Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A-Hiking We Will Go!

My friend Laura and I are going on an epic hiking trip in May. Apparently, we’re all going to die. As if that weren’t bad enough, I’ve been informed that you need Very Special Supplies when you go to Hell (what, you thought I was going to Heaven? Have we met?), and so off we went to the Hiking-Boot-and-Assorted-Other-Supplies-Half-of-Which-I-Had-No-Idea-Even-Existed Store.

The store we went to, Midwest Mountaineering (which is awesome and employs some very cute staff, just sayin’), is dog-friendly, and since we went right after a dog training class in which Maisy was the neutral dog (a brag in and of itself!), she went shopping with us. We spent around two hours in the store- hey, it takes a long time to find the right boots (and ogle the aforementioned cute employees)!

Maisy was a rock star, not that it surprised me in the least. She barked precisely once, when she saw someone hoisting a huge pack on their back, but other than that, she had a great time. She was a huge flirt, circle-wagging at everyone that walked past. Seriously, she was ridiculous. She was even ambused by a woman who found her adorable; Maisy wasn’t thrilled by this, but she didn’t look put-out, either.

In short? She acted like a normal dog. That is SO weird to me, even if it has become, well, normal. It’s pretty awesome to have a dog that you can take places without worrying about her the whole time, or being embarrassed by her. This has been a long, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes exhilarating journey, and every moment has been worth it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Moving with a Reactive Dog

It's generally accepted that reactive dogs like routine. When they can predict what is going to happen, they relax a bit, knowing they don't need to be on alert for Scary Things Happening. As a result, many reactive dogs seem to have trouble with change. Even something as simple as rearranging the furniture can throw them into barking and growling fits. So when it became clear that Maisy and I were going to move, I was pretty apprehensive. Yes, she had been doing great, but I was concerned about behavioral regression.

When I first started looking for advice on moving with reactive dogs, I couldn't find much. There wasn't even much out there on moving with dogs, period! So today, I'm going to share a little bit about what it was like for Maisy and I. Hopefully this will be useful to someone!

Finding the Right Place
For most of her life, Maisy lived in a single family home in a relatively quiet neighborhood with a fenced yard. That all changed last summer when my ex-husband and I separated. Moving from two incomes to one (and with that one being a social worker's salary) meant that we were going to have to move to some kind of shared housing situation.

After thinking about Maisy's triggers, I knew that the hardest part for her would be the noises coming from other people's homes. She's always found random banging and pounding noises unsettling, and back before she was on medication, she would even react to car doors slamming outside. After consulting with her veterinary behaviorist, I ruled out traditional apartment settings and began looking for a duplex.

I wanted an upper level duplex, figuring that would minimize the noise. In retrospect, I think this was a good choice; we don't hear footsteps or things dropping above us. However, we do still hear noise. The people downstairs have several children, including a girl with autism who has occasional screaming fits. Surprisingly, this doesn't bother Maisy, and the great thing is that our neighbors will never complain if Maisy barks because they're so worried about me being bothered my their daughter.

I also knew that if I couldn't find a place with a private fenced yard, it would need to be in a safe neighborhood because there would be late-night potty walks happening. As it turns out, while we have a large yard in our new place, it's not fenced, and we have to share it with the kids downstairs, so I can't tie her out and leave her to do her business. Walking three times a day isn't bad most of the time, but on those sub-zero days, it's brutal. If I could do it all again, I would definitely have worked on teaching her to eliminate on cue!

Before We Moved
In addition to talking to Maisy's vet behaviorist, I also talked to the trainer we used to work with. Since she had moved from Minnesota to Boston with three dogs, including a reactive one, I figured she'd have some great advice. Once I found the right place, things moved fast, so I couldn't implement all of her suggestions, but I'll share them anyway.

Once you know where you'll be moving, introduce the new routine, or at least as much as you can predict what life will be like. Maisy isn't crated regularly when I'm gone but I knew I would want to use her crate more in the early days, so I needed to refresh her crate training. She was used to eliminating off-leash in a yard, so she needed to get used to all potty needs happening on walks while closely supervised.

I couldn't take Maisy to see the new place in advance, but I did take her over to the new neighborhood. I showed her the new house and yard, and we walked around nearby. I'm not sure it mattered, but I was hoping that she'd feel a little more comfortable with her surroundings if she'd seen them before.

