Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review

 Pyg had his 1st birthday! Maisy celebrated her 7th gotcha day. And then got diagnosed with entropion and corneal dystrophy by an ophtalmologist.

 I got engaged, and then realized that meant I would soon have four dogs.

 Maisy re-grew her bladder stones. Napi joined the "cool dogs club" and started taking fluoxetine/Prozac.

 After a diet change, Maisy's re-grown bladder stones disappeared. Thankfully.

 My friend Megan lost her Buzz. Pyg and I went backpacking!

 We all moved in together.
Maisy got her first leg towards her RL3. Napi celebrated his combined birthday/gotcha day. Fenced yard!

 Lola turned 4! The second book in Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones' Dog Sports Skills series came out. I'm incredibly proud and honored to be apart of these books as the editor.

 Lola and Pyg failed the CGC in a most hilarious fashion. Maisy "graduated" from the ophthalmologist. We took all four dogs camping.

Maisy had her 8th birthday. We celebrated Pyg's 1st gotcha day.

 My friend Nicky lost Shanoa. I applied to grad school.
We increased Napi's fluoxetine/Prozac dose. Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones' Dog Sports Skills Book 3: Play finished the first round of edits. I got married.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Napoleon Updates: Class and Meds

Napi and I have now gone to three sessions of our "class" (actually just a couple friends and I renting a training space and each doing our own thing). Napi and my thing is to sit and eat treats while other people and dogs are in the same building. I'm really pleased with how he's doing, actually. The first time we did something like this, he wouldn't eat at all.

Here's a 3 minute video showing how Napi is doing. We are sitting right next to a half-height door, so he cannot see - but can hear - what's happening in the next room (my friend and her boxer working on personal play). About ten feet away to the left, there's a closed door to another room, where another friend and her two dogs were.

 Overall, I'm quite please with Napi so far. Obviously, we have tons of work left to do, but he's making nice progress.

On the medication front, since I cannot afford to take Napi to see Maisy's old veterinary behaviorist, I had our primary vet, Dr. Jessy, consult with Dr. Duxbury on the phone. This is an awesome (free) service. The result was a nice discussion of our options. The first thing we are going to do is increase Napi's Prozac dose. If that does not work, we are going to switch to either Paxil (Maisy's drug of choice) or possibly amitryptiline (which I know basically nothing about and am possibly spelling wrong; I think it's a tricyclic?). And depending on how that goes, we will experiment some more with trazodone, clonidine, and/or Xanax.

I really just want my poor boy to be more comfortable around the house. As it is, the noises that my other three dogs ignore (even Maisy, who used to bark at basically nothing) set him off in spasms of barking. It's annoying to listen to and undoubtedly painful for him to live like that.

I must have a thing for reactive dogs, because I'm just in love with this dog. He's so sweet, affectionate, and funny. If we can just get his anxiety under control, he'll be perfect.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

There Are No Magic Pills... But There Might Be Magic Thundershirts?

After my most recent post on Napoleon, my vet and I have been experimenting with as-needed, short-acting drugs to see if we could find something to help him calm down and relax around the house. We've experimented with different drugs and different doses and different frequencies and... well, let's just say that the amount of trazodone that will knock me out does nothing to him.

I tend forget about deep pressure type wraps since the time we tried a Thundershirt on Maisy was an epic disaster. As in, she got even more anxious. Still, Maisy dislikes being touched and Napi loves it, so yeah. Then I tried an anxiety wrap on him (ie, an ace bandage because I'm cheap and it was handy) and... OMG. He just curls up and goes to sleep. Oh, he still notices when our upstairs neighbor comes and goes, but the barking lasts for a shorter amount of time, and it's less intense. The hyper-vigilance is reduced, and it's just basically... well, magical.

But the magicalness of the pressure wrap really came home to me when I signed up to share the rental cost of a local training building with a few friends. I'm not really sure what they worked on, but Napi and I worked on not freaking out around other dogs and people. We started out in the lobby, behind barriers and slowly worked up to being in the same room with the others. Okay, they were mostly sitting still, and we were a good 40 feet away, but HE WAS LYING DOWN AND QUIET. Relaxed? No. Eating treats? Yes, which is better than the last time we tried to do something similar.

We're renting the training building for the next couple weeks, and while I was initially planning on taking a different dog each week, now I'm thinking it will be Napi-only. We have the potential to make a ton of progress, and I'm really excited to see how he does.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review: Natural Balance Delectable Delights Tender Cuts from Chewy.com

Okay gang, so when I do reviews, I say that we like the treats. Because, you know, we do. But I have dogs who will eat just about anything. Actually, Pyg really will eat anything. So the fact that we like the treats isn't saying much.

But these treats? The Natural Balance Delectable Delights? We loooooooove these. Well, the dogs think they are delicious, of course, and I think these are some of the nicest damn training treats of all time.

Okay, so these treats: in the middle, you can see how the treats are made. On the bottom, I have torn one of those pieces apart by hand. On the top, I cut them using a knife. And they are basically the same size. Those little pieces? About the size of half a Zukes. So- they're awesome for training small dogs. And they're a great consistency. They are this nice, dense, sticky treat that breaks apart with no crumbs. Seriously, none. They remind me a lot of the Natural Balance Food Rolls, actually, except they're easier to break up.

Also: USA made, good ingredients, etc. These are great treats. I will actually buy these. They are that awesome.

I received these treats for free, but I wasn't otherwise compensated for my review. My opinions are totally mine and real and stuff.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Canine PTSD: What Makes a Bad Experience Traumatic?

I’m currently reading the book The Body Keeps the Score: Body, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk. It is a fascinating, enlightening, and incredibly accessible book, so if you have any interest in the topic, I highly recommend it. The book is about humans, not dogs, but as most things do, the book makes me think of things canine-related. So, while my speculations are just that – and not fact – because dogs and humans have very similar brains in terms of structure, chemical reactions, and neuroplasticity, I feel comfortable trying to make some analogies.

Not a reactive dog. This blog just doesn't have enough Lola.

So, I’ve already posted about the idea that reactivity seems similar to PTSD in some ways, how treatment of PTSD tends to take a multi-pronged approach, and how that might inform our training strategies. But what makes something traumatic?

The truth is, we cannot save ourselves or our dogs from bad experiences. Bad things just happen, and they happen to everyone. What’s more, not all bad things have the same consequences. But why is that? Why are some people (and dogs) traumatized, while others bounce back just fine? The answer is undoubtedly multifactorial, and one of the most important predictors in whether or not a bad thing rises to the level of trauma is how the person/dog was able to physically react.

Brain science time: When we face a stressful event, our brain and body secretes stress hormones (like adrenaline) that serve to “fuel resistance or escape.” Your basic fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are basically pre-programmed to stop thinking and to run for safety; once there, those hormones can dissipate. After that happens, the fight-or-flight response turns off, and our rational brain turns back on, allowing us to understand that the threat is over.

