At the Crossroads of Fact and Fiction

In Dangerous Deeds (#2 in the series), Waterside Kennels owner and amateur sleuth Maggie Porter finds herself caught in the crossfire when community members take sides over a proposed “dangerous dog” ordinance to ban specific breeds. For the record, Maggie agrees with the AKC that breed-specific legislation (BLS) is not the way to go. Her refusal to support the ban leads to a smear campaign and a boycott organized by a few who want to seize Maggie’s property for their own. When one of those nefarious characters turns up dead on Maggie’s property, everyone at Waterside comes under suspicion.  Sheriff Lucas Johnson is forced to step aside because of his close ties to Maggie and her employees, and the lead investigator doesn’t seem inclined to look beyond the kennel to find the killer.

As you might expect, it’s a struggle to keep the kennel running amid a boycott and murder investigation. Fortunately, there’s a loyal group of customers who want to see Waterside Kennels stay in business. They ask Maggie to lead training classes as part of a “Good Dog!” campaign intended to promote responsible dog ownership. Maggie agrees, and preparation for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test is soon underway.

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At this point in the publishing timeline, I’m feeling a bit disjointed. While all ten items in the CGC test are in the book, Sasha and I are still working to master several of the items. (You and your dog must pass all ten to earn the title.) If you have a reactive dog, #8 might be the most challenging:

Test Item #8: Reaction to Another Dog. This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.

Sasha generally ignores other dogs when we’re at Lowes, PetSmart, or other dog-friendly businesses. Outside? That’s a different story. Sasha’s been charged by off-leash dogs on three different occasions, and it’s been a struggle to regain her confidence when another dog comes into view. If you have a reactive dog, here are a few ideas that may help reduce anxiety and boost confidence. “May” is the key word here, because what works for one dog might not work for another. And sometimes what works one day won’t work the next! When that happens, remind yourself that Every Day is Training Day #1, and go from there.

“Are you sure those dogs are friendly?”

Socialize. Since those encounters with unleashed aggressive dogs, Sasha tends to freeze and bark. LOUDLY.  To help rebuild her confidence, I joined a Pack Walk group to give her time around other leashed dogs. True to recent form, Sasha reacted to all the dogs who came anywhere close but no major panic outbursts, thankfully. She barked off and on (more on than off) as we followed the pack, with treats dispensed during every quiet lull. It occurred to me that she didn’t like to bring up the rear; when we reached a spot with a wide grassy verge we moved off and up so we were parallel. More quiet than bark, so of course TREATS!

After a few pack walks in April we took the plunge and went to the Dogwood WalkWith 450+ in the crowd, I admit to being nervous but Sasha clearly enjoyed the day. We started by taking some time to stroll across the open meadow so she could get a good look around.  She had quite a bit to say to a few of the smaller dogs who ventured too close, but otherwise seemed content to wander quietly along the booths. We stood in the shade next to a BIG retriever and she ignored her. Ditto the handsome Sheltie and adorable Pomeranian when their mom stopped to visit. And she was gracious in allowing some folks to offer her treats (provided by me) and to pet her. I adored the children who asked to pet her–and kudos to the parents who taught their children how to approach strange dogs and ask politely for permission to visit!

Train. There’s just no substitute for regular training.  I like to mix it up with quiet indoor training time (handy in April when the rain fell in torrents and flooding kept us home) and varied outdoor activities. There are a few places–and dogs–that seem to trigger Sasha’s nervous reaction, so I work hard to capture her attention and keep her focused on me when we hit those trigger spots. If I see neighbors approaching with leashed dogs, I’ll move to the other side of the street whenever possible, or at least get to the side and 10 feet away. I first tried following a trainers advice to put Sasha in a sit-stay with her back to the dog and to keep her focused on me, but quickly found greater success if she can see the other dog while in a safe position. What’s working for us: I put Sasha in a down-stay and we wait while the others pass us by. She rarely barks from that position (unless she’s very excited or stressed) and is more likely to carry on what I think of Sheltie-speak while she watches the dogs pass by.  I keep the ZiwiPeak air-dried venison treats  (expensive but worth it, and recommended by top trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar) as her special reward for being good around other dogs. The rest of the time I train using Pet Botanics Mini Training Rewards; they’re a soft low-calorie treat that’s easy to split into two.

