Saturday, October 27, 2012

Having a Happy Halloween with Your Pet

Halloween is just around the corner.  While to most humans, Halloween is a time of costumes, parties, candy, and fun, to our pets it can be a time of terror and danger.  The day is filled with noisy activity.  Strange looking creatures wander the streets, lawns sport scary decorations, and eggs and toilet paper get thrown around.  Even worse, pets often find that their humans have donned costumes that look, smell, and sound strange.  For many pets, costumes take away their sense of security by making the humans they know unrecognizable.

So what can you do to help?  Here are some tips:

Make sure your pets are secure
If you intend to stay home for Halloween and hand out candy, begin by making sure your pets are secure.  Confine them away from the door, which will be opening and closing all night, or tether them to something heavy and secure (using a leash or chew-proof tether) so that they can't bolt when the door opens.  Even if your pets are normally very good about staying indoors, the extra stress of all the noise and activity may lead them to seek escape.

Keep shy and aggressive pets away from the door
If your pets dislike visitors, protect your community by keeping your pets far away from the door for the evening.  Baby gates, closed doors, and ex-pens are all good tools.  If your pets find the doorbell alarming, consider disconnecting it for the night, or put out a basket of candy for trick-or-treaters, rather than handing out candy in person.

If you are going out, make your home a safe haven
If you intend to go out for Halloween, disconnect your doorbell.  Repeated doorbell rings can be torture for our furry friends.  Also, make sure all your doors and windows are closed and locked.  A frightened pet may figure out how to get out, or fall victim to a prank (innocent or otherwise), if the house is not sealed up.

Ask yourself if Fido is really up for Halloween adventures
For those of you who want to take a pet in costume with you to trick-or-treat, or to a Halloween party, first carefully evaluate your pet.  How social is your pet?  Is your pet comfortable in new situations?  Does your pet like whomever he or she meets regardless of how they are dressed?  Is your pet okay with people who walk, talk, or move in an unusual fashion?  Frightened pets often lash out at, or run away from, things they find frightening, and it’s best not to put your pet or others at risk.  If you are at all doubtful about your pet’s ability to handle the situations Halloween will pose, let your pet stay home.

Speaking of costumes…
If you want to have your pet wear a costume, make sure to choose that costume wisely.  The less restrictive the costume, the better.  Being able to move around freely is very important to your pet.  Also, keep in mind that costumes can make it harder for your pet to communicate with other animals, so pets in costume are best kept away from other animals.  Finally, consider dressing up your pet briefly only – just long enough for a fun photograph – and then letting your pet enjoy the rest of the holiday au naturel.

…and be sure to condition Fifi to accept her costume in advance
If you have a pet who is a social butterfly and loves new experiences, and you want to take him or her with you in costume for a Halloween adventure, spend time between now and Halloween conditioning your pet to love his or her costume so that being in costume for several hours is not a trial in and of itself.  Just a couple of minutes of training, a few times a day, will make a huge difference in how your pet feels about the costume.

Here's a quick sketch of how to condition your pet to a costume:

1.  Begin by putting the costume out where your pet can see and reach it.  Give your pet a treat, praise, toy, or some other reward each time your pet approaches the costume.  If you use a clicker, click whenever your pet looks at the costume or steps towards it, and build up to clicking your pet for touching the costume (search for “Clicker training: technique and philosophy (Part 1)" on this page for a brief introduction to clicker training).

2.  Next, begin approaching your pet while carrying the costume, rewarding your pet each time you take a step towards him or her.  If your pet remains calm as you approach, work up to putting the costume up against your pet's body (without actually putting it on).

3.  When your pet looks happy even when you touch him or her with the costume, you can begin dressing your pet in the costume, giving liberal rewards as you do so.  Go slowly as you put the costume on, letting your pet learn that each step of the dressing process earns rewards, and taking the costume off periodically so your pet gets a break, until you are able to put the costume on completely while your pet remains calm.