Dr. van der Kolk argues that the ability to move, to do something is critical. Immobilization keeps the body in a “state of inescapable shock and learned helplessness.” The brain and body keep secreting hormones, and as a result, continues to react as though that threat is still present, even long after the situation has ended. Dr. van der Kolk says this is why, for example, 90% of sexual abuse survivors will develop PTSD – because they cannot escape the situation, and thus the fight-or-flight response continues to be activated.

Now, let’s think about our dogs’ lives. Part of responsible pet ownership in the United States includes leash laws, use of crates or x-pens, and other forms of restraint. And for the most part, I think these are good things. Heaven knows I don’t want an off-leash dog rushing my dogs! Of course, the problem is that when we do get rushed, my dogs can’t escape the danger. They’re immobilized, unable to recover, and PTSD can develop. (Well, assuming that the dog interpreted the oncoming dog as danger, of course. Half my dogs would welcome the playmate, and therefore not be traumatized!)

Because we humans control almost every single aspect of our dogs’ lives, the likelihood of PTSD/reactivity seems pretty high to me. Think about it: they have a reduced capacity to escape dogs or people during neighborhood walks. They can be aggravated by someone on the other side of their yard’s fence. They are unable to escape being poked and prodded at the vets. They can’t escape children poking their fingers through their crates. The more confined the dog feels, and the more dangerous/threatening the perceive the situation to be, the more likely it is that PTSD/reactivity will develop.

So. What can we do about it?

First and foremost, learn to read your dog’s body language. There are lots of great videos and books on the topic (I really like Sarah Kalnajs’ The Language of Dogs DVD). Learn what’s typical for dogs, and then learn what’s typical for your dog. Although most dogs will display similar body language, there are subtleties from dog to dog… and then there are the weirdos like my Napi, who eschews the play bow and does this weird “butt bump” thing instead.

Just as important, respond to your dog’s body language. It does no good to say, “Oh, yes, I see that Rex is scared,” but then force him into the situation anyway. Look, I get it, sometimes you really want to take him to the dog park or got to a training class or compete at that trial. But does he want to be there? And what are you risking by making him do it anyway?

Finally, offer your dog choices as often as you can. I’m not saying that he should rule the world – household rules and structure are necessary components to having a healthy and happy dog – but he shouldn’t be drug across that shiny tile floor or shoved down the stairs or pushed onto a wobble board. And in those situations where he simply must do something, take it slow, give him breaks, and make it worth his while. Better yet, for things like vet visits and medical procedures where you know he won’t have much control, prepare him in advance with husbandry training.

This won’t prevent PTSD/reactivity – like I said earlier, there are a lot of factors in determining whether a person or dog develops it – but it is something you can do to reduce the possibility, and a really nice way to respond if he’s already reactive.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Most Beautiful Thing I've Ever Seen

The two great loves of my life.
Maisy has never been a dog who likes to be touched, although she will tolerate it. She especially hates having her head touched; any time I've reached over to give her a pat, only for her to duck away - or at least flinch. I've gotten used to this, and try to limit my primate-hands-on instincts.

But these rules don't seem to apply to my fiance. She loves him. Indeed, her affection for him was a major driver in our getting together in the first place, but even so, I didn't really understand how much she loves him until Monday night.

Maisy is curled up on a pillow sleeping as Cesar is getting ready to leave for work. He leans over to say goodbye and kisses her on the top of her head; she lifts her head up, looks him in the eye, and then gives one deliberate lick to his face.

I swear to god, she kissed him back, and it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Napoleon Update

I’ve been wanting to update everyone on Napoleon’s progress, but it’s been hard to know what to say. I think that, overall, he’s doing better… but he’s still got a long way to go. I doubt he will ever make the progress that Maisy has, if only because there is no way I have the time or energy to do that again. I wrote recently about the time and money costs that went into her training, but that doesn’t even begin to touch the emotional costs. No doubt about it, rehabbing a reactive dog is exhausting and occasionally discouraging work.

Then again, living with a reactive dog is too.

Napi has a very small world. He almost never leaves the property. We are lucky to have a relatively large privacy fenced yard, and even luckier that he actually uses it to exercise. He may not get daily walks, but I’d be willing to bet that with the amount of zooming around he does -chasing and being chased - he actually gets better cardio.

It’s sad, though. I enjoy going to the dog park with my dogs; we have a large, wooded park with great paths and huge open spaces. While dog parks definitely have their own challenges, it’s my only legal place to walk my dogs off leash, so we go. Or, we used to. We don’t go much anymore since we feel sad leaving Napi behind.

His behavior makes it hard to travel; we took the crew camping a month or so back, and Napi really struggled. He ended up getting quite a bit of trazodone as a result. It’s also hard to have people over, since he gets pretty worked up when folks first arrive. While the other dogs will calm down quickly, it takes him much longer.

WHY does this picture have to be blurry??
Still… he’s doing better. We had some friends over the other day – two adults, and two children (4 and 7) – and he was eventually able to calm down and visit with everyone. We still haven’t quite figured out the best way to introduce him to new people and dogs. Restraining him makes things worse, but he’s an absolute ass for ten minutes or so (barking and nipping and dogs, barking and humping people). This time we tried crating with a bully stick for awhile first. It worked okay.

Our biggest area of struggle is just everyday living. He will bark and growl and trot around the house when he hears noises. Unfortunately, we live in a duplex, so there are often noises from upstairs. Nothing big – sounds of footsteps, mostly – but while the other dogs have gotten used to them, he just can’t. Maisy was like this at one point too, but medication really did fix that for her. Unfortunately, Napi is like this even though he’s already on meds. My vet and I are doing some drug experimentations, but so far, I’m not thrilled with what we’ve tried.

What I really need to do is suck it up and do the relaxation protocol. To start working on exposure. Find some time to get him into another reactive dog class. There’s no reason I can’t do this, other than what I said back in the beginning – I just don’t have the energy. Still, we’ll all be a lot happier if I do this, so I guess it’s time to work up a plan.

I’ve decided to start small with one small training session a day. Since his anxiety seems pretty generalized, the relaxation protocol seems like the best place to start. I suspect we’ll get the most bang for our buck, and it really doesn’t take much brain power. It’s mostly just boring. Right now I’m working on teaching him to go to a mat. I’ll spend a few days on this, then move on to a modified version of Day 1 of the protocol. I’ll keep you guys updated as we go.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Holding On and Letting Go: In Memory of Shanoa

What happens when you’ve done everything possible for your reactive dog and it isn’t enough? How do you decide when it’s time to let go? And how do you cope with the feelings of guilt?

