She looks just like my last dog, but she doesn’t retrieve…

When we acquire a new dog, whether it’s a rescued mixed-breed beauty, or a carefully chosen pure-bred pup, we humans have the tendency to compare our dogs to those we’ve had in the past. And the more similar they look, the more likely it is that we uphold our expectations of similar behaviors.

As humans, visual cues are what drive us, so when we lose a dog we adore, we are drawn to dogs that look similar. In case my readers haven’t noticed, Don and I are drawn to collies and goldens…and since Vera, German shepherds. But not just any German shepherd–German shepherds with a straight (not sloped) back and a fine, plush coat. And were we to find and have the stamina to adopt such a dog, we would want her to be just like V–except, of course, without the anxiety and aggression. My collies have to be long coated (in spite of the grooming issue) and sable. And the goldens…broad-headed, pale gold, and heavy-boned as Lola was, OR light weight, airborne, and burnished red as was Sascha.

Once, an older gentleman at the shelter where I volunteer asked me if we had any black dogs with one pale blue eye and a white tip on his tail. He wanted a dog just like his last one–he had been the best dog the man had ever known and he wanted one just like him. It’s hard to remember that although dogs of the same breed share certain traits, just because a dog looks like a dog we’ve known in the past, the new dog will most likely be very different in temperament. Even clones have different personalities and temperaments from each other. The gentleman looking for the black dog would have been much better off looking for a dog with a temperament like his last dog, not one with the same unique physical features.

Every puppy within a litter will be very different. Even clones will have different markings and temperaments.

But visual cues are powerful to us. Don and I ache for a shepherd even though we know the risk of reactivity. Shepherds are strong, cautious, intelligent, high-energy dogs prone to anxiety–more than we want to deal with at this point in our lives.

Don teaches Vera how to play the guitar. You can see why we would do almost anything to live with another Vera–without the aggression and anxiety. It takes firm resolve to stick to our decision.

We adopted Annie based on her delightful temperament, her amazing ability to learn and apply concepts (being a trainer I love to work with my dogs just for fun), and her outgoing, social temperament (oh, and by the way, she’s a rough collie). It is only by sheer willpower and remembering Vera’s difficulties that we are not looking for a German-shepherd mix to rescue.

Tips to help you accept a new dog for who he is:

  • Remind yourself that your new dog will likely be quite different from your last dog, no matter how similar they appear. He is his own person, and even though he may look very much like your last dog, he must be treated as an individual.
  • Do not expect certain behaviors to define your dog. It is easy to resent a new dog because he doesn’t have the right traits. e.g. a lab who doesn’t like to swim, a golden RETRIEVER who doesn’t like to retrieve. e.g. Our first golden, Sascha, wouldn’t be caught dead without a ball in her mouth. Our second golden, Lola, didn’t like to retrieve at all. Go figure! It drove me crazy at first. Poor Lola!
  • If you haven’t chosen your next dog yet, remember to look for traits that you like in your dog. For instance, Tessie, our last collie, was more like a golden retriever, than our golden, Lola, in some ways. Tessie loved to swim and retrieve whereas Lola was completely indifferent to those sports.
  • Don’t automatically expect the same types of behaviors and trust from your second dog. E.g. Sascha, our first golden, could be trusted to carry her own leash in a responsible manner no matter where we were (we didn’t allow her to carry it on busy streets, but I’m sure she would have been fine). We weren’t great trainers. It was just who Sascha was. In spite of being a good trainer now, after thirty years of experience, I have never had another dog who I could trust in this way. I have seen people expect their new dog to walk off leash in busy areas because their last dog could do it. But attempting this without months or maybe even years of training specific skills on a daily basis, most dogs will never have the attention, discipline, or skills to do this safely. The fallout can be lethal for the dog and traumatic for passing drivers.
  • Allow your second dog to be themselves–to play their own games, find their own favorite places, and seek their own level of socialization. Every dog is an individual.

Is My Dog sick?

There are many veterinarian-authored articles that articulate the precise symptoms to watch for to decide whether or not your dog is ill. In this blog, however, I’m going to talk about the more subtle signs to watch for in your dog.  It’s not always easy to tell if your dog is just tired or really not feeling well–if you should jump to attention and rush to the emergency vet, or let time pass and observe him.  These are some things I’ve learned after 35 years of living with dogs. 

Tips for understanding your dog

Dogs communicate with their bodies. The tension and lines in their faces, the position of their ears and the wrinkles on their brows communicate only part of how they are feeling. The arc of their backs, the position of their tails,  and their level of energy, whether panting and pacing, leaping and barking, or curling into a lethargic ball all give us clues. Sometimes dogs who don’t feel well will cling to us, sometimes they will keep their distance and refuse to be touched. Every dog is different, and that makes it difficult to decipher their signals until you know your dog well. 

