Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2010 Goals: Second Quarter Update

Goal: Complete the relaxation protocol.
Progress: I did the relaxation protocol, oh, maybe once or twice. Which is something, I guess, even if it isn’t much.
Looking Forward: I know the relaxation protocol is worth the work… it’s just so boring! I’m still hoping to work on it once or twice a week.

Goal: Increase Maisy’s physical exercise.
Progress: Last quarter, Maisy and I walked 52% of the days. This quarter, we walked 58 out of 91 days, which is 64%. That’s not too bad, especially considering the fact that I was gone on vacation for the first two weeks of April. She did get to go for walks while we were gone, but I’m only counting the times I took her.
Looking Forward: It’s been a bit trickier to get walks in as it has gotten hotter- I hate the heat. We’ve been doing late evening walks, but I really need to consider early morning walks, too.

Goal: Develop novice obedience stays.
Progress: Tons of progress! Maisy is up to about 40 seconds of sit-stay while out on walks and in class.
Looking Forward: Continue building duration. Slowly add in distraction for shorter stays. Start working on down-stays.

Goal: Improve heeling so that we can complete a novice-level heeling pattern.
Progress: I don’t know that we’ve made a ton of progress, but there has been some. I’m pleased with her heeling right now. She’s much more attentive, and while the position needs tightening up, I’m happy with what we’ve got right now. We’ve also added in about turns, and gotten the fast pace much more consistent.
Looking Forward: Continue to refine position. She does tend to forge just a bit, especially during the first step. I also noticed in my last video that she goes a bit wide, so I’d like to fix that, too.

Goal: From heel position, hit the proper front position on the first try.
Progress: Much progress here! She can go from a seated heel position to a front position every time I ask… although it isn’t always a perfect front. It’s not bad, though- not enough to get points off in rally. And, she can correct her position if I tell her to try again. She does tend to over-correct, but at least she knows which direction to move in order to correct.
Looking Forward: I’m hopeful that, by the end of the year, she will have perfect fronts 75% of the time.

Goal: Develop jumping skills for a recall over high and directed jumping.
Progress: We haven’t worked much on jumps, and I’d say she’s about the same as she was three months ago.
Looking Forward: I watched a Susan Salo jumping DVD, and learned some new jumping exercises I can do. I’d like to try doing these once a week or so.

Goal: Reduce ring nerves.
Progress: I was much more relaxed at the last trial I attended. I did get hypnotized in April or May to help learn some relaxation techniques, and while it didn’t do as much as I’d hoped, it did help quite a bit. It was the most relaxed I’ve ever been while at a trial.
Looking Forward: I really need to work on my relaxation/visualization techniques on a regular basis to get the most out of them.

Goal: Complete ARCH.
Progress: Maisy got her Level 2 title in February, and we tried for QQs in June… we could have had them, but I chose to NQ those runs so that Maisy would have a good experience. On the bright side, she’s completely capable of Level 2, so it’s just a matter of getting anxiety under control for both of us.
Looking Forward: We won’t achieve this goal this year, which is okay with me. We’ve made some progress towards it, and I’m happy with that.

Goal: Get one leg towards a CD (any venue).
Progress: None officially, but we are working on the skills necessary (heeling, etc.). Other than the stays, we are ready for Novice.
Looking Forward: I’ve said before that I’ll probably try CDSP first because they allow treats in the ring. I need to have the ability to turn a bad run into a cookie run. The next trial in my area is at the end of July… however, it’s held in conjunction with APDT rally, and I can’t decide which to work on. (Doing both would be too long of a day for Maisy, so I really have to pick just one.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

These are a few of her favorite things!

Photo courtesy of Robin Tinay Sallie.

Last week, we made a list of things that our dogs like. Today, it’s time to rank those things by awesomeness. By doing this, we will truly be prepared to use reinforcements to their fullest potential.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that awesomeness is defined by your dog. I know lots of people who would rate chocolate as their favorite treat, but since it gives me migraines, if you were to hand me a platter of brownies, I can’t say that I’d be that excited. I might fake it- I do have a certain level of tact, after all- but it wouldn’t exactly motivate me.

Unfortunately, our dogs can’t talk. They can’t say that while they appreciate that dry dog biscuit, they’d much rather have the piece of soft, stinky cheese. Instead, we have to watch their reactions. Does your dog snatch certain things out of your hands, while merely accepting others? If so, you can assume that the first tidbit was of higher value than the second.

But what of the dogs who are just stomachs with legs? My Maisy is one of those, and while it can be nice to use scented pocket lint in a pinch, it makes it hard to reward the exceptional efforts. So I created a test. I assembled a variety of foods that I knew she enjoyed. My original list of food items that Maisy likes was 27 items long (and growing), so I couldn’t test them all. Instead, I took the five that, based on her body language, I thought might be at the top of the list.

Once I had everything ready, I offered her one treat in each hand to see which one she would choose. I repeated each trial multiple times so that I could tell if her choice was consistent or not. I also switched things up so I could tell if it was a true preference, or simply a matter of always picking what was in my left hand, or the one that I showed her first. By doing this, I learned that potato chips are pretty much her favorite thing in the world, followed by raw chicken as a close second. (Also in the running were hot dogs, salmon jerky, and pieces of dog food rolls.)

Now, this is all well and good, but these tests are a bit trickier to carry out with things from our other two categories. How do you present choices between going for a walk and playing tug? I suppose that you could hold up a leash and a toy, but then how do you test that against things that don’t require props, like verbal praise or chase-the-handler games? I couldn’t figure it out (and if you can, please let me know) so I had to come up with something else.

