Your dog is not Lassie, and that’s ok!

January 1st, 2014

My dog is not perfect. He is the most wonderful dog I know, and I love him beyond what he’ll ever know, but he’s far from perfect. Sometimes, when he’s overexcited and I’m inadequately prepared, he jumps on people. He’s terrified of children, and while we work on reducing his fear and managing him so he’s safe in their presence, he’ll never be able to sit happily while a child coos in his ear. He has never ending allergies, and consistently keeps me working to find out what the next reaction will be. Sometimes, when he’s bored or anxious, he gets into the garbage and litters it across the kitchen for me to clean up when I get home. He makes me crazy, but he’s my little boy, and that’s ok.

In my line of work, seeing fear, anxiety and aggression on a daily basis, I often hear the words ‘cure’, or ‘fixed’, or ‘guaranteed’ – all of which are impossible to predict, and unlikely to occur. There are some days when I’m fortunate to hear “I know it will take time, and I will be patient. I have accepted that there are some things about my dog that will always be a part of her, and I’m ok with that”. Those are the most beautiful words a trainer can hear, and in my opinion, the most important message you can convey to your dog. When you have a reactive dog, for instance, you work hard on their issues, you take the time needed, you follow your trainer’s advice, and you reach a sort of ‘tipping point’ where you’ve seen so much success, you forget how far you’ve come, until you have a moment of regression. It’s frustrating, it wears on your patience, and it often makes you question everything you’ve done up to that point. We tend to ignore all the positive progress and focus on that one bad moment, and it’s in that moment that we begin to set up expectations for our dogs that are just not realistic. We see that perfect Border Collie trotting nicely beside their owner, happily greeting every dog and person, immediately responding to their owner’s cues and doing all of this flawlessly. But I assure you, that dog isn’t perfect either. And you know what else? That is not YOUR dog, and like us, every dog is different, and our version of perfection needs to adjust to our own, individual dog.

In the vast majority of cases, I’ll provide a client and their reactive dog some foundation work, and though it may not seem as though it relates to the dog barking and lunging at another dog, I always explain how it does. For example, if the dog’s anxiety begins with putting the leash on, we start working with the process we follow just before the leash is clipped on – perhaps putting on a harness, or donning your ‘dog walking jacket’, and conditioning the dog to believe these are all good things. I’ll often hear from a client between sessions that the dog is now tolerating well the process of being leashed, ‘so I took her for a walk to the park and she’s still reacting to all the dogs that pass!’, even though we haven’t come close to working on the dog’s perception of being outside in the world attached to a leash. As training begins and progresses, we need to adjust our expectations of our dog. Often times, even as the formal training comes to an end, there are some dogs who have simply been so damaged, and are so fearful, pursuing further behaviour modification is just inhumane, and at that point, we need to accept that ‘my dog is just never going to be that perfect Border Collie’.

My husband has Asperger’s Syndrome. There are certain things in life that simply cause him extreme discomfort and such an aftermath of anxiety that we just don’t do them. Being around large amounts of people in a social environment with lots of noise and lights is one of those things – so we don’t go to dance clubs. He can, however, go to concerts, where no one is really ‘socializing’, we’re all engaged in the same activity of staring at a stage, it’s music he chose himself and that will absolutely be present and predictable (we won’t go to see Band A and hear only music from Band B), and he is surrounded by people that, at least with respect to music, are of like mind and are also relatively predictable. I’m never going to ask him to go to a dance club, and it is certainly not something that is going to frustrate me, diminish my love and respect for him, nor is it something that I feel is intrinsically necessary in our life, so I don’t ask him to engage in the painful activity of desensitizing himself to that kind of environment. I have accepted and am ok with that limitation, as he is of mine.

It’s an incredible moment of freedom when you say to yourself ‘Today, my dog is capable and happy to stand on the front porch and watch the world go by. She’s not at all happy when I take her for a walk, and she’s getting plenty of exercise in the yard and mental stimulation with games. I’m ok with where we are today, and I’m ok if we’re there tomorrow too.” Take baby steps, be patient, and don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Be reasonable about what your dog may be able to achieve in the next six months, and be overjoyed when you reach that point, and can then potentially set new goals. Your dog is not required to be perfect by anyone’s standards but your own, and if your version of perfect includes the fact that your dog has limitations, you’ll both be happier for it. Your dog loves you, and you love your dog – don’t let anyone else tell you what that entails.

NOTE: This post was inspired by the email below that I received recently.  I am incredibly proud of this owner and her dog, and I hope it inspires every dog owner out there who struggles with leash aggression – even though the dog and owner have a long road of work ahead of them, they appreciate each little success, and are not deterred by setbacks.  They are focussed on the right thing – baby steps, accomplishments, and most of all, trust!

“He’s so much better now!! He’s so much more relaxed on our walks, doesn’t feel the need to be hyper vigilant. He spent 20 mins with a non-reactive female dog, complete stranger, and he was a bit unsure, but he sniffed her a few times, initiating the sniff each time. I was so proud of him!!!

And during our cottage vacation, we got run up on by 3 dogs and each time, I got in front of him, made the dogs stop and run back home. And (my dog) stayed behind me the whole time and trusted I would keep him safe.

All this from pure positive reinforcement. Our bond has grown so much more, with your training, than any other training I’ve tried. He trusts me more and I trust him. I “listen” to what he’s telling me and I do it. And the more I do it, the more he trusts me.

We’re still working on the reactive dogs, but he walked, on the same sidewalk, as a smaller dog, coming towards us. It’s baby steps, but we are definitely moving in the right direction!”

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Be Kind to Your Dog

September 15th, 2013

This month, I’d like to dedicate this blog to my friend, Eileen Mabee. Some of you who are clients may have met Eileen during 2011/12 when she worked as my apprentice. She was a funny, quirky, ‘doggy’ person who came to apprentice with me not to become a trainer, but just because she wanted to ‘know stuff’!! That was how she was – totally enamored by dogs, as they were of her. Much as I tried to encourage her to branch out professionally, she knew what she loved to do and that was dog walking, and she did it beautifully. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone quite so in tune with a dog’s mind, and for whom force free training and kind understanding of a dog’s psychological challenges came so naturally. In a strange way, she became the teacher, and I the student, in the school of patience, kindness, and empathy. Eileen was walking dogs on a gorgeous fall day in September last year when she was killed in a tragic vehicle accident. At her funeral, the concensus was that if any human being would be granted access to the Rainbow Bridge (doggy heaven), it would be her, and it gives me comfort to know she’s watching over all the dogs I’ve loved. She has never left me, and I am still learning from her legacy to this day. This blog is about being kind to your dog.

I find, even in my own writings, that those of us in the force free, raw fed, natural choice world of dogs are often (no, ALWAYS!) telling owners what NOT to do with their dogs. Don’t feed certain (most) kibbles, watch out for jerky treats, stop over-vaccinating, and don’t use force in training. It’s not until someone does an actual consult with us that we get into the nitty gritty of what you SHOULD be doing for your dog. Ultimately, though, I think we all just want you to be kind to your dog, and in ways you may not have thought of before.

Make healthy choices! In our own world, we tend to try to make choices for ourselves that are ‘good for us’. We try to eat more veggies, not pop too many pills, exercise when we can, avoid living next to nuclear power plants and reduce our carbon footprint. But we don’t think about these choices for our dogs. Research the food you’re feeding (from an unbiased source!), add in veggies and fruits and cooked meats (if you feed kibble meats must be cooked – raw meat digests differently and doesn’t mix with kibble). Feed a raw meaty bone every once in a while! Consider switching from non-human grade, processed food (kibble) to whole, fresh, human grade food (raw). Think about the air your dog is breathing – is your home heavily scented? Do you smoke inside your home? Do you use heavy cleaners on your floors and furniture that your dog then licks off himself? Do you really need to vaccinate your dog every year and apply heartworm meds every month if your dog has limited exposure? Considering, researching, and acting on these choices is a kindness to your dog!

