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.

 

A Blue Ribbon Day!

After this morning’s backyard adventure, the four-legged family members opted to spend most of the day inside. Sasha seemed apprehensive when it came time for her mid-afternoon yard break, so I went out with her. This time, however, I was armed with a Plan of Action.

The dogs visiting next door came straight to the fence,  with the Chihuahua leading the conversation. (I’m rapidly growing fond of that little voice.) In similar situations, Sasha has immediately engaged in sustained barking and her mood tends to shifts from interested to agitated in record time.

This afternoon, though, I’d gone prepared. Even as Sasha looked toward the fence I focused her attention on me as I moved toward the center back of the yard. There’s a 20-acre field behind our fence, where the only distractions are squirrels and, come evening, coyotes. We worked through sit, stay, down, and recall even as the dogs barked in the background.

And joy of joys–instead of reacting as she did this morning, Sasha stayed focused on me and worked through the basic obedience routines. Calm, confident, happy. That’s my girl!

This is a FIRST for Sasha!

 We’ll keep working on managing distractions and increasing confidence on our outdoor adventures. For now, I’m happy to know Sasha is on her way to becoming a Canine Good Citizen!

Keep Calm and Have a Plan

Most holiday weekends, our neighborhood sees an influx of out-of-town guests who bring their pets along. For those of us whose dogs are wary of strangers, the new arrivals can add a new level of anxiety.  While vigilance–and maintaining a safe distance–can often prevent a full-blown canine crisis, it pays to have a plan in place to help mitigate stress.

I have a plan. Several, in fact. Lots of strategies and tactics to put into place on our walks, in the park, or anywhere else we might care to go. What I didn’t have was a plan to mitigate the stress of strange dogs showing up at 7 am next door.

Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat were in the backyard, enjoying the first rain-free morning we’ve had in a while.  All was peaceful until we heard dogs barking and running toward the fence on our eastern boundary. Sasha, being a Sheltie and the good guard dog she is, ran over barking in response, with Buddy The Wonder Cat in close pursuit.

There’s a wooden fence along the boundary; it’s the “shadowbox” kind with pickets offset on each side with slight gap between pickets. The gap is enough for animals to glimpse each other but not enough for even the leanest dog or cat to slip through. (Cats’ paws, however, are another story, hence my close attention when the boy is outside.) So with a fence between them, the interaction started off well. Buddy The Wonder Cat loves visitors of all kinds and was clearly eager to visit the Chihuahua who approached. Sasha followed head up, ears forward, tail in happy-wag mode, and the whole body posture suggesting a “happy to meet you” attitude. Her barks were conversational rather than confrontational. Even better, she paused after greeting the visitor and looked to me for approval. She was probably hoping for a tasty reward, too, but my bathrobe pockets were devoid of treats so she had to make do with happy-voice praise.

Alas, the peace of the meet-and-greet was shattered when a bigger dog approached, shoved his nose into the gap, and hurled a barrage of barks and growls our way. Whatever he said, it wasn’t nice. Buddy immediately flattened on the ground, just as he does when a hawk swoops low across the yard. Sasha’s ears went back, tail and body lowering, and her bark tone shifted to classic “keep back” in seconds.

It was easier than I’d expected to get them both inside. I used a combination of the Focus and Look-At-That techniques we’ve been working on. Asking Sasha to focus on me instead of the scary dog gave her a reason to disengage. If you’re interested in helping your dog focus on you, here’s a video that may help:

After a game of Find It! inside, we ventured out for a neighborhood walk, and soon met a different neighbor heading our way with her dog she’d recently adopted from the local shelter. I was encouraged to see Sasha’s initial reaction was once again that of interest, so I used the Look At That again while rewarding her with treats. When they got too close for her comfort (across the street and two houses away) I switched direction and lured her away with me. I paused at the corner when Sasha turned to watch them moving closer on the opposite sidewalk. I had the super-yummy Ziwi treats with me which did the trick! Sasha first stood, then sat calmly, enjoying her treats while alternating her attention between the dog and me. My neighbor stopped on the opposite corner and let the dogs see each other while Sasha enjoyed her treats. Here’s an example of what we did:

I owe much of our progress to Beverley Courtney’s excellent workshops. If you have a dog that’s reactive or fearful, check out Beverley’s Brilliant Family Dog website and online training resources. You can find her on Facebook, too.

A cat with a dog of his own

Two years ago, we introduced Buddy The Wonder Cat to Sasha. We’d been a one-cat household since Katie, our 14-year-old Calico, passed away, and without a dog for 17 years since losing our beloved spaniel Alix. It’s fair to say we were a bit nervous about bringing home a rescue with an unknown history but we hoped Buddy, being the (mostly) mellow kitty he is, would eventually accept the newcomer.

