Scenes from the home front

In the post titled “A cat with a dog of his own” I shared a few memories of the challenges of convincing Buddy The Wonder Cat to share his home and his people with Sasha. There were a few early bumps in the road, but the two of them have happily settled down to life together. In fact, we’ve now reached the point where Buddy The Wonder Cat stands vigil whenever Sasha leaves the house without him:

It’s fair to say the cat takes a personal interest in anything the dog does. Training time? Buddy’s right there to supervise.  Yard patrol? They share sentry duty. If Sasha overlooks a treat during the Find It! game, Buddy finds it for her. Feeding time creates shared moments, too, although the cat doesn’t share the dog’s passion for cucumbers and Sasha seems puzzled by Buddy’s penchant for ice cubes in his water bowl.

You’ll see quite a bit of Buddy The Wonder Cat later this year–or at least his fictional counterpart. In Dangerous Deeds (Book #2 in the series), Maggie’s dog Sweet Pea finds an injured kitten and carries it to safety. Some of the injuries mirror the real-life accident suffered by Buddy The Wonder Cat a few years ago.  Confession: it was a traumatic experience for the cat, me, and the staff at the Crossover Veterinary Clinic.  On the other hand, our vet (Beth Stropes, DVM) was remarkably cheerful throughout, assuring me that this wasn’t her first cat rodeo. It was then that I decided that if we all lived through the experience, that scene was going in a book.  We all lived, and I kept my promise; Dangerous Deeds will be released this fall. In the meantime, here’s a slideshow of Buddy The Wonder Cat through the years. Enjoy!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

***

Whistling Past The Graveyard

“Look at that!”

In the many months I’ve been working to help Sasha overcome anxiety after having been attacked by off-leash dogs, we’ve tried just about every strategy and training technique that’s been published on the subject. Like most things in life, some days we make more progress than others. Sasha is doing her best to be brave in scary situations, and I make sure  she knows she’s loved and safe with me.

If we’re in a trigger-stacked environment, Sasha defaults to what I consider her “stress bark.” She’ll lock eyes on the target, lunge, and generally appear to warn off the other dog with fierce “Don’t come over here!” barking. This happens most often when unleashed dogs approach. If I spot the danger before she panics–and before the dog gets too close–I can persuade her to turn away and move on with me. I’m glad to report we’ve had fewer interactions with unleashed dogs recently, and the dogs we see on our walkabouts have been far enough away that we’ve avoided major distress.

I looked back through the training log this morning and noticed a definite pattern of improvement emerging. While experts might shake their heads over our methods, I’ve seen the best results when I let Sasha choose how to react. Sometimes she’ll park herself next to me when we see someone on the opposite side of the street walking our way with a leashed dog. She won’t make much eye contact with me, preferring instead to focus on the treats in my hand. In between nibbles she’ll toss occasional glances at the dog and a short bark or two.

We’ve made progress when passing dogs behind fences, too. Wherever possible I will cross the street to put more distance between Sasha and the other dogs, but until recently that didn’t reduce the stress reaction. Lately, though, I’ve seen different behavior. I can tell from her tone, and the brevity of her response, that it’s a “Hello there!” sort of bark. Initial greetings completed, Sasha then hurries along, muttering softly while looking anywhere but back at the dogs. The mutters stop when we get past the yard, and her pace slows as well. It’s almost as though she’s determined to ignore the distraction and convince herself all is well. The online dictionary Wiktionary describes this sort of behavior as “whistling past the graveyard” in an attempt to seem calm in the face of something frightening.

Every day I see her inching past her fear as she explores the world around us. Yesterday we saw two dogs–a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix (her owner says she’s a “chiweenie”) and a 12-year-old Cocker Spaniel. I confess to an “oh no” moment when I saw them, as the chiweenie has charged off-leash in our direction once before. This time, the dogs were leashed and moving away from where we stood diagonally across the intersection. Sasha saw them, barked once and then just stood there, watching them. (Cue the trumpets!) We followed a block back and Sasha was calm and interested the whole time. She barked just twice, and was rewarded for stopping and looking. From there, it was an easy step to “Let’s Go!”

Of all the strategies we’ve tried, the “Look At That” counter-conditioning approach yields the most consistent results. Here’s a video explaining the LAT approach:

For those of you who prefer in-depth articles instead of videos, check out the excellent article Using Control Unleashed for Dog-Dog Aggression: Look At That authored by Marisa Scully, CBDT-KA. And for a shorter take on the same subject, you might enjoy “LOOK AT THAT!”  by Lilian Akin, CPDT, which was adapted from Leslie’s McDevitt’s “Control Unleashed.” And here’s one more short LAT dog training plan you might find useful.