Dr. Dunbar, by the way, has some wonderful material online. Check out http://www.dunbaracademy.com/ or this TED Talk, or connect with like-minded folks via his Facebook page.

Be happy. Dogs are downright brilliant when it comes to sensing emotions. Emotions travel up and down the leash! Let your dog know you’re happy to spend time together, and celebrate all the good things that happen. When I’m praising Sasha–particularly when she’s managed something difficult and done it well–I’ll laugh and dance and praise lavishly. She knows when she’s done A Good Thing, and she’s clearly pleased with herself and my reaction.

We’re starting agility training this month. That’s just one more opportunity to socialize, to train, and to be happy. If she enjoys herself there as much as she did in obedience class, we’ll continue. Stay tuned for news!

Winter Fun and Safety

It’s been a mild winter here in the Ozarks, with temps fluctuating between single-digit bone chilling cold to spring-like days when we traded parkas for tee shirts. Green sprouts appeared in the garden a month ahead of schedule and daffodils splashed color across the late winter landscape.

We settled in the Ozarks 22 years ago after decades of living and working in far-flung spots on the globe. We’ve seen a lot of changes in our time here, but one thing has remained constant. When the daffodils bloom we know we’re in for at least one more round of winter’s breath. And so it was again this year when the mild days of early March were swept aside by an arctic blast of cold rain that turned to snow that turned to sleet, leaving us shivering under a thin sheet of slick white stuff.

Sasha had a fine time prancing around the yard as the sleet-crusted snow crunched beneath her paws. I snapped this photo of her in one of her rare still moments, just before she returned to zooming around the yard. I was glad to see her in self-exercise mode, as I was less than enthusiastic about navigating icy patches on the sidewalks and streets. Fortunately the sun came out and cleared a path so we could continue outdoor training time without fear of landing flat on my … whatever.

If winter weather has you cutting short your dog’s training time, consider these suggestions offered by Mary Burch, AKC Canine Good Citizen director: teach a skill; tease their brains; and find ways to have fun inside and out, no matter the weather. For details, read Mary’s article here.

Cold weather brings a host of challenges for both dog and owner. Check out these 10 winter safety tips posted by Randa Kriss to the general care section of the AKC website.

Here’s an inforgraphic, courtesy of Vet Street that’s chock-full of good reminders for us all:

Don’t let winter’s chill spoil the fun for you and your dog. With a little creativity you just might discover new opportunities for training and bonding time with your best friend.

It’s a Dog-Meet-Dog World

I’m editing scenes from Dangerous Deeds in which my protagonist Maggie Porter is leading a Good Dog! class to help owners and their dog prepare for their Canine Good Citizen test. I first wrote those scenes before Sasha came into my life, so I had to rely on information from the AKC, training blogs, and YouTube videos. And while the test items seem relatively simple, achieving consistent results with a dog of my own is a bit more complicated than I envisioned.

Take, for example, test item #8, Reaction to Another Dog. If we take our test indoors, Sasha will (probably) pass this one with flying colors. She’s been close to other dogs in indoor training situations and in retail stores, and she’s been calm and quiet every time. And those of you with Shelties know quiet isn’t common behavior!

But life as we know it isn’t confined to indoor interactions, and many evaluators prefer outdoor venues as shown in the video above. We’ve made progress in reducing Sasha’s over-the-top reaction to leashed dogs but there’s still work to be done. If I see the dog in time I can move us out of the way and put Sasha in a down-stay or a sit-stay until the dog and handler pass by. (Mind you, she usually has something to say, but she tends to mutter rather than bark.)

Our current challenge, though, is the off-leash dog.