What I ended up doing was seeing what caught her attention, and then what would distract her from that. If I could distract her from a neighborhood cat using a tennis ball, I figured that meant the ball was more interesting than the cat, and therefore, of higher value. Conversely, there is nothing more interesting than the possibility of chasing chickens or geese, so I have to assume that is a very rewarding activity. Again, I repeated my experiment many times to ensure that my findings were consistent.

I was quite surprised by what I learned. I thought her tennis ball would be the highest value thing, and indeed, it’s probably in the top three. But when I tried to distract her away from the door as I was leaving one day by throwing a tennis ball, she didn’t even track its motion. It was like the idea of coming with us was so much more awesome that she completely ignored her favorite toy. In fact, for a long time, I couldn’t find anything better than the possibility of going somewhere with her person.

But I was even more surprised to learn that her Tug-a-Jug trumped even that. When I put it out, Maisy barely looked up as I left. I tried other food toys, too, but they didn’t seem have the same pull as the Tug-a-Jug did; for each of the other food toys, she either followed me to the door, but kept looking back at the toy, or went to the toy, but kept looking at the door. With the Tug-a-Jug, she barely noticed me leave. I have no idea why, but she loves that thing.

After all of this observation and testing, you should have a good idea of what your dog finds awesome. You probably won’t be able to create a linear list that states that going for walks is always in the number one spot- there are just too many variables to take into account. For example, I have no idea if Maisy was just especially hungry the day I tested the Tug-a-Jug. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the toy at all, and instead the kibble I put inside it. Still, it let me know that there are at least times where the Tug-a-Jug is better than I am. *sigh*

But, after all this, I know that Maisy’s favorite things include being with me, playing ball, potato chips, the Tug-a-Jug and chase games. How about you guys? Out of your huge lists of things your dog likes, which are the top five? How do you know? Is your response based on observations or have you tested things like I have? I can’t wait to hear what your dogs find awesome!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 3: Vitamin B Complex

This is part of an ongoing series on supplements recommended on the internet for reactive dogs. I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet.

In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

Vitamin B Complex
What is it? How does it work?
There are 8 B vitamins: Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyrodoxine/Pyrodoxal (B6), Biotin (B7), Folic Acid (B9), and Cobalamins (B12), which are collectively called Vitamin B Complex. These vitamins are water-soluble, which means that excess amounts are flushed out of the body instead of being stored.

The B vitamins are sometimes called the stress vitamins because they are the first to be depleted when our bodies experience physical or emotional stress. The B vitamins also support a host of mood-related functions in the brain. For example, Niacin is necessary for tryptophan metabolism (which in turn results in serotonin production), while B6 supports the serotonin neurotransmitters.

What are the risks of using it?
There are minimal risks to using B vitamins since excess amounts are flushed out of the body. Taking large doses may still have adverse effects, with the most common being nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Still, there are some serious side effects of large doses, so there really can be too much of a good thing.

Availability and dosing considerations.
All of the B vitamins are found in meat, and are especially concentrated in liver, turkey and tuna. Plants can also be a source of the B vitamins, with the exception of B12, which is found only in animal based products.

If you choose to supplement the B vitamins, it’s best to do a complex supplement rather than choosing individual ones so they remain in the proper balance. This site suggests either a 25mg complex daily, or to give a total of one ounce of beef liver per ten pounds of body weight each week. Since the B vitamins are water-soluble, it seems wise to split this up throughout the week instead of simply doing it once. This site recommends supplementing twice a day, and that you should give “regular B complex” to small dogs, “B 50s” to medium dogs, and “B 100s” to large ones.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
This study, though old, is interesting. The researchers created classically conditioned responses to different auditory tones, and found that when the dog’s diet was deficient in certain B vitamins, their ability to discriminate between the tones was greatly diminished. Once returned to a normal diet, their response returned to normal as well. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how this would apply to the question of stress in dogs, but it’s interesting!

This study, done on healthy adult males (human), was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study which found that B vitamin complex and vitamin C supplementation resulted in improved self-reports of stress and mental health, as well as improved functioning on cognitive performance tests.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements

Monday, June 21, 2010

Trial Report

Maisy and I went to an APDT rally trial at Proper Paws University in Racine, Wisconsin on Sunday. (Which was an absolutely lovely trial site, with wonderful workers, and friendly competitors. I would absolutely go back in the future, even though the drive was a bit long.) We were entered in two Level 1B runs, and two Level 2B runs.

I had two main goals for the weekend. First, I hoped to have one really nice run, which I defined as Maisy being relaxed and focused in the ring. At our last few trials, Maisy has been stressy in the ring, which manifests itself as being distracted, sniffy and scratching herself a lot. Even when she’s had technically good runs- by which I mean, she had high scores- I didn’t feel connected to her. And I wanted that connection. So, how did she do? Well, judge for yourself:

That run was a 209 and 4th place! We lost our only point on that tight leash in the first 5 seconds, and I can hardly be upset by it, because she was just so excited to go! The run felt really good. She stayed with me, checked in with me frequently, and was clearly having fun. Afterwards, another handler told me she loved the way Maisy and I work together.

Our second level 1 run was nice, as well, although she did get momentarily distracted by something on the floor, causing us to lose one point. Overall score was, again, 209, but no placement. (There were SIX 210s. We were seventh.) It, too, was a solid run, lots of attention, and no stress behaviors.