4.  Gradually build up the amount of time your pet is in costume, always making sure your pet is comfortable and removing the costume from the picture and taking a break any time your pet seems distressed.  If your pet seems anxious when it sees the costume even after several days of getting rewards around the costume, dressing your pet up is a bad idea.

Make sure Fido is OK with your costume, too
You can follow a similar procedure to condition your pet to the costume you will be wearing, or as you introduce your pet to any Halloween decorations you are putting up (while being careful not to encourage your pet to ingest the decorations, which can be deadly, as mentioned above).  The goal is to have your pet associate any strange shapes, sounds, or smells that relate to Halloween with fun, treats, and praise.

Respect Fifi’s needs as the day progresses

On the actual day of Halloween, regardless of where you are, if you notice your pet showing signs of anxiety, respect your pet's needs by quickly finding a way to make your pet more comfortable.  That may mean leaving the party you are at with your pet, or disconnecting the doorbell if you are at home.

If you don't already know what behaviors indicate anxiety in your pet, find out before Halloween.  Here’s a video of some behaviors dogs tend to do when they need a bit of a break.

ID isn’t just for humans...
Regardless of where your pet will be spending Halloween, make sure your pet has a collar and ID on.  Whether your pet manages to slip out the door while guests are coming in and out or breaks the leash when seeing a particularly scary costume, ID can be the difference between finding your pet again and losing your pet forever.  If your pet is microchipped, make sure the microchip is registered and that the information in the microchip registration database is up to date.  If your pet isn't microchipped, consider getting your pet microchipped.

...but alcohol is for humans only
Ingesting alcohol can be very risky for pets, among other things because they weigh so little that they can easily get alcohol poisoning.  For some pets, such as birds, any alcohol at all is fatal.  Keep Halloween cocktails for yourself and your friends – and out of your pet’s reach.

Keep your pets away from Halloween food
Many of our pets metabolize things differently than humans.  Chocolate, for example, is toxic to both dogs and cats (and our pets don't need excessive amounts of sugar in any event).  Whether you are handing out candy or collecting it, make sure to keep it out of the reach of your pets.

Keep holiday decorations out of reach, too
Your pet may view decorations as some kind of incredible edible.  Keep decorations high enough to be out of your pet's reach, or block off the area so pets can’t enter.  Decorations can cause intestinal blockages if eaten, and the dyes and materials used to make decorations may be toxic.

Secure your trash
Not only the actual candy and chocolate, but also the wrappers from candy and chocolate, can create problems (foil wrappers can literally cut internal organs).  Make sure your trash is unreachable, so your pet can't get into discarded decorations, food, food wrappers, or alcohol.

Whatever your plans, have a happy Halloween!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer's Dog in Count Dogula Costume
Franklin only wore this costume for about five minutes,
but he was clearly in the Halloween spirit.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Polite Leash Walking (i.e., Not Pulling on Leash), Part I: Why Bother to Teach It?

In honor of National Train Your Dog Month, I will be focusing on polite leash walking for the next few posts. Some of you may be wondering why polite leash walking is even important, especially as there are so many management tools available – e.g., head halters, no-pull walking harnesses, etc. I'd like to address that question in this first post on the topic.


1. Your dog's safety
Pulling dogs can run straight into the path of a hazard, such as an unfriendly dog, a bicycle, or a car unexpectedly exiting a driveway.  When your dog is trained to walk politely on leash, he is less likely to move abruptly into danger.

2. Your safety
Pulling dogs make it more likely you will trip and fall.  When your dog is trained to walk politely on leash, she is less likely to pull you off your feet.

3. Your dog's health
Dogs who pull on leash can cause themselves all kinds of physical harm.  If you walk your dog on a collar (whether it is flat, choke, or prong), the repeated pressure on his throat can cause a variety of problems, including damage to the trachea.  If you use a walking harness, your dog can experience shoulder problems or other issues (the exact type of physical stress depends on the specific type of harness).  If you use a head halter, your dog may strain his neck or spine.  A dog who walks politely on leash will not experience these problems, regardless of the equipment used.

