, much more than he wants one more minute of time.  His minutes are written in love.

I would give a lot to have one more year, or one more lifetime, but in the coming days, weeks and months, I will work to let go of wanting one more minute of time.  I will work learn and relearn that minutes with D’fer are measured in love.  Living carefully, feeding him only cancer reducing foods, and maybe putting him through very painful treatment  will buy us time minutes, but will not give us even one more minute of love.  Instead, I have to give up looking for minutes and instead, look for love.  This is why I won’t be even considering radical treatments, or herbs or a magic wands or crystal balls to address this.  I am going to treat cancer with Frisbees and banana bread corners and his own pieces of pizza and little house searches and visits from friends.

Knowing that I won’t have the years, months or days doesn’t make this easier or fun.  This is hard, and depressing and sad and terrible and something I don’t feel ready to face, but I know it will be alright in the long run.  I know this because I have been through this, as a part of an unbroken chain of the experience of thoughtful beings.  I have faced loss, and in my turn, there are those who will face my loss.  I grieved deeply for my father who grieved for his own father, and presumably, his father grieved for those who were important him when they passed in their turn.  Grief is hard, and knowing that the end is near highlights coming loss, but then I come back to being a part of an endless cycle of gain and loss, of birth and death, and of love for those being who walk beside and before and after me.  I know that right now, this time is an important time not to borrow grief ahead of time, but to cherish what we have together now; not to cherish what we have left, but what we have.

Now that I am facing the minutes, the hours, the days and hopefully the weeks or months that make up the end of D’fer’s life, he is teaching me again that when pain is under control, the minutes we have are love.  I will cry often and smile and throw the Frisbee and hide toys, and make sure that my special friend gets time with the people he loves.  The support from my community, my friends and my students are the minutes of love that we get.  And a Frisbee tucked in the bookshelf to find is one of those special minutes, when you cannot make the illness go away.  In the end, when I lose him, I will grieve, and I will cry and then I will probably find his Frisbee and a minute of his love.  It will be alright.

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D’fer has told me over and over again throughout his service career that I will be alright.  He is right.  In the long run, it will be alright.

For those who follow my blog, please be patient.  I may not be posting very regularly while I work through these last minutes with my very talented and special Chesapeake, D’fer.  I will be back when I can.

IT WILL BE ALRIGHT

PRO SOCCER

If you are reading this, it is more likely that you are a dog owner or trainer, than a professional soccer player.  You might be an athlete, but you are unlikely to be in the top 10% of physical fitness of all humans on the planet.  You might be, but it is unlikely.  I want you to just take a moment and evaluate your own level of fitness.  Are you a typical North American, fit enough to run for the bus, or run for mayor, but not really a marathon runner?  Are you a weekend warrior, who plays hard on the weekends, but sits at your desk all week long?  Are you a gym rat, making it out to the gym at least 3 days a week?  Or are you amongst the elite athletes who seriously exercise each and every day, come what may, even on vacation?  Unless you are an honest member of this last group, I am betting that dropping you into the middle of a professional soccer game, 90 minutes of aerobic intensity, would not be much fun!

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Are you a soccer fan? Do you dream of getting on the field yourself? ARe you actually fit enough and skilled enough to really enjoy 90 minutes in the company of these guys? I think this is how many of our dogs feel when they are dumped into a play group where they cannot escape, and they may not be able to keep up. They may cope, but coping isn’t the same thing as having a great time. Copyright: tnn103eda / 123RF Stock Photo

Oh, the first few minutes might be a thrill, especially if you are a soccer fan.  But a whole game would likely be exhausting, overwhelming and possibly frightening.  Those guys run REALLY fast!  And if you run into one of them, you are likely going to be flattened.  And if you have a coach on the side lines encouraging you to play harder throughout the whole game, you are likely going to feel really pressured.

Maybe a soccer practice would be more fun for you.  But wait!  Being immersed in a group of highly fit, world class athletes who know their work can be pretty overwhelming too.  Especially if they are all familiar with one another, know what the other guy will do and already have all their social pecking orders worked out.

