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Archives for December 2014

Holiday Precautions

Holidays are a wonderful time and, hopefully, an occasion for you and your family to celebrate and enjoy one another. Of course, our pets are part of that experience. I wanted to take a few moments to go over some things to be cautious of in order to make the holidays go as smoothly as possible. IMG_2911

If you normally have a quiet household, a big get-together can be pretty overwhelming for your pet. Make sure you set up an escape route or safe space for them. Consider putting them away before guests arrive and allowing them to come out and meet everyone once guests are inside and settle. Remember, this is not the time to practice new skills like sitting politely when greeting strangers. You’ll just feel frustrated and your dog will feel stressed.

Watch the food. I recently received two calls from dog owners in Western MA about dog fights that occurred on Thanksgiving Day. The combination of lots of people combined with lots of food sitting out equaled the perfect formula for dog fights requiring a trip to the animal ER. In addition to the added chance of dog fights, there is also the potential for food poisoning. I’ve posted before about the potentially toxic foods your dog should not consume. As a quick reminder, keep them away from onions, garlic, chocolate, caffeine, grapes and raisins. Also, high amounts of fat can cause pancreatitis, so be cautious about giving your dog the skins from poultry or other high fat foods.

In addition to food, keep a careful eye on objects that could be eaten and cause problems. Tinsel can get wrapped around intestines, glass bulbs can be mistaken for a ball (I’ve had one of my border collies find ornaments and bring them to me for a game of fetch), and ribbon, paper, etc. are all potential problems if ingested. Keep presents out of reach and either set ornaments high on a tree or put an exercise pen around the tree to keep it safe.

If you are burning candles or making fires, keep pets away. Many a cat has sashayed her way through a candle, leaving the smell of burnt hair behind her. A Labrador tail can easily knock over a candle and potentially create a serious fire hazard. I recommend setting a reminder on your phone to make sure all candles and fires are extinguished when you leave the house. Also, have a current fire extinguisher nearby. Nothing is more devastating than a house fire.

Practicing down-stays during a quick restroom stop

Practicing down-stays during a quick restroom stop

Be sensitive to the overall stress that accompanies holidays. Even though it’s a happy time, we are stressed with the rush of getting gifts, planning parties and everything else that goes with the season. Our pets are attuned to our feelings and don’t understand why their people are suddenly on edge. This stress can manifest by them being more prone to snap at one another or at people (it’s really no different with people when you think about it). I had another call from a family with two dogs that normally get along very well…and then one day it just seemed like a switch flipped and suddenly they were fighting. Obviously, there could be a lot of different things going on but, over the years, I’ve noticed I get more calls like this around the holidays than any other time of the year. I think exercise also plays a role, since many pets are getting less exercise due to the weather and how busy their people are

Don't forget they need exercise no matter what the weather is like!

Don’t forget they need exercise no matter what the weather is like!

With the reduction in exercise and increase in stress, take some time to make sure your pet has enough enrichment to get through the holidays in a good space. Stuff some Kongs and freeze them, stock up on bully sticks and tracheas, go back to basics by peppering your routines with simple obedience commands, and dedicate five minutes each night to a quiet activity that you and your dog find soothing (grooming, massage, quiet cuddling).

With all that being said, remember to relax and enjoy this time with your family and pets. We are so blessed to have the unconditional love our pets bring to our lives and this is a wonderful time of year to celebrate that.

Happy Holidays!


Keeping it real!

Keeping it real!

“My dog just needs to be socialized”

One of the most frequent requests I get is from dog owners telling me that their dog needs to be better socialized. Their dog is growling, lunging, barking, snarling, hackles up when around other dogs and the assumption is that with increased contact, the dog’s behavior will improve.

People, that’s a total fallacy.

Your dog’s socialization window closed, technically, when he was around 16 weeks old. Although I would still argue that a young dog is actively learning and creating his identity in regards to how he interacts with other dogs, after the age of 2 it’s relatively safe to say he is who he is. Going to the dog park every day and forcing him to engage with other dogs will only create more problems. He’s ill-equipped to deal with a situation where he is overwhelmed and freaked out. What’s going to happen is he’s going to stutter and stumble his way through the exposure, possibly scaring other dogs and definitely scaring himself. Maybe he will shut down and appear to be handling it fine, but inside his stress hormones are raging and he’s a mess. On the other end of the spectrum, if he’s exploding with reactivity, he’s practicing a behavior you really don’t want him doing and he’s putting other dogs (and people, too, if he redirects that explosiveness) in danger.

So, what do you do with a dog that has poor social skills and can’t handle himself appropriately around other dogs? I understand the concept of wanting to socialize. You want him to have enough positive experiences that he gets that he’s ok and dogs are cool to hang out with. It would make so many things better. Off leash hikes would be an option, taking your dog over to a friend’s house would be ok, having that summer BBQ and saying, yeah sure, bring your dog! But that’s not who your dog is.