Maisy already had an as-needed, short-acting anxiety drug that I knew worked for her, and I made sure I had plenty on hand. I also discussed the weaning protocol with her vet behaviorist in case we needed to use it regularly for awhile. If you don't have one, I highly recommend discussing it with your vet and doing a trial run. Maisy had previously had a pretty bad reaction to a different as-needed med, and it would suck if that had happened during our move. We did end up using medication fairly regularly for the first week, and then intermittently for about a month after that.

One final word of wisdom: Know where your dog's stuff is packed. Leashes, poop bags, food, toys, and any comfort items your dog might need/want will be needed right away. It took me forever to find her Kongs the day we moved. She eats out of them almost exclusively, it was important to me that I kept her routine as normal as possible for awhile after we moved.

The Big Day
If at all possible, have your dog out of the house while you pack and move. Trust me on this. I am fortunate enough to have a boarding kennel that I trust and that Maisy loves, but I didn't think of sending her there until after we'd already moved. Even staying with a friend would have been better.

Despite having lots of friends help me move, it still took two trips. I gave her an anti-anxiety med, and then Maisy stayed in the old place during the first trip. She drove over with me on the second trip, but stayed in the car until things were settled. This took awhile, but thankfully she's comfortable in her car crate. Once things were as settled as they were going to get, I brought her up to see the new place. She seemed confused, but explored. (My cat, on the other hand, hid for the first three days. Poor Nicky.)

The First Days
My main goal was to keep things as normal as possible during this time. Meal times were the same. Potty times were the same, even if they were on leash now. We played and trained and hiked and did as many of our old activities as possible.

I did two things to help Maisy adjust to the new noises of shared living. First, I used white noise to help block out what I could. I found that a box fan on high near the front door went a long way for this. And second, I set up her Manners Minder (remote-controlled treat dispenser), and dispensed a piece of kibble every time I heard a noise, regardless of whether or not she alerted to it.

And Beyond
Maisy adjusted pretty quickly. She started running for our door when we got out of the car. She learned to reorient through doorways and wait for me before we left the apartment instead of just running out the door like she did in the old place. We began meeting neighbors- canine and human alike.

Although the initial transition was difficult, Maisy has since adapted well to her new home. Better yet, she really seems to have blossomed. Her veterinary behaviorist is amazed at how well she's doing these days. Life is harder in ways now- I don't have anyone to let her out if I'm running late from work- but I am happier, too. I think that's part of her great improvement.

If you're moving soon- good luck! I hope something here is helpful. If you have moved with a reactive dog, what worked for you? Please share your ideas so others can benefit from your experience!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Minnesota Nosework, or K9 Snows-work

Step 1: Toss a handful a kibble in the snow.

Step 2: Let your dog find said kibble.

Step 3: Laugh at your dog's snowy face.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Coming Soon to a Target Near You!

One December afternoon, after having left work early because I felt sick, my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but answered it out of curiosity.

“Crystal? Barbara O'Brien calling. Would Maisy be available for a modeling job for Target next week?”

Let's just all admire my self control for a moment. Instead of screaming in her ear, I simply requested the details. (I screamed and jumped around after I hung up. Then I called everyone I knew. Then I screamed a little more. Maisy was confused.)

The next week at the appointed time, I drove across town to the studio where the photo shoot was happening. The receptionist directed us to a small waiting room. Maisy and I checked in, she had her measurements taken (“In case we want you for Halloween costumes,” I was told), and then we sat around for about 20 minutes. There were four other dogs in the room with us. One barked almost non-stop, and the other was pretty wild and excited. Maisy handled it like a freaking pro. She sat there sweetly with a huge smile on her face, occasionally sitting up or offering a paw (and eating lots of cookies).

Then it was our turn! We were led out to a set by a woman who would be our helper for the day. (She actually had a fancy model-talk title, but I can't remember what it was. I also can't remember her name, which is too bad, because she was really nice.) The set was pretty intimidating. It was an area about the size of the waiting room, with a white backdrop and white floor. One one side, there was a huge bank of lights and those reflective things that they bounce light off. On the other, there were props. Across from the backdrop, there was a large camera on a tripod hooked up to a computer (just like on America's Next Top Model, not that I'll admit to having watched that!). One person ran the camera, and one person watched the computer and gave the photographer feedback.

