Play Nice: Good Manners, Canine Style

With warm weather on the horizon and a holiday weekend ahead, chances are you’ll see a lot more people out and about enjoying the outdoors with their dogs. Some dogs, like people, are super-social and love spending time with others. If you have a dog like this, a dog park might be a fun destination.  The website K9 of Mine has an excellent overview of the advantages and disadvantages of dog parks, do’s and don’ts, and dog-friendly alternatives if a dog park isn’t a good choice for you. It’s definitely worth reading the entire article. Find that here.

Before you turn your own Fido loose into a crowd of canine revelers, let’s review  what the AKC calls the common-sense rules of dog parks:

  • Should your pet show signs of illness or a contagious disease, don’t bring him/her to the park.

  • Don’t bring a puppy less than four months old or a female dog in heat.

  • Keep an eye on your dog! Don’t let your dog be aggressive with another dog.

  • Obviously, you should pick up after your dog.

  • Don’t bring food for yourself or your dog.

  • Bring a portable water bowl for your dog – water bowls at dog parks carry the risk of communicable illnesses.

  • Keep your small dog in the designated small-dog section of the park – even if he/she enjoys hanging out with the big dogs.

  • Bring a ball, but be prepared to lose it.

  • Don’t let your dog run in a pack. Intervene when play starts to get too rough

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For more helpful suggestions about dog parks, check out this handy poster from Tail Wags Playground (click to enlarge):

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Interested in establishing a dog park in your own community? Check out this infographic from the AKC or their handy guide, complete with success stories!

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!

The Sociable Dog

Sasha 3-20-16 posing for spring CROPPEDBefore Sasha came into my life, I already had a reasonable collection of dog-related reference works in my office—about what you’d expect for anyone writing fiction involving dogs. Now that I have a Sheltie, my collection of resources has grown significantly. Being the research geek I am, I’ve collected just about every reference available related to Shelties plus books, videos, and websites dedicated to dog training and rescue dogs in general. The more I read, the more I realize how much there is to learn and relearn.

Every day with Sasha is full of learning moments—some repeats, some new, and some downright unexpected. Take interaction with children, for example. You’ll find plenty of folks who swear Shelties are great with children, including the volunteer who fostered Sasha for a few days. The volunteer assured me Sasha was “good with kids.” That assessment, though, was based on her observations of the dog with a single toddler over a span of a few days. As any researcher knows, it’s not possible to generalize results from a miniscule sample. In simple terms, this means I cannot accurately predict how Sasha will behave when interacting with children.

Experienced trainers and responsible dog owners emphasize the need for early socialization (which I’d argue is essential for humans and dogs alike).  Since Sasha is a rescue, I have to rely on what little I know of her past, what I’ve learned about the breed, and my own instinct when we come upon children as we did today at the park when two very small girls wanted to rush over to “pet the pretty doggie.” Fortunately, their grandmother was quick to remind them to never approach a dog without permission (I wish all adults were that smart about dogs). I’d been working Sasha on the 30’ long line in the field but quickly switched to her standard leash. Then I knelt and showed the girls how to hold their hands out toward Sasha, who greeted them with a polite sniff. In less than a minute, Sasha made it clear she’d had enough social time, although she was polite and quietly shared the sidewalk as everyone moved off in the same direction. (That bodes well for the upcoming Dogwood Walk benefiting the Humane Society of the Ozarks.)

Today’s experience reminded me that while Sasha feels safe with those in her household, she tends to be reserved but polite in public and has limited tolerance when others (of the human or canine variety) venture too close. So we’ll keep working to increase her comfort level with others while being mindful of her need for personal space. When it comes to children, that means taking her near the playground but not letting her be surrounded by overeager little ones. We’ll keep exposing her to different environments with plenty of room for her to move away from others if she needs to.

I came across a blog post that includes a succinct description of the socialization process as perceived by that dog owner. The infographic comes from the same post, by the way. Here’s what one dog owner thinks:

My understanding of the word, is that “socialisation” is a process of exposing the dog to a variety if things and circumstances. The Socialisation Process can be seen to be beneficial for the dog if the dog displays positive emotions and socially-acceptable behaviour towards what it is being socialised to.

socialisation-depends-onYou can read the entire 3-part post here.

For another perspective, let’s consider a professional’s point of view.  Starr Ladehoff, CPDT-KA (which stands for Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed) contributed an article to http://www.dogbehaviorblog.com back in 2012. Here’s what she said:

Socialization really is:

  • Exposure to the world the dog will be a part of in a safe manner with rules and guidelines
  • Learning to be calm when the world is stimulating
  • Learning to respond to signals when that is not what they want to do

Yes! Socialization is learning and maintaining acceptable behavior in any situation, especially when they would rather not. It is learning to handle any experience they will normally encounter throughout their life without becoming fearful, overly stimulated, reactive or aggressive.

You can read the entire article here.

Your own view of the socialization process might vary depending on your personality, your dog, the bond you share, and the environment in which you live.  For my part, I want Sasha to learn to be calm, confident, and responsive wherever we are. And that means daily training and time spent in different places with myriad distractions. Every day we both learn something new!