4. Your health
Constantly pulling your dog back, and being yanked around by your dog, can stress your wrists, arms, shoulders, and back.  A polite dog puts no pressure on the leash most of the time, which makes for less strain on your body.

5. The safety (and health) of your friends and family
There may be times when you have to ask a friend or family member to walk your dog.  Even if you are personally able to handle it when your dog pulls on leash, your friend or family member may not be able to handle the pulling.  This is true even if your dog is small.  There was an incident in a family I know where a 15 lb. dog pulled grandma right off her feet, injuring her badly.  When your dog is trained to walk politely on leash, anyone who is old enough to be trusted to walk alone (no toddlers, please!) can walk your dog safely.

6. The safety (and health) of strange people and animals
A dog who pulls on leash can get in the way of other people or animals, scare a human into stumbling or falling over, or startle a dog into pulling the leash right out of her human's hand. It's all very well to say your dog is friendly as he launches himself (and you) at a strange person or animal, but if that person or animal is afraid, your dog's intent does not matter.  Teaching your dog to walk politely on leash reduces the likelihood of these kinds of accidents.

7. Your dog's diet
It's hard to see what's on the ground near your dog when she is far ahead of you pulling on the leash.  Many dogs "scavenge" as they walk, and your dog may occasionally decide to ingest something inappropriate.  If your dog is walking politely at your side, you are much more likely to spot the inappropriate "edible object" before your dog is able to get it, which gives you a chance to cue your dog to leave the object alone before she even puts it in her mouth.

8. Your enjoyment of the walk
A dog who pulls on the leash is no fun to walk.  You spend the entire time worrying about where the dog will pull you next, and struggling with the leash.  A walk with a well-trained dog gives you the opportunity to enjoy both your dog's company and the area in which you are walking.

9. Your pride
Let's face it – it's embarrassing when other people see you being pulled down the street by your dog. "Why can't that person control his dog?" or similar thoughts are likely going through the heads of the people staring as your dog yanks you around.  When your dog walks politely on leash, you can walk your dog with your head held high.

10. Your connection with your dog
Best of all, training your dog to walk politely on leash using pet-friendly methods involves many sub-skills that improve your connection with your dog, and are useful in other situations.  It's also easier to reach down and pet your dog during walks if she is walking politely beside you (as opposed to six feet ahead of you and pulling).

With all these benefits to teaching your dog to walk politely on leash, why continue to deal with pulling?

In the following weeks, I will discuss various aspects of polite leash walking, including equipment, training, and trouble-shooting.  I look forward to seeing you here.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Canine at the Keyboard: It's Not Easy Living in a Human World

Hello everyone in the blogosphere! My name is Franklin, and I will be the regular canine guest contributor to this blog.  I hope you will enjoy reading my notes.

Today, I will be sharing a few thoughts on being a canine in a human world.

Let me start by telling those of you who are human that it's not easy being a canine in a human world.  First of all, human computer keyboards are not well designed for typing with paws.  Second, humans have odd rules about all kinds of things.  For example, they don't seem to like the polite canine manner of greeting, which consists of sniffing the area between the legs.  Also, while humans are allowed to urinate indoors (in giant porcelain bowls), they discourage us from urinating unless we are outdoors – even if there is a tree indoors.  (I learned this a few years ago when we were visiting a friend and I urinated on her "Christmas Tree." I just though it was indoor canine plumbing.)

What's worse is that most humans don't speak Dog at all, and even those who do speak Dog have only learned the basics.  No matter how many times I look away or yawn to indicate I'd like a little more space, some humans just keep invading my space.  It's enough to make a dog crazy sometimes!

Because of all of this, I have had to become fluent at Human Body Language (HBL).  Most humans speak HBL pretty well when they aren't thinking too hard, so I can tell what they want much of the time (especially if I keep all their odd rules in mind), but when they start talking, their HBL often gets very strange.  To make things worse, the few human words I've learned to recognize sometimes contradict what their HBL says.  I can't imagine how humans manage to communicate amongst themselves, to be honest.