She did really well managing the environment, too. While we were hanging out after our run, Maisy was all butt wiggly and schmoozing the trial secretary and the other judge! She had full-on helicopter tail, and was totally unphased by the woman who came up to her and loved on her, and didn’t even mind the HUGE white dog that “just loves little dogs.” (Although I did quickly remove her from that situation. Please, no matter how much your dog loves other dogs- please ask first. Mine isn’t always so happy to say hi.)

Our second goal for the weekend was for me: if, at any point, I felt that Maisy was stressing in the ring, I would immediately tell the judge I’d like to NQ in order to do a cookie run. Well, we met this goal, too.

While Maisy did a really good job managing the trial environment, it appears that her limit is about three hours, because that’s when her brain started to seep out of her head. During our first level 2 run, we were first in the ring (drat those short little legs!). This is always hard for us because there isn’t much time to warm up and get connected before we go in the ring, and because there’s a lot more chaos ringside right before we enter.

Just before we entered the ring, Maisy was very distracted by a German Shepherd, and although I thought I’d gotten her attention, I clearly hadn’t. When I took the first step of heeling, she ran off toward the corner where the dog was. She came back immediately when I called, and quite honestly, I could have salvaged the run if I’d wanted to.

Instead, though, I looked at the judge, and told her that I was going to NQ ourselves so that we could do a cookie run. I treated her liberally throughout the course. She did a lovely job, and just absolutely nailed her halt-side step right-halt and the moving down. They were just gorgeous. Her heeling was really nice, too. Now, granted, I got great performance in part because the rate of reinforcement was so high, but I do think we could still have scored in the high 190s or low 200s. It was worth taking the NQ so that I could reinforce working with me so well after bouncing back from a stressful event. Afterwards, the judge commented that I had probably made the right decisions since Maisy settled in so nicely.

I probably should have left after that, but we were in the middle of the running order for the second level 2 trial, and so I was hopeful that she could pull it together. (I admit, I was still sort of hoping for a QQ towards her ARCH, too.) We played look at that with the German Shepherd (whose handler was very gracious and helped us with that. I didn’t get a chance to thank her, so on the off chance she’s reading- thanks!).

As we headed up for our turn, I could tell that Maisy wasn’t focused at all. I told the judge that Maisy wasn’t going to be able to do it, and that I’d like to go in and do one really sign really well. She said that was fine with her, so I did the first sign, and I swear to you, she was so focused and did such a nice job that it was very tempting to complete the course. But I followed through on what I said I was going to do, and ended the trial on what I felt was a very high note.

I could not be more proud of my dog. Not only is she more focused at trials, but she’s more relaxed, too. She actually took a nap, you guys! She’s never done that before. She also bounced back from her reactive moments really quickly, and was willing and eager to work. I am very pleased that we’ve built up the level of working relationship that we have, and I’m grateful to see so much improvement.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

In Praise of the Abnormal Dog

During the first year after I learned that Maisy was reactive, I wished for a miracle. I wished she could be normal. Having a reactive dog can be exhausting, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve enviously looked at the calm dog sitting at his owner’s feet, both of them completely relaxed in the face of the scary, scary world.

When no miracle occurred, I spent the second year badgering every trainer I could find, wanting to know if it’s possible for a reactive dog to become normal, and if so, asking them to look at Maisy and then tell me when, exactly, I could expect it to happen, and if not, how close to normal she might get.

Now, two years into dietary supplements and chiropractic care and counter-conditioning and specialized training classes, I’ve accepted that no, this is not a dog who will ever be normal. Don’t get me wrong- she’s come a very long way, and I have no reason to doubt that she won’t continue to improve, but normal? Not likely.

And you know what? I’m okay with that. No, wait, I’m glad for that. That might sound odd, but it seems like what people consider “normal” for dogs falls in two groups: the kind of dog that pretty much everyone has, and the kind that pretty much everyone wants.

The first group of dogs are the average dogs who belong to the average owner. You know, the good but under-trained dogs that pull on the leash, fail to come when called, and that regularly “blow off” their owner’s commands. They might have a bad habit or two- nothing serious or dangerous, but something simply annoying instead, like chewing on shoes or stealing food off the counter. These dogs could be great with a bit of training, but are just fine without.

I could never have one of these dogs. Plain and simple, I’m a training junkie, and I’ll always have a well-trained dog simply because I enjoy the process so much. My dog might make an error or two, but she’s good enough that most people are impressed by her.

Then there’s the other category- the kind of dog everyone wants, the “perfect” dog. These are the dogs that are described as loving everyone- children, dogs, men, cats, whatever- but they aren’t over-the-top about it. They are perfectly content to lie around the house with you, and while they’re willing to go for a walk or fetch a ball, they won’t pester you when you’re not in the mood. They do everything you tell them, and do nothing they shouldn’t.

In theory, I should want that dog, but honestly, it sounds kind of boring. Look, I get that my dog isn’t perfect. I get that she’s kind of quirky, and even sort of a pain in the butt sometimes. But I love her anyway, and not in spite of her faults… because of them.

They might seem awesome, but those “perfect” dogs seem kind of robotic to me. I love that Maisy has a mind of her own, even though she might be smarter than me. She’s definitely the better trainer between the two of us, anyway- she’s a master at getting me to do her bidding. But I love that she knows what she wants, and that she can find ways to communicate that to me. Thinking dogs might get into mischief from time to time, and they might embarrass you at the worst possible moment, but they’re also super-fun to train. I never know what kind of crazy behavior Maisy’s going to offer me next, and I swear, I probably have the only dog in the world that can pivot on a perch while simultaneously play-bowing.