These are terrible questions, and as glad as I am that I have not had to deal with them personally, I am devastated that one of my best friends does. On Friday, my friend Nicky made an incredibly courageous and compassionate choice for her reactive, anxious dog Shanoa, and it breaks my heart. I want to find a miracle cure for her dog, and I can’t. I want to wrap her up in love and take away all her pain, and I can’t. Instead, I sit with the knowledge that Nicky has lost her friend. And it sucks.

I met Nicky and Shanoa in 2010, when they joined the reactive dog class that Maisy and I were in. Shanoa was a beautiful Doberman from a not-so-great breeder who failed to socialize her and then sold her as an older puppy. The deck was stacked against Shanoa right from the start. The double whammy of poor genetics and no socialization is an awful combination; it’s like a house of cards built on a table with one too-short leg.

Nicky worked hard to keep the table balanced, the cards stable. And at first, it looked as though she might succeed. Shanoa was never the explosive dog in class; that was always left for Maisy. It was Maisy who would bark and lunge at everyone else. Both dogs started medication, and while Maisy showed improvements, they were subtle and gradual. Shanoa, though? She showed drastic and almost immediate improvement. I remember looking at her enviously as she slept through class in her crate, bored with the unstimulating environment, while Maisy continued to react at things. Shanoa did so well, in fact, that she became a certified therapy dog. She visited hospice patients, bringing joy and comfort.

But slowly, the positive effects of the medication wore off. Maybe her body got used to them; I don’t know. They saw the veterinary behaviorist, switched things up, and all was well again. Nicky decided to pursue nosework instead of therapy work because Shanoa enjoyed it more, and again she excelled… until the effects of the new meds wore off. And so began a years-long cycle of trying new meds, having them work initially, and then failing. There is literally not a behavior drug out there that they have not tried: multiple different SSRIs, short-acting drugs, even benzos. All showed early promise and then petered out.

When the last-ditch-effort drugs lowered Shanoa’s inhibitions, my friend recognized that they were in an untenable position. Shanoa continued to be anxious, unable to function even in her own home, let alone out of it. Even her safe places – like her crate – no longer soothed her. Meanwhile, her lowered inhibitions resulted in behaviors that required heroic management to keep everyone safe.

It must be noted that at no point was Shanoa a “bad dog.” She was a suffering dog. She had a debilitating medical condition that made life miserable for her. And at no point did Nicky fail her. She tried everything. She did the same types and quantities of training that I did with Maisy. She did drugs. She did management. She found safe outlets for Shanoa. And so she did the only thing she could.

She let her go.

I am in awe of my friend. You see, I believe that love is not about being together 24/7. Love is about sacrifice. Love is about selflessness. Love is a balance of holding on and letting go. Nicky could have held on longer. Life was difficult with Shanoa, but she could have made it work. I know that if Shanoa was difficult-but-happy, Nicky would have done whatever it took without complaint. But Shanoa was not happy, and holding on would not have been living. It takes a great deal of courage to do this - to voluntarily subject yourself to pain to save a loved one from it, to open yourself up to judgment and criticism from others. To let go.

I don’t know how to end this post, except to say, Nicky: I love you. Thank you for embodying compassion, courage, and love. I know it hurts, and I’m so sorry.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is the Cost of Rehabbing a Reactive Dog Worth It?

Money pit.
In my last post, I told you that I have spent about $5225 in treating Maisy's reactivity over the course of her lifetime. This is not an insignificant amount of money, but - spoiler alert - it has absolutely been worth it. Not only do I love my dog like crazy, but in my mind, a behavior problem is really no different than a medical one - and few of us would hesitate to drop thousands on our dogs at the vet.

Here's the deal: whether it's behavioral or medical (a distinction which is really less clear than it might seem, considering that behavior problems can be driven by brain chemicals and such), the outcome is not guaranteed. We don't know if our dogs will survive being hit by a car, but we take them to the vet anyway. And, in both cases, there are often adjustments to be made once the crisis is over. For example, knee surgery will require crate rest and physical therapy exercises.

And, in my unfortunate experience, there isn't much difference in the final price tag. In the past year, Maisy has had three different health issues. Let's look at what these have cost.

Crisis #1: Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Disease of the Spinal Cord (aka, Meningitis)
In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly ill with what we would later find out was an immune-system that decided her spinal cord needed to die. Our first stop was our regular vet, for $520. When she continued to get sick, she ended up hospitalized at the University of Minnesota.  The three day stay cost about $2650. Out patient meds and a follow up with the neurologist was about $150. Grand total? $3320. And since it was immune-mediated, the likelihood of recurrence is high.

Crisis #2: Bladder Stones Causing Blocked Urinary Tract
Shortly after Maisy's meningitis, she stopped peeing. Her urinary tract was blocked and she had some massive bladder stones that needed to be removed. That hospitalization and treatment cost $3150. She then needed follow up care that included UA/UCs ($700) and bladder ultrasounds ($775). Total cost? $4625. And that doesn't include the ongoing cost of her new prescription food, nor does it take into account that this was not Maisy's first time at the bladder-problem-rodeo; she's had recurrent UTIs her entire life.

Crisis #3: Corneal Dystrophy
And then Maisy started having eye problems. This one was actually pretty cheap. We saw her primary vet first, for $150. Then we had three visits with the ophtalmologist ($550), and medication ($60). The bill? $760. A steal really, although again, this does not include the cost of ongoing medication she'll need for the rest of her life- about $120/year.

So, don't let the cost of rehabbing a reactive dissuade you. Dogs are just expensive money pits, that's all. But they are the furriest, most loving money pit you will ever have. And can I just recommend pet insurance? My other three dogs have it, and it's definitely worth the money.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to thank everyone who helped me with Maisy's ridiculous amount of vet bills last year. I received around $6000 from concerned readers, and believe me, that made a huge difference for us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How Much Does it Cost to Rehab a Reactive Dog?

Last week, one of my friends texted me: her dog was becoming increasingly anxious, and could I help her train the dog? As I started to walk her through the process of rehabbing a reactive dog, I realized that I have put a LOT of work into Maisy. I knew that, of course, but when you’re in the midst of things, it’s easy to lose track of just how much work you’re doing.

So, what DOES it take to rehab a reactive dog? Well, each dog will be different, of course, but here’s what I did (or at least, what I remember doing) with Maisy:

I first realized Maisy was reactive in early 2009. I immediately enrolled her in a version of a Control Unleashed class at our training club. This class was 9 weeks long. Estimated cost: $100.

Starting in September 2009, and going through May 2011, we attended a weekly CU style class. I’m estimating that we attended about 90 weeks of class. I don’t remember the cost, but let’s say it was $125 for 6 weeks (less than what it costs at other places in the area). That’s about $1875.

Next, we saw a veterinary behaviorist. We saw her for the first time in October 2010 (approximately $550). We had follow ups in December 2010 ($160), June 2011 ($175), December 2011 ($80), and July 2012($80). Total: about $1050. (Edited to correct estimated amounts. I overestimated. And this is why I'm a social worker, not an accountant!)