Lola would curl into a ball and sleep when she was in discomfort or didn’t feel well. Since she was a couch potato at home, this was easy to miss.
  • Get into the habit of observing your dog carefully. Your dog is constantly communicating with you, the other pets in your house and the world around him.
  • Get a good book on canine body language such as Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language” to help you interpret his normal signs of communication.  
  • Watch for changes in energy patterns…is your dog panting and pacing more than usual? Is he suddenly more energetic or frantic– more outgoing or crazy than normal? Is he sleeping more than usual? Not as interested in being near you? Is he clinging to you?  Is his back arched? These behaviors paired with a decrease in appetite, diarrhea stool or blood in the stool, vomiting, limping etc, could tip you off that he is experiencing more than just an isolated symptom, and that your dog is feeling ill or is in pain.  In other words, you should contact your vet ASAP.  
  • An arched back along with panting and pacing could be associated with abdominal pain, and a call or trip to the emergency vet is definitely advised as this could be very serious. 
  • Lola would shut down when she wasn’t feeling well, but Vera would pant and pace, or leap and spin and bark, unable to settle. Her behavior could be mistaken for a sudden surge of playfulness, where in actual fact, paired with a decreased appetite, we would finally figure out that she was in pain.
Annie did not want to be touched one minute, and the next minute would be asking for attention when she was feeling ill earlier this week. Here she is moving away from me as I try to play with her.
  • Annie, who recently had blood in her stool, let us know how dreadful she felt by avoiding physical contact one moment, then appearing by my side and asking for reassurance the next. She refused breakfast and treats, but then ate a small amount in the afternoon. Rather than settling for a nap after her snack, she became frantic to get outside and walked quickly ahead of me at the end of the leash, her head down, the sides of her mouth pulled back in stress, tail tucked, and was not at all interested in the smells that usually capture her interest.  At that point, we took her to the vet.  
  • Lip licking, yawning, and turning away from you are other signs of stress and though dogs use these signals constantly to negotiate space, they can be used more frequently in conjunction with other body language if they are not feeling well. 
  • Looking directly at your hand, and tensing or flinching or moving away when you touch certain parts of their bodies–legs, paws, back or abdomen, could alert you that the area is painful.
  • Take some time to get to know your vet before you actually need to visit him/her. Having a trusting relationship with your vet is as important as trusting your own doctor. 
  • Have emergency phone numbers in your phone. Animal Poison Control hotline has poison expert veterinarians available online 24/7, and the Pet Poison Helpline offers help 24/7 to both vets and owners at 800-213-6680.

“Finding Vera”–The perfect Christmas Gift !

“Finding Vera is the best dog-related novel I’ve ever read, and I also learned more from it than any other.” lsgraham

Finding Vera might be the perfect gift for your dog-loving friends and family! Written by a certified dog trainer and based on true events, it is filled with sadness, joy, and laughter. At its heart, Finding Vera is a love story that combines a fast-paced novel with canine behavior, body language, and the heartache and fulfillment that comes from living with a special needs German shepherd. 

Finding Vera is available at Village Books in Fairhaven, Bellingham, and on Amazon.

Experienced and inexperienced dog guardians alike will be impressed by the writer’s depth of knowledge and understanding of dogs’ relationships with other dogs and with humans. It’s a deeply felt and emotionally compelling story based on the author’s life with three very different dogs. Even though it’s obvious the author was more experienced than most dog lovers and dog trainers when she adopted Vera, she articulately conveys how much she learned from the drama-filled years she had with these three amazing beings.”

“I laughed, I cried…I felt strong emotions throughout the entire book. I’m recommending it to everyone who loves dogs, to those who would simply like to know more about them, and especially to folks who have ever struggled with a dog whose challenges changed their entire world. People with reactive dogs, in particular, will find invaluable support and insight within these pages. But regardless of your background or experience, it’s a riveting story you won’t be able to put down.”

Help! My dog barks at everything!

In my last post, “My dog is driving me crazy!” I talked a little about barking, what might cause dogs to bark, and things you could do to stop them. In this post, I’m going to focus on dogs who bark inside the house.

