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Archive for September, 2010

Can you love your dog too much?

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Yes, quite frankly! Now, this is not like that scene in Cats and Dogs (Uma Thurman, Jeannane Garafalo) where the radio announcer (J. Garafalo) answers her listener’s question about kissing his cat and says “You can love your pet, just don’t LOVE your pet.” But it is about affection, in it’s vastly different forms, and the impact that can have on your dog. Dogs by nature are affectionate with one another and with humans, but usually not in an over the top, constant hugs and cuddles, feeding you cupcakes for breakfast kind of way. Some owners will tell you just a paw on their knee is the closest they’ll ever get to affection from their dog. But they recognize and appreciate that paw, and we move on. But what happens if we force that affection, or even worse, give nothing but affection? As much as we all want flowers from our husbands and to make love to our wives, if as couples all we ever did was touch, kiss and shower each other compliments, in the end we probably wouldn’t have a very healthy relationship. The same goes for our dogs, though it seems to be a lot harder to communicate that point to a person who looks at their dog and sees nothing but a cute and fluffy cuddle toy (which even the owners of Great Danes seem to do sometimes).

(As usual, I’ve changed the dog/owner name in the story to protect the privacy of my client). Ashley was a young lady who contacted me over the summer at her witt’s end with her dog, an American Bulldog named Mikey. Actually, it was her parents who were at their witt’s end, and she happened to believe that everything Mikey did was forgivable. Being in her early twenties, she was old enough to have sole custody of the dog, but shared a home with her parents and two other dogs. Upon arriving, I was quick to discover that the other two dogs were fairly well behaved, and that in fact the parents were firstly quite knowledgable about dogs and the boundaries we should set for them, and ultimately fed up not with Mikey’s shortcomings, but their daughter’s ignorance of them. They had given her an ultimatum – train the dog or give him up. Hence, I come into the picture. Within the first minute of entering the house, I could see their point. Mikey charged me at the front door, attacked me (well, attacked my handy canvas binder aka my secret protector against killer doggies), and once reigned in by Ashley, proceeded to lick her face for forgiveness. Shortly after we sat down, he walked into the kitchen and peed all over the floor. Can you say emotionally unstable? As the assessment went on, the dog spent the majority of his time with his upper body on top of Ashley as she cooed in his ear, petted him, and kissed his jowls. As nice as it is to see a dog in a loved home, it can be incredibly frustrating to see an anxiety disorder develop right before your eyes. If this were a podcast, I could more accurately describe how sweet and calm her voice was as she was asking Mikey to get off her lap. Shockingly, it took about 5 minutes to get him down only to have him jump right back up again, at which point she just giggled at him. My work begins! I gave her only two instructions that day – petting can only last for three seconds at a time, and he needs to sit for everything. No more long lavish rub downs, no more cuddles on the couch, no more ‘jumping up to kiss your face requests’ for food and attention. Polite, seated requests only, and minimal touch affection, at least for the foreseeable future.

This case reminds of a lot of fat dogs I see. Not overweight, not pudgy, downright fat. It irks me to no end to see a fat dog when these animals were built to be athletes, and when every single thing they eat is controlled by the owner. A dog gets fat (health conditions aside) because his owner feeds him too much of the wrong thing. Bottom line. But, in saying that, owners don’t feed chips and cake to their dogs to make them fat, they feed it to them because they love their dogs, and are showing them an aspect of what they consider to be love and affection. Ultimately, this is no different than what Ashley was doing to Mikey. Her constant touch, sweet words, total lack of structure or requirement for manners was creating generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, rude and invasive behaviour, and the total inability for her dog to recognize boundaries or consequences. Her love was destroying this dog. These owners are truly living up to the expression “killing them with kindness”.