Having a reactive dog isn’t always easy, it’s true. Sometimes her brain falls out of her head and she acts poorly. Sometimes we lose points in competition, sometimes we NQ, and sometimes she’s so stressed at trials that I have to scratch a run entirely. But she tries so hard for me! She gives me everything she’s got, even if it’s not much. When it comes right down to it, if she never wins another ribbon, it won’t matter.

You see, her reactivity has challenged me to become a better dog trainer. It has forced me to learn more, both theoretically and practically. It’s forced me to seek out better trainers to work with, which has, in turn, provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve joined clubs and met people and made awesome new friends. It has also challenged me to think more critically about my training methods, and has brought me to a truly dog-friendly way of living. The end result has been a better relationship with my dog, one built upon mutual respect and love.

Her flaws might make me cry, but her strengths make me laugh. She’s a funny little dog, and has brought so much joy into my life. She celebrates with me when I’m happy and she licks my tears away when I’m sad. She’s taught me to slow down and smell… well, we’ve agreed to smell different things, but she’s taught me to enjoy every moment we have together. Simply put, she’s made my life so much better just by being who she is. I’m glad she’s not normal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What does your dog like?

Let’s do something different today. Grab a pen and a piece of paper, and list as many things as you can think of that your dog likes.

Why am I asking you to do this? Well, lately, I’ve been nursing a personal theory that the more things that you can list, the easier it will be for you to train your dog. I believe this is the case regardless of what training methods you use, but if you train primarily with positive reinforcement like I do, it’s vital that you know what motivates your dog.

In addition to having a large number of go-to rewards, you need to identify a wide variety of reinforcers, too. After all, one of the great criticisms of clicker training is that you won’t always have food treats available. Beyond that, in every discussion of clicker training, someone always says their dog isn’t motivated by food. Discussions of fading lures and intermittent reward schedules and finding good enough treats aside, I have to wonder if people aren’t missing the point. Food may be convenient for training, but it isn’t the only option. Granted, it’s a bit more complicated to use non-food rewards, but it can (and should) be done!

So today, let’s take that list of things our dogs like, and double them. (Why, yes, I am ambitious, thank you very much.) Because I like structure, let’s make three categories: food treats, interactive games and praise, and environmental rewards. Taking your initial list from above, fit each item into the appropriate slot.

Food Treats
If you’re like me, this is the easiest category to fill in. During my initial list-making, I had 13 separate foods, and that was without breaking “dog treats” down into the various brands and flavors I buy! I do think it’s important to list out all those things- some treats are obviously much tastier than others- but for the purposes of this exercise, I was willing to lump them all together.

Where I really wanted to expand my food horizons, though, was by looking at each entry, and seeing if there were any related but different things. By doing so, “chips” spawned two extra items: popcorn and crackers. I had listed watermelon, and realized that Maisy likes other fruits, too, like apples and strawberries. I was able to do the same thing with vegetables. And, as proof that my mind works in strange ways, the entry “cheese” reminded me that Maisy also likes yogurt, ice cream, peanut butter, and baby food.

As you can see, I’m not afraid to use “people food” as a reward. In fact, I recently took a package of potato chips with me to a training session where I knew we were going to work on an especially difficult task. I wanted the payout to be equal to the effort, after all. As long as the food is safe, and as long as your dog isn’t obnoxious about begging for food, I see no problem with sharing my stuff.

Interactive Games and Praise
Interactions with people is also very reinforcing for many dogs. I initially had seven items on my list, and some of these things were obvious: Maisy loves going for walks, playing ball, and being allowed to meet new people. Expanding the list was a little harder than it was for the first one, though. However, once I quit thinking about what I use as training rewards, and simply considered what we do together, I was able to almost triple my list.

I started by thinking about our daily routine. What do we do together that she enjoys? Well, we like to play ball, and that was on my initial list, so I started to think about similar activities. She also likes to chase her stuffed toys, and even tug on them sometimes. Speaking of chasing, she likes to chase me, and while I’m thinking of it, running in general seems to be pretty fun for her. And, while we’re talking about play, I have to admit that we have a “bitey face” game that she just adores.

I also wake up with her in my arms almost every morning, so I know that she likes sleeping in bed with me. It also reminded me that, while she can be a bit sensitive about touch, she does enjoy the occasional belly rub, and she loves when I do TTouch on her ears.

Environmental Rewards
This last category is maybe the hardest, simply because we work so hard to limit our dogs’ access to the environment. We teach them not to sniff while we’re walking, we get upset if they roll in dead stuff, and digging in our gardens or eating out of the trash? Don’t even mention it! But our dogs like those things, so regardless of whether they are acceptable behaviors or not, it’s worth thinking about.

I had five entries in this category initially, and was able to increase it quite a bit. Think about what your dog does when you aren’t actively engaged with her. Maisy loves to play with our cat, Malcolm (and thankfully, he loves to play back).

(Hilarious picture aside, check out this video.)

Similarly, think about which behaviors your dog exhibits that you actively work to stop. Do you have a chewer? A barker? A digger? I have my house set up so that Maisy can’t reach the litter boxes. Disgusting as it is, eating poop ranks high on her list of likes.

Consider your dog’s instincts, too. Maisy is a Corgi mix, which means chasing chickens and critters is high on her list of enjoyable activities. Labs tend to enjoy swimming, and Beagles are probably going to enjoy sniffing quite a bit. Of course, you will need to evaluate whether a particular breed tendency is true for your dog, but it will give you a good starting point.

Okay, look at your list again. Have you doubled it? Mine went from 25 items to 54 (and I've thought of several more while writing this post), which means I have effectively doubled my ability to train Maisy. Naturally, some of the things we listed will be more practical for training rewards than others, but don’t worry about that for now. Just spend some time learning what your dog finds reinforcing. We’ll figure out if- and how- we can use those things later.