Ceddie barks to encourage play in the house. Courtesy of Motoko Lewis

Turid Rugaas lists six different types of bark that are recognized, in her book “Barking, the Sound of a Language“: excitement, warning, fear, guarding, frustration, and learned, also known as demand barking. I would like to add that dogs and their people can share a very quiet personalized communication system of polite barking or soft “woofs” if you take the time to listen and respond to your dog’s polite requests.  If these requests are ignored, frustration may escalate into a full-blown barking frenzy. For instance, Annie will “woof” if she needs help finishing her kong, getting a cookie out from under the fridge, or needs one of us to let her inside from the deck or to take her outside to do her business.  Her “woof” always means something specific and important, so we pay attention and it has never escalated into a full-fledged bark.

Remember, first of all, that dogs communicate through body language AND barking. Therefore, if our dog is barking, we need to take the time to figure out why they are barking and what they are trying to communicate.  As with humans, dogs can get frustrated when we don’t respond, and bark louder. Gadgets such as the citronella bark collar (according to studies cited by John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense”), only work for a period of about a week.  Dogs quickly become habituated to the odor, and revert back to their old barking pattern if nothing else changes. They may also become habituated to shock bark collars and endure a higher and higher level of harmful shocks as their owners desperately try to quiet them.

Examples and training tips of how to handle routine barking inside the house:

  •  If your dog hears a dog barking down the road and responds in kind, you can acknowledge his barking with a “thank you!” (for alerting you) and “done” (for “you’re finished now”). 
  •  Distract him from the sound with a toy or a treat, but have him do a trick or two before you give it to him, otherwise he may think you are rewarding his barking.
  •  If he listens to the sound quietly, however, reward him with several treats one at a time while he listens, praising him for being quiet.  If he goes right back to barking, calmly put him in his crate, close the windows, turn on music, or move him to a different room where the sound is softer for ten minutes maximum to help him to calm down and allow his adrenalin levels to return to normal.   This is not a punishment.
  •  If your dog sees a deer, cat, dog or human through the window and barks:
  •  You could look at the individual with him, thank him for telling you about it, then lead him away with a treat placed in front of his nose.
  •  Ask him for a sit, down, or trick then reward him. If he wants to watch the individual, try to catch him BEFORE he barks, and treat him again and again while he is QUIET.
  •  Keep the blinds closed unless you are working with him.
  •  Shouting at our dogs to be quiet only adds fuel to their frenzy and proves to them that there is something worth barking at, since their person is joining in too.
  •  Ignoring them for doing their job of alerting us to a potential threat is disrespectful.
  •  Remain calm, firm, and unfrazzled.
Annie watches a deer with interest after Don reinforces her with several treats and praises her for being quiet.

Fear barking

There are also dogs who bark at sounds because they are afraid. Dogs’ ears are remarkably sensitive, and they can hear high frequencies that even those of us with the most acute hearing aren’t aware of. For an anxious dog, the world of technology inside the house and the ambient sound of traffic, construction, air traffic etc. from outside can be overwhelming. The more your dog is triggered by these noises, the more likely he’ll be to bark at things that scare him. Dogs who alert fearfully to all these sounds can drive us to distraction.

Training Tips for fear barking

Ceddie and Motoko work on their dance routine. This gives Ceddie mental stimulation, exercise, increases strength, balance, and coordination and increases his bond with Motoko. Photo courtesy of Eric Lewis.
  • Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Analyze your environment for sounds that may bother him: the sound of the radio or television, the alert sounds of your smart phone, the beeps or noise of the dishwasher, dryer, or washing machine. Think about your heat pump and furnace fan, your computers, your iPad etc.  Think about how you can modify these sounds for him.
  • Have a safe place for him to retreat to–a cozy crate or quiet room where he can feel safe.
  • Monitor the sound of human voices in your home.  Keep children quiet while inside, and watch how your dog responds when you get into animated conversations with your partner. You may have to moderate your tone of voice while your dog builds confidence.
  • Play calming, classical music, or “Through a Dog’s Ear” to help to mask upsetting sounds and relax your dog.
  • Consider use of a ThunderShirt. Studies and surveys have shown it to be effective in decreasing anxiety in dogs when applied correctly.
  • Find a trainer who can help you to work with your dog, and to identify the triggers. A trainer can help to formulate a plan to desensitize him to the things that scare him.
  • Visit a veterinarian or holistic vet who can evaluate your dog for medication, or point you in the direction of calming supplements. Vera, our reactive German shepherd, was scared to death of garbage trucks on Friday mornings, and when her fear generalized to every morning of the week, only a combination of Prozac and Adaptil (a pheromone collar) helped to relieve her anxiety. 
  • If your dog is afraid of fireworks check out Victoria Stilwell’s post on fireworks.