Medication is cheap: less than $5/mo. So far, we’ve spent around $250 on meds. This will be a life-long expense for Maisy.

Medication requires regular blood work (every six months we get a bunch of bloods done to check liver values, etc.). Let’s estimate $200 per time, so about $1600 so far. Again, another life-long expense.

So far, this does not include time I spent training on my own (between 15 and 30 minutes a day). I also attended a Control Unleashed seminar (around $150 plus travel/hotel costs, and 16 hours in the seminar). If you add that in, it’s probably another 200 hours and $250. I also purchased a number of books to educate myself; let’s say $100 and another 40 hours in reading.

All told, the cost of rehabbing Maisy was 350 hours of my time and about $5225.

She has absolutely been worth it, but the investment was not insignificant. Many people do not have that kind of time or money available to them. Granted, this was spread out over the course of 3 or 4 years… which in itself is a huge undertaking. 


Did I need to go to such great lengths? Well, it depends on your goals and your dog’s behavior. I had performance goals, and anyway, Maisy never posed any real danger to anyone; there were no kids in the house and she was very low-risk for a bite. I probably could have gotten away with a lot less work and money – and indeed, many of the dogs and people I’ve worked with professionally can get away with less time and money.

Each situation will be different, and therefore, the costs and the decisions will be different. When deciding to work with a reactive dog, the first question always needs to be, “Can I keep everyone safe during this process?” If the answer is no, then it doesn’t really matter how much you can afford in terms of time and money. You need to deal with the safety issue first. 

But if safety isn’t an issue, then you need to take a long, hard look at the costs involved. If you're enrolled in a class, don't waste the money! Do your homework! Trust your instructors - and ask questions if you're concerned about their advice! Trust me, we love to personalize our instructions if you give us a chance. 

Understand that reactivity is not a quick-fix kind of thing. You really do need to hang in there through the disappointment. But also, know what your goals are. You're not going to "cure" your dog, so scale back your expectations to be a bit more realistic. Don't know what that is? Ask your instructor! Accept that the dog you have is not going to be the "good dog" that you've had in the past, or that your friends have. 

Follow up post: Click here to read about whether the cost is worth it. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What We Know About Treating Human PTSD and How That Might Inform Dog Training

I’m currently reading Bessel van der Kolk’s new book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Dr. van der Kolk is widely regarded as one of the most prominent experts in the treatment of trauma, and early reviews are calling his newest book the new standard in trauma treatment.

Early on in the book, Dr. van der Kolk writes:
We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives. There are fundamentally three avenues:
  1. top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma;
  2. by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and
  3. bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
Which one of these is best for any particular survivor is an empirical question. Most people I have worked with require a combination… depending on the nature of the particular problem and the makeup of the individual person.
Okay, you’re probably thinking, what the heck does this have to do with dog training? Let’s look at each of the three avenues that Dr. van der Kolk outlines as it applies to dog training.

Top Down Training
The first category is through “top down” interventions: talk therapy, building relationships, and processing the past. Our dogs can’t talk, of course, but it seems to me that a lot of what we do for reactive dogs is a top down intervention.

For example, using desensitization and counter-conditioning helps change a dog’s behavior by showing the dog that a trigger predicts good things (food, play) and not the bad things they were expecting (through past experience).

Here’s another example: Behavioral Adjustment Training seeks to help the dog develop a sense of control over his world by teaching him how to communicate to his person that he is uncomfortable (by sniffing, turning away, etc.), and then getting to leave the situation he doesn’t like.

Part of why I think positive training is so crucial when training reactive dogs is because of the bond it helps the dog build. I personally believe that developing a supportive, safe relationship is key in treating human PTSD, and I can only imagine that the same applies to dogs. 


Taking Medicines
The second category is pretty straightforward: taking medications can help calm an overactive sympathetic nervous response and allow a person with PTSD to choose how to respond to something vs. react out of a primitive brain state. I saw the same thing with Maisy. Medications allowed her to use all the training I had done.

Dr. van der Kolk references “other technologies that changes… the brain.” I haven’t read far enough to know what he means (I have some guesses), but I’ll undoubtedly report back. I suspect that the Relaxation Protocol would fall under this category, though.

Bottom Up Experiences
Finally, people with PTSD must have safe, positive experiences in their bodies. Dr. van der Kolk is big into yoga, tai chi, rolfing, etc. For dogs, we often see great results from T-Touch, agility, and nosework. I suspect this is because those are experiences in which the dog gets to have fun or be comfortable in their bodies. In the case of nosework, especially, I think it allows them a great sense of mastery. They get to solve a problem that we humans literally are unable to solve.

As Dr. van der Kolk says, I really think that it is a combination of these modalities that is most effective. And, as he also points out, the effective ones will be unique to each individual. This is why there are so many “systems” or ways of working with a reactive dog. I know people who are practically religious in their adherence to a particular approach, usually because it worked so well for their dog.

I’d love to hear from you guys about how you think successful work with reactive dogs might fit into one of these categories.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Is Reactivity a Form of Canine PTSD?

One of the most interesting things about reactivity is that it can have a variety of causes. Some dogs have experienced a traumatic event. Others received subpar socialization. Still others are just overexcitable goofballs. And for some, we just don’t know why they overreact so much.

Today, I want to talk about some parallels I see between some reactive dogs and PTSD in humans.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that develops in some people following exposure to a traumatic event. The symptoms, which must last for at least three months, include:

  1. Reliving or re-experiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks,
  2. Avoiding situations that are similar to the event,
  3. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings, including an inability to trust others, and
  4. Hyperarousal, including irritability, being easily angered, difficulty sleeping, or being easily startled.

The problem with this is, of course, that we don’t know what our dogs are thinking. We don’t know if they are having flashbacks, why they are reluctant to do something, or what they believe about themselves or others. Still, we can observe their behavior and make some educated guesses about what is driving this behavior.

Let’s start with the defining criteria: exposure to a traumatic event. For some dogs, like my Napoleon, we can definitively point to specific incidents. My fiancĂ© saw him being abused (that’s how we ended up with him). Even when there is no obvious traumatic event, it is still possible there was trauma because the key factor to trauma is less about what happened, and more about the experience of helplessness it causes. And our dogs have very little control over their lives. For example, harsh training methods – even just observing harsh training methods – could be traumatic for some dogs. I would also argue that a lack of socialization is equivalent to neglect or emotional abuse in people, which could be potential PTSD triggers.

