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!

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.”  

For the love of a dog

7-14-16-smiling-at-park

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

It’s hard to believe that Sasha’s been part of the family for nearly a year. And what a year it’s been! She came to us timid, thin-coated, suffering from poor nutrition, and in dire need of love. Over the past 11 months she’s grown into a confident, sweet-tempered dog. She may never have the typical full-length Sheltie coat, but considering how much she sheds now, I’m actually okay with that! Good food and daily exercise (to include herding Buddy the Cat) combined with love and attention have her looking more beautiful by the day.

Here’s one of my favorite photos of Sasha. This one was taken in late summer at the neighborhood park and captures what I’ve come to think of as her “happy face.”

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We’re still frequent visitors to the park, even though the summer grass has long since faded away and the wind whistles, clear and sharp, across the open meadow. The chilly temps discourage casual visitors, giving us plenty of space for training time and indulging in the Sheltie zoomies. For the uninitiated, picture a dog flat-out running in circles at the end of a 30-foot line. And since she’s a Sheltie, add in joyous barking with every revolution. The faster she runs, the more she barks!

If I were inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, I might be tempted to put “barking control” at the top of the list. Then again, she’s a Sheltie, and I suspect barking is hard-wired into her DNA. <grin> I can count on her to sound the alert for the UPS truck,  the coffee pot, and neighborhood boys out in the road. It’s taken months, but we’ve progressed to the point that she’ll (mostly) stop on command, although she often interprets “stop” to be an invitation to continue to vocalize; her range of mutters, grumbles, and almost-but-not-quite whines tend to be more entertaining than irritating.

As far as New Year’s lists go, I’ll stick to my own tradition of listing some of the many things I’m grateful for. To the many who have shared their experience and wisdom in All Things Sheltie, I’m thankful. To those who joined our vigil when Sasha had seizures and we feared the worst, thank you for sharing that burden as well as the joy when the tests came back clear. To all who have come into our lives because we opened our hearts and home to a Sheltie in need, I’m grateful beyond words. So I’ll close by borrowing the words of the late Roger Karas, known to millions as the voice of Westminster Kennel Club dog show:

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.

 

 

 

Training Tales

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha

This morning dawned clear and sunny, enticing Sasha and I to head outside despite the freezing temperature. We had the neighborhood park all to ourselves, so I traded leash for the 30′ long line and let her zigzag across the park in joyous abandon. (I’ve discovered that training time tends to be most productive when play time comes first.)

I can happily report she’s come a long way in our nine months together, with some skills sharper than others. (Isn’t that true of us all?) She’s happy, eager for adventures every day, and sweet-natured to boot. She’s a terrific guard dog who keeps us company no matter what we’re doing, and even keeps track of Buddy the Cat, whose bramble patch adventures will appear in Dangerous Deeds (book 2 of the Waterside Kennels series).

As you  can see from the photo above, we’re making good progress with the stand-stay command. We’re also doing well with sit-stay and down-stay, which I’m using to discourage her from lunging toward vehicles as they pass by.

The basic skills are regular part of our everyday training time, and now I’m shifting focus a bit to concentrate on the specific skills needed to earn the to earn the AKC Canine Good Citizen certification. I need to spend more time on every test item, even the ones she’s doing well. Here’s a rundown of our progress with each test item:

Accepting a friendly stranger
Sasha is perfectly agreeable to having strangers approach in pet-friendly stores, out on the trail, or in the park. She’s even polite to strangers walking through the neighborhood, although she’ll almost always have something to say to them as they approach. The test requires the dog show no sign of resentment or shyness, but there’s no (apparent) requirement to be silent. That’s good news for my talkative girl!

Sitting Politely for Petting
I’ve been coaching her on this one for a while. She’s okay with adults provided they don’t run up and thrust a hand in her face or grab her. (And really, who likes that?) She’s calm with strollers and toddlers, a bit cautious around older boys, and tends to stare at kids on bikes and scooters as though trying to figure out what they’re doing.

Appearance and Grooming
Thanks to the fabulous work of master groomer Alicia Broyles of Towne and Kountry Grooming and Dr. Hynes and Dr. Stropes of Crossover Veterinary Clinic, Sasha is calm and polite when standing for examination (and that’s why we practice the stand-stay). She doesn’t mind her ears being checked and quickly mastered the foot command–my own invention motivated by the need to wipe the mud off her feet after outdoor play time.

Out for a Walk (walking on a loose lead)
Sasha is smart and knows the difference between walking on the leash and having the long line clipped on, which is her signal to forget heeling and just have fun. Once on the leash, though, and she’s (mostly) a well-mannered dog who enjoys adding her own running commentary of mutters and low-voiced yips, yodels, and the ocassional bark.

Walking Through a Crowd
With the farmer’s market off the square for the winter, we’re relying on pet-friendly stores and the area parks for crowd work. Our local Lowes home improvement store has a pet-loving manager and a friendly crew, so we make a point of browsing there frequently. This has also proved good practice for the “sitting politely for petting” test. When other dogs react by barking or lunging, Sasha just sits or stands quietly at my side.

I follow the same protocol at PetSmart, but that’s due to inattentive owners with dogs on extended leashes. Neither Sasha nor I are fans of those leashes, but she enjoys our time there because she’s allowed to browse the items on the shelves!

Sit and Down on Command and Staying in Place
This is working well, likely because I take every opportunity to practice the sit-stay and down-stay when we’re out and about. Sure, it takes longer to finish the walk, but Sasha is rewarded with frequent sniff breaks in between heeling and the sit, down, and stay on command, not to mention the praise lavished on her by passersby who inevitably ask, “How do you get her to do that?” (The answer is “Practice every day.”)

Coming When Called
The test involves a distance of 10 feet, but we practice using the 30′ long line as well as the 6′ standard leash. Our challenge here is to have a consistent and reliable recall despite distractions. For Sasha, those distractions can be squirrels, birds, airplanes, passing vehicles, etc.

Reaction to Another Dog
This one is definitely a work in progress. As the test is described, “The dogs should show no more than casual interest in each other. Neither dog should go to the other dog or its handler.” We haven’t reached the “casual interest” stage. In the neighborhood, Sasha is on alert but interested: head up, tail up, body language and vocalization signaling excited interest.

The other challenge is that the neighborhood dogs always want to get up-close-and-too-personal with Sasha. We need to spend more time out of the neighborhood and along the lake trail, which is popular with dog walkers. I’ll gradually decrease the distances between us and the others. I’ll note, though, that Sasha participated in the annual Dog Walk back in May and handled being in a crowd of people and dogs with no problem at all.

Reaction to Distraction
More practice needed here. Any suggestions?

Supervised Separation
Sasha is comfortable with the down-stay as long as I’m in sight. This test, however, has me going out of sight for three minutes. So far, we haven’t made it past one minute.

The test description also says that the dog “does not have to stay in position but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or show anything stronger than mild agitation or nervousness.” She won’t bark or pace unnecessarily, but she does have that tendency toward a running commentary, even if it’s quiet. I’m open to suggestions here, as well!

All in all, we’re both making reasonably good progress, and I’m looking forward to mastering the CGC and moving on to new canine challenges!