Alright, I'm ready: tell me a couple of things your dog likes from each category!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 2: Melatonin and L-theanine

This is part of an ongoing series on supplements recommended on the internet for reactive dogs. I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet.

In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

What is it? How does it work?
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone. Since levels of melatonin fluctuate in the body throughout the day, it is often used to help treat mild insomnia and jet lag in humans, though it is also being studied for a wide variety of applications, including migraines, seasonal affective disorder, and cancer.

In dogs, it is used to treat seizure disorders, separation anxiety, and noise phobia.

What are the risks of using it?
Melatonin has very few side effects with short term use; studies for long-term use have not yet been completed. The most common side effects in humans include nausea, irritability and vivid dreams. It may interact with other medications, so consult with your vet.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Melatonin is available as 1mg and 3mg tablets. Dosing recommendations on the internet vary widely, so consult with your vet prior to use.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
Although a lot of websites reference “research studies,” I was unable to dig any up. Perhaps someone with better google-fu than I can find some. Mary Straus says that it is effective in treating thunder phobia in 80% of dogs.

In the meantime, read the above links, or check out this site.

L-Theanine, also called Anxitane
What is it? How does it work?
L-Theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves, and is used to reduce mental and physical stress. It raises dopamine levels, and is believed to raise serotonin levels, although studies are showing mixed results on the latter. It is also being studied to determine its ability to promote greater concentration and alertness, especially when taken in combination with caffeine.

What are the risks of using it?
At this time, there are very few known risks to using L-Theanine, with no known drug interactions.

Availability and dosing considerations.
L-Theanine is available as Anxitane in 50mg or 100mg tablets, and should be used for at least 60 days. It is marketed as being especially helpful for dogs with fear-related behaviors, especially in the presence of other dogs or people, and their studies have found at 60% reduction in the intensity of anxiety symptoms.

It is also sold in combination products such as Composure, Pet Naturals Calming Chews, and BioCalm.The amount of l-theanine in these products varies widely.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
The materials on the Anxitane website linked above mentions animal specific studies on the efficacy of l-theanine. Also,this study, done on humans, found that l-theanine reduced heart rates during stressful events. This page summarizes a study on humans which found l-theanine promoted relaxation without causing drowsiness. It also summarizes a small study which found that the use of l-theanine suppressed aggressive behavior.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Performance Dog Conditioning Class- Session 3

Monday was the third (of three) session of the conditioning class that Maisy and I have been attending. At this point, if you have been following the program, your dog should be fit, or close to it. If not, don’t worry- all dogs progress at different rates. Keep working on the exercises they struggle with until they’ve built up the necessary strength to do them with ease. Once your dog is fit, you have two options: you can either choose to maintain the level of fitness they’ve obtained, or you can work on further improving their abilities.

Maintenance exercises should be done about twice a week, and the exercises you do should be tailored to your dog’s needs. For example, since Maisy’s major weakness lies in her shoulders, we will do more exercises to work on maintaining and improving the strength in her front end. She also has a long back, so I’ll pay attention to exercises that target the core muscles. However, there are four main exercises that will benefit all dogs, no matter what their specific needs are. They are:

Stairs. If you do nothing else, this would be the exercise to do! It was first introduced during session 1. Since this exercise works both the rear and the front, it is an excellent way to maintain strength and range of motion. Continue to do five round trips on the stairs about twice a week, and definitely no more than three times a week. For the short leggers, you can walk up and down a hill (or secure a wide plank to your stairs) to simulate the same activity.

Side-line Sit-ups. Also introduced in session 1, this exercise will help your dog maintain her core muscles. Do 10 to 15 reps per side, twice a week. You can probably squeak by doing these only once a week if your dog gets a lot of aerobic exercise.

Down to Stand. Introduced in session 2, this exercise works the rear, front and helps your dog maintain her balance, so it’s a great maintenance exercise. Do 10-15 reps per leg, twice a week.

Aerobic Exercise. Your dog should get 20-30 minutes of sustained aerobic exercise at least three times a week. Going to agility class doesn’t count- while aerobic, the exercise is generally in short bursts. We’re looking for sustained activity.

Going Further: Ball Work
If you want to improve your dog’s fitness even more, our instructor recommended doing ball work. Although she doesn’t believe it will get your dog completely fit in and of itself, she does think it’s a great way to keep building on the exercises already introduced.

Our instructor said that if we are interested in ball work, the best thing to do is get the video Get on the Ball by Debbie Gross Saunders. Since working on the ball is very high intensity, she said it’s far better to do the program in the video instead of trying to do it on our own.

We discussed which type of ball would be best for each dog. In general, she prefers the peanut shaped balls because they provide a bit more stability, and have a bit more surface area for the dog to stand on. Size wise, she recommended that we get a size about four inches taller than our dog, although it’s more important that you be able to hold and control the ball. In the early stages, especially, you’ll need to be able to hold the ball still so as to control the level of difficulty for the dog.

She also showed us how shifting the ball slightly caused the dog’s muscles to contract, and cautioned us to keep the sessions very short at first, probably no more than two to three minutes. When the only short-haired dog in the class got up on the ball, you could see every single one of his muscles pop out. I can see how that would leave a dog very sore if you worked on the ball for too long.

All in all, it was a great class. I am very glad I got a chance to learn from someone with so much experience. It really gave me a new appreciation for the stresses we put our dogs’ bodies through, and how important it is to physically prepare them for the demands dog sports require. I know that I will be much more cautious about what I ask Maisy to do in the future, and work hard to condition her so I can prevent injuries.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

She's on the ball!