Now, on to symptoms: I think hyperarousal is the most easily observed set of symptoms in dogs. I know that what really clued me into the seriousness of Maisy’s issues was when I realized how little – and how poorly – she slept. She was also incredibly easily startled. Even commonplace noises like the sound of dishes clinking together could set her off. I think Napoleon is prone to irritability and/or anger, especially when he’s tired. And certainly reactive dogs can appear angry when the bark and lunge at others. In client dogs, I’ve seen restlessness, pacing, an inability to remain still or to settle down, “twitchiness,” and so on.

Some reactive dogs definitely seem to believe that danger is lurking behind every corner; being on high alert is not uncommon. Could this possibly suggest negative beliefs about the world they live in? It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but many reactive dogs are continuously checking out their environment, as though they expect danger. Neither Maisy nor Napoleon seemed to view home as a safe place. Visual scanning, trotting back and forth through the house, and even excessive sniffing to gain information can be signs that the dog is expecting something awful to happen.

I definitely think we can observe dogs actively avoiding certain situations or people. We won’t always know why, nor if it’s related to trauma, but we can see this. Maisy absolutely refuses to step on things that might move, no matter how good the treats might be. I’ve seen client dogs refuse to walk on certain types of flooring or use stairs. (This could also be related to pain, so you need to rule that out before assuming it's emotional.)

I have no idea how you would tell if a dog was having a nightmare (I don’t see mine dream enough to be able to say if I could tell the difference between good dreams and bad), and even less clue about distinguishing a flashback. I’d love to hear some anecdotal stories about this though! Please comment if you’ve seen things that make you wonder if your dog is re-experiencing the past.

For all of these reasons, I certainly think there are some parallels between certain kinds of reactivity and PTSD. I think this is important, as it allows us to draw upon what we know from human treatments of PTSD and extrapolate it to dog training. I will touch on this topic in a future post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Happy Gotcha Day, Pyg

I had a hard time deciding which day we should celebrate Pyg's Gotcha Day: today, the one year anniversary of the day he first came to live with me as a "foster" dog, or next week, the anniversary of the day I formally adopted him. I chose today because, let's be real, he was never actually a foster dog. I planned to keep him before I even met him.

I seem to have a habit of adopting dogs on impulse, and so far, that's worked out for me. I ADORE this dog. I really haven't accomplished much with him in the way of training and dog shows, but it doesn't seem to matter. He fits well in my household (which has expanded greatly since I adopted him), and he is definitely the most behaviorally sound dog of the four of them.

When I think back to what he was like a year ago to what he's like now, well... he hasn't really changed at all, and he's completely different. If that makes any sense. When he first came home, he'd been in foster homes for quite awhile. He had made a weekend-long plane/car/plane journey to get here. He did NOT like crates after that! He was nervous and a bit reactive. He was playful, yet had an off-switch.

He still isn't crazy about crates, but he's got a great understanding of staying in there until released. He's incredibly confident; very little phases him, even when the other three dogs are barking hysterically. He climbs on things and under things. He's friendly. He LOVES TO BE TOUCHED. Oh my. If you stop petting him, he will paw at your hand until you start again. It's obnoxious, but also pretty awesome. He continues to be playful, and he continues to have that really nice off-switch.

He loves to go hiking. I took him on the spring backpacking trip, and he pretty much thought that was the best thing ever. He was enthusiastic and happy to be hiking, and would curl up nicely in the tent with me at night. It was just wonderful.

Thanks for the great year, buddy. I'm so glad you showed up in my Facebook feed last year. I'm so glad I took a chance on you.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Nutrisource Soft and Tender Lamb Treats from Chewy.com

This month, the dogs and I tested out Nutrisource Soft and Tender Lamb Treats, courtesy of chewy.com. Everybody liked them! The dogs all scarfed them down, and even the kitty tried a piece. You know it's good when when picky-cat eats it and asks for more! I loved how easy it was to break these into small pieces (smaller than a Zukes, so awesome for training!) using just my hands. Bonus: minimal crumbs!

20 paws and 2 thumbs up!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

MacGyver for Reactive Dogs: Window Film DIY

If your reactive dogs are anything like mine, they like to bark out the windows. Napoleon is especially bad about this, becoming downright hysterical when he sees our upstairs neighbors out in the backyard. It's loud, it's shrill, it's annoying... and it's certainly doing him no favors to get so worked up, either.

Enter window film. You can easily buy a translucent window film at about any hardware store. But, depending on the product, it's fairly expensive, and the directions seem pretty tedious. You can order it cheaper online, but then you have to pay shipping and/or wait for it to come.

I was too annoyed to wait and too lazy to run to the store, so I decided to play MacGyver instead: I taped wax paper to my windows. It's not as pretty as the stuff you buy in stores, but it's way, way cheaper, totally easy to put up, and if it doesn't work, you're out nothing.

This method blocks visual stimuli while still allowing light in. It took Napi's insane barking from a 10 down to a 3 or 4 (he can still hear what's going on outside). It also reduces the length of time he barks from omgforever to a minute or so. It's a win.

PS- I know I totally shared this over on facebook earlier, but I decided to share it on the blog proper in case you don't follow us there.

PPS- I totally only used the word MacGyver because I think Richard Dean Anderson is cute. But he's way, way cuter in Stargate: SG1 than in MacGyver.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday, Maisy!

Today is Maisy's 8th birthday. I can't believe she is firmly middle aged now. It seems like just yesterday she was a puppy.

The day I met her. The day my life changed forever.
This last year has been hard; she was so terribly sick last fall. Everyone but me knew that she almost died. I still can't really make that work in my mind. I just can't let myself think about her dying. I am glad that I have been spared that heartbreak.

Maisy was on steroids from last fall until the end of June. She was weaned off them slowly, and she's done wonderfully without them. I haven't seen any sign of relapse, for which I am grateful. Because her illness was immune-mediated, she's always at risk of it happening again, but so far, so good.

Maisy saw the ophthalmologist last week and was discharged. Although she still has some corneal dystrophy, it has improved greatly. Maisy will continue to receive the eye drops twice a day for the rest of her life, but unless her eyes get worse, she won't need to see the eye doctor again.

So all in all, Maisy is doing wonderfully, and as we enter this new year, I'm grateful for everything.

So happy to have my hiking buddy back.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Project Gratitude: The Walk-In Clinic

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude.
Please email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

In light of Sophia Yin's death this week, I decided to donate to a mental health cause. I chose the Walk In Counseling Clinic, a local nonprofit that provides free, confidential counseling to anyone who walks in the door. I have used the Walk-In Clinic a few times myself, so I know that it is incredibly accessible, completely helpful, and potentially life-saving.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

You may have heard that the renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin passed away yesterday. I never met Dr. Yin. I never had the opportunity to attend one of her seminars. But I read her work and occasionally provided her handouts to my both my dog training and my social work clients. To say that she made a real difference in the field is an understatement. To say she will be sorely missed, well, that's been said many times, and by people far more eloquent than I.