This I think is often what occurs to the dogs that get tossed into unstructured play groups, especially in confined areas as you might find in the typical daycare.  If you have ten dogs who are already involved with the group, and you add in number 11, the eleventh dog is not really likely to be successful.  Dog number 11 will have to be equally fit and socially savvy to make the cut right away.  If the eleventh dog is intolerant of other dogs being rude, he is going to pick fights.  If he is the kind of dog who harasses other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games, he is going to struggle.  If the eleventh dog is either more or less fit than the rest of the group he is either going to tire and get frustrated, or he is going to harass the other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games. 

Sometimes play groups have a human who can make matters either better or worse.  If the human is very savvy about play, they can intervene and pull out the trouble makers and help them to self modulate.  Sometimes interventions back fire though, especially if the human thinks they need to pin the dog to the ground to make the point.  Pulling a dog who is causing trouble out should be gentle and allow the dog to decrease his arousal and then re-integrate.  Pinning the dog may work, or it may create collar shyness in the dog, who then learns to dart away from the people running the group.  Other times, the humans can make matters worse by doing things like throwing objects and creating competition between members of the group, or encouraging shy dogs to get in over their heads. 

There is almost nothing I enjoy more than watching dogs play.  I love to see them cavort and interact, and large groups are much more fun than small ones, however, there are some caveats about this; firstly, I prefer to have mostly trained dogs that I can control with a solid off leash down, even when things get really active.  When we have this sort of a group, I like to hike with the dogs.  When dogs and people walk together, we see a lot more normal chasing and then running together sort of interactions.  We don’t see the puppy wrestling that people enjoy, but for the most part our dogs are not puppies either.  When a puppy is integrated into an established group of dogs who are hiking, it doesn’t matter so much if there are fitter or less fit individuals because the fitter dogs have space to run farther.  And the harassment we see in an unstructured group in a confined area doesn’t happen either, because the dogs can get away from that if they aren’t having fun.  If the overall arousal of the group gets too high, we can ask the trained dogs to lie down and that solves about 90% of the problems we see. 

You may be thinking to yourself “but what about daycare groups” or “but I want to send my dog to a crate free boarding facility”.  As with many things there are good alternatives and less good choices out there.  Before sending your dog to such an activity, spend a few hours there watching how the staff interact with the dogs.  Here are some of the issues we think you should consider:

Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision? 

If the group is a long term group of stable individuals, this may work out.  When we think long term, we think of groups that might live in a family.  When we had 5 or more dogs who lived with us for six months or more, they might get turned into the yard together alone, but only if they were really familiar with one another and polite together when we were supervising.  We didn’t just add a dog to our family and hope for the best.  The dogs had to show us first that they were safe to be together outside unattended.  When dogs are turned loose without supervision and the group changes every day or even every few hours, there is a high potential for things to turn out badly.  We don’t recommend sending your dog to a facility where the dogs are not supervised by people who know what they are doing.

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This interaction could end well, or it could end in a disaster. The chain collars that these dogs wear are easy for teeth to get caught in and then the friendly game of neck grabbing can go badly wrong. If there are no people there to help, this is a risky interaction that can go badly quickly. Copyright: madrabothair / 123RF Stock Photo

Is there only one person on site? 

This is one of the worse ideas we see on a regular basis.  When a facility is run by one individual, what is the plan for the dogs in the event of an emergency?  People often don’t think of the worst case scenario, and the fact is that something CAN and might go wrong.  Years ago, when we did board training, I was alone at home with our three dogs and a guest dog.  The guest dog had an anaphylactic reaction and stopped breathing.  Luckily, the three resident dogs could stay home loose together without an issue and I was able to carry the lifeless dog to the car and get him to the vet in time to save his life.  If I had had more dogs or dogs who could not be left home and loose together, the guest dog might have died. 

If you are paying to send your dog to a day care or other play group type of activity, you should be sure that there is more than one person on site, especially when there are many dogs who don’t know one another.  There is no hard and fast rule for how many dogs should be there for each staffer, but we know of facilities that have 25 or more dogs on site and only one staffer available.  This is dangerous for the staff and for your dog!

Does the facility have a plan for what to do if a dog fight breaks out?