Exercise the DOG, not just yourself! Last month, from my balcony, I saw a woman running with her Golden Retriever down a very busy one way street. The problem was, she was running the dog on a Flexi-Leash (meaning the dog could extend up to 24 feet away from her at any moment), she was running on the road with the dog on the inside of the street (closest to cars) during rush hour, and it was about 33 degrees outside and the dog was on hot asphalt. Sounds pretty dangerous, right? It is! But, I’ll bet this owner felt like she was doing something good for her dog, even though the dog was clearly overheated, stressed by the traffic whizzing right by him, and not really being given a choice in any of this. Taking the dog for a walk can sometimes be a chore, or something we want to rush through. But we need to remember that a walk outside is a dog’s tv, his library, his movie collection, and his laptop/ipod/iphone all rolled into one – it’s their entertainment! If your dog enjoys walks, make sure you let him stop and sniff the sniffs, chase the occasional bird, run with other dogs, roll in the mud and maybe just sit with you in the grass and watch the world go by. Exercise isn’t just about making sure their legs move quickly and their heart rate increases – it’s about giving them a little ‘doggie-ness’ in their lives every day! Making the walk about your dog, and not about your image or your schedule, is a kindness to your dog.

Have fun with your dog! Our own human lives are filled with too many things to do, both fun and not fun, for approximately 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. The average dog gets about 90 minutes per day of ‘stuff’ to do, like eating, greeting his owners, going for a walk, and maybe even playing tug with his owner. Can you imagine having nothing to do (No books, no tv, no ipod, no phone, no friends) for 22.5 hours a day, every single day, for the rest of your life? Playing games like hide and seek with treats/toys/humans, having a doggie play date, putting away toys in a hidden spot so that old toys can become novel and exciting again are all easy ways to have fun with your dog every day. You could also enroll in a dog sport, pick up 101 Dog Tricks for Dummies and teach him new ways to impress people, you can feed him all his meals from Kong toys, and you can even just spend a little time cuddling on the couch! All these things can really brighten the day for your dog, and they are kindnesses that any dog will appreciate!

Give them a break! In life, there are always things we’ve got to do that we just don’t really want to – like doing the dishes, getting an oil change done etc. For dogs, they have these ‘obligations’ too – like Toby, my boy who sleeps with his face on the arm of the couch and just hates it when I walk by and squish his cute cheeks and kiss his head. He couldn’t be more obvious about thinking “Oh my god, Mum!!! Just leave me alone will you?!” – but it’s something I ask him to put up with because it makes ME happy, even though I know it doesn’t make HIM happy. But, there are also lots of times that I give him break, and forego what I may want from him or from a situation to give him the space he wants. I don’t force him to cuddle with me when he doesn’t want to, I give him extra ball time or a warm blanket and a stuffed Kong when we spend time at my family’s home at Christmas and it’s totally overwhelming for him. I let him run around the yard with the sprinkler in his mouth on hot summer days, or we stay up late/get up early to walk him so he doesn’t have to bare the heat on a hot summer day. I shoo away the ever present annoying dog at the dog park so he can enjoy himself without being pestered, and I just generally try to avoid situations that he plain old doesn’t enjoy by omitting the phrase “my dog SHOULD like to…”, because he’s shown me that he doesn’t, and that’s ok. These things seem relatively small, but each choice is made out of respect for his boundaries and needs, and they are in themselves small kindnesses.

Train without pain! No matter what the issue is, I find most people who use force with their dogs (like leash corrections, yelling, physical manipulation, holding the dog down by the collar, etc) aren’t really thinking “I’m going to use a forceful method of training to make sure my dog is perfect all the time and I’m very much aware of the psychology behind why it might work and what ramifications it might have”. In fact, only once or twice in my career have I heard a dog owner justify their reactions to their dog’s behaviour that way. In fact, most owners I work with are really just REACTING to their dog and trying to stop a problem in the moment, and if they could avoid it in the first place using force free techniques, they would! Worst of all, by reacting to problem behaviour using force (even when you feel it’s your last resort), the majority of the time you’re not fixing a problem, but you are creating a trust issue with your dog, breaking down the relationship, and ultimately leaving your dog feeling confused and afraid. When you don’t even want to use these techniques in the first place, knowing these consequences are possible make it even worse. So my final word on kindness is this; take the time to learn more about positive training. Read books (I’m happy to make suggestions), watch DVDs and online presentations, hire a positive trainer, get some squeaky toys and some yummy little treats (or whatever makes your dog super happy) and start learning with your dog! Those who have been down this path, including myself, will tell you it’s the most exciting, rewarding journey you can take with your dog. You’ll end up feeling a sense of pride in yourself, and your dog, and you’ll both be happier because you made KIND choices.

This picture is my Toby’s happy face, and there’s very little in this world I wouldn’t do to make him smile like that every day. If Eileen were here today, she’d tell you that no matter what challenges you face with a dog, no matter how far beyond saving they seem, there is always a way to make a dog smile – even if you have to get right in the pond with them and be stinky together all the way home. 

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Making Healthy Choices for Kibble Fed Dogs

September 2nd, 2013

The majority of us who own dogs do so because they are wonderful companions, dear friends, and members of the family. In fact, many dogs owners I know prefer their dog’s company to that of people! We love our dogs, and do our best to make choices for them that will make them happy, healthy, and to create longevity of life expectancy. But, when it comes to food, making these choices can be confusing and difficult, as we’re led down the garden path by pet food companies, sales people, and medical professionals who sell food but do not specialize in canine nutrition. People often come to me for advice because I don’t sell food – I don’t profit from the food choices that you make, but I do advocate for a dog’s wellbeing, and spend a great deal of time learning what choices truly are best for your dog. Ultimately, the choice between a kibble diet versus a balanced raw diet is the choice between feeding a 100% processed, non human grade diet versus a fresh, whole, human grade ingredient diet. Just as we try to feed ourselves fresh, whole foods more often than processed foods, I realize that is not an option for everyone, and it is my goal to help you feed the best possible diet within your means. The healthier the diet you choose, the less likely it is your dog will experience chronic (and expensive) health issues, and the more likely it is that your dog will have more balanced behaviour (food feeds the brain, after all).

A note on recalls: Any food, human or otherwise, is at risk of recall. This can be due to packaging issues, quality concerns, or the results of testing feedback. What we want to see following any recall is transparency of information (were we made aware immediately, were the parameters of the recall clear, did the company promptly and clearly answer your questions), preventative recalls (meaning the company recalled the product based on their own concerns, as opposed to a recall being forced upon the company by the FDA), regular third party testing (where the company has food tested PRIOR to distribution by an outside company, rather than by it’s own in house testers post-distribution), and most importantly, changes to the protocols to prevent future recalls. Did they change warehouses, replace ingredient suppliers, improve pre-distribution testing? Most importantly, are third party websites that are not controlled by the kibble company revealing mostly positive or negative reviews of the food when it’s fed by the average pet owner? Also consider the source of the company’s ingredients – ‘Manufactured in Canada’ does not mean the ingredients are from Canada! When asked, does the company give you information about what country supplies their ingredients, and does that country maintain the same food safety standards as we do in Canada?

Ignore the marketing!! Recently, pet food companies have begun advertising their food by showing you fresh, whole foods as a component of their product. I personally find this ironic, given that if you were to actually feed this food in it’s advertised “real food” form, as opposed to it’s kibble form, you’ll be laughed out of the vet’s office and told by the kibble companies that this is not an acceptable way of feeding your pet. The ingredients in pet food, for the most part, are NOT FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION! Kibble is a processed food, often comprised of the parts of foods made for humans that are not considered fit to be consumed by humans – this is why so many kibble companies are actually owned by a parent company that produces human food products. Rather than pay to dispose of all the waste from this production, the waste is instead used to make dog food, which the company can profit from. In addition, the regulations for marketing dog food are different from those for marketing human food. For example, you can find a canned food that is called ‘simmered beef flavour’, which actually contains little to no beef, and whose protein sources are primarily chicken and soy. So, how you can avoid these tricks? Learn to read the ingredients!