Instead, I want to address the elephant in the room: her death was the result of suicide.

At first blush, this is shocking. Dr. Yin was incredibly successful and influential. Her public persona was upbeat and positive. So how could she take her own life?

I doubt we will ever know the details of what led her to that decision. I'm not sure that we need to. But what we do need to do is be kind. 

I call myself a positive dog trainer, and I think most of my readers do, too. At its most basic, positive dog training is about being kind to our dogs. This is admirable; I believe that all living beings deserve kindness, compassion, and respect. And the key words there? All living beings.

Be kind to others. Everyone in this world is struggling with something. We all have our challenges. We all have bad days. Thankfully, many of us will never have suicidally bad days... but then again, maybe many of us do. How can we know if we never talk about it?

The truth is, there is so much stigma in this world around mental health. We are afraid to share our struggles with depression or anxiety or many others because somehow we've bought into the lie that these conditions make us "less than." I'm not saying that we need to share our struggles with the world. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't. What I am saying is that we all need someone we can reach out to in times of need, whether it's family, friends, a professional, or even a helpline.

Because when it comes right down to it, we are all worthy of love and belonging. Our dogs are. Our friends are. The people we don't like are. You are. I am. We are all worthy of love and belonging.

So... be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Be kind.

Napi Update: 6 months on meds

Napi has been on Prozac for six months now.

Here's his before video:

And here's his after video:

Both videos were taken at our vet clinic, and there's a HUGE difference. The very awesome thing is that at that first appointment, the vet couldn't even touch Napi (she just prescribed the Prozac and called it a day). At the second appointment, he allowed the vet to do a brief exam, give a rabies vax, and draw blood. He wore a muzzle, although he probably didn't need to. He was very good the whole time. He didn't like it, but he's much less of a drama queen than Maisy!

I'm very happy with Napi's response to medication. I haven't done much training with him (just some basic recall away from the fence when the neighbors are in their yard) so he's still reactive towards people and other dogs. He has a small world right now as a result - we don't really take him anywhere - but he has a big yard that he and Pyg run around.

He is able to calm down quicker these days, and he is more comfortable around the house. We can even have guests over without too much drama. He does bark quite a bit at first, but generally acclimates within 10 to 15 minutes.

There's a lot of work to do, but I'm glad that I decided to put him on meds right away.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Project Gratitude: Diego's Surgery (and Pyg and Lola fail the CGC)

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude.

Please email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

I recently participated in a fundraiser for my friend’s foster dog, Diego. Diego has a broken foot (leg?) and needs surgery to fix it. Until that’s done, it hurts and he is crabby about being touched, which I totally get. So, we need to get surgery for him.

My friend organized a CGC test as a fundraiser. All the proceeds went directly to Diego’s surgery fund. I also kicked in an extra $20.

The CGC part… well, we proved that you can’t cram for the CGC. Both dogs failed, although I was still quite proud of them for trying so hard.

Lola failed on the friendly dog (she was soooooo excited to see a friend!) and the loose leash walking (not surprising- there were good sniffs there, and Lo’s brain stops in the presence of sniffs). She failed the come when called exercise (she was very enthusiastic, but ran right past me), but was allowed to retry it because her long line got tangled in a cone. She passed on the retry.

Pyg failed on the friendly dog (OMG FRIEND), the appearance and grooming (you may not brush me, no sir!), and the stay (not at all surprised). 

So, we failed, but the dogs both tried really hard, and considering how much (er, little) I've trained them, I really didn't expect they would pass. Mostly, I wanted to donate to a good cause and get a baseline on their training.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Primal Dry Roasted Chicken Shredders from Chewy.com

After a six month hiatus, we’re back reviewing awesome treats from Chewy.com! This time around, we received some treats from Primal Pet Products, which has always been one of my favorite pet companies.

These are the Primal Dry RoastedChicken Shredders. They remind me a bit of chicken jerky, except they are easier to break up into smaller pieces. Also, they aren’t made in China (they are from right here in the good ol’ USA), so that’s awesome, too.

On the plus side, these are single ingredient, grain free, and easy to break up. On the minus side, I can’t get the pieces as small as I would like for training. Also, they leave a weird Cheetos-like residue on my fingers, so I wouldn’t want to handle them a lot.

Conclusion: An awesome and wholesome treat for special occasions or jackpots (if your dog likes them that much- mine do!), but not a great training treat. Totally my own opinion, and I wasn’t paid to say that. I did get free treats, though!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Project Gratitude: The Rabies Challenge Fund

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude. Please email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

For Project Gratitude this month... er, *coughlastmonthcough*... I donated to the Rabies Challenge Fund. This project is dedicated to determining the length of immunity the rabies vaccine provides. I love vaccines - LOVE THEM - but that doesn't mean I want to give them more often than I need to. The Rabies Challenge Fund is trying to extend the current rabies booster interval from a maximum of 3 years to 5 years and eventually 7 years. It would also determine an actual rabies titer standard, allowing titer exemptions to be written into law. 

The Rabies Challenge Fund is at a critical juncture; they have recently gotten a commitment from a USDA-approved facility to complete the challenge tests, but they need money to do this. PLUS, they currently have a dollar-for-dollar match available, which means that I donated like twice as much money! Awesome.

If you are interested in minimal vaccine protocols, want to be part of science, or if you have a dog like mine with a wacky immune system that makes future vaccinations a bit scary, please consider donating! :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

This is why we can't have nice things (Or, Napi goes to the ER)

Yesterday around noon, my fiance texted me: Napi had some hives along his sides. I told him to give some benadryl, which cleared up the hives. Napi was fine for the rest of the afternoon. I left around 6pm to do a private training consult, and when I got home again around 830pm, the hives were back, and worse, he was acting uncomfortably itchy.

I gave another dose of benadryl and the itching subsided, but the hives didn't. I figured we were in for a vet visit, but wanted to avoid the emergency vet because of Napi's stress/reactivity/aggression/whatever you want to call them issues. I know and trust our regular vet (Lake Harriet in Minneapolis- they are AWESOME for stressy dogs), but emergency vets are always a crapshoot.

But middle of the night, Napi woke me up by rubbing all over me, breathing heavy and fast, and looking like this:

Swollen and miserable.
Yup. We went to the emergency vet. He got a shot of benadryl and steroids, and sent home with a week's worth of steroids too. (Actually, I'm just using Maisy's leftover pred... the vet was a bit confused by the well-stocked pharmacy I have, lol.)

He was surprisingly not awful. He did need a muzzle, and he did growl and lunge at the techs/vet initially, but by the end, he was... well not loud and not bitey or even wearing a muzzle! Which is impressive for him!