You may be thinking to yourself “surely they would not accept an aggressive dog” however, a fight can break out with even the nicest, easiest going dogs.  I saw a fight break out one time in a dog park when one dog caught a tooth in the collar of another dog, and then both dogs panicked and started to scream.  A third dog jumped in when the screaming started.  The third dog was not caught on anything, but it was really difficult to get these three dogs separated because you could not tell exactly what was going on.  Two of the dogs had to get stitches, and one of those dogs ended up staying in the veterinary hospital for several days. 

Any place where dogs are being left loose together should at least have a can of compressed air or citronella to break up scuffles and they should also have break sticks and a catch pole available.  Staff should also be trained to use these tools. 

What does the facility look like?

Many years ago, a dog of mine was killed while in the care of a veterinarian when the tech opened a crate door and the dog got out of the clinic.  The clinic had a habit of leaving all the clinic doors open to air out the facility at the end of the day.  Every door between the kennel room and the street was wide open and my dog left and was struck in the road and killed.  As the owner of a dog training facility, my building is fitted with doors and gates and we include door safety training in our obedience program.  Too often I have seen images of day cares on the net where the dogs could easily get over a short flimsy gate, or where the gate doesn’t close completely.  If the gate cannot contain your dog, don’t leave your dog there!

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This is a very nice looking facility but that is a lot of dogs in a pretty small enclosure. On the plus side, the footing looks safe, there is shade and the fence is high enough to contain the dogs. The dogs all look fairly relaxed, and they don’t seem to be targeting one another; likely because the person who is supervising is doing a good job. Copyright: jb325 / 123RF Stock Photo

How are groups separated and sorted?

Puppies are baby dogs!  Any dog under 16 weeks can probably be turned loose in a group of other puppies the same age with very little risk.  After 16 weeks though, there are definite age related issues that dogs face.  Adolescent dogs can be pushy and bully younger, smaller or weaker dogs; it is the nature of adolescents to do that.  Adolescents may also harass adults in the hope of getting them to play.  It is best if dogs are sorted behaviourally.  Puppies under 16 weeks can be left in fairly unstructured areas (you will see that they spend an awful lot of time sleeping if you do this though!).  Young adolescents should be sorted by speed, playfulness and tolerance into groups that allow them to enjoy one another.  There are definite play types; dogs who ramble and roam are not going to enjoy chasing one another much.  Dogs who race and chase don’t enjoy those who wrestle so much.  And adult dogs may not play so much as they did when they were puppies or adolescents.  Geriatric dogs should not be left in a group of young fast dogs either; it just isn’t fair!

You may be asking at this point if I think that there is any place for day cares.  I do, but you have to choose carefully.  Know the staff.  Know what their protocols are for trouble shooting.  Be aware of their plans.  Get to know the staff and the people you will be asking to care for your dog.  And don’t be afraid to just skip the daycare and go for a hike; consider what it might be like from your dog’s point of view to be in the set up you are considering.  It is very possible that it would be a lot like getting dropped into the middle of a pro soccer game and although you would come home tired, you likely would not come home very happy.

PRO SOCCER

HEARING YOUR DOG

Last time I talked about talking to my dogs. This time I want to talk about listening and more importantly hearing what they have to say. Dogs are non verbal species. This means that they can only tell us things by their behaviour. It is easy to miss the conversation altogether if you aren’t paying attention and this is an important component of having a successful relationship. Dogs and other non human learners have a lot to say, if we just listen.

This morning when I woke up, D’fer, my elderly Chesapeake was in my room, lying by the bed and panting. And panting and panting and panting. As I became more aware of the day, I tuned into him and I could see that he was obviously in distress. As a non verbal species, it is really tough to figure out what was distressing him, but I can make some good guesses. He is old and often painful, so a good guess is that he was in some pain this morning. He had a heart murmur that resolved, but it could be that he is having heart issues again. We have had a pretty significant weather change today, from cold and wet to hot and humid, so maybe that is what is going on. Noticing what he is doing, I have some choices; I can get up and see if he needs some pain meds, or I can roll over and go back to sleep.

Here, D'fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain.  I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing.  I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication!  When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed.  I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason.  D'fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Here, D’fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain. I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing. I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication! When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed. I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason. D’fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

Imagine for a moment that this was your spouse and you woke up and he or she was breathing heavily, and obviously in distress. What would you do? Perhaps waking him up and checking in might be a good idea. Or perhaps you know that your spouse normally breathes like this in the morning and you just need to nudge him to roll over and you can both have a lie in. What about if this was a newborn? Or your aging grandfather? Knowing something about those who surround you is an important part of “hearing” what they say.

