Friday, February 4, 2011

Voice-4-Dogs Group and Beating Winter Boredom

I am one of those lucky people who live their passion, and believe me, I am grateful. Each morning I release a non-denominational thank you into the universe for being able to create a life I love.
When I work with dogs, I never have a bad day. Dogs enthrall me, even when their behaviors are challenging. I also take pleasure working with their humans. They, at least most of them, are genuinely devoted to their pooch and want to include and enjoy him as a member of the family. My job is to help them achieve that.
Typically I meet with dog and his social group in their home, sort out what underlies the behaviors that are problematic, and then counsel how to improve and change them. A little like the guy on TV, except my method is opposite to his. I whisper. And I listen to what the dog needs, cause when the situation works for the dog he’s happy, and happy dogs make their owners happy. Anyway, what I really want to talk about in this post is my on-line group, a question one member posted recently, and the feedback she received.

As any therapist will attest, and above-mentioned TV guy now concedes, there are no quick fix solutions for deep-seated problems and relationship hiccups. Knowing that, I want to stay in touch with my clients after a consultation to offer continuous support. Once I evaluated dog and situation, effective support can happen in many ways, one of which is via computer. For that reason I created, a few years ago, a clients’ exclusive, by invitation only, on-line group. It’s a win-win venue: my clients get free-of-charge help, and I can stay connected without investing more time than I have. My vision is that it evolves into a forum where every person who ever booked a consultation with me joins, finds it welcoming, and uses it to have questions answered and concerns addressed, or yap about their successes, or start a discussion about a dog-related topic that interests them, or maybe feel less alone when they realize that others have dog issues, too.
I want it to be a place where everyone feels respected and respects others, where they look for valuable information, or sometimes just for confirmation that sticking to positive reinforcement is the right thing to do. That is important in an environment flooded with autocratic and punitive advice. Some of my clients feel downright pressured to defend their method against friends and neighbors that, although meaning to he helpful, suggest that all their dog needs is a good whack with the garden hose across the snout.
We’re getting there. A number of my clients joined up, and even if not actively participating, read the discussions and then email me privately, but several others are quite active and share their thoughts and insights.
Normally I don’t blog about stuff that’s happening in the group, but one member posted a question recently I think will resonate with many owners who, like her and I, are not winter outdoorsy enthusiasts, but are owned by an industrious canine used to a certain level of entertainment.
I’d be perfectly fine caved in between December and April with good books, my laptop, fatty dairy foods and Mexican hot chocolate, but, especially Will whose favorite pastime is going for long hikes that include trailing, is not agreeable to that. So, like in any good relationship, we compromise. The winter common ground that works for all of us is spending about an hour outside, and increasing fun activities inside.
And that’s what the group member was inquiring about: what to do with her, what else, Border collie on days when walks are rather short.
Of course, if she’d be really keen, she could teach him 1,022 proper nouns and a little grammar, like John W. Pilley did with his dog Chaser (
Considering that 82-year-old Mr. Pilley, a retired psychologist, still spends 4-5 hours each day working with Chaser, a more realistic variation that probably works better for most owners is to teach the pooch the names of the toys in her toy box. Your dog has a toy box, right? If she brings the correct one, you play with her for a little bit, if not, you send her back to try again. A notch up is to teach her to clean up at end of your interaction together; to bring all toys back to the box.
You can also hide a toy somewhere in the house for your dog to find. That’s what a member who commented did to entertain her frisky terrier cross. She asked her dog into a sit stay, and yes, practicing position stays is a nice side effect of find-games, and hid the toy in another room. In the beginning, she said, at a fairly obvious place, which is key, cause if the task is too difficult the dog loses interest and disengages, or becomes frustrated and acts frantically, instead of methodically. In typical terrier fashion her dog progressed quickly, and soon even tracked her person’s position by sound, which induced her to incorporate double backing and diversions into the game to keep it challenging enough. That’s one of the reasons why I am fascinated by dogs – they are teaching as much as they are learning.
The terrier owner would always accompany her pooch after she released her to search for the toy, in case she needed little hints. That is also something we do. When I hide Davie and Will’s ball or treats, I give them cues similar to the hot-and-cold ones young children might get. “Wrong”, when they are off course, educes eye contact, and when I have their attention I signal with my hand, arm and eyes in which direction they should be heading. Although they don't comprehend left and right, they do know the verbal cues forward, over and halt, which I apply if they're really lost. As they zone in, I staccato-like repeat find-find-find in a higher pitched voice, which keeps them nosing in that area until they find the loot.
Finding hidden objects seems to be the common theme for indoor fun. World-renowned behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar plays scent games with his dogs, explained in Cesar Millan’s newest book “Cesar’s Rules”. No need to run out to buy a copy though. In my opinion, there isn’t much in it that’ll better behavior and strengthen the human/dog relationship. But Dunbar’s section in the book is great. He says that it is important, when you start up, to let the dog find something he is motivated by. Then, once he is hooked on the game, one can incorporate other scents the dog feels indifferent about. But first the game has to make sense for him.
Another thing that Dunbar said is to be careful not to overload on the scent, to prevent that it lingers everywhere and confuses the dog. That means that if you plant a Kong, you might not want to stuff it with last week’s leftover fish scraps. But I wouldn’t use kibble either. I am all for the “work-for-meals” program, but also believe that food is a basic need a dog has a right to. So, at least half of his daily amount should be free. My recommendation is to fill Kongs and other interactive toys with delectable, nutritious treats, including good-for-the-dog human food, and then deduct that from his kibble ration to avoid that Fido becomes pudgy.