Read the label! No matter what any sales person tells you, the benefits (or lack thereof) of any food are based in their ingredients – both content and quality. Remember, dogs are carnivores, so meat is the most important ingredient on the label. One major misconception is the term ‘meal’ – many people think that’s a terrible thing. Ingredients on a label must be listed by weight, with the heaviest product being first. Meal is simply a meat which has had it’s water content removed. Consider a chicken breast – it’s approximately 80% water. If the water has been removed, thus reducing it’s weight significantly, and chicken meal is your first ingredient, the content of meat in the diet when meal is the first ingredient is high. By-products are simply the part of the meat that are not considered part of the human diet, mainly because we find them distasteful. If we again use chicken as an example, this can include feet, beaks, gizzards, heads, and feathers. Although feathers are basically indigestible (just have a look at the stool of the wolf who raids the chicken coop), the other components mentioned are digestible, and often nutrient dense. Where we see concerns in meat products is when the food contains an unnamed meat, such as ‘meat meal’, ‘meat by-product meal’ etc. There is a reason that companies don’t name their meats, and often it’s because the meat chosen is very unsavoury to the human eye. Ann Martin’s book “Food Pets Die For” is an excellent resource for any person who feeds kibble, and she elaborates on what ‘meat’ is acceptable for use in kibble. This is often the tipping point for people who are so appalled by what is actually in dog food that they end up switching to a fresh, human grade diet such as raw.

In my opinion, the most significant ingredient issue in kibble is grain loading. Remember, ingredients are listed by weight, but kibble companies are allowed to split ingredients in the food and list them separately, often resulting in a grain loaded diet. For example, here’s an ingredient list from a major pet store brand pet food : Chicken meal, corn gluten meal, brown rice, oatmeal, barley, natural chicken flavour, chicken fat, rice, dried beet pulp (sugar removed), pork meal, pea fiber, wheat gluten meal, anchovy oil. Now, if we actually count the grains listed in this food, we’ll find that there are six sources of grain. Compare that to one meat listing at the beginning of the ingredient list, you’re now seeing that this is a grain loaded diet! If the company were required to combine it’s grain listing, the grain would most certainly outweigh the meat! Given that dogs are carnivores, and have a minimal requirement for carbohydrate in the diet, this is not an ideal diet for a dog, and it is not biologically appropriate. Because the dog’s metabolism is not designed for such high grain intake, the body can react to this food as a foreign substance, or in other words, the dog can develop allergies (symptoms are often soft stool, itchy paws, chronic ear infections, body odour, etc.). Unused grain is also converted by the body into stored fat, and reduces the body’s ability to break down dietary fat and protein – a magic combination that causes obesity in dogs! Weight loss in dogs is often best achieved, in my opinion, by a moderate protein (24-34%), moderate fat (12-18%) diet low in grain, combined with daily exercise and small, healthy treats.

Why are we avoiding wheat, corn and soy? Of late, this has also become a popular marketing tool, but is a serious consideration when choosing a kibble. These grains and the soy bean are the most heavily genetically modified ingredients in the world, meaning that the base dna of the product has been changed, often resulting in the body’s inability to recognize it as a food, resulting in allergies. Dr. Joseph Mercola states the following about soy: “Thousands of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders and infertility — even cancer and heart disease.
One of the primary reasons it would be wise for you to avoid soy is that more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. Since the introduction of genetically engineered foods in 1996, we’ve had an upsurge in low birth weight babies, infertility, and other problems in the U.S., and animal studies have shown devastating effects from genetically engineered soy including allergies, sterility, birth defects, and offspring death rates up to five times higher than normal.” Based on studies such as these, along with extremely high pesticide content in these ingredients, many kibble companies have recognized the public’s concern about these foods, and eliminated them from their products, which is a wonderful move forward for kibble. Most kibble companies have also found more natural ways to preserve their foods, as opposed to some who are still choosing to use BHA and BHT, known carcinogens now banned in human food production, and ethoxyquin, which if fed in large amounts has been linked to cancer as well.

Lastly, consider what makes sense to you about what a dog can nutritionally use. Do you really think there is a lot of nutrition that can be absorbed in a peanut hull? Can a dog absorb much nutrition from a diet solely comprised of soy protein isolate, starch and vegetable oil (yes, this is a real ingredient list from a veterinary prescription diet)? If unused grain converts to fat, is a grain-only weight loss diet really healthier, or are the ingredients simply not being absorbed by the dog, causing him to lose weight (meaning, is the dog being nutritionally starved?)? These are questions I ask myself, and that I believe all dog owners should consider when deciding what their dog will consume for the foreseeable future. Humans are omnivores, meaning we are designed to eat meat, grains, vegetables etc., but we cannot remain healthy on a diet solely comprised of grains. If a dog is physiologically designed to eat mostly meat, does it make sense to feed only soy protein isolate (like soy flour), starch, vegetable oil and a multi-vitamin for every single meal for the rest of their life? Could YOU eat that, and be healthy?

Many veterinary nutritionists and homeopathic research vets have spent a great deal of time trying to educate the veterinary community and dog owners on the pitfalls of the common kibble diet. For more information about this, please watch this short 8 minute video from Dr. Karen Becker: http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2011/11/08/new-trends-in-pet-food.aspx

Please note that these are solely the opinions of The Dog’s Assistant (Erica Garven), and that I am not a veterinarian. The opinions contained herein are based on research provided by a variety of veterinary nutritionists and canine nutrition professionals. All dog owners are encouraged to consult a veterinarian who specializes in nutrition in place of, or in addition to, their regular veterinarian prior to making diet changes.

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Canada AM Canine Nutrition Segment – August 20, 2013

August 19th, 2013

Thank you for watching this morning’s broadcast of Canada AM! It is my sincere hope that you enjoyed the segment, and that you learned something new about how to feed your dog for good health. Remember, nutrition is the foundation for good health, and just as a human needs fresh, whole foods to be in optimal health, so do our dogs. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my dog’s coat shine, his teeth gleaming white (at 8 years of age!), his behaviour balanced, and best of all, dealing with a lot less odor when I pick up after him! Keep an eye on my future blogs to detail more about choosing a healthier kibble, using the right supplements, allergy issues and raw food advantages! Or feel free to browse my blog history!

If you’d like to learn more about what you heard today, please consider attending one of my Sunday seminars, geared towards all dogs owners who want to better understand how to feed their dog for good health, including kibble choices, allergies and raw feeding. My next seminar is scheduled for October 6th, 2013, and you may purchase tickets from All About Dogs, located at Keele and Lawrence in Toronto, Ontario. Please contact them via their website at www.allaboutdogs.ca

The products showcased on today’s show are as follows:
(please note that this was prepared prior to the broadcast, and some items may or may not have been included in the live presentation)

PC Nutrition First Dog Food (kibble) – the segment’s sponsor

www.presidentschoice.ca

***Please note that if you live in the west end of the GTA, I have collaborated with Global Pet Foods Oakville and Port Credit locations to raise 7% of all purchases for Boxer Rescue Ontario. Just mention my name and the fundraiser when you visit the Oakville or Port Credit locations of Global Pet Foods! All purchases qualify!!

All raw meat products were provided by Ontario’s best raw food supplier:
Heronview Raw and Natural
www.heronviewrawandnatural.com

Supplements provided by Heronview Raw and Natural include:
Feed-sentials K9 (nutritional food supplement, raw diet balancer)
Phyt’n Chance K9 (phytonutrients and anti-oxidant blend)
Carnivora Cold Water Fish Oil

Probiotic and Digestive Enzyme Blend:
Kazooticals Probiotic Complex
www.kazooticals.ca

Omega Nutrition Apple Cider Vinegar

Treats:

www.spoiledpupscookieco.com

Fruit and vegetables were purchased at a local organic retailer. Please remember that veggies must be pureed prior to being fed, as dogs don’t have the necessary enzymes to break down plant wall the way humans do. If you break down the veggies for them by pureeing, your dog can absorb all the wonderful vitamins and minerals available. Fruits can be fed whole, or pureed. Never feed fruit pits or seeds as they are toxic to dogs, and never feed grapes, raisins, onions or garlic (the highest amount of garlic that is safe for a dog is one clove (not on entire bulb!) per 75lb dog per day, so please use sparingly). And of course, no chocolate!