Maybe that’s happened to you in the local park, along a trail, or even in your own neighborhood. We’ve been accosted by off-leash dogs on multiple occasions, and most recently just this past week.  We were less than a block from home after enjoying a casual afternoon walk. Two Australian Shepherds bolted through an open garage door and came in low, fast, and silent. If I’d known they were in there I would have crossed the street to give us some distance, but I didn’t see them in time to take evasive action. They ignored their owner’s commands and came straight for us. They’re young, well-muscled, and already bigger and heavier than Sasha. And she most definitely Did. Not. Like. Them.

It didn’t help to hear the owner say “They’re friendly. Just stand still.” Seriously? I have no interest in taking advice from an irresponsible owner. I saw nothing to suggest this was a friendly meet-and-greet, so I backed Sasha up while staring down the dogs. The owner struggled to get handfuls of hair (no collars!) and held them long enough for me to get Sasha safely past them.

In the days since, I’ve worked to reduce Sasha’s renewed hyper reactions around dogs in general and I’ve done my best to keep her away from known trouble spots. Just this morning, though, we came across a dog who was loose in an unfenced yard. Sasha saw him as he headed our way and, predictably, reacted by barking fiercely. The dog’s body language suggested interest but no overt aggression, perhaps because we were in the street and about 20 yards away. I put Sasha in a sit-stay between my legs, held up my hand in the classic “Stop” gesture and said “NO! GO BACK!” The dog halted and immediately turned away when his owner called him. (Excellent recall demonstrated there!) Other than her initial outburst, Sasha sat quietly and, once we moved along, looked to me for approval—which of course she received, along with lavish praise and treats. She looked back just once (a big improvement over previous behavior), tossed out one last bark and then moved on.

If you come across off-leash dogs in your own neighborhood or park, you may find a flexible response strategy to be the most helpful. Consider, for example, these excellent suggestions offered by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA in her 2015 dogster.com article “What to do when an off-leash dog approaches your leashed dog.”  And you can find more suggestions at VetStreet.com, where dog trainer Mikkel Becker talks tactics in her 2013 article “Managing confrontation with an off-leash dog.

We’ll keep working to build Sasha’s confidence when meeting dogs, whether they’re leashed or loose. Every day brings new encounters with different dogs, and that’s great training for my Canine Good Citizen in training!

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Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, weaves a tale of mischief and mayhem that sets neighbor against neighbor and disrupts the quiet life Maggie Porter longs for. A major part of the plot revolves around a proposed ‘dangerous’ dog ordinance that’s based on breed-specific legislation (BSL) enacted in hundreds of communities across the country and in multiple countries around the world.

For the record, my protagonist Maggie Porter shares the AKC position that BSL doesn’t work, in part because it fails to address the issue of owner responsibility. Unfortunately, some nefarious community members have targeted Maggie’s opposition to the proposed ordinance to further their own agenda. Their efforts generate ripples of dissent throughout the community, leading to boycotts, threats, and death too close to home.

Dangerous Deeds is on track for publication this year. Stay tuned!

Detours

training-sashaJust when I think we’re making progress in our preparations for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification, something happens that has me reevaluating my process.

From our first days together I knew I couldn’t apply the same training methods I’d used years ago with my spaniel Alix. For one thing, Alix was just six weeks old when she came to me, and she was socialized to people, cats, and other dogs right from the start. She was rarely left alone and regularly engaged in fun activities. Training Alix was a straightforward process, thanks to the expert support of my sister Maureen Kidd, who is a superb dog trainer.

In contrast, there’s nothing straightforward about training Sasha. She was at least a year old when she came to us, and whatever happened to her before that point caused her to be anxious and generally fearful of pretty much everything. Consequently, my focus in our first year together was to reduce her anxiety and build her confidence. That’s worked to some extent, but we have a long way to go. We’ve made good progress in some areas, such as reconditioning her response to the coffee grinder or reducing her tendency to bark at neighbors and dogs on the other side of the fence, but we’ve lost some ground along the way as well. Take the CGC test #8, for example–reaction to another dog. I actually thought this would be an easy one for her because  Sasha generally ignores the dogs we see in PetSmart or Lowes. She paid scant attention to the dogs we met in obedience class. We participated in the Dogwood Walk last May with hundreds of people and their dogs, and she was relaxed, confident, and clearly enjoyed herself.