Food is a great motivator for most dogs, and for some more desired than toys. That’s the case with another group member who replied. She hands her pooch a stuffed Kong each day, but, to make it more challenging and entertaining, ties it tightly into an old T-shirt. A variation of that is tying small treats into the clothy shell of a squeaky the dog massacred, and then hiding it. Or you could put a cookie underneath a cup towel and see if your dog can figure out where it is. Do it right in front of her. You might be surprised that she has no clue where the booty is, even if she watched you place it under the towel a second ago. Neither one mine figured it out - and gave me a rare moment when I felt intellectually superior to them.
That food-driven dog, although not interested in toys, is motivated by social closeness, which means that the humans in her family are a reward in their own right. That is fabulous - being with her people should be high on every dog’s wish list. During an off-leash outing, the owner periodically sidesteps off the path and plays people search. Interestingly, our first tracking instructor starts rookie dogs on people as well, not objects or scents, because finding the owner drives dogs most, sets them up for success, and gets them keened on the game. Tracking was what tired our ever-ready Davie out more than herding, and Will, an incredible scout, still loves it more than any other activity. As a variant, I often let a mitten fall, carry on walking for some 40-50 feet, alert Will and ask her to find it. Regardless how absorbed she is in animal tracks or whiffs in the environment, a high-pitched “oh-oh”, short for: oh-oh-I-am-such-a-fool-and-lost-something-again, never fails to veer her focus instantaneously to me, and then I show her the other mitten, name it, and she darts off in an attempt to locate the lost one. So you see, one way to make shortened outside time more tiring is to make it more meaningful and stimulating. On that note, we do follow animal tracks in the snow as well; the three of us explore where they lead us, see where the bunny lives.
That same dog still, the one who receives a Kong tied in a towel and whose person plays people search, is 10 years old and was adopted from the Metro SPCA. Seemingly not treated kindly by her previous humans, she really lucked out with her present family. Not only does she have caring and committed adult persons, but also kids that take an interest in her, practice obedience commands and teach her new tricks. Teaching tricks is a wonderful way for children to interact with a dog. It is a calm, brainy activity, yet stimulating and tiring, and the dog learns playfully that young humans are in charge, too. The on-line stores and have a great selection of tricks books, some specifically targeted to children.
Not so brainy a game is “chase and catch prey”, something another group member came up with to busy her young Australian shepherd.
Australian shepherds are dogs that I wouldn’t categorize as the couch potato kind. They are clever and full of zip, especially when they are young, but for a long, long time into adulthood as well. And they’re not of the aloof kind either; not disconnected from their humans happily amusing themselves. They don’t exist well in the periphery of their human’s life, but, on the contrary, perpetually seek to take center stage. That group member’s pup was no exception, and when boredom became unbearable she would shove a toy underneath a piece of furniture and scratch, paw and bark at it, desperately trying to get her person’s attention. Luckily, her owner interpreted the nuisance behavior accurately and didn’t scold, but played with her.
Instead of hiding the toy, she tied it at the end of a long, light rope and dragged it, encouraging the pooch to chase and pounce, and letting her catch it every so often. I like it. Chase ‘n’ catch is physical and instinctual, yet structures and channels that natural drive and puts it under human control. The dog gets to do something very satisfying, but at the same time learns to release what’s between her teeth into her person’s hand - and she learns that willingly and eagerly because only giving it up will continue the interaction. Because there is an actual object to be caught, it is not mindless like the idiotic laser chase that often turns a dog into a light addict who obsessively fixates and attacks anything that flickers, including the TV and light sparkling through blinds.
Besides the toy, this owner also dragged an empty water bottle tied in a sports sock. She said that her Aussie liked to crunch plastic, and the sock made the noise tolerable for human ears. Plus I’d worry about splitting plastic injuring the dog’s gums, so tied in a sock prevents that, too.
More by chance than intent, she did once discover something that kept her young Australian self-entertained for about an hour. It was a lemon that fell out of the fridge that mesmerized the cavorting canine enough that she forgot to pester her human for a while. Brilliant. A lemon is cheap, soft so won’t mark furniture, and a dog likely won’t eat it. Just in case, I’d still get an organic one.
Methinks the reason why the lemon worked was because it was a completely novel item, and it came from the typically forbidden human food storage place, which made it doubly interesting for the dog to explore, and possibly walk away with. Temple Grandin, in “Animals Make us Human”, explains that one new toy or stimulus each day activates an animal’s seeking system, decreases anxiety and increases wellbeing. A new stimulus a day doesn’t mean you have to buy a new toy every day. You could rotate the ones you already have, “accidentally” drop a lemon, or sneak one surprise treat somewhere in your dog’s toy box.
When a dog gives me signals that she is bored, I much rather interact with her right away, instead of waiting until she is a total pain in the you know where. Often a few minutes of quality interaction will do, and I hope you found a few useful ideas here. Even though almost every North American groundhog predicted an early spring, I am sure there’ll be a few weeks of winter left for you and your hairy sidekick to have some inside fun.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say the weather can be difficult and we were having alot of problems with road salt and paw freeze. However, we just got our new fleece lined Muttluks and WOW! They have made such a difference, the dogs just beatle right along in them no problem, they get good traction and they really stay on! We had tried other boots, but without good results. However, I'd really recommend Muttluks if anyone is having problems getting out in the salty slush.