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Archives for November 2013

Thankfulness

I think it’s nearly impossible to adequately articulate the gratitude I feel towards my dogs, my clients and my client’s pets (but I’m going to try, so get ready!). I experience deep and humble moments of thankfulness almost every day. When I am driving through the neighborhoods of Springfield I’m thinking of my favorite German Shepherds, Max and Izzy. On 202, going through Chicopee, Granby, Holyoke, and Belchertown I am thinking of my clients as I drive by the cross streets and turn-offs to where they live. There’s Ezekiel the Lab in Leverett, Nauset the Shiba Inu in Deerfield and Theo the Terrier in Greenfield. After ten years of working with the cats and dogs in Western Massachusetts, there is almost no place I can drive without remembering a client. So, if you see your dog or cat itching their nose, it’s probably because I am driving nearby and warmly thinking of the work we did together.

Every case means something to me. It taught me something. It exposed me to a psycho-pathology or disorder and challenged me to build my expertise in dealing with aggression. It reinforced the dedication and devotion that my clients have for their beloved pets. It reminded me of the importance for compassion as I hugged clients through decisions to euthanize or rehome. Probably one of the most incredible parts of my job has come with time. I have seen your families grow and your children move out and get their own dogs. I have trained generations of puppies in your family and the families you’ve referred me, too. I have seen couples fall in love and helped them to integrate their dogs so everyone can live together safely. I have done countless consultations with expectant parents, helping to smooth the transition for them and their dog. Getting called back time and again, being included in your networks and communities is one of the most amazing things ever.  Your loyalty and trust in me is an overwhelming and powerful gift for which I am always grateful.

I am thankful for my own four dogs, as well as a lifetime of cats that have shared my home. Through them, I have lived with almost every disorder that my client’s pets struggle with. I have been up all night with a panicked dog dealing with thunder-phobia. I have dropped on the sidewalk and burst into tears over dealing with my human-aggressive dog, Kai. Also on the list is cat house-soiling, raising puppies, living in a multi-dog household (with dogs that don’t like each other), sound hypersensitivity, canine compulsive disorder (shadow chasing), dog-dog reactivity, predatory aggression with chasing wildlife and cats…and more. As a behaviorist and trainer, I strive to practice what I preach and only teach what I actually know from experience. I’ve competed in agility and Rally Obedience, trained extensively in competition obedience and scent work, achieved canine good citizen and therapy dog credentials so that I can pass these skill sets on to my clients.

On a different note, I am grateful to my dogs for their tolerance and forgiveness. My crew has endured my messy training as I’ve learned and improved over the years. They have been my guinea pigs when I want to try out something new. They have tolerated me transitioning my home into a place that offers home-style boarding. They have lived with countless foster dogs and cats.  Our pets are silent partners as we grow and change in our lives. Hats off to them for adapting when we move, when we marry, when we lose part of our family. Hats off for the moments they remind us that living in the present is what matters. Appreciating what’s in front of us is what matters. Just throw that ball. Everything will work out.

I am thankful to the team I have the honor of working with, Tiffany and Laura. They care for your pets in your home, take your dogs out on walks during the day and train them. Knowing I can trust and count on them to treat your pets as well as they treat their own is huge. These young women have also dedicated countless hours to improving the lives of boarding dogs at my house. There has been a lot of scooped poop over the years! Having them makes it possible for my company to offer comprehensive services including the training walks and pet-sitting. It’s so important to me that I can offer solutions that meet the needs of each individual client.

Today is truly a day to reflect on what we have to be thankful for. For me, it’s an opportunity to let you in on how sappy I am on any given day. I have built my company on strong science and expert skills…but behind that is a profound love for animals and a steadfast appreciation for the people that dedicate so much love, time, and energy into making sure each dog and each cat has the best quality of life possible.  Hats off to you and thank you for that.  Now, it’s time for me to go throw a ball for a while.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Can my dog be fixed?

I’m sitting in a living room in a rural home in Belchertown. There is a tiny speckled dog with the cutest-ever terrier face dozing off beside his owner. I am there because one week ago he launched at her face and bit her above her eye. He did this because she took a flip flop out of his mouth.  We are going through the diagnosis (resource guarding) and prognosis (good) when it comes. The Question I get asked almost daily:

“Is it fixable?”

For the past decade, clients have asked me this with tones varying from desperate to skeptical. I get asked this during the phone screening, at the consultation or months into treatment. Whether it’s separation anxiety, fear aggression or nastier forms of aggression or reactivity, the question remains the same

“Is it fixable?”

Now, I am by nature an optimistic person. I have seen progress with dogs that borders on miraculous. But I’m going to be honest. The answer is a resounding NO. It can’t be fixed.  Behavior can be modified since it’s fluid and not static. It can be modified so it looks nothing like we started with. But aggression will always be there.

I use a lot of analogies when I work with my clients.  The initial paperwork asks what the owners do for a living. I ask this so I can offer analogies that they’ll understand. Photographers get metaphors about capturing behavior like a snapshot. I’ll talk to the firefighters about putting out fires and nurses about triage care. My favorite profession to use for comparisons is a fitness/nutrition counselor.

Training requires muscles like any skill. In order to see change, you have to work at it. And much like losing weight or preparing for a marathon, if you stop working you won’t reach your goals. Training muscles can get flabby and you can get hurt if you push too hard, too fast. Changing a dog’s behavior is like any fitness regime. It requires diligence, patience and consistency. You have to manage the environment for success (like, if you’re dieting you can’t surround yourself with twinkies). You have to be consistent. If you diet 23 out of 24 hours, but eat all those twinkies on that last hour, well, you’ve just erased the work that went into those other 23 hours. If you’re working on your dog not barking, you can’t put him outside unsupervised where he barks for an hour. You just sabotaged all your hard work. The reality is that no matter how much progress you make, if you sit back and call it a day then gradually you’ll revert back to flab. Some people will get fatter than others and, likewise, some dogs will regress into poor behavior faster than others.  We all know people that seem to lose weight like there’s nothing to it and others who have to work their tail off just to lose a pound. For dogs, changing behavior is the same. Some will need a ton of training to handle the simplest of tasks. Others will pick it up quickly and hold onto it longer.

A successful behavior mod program includes managing the environment for success (blocking a window so your dog can’t bark his head off at every person who passes by, for example). It includes training. You have to practice consistently and sometimes it’s not fun or it gets boring.  Lastly, you have to create different emotional associations for your dog and whatever the triggers are. This means no bad experiences with triggers and lots of positive exposure. This requires planning and ongoing evaluation of the dog.  When all three parts are in action, progress is almost guaranteed. It’s like keeping the pantry free of sweets, working out every day and eating a carefully chosen, healthy diet. When all the bases are covered, amazing things can happen.

Beautifully modified behavior is like the difference between a fitness model and an obese person. They might be the same person but you’d never guess it. When the UPS man spontaneously hugged my fear-aggressive border collie, Kai, he had a fitness model moment. After years of building up his training muscles, he appeared to be a totally normal, social dog. But my breath still caught in my throat and I was sure to REALLY reinforce my boy for such a wonderful use of his training muscles.

So, much in the way that you can’t “fix” a human body to stay svelte or muscular, you can’t fix a dog dealing with aggressive reactions. You can, however, create amazing changes if you’re committed.  And I have to say that those fitness model moments make the work pretty well worth the effort!