Those early weeks were a challenge for everyone involved. It helped, I think, that we let Buddy stake out his preferred territory—which included the bed, the upstairs guest rooms, my lap, and the office. Buddy make it clear, right from the start, that the office was his domain, as evidenced here the day after we brought Sasha home:

The backyard became neutral territory, and as the days warmed into spring the two of them slowly became comfortable together:

They grew so comfortable with each other that Buddy supervises all the training sessions and joins in play time:

And when Sasha injured her leg and had to be confined to her crate, Buddy first tried to unzip the screen to help her escape. When that didn’t work, he stayed as close as he could:

They share most of the water bowls scattered through the house, although Sasha tends to ignore the bowl in the laundry room where Buddy is prone to wash his paws. Sasha also ignores the water bowl next to her food dish at the end of the kitchen island. That, too, is Buddy’s territory, where he likes to fish for ice cubes (really!) while he watches Sasha eat. I feed him first, having discovered that Sasha won’t start eating until Buddy comes to keep her company. Between his enthusiastic splashing and Sasha’s habit of drinking at the edge of the bowl and dribbling water in the process, all the water bowls have catch plates under them. The kitchen bowl is currently Buddy’s preferred place to dunk strings, grass, and miscellaneous things he drags in from the yard, so he has plenty to keep him occupied while Sasha eats.

I generally feed them early mornings and late afternoons, with the water bowls picked up before meals for cleaning. Yesterday, I gave Sasha a snack of cucumbers (her favorite treat) mixed with her kibble, hoping to help her calm down after yet another dog charged us during our afternoon walk. I’d intended to feed Buddy next, but he’d apparently decided food came second to offering sympathy and support for Sasha:

A cat with a dog of his own.

 

Is there a doctor in the house?

Sasha with her “Puppy”

…Or maybe it’s a seamstress we need!

This week marked the second anniversary of Sasha joining our household. Freezing drizzle and a silly injury of mine has kept us housebound, so we’ve celebrated with toys. And that is A Big Deal.

Why? (Glad you asked!) When Sasha came to us, she didn’t know how to play. She was anxious, easily startled, and tended to shy away if one of us made sudden movements or raised a hand. When we tossed a soft Frisbee, she’d tremble or retreat from the action. Ditto with balls of all sizes and textures, although Buddy The Wonder Cat demonstrated the fine art of chasing after toys for her. The variety of toys we piled into a basket might have thrilled any other dog, but Sasha just walked on by.

Then, a few months later, she received a Sock Monkey, and suddenly it was game on!  (And thanks again to the sponsors of the Humane Society of the Ozarks who donated all those treats and toys.)

Fast-forward 18 months. We were wandering through the local pet supply store when Sasha discovered the toy aisle. She browsed through every shelf at nose level until she found the red stuffed squeaky toy pictured above and now known as “Puppy.” (Ask her to fetch Puppy and she’ll bring you this toy. Every time.) She nosed that toy out of the bin and examined it thoroughly, to include a few exploratory nibbles, before carrying her prize triumphantly to the checkout counter.  Since then, she’s learned the fun of “fetch” and “bring it” and enjoys a rousing game of tug. And she’s generalized that experience to her other toys, so we’re now treated to play time with Puppy, Sock Monkey, and Squeaky Duck.

Today, though, it was all Puppy.  I think we’d hit 15 rounds of “fetch” and “bring it” before she decided “tug” was the game of the day, followed by a tear-the-stuffing-out session. By that point I was laughing too hard to focus, which explains the slightly fuzzy photo above.

Time for a patch job!

Winter Fun and Games

This morning’s temperature hovered at zero and the wind chill of -7 or colder motivated Sasha to set a new speed record in the yard.  With brutal cold predicted for days to come, I’m going to be smart and substitute indoor work for our daily neighborhood walks. Fortunately, Sasha enjoys any sort of training time. Recently, I’ve challenged her to go beyond obedience drills to working through games, puzzles, and tricks. Teaching tricks is a great way to mentally challenge your dog, help them focus, and have fun with you!

Sasha earned her Novice Trick Dog title in December, and she enjoyed that so much we’re aiming for her Intermediate title. The tricks I’m sharing today include some that we learned at a recent seminar held at the NWA School for Dogs. If you can’t attend a training seminar, you can go the DIY route and watch the video links included in this post. (There are a LOT of videos freely available on YouTube.)

If you and your dog are new to tricks, start with brief sessions when you’re both relaxed and interested. Sasha, for example, tends to be more focused when I break our workout sessions into 10-15 minutes blocks.  Most importantly, have fun with your dog!

One of Sasha’s favorite tricks is the Scent Trick. Place tennis balls in a muffin tin, then hide a savory treat (bits of hot dog, cheese, chicken, or anything special) under one of the balls. Place it on the floor and let your dog use its nose to find the treat. I started with a 6-muffin tin and placed treats under 4 of the 6 balls, and then once she understood the game I gradually reduced the number of treats, and then used a larger muffin tin with just a couple of treats hidden. If your dog gets frustrated when the muffin tin slides around, try placing it on a non-skid mat.