The Dog’s Assistant’s Personalized Nutrition Assessments:
Please note that at this time, we are no longer providing diet design services. However, we are pleased to continue to offer Allergy Support Services via phone or email for dogs who have been diagnosed with allergy related issues. Please note that we will not provide these services for dogs who have not received an official diagnosis of allergies from their vet, as other skin or digestive issues may be at play an may require medical intervention. PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT I AM NOT A VETERINARIAN AND CANNOT OFFER YOU ANY MEDICAL ADVICE.

Allergy consults can be done as a single phone consult for $85, or a full year of support (recommended) can be provided (phone or email only) for $240. Fees must be paid in full in advance of the first consult (the first consult is always done by scheduled phone appointment) and can be paid by email transfer or cheque. Please contact me directly to set up an appointment at erica@thedogsassistant.ca, or via the Contact Us page on this website.

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Toby’s Christmas Safety Tips

December 14th, 2012

This is an old article that was published in the 2009 Christmas edition of the Boxer Rescue Ontario Newsletter, but the issues remain the same this year! Toby has become older and wiser since then, but we’re still mindful of the things that can be not so merry for dogs at this time of year. One question that is not answered here but that I’m asked often is how to introduce your family’s dogs to your own dog. This is most successfully done by meeting outside your home, usually about a block away, and walking the dogs together on leash. Once they seem comfortable, let them meet and get to know one another. It’s a also a good idea to pick up the things in your house that your dog may be a little possessive over, like toys or food bowls. If you’re unsure, it doesn’t hurt to keep the dogs attached by leash to their human, and a Smoochy Poochy umbilical leash is the easiest way to do it! Holidays are best when everyone gets along – including the dogs! Keeping them safe, and friendly, just makes everything that much more enjoyable!

Hi! Merry Christmas wiggles! My name is Toby and I’m a four year old Boxer. My Mom rescued me last August, and we have a great time together. So far, aside from walking, eating, playing with my toys and getting treats, my most favourite thing to do with Mom is this thing she calls Christmas. Last year, she told me all about this man named Santa! I never got to see him, but he must be a pretty cool guy because he brought me MORE treats, MORE toys AND he brought stuff for my Mom too! What a nice guy – he’s never even met me and he knows exactly what I like! I can’t wait until he comes again this year! This Christmas thing was just a pain before with all the new rules and tempting things, but now that Santa comes for ME, it all pays off!
The best part about Santa is that he wraps up my new presents in this special paper – and Mom lets me tear it apart and make a huge mess! She says I can have fun with it, but only if I only do it on this special day called Christmas. Mom says Santa gets this special paper without any of the toxins or dyes that might make my tummy upset, and that he gets it at this place called the SPCA, or some of the doggy grocery stores we go to. I can have regular wrapping paper too, but Mom has to be really careful that I don’t eat it. The stuff Santa brings for Mom has this pretty string on it called ribbon, but Mom keeps her wrapping and ribbons in a bag on the table because she keeps saying it’s not a toy and that I might choke on it. Maybe one day I can have ribbons for Christmas! They look so shiny and fun to play with! But Mom still says no and hides it out of my reach. Maybe one year Santa will bring me thumbs to grab stuff off the table with….
Before Christmas, Mom gets presents from a special early Santa for all the other humans, and she hides those too in case I wreck them. She’s always telling me about this stuff that looks like snow cookies called ‘styrofoam’, and that it could make me choke or be sick. Sometimes when the humans come over, they eat and drinks lots of cookies and smelly water, and they can get kinda loud and annoying. Some of the humans feed me their cookies, but they make my tummy sick, so Mom always says “no cookies for the dog!” and makes sure that no one comes into my room. I just stay in my room and watch from there sometimes because it’s a lot quieter, no one steps on my toes and it’s not so tempting to eat those fancy treats that are everywhere. That can be hard to pass up when you’re on a special diet like me!
Some of the humans bring my dog friends over to play with me. My friend Tyson showed me these weird things that look like little snakes, and at the other end of them are these pretty little lights in lots of different colours. Tyson likes to chew on them, but Mom says they’re called ‘electrical cables’, and she tries pretty hard to hide them behind the couch and stuff so that me and Tyson don’t play with them. She says we will get ‘electrocuted’, and whenever she puts out the cables before Christmas, she doesn’t leave me alone in the same room with them and I have to stay in my room when she goes out. Tyson also showed me how to jump up on the kitchen counter and grab the good human treats. His Mom gates off the kitchen when she’s playing with the other humans so that he can’t do that, and when my Mom caught us she moved most of the treats into the fridge, put some of them into containers we couldn’t get open, and moved the rest to the very back of the counter so we couldn’t get at them. Tyson was mad, but I didn’t care. At Christmas they eat lots of this brown stuff that smells really good, but every time I eat it Mom takes me to see Dr. Smith and he says I have chocolate poisoning and then he makes me throw it back out. It’s kinda yucky that way and Mom tells me after that I spent all my allowance at Dr. Smith. Believe me, it’s not the best way to spend your allowance!
Christmas time is sort of mean though too. I have to pass this special test where Mom brings the bathroom into the living room! For weeks there’s this big tree just staring at me begging me to go pee on it, and Mom says I can’t! It must be a special kind of tree, because it’s got all these shiny balls on it, just like the ones I play with outside! But every time I come within a foot of the tree, Mom says ‘leave it’ and I have to listen so that she’ll say I‘m a good boy. If I don’t leave it alone, she’ll come and make me lie down somewhere else, and sometimes I’d really rather just wander around. Besides, Mom practices these words like ‘leave it’ with me all year, so I pretty much understand and it’s just easier to do what Mom says. Might even get a cookie for it!
Even though I can’t go near the tree and play with the toys on it, and I can’t pee on it, and I can’t eat all the good food, and all these humans come and bug me, Mom makes it better when she lets me go into my own room and get some peace and quiet, and Santa makes it WAY better ‘cause be brings me so much cool stuff! I think I’m starting to figure this out! Mom says she talked to Santa and I’m getting some really great new toys this year! Just 30 more big sleeps and 120 meals and 60 walks and 422 naps till he gets here again! Wiggle bum! Wiggle bum! Merry Christmas everyone!

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Nutrition Advice – is it making our dogs sick?

December 10th, 2012

I write each of my blogs with the hope that it will entertain and educate the reader, and ultimately improve the lives of dogs whose owners are so dedicated as to endeavor upon a journey of learning about their dog’s behaviour and nutritional requirements. I try not use this blog space as a spouting ground for the things in the dog world that annoy, frustrate or disappoint me. But, every once in a while, something impacts me enough that I not only need to write about it to alleviate some of my own frustration, I also need to write about it so that others in the dog community can help to bring an end to the forces that work against our dogs. It’s easy for me to say that the path of punitive and invasive training is what pains me most, and I created a Foundation wherein people can learn and begin to move toward change in that arena. Today’s topic comes a close second, and it is the misleading and quite frankly dangerous world of nutrition advice.

I recently visited a dog, a lovely 8 year old Airedale Terrier, who has been assuaged by allergies for nearly two years now. His person, an experienced and loving dog owner, has done her very best over the past two years to follow her vet’s advice, seek out information, and work to make life a little easier for her poor boy. His allergies are, and have been, so severe that his entire body is covered in a white, oily, pungent bacteria, he is incredibly itchy, and of course very uncomfortable. He’s also lost approximately 4kg, and is considerably underweight despite all her attempts to provide the best nutritional care for him, based on the information provided to her. Finally, after a recent visit to her vet where he essentially threw his hands in the air in surrender, she decided to contact me for some advice.