Fortunately, my humans seem to understand that human rules are confusing, and work very hard to communicate clearly with me.  When they want to teach me something new, they get out something called "the clicker," the sound of which always has the same meaning – "Well done! Come get your treat."  After they explain, with the aid of the clicker, the behavior they want me to do, they teach me what the behavior is called in HBL or human words, and I know that if they make the movement or sound they taught me, I can earn a treat by doing the behavior we practiced.

My humans are also very understanding when it comes to unpleasant situations.  For example, I have learned that rude behavior towards me from unknown humans or other animals is generally followed by treats from my humans.  My humans also generally interrupt the annoying behavior to which I am being subjected, so I've learned to stay still and wait for rescue and treats (or move quietly away to await my treats, if things really are too intense), in these unpleasant situations.

So all in all, while living as a canine in a human household can be tough at times, my life is pretty good.  My humans give me affection, exercise, food, and a soft place to sleep, and I give them love and entertainment.  I think if you asked them, they would say it's a pretty good trade-off –and I agree!

Editor's note: My husband and I do think it's a pretty good trade-off, and are very grateful to have Franklin in our lives.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year, New Blog

Many people make New Year's resolutions.  I'm not usually one of them (I prefer to make my resolutions on whatever day of the year they happen to fall), but this New Year's I have resolved to start a training blog.  The purpose of this blog is to discuss humane training for dogs and other pets.  I am happy to take questions (leave a comment or contact me), and will address questions and comments as quickly as possible.

In this first post, I'd like to remind everyone that January is National Train Your Dog Month.  Hopefully you are already deliberately training your pet, but in case you aren't, here's something to think about:

Whenever you interact with your pet, training is taking place.  Sometimes you are training your pet, and sometimes your pet is training you (and generally, both are taking place simultaneously to some extent).

It's good to be aware of what training is taking place, and even better to be at least partially in control of the training.  For example, say you are watching TV and your dog comes up to you and nuzzles your arm.  Do you reach down and pet your dog?  If so, you're training your dog to come nuzzle you while you watch TV (assuming your dog likes being petted).  There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, as long as you like the result (more nuzzling).  If, on the other hand, you dislike being nuzzled while you watch TV, it's best to control your reaction and avoid petting your dog when he or she nuzzles you.

Much of the time when we complain that we hate it when our pet does something or other, we have inadvertently trained it (or allowed our pet to train us to reward the behavior, depending on how you want to look at it).  Becoming aware of what training is taking place is a great first step in training the things we actually want.

So here's my challenge for you this month: Notice the things your pet does that you like, as well as the things your pet does that you don't like.  Ask yourself what is reinforcing these behaviors (in other words, what is keeping these behaviors going).  Then think about how you can change the equation to maximize behaviors you like and minimize behaviors you don't like.  Here are a few tips:

- Reinforce behavior you like, with attention, petting, food, access to desired resources (such as toys and the outdoors), and anything else your pet likes.

- Ignore behavior you don't like, lest you accidentally reinforce it with attention.  Simply sit tight, look at the ceiling, keep your lips closed, and wait for the behavior to stop.  Then count to ten and resume interacting with your pet (if appropriate).  That's right, I am asking you to take the word "No!" out of your vocabulary (since for many pets, even "negative" attention is good – much like some publicists would say that even "bad" press is good).  If sitting tight is not an option, walk away and put a closed door between you and your pet, if necessary.

- Manage behavior you can't ignore.  Here's an example: Some pets like to "surf" kitchen counters looking for food.  This behavior is generally not about getting your attention, but rather about eating, so your ignoring it will have no impact on the behavior at all.  To prevent this behavior, keep your kichen counters clean or close off the kitchen so your pet can't get in there (or both).

In the coming weeks and months, I'll discuss how to train a wide range of behaviors, and how to deal with many common annoying behaviors.  If there is a behavior you'd like me to deal with sooner rather than later, contact me.  In the meantime…

Happy New Year!