Some dogs like to nudge the ball out with their nose, while others use their paws. (Sasha’s a nose girl with this game.) If your dog flips the tin over to get the treats, try wedging the tin under something sturdy to discourage that quick solution and make him think. Here’s the basic how-to:

If your dog enjoys the challenge of scent training, you can play hide-and-seek using a treat-stuffed sock or a Kong toy. Put your dog in a sit-stay, then give your dog time to catch the scent by sniffing the sock. For the first round, I recommend letting the dog see where you place the sock/toy. Return to your dog and tell them “Find it” or “Fetch” or whatever command you want to use. Remember to be consistent with your commands.

Some prefer to have the dog return to you with the “find” for their reward. When I want Sasha to return to me with the item, I use the command “Bring it.” Adapt to suit your dog’s interest and ability level. Be sure to praise the find and reward with a piece of whatever treat’s in the sock/toy. Once your dog understands the game, increase the challenge by placing the object out of sight, gradually increasing the distance and difficulty.

Another fun trick is the Spin. Lure with a treat at nose level while dog is standing. Encourage your dog to follow the scent as you move your hand in a large circle. Go slow, and be patient!  If they stop before making the entire circle, treat where they stop, then go a bit further next time. If you use a clicker, click and treat; otherwise, use verbal praise. Here’s a “how to” demonstration:

Trick training can be a great way to help your dog learn basic tasks. Here’s how to teach your dog to carry a basket:

Ready for something a bit more physical? Try the Weave. Fair warning: this one takes a bit of balance!

Start with your dog on your left, then spread your legs. Holding a yummy treat in your right hand so it’s visible, coax your dog to move between your legs as you lure the dog through your legs and around to your right. Repeat going the opposite direction. Here’s a visual:

If you’re working with a big dog, you may want to teach them to Crawl first so they can more easily move between your legs. In this demonstration, you’ll see the trainer places her hand on the dog’s back. It’s important to note that she is not pressing down or forcing the dog in any way!

Whatever you choose to do, make it fun for you and your dog!

A Day To Remember

Monday morning walks can be a challenge, and today was no exception. Sasha was on high alert right from the start, with barks aplenty at anything and everything that moved. The incessant wind gusts didn’t help, either; this is one dog who does not appreciate leaves and dust swirling around her face.  She was already worked up and fussy when we turned a corner and saw a group of young boys playing ball far down the street and several men visiting on the opposite sidewalk.  Males of all ages, unfortunately, seem to be a trigger for Sasha, and she’s quick to voice her disapproval.  The usual “leave it” and “let’s go” and “walk on” didn’t work at all, and she looked set to bark her way down the block–and it’s a long block. That’s when inspiration struck.

Training Time! I’ve no idea why it never occurred to me to run a mini-training session in the neighborhood, but today was the day. It was wonderful to see her snap to attention when she realized what we were doing. We worked through the different positions to include both the right-side sit from front center and the left heel from front center and the “circle round me” heel to end in a sit on my left. There’s a limit to what I can do without dropping the leash, but I got creative with a few rounds of sit-stay, down-stay, and having her in a down while I walked around her and stepped over her to re-position myself.  Sasha loved it. The generous dispensing of treats helped, of course, but this girl loves to be mentally challenged.

After that little session, Sasha walked on, clearly pleased with her performance. She didn’t bark or even alert on the people as we went by, which is something of a minor miracle. (Hey, she’s a Sheltie. She talks. To everybody.)  The people, however, certainly noticed her! One of the adults gave us a thumbs-up and a big grin as we went by.

 

Training Time is typically on the 30-foot long line at the park, when we work on the long down-stay, recall, and down on command. Smart Sheltie that she is, she knows the long line means play time and training, and she’s always ready for fun! And then there’s indoor Training Time, which goes back to our first days together when we realized that loud noises scared her and the sound of the coffee bean grinder sent her scrambling to hide. It took a long time, but now the sound of the coffee supplies coming out has her quivering with joyous anticipation, because she knows that it’s time to go through the paces and earn a treat. We’ve progressed to practice off-leash heeling in the house as part of Coffee Time Treats, with Buddy The Wonder Cat perched on a tall stool watching the action. Today’s session, though, is the first outside in the neighborhood while walking with the standard 6-foot leather leash.  Now that I’ve seen how excited she became at the idea of a walk-time work session, we’ll be doing this again, and often.

 

The BEST news, though, came thirty minutes later. We’d walked around the neighborhood and were approaching the local park when I saw an (always) off-leash dog and owner headed our way. I told Sasha “Cross” (I’ve taught her to pause on the sidewalk until she hears that command) and off we went, angling away from the unleashed dog.  Sasha stayed focused on me and (of course) the treat in my hand. We actually passed within 20 feet of the dog without so much as a mumble, grumble, or growl. Now, it’s possible Sasha never saw the dog, although that’s highly unlikely, as she’s prone to alert on movement two blocks away. Whatever the reason, she stayed focused on me and walked calmly forward until I gave her a well-deserved reward in the form of a bigger-than-usual treat.

We may never reach the point when Sasha is able to calmly walk past any dog without reacting, but today was a shining example of what’s possible. For that, I’m grateful.