Before I go on, I’d like to clarify that I have a profound respect for veterinarians. They are practitioners, pharmacists, surgeons, practicing on multiple species further complicated by patients who cannot speak. Quite frankly, I think they far outperform our own medical doctors, and I am forever in the debt of a few vets who have brought my ‘kids’ back from the brink. But, in my opinion, there is a flaw in the educational system for vets, and while nutrition should be a major part of their schooling given that it is the foundation of good health, the information provided to them throughout university is lacking, and that which is provided is done so via kibble manufacturers who present biased information. Certainly, there are vets who embark on their own educational improvements in nutrition, and can offer excellent advice in this realm for both healthy and sick dogs – but sadly, for many this is not the case. Having worked in a clinic myself, I know how busy a vet’s life can become, and how easy it is to be provided information by a pet food company about a kibble designed to compliment a specific health issue and simply include that food as part of the protocol. Their focus is on no less important things, but in my opinion, not on the reality of what these diets can do (or not do) to a dog’s physical well being.

The Airedale was prescribed a veterinary vegetarian blend and was being fed this food for approximately 18 months. The intention being that if the dog was reacting to an animal protein, the food which contained no animal protein would eliminate the allergy. The food’s first three ingredients, in order, are oat flour, rice and potato protein. The food appears to contain small amounts (listed well down the ingredient list) of carrot pomace and tomato pomace – the only sign of vegetable, despite the name of the kibble. When that didn’t work, the vet then prescribed another veterinary diet in the Hypoallergenic line. The first ingredients (and only actual food-like ingredients) are starch, soy protein isolate, and vegetable oil.

How any company claiming to be promoting the better health of dogs can produce a food with these ingredients and expect a dog to glean any nutrition from it is something I cannot even fathom. This dog was expected to live on this kibble, and in the case of allergies ONLY this kibble in case of contaminating the diet with other foods, for a considerable portion of it’s life. Starch and soy are nowhere close to meeting the nutritional requirements of a carnivorous animal, not to mention the fact that these three simple ingredients are not even considered to be human grade (meaning that pet food companies use ingredients that are not fit for human consumption, often discarded waste of human food processing).

It is also astonishing to me that these companies, and those who promote them, have not seen the research supporting the idea that the most likely cause of a food intolerance or allergy in a dog is grain! Many, many dogs who suffer the symptoms of allergies improve dramatically when switched to a grain free food. This is not to say that all allergies can be attributed to grain – certainly not – but if it was very likely that your dog’s allergies may be resolved by simply removing grain from the diet, wouldn’t that be the simplest first approach? Yet most veterinary line “hypoallergenic” diets on the market are almost entirely comprised of grain!

The subject of quality and responsibility in the pet food marketplace is a subject that I expound upon for several hours in my nutrition seminars, so I’ll limit myself here. Perhaps this short blog will lead you to investigate further, to read another wonderful blog by veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker (link below), or to read Ann Martin’s powerful book about how pet food is made called Food Pets Die For.

We can do better by the animals who give us their love and trust. Much, much better. Please, do some research (that hasn’t been done by a pet food company or a group that sells food), ask questions, and READ THE LABEL.

Dr. Becker’s blog about veterinary diets:

http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2012/12/05/nutritionists-promote-pet-food-brands.aspx

The first food mentioned in this blog:

http://www.royalcanin.ca/index.php/Veterinary-Products/Canine-Nutrition/Veterinary-Therapeutic-Formulas/Hypoallergenic-HP-Dry

The second food mentioned in this blog:

http://www.purinaveterinarydiets.com/Product/HAHypoallergenicDogFood.aspx

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Dear Santa Paws (Holiday Shopping List)

December 1st, 2012

Dear Santa Paws,
(from Toby the flashy fawn Boxer that lives with his person Erica)
This year I think I was an exceptionally good boy. I even trained my Mum to type for me and say big words like exceptionally. Also I promise if you come this year I won’t eat all your cookies before you get here. I can’t make any promises about Rudolph’s treats though so maybe you better bring some extra.

This is what I’d like for Christmas this year and I’m going to share. My Mum tries to help other dogs all year and I think I should too because I have it pretty good here. So not all of it is for me I promise. My Mum also wants you to make a special visit to the foster homes for the rescues to bring extra toys and treats, and she said checks for money would be good too but I don’t know why Santa would check for money there.

So anyway, here’s all the good stuff for the list (really I just want some cheezies, so Mum wrote the rest):

GoDog plush toys – available at this time of year in gorgeous Christmas styles, or all through the year in cute animal versions like cows, sheep and dragons. This toy is made of a special fabric and stitching that is not harmful to your dog, and it is very difficult to chew through. I’ve tested these toys in multi-dog homes, with large and small dogs, and cannot believe their endurance. They come with lots of squeakers, different sizes, and varying shapes to please any dog!

Kong Wobbler – no dog’s home is complete without a classic Kong. But the Kong Wobbler is a twist on tradition that provides a different sort of challenge and can entertain your dog for hours. It looks like a classic Kong with a harder shell, and a small hole in the side to release your choice of treats. The top screws off for filling, and the base is sealed with sand inside to make it bottom heavy, so your dog needs to push it around with his paws or nose to get it to land in just the right spot to get a treat out. While it’s a great self-entertaining toy, it’s also a wonderful way to teach your dog not to use his teeth, and you should monitor your dog at first to be sure that he doesn’t attempt to crack it open (though that won’t happen easily – this is one tough toy!).

Seat Belts – keeping your dog safe in the car is something we should all be doing all year round. Unfortunately, seat belts for dogs are not yet required to be tested under the Canadian Safety Association, but some have been privately crash tested. They come in varying styles to suit your dog and your vehicle set up, and vary widely in price so shop around. They not only protect your dog from flying forward in an accident, they also help prevent accidents by stopping your dog from obstructing your view or creating a distraction by moving around all over your vehicle.

Smoochy Poochy Products – likely the best collars and leashes I’ve ever come across! New this year is their 8 foot umbilical leash, allowing for extra girth around our own waists when wearing bulky winter clothing. They also come with handy little bag dispensers, a grab handle near the collar clip, and are made of durable nylon. I’ve never been so pleased with a leash in all my life, and will never use anything but! And they are a Canadian Company!

2HoundsDesign Collars – probably some of the most beautiful collars you’ll ever see. They are particularly nice on large breed dogs, and come in 1.5” width providing extra comfort around your dog’s neck if he happens to pull on the leash. Some of my friends (but not me, oh no not me!) have developed a bit of an addiction to these gorgeous pieces and have quite the collection for all seasons and holidays!

Chilly Dogs Coats – as many of you know, I have a Boxer and do extensive work with Boxer Rescue, and these are the only coats I’ve found that keep their barely covered bodies warm in Canadian winters! The Great White North coat is wonderful for days in the snow, and the Chilly Sweater is perfect for at the cottage or milder walks through town. You’ll also find neck warmers, rain coats, and other great products for any breed of dog! They come in an array of colours and fits, and the owner requests measurements of your dog that ensure a perfect fit (even for broad shoulder dogs, which are impossible to fit!). Also, a Canadian Company!

Z-Bones – a great way to clean your dog’s teeth without all the harmful ingredients included in most dental chew bones. Made by Zukes (who also makes Mini Naturals, a great training treat), they come in different sizes and flavours to please any breed, and do a great job freshening your dog’s breath for all the holiday visitors!

Many of these products are available in pet stores, particularly Global Pet Foods in Oakville (mention my name when you shop there and I’ll make a donation to rescue!), or online. Please remember at this time that there are many pets in rescues and shelters that won’t make it to their forever home for the holidays. Food, toys, treats, blankets, crates, and coats are always welcome donations, and of course even a monetary donation of $5 can make a difference. Boxer Rescue Ontario is currently doing a penny drive and a volunteer will even come to your home to pick up your soon to be obsolete pennies, and they also collect Canadian Tire money to help pay for gas to transport dogs and to provide needed supplies such as food bowls, toys and crates for dogs in foster care. If you’d like to make a donation to any rescue and aren’t sure what to donate or where, please contact me and I’d be happy to help you decide!