Long time readers of this blog know that Maisy is generally a fearful dog. She always has been, ever since puppyhood. In fact, if I were to try to make a list of all the things that have scared Maisy at one point or another, I wouldn’t have room in this post to discuss anything else. So, let’s talk about just one of her feared items: exercise balls.

I purchased an exercise ball many years ago, and like most of my exercise equipment, I only use it intermittently. I used it much less after Maisy joined my life, largely because I had been previously unaware that instead of purchasing an exercise ball, I had mistakenly gotten a Large Dog-Eating Sphere of Doom.

I’m only exaggerating slightly.

Maisy did not care for the exercise ball, and would bark and growl at it… from the safe distance of three or four feet away. If it happened to move, she would run, terrified, from the room.

Over the past year, though, Maisy has become much braver. My trainer says this is because she trusts me so much, and it’s true- I’ve worked hard to build that kind of relationship with Maisy. Although I’ve made mistakes, I think that Maisy understands I will never force her to do anything she can’t handle. At least not on purpose.

But I’ve also worked hard to pair scary things with treats. Depending on the level of scariness, I will click and treat Maisy for doing anything from looking at a feared object, to walking near the object, to touching the object, to interacting with it in some way. In fact, it was just this process that helped her get over her fear of the exercise ball to the point that she could push it across the room.

All of which is a rambly preamble to the fact that Maisy STOOD ON A FREAKING BALL in our conditioning class on Monday!!

Here’s what happened: we were talking about using an exercise ball to increase a dog’s fitness level (and yes, I’ll post more about the class soon), and the instructor had each of us put our dogs on the ball just so we could get the feel of it. When it was my turn, I told her that in addition to being nervous about exercise balls, Maisy is pretty fearful of things moving under her feet in general. I said I was willing to try the exercise, but that I wanted to let Maisy interact with the ball first. I also told her that if Maisy didn’t want to stay on the ball, she didn’t have to.

The instructor readily agreed that we didn’t want to push her beyond her ability to cope, so I cued Maisy to go “push it,” and she did, no problem. In fact, she pushed it a good five feet across the room, which amused everyone, and told me that Maisy was just fine with this ball, even if it was larger, shaped oddly and an entirely new color than the one we’ve worked with at home. While the instructor held the ball very steady, I put Maisy on the ball, feeding her treats as fast as I could.

Maisy wasn’t exactly comfortable, but she wasn’t really uncomfortable, either. There were no red flags in her body language, and she took the treats without any “shark teeth”- one of the easiest ways for me to gauge Maisy’s stress level. Better yet, she didn’t struggle, and she didn’t try to get off the ball! She just stood there, eating the treats, not quite sure why I felt she needed to stand on this large ball, but willing to go along with it for tasty, tasty salmon treats.

This was something that I never, ever thought Maisy would be able to do. In fact, when I went home and told my husband about how very brave and awesome our dog is, I had to explain that yes, she actually stood on the ball three different ways for him to understand. He simply couldn’t believe she would voluntarily stand on an exercise ball! In fact, if I hadn't insisted on doing it again so I could obtain photographic evidence, I'm not sure I would have believed it either. And I was there.

Update, 9:30PM
My husband, who took the photos for this post, wanted to know why I was picking Maisy up to put her on the ball instead of asking her to jump. I said I probably could shape her to do that. It took less than 10 clicks and one judicious jackpot, and she was jumping on and off that thing like she'd done it her whole life.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs: Tryptophan and 5-HTP

This is part of an ongoing series on supplements recommended on the internet for reactive dogs. I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet.

In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

Tryptophan, sold as Nutricalm
What is it? How does it work?
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means that the body cannot make it on its own. It must be ingested. In the body, it is converted into 5-HTP, then into serotonin, (which can be converted into melatonin), and as such, is typically used as a sleep aid, or to treat seasonal affective disorder or depression.

In animals, it is used to decrease aggression and impulsivity, to stabilize moods and as an adjunct to treating compulsive disorders.

What are the risks of using it?
Tryptophan was banned in the US for many years after it was linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) in 1989, which resulted in 37 deaths and caused 1,500 people to be permanently disabled. It is commonly believed this was the result of an impure batch, but some people believe that the tryptophan caused the production of metabolites which resulted in excess histamine levels in the body.

More typical side effects include vomiting and diarrhea, but may interact with certain drugs, so check with your veterinarian before use.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Tryptophan is naturally occurring in many foods, especially proteins. It is especially plentiful in red meats, dairy products, certain seeds, eggs, and oddly enough, oats. It can also be purchased as L-tryptophan in health food stores. It is marketed for animals under the brand name Nutricalm, with capsules of 75mg and 150mg readily available.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
Tufts University did a study which found that 10mgs per kilo, given twice a day, significantly reduced “territorial and dominance aggression.”

To learn more about tryptophan, read any of the above links, as well as this article.

What is it? How does it work?
5-HTP, short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a metabolite of tryptophan, and is ultimately converted into serotonin by the liver. Like tryptophan, it is used to treat canine aggression, and compulsive disorders, reduce impulsivity, and to stabilize moods.

What are the risks of using it?
The most common side effect is diarrhea.

Since 5-HTP is converted into serotonin by the liver, it results in a high blood serotonin level, which has been implicated in heart valve disease. Although it is similar to tryptophan, it does not get diverted into other processes (excess tryptophan can be converted into niacin, too). This means that excess 5-HTP may result in serotonin syndrome, which can be deadly. Apparently, this is more common in dogs than in humans.