And for a great round-up of ideas, be sure to check out Nancy Freedman-Smith’s article “10 Tips To Teach Your Reactive Dog To Stay Calm.

My goal is to help Sasha become more confident wherever we go. The “Look at that!” counter-conditioning approach has helped us both enjoy our daily walks. If you have a reactive dog, you might give LAT a try.

    Ready for a great adventure? “Let’s Go!”

Taking control

When you share your life with a dog, some things are essential responsibilities. For me, the list starts with love and attention. Add in good nutrition, regular veterinary care, and frequent grooming. Obedience skills and good manners are on the list, as well; these provide terrific opportunities to bond with your dog.

I’ll add control your dog in public to that list.

I live in a dog-friendly community. From trails to outdoor markets to parks, you’re likely to find nearly as many dogs as people. Some events, such as the annual Dogwood Walk, are all about dogs and raising both awareness and money to support our local animal shelter. When I take Sasha to a crowded event like this—as I did yesterday—I have multiple strategies planned to help her enjoy herself.

Sasha’s irritation with unleashed dogs extends (no pun intended) to dogs on retractable or overly long leashes. Knowing that, we always give a wide berth to such dogs, and to anything that might trigger stress. We settled on a bench off the walking path and beyond the reach of dogs on a standard leash. The exhibitor booths ringed the big meadow on the opposite side of the path. Sasha parked herself at my feet, clearly content to see the action without actively participating. Dogs and people passed by on the path, which gave me plenty of opportunities to say “Look at that” while doling out bits of Ziwi treats—her favorites, second only to cucumbers. All went well until a dog on a long leash came from behind us and rushed Sasha who, predictably, panicked.  When we told the owner, “Control your dog” the woman said, “Shut up.”

No.

I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to allow any person or dog to abuse my Sasha. Instead, I’ll use this forum to remind people of a few basic facts of responsible dog ownership.

Respect space. Don’t assume all dogs—or people—are comfortable being crowded by strangers. While I was still calming Sasha, a woman we’ve met before came by with a lovely Sheltie and a Pomeranian. She stopped beside the path but came no closer, and all three dogs sat calmly during our brief visit.

Some dogs feel the need for personal space more than others. This is often misunderstood—or ignored—by people who insist their dog is friendly and just wants to play. Those folks would be well served by learning more about Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS).

Be polite. Four Great Pyrenees came strolling along. (I’m not sure Sasha knew what to make of anything that big.) The dogs were on long leashes and one headed our way at a leisurely pace. When I told the owner, “We’re keeping our distance” he said, “Understood” then nodded and moved his dogs along. No fuss, no drama, just good manners and thoughtful behavior.

Practice Responsible Ownership skills, and be courteous to others in the community.

Control your dog. Unless you’re at a designated off-leash dog park, keep your dog on leash and under your control. Save those long lines for open meadows and fields, and use retractable leashes only when it’s safe to do so. Be aware of your surroundings, and accept responsibility for your own actions as well as your dog’s behavior.

You might be familiar with the AKC Canine Good Citizen program. Practicing the skills required for each test can help you control your dog.

***

Sasha is a smart dog. I’ll keep working every day to help her feel comfortable and confident in her surroundings. And until others learn to be responsible owners, I’ll continue to protect her from scary dogs and careless humans.

Here’s to good health!

A neighbor stopped by this morning. “Are you training Sasha to be a therapy dog?”

“No,” I responded. “But she’s certainly good therapy for me!”

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

 

Sharing your life with a dog really is good for your health and overall well-being. Consider, for example, this info from Harvard Healthbeat:

Pet ownership, especially having a dog, is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. This does not mean that there is a clear cause and effect relationship between the two. But it does mean that pet ownership can be a reasonable part of an overall strategy to lower the risk of heart disease.

Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners — probably because their pets have a calming effect on them and because dog owners tend to get more exercise. The power of touch also appears to be an important part of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog.

There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.

Dogs’ calming effect on humans also appears to help people handle stress. For example, some research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress. That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.

If circumstances limit your ability to share your own home with a dog, consider volunteering at your local shelter. Visit Adopt-A-Pet online or Volunteer Match to find opportunities near you.