The above example is one where my dog’s behaviour was not one of choice and it is up to me to first off notice and secondly to choose the right action. The action I took was to get up, toilet him and get him his meds. He is on daily pain medication and he needed his next dose. Not all of what the dog tells me is because of his physiology though. Some of the dog’s behaviour is about things that he wants or needs.

When Eco my German Shepherd goes to the gate and looks out at the geese on the pond, I know he would like me to open the gate so that he can go chase geese. He will stare longingly at the geese through the gate, look back at me and then look back to the geese. If I open the gate, he will chase the geese into the sky. Eco thinks that chasing geese is terrific. If it is fall and the geese are not nesting, or if it is spring before the geese nest, I sometimes let him do this as it prevents the geese from eating all of our pasture. If the geese have goslings though, I will tell him that it is not his turn and he will sadly turn away from the gate.  In effect we have a conversation, where he tells me what he wants and I tell him if he can have it or not.

Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door.  He doesn't go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open.  I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck.  Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening.  In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door. He doesn’t go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open. I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck. Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening. In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

My dogs have ways to tell me a good number of things. Some of them are things that I have taught them to do and some of them are things that they have picked up on their own. If I am watching a movie, D’fer may come up and sit in front of me and if that doesn’t cause me to share then he will turn on his sad Chesapeake act and if THAT doesn’t work, he will rest his chin on my lap, because that almost always works.  D’fer knows how to ask politely, and then with some emphasis and finally he will beg.  He knows that I rarely refuse him if he is truly being cute!

D’fer was trained to alert me to medical events; he would tell me if I was about to get a migraine or have a panic attack. Without getting into how we trained that, if the conditions were right for me to get ill, he would “tell” me by flipping my arm with his nose, or by putting his feet on my chest. He would tell me that I needed to take medication and I would do as told!  This is more of a one way directive, but it is communication indeed.

Today in one of my privates we were working with a dog who has some serious issues with other dogs. We were working to teach him that he can approach without losing his cool. A big part of what we do in that sort of exercise is to “listen” to what the dogs are telling us. Every time this dog would get too close to the trigger dog, he would give a big lip lick. This “tell” or piece of body language would let me know that he was as close to the other dog as he could get without losing control of himself. Listening to what the dog was saying helped me to know when to send the owner back to the safety station. Lip licking is one of a raft of behaviours that dogs do when they are stressed; called displacement behaviours. These behaviours tell us that the dog is approaching a threshold of some sort and that we need to slow down. They can tell us when the dog is distressed or upset or when they need a break. Knowing your own dog and knowing how they tell you that they are over the point at which they are comfortable is an essential part of being successful with your dog. If you don’t respond when your dog is telling you these things, then your dog will think he has to face the world on his own steam. This degrades your relationship because your dog will learn that you won’t listen to him.

This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze.  If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her.  When we don't hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs.  Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze. If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her. When we don’t hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs. Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo

I have successfully helped several people teach their dogs how to tell them that they need a break in more concrete ways. One dog on my caseload learned to say “Go/No Go” for taking treats from strangers. The concept was really simple, but the ability to communicate that is behind this concept is fairly abstract. First we taught the dog to touch a target. Then we established two targets; one for “Go” and a very different target for “No Go”. If the dog randomly touched the “Go” target, he got a treat. If the dog randomly touched the “No Go” target the person offering the treats backed off and took the treats with them. This dog, a Scottish Terrier named BJ, amazed his people because he would sometimes turn down treats that he normally really liked depending on who was offering the treat. This gave BJ the ability to say when he was ready for interactions with new people, and by being able to say no when he was not ready, he was able to expand the number of people he could tolerate both offering him treats and eventually touching him.

Communication is a special ability that we can use with our dogs, if we are willing to be open to listening to what they have to say. We have to be aware of who our dogs are, what they say and how they say it, and then respond appropriately. Even if the response is “not now”, responding regularly and appropriately is an important way to deepen our relationship with our dogs.

HEARING YOUR DOG