We don't know what he reacted to, but the hives, swelling, and itching are gone tonight, and I'm very happy for that. I'll admit that before Cesar and I moved in together, I secretly wished he didn't have Napi, but now? I wouldn't give him up for anything. I love him so so so much, and I am so glad he's okay.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It's Not Your Fault: Why the Problem Might be Your Reactive Dog's Brain

Insane in the membrane. Insane in the brain.
So often, I talk with dedicated dog owners who have tried to do everything right, but have ended up with a reactive (or anxious, or aggressive, or other behavior-problem-label of your choice) dog anyway. Heck, it’s happened to me twice. Unfortunately, many of these people blame themselves. They think they must have done something wrong, because why else would their dog have so many problems? While there are certainly things that humans can and do to create issues in their dogs, the fact that most dogs are so incredibly well-adjusted despite everything is a testament to the fact that dogs are pretty resilient creatures… and that the occasional mistake is nothing to fret about.

But still, some dogs just aren’t right. From reactivity to anxiety to aggression, there are dogs who just don’t function well despite training classes and socialization and good intentions. Sometimes this is because the dog’s brain just isn’t wired right. Now, I’m no neuroscientist, but I do play one on the internet. And today, I want to share how stress can affect a developing brain, and why doing everything right may not matter if your dog came from a less-than-ideal background.

Science is pretty clear that stress in young mammals influences both brain development and physical growth. Stress can come in many forms. In children, there’s the obvious abuse and neglect, but then there’s the less obvious: poverty, housing instability, witnessing violence, growing up in bad neighborhoods, malnutrition, and so on. These chronic adverse events that the child and/or his caretakers have no control over changes the way the brain grows.

For dogs, such toxic stress during the early developmental period can happen in a number of ways. Puppy mills – and other deprived environments – are an obvious example of a stressful environment, but growing up in a shelter or a rescue can disrupt the growing brain, too. Sudden separations from human or canine caretakers, frequent change, environments characterized by sensory overload, and long periods of confinement are stressful. And even dogs from good breeders can be subjected to stress in the wrong circumstances: too much handling by a child, being harassed by another resident animal, or chronic medical problems on the part of the pup or the mother.

This does not mean that every dog from a puppy mill or rescue is going to have behavior problems. Indeed, if that were the case, people would stop getting dogs from these places. Some dogs have genes that are “turned on” by stressful events more readily than other dogs, making them more susceptible to the effects of stress. We see this in human children too; for some, stress creates a resilient brain, while in others, it creates a brain vulnerable to a host of behavioral problems.

So, just how does stress affect the developing brain?

First, it’s important to understand that stress is a normal part of functioning, and that overcoming a challenge creates a stronger brain and a sense of mastery. It is therefore important that children and dogs experience occasional frustration in doses they can overcome so that they develop the neuronal connections needed for a healthy brain. Not only is it impossible to shield your young mammal from stress, it’s inadvisable.

When a mammal experiences stress, the brain releases chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. These prime the brain to be able to respond to potential danger. Once the stressful event is over, the chemicals dissipate, and the brain returns to its normal state of functioning. However, when stress is either prolonged or recurrent, the brain never fully gets rid of the stress hormones. This changes the way the brain develops.

Recent research has shown that there are notable differences in the amounts of gray matter vs. white matter in the brains of overly stressed children as opposed to those who experience normal amounts of stress. Basically, gray matter is responsible for higher functions like thinking and decision-making, while white matter is what connects the various brain structures. Chronic stress seems to create more white matter, which naturally results in less gray matter. In turn, this reduces the volume of brain structures that allow for rational thought in the face of potentially threatening events. At the same time, that increased white matter basically creates a short circuit in the brain. Even when there isn’t a stressor present, the brain may continue to respond as if there is. This tends to cause overreactions to things that aren’t actually dangerous.

Not only are the connections stronger between the lower brain structures that control emotional responses, but some brain structures become overdeveloped. The amygdala and other associated limbic system structures – which are associated with stress responses – are often enlarged, while the hippocampus and other higher brain structures – responsible for problem solving and rational thought – are smaller.

The end result is a brain that idles on high. It is more easily hijacked by stress, and will respond with more frequency and intensity to smaller stressors. The circuitry activates longer, and the recovery time takes longer.

In other words: your reactive dog’s brain? Is not like your normal dog’s brain. And as a result, his ability to process things that happen to him and respond to the world around him is going to be impaired. It’s not only unfair to expect him deal with the world without additional support, it’s probably impossible.

That’s not to say that your dog can’t improve. Science has shown that the brain is incredibly plastic – it can rewire itself and become more functional – but this takes a lot of time and effort. And even with the best interventions, we don’t know yet if all the scars left on the brain by stress can be erased. Sometimes adjusting the expectations we have for our reactive dogs is the kindest thing we can do.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mental Illness IS Physical Illness

I think it would be helpful to stop referring to depression and other mood disorders as “mental illness” because, although technically correct, that term has been stigmatized and it makes non-sufferers assume either that people suffering from mental illness are beyond help or that they just need to cheer up and/or try harder. Depression is a neurological disorder.

People who have depression do not just experience disordered emotional responses, they experience disordered perceptions and engage in disordered thinking. This is because their  brain processes are not functioning properly. Their neurons are not as they should be. Their hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and adrenal glands are being continuously triggered and their cortisol is not being inhibited; their amygdala (fear processing and fearful memory consolidation) may be enlarged as a result and their hippocampus (learning and memory) may be reduced in size. Their sleep patterns are abnormal and resemble that of someone who’s worked their entire lives 9-5 and now they’re being forced to work 3rd shift; their REM sleep comes on too soon and too often, they don’t experience deeper sleep stages as often as they should. Ongoing stress and sudden trauma trigger their symptoms, even after long periods of having recovered.

This is not about being weak or failing to be strong. This is not about “feeling sad.”

I think we need to put this to the fore every time this subject comes up. Depression is a disorder of the brain and body, not a psychological set-back or character flaw. Please be compassionate of others’ or your own suffering because it is real and deserves to be legitimized and treated. 
-          Colleen A. Falconer

I’ve posted this quote for two reasons.

First, because this is an excellent description of just how depression (and many other mood disorders) is truly a biological illness, not something that’s “all in the head.” There are true physical differences in the brain, and these differences need to be medically treated. Because this description is so clear, it needs to be shared as widely. This platform is the best one I have to get the message out to as many people as possible, regardless of whether or not it is on topic.

And second, because it IS on topic. We humans are not unique or somehow special in suffering from the brain-based neurological disorders that we currently call “mental illness.” While it is true that diagnosing mood disorders in animals is tricky at best because animals can’t tell us what’s going on in their heads (which is why I prefer to use a veterinary behaviorist whenever possible), we can observe behaviors that suggest conditions like anxiety, compulsions, stress disorders, etc. In addition, there is no reason to believe that other mammals, whose brains look so very much like our own, couldn’t have abnormal neurons or brain structures associated with these diseases.