Availability and dosing considerations.
Although it is not found in food, 5-HTP can be made by the body if it has sufficient tryptophan. It can purchased in capsules of 50mg or 100mg.

Are there any scientific studies supporting its use in canines?
The Tufts studies found that 1 mg per pound, twice a day, resulted in a reduction in canine aggression.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Supplements for Reactive Dogs: Introduction

While I am a person who is interested in alternative medicine, I am also deeply skeptical. I am open to the possibility that things other than Western medicine (vitamins, homeopathy, acupuncture, herbs, etc.) can be beneficial, but as a “thinker,” I need proof. Personal anecdotes and recommendations are useful, but I don’t like to use anything without understanding how or why it works, and I have a strong preference for scientific studies.

Since I’m willing to do everything possible to help my reactive dog, when I started to read about the various supplements others give their dogs, I wanted to know more. What supplements are commonly used with reactive dogs? Which are the most useful? Are there any side-effects I should be aware of? The problem I quickly ran into was that there weren’t any comprehensive sources of information. I couldn’t even find a list!

So I made one. I combed through years of email list archives to create a list over a dozen different supplements that people claimed helped their dogs. Then I started to read about what each supplement was, how it worked, and looked for the research to back it up.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing what I learned. Some of the supplements I’ll be discussing include tryptophan, 5-HTP, melatonin, l-theanine, flower essences, pheromones, vitamins, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and homeopathic remedies. If you have any burning questions about a particular supplement, let me know and I’ll try to include it. Conversely, if you’ve tried any of them, I’d love to hear about it!

This series will cover primarily supplements. This is because of the fact that prescription meds will need to be prescribed by a vet. If you think your dog would benefit from prescription medication, you will hopefully see a vet who is well versed in behavior. Still, if you’re interested in learning more about the different prescription medications used in behavior modification with dogs, I’d recommend checking out Mary Straus’ site, where she has posted an excellent guide to these various meds.

And of course, the disclaimer: I am not a vet, nor have I personally tried most of these supplements with my dog, which means that I cannot tell you if you should or shouldn’t use them with your own. I’m also a lazy researcher, and used Wikipedia for my starting point. Google filled in the rest, and while I think I’m pretty good at separating the good sites from the propaganda, I cannot verify the accuracy of their claims. If you want to use a supplement with your dog, do your own research, and consult with your vet. In other words: Use this information at your own risk.

Edit February 2015: Why I Chose Medication Instead of Supplements 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Supplementing the Dog

In my entry on what I feed Maisy, I mentioned that I give her a “supplement cocktail.” Because I’m a completionist, I simply could not let that go without further explanation! So, today I’m going to tell you about the supplements I give Maisy. All of them have been discussed and/or recommended by Maisy’s vet, Dr. Cara White.

Every morning, I mix up a cocktail for Maisy. Because I use a number of things, and because some are powders, others are liquids, and there is the occasional capsule, I use a scoop of canned cat food as the base for mixing it all together. (Thankfully, my cat Malcolm is willing to share.) Her supplements include:

Animal Essentials Plant Enzymes and Probiotics- This is a powder, and I give 1/4 teaspoon daily to aid in digestive health. My vet started her on it because Maisy was on a less-than-ideal prescription food at the time, and she wanted something to help Maisy “de-tox” from the icky stuff in that food. I have continued using it because stress can disrupt digestion, and Maisy had relatively regular bouts of loose stools. Since starting this product, she’s done very well, digestively speaking.

Animal Essentials Omega 3 Plus- This is a liquid supplement, and I squirt approximately 1/4 teaspoon daily into her supplement mix. It’s the only one I don’t measure exactly. This product includes both animal and plant based essential fatty acids, which are more complete than using just one or the other. Omega 3s are helpful for allergy symptoms, and generally help improve the skin and coat, which is why it was prescribed for Maisy.

A custom mix of five different Bach Flower Remedies: Vervain, Aspen, Mimulus, Chestnut Bud, and Rock Water. Maisy’s vet does a lot of homeopathy, and although I remain skeptical, it is hard to deny that some of it seems to help. After beginning this mix, Maisy’s reactivity did reduce. Was it due to training? A reduction in pain or allergy symptoms? Or did the flower remedy help? I have no idea. I do know that the Bach Rescue Remedy helps me a lot when I feel stressed, so I’m not willing to dismiss it entirely. Maisy receives 4 drops daily.

Ruta 30C- Another homeopathic remedy, this one prescribed specifically for Maisy’s occasional muscle twitches/spasms. She receives 3 drops daily.

Animal Apawthecary Tinkle Tonic- This liquid supplement is given daily, one week on and one week off. Maisy receives 0.5mL per dose. It contains a mixture of herbs designed to promote urinary health by disinfect, soothe and protect the urinary tract. Maisy’s vet recommended she take this product because of her recurrent UTIs.

Solid Gold Berry Balance- Another product recommended due to Maisy’s recurring UTIs, this is a powder that is given three times a week, 1/4 teaspoon per dose. It helps balance urinary pH and flushes bacteria from the bladder.

Maisy also has a few occasional or as needed supplements. Right now, she’s taking Standard Process Ligaplex II, one capsule twice a day. She’s been on it for a few weeks, and will be on it for a month or so longer. Her vet gave us this one because Maisy was very tender in the right shoulder, and the Ligaplex helps repair damaged connective tissue. I do think this one is working; she’s had far less stiffness on that leg since she started taking it.