I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, or just a wonderful holiday season with friends and family – and most importantly, your fur family! My most favourite gift of all is the one I receive all year long – the joy of owning Toby. At Christmas, I’ll be sure to show him just how much I love and appreciate him!

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Freak on a Leash – Why Dogs become Leash Aggressive

November 13th, 2012

Leash aggression is probably the most common complaint that I hear from people about their dogs when it comes to aggression issues. In addition to that, if I had a penny for every time I heard “it’s funny, he’s totally fine when he’s off leash, but as soon as we go for a walk on leash, he goes crazy!”, well, my favourite rescue would be rich!

I’m currently working with a beautiful, 2 year old Boxer boy named Jersey. He adopted his Mom Cathy in June of this year, and she contacted me within of few days of bringing him home. When I arrived, not only did I see Jersey have a freak out (and that’s a technical term folks) when another dog walked up the opposite sidewalk, Cathy also showed me how one side of her body was totally black and blue from Jersey turning on her. This is a behaviour called redirected aggression, wherein the dog will react to a stimulus (usually another dog), and will turn on the person holding the leash, the dog he is walking with, or basically whoever is closest to him. Not only was Jersey a threat to other dogs (introductions on leash had not gone well), he was also dangerous to Cathy. This required some serious intervention.

The funny thing about Jersey, and actually most dogs with leash aggression, is that he can play wonderfully with dogs so long as he isn’t attached to the leash. He has dog friends over in his backyard 3 or 4 times per week, sometimes up to 3 dogs at a time, and has never had an issue with any of them. He greets new dogs nicely, he adjusts his play style depending on the breed, and can even share treats and toys with multiple dogs without any reaction. This has formed an important part of his rehabilitation, and he continues to have several puppy play dates per week.

So the question is, what does Jersey have an issue with? Other dogs, or the leash? This example, and many others, prove that the majority of leash reactivity issues are directly related to the leash – not to dogs specifically (though dogs that are reactive to humans, on or off leash, may have different issues are should immediately be seen by a professional). In addition, leash reactivity is a learned behaviour that is often taught in response to a young dog who begins to be excitable when another dog approaches on walks, and in an effort to control the dog, the owner is actually causing the dog to develop reactivity issues. This is most commonly the result of aversive equipment like prong/pinch collars, choke collars or inappropriately used martingale collars, but can also result from something as simple as a strong verbal correction (“No!! Leave it!! Bad!!”).

As you’ve learned in my other blogs, dogs (in simplified terms) learn by association. Dogs produce a Sit behaviour so reliably because it is so often followed by a desirable result (reinforcement), like getting fed, getting a treat, or getting to go out for a walk. This premise applies with punishment as well, except it is much more challenging for the dog to figure out exactly what they are being punished for, and they can easily make the wrong association. If the common denominator in a situation where the dog is punished is always the oncoming dog, they will believe that they are being punished because a dog is approaching them. Even though the owner believes that these corrections are clearly being delivered because the dog is getting excited and jumping around, unless that dog did exactly the same reaction in exactly the same place and was punished at exactly the same point each time, it’s difficult for them to ascertain what specifically the feedback is for. In the example of Sit, it’s pretty clear to the dog that when they put their bum on the floor, good things happen – it’s a simple action for a dog to recognize and an owner to reinforce with good timing. If you think about the last time your dog acted out (negatively or positively) on leash with respect to an oncoming dog, consider how many physical behaviours he demonstrated inside that small amount of time. Also consider how many different ways you’ve responded to your dog when he does that, and then from the dog’s perspective, try to figure out exactly which thing is the same every time. Well, every time, there was a dog coming towards you.

The dog will quickly develop a method of communication that will attempt to keep the oncoming dog away from him, because in his mind, the closer the other dog gets the more he gets in trouble. Yet, in most settings, the dog is not able to keep that dog from approaching him, because the oncoming owner is innocently continuing on their walk. Following that, the opposing dog will eventually go away – again, because that owner is simply continuing his walk – so in the dog’s mind, his communications to that dog have finally been effective. In the dog’s mind, it goes like this “I’m on a walk, this is great! Look, there’s a leaf! Gotta pee, gotta pee, peed on a fire hydrant! Wait a minute – is that a dog I see? OMG it’s a dog! My Mom HATES other dogs!!! She’s gonna yell at me! And I’m stuck on this leash so I can’t get away from her, and I can’t do what SHE wants and get away from this dog!! Grrrr….dog go away!! Bark – get away my Mom will yell at me if you get closer!! Stop approaching – I’m getting yelled at because you’re coming closer!! Grrr!! This is awful now you’re right in front of me!!! Get away!! …..ahhh ok you’re going away now. Oh thank goodness that’s over. Phew – well at least my barking and lunging was effective and made that dog go away and Mom stopped yelling at me. Next time I’ll have to yell louder so he goes away faster….”

Funny as it may sound, it’s actually quite a frightening experience for the dog. The behaviour of communicating to the other dog to go away (what we call leash reactivity, or leash aggression) is so important to them, they will even perform the behaviour regardless of how harsh the corrections become, and this is why so many people report that the prong collar works but only for a couple of months or so. Dogs will work through a great deal of aversion if it results in the oncoming dog going away. Forcing the dog into greeting the oncoming dog, or forcing them to repeatedly pass other dogs and increasing correction, will reinforce the dog’s belief that aggressive responses result in the elimination of their problem – the other dog leaves. However, because dogs operate on a fight or flight response, this theory also explains why so many dogs are fine off leash. They have never made the association of collar jerking, an owner getting their face and shouting, or even a painful stimulation from a collar, with greeting a dog in an off leash area. They are very much aware of the fact that they are not being physically controlled in these situations, that they are free to make a choice about how they interact with the dog, and they have never learned that off leash greetings result in a very angry owner. This is a key distinction, and a major part of the rehabilitation process in leash aggression.

Some trainers will attempt to control the leash aggressive dog by increasing the corrections and getting the dog to ignore the oncoming dog, or sit when a dog appears. When this is effective, what is in fact happening is the dog shuts down completely and hence doesn’t respond, but is still feeling the same fear and aversion to dogs that he did before this new training began. This can be quite dangerous, and in fact results in a dog becoming a time bomb – eventually, he will not feel overwhelmed by the handler, or the oncoming dog will feel so threatening that he has to lash out. Often, the handler is not expecting this because they feel the dog’s issues have been resolved, and the dog either overpowers the owner and gets away, or the owner attempts a greeting and the dog bites the oncoming dog.

The most effective way of resolving this issue is changing how the dog feels about being on the leash in the first place. If he learns that being on leash no longer results in being frustrated, confused, overwhelmed and often in pain, the desire to stave off other dogs approaching is no longer necessary. When the dog begins to believe that other dogs mean GOOD things will happen, he will actually welcome other dogs approaching! In essence, you have not only eliminated the reactive behaviours that are really what upset the owner, you have eliminated the dog’s need to react at all. You have accomplished a well mannered, happy-to-be-on-leash dog who does not behave because he is physically controlled, but behaves because he feels no need not to! Unless significant changes occur in the dog’s life and the corrections return, this behaviour modification will be permanent, will be present for any person (including children and elderly) walking the dog, and most importantly, mean that you have caused the bond and level of trust with your dog to increase, rather than deteriorate as happens with heavy correction training.

Jersey is coming along well in his training, and is now beginning to learn that when he sees a strange dog on the street, what he is supposed to do is turn and look at Cathy for instruction, and be reinforced for a very appropriate behaviour. Instead of barking, lunging, and biting at her, he is instead walking calmly by her side and looking at her. Doesn’t that sound like a much nicer way to walk your dog?