Step one is accepting the reality that your dog has a problem with other dogs and needs help. You have to start where you dog is, not where you want him to be. I know this sounds simple but, honestly, this is probably the hardest part. For many of us, our dogs are an extension of ourselves and we see their actions as a reflection on us. So, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable to have THAT dog that is all special-needs and trouble. Well, like I said, he is who he is and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to get him on the road to better behavior.

From here, you have two options. You can manage the issue, which basically means keep him away from other dogs. Lots of folks do this and it’s not so bad. Your dog doesn’t need doggy friends. There is no developmental necessity dictating that your dog needs friends. He needs exercise, enrichment and connection. For most dogs, the connection is with their people. Connecting with other dogs is a truly personal and distinct trait. It’s not so different with people. As children, we are highly socialized and there’s a developmental purpose to it. We are taught how to behave in different settings, how to chat, how close to stand to a stranger versus a friend, proper greeting etiquette and so on. As we mature, we tend to hone certain skills based on personal preference. We settle into an identity as an extrovert or introvert. We have set friendships and reliable interactions. Sure, we can still pony up and behave well in strange situations, but we migrate towards our comfort zone. So, your adult dog is similar. Perhaps he likes puppies but dislikes adult dogs. He might be ok with dogs smaller than him but hates bouncy, huge Labs. It’s all personal. Of course, it’s usually based on past experiences. If your dog was mauled by a white dog, chances are he might be weird around white dogs. I’ll tell you though, a lot of that stuff is hard-wired. Highly sensitive or anxious dogs are pretty much waiting for a bad experience to happen to them so they have a reason to get weird about it. I’ve met really stable dogs that have had awful things happen to them and they bounce back fine.

Which brings me to the next step. Don’t feel guilty. Stop it. You didn’t create this issue or cause the problem. We all live life and things happen. Maybe you didn’t have the chance to do everything you wanted with him as a puppy or maybe you were naïve and allowed him to be in scary situations you didn’t realize would screw with his head. Let it go. Dogs are brilliant in this regard. They live in the present and they will believe you…whatever you say the rules are, they believe you. So take a deep breath and move along without that guilt saddled to your psyche.

For some, it’s a huge relief to know that it’s TOTALLY OK to have a dog that doesn’t like other dogs and you don’t have to fix it. All you have to do is prevent damage from occurring and that’s pretty easy. Putting your dog away when your friend brings her new puppy to visit, things like that. For other folks, they really do want to be able to go for that off-leash hike and they are willing to do the work to reach that goal.

That’s assuming it’s a reasonable goal. You’ve got to understand that some dogs will never, ever be ok with other dogs. Whether it’s breed or past-trauma or just that he’s wired wonky, it’s possible that his glass ceiling is set pretty low and doggy love just ain’t gonna happen.

So, with that being said, most dogs can make a considerable amount of progress with a good behavior modification plan. You need to be ready to work hard, be consistent and be patient. You need to understand that by the end of this, you will be an amazing dog trainer and know more about canine body language than you ever knew was possible. You will probably be fluent in operant and classical conditioning. You will find clickers in your purse instead of pens. So, you have to like training. Because good behavior modification takes good training and planning. It doesn’t happen on its own. I often use the analogy of prepping for a marathon. You need to cover all of your bases from cleaning out the pantry so you don’t sabotage yourself with those Twinkies to making sure you have the right shoes…to actually running every day until you can do the marathon. It’s not magic and it’s not rocket science, and that’s good news because it means anyone can get the job done as long as they have a good plan and guidance. The bad news is that, on the same token, there are no short cuts.

If you’ve made it this far and you still want to plug ahead and do the work, congratulations. You are part of a small minority of people, we call ourselves the 3AM Dog Walkers Club. Your reward for doing all this work is that, chances are, you’ll have an incredible bond with your dog and a closeness that you couldn’t have imagined. It’s awesome. It’s transformational, really. And, not-so-strangely, by the end of the process you probably won’t be nearly so concerned about your dog’s need to be socialized.

Letting Down Our Dogs?

One of my loveliest clients from Westfield texted me this today. I’ve edited out identifying information to protect the client’s privacy.

Hey Elise. Have you ever once, in your many years of experience being a doggie mother, been in a funk and kinda felt like you should be doing more with your dogs but you don’t seem to have the energy? I feel so bad that [my dog] isn’t getting all the attention he needs constantly. I’ve been struggling quite a bit this past year. When I got a dog, I knew it’d be a lot of work..but I kinda feel like I have a “special needs dog” and it can be tough. I feel like a bad parent 🙁

Here was my response…

Of course I get in funks. I got Tally during a huge breakup followed by me spending almost six months in Pittsburgh caring for my dying grandmother…so he basically raised himself…and you can tell! Life happens and if you have a difficult dog it’s even trickier. The beautiful thing about dogs is that they live in the moment. So, when you’re ready, he will be right there with you, ready to learn and get back on track. Until then, don’t forgot he’s still very very lucky to have someone that understands him and loves him and his special needs. A lot of people would’ve given up and just thrown him in the back yard or given him away. Be kind to yourself about [your dog].