Maisy receives Arnica, another homeopathic remedy, after her chiropractic adjustments and when needed for injuries. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, and it does seem to help Maisy’s adjustments “hold” better. I used it twice a day for several days after she was attacked by that off-leash dog.

Maisy also receives two things when we are going into stressful situations such as trials. The first is Rescue Remedy. I have no idea if it helps Maisy, but as I mentioned earlier, it really helps me feel calmer at trials, and it’s marketed for pets as well, so we both take it. She gets four drops on a treat.

The other is Comfort Zone Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP), which I buy in a spray form and then apply to her collar, my pants leg (on the heel side), and her mat or crate pad. I do think this one helps; Sara shared some with us at a trial last year when she saw that Maisy was really wound up. After using the DAP, she was able to calm down, focus, and go on to win high scoring mixed breed that day.

Whew! Who knew she received that many things? So… what do you guys use for supplements, and why? Did your vet recommend them, or did you choose them yourself? I can’t wait to hear what you do.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Feeding the Dog

In the dog world, there are two things which will predictably provoke arguments: training methods and dog food. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing training on this blog, I haven’t really talked about what I feed my dog, so let’s do that today!

Maisy’s diet is kind of complicated. I feed a combination of kibble, pre-made/frozen raw, and whole/bone-in meats. Maisy also gets some fruits and veggies, both cooked/pureed and fresh, and of course, she has a supplement cocktail, too. So, not only is there a fair amount of variety, but I further complicate matters by keeping track of the rough amount of calories I’m feeding.

“Normal” people think this is excessive, but the truth is, I feed the way I do for a reason. I think the part that throws people the most is the calorie counting, but honestly, I think it’s the most important part. Argue all you want about the comparative benefits and risks of raw, kibble or home-cooked, but when it comes down to it, the best thing you can do for your dog is to keep her at a healthy weight. This is doubly true for performance dogs, as well as the long-backed among us. Both kinds are at risk of injuries, especially to their joints, and since Maisy has already had some back issues at the tender age of three, it is especially important that I keep her slim. And, at 17.2 pounds, she is on the slender side of normal. There is absolutely no excess fat on this dog, anywhere.

Okay, on to what I feed. The anecdotal evidence for raw food is pretty overwhelming, and in fact, my vet recommended that I consider switching to raw. My problem is that there are a lot of ideas of how to feed raw, with very little science to back up which way is best. This makes me hesitant to start with, but even more nerve-wracking for me is the idea of balancing the calcium to phosphorous levels, not to mention all of the other nutrients. As a result, I tend to favor the pre-made raw mixes that meet the AAFCO definitions of a “complete and balanced” food.

My favorite pre-made raw food is Primal. I chose it primarily because of the size and shape: it fits perfectly in a medium Kong, and Maisy gets one or two cubes every day for breakfast. She eats the duck variety, a flavor I picked for a couple of reasons. The most important consideration is that Maisy has food allergies to lamb and eggs (she’s also allergic to a whole host of environmental factors, ranging from grasses to wool to human dander, a fact I don’t believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before). Anyway, while many of the pre-made raw products include eggs, Primal doesn’t. It’s also one of their lower-calorie options, coming in at approximately 50 calories per ounce. And finally, it’s generally considered a “cooling” food in Chinese Medicine, and although I’m not entirely sure I believe in that, people I respect do, and since all of Maisy’s issues (physical and reactivity-wise) are ones that would be blamed on a heat imbalance, I’m willing to try it. Even if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t hurt, either.

For supper, she gets kibble in a food toy. I probably wouldn’t feed kibble at all, but Maisy loves the toys, and they provide her with valuable mental stimulation, so we keep them. Most of the time, she gets Taste of the Wild- Pacific Stream, which is a grain-free, fish based kibble. Maisy loves fish, and it’s generally considered a cooling food. Depending on what else she ate that day (including number of treats, and whether or not she asked for extra at breakfast), she’ll either get one-third of a cup (120 calories) or one-half of a cup (180 calories). Sometimes, though, I’ll give her Wellness CORE: Ocean instead. This product is also a fish-based, grain-free kibble. It has more calories, so she only gets one-third of a cup, for 150 calories.

I also add in some fresh foods. Although this isn’t “complete and balanced,” Monica Segal says you can replace up to one-fourth or so of your dog’s daily calories with other foods without unbalancing the diet. This includes treats, of course, but I use such small treats that it doesn’t make up that much of Maisy’s diet.

Once or twice a week, I’ll give her some raw meat, usually chicken quarters because I can pick them up cheap. I usually remove about half of the skin and any excess fat, plus I usually cut the quarters into three, with the goal being a 3-4 ounce portion. I do feed it bone-in, and although that was scary at first, she’s had no problems crunching through, and honestly, it’s kind of cool to watch her use her teeth the way nature intended. Sometimes she’ll get a bit of extra beef or turkey instead- whatever I’m eating that night.

Whenever I have leftover veggies, or just veggies I need to get rid of before they go bad, I’ll cook and puree them, then put them in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, they fit well in the Kong, and at 10-15 calories, make a perfect snack on the days she asks for more food. I’ve also done this with canned pumpkin and even ground turkey.

And that’s what I feed my dog. I don’t know that it’s the “perfect” diet, but I’m very comfortable with what she’s eating. I feel like she’s getting a nice variety of foods, and I don’t worry about there being a possible imbalance of nutrients like I used to. Best of all, Maisy loves everything she gets, and she’s very healthy right now. And really, what more could a girl want?

Anyway, I’d love to hear about what you’re feeding your dogs. Do you feed a “complicated” diet, or do you trend towards something simpler? And why do you choose what you do? Let me know!