I had the choice of handling Maisy myself, or the woman could. Of course, I did most of it, but she helped, too. The job was actually pretty tough. They needed Maisy to stand or lie in very particular positions. Her legs and feet needed to be in certain places, her tail lying just so, her head turned the correct amount, her ears (well, ear) needed to be up and forward, and her mouth either open or closed, depending on what they requested. I have not trained Maisy to do most of those things, but the woman helping us had it under control. She used treat bags and toys to get Maisy's attention directed in the right place, while I physically placed her feet or tail where I was directed.

Maisy ended up being a total rock star! In addition to all of the stuff (which was pretty intimidating), there was another set right next to ours with another dog working. There were all kinds of noises and flashes going off, but Maisy acted like she'd been doing it her whole life. She hit her mark and held it, all animated and flirty and adorable. It's like she was born to be a model. I was so danged impressed with her.

The art director must have been, too, because we ended up doing three sets. Barbara told me later that most dogs only do one or two. Maisy shot two different dog beds and a crate, and if her shots are chosen (it's possible none of her photos will be used; there were lots of dogs modeling the same items), you will get to see her on the packaging at your local store! If that happens, you can bet that I will find lots of excuses to go to Target.

I was so proud of my dog. I threw her into a crazy situation, asked her to do all kinds of very particular things, and she was all like, “I got this.” You would never have known that she ever had issues. In fact, when I told the woman helping us about Maisy's past reactivity, she didn't believe me. We were there for almost two hours, and the worst thing that happened was that she flinched the first couple of times the flash went off. I gave her some cookies, told her it was fine, and it was.

Several weeks later, Maisy got a paycheck in the mail. That was pretty awesome, although I'll admit I felt a bit jealous to learn that Maisy's hourly rate is over twice what I make! And I had to go to school and pass a licensing exam!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Thank You For Not Shaming Me

One of my private training students was recently recounting an incident in which her anxious, reactive dog left her side during agility class, ran over to another student who was holding her dog, and jumped up towards the dog, growling and snapping.

“I've never thought of him as aggressive before,” she told me, “but that scared me.” Then she said something that made my heart fall: “I'm thinking about using a shock collar the next time something like that happens.”

Long-time readers know that I am not a fan of hurting or scaring dogs in the name of training, especially in the name of a sport. There are good reasons for this, like the possibility of serious unintended consequences, but mostly I don't want to hurt my dog. I love her. Of course, my student loves her dog too, and so I kept my thoughts to myself and simply said, “Yeah? Tell me what you're thinking.”

We talked through the situation; what was happening before and after, what the class instructor said, that kind of thing. My student told me that she was scared that her dog might hurt someone else. She was angry, because she thought her dog was beyond that kind of behavior. And she was losing hope that she would ever be able to take her dog to agility trials. I empathized with her. I've felt all those things, too.

“Well,” I said, “I would be lying if I said that using corrections doesn't work. But your dog is already pretty anxious, and I'm concerned that if you were to use a shock collar on him, it would only increase his anxiety.”

She nodded. “Yeah. Our agility instructor was worried it might create a negative association with the obstacles, too.”

We talked a little longer about the idea, and I concluded by saying that while every person and dog is different, I don't think she needs to use a shock collar on her dog. He's trying so hard to be good, and there is a lot she could do increase the odds that they will be able to compete in agility together some day. Still, I told her, that decision is ultimately hers.

“Thank you for not shaming me.”

“Well,” I said, “It wouldn't have helped, would it?”

She laughed and said no. Then, more seriously, she shared that when she's suggested the idea to other positive trainers, they've reacted so negatively that it shut her down completely. Not only did that make her feel bad, but it also meant that she didn't get a chance to learn about why they felt it was a bad idea, or to learn other options.

That makes me sad, because I really believe that my job as a dog trainer (and for that matter, as a social worker, too) is to educate my clients about their options, share my recommendations, and then empower them to make their own decisions. Of course, I hope that they will follow my advice, but if they opt not to, I want to be able to refer them to a trainer who has the skills needed to minimize the risks inherent in the use of punishment.

Besides, I like people. I don't want to shame them- that's just mean. And if I wouldn't be mean to a dog, why would I do it to his owner?