So what changed? Haven’t a clue. She’s still calm around other dogs when we’re in stores but neighborhood walks are a whole different experience. Any distraction (think squirrels, birds, passing vehicles, animals, even lawn decorations blowing in the breeze) can set her off. Sometimes the “look at me, good girl, quiet” followed by treats is effective, but dogs, whether close by or a block away, push her past the point I can reliably capture her attention.

Still, we’ve been making some progress with this. When I see anyone approaching with their dog, I’ll cross the street to put a bit of distance between us. I’ve discovered she’ll willingly go from a sit to a down-stay and remain reasonably quiet while the other dog walks by, even if the dog passes within a few yards of us. That’s been true for leashed dogs, and even a few unleashed dogs as long as they keep their distance. If we’re going to earn the CGC, though, we have to get to the point where she’ll walk calmly past another dog.

Toward that goal, we ventured to Lake Fayetteville yesterday. With bright sunshine and record-high temperatures, I anticipated the crowds and went prepared with extra-special training treats. And crowds we found; cyclists, skateboarders, walkers, joggers, and DOGS. Big dogs, little dogs, dogs who were well behaved and a few who weren’t, and one who reminded me of Stephen King’s Cujo. Fortunately, all but one dog was secured with a 6′ leash held firmly by attentive owners. The sole exception was a happy-go-lucky long-haired, short-legged Dachshund mix on a fully extended flexible leash who wanted to check out everything and everyone. (Sasha paid him no attention.)

We spent an hour out there. During that time I learned that Sasha’s reaction to dogs is neither size- nor breed-specific. She was at times friendly, interested, dismissive, or reactive.  She walked calmly but stopped often, usually when a dog approached from the opposite direction. She ignored one Boxer and barked wildly at another and then at a much smaller dog (a Westie, I think) who wasn’t anywhere close to us. Sasha had plenty to say when one BIG dog lunged in our direction but didn’t so much as glance at the pair of German Shepherds sitting beside the trail. She turned around to watch a Corgi as it passed by but never made a sound. Ditto with a Labrador, and with the terrier missing part of his back leg, despite the terrier’s obvious interest in Sasha. She managed to bark at dogs of all sizes and breeds while completely ignoring others, including several who barked at her.

As the down-stay isn’t a viable strategy for parks and trails (and obviously not a long-term solution, period), I worked on focusing her attention on me and praising her when she was quiet. When we called a halt and claimed a bench at the side of the trail, she sat quietly and watched the crowds go by. By that point, she’d probably had all the stimulation she could handle. Next time we’ll hit the section of the trail adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, where there’s a big field to run through and plenty of space between trail users. And we’ll keep working on the CGC test items. It may take a while, but we’ll get there!

An extended down-stay at the park 2-11-17

While working with Sasha, it pays to remember the words of dog trainer and writer Nancy Tanner in her excellent post The Misunderstanding of Time: “You cannot rush the teaching or learning process, on either end of the leash.”  

Lessons Along The Journey

It’s been a month since Sasha came into our lives. What an adventure we’re having!

Who could resist that face?

Sasha Feb 2016

After so many years without a dog of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that this adventure comes with a learning curve for all of us. For Sasha, everything’s new after losing whatever home she knew when she was surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office. (From what little I’ve learned, it wasn’t much of a home, but still…) Buddy the Cat unexpectedly gained a housemate, and we humans found ourselves in unknown territory as we integrated a rescue dog in the family mix.

Sasha came to us with various minor health issues, poor skin, and a pitiful short, thin coat—problems most likely caused by poor diet and a lack of attention. With the final round of antibiotics and other prescription meds now complete, we’re focused on improving her stamina and overall good health. I’ve spent the last month transitioning her to quality food. (If you’re new to the world of dogs, consider sampling different foods and remember to make any switch a gradual process.)

