Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A dog’s instinct to chase can be used to your advantage.

We all learn, in one way or another, that dog's like to chase things.  They often enjoy chasing cars, squirrels, other dogs, tennis balls, people, and basically anything else that moves.  My first experience with a dog's chasing behavior happened when I was very young.

It might surprise you to know that I have not always loved dogs as much as I do now.  In fact, I was afraid of dogs when I was very little.  In theory I liked dogs and begged my parents to let me have a puppy of my own.  I collected pictures of puppies and kittens (and other baby animals) and even started a small savings account (my allowance in an envelope) entitled “money for a puppy”.  However, in practice I was petrified of those four-legged creatures and would dash to the safety of my house whenever an actual flesh and blood dog would wander within sight.  Our neighbors at the time had dogs that would often meander into our yard for a little exploration.  Every time I saw them, I would implore my parents to make the dogs go away.

When I was about five, my parents decided to adopt a dog of their own.  I was excited and bragged to all my friends at school about the arriving puppy.  My excitement was instantly dashed upon returning home from school the day the puppy came to live with us:  I was first unsettled by the small, brown, wiggly thing I saw in the window as I walked to the front door, and then I was immediately terrified when the brown, wiggly thing jumped on me as soon as I set foot in the house.  Though I remember trying to act brave around our new dog, Max, it was a while before I felt comfortable with him being close to me.  I have memories of standing on my chair during dinner screaming for my parents to get Max out of the room.
my childhood dog, Max

One sunny day my sister and I decided to sit outside on the front lawn to eat our lunch.  We had just settled in when somehow Max slipped past my mom and bolted out the front door towards us.  Being that I was scared of Max, my response was to get up and run for my life.  Of course Max then chased me.  I’m sure Max thought that we were playing, while I, on the other hand, was absolutely terrified.  I ran across the yard and up and down my dad’s blueberry bushes trying to outrun the small puppy.  My sister eventually caught Max and all was well—though she didn’t catch him before he had had a chance to stop and gulp down half her sandwich.  This was the first time I learned that dogs will chase after you when you run from them.  I also learned that dogs are opportunists when it comes to food availability, but that’s a lesson for another blog.

You’ll be happy to know that Max and I eventually developed a friendship and he became very dear to my heart.  I am very happy that I got to grow up with him in my life.

As an adult, I’ve tried to use my knowledge of a dog’s chasing instinct to my advantage.  Before I trusted Leopold off leash completely, I would entice him to stay near me by running away from him; he would dash after me in great fun.  I’ve used this technique many times when he’s off leash and has wandered what I consider to be too far away.  It works to varying degrees depending on what other interesting things (ie, dogs) are in the area, but it almost always ends up working.

Chris has also had success with this method.  He once came to the rescue at a party when a dog had stolen a woman’s shoe.  Everyone was chasing after the dog in the back yard trying to get close enough to get the shoe out of its mouth.  I’m sure the dog thought this was a great game.  Chris, with whom I had shared my dog behavior knowledge, approached the situation by waving his arms and running away.  The dog chased after him, and he was able to catch the dog and get the shoe.

I think the most grateful I’ve been of this dog behavior knowledge was just a couple months ago on the day I brought Halo home from the shelter.
  I hadn’t bought her a collar prior to going to the pick her up because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to bring her home with me (she still needed to meet Leopold), and I didn’t want to jinx the situation.  Fortunately, the dogs seemed to get along, so I bought one of the used, $1 collars they sell at the shelter as a temporary solution. 
This turned out to be a bad idea. As soon as Halo jumped out of the car, the collar snapped open, and she started running free all over the yard in excitement.  Halo didn’t know which house was hers, hadn’t yet bonded with her new people, and knew no commands; I had visions of her running away and being lost or running out into the street and being hit by a car before I could even get her in the house!  My very first instinct was to try and catch her, but I very quickly remembered that chasing a dog will only make it run away from its pursuer.  So I changed tactics and ran like a crazy person, waving my arms and whooping, towards the front door.  It worked; she chased after me to join in my fun game, and I was able to get her inside.  Crisis averted.

I know it seems counter-intuitive and is against all human instinct, but these experiences have proven to me that one of the best ways to catch a dog is to run away from it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dogs and humans: dealing with the communication barrier.

***CAUTION: this story involves poo***
(How can you be a dog owner and not have a story that involves poo?)

I had originally planned a different topic for my next post.  But as fate would have it, I had an experience in the wee hours of yesterday morning that felt prudent to share.

There is a lesson my dogs have tried to teach me time and time again.  And it’s always in retrospect when I think “Duh.  I should have known.  They were trying to tell me the whole time”.
And that is that dogs are habitual creatures.  They don’t often just suddenly change their behavior on a whim.  It’s when something is out of whack that a dog will do something you’re not used to seeing them do. This happened yesterday morning. 

Leopold may be the first dog I’ve raised, but he’s not the only dog I currently have. 
My boyfriend, Chris, and I adopted a second dog about two months ago.  Her name is Halo, and she’s still relatively young—about ten months old.  Because Halo is not yet potty-trained, she sleeps locked up in her crate at night.  Her crate lives (or at least lived) in our bedroom.
At 4am yesterday morning I