Reversing leash aggression is a lengthy process that needs to begin with very basic desensitization to the leash. Please contact a positive training professional for help with this work!

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Cassi’s Way – How Training is Killing our Dogs

September 17th, 2012

This blog is not just about training; it’s intention is not to teach you how to solve a particular behaviour problem, or how to know if you have a specific issue to address with your dog. This blog is the result of years of picking up the pieces behind other professionals, and hearing time and again from my clients ‘I just wanted to do the right thing for my dog, and even though I didn’t really want to be doing the things my trainer told me to do, he/she was the professional, and I had to just trust them’. This good intention, coupled with a professional trainer who doesn’t really explain why their methods work, has created hundreds upon thousands of dogs with behaviour issues far worse than what they began their training with, and sadly, well meaning owners actually teaching their dogs to be aggressive, fearful, and anxious. I believe in my heart of hearts that certain training methods are actually killing our dogs, teaching behaviours that can become so dangerous and unmanageable that the dog needs to be euthanized. Every client I’ve had has hired me solely because they love their dog and desire a more harmonious relationship with them, and I know that dog owners who seek out training truly believe that what a trainer tells them is in their dog’s best interest. So, I’m sharing this story with you today to help you, and your dog, with that journey, in hopes that it will inspire you to do what could save your dog’s life – ask your trainer WHY and HOW their methods work. I truly hope that if the answer leads you to believe that it will work by intimidation, pain, or fear mongering, that you will seek another solution.

It’s pretty rare that I encounter a dog who doesn’t know how to ‘sit’. It happens, but usually that dog has a darn good reason, like being from a puppy mill and having never had any training. But, most dogs raised in a home know this cue well. Why? Because it’s one of the first words we all want to teach our puppies, and because we often teach it at an early age, immediately followed by a treat, a happy dance, or something that makes the dog really happy. Therefore, the dog has a reliable sit. This is a good example of how dogs learn, in a sort of simplified way. It hears the word ‘sit’, it puts it’s bum on the floor, and something good is likely to happen – even if it only hears ‘good boy’ every 100 times it sits as an adult. It is also, however, the same learning theory that applies to dogs who have learned to be terribly aggressive, sometimes so much so that they need to be euthanized. Science shows us that less than .1% of dogs who are aggressive are born with aggression, due to some type of brain abnormality, which also tells us that 99.9% of aggressive dogs are so because they were taught to be. The majority of my clients have dogs with aggression issues, and no, they are not fighting dogs or protection trained dogs. They are the dogs next door to you, they are your friends’ dogs, they are ‘normal’, everyday pets who have learned dangerous behaviours; and training is killing these dogs. Many of them.

I see cases like this every day, and I see dangerous dogs turn into good dogs everyday. But, there are also some dogs who have been so badly damaged by training that they cannot be saved. This is the story of one dog who lost her battle, a dog named Cassie. She was humanely euthanized on June 29th, 2012, and the memory of her has been with me ever since. My heart swells with the thought of her, the potential she had, and the damage that was done to her by well meaning owners, and trainers they trusted. She is not alone in her plight, and I’m writing this story so that her death is not in vain; so that her story may save the life of even one dog who is suffering under the guise of ‘dog training’.

Cassie began her life in a suburban town with a family of four. Having had dogs before, they unfortunately decided to skip puppy school and do training on their own in the home. Vets always advise us not to take our puppies anywhere until they have all their shots, but it creates a huge gap in early socialization, which is why puppy school and the opportunity to socialize with dogs of similar age is crucial to a dog’s social well being later on in life. At around 9 months of age, the owners noticed that Cassi was getting overly excited about other dogs while on leash, so they brought a trainer into their home to help gain control of this behaviour. The trainer told them that Cassi needed to learn respect for them, and had them begin using a prong collar while on walks, combined with a leash correction, and a strong verbal ‘NO!’, when other dogs approached and Cassi got excited. So now, based on what I’ve told you about how dogs learn, what did she learn from this? That other dogs mean something bad and painful is about to happen. She quickly developed anxiety around other dogs, and by 14 months of age, had still never played with another dog, had developed a fear of her family rather than ‘respecting’ them, and tried to find new ways to stop the corrections and the pain.

She’d make herself small, avoiding eye contact, lowering her ears, looking anywhere but where the pain came from. This is a normal response to something that frightens a dog – they avoid it as opposed to confronting it, in hopes that it will go away. Eventually, though, they begin to weigh the fear versus the pain, asking ‘is it more effective for me to lash out, trying to make this dog go away to avoid even more pain’, and hence the owner’s corrections need to become stronger, causing increased pain, usually getting more into her face with a louder and harsher ‘NO!’, as they were instructed to do by the trainer that they had put their faith into. The same cycle begins again, and the dog attempts to cower and avoid in hopes that this option will end the fear and pain of being on leash outside. It’s also important to note that most of the dog walking responsibilities fell upon the young tween boys of the home, so her interactions with them were more often than not moments of dominating control and painful communication often beginning, as instructed, before she even glanced at the oncoming dog. (meanwhile, not being given the option to acknowledge the other dog and react appropriately. These corrections are often instructed to be given before the dog has an opportunity to respond, without knowing if the dog has even learned to respond differently based on the training).

The owners believed that Cassi was doing these things, like shrinking away and looking down, to be stand-offish, as opposed to being appeasing. They had had enough of her bad behaviour. Cassi was then sent away to a training facility for 12 weeks. She was trained individually by a lead trainer and several of the young men in the facility. In order to counteract her ‘bad behaviour’, which was in fact fear and anxiety around boys and dogs, the trainer taught her to conform to standard obedience, mostly ‘sit’ and ‘lie down’. She taught this by using a prong collar, using very firm commands, rolling the dog on her back if she didn’t respond, and by teaching her to strictly tolerate the situations she was uncomfortable in. Simply put, Cassi was taught to sit perfectly still and stare at the thing (boys or dogs) that terrified her the most, and that if she strayed from this obedience in any way, such as avoiding eye contact, she would be very harshly corrected by the collar. Based on what I’ve said about learning theory, you can now see that not only are the scary things in her life still very scary, but any attempt to avoid these things would result in a painful correction. So, in Cassi’s mind, she remains terribly afraid, and she can’t move at all in fear of very harsh punishment. Near the end of 12 weeks, when pushed even further into the face of a dog or any male person in order to ‘advance training’, she resorted to her only remaining option – growl in an attempt to make it go away. As a result, the trainer deemed Cassi ‘untrainable’. But hadn’t the trainer taught Cassi that the only option she had left was to growl at the scary thing in hopes it would go away? In fact, the trainer began to heavily correct Cassi for growling too – so what does this dog believe she has left to protect herself? The silent bite. A trainer should never teach a dog not to growl, because it simply eliminates your warning that the dog is about to bite. In fact, the trainer should have used techniques that taught the dog she didn’t have to be afraid in the first place, therefore eliminating all the behaviours that come with it.

Cassi was surrendered to rescue at that point, and I began working with her. I found the most dangerous thing about her was her appearance of safety. A person could approach, and she would automatically sit and look up at that person, as if she were being polite. But if you were the handler, you could visibly see her shaking, hear her very low growl, and be practically blanketed in her fear. If that person reached for her, she’d lunge and try to bite in an extremely aggressive way. The same would apply to dogs; though she appeared safe to other dogs’ owners, to parents, to children, because she sat so nicely, she was in fact a ticking time bomb.

For close to one year, we worked hard with Cassi using desensitization techniques, counter conditioning, pairing scary events (at low level intensity) with really delicious treats, happy distractions and meaningful cues, which are very standard positive training methods used to get at the source of the fear and show the dog that they don’t need to be afraid, hence eliminating the dog’s behavioural issues. We could never ask her to sit or down, because she’d immediately begin to shake with fear (the second trainer had paired the sit/down cues so many times with painful corrections, she immediately became fearful upon hearing the word). We were able to get her to relax with certain people (like myself, and her foster parents), in certain ‘safe’ areas, but in the world beyond her front door, she was extremely dangerous, and even with years of work, would have lived her life in absolute fear of everything around her, and as an extremely dangerous dog if she were ever to get out without her handler.