Here is Tally looking deceptively sleepy. Notice the wide eyes. He’s always looking for the next big thing.

Tally is my youngest border collie, for those of you new to my blog. My next post should be about the trials and tribulations of trying to keep up with him in our training. But, that’s for another day. Today, I was left thinking about how many of my clients feel that they have somehow failed their dogs by a lack of trying or a lack of training.

I tell my clients every day that, most often, people do NOT get dogs so that they can spend hundreds of dollars on behavior modification and training. People do NOT get dogs so that their lives can be thrown into a state of complete upheaval and they find that, one day, every doorway in their house has a baby gate and they have more Kongs than dishes in the dishwasher. This is not why we get dogs. We do not get them so that we can ration out food during training or…worse, ration out affection for good behavior.

We get dogs for companionship, to snuggle with, to love. My client’s text today also made me think of my mother, who recently had her little King Charles Cavalier die in her arms (old age). Yesterday, my mom was telling me the joy he brought to her life. How, for the past few years, their routine had become one where between 9-10pm he decided it was bedtime. He would kick his feet back and motion to her as if to say, come on, let’s go! She felt he was saying that another day with the outside world was finally done and now cuddle time could start. This was a little dog with his priorities straight.

THAT is why we get dogs. For that unconditional love, the ease of being together, the consistency of the attachment, the simplicity and total lack of judgment. Why else would we sacrifice so much time and money dedicating ourselves to an animal we KNOW will die in about a decade?

So, when we get a lemon, it’s a game-changer. A lemon literally changed my life and his name was Kai. My fearful, sick border collie took me from Boston to the country and changed my career from program director to dog trainer/behavior consultant. My lemon challenged how I thought about everything. Like the choice so many of my clients face, he was a dog that I could either fix or euthanize. He wasn’t rehomeable. There was no ‘farm with lots of room to run’ that wanted him.

My lemon, Kai. I miss him every day.

My lemon, Kai. I miss him every day.

So, were there days I just didn’t feel up for the challenge? Absolutely! I remember one day walking him when I lived in Amherst and he jumped, then landed wrong and started limping. I sat down in the middle of the road and just started bawling. I could not take one.more.thing. Oh, that dog. Well, as you know, I stuck with him and don’t regret it for a second.

But with him, as well as my other three, there are always days – and sometimes months – where I am so burned out on training that I simply can’t bring myself to spend that five minutes working on a skill. I manage their crazy behavior, crate them when guests are over, and I’ll tell you…I don’t feel guilty about it. One of the things those lemons teach you is that there is no practical purpose for guilt. It’s useless with dogs. They don’t benefit from it and neither do you. When I tell my guys, hey, this is how it’s gonna be for a while because I am exhausted and burnt, they’re like, whatever, chica, we’re dogs. They continue to put toys in my lap and casually walk across my coffee table to get from point A to point B. It’s not ideal but it’s fine. Because, like my mom’s experience with her Cav, when it comes to be nighttime there’s a point where they are waiting for me to go to bed. I never really thought about it before she said it to me but there IS something really special about this.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, we crawl in bed. Maybe with our dogs, maybe just in the same room with them. We might be thinking about the day that’s ending or perhaps the one coming up. For me, my mom, and so many other dog lovers out there, it’s the time when we have a very sweet and simple routine of doing some talking, some cuddling and even laughing. Every night without fail, Rowan accidentally stands on my hair. I laugh and tell him to move (by the way, this is where the command of hand targeting is exceedingly helpful) and he happily trots to a different spot on the bed to spend the next 8 hours.

I would posit that whether you have an all-star competitor or a lemon, you still have the opportunity for these moments of connectedness. I’m not saying that

No kidding! ON THE TABLE!

No kidding! ON THE TABLE!

these moments null the need for training (seriously, as I am typing this I can see Leelah Bean outside on the porch table. Yes, ON the table). It’s the ability for training (or exercise or discipline) to wax and wane while that wonderful connection remains intact. Without the connection, no one would be fretting about the training because why would it really matter? So, the very fact that someone is worrying that they aren’t doing enough for their dog is a sign, to me, that plenty is being done.

And with that being said, goodnight all. It’s time to wrap up another day and see what the rest of the week has in store for us! Enjoy the night and the beautiful (and/or sometimes challenging) connection you have with your dog or cat.

This is the bedtime positioning on the staircase, as demonstrated by Rowan

This is the bedtime positioning on the staircase, as demonstrated by Rowan