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!

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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!”

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.