Cassi spent the last year of her life with foster parents who loved her dearly, with a positive trainer who refused to give up on her, and with the tools and techniques needed to create real learning. But the damage done to her by the previous training techniques was too great, and the fear and stress she lived with every time she went outside was so overwhelming, it was inhumane. At home, Cassi loved to cuddle, she loved to play with toys, she wiggled and danced when her foster parents came home from work and when I came to visit her. The people she grew to know well she treated kindly, and in her own home had a joy for life that would bring a tear to your eye. In foster care, she knew love and trust and happiness for the first time. Outside, she had been turned into a dangerous, almost wild animal. The only reason for that? Training. Her owners wanted to do right by her in the first place by having a trainer come in, and had the right one come, I wouldn’t be writing this story. But the trusted professionals in her life, well known and experienced, used old fashioned, correction based, dominance model training, and together, the techniques they used ultimately led to not only a life of fear, but her death.

Many of you will ask me who these trainers were so that you can avoid them. Unfortunately, knowing their names won’t help you. Finding out how a trainer trains is what is important – there are hundreds of trainers available, and I couldn’t tell you all the good ones and the bad ones. But if you ask questions about their techniques before you hire them, you’ll be in a better position to move forward positively with your dog. Please join me, and support my new group, Cassi’s Way (www.facebook.com/cassisway), to help bring awareness to all dog owners about how the many training techniques work, what and how they teach your dog, and if they are right for you. The most important question you can ever ask a trainer is “WHY will this technique work”? If the answer includes fear, pain, or dominance – think of Cassi. Please share this blog, share the page for Cassi’s Way, and contribute to the conversation that MUST begin to happen if we are to save our dogs from a life like Cassi’s.

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Teaching your dog to walk to heel

March 5th, 2012

I’m pretty sure that the phrase “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” was coined after dogs. Dogs are opportunists, and if they think there is a chance they can get away with something that is in their best interests, they’ll take it. Leash walking is one of the most common examples of this , and usually results in the owner purchasing any array of equipment possible to stop this. You might need special equipment with a large or strong dog, but you’re only going to need for a week. Why? Because equipment was invented to assist with training, not to replace it.

Teaching your dog to walk to heel is pretty simple – you don’t need to run around trees, you don’t need jerk your dog around, and you certainly don’t need to inflict pain. You do need a lot of patience during that week of training, and you need to be persuasive in ensuring that all members of the family who walk the dog follow this program too. It’s called red light green light, and it works – so well it’s scientifically proven. It works like this – and if you read my last blog about learning theory, this will make perfect sense – moving forward is the dog’s reward, stopping is the dog’s punishment. So, if your dog’s leash is slack and he can see your foot when it is furthest forward, you can keep moving. The moment he moves beyond that range, you stop, allow your dog to calm, then take another step. With dogs who’ve dragged their owners for years, this will take a little longer. With puppies and rescues (with a brand new handler), success will occur very quickly. The dog will soon learn that at absolutely no time is he permitted to tighten the leash – and if he does, the reward of moving forward is taken away, and he is punished by having to stop moving forward. The trick is to work this the entire time your dog is on leash – he cannot pull you down your driveway, pull you towards his favourite neighbour, pull you towards another dog, or pull you because you don’t have time to do the training that morning. If you are consistent, calm, and more persistent than your dog, this method is guaranteed to work, and quickly. The dog will learn to do this only with the person who teaches him, so everyone who walks him needs to do the same training with the same persistence. The stop should be immediate, with no words, leash corrections or any other strange combination of yelling/jerking/running around in circles is required.

Now, there are dogs out there that can be hard to stop! The goal is to stop without taking another step forward, and without being dragged, which is where equipment can come in handy. Again, dogs learn quite simply, i.e. in this situation, good things happen (walking beside my owner), and in this situation, bad things happen (walking ahead results in stopping the walk!! Aww!!!). This applies to meeting dogs as well, and this is how we often teach our dogs to be leash aggressive. Equipment that uses pain as a source to train, such as prong collars and shock collars, result in your dog learning that every time he encounters another dog and gets excited to say hello, he experiences a terrible biting pain to the throat. It is not a squeeze, or a touch, or a buzz – it is pain! Based on learning theory, an action has to have a reaction – so the dog either experiences something pleasurable or something aversive in order to learn what to do/not to do in that situation – so, if these examples of collars didn’t cause pain, they would be totally ineffective, because they certainly aren’t causing pleasure. Therefore, dog sees other friendly dog, tries to greet, experiences awful pain, learns that other dogs equal pain. It’s that simple folks – your dog has now learned that other dogs are something to avoid and acts out in order to keep that other dog away from him. Moral of the story – these collars are not to be used!

What can you use? If your dog is small or not a strong puller, you’ll be fine with a flat collar or martingale (for dogs with large necks and smaller heads, like Greyhounds, to prevent the dog from slipping the collar). Larger, stronger dogs can be fitted with one of these:

EZ Walk harnesses, clip at the sternum (the pointy bone at the center of the dog’s chest, beneath the chin), and when the dog pulls forward, he has no choice but to turn towards the other end of the leash (that’s you by the way!). I use these harnesses frequently in training – they are humane, smart and extremely effective. If you purchase one, make sure that it fits tightly (so that the front clip doesn’t slide around onto the dog’s shoulder, rendering it ineffective), and consider whether or not your dog is simply a dog who pulls forward, or if he is a dog who pulls forward with his nose to the ground. If he’s a sniffer, you’ll want a head harness.

Head Harnesses by brand name are known as Haltis or Gentle Leaders. My personal preference is the Halti because it tends to fit better, isn’t left snug to the muzzle when the leash is relaxed, and has a safety clip which attaches the harness to your dog’s collar in case he slips out of it. A head harness has the same effect as the EZ Walk harness –pressure on the leash will cause your dog to have no choice but to turn towards you. They are especially effective on dogs who require more head control, such as a hound breed or terrier breed who tend to be constantly sniffing the ground. My only real caution in using a head harness is to minimize corrections – leash corrections are rarely effective in any situation, but on a head halter they can be dangerous and cause damage to your dog’s neck or spinal cord. I’d also caution you about other modifications to the head harness – the safest ones clip below the muzzle, and some other variations clip behind the head, at the throat etc., and can be harmful and dangerous to use, let alone totally uncommunicative (meaning because it doesn’t communicate a message via the muzzle, they are simply very annoying for the dog and cause irriation or the dog to shut down – meaning he just stands there emotionless, which is a very sad sight to see).

And remember, these equipment options should only be needed during the training period – they are not intended to be used for the lifetime of your dog, and rather should be used to assist you in training your dog to walk to heel. When choosing equipment, always consider whether your dog will learn by calmly reinforced methods, or by inflicting pain. After all, it really does come down to just two choices!

One last comment about teaching a dog to walk to heel – they will not learn this if they are walking on a retractable leash. In fact, the dog will often become more confused – ‘why can I sometimes walk way ahead, and sometimes I can’t’? Retractables have their place for quick bathroom breaks in the yard, working with fearful dogs, or walking in an area where you need to keep your dog on leash but you’ve taught them to ‘go long’, such as on a trail. Never walk a dog on a retractable leash with a head collar – this can cause very serious damage. Retractables are NOT for walking in public places such as a sidewalk, they are NOT for allowing your dog to greet a strange dog from 20 feet away from you, and they are certainly NOT for crossing the street while your tiny little dog is on the other side of the street before you’ve even crossed. In that situation, you better cross your fingers that the driver turning at that intersection sees the thin line of leash in front of his car, because while you’re on the other side of the intersection and the driver can see YOU, he can’t see your 16” dog in front of his car. Retractable leashes are great in the right application, but please, use them with caution, and only with an already well trained dog!

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