After addressing her health and dietary concerns, we started training in earnest. She came to us knowing a few of the basics and at least one new-to-me skill: she can sneeze on command. (Yes, really!) After working together every day, I’ve learned three essential lessons (so far) along this journey.

Lesson #1: Be patient.

There’s a scene in chapter 1 of Deadly Ties when veterinarian Angus Sheppard is looking over a Beagle rescued by my protagonist, Maggie Porter. Maggie’s concerned about Mr. B’s health and his transition to a new way of life. In response, Angus said, “Look at it from the dog’s point of view—he’s lost everything he’s ever known. That can haunt you for a long time.”

I wrote that scene years before Sasha came into my life. I’m reminded of those words, though, every time we hit a bump in the road. She’s over a year old, but she was as clueless as a puppy at the end of a leash. The volunteer who fostered her handed her over with a retractable leash (that didn’t retract) attached to a cheap collar. I can only guess what her life was like before coming to us, but it’s a safe bet that it was nothing like her life now. She came to us afraid of loud or unexpected noises and strange places, skittish around strangers and around men in general, leery of other dogs, and super-stressed when put in a vehicle. As Shelties tend to be VERY vocal when nervous, agitated, or excited, I confess I’ve had to refrain from shrieking myself more than once!

Every time we head out for a neighborhood walk I remind myself to be patient as Sasha encounters new sights and sounds, and to see every “moment” as a training opportunity. And after one wild experience near the pond when assorted ducks, geese, dogs, and children proved too much excitement at once, I now take greater care in planning our route!

Lesson #2: Make training a daily habit.

I started all her daily training sessions in the house, then moved to the backyard before venturing out onto our quiet cul-de-sac and eventually the busier streets of the neighborhood. After two weeks she’d mastered the sit-stay command at a distance of 50+ feet and I was convinced training her myself would be a breeze.

Not quite.

Sure, she’s doing a great job of the basics in the house, the yard, and even the neighborhood—just as long as there are no people, dogs, moving cars, ducks, squirrels…well, you get the picture.  So off we went to basic obedience class. I cringed at the thought of managing her in a room full of strangers with all sorts of dogs, but Sasha needs both training and socialization time. And how did she handle the noise and confusion? Take a look:

 March 8th 2016

Sasha in a down-stay of her own choosing 3-8-16

Once we got past that hurdle I thought we were home free. Then came the clickers. She didn’t like the sound of one clicker when we practiced at home, and a room full of people clicking repeatedly (with their dogs happily responding, I’ll note)  proved too much for her.  I stashed the clicker and rewarded her with yummy treats as we ran through the exercises.

This week our training focus is learning how to walk on a loose leash (that’s test #4 on the Canine Good Citizen test). We fitted her with a martingale collar; that was essential, as Shelties are prone to “back out” of a regular collar. (If you’d like to learn more about this type of training collar, check out the No Dog About it blog. Great info!)

Even with the martingale training collar, teaching Sasha “no pulling” is another exercise in patience. Every time she pulls I stop walking, which brings her attention back to me. Being a Sheltie, she always has some comment to make even as she stops pulling and waits to start again! We’re still in the stop-wait-start-again phase but it’s gradually improving. She’s aced loose leash walking in the house and backyard. Beyond that, she’s only good at it once she’s worn out from running around the park. (We have a big open field and I put her on the long line and let her run circles around me.) The walk home is always good. It’s a start…

Lesson#3: Praise, laugh, and love.

Sasha is one happy dog! She pops out of bed eager for whatever the day brings, and we make sure she hears lots of praise whether we’re training or not. Every day sees her more energetic and playful, and it’s clear she feels safe in her new home. She and Buddy the Cat are often nose-to-nose and have recently begun to chase one another around the backyard and through the house. She’s learning hide-and-seek and now has a basket full of toys all her own. Add in a couple of gel memory foam beds, a collection of yummy treats, and walk-and-play time every day, and the result is a wonderful new member of the family. Here’s the latest photo; the bare patches have filled in and her skin and coat are already showing signs of loving attention!

Backyard shot 3-6-16 1 month

My Sasha, one month after joining the family