I’m not advocating for the over-medication of society, human or animal. I am advocating for appropriate treatment. Just as other medical problems can be treated with a multi-pronged approach (for example, diabetes often requires changes in diet and exercise in addition to medication), human “mental illness” can be treated through a variety of approaches, as can “behavior problems” in animals. But appropriate treatment can and does include medication, and just because it has been inappropriately prescribed in some cases does not mean that it’s inappropriate in all cases.

Mental illnesses are physical illnesses, and having one can be painful and affect one’s quality of life. These illnesses are often chronic conditions that require lifelong monitoring and maintenance; they aren’t something one just “gets over.” Maybe someday we will find a cure, but in the meantime, we are fortunate to live in a time when these illnesses can be treated. Please, do not allow yourself or your loved one to suffer needlessly. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happy 4th birthday, Lola!

I have never felt any particular attraction to basset hounds... but when I look at this face, my heart is full of love. Happy birthday, Lolita.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

First Level 3 Leg (WCRL)

I really haven't done any training with Maisy in a year. First she got so sick, then I got Pyg, then I moved in with two more dogs, and... well, yeah. Despite that, I decided to enter her in Level 3 at the WCRL trial hosted by my breed club this weekend.

We've never done Level 3 before, and I was just tickled pink by her performance:

She scored 200 (we didn't get any bonus points because hey, you can't retry a bonus exercise- I had no idea!- and in looking at the video, the reason we failed was a lack of clarity on my part... which training would have helped) and got 1st place!

I wanted to try for her title, but then she threw up all over, so we went home again. Very happy with my little muppet dog. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scaredy Cat, Part 3: From Fear to Friend

My fiance's dog Lola is scared of cats. I have a cat. This presented a problem when we decided to move in together, especially when you consider that we live in a relatively small space with few places for either of them to escape. The relationship needed to be fixed.

We've already talked about the need for management. Management is an ongoing thing that really can't stop. This is especially true when you have a large, powerful, or tenacious dog. Dogs can and do kill cats. As you read today's post about changing emotions, keep in mind that management needs to continue happening alongside this training.

The way we change emotions in non-human animals is through classical conditioning. I've written about classical conditioning before (see here), and you can also click on the "classical conditioning" tab at the bottom of this post and in the side bar to the right. The TL;DR version: we are going to teach our dogs that cats are awesome creatures who bring delicious foodstuffs like chicken and bacon and potato chips. We do this by letting the dog see/smell/hear the cat, and then giving her something super delicious.

Before I go any further, this post is about dogs who are AFRAID of cats. Some dogs don't get along with cats due to predatory behavior. If this is the case with your dog, strict management and a consultation with a professional trainer is in order. And then more strict management, likely for as long as they are both alive.

Doing behavior work with cats can be difficult because cats aren't crazy about being restrained. Most cats are not leash trained or crate trained, cutting out two major ways we tend to restrain pets. But, even for those who are, I don't think it's fair to restrain the cat. Not only has my kitty lived with me longer than the dog has even been alive, kitty knows that he is smaller, and therefore more vulnerable, than the dog. I don't ever want my cat to feel unsafe. Not only does that create acrimony, but it also predisposes the cat to go on the defensive and attack the dog... kind of defeating the purpose.

Rule 1: The cat must always feel safe.
Rule 2: The cat must always have a choice about whether or not to participate.
Rule 3: Management always happens in parallel to training.

Thankfully, we have a very easy way to start the classical conditioning process without stressing the cat out: through smell. The first thing I did with Lola was to rub a cloth all over my cat to get his scent on it. Later on, when the cat wasn't around (because we weren't all living together yet, but also because management, remember?), I presented the cat-cloth to Lola to investigate. After about five seconds, I put the cloth behind my back, gave her an amazing treat, and then brought the cloth back out for her to smell again. I repeated this process until Lola was no longer interested in the smell and was instead demanding cookies.

I repeated this sequence several times, and each time we did the exercise, Lola was less interested in the cloth. At this point, you may want to use a new/different object to hold the cat's scent so that you are actually conditioning your dog to the smell, and not the cloth. I didn't do this, but wish I had.

The next step happened when we all moved in together. We created a "safe room" for our kitty. This room had his litterbox, a water dish, his food bowl, a comfy bed, and some cat nip. I always do this when I move with a cat; it seems easiest for them to adjust if they only need to see one room at a time. However, this gave us the bonus of allowing Lola to be able to smell and hear the cat - but not see him. This is important because it helps keep the dog under threshold by limiting the amount of cat stimuli she's exposed to. Then we just fed them on the other side of the door from each other to help create good feelings.

You'll note that I said that both animals were being fed during this process. Classical conditioning should be done for both animals whenever possible. For our kitty, being barked at was pretty unpleasant, and we wanted to minimize any stress or grumpiness on his part.

Rule 4: Condition both animals to reduce stress on the cat.

The next step was to allow the animals to be in the same room together, feeding and praising them both for calm interactions. For the safety of the cat, the dog should be wearing a leash. If you aren't holding the leash, you should be able to reach it quickly in order to intervene. If you're at all worried that the dog will grab the cat and you'll need to break up a fight (or worse), you're moving too fast. Slow down, take a step back, and then come back to this step when you don't think your dog will eat your cat.

Rule 6: Don't take chances. Cats are small and vulnerable to a physical attack. Move slowly. 

You can gradually increase the amount of time the two spend together, keeping in mind that good management should be going on when you aren't present either physically or mentally. You should continue to tell both animals how amazing they are (and back that up with deliciousness whenever possible) for a long time. Classical conditioning needs to happen for a long time in order to solidify a strong positive emotion.

At some point, though, you will want to begin introducing some operant elements- some purposeful commands that you can give (the dog; cats are trainable, but it's such a pain to do it) that will help direct the dog on what to do. This can be used to get out of some tight spots, or when mistakes happen (and they will). I'll talk about that in my next post.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Project Gratitude: Help with Allie's Medical Bills!

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project GratitudePlease email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

Way back when, before I had four dogs, before Maisy was "normal," before I even started this blog, I met my friend Nicky in reactive dog class. We bonded over having crazy dogs, and even when the class ended and our instructor moved away, we continued to get together for lunch and coffee dates and dog walks. She supported me through the dissolution of my marriage, through the subsequent Hard Times, celebrated when I met someone new, and talked me into adopting Pyg. (She'll never admit it, but he is all her fault.)

So I'm very happy to donate to a cause that is important to her. Nicky's sister has cancer. And, as we all live in the US, this has resulted in massive medical bills. Insurance is great and all, but it only goes so far in our country. Nicky's sister has lost time from work, and has bills around $20,000 now. I have no idea how she's managing, but I'm glad to pay it forward, no matter how little I have to share.

Will you help, too? It would mean a lot to Nicky, to her sister, and to me.