Now, for those of your who are regular readers of my blog, you know I am no Boot Camp, Army leader, correction based trainer. In fact, I often see the over-use of correction causing equally as many problems, and let’s not forget the horrors I see in rescue as well. Toby gets the best veterinary care, nutrition, the latest toys and his own corner on the living room couch. He also gets lots of cuddles, kisses and compliments from my husband and I. But he is not so overwhelmed with affection that he has forgotten to be polite in asking for it, nor is he so pampered that he can’t rough it at the cottage by sleeping on the floor and eating just plain kibble. He has a balanced life of quality care, affection, clear communication, manners and respect. He’s told when he’s a good boy, and he’s told when he’s done wrong. Should I eliminate one or the other, problems would certainly develop. In fact, when I rescued Toby, his previous owners told me that they took him for training but didn’t want to make him do anything because they didn’t want him to hate them. Subsequently, he was surrendered for out of control behaviour.

Like everything in life, treat your dog with moderation. Acknowledge the good, correct the bad and stabilize the in between. As I say in the Three Keys, consistency is the key to a well trained dog, including when we do and don’t show them affection.

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The Beauty of Dogs

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Every once in a while, we all have to stop the world for a moment, assess our place in it, and answer the Big Why’s. It centers us, it makes us better at what we do, and if the answers are right, it steers us forward. I do this all the time. Dogs never do it. As much as I would like to humanize my dog and play out his thought processes about the meaning of life as he basks by the lake looking out into the sunset, he’s probably just wondering when dinner time is and what that sparkly thing over there smells like. But ultimately, he’s a happy pup, and he doesn’t need a BMW, a healthy bank account or even a good wife to make him feel that way. He just is. For all the teaching I do with humans and dogs alike, I’m quite sure that I learn more than I share each day. From well kept, happy dogs this list is easy; I learn the value of living in the moment, the importance of finding happiness in simple things, and the joy found in a good homemade meal (though my tastes differ drastically from Toby’s!).

Dog lovers who work in any kind of rescue capacity undoubtedly will tell you that they have learned a great deal about the human race, the judicial system, and the extent to which nature can be cruel. Whether we recognize it or not, I think what sticks with us most though are the lessons we learn about the heart of a dog. I recently was involved with an incredible group of people regarding the rescue and rehabilitation of a dog whose owners had ‘discarded her’ in a tin box in their back yard, after she had produced a litter of puppies that were sold and she was then deemed worthless. Sparing the gruesome details, the dog’s experience in the box left her with significant injuries that required surgery and extensive post-operative care. Was amazed me about this dog, Roxi, were the stories of her kindness, her gentle touch, and her pleasure when regaled with rubs and kisses from the veterinary staff. This dog had suffered at the hands of disgraceful people, the only humans it seemed she’d ever known, yet she could differentiate between them and those who were helping her, and despite excruciating pain, demonstrated more love, compassion and forgiveness than she had ever been shown. There will be little to no recourse for the owners (rather, keepers) of this dog, and should we dwell on that fact over and over again as we see dogs like Roxi suffer everyday, few people would gather the stamina and emotional stability to continue to rescue. Instead, we learn from her example; that each person, each being, is an individual; that despite the shortcomings of many, we should acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in others. She taught us that what happened in her past is not necessarily what will happen in her future, and that wallowing in our hardships will negate the benefits of love, kindness and acceptance in our present. For any given reason, Roxi passed away shortly after her recovery due to an aneurism. As heartbreaking as it was to see a dog persevere through so much only to pass away in what would have been the prime of her life, she left a legacy of strength among the numbers who worked to help her, and helped pave the way for the many dogs like her whose future can be changed.

I could write volumes about the lessons I’ve chosen to take away from dogs like Roxi that I’ve worked with. About the tears I’ve shed the first time I see an adult dog learn the joys of playing with a squeaky toy, or the look of sheer joy when I see a dog who was confined to a closet all her life run alongside the lake with eyes bright , tail wagging and tongue lollygagging out her mouth. Ultimately, no matter who the dog is, no matter where they came from, they hold the key we as humans all search for. The key to finding love, forgiveness and happiness in life as it is in the moment. For this I thank all of you, dogs, for the joy, the tears, and most of all, the values you’ve instilled in me. You are, and always will be, the driving force behind my life’s work.

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