Special thanks to Ceddie, Annie, Motoko and Don for being such wonderful models.  Ceddie is a true clown and actor. I considered him “almost unadoptable” as “Banjo” when working with him at WHS, but my friends, Motoko and Eric, have turned him into a delightful, clever, happy, dapper almost-gentleman.

Rescued! Bringing home your shelter dog.

Rescuing a dog

beagle-in shelter

Rescuing a dog is a wonderful thing. It fills us with hope and pride and a determination that we can give this dog a better life.  A good life. And we can. What we mustn’t lose sight of is that it’s not all about us.  It has to be about the dog and what the dog understands and needs, or our two-way relationship can break down.

When dogs are brought to a new home, they can be overwhelmed. Depending on the history of the dog (which is often unknown), they may never have been inside a house, never seen stairs, never lived with another dog–or never lived without a canine companion. They may have lived with a large family, or with a single person. They may have been a stray or abused, coddled or neglected.

running-dog-dogpark for blog

Whatever their situation, past and present, they need time to adjust and be introduced back into the world in increments. When we bring a dog home from a shelter or foster home, we want to share our new family member with our friends, show our dog his new freedom, our favorite places, take him to the dog park, introduce him to friends’ dogs, to our extended families. Right away. Before we even know our new dog.  Before we even speak their language. 

But dogs are complex creatures. They have a whole world that is theirs. They may be bold or sensitive. There are things they like and things they don’t like. Things that fill them with fear, with pleasure, with joy, with trepidation. They may not like to be touched except on the chest or the face–and only at certain times. They may be so stressed that they can’t eat. They may be overwhelmed by the size of the space they suddenly inhabit and have no idea how to interact with the furniture, the resident cat, or their new canine sibling. They may have never seen a child before, or a bicycle or a skateboard. And yet we expect them to be grateful and adaptable and to settle in as if they know they are home. For them, it may be just one more stop in their turbulent lives.

adorable animal ball beautiful
Photo by Joshua Ku00f6ller on Pexels.com

Training Tips:

  • Take it slowly.
  • Limit their space with baby gates initially so they have a small, safe area where they can feel comfortable and protected.
  • Wait till they are relaxed with family members before introducing them to your extended family and friends.
  • Introduce dogs carefully from the first meeting and separate your new dog from resident cats and dogs until they have had a time to adjust to the sounds and scents of their new siblings. Go SLOWLY.  It’s much harder to fix relationships than to start off on the right foot.
  • Praise and reward what they are doing RIGHT.  Don’t take anything for granted. Dogs don’t automatically know what they are doing well. For example, praise any good interactions between the dogs in your home, reward with a treat and praise for not lunging and barking at cars, for walking politely past strangers, for not getting on the furniture, for being calm, for not putting their paws on the counter, for taking treats gently–all things that we might have taken for granted with our last dog–you can’t take for granted with a new dog. If your dog does something inappropriate, redirect him with a cookie or a toy and engage him in appropriate behavior and praise.
  •  Don’t shout at him–ever. Be firm, kind, and patient.
  • Understand that every move your dog makes, every expression on his face, the tension in his body, the twitch of an ear, the position of his tail, is communication.  It is not random. It means something.
  • To begin to understand Canine Body Language, immediately print out a couple of copies of this poster on canine body language.  Place one on your fridge and one on your coffee table, maybe a third in your bathroom or bedroom. A marvelous book on Canine Body Language is Brenda Aloff’s book “Canine Body Language“.  It has literally hundreds of photographs of dogs with interpretations of what they are communicating. A wonderful website on Canine body language is http://eileenanddogs.com/dog-body-language/.  The thing is, as humans, we might understand gross canine posturing–hackles, growling, snapping, and play bow, but we misunderstand so much more–such as the tail wag, the value of the growl, variations in posture, the ear position etc.  Learn Canine Body Language and you’ll enrich your relationship with your dog a hundred fold.
  • Don’t let him off leash too soon. Wait until you have a solid recall and strong relationship with your dog. A timid dog may stick to you like glue, but he could just as easily panic and flee. A bold dog or a dog driven by his nose, may take the opportunity to explore, then panic and not find his way back to you. A lost dog is a terrible thing to experience for both you and your dog.
tan dog lying on green grass field
Photo by joenibraw on Pexels.com

Avoid the dog park. Read my blog on dog parks.  Finding Vera, my novel about our very difficult, but ultimately wonderful rescue, is packed with canine body language in action, issues that can arise from adopting a troubled rescue dog, and how we worked through them. The more issues you can prevent in a rescue dog, the better–the problem being that you’ll never know what you prevented with your careful observation and intervention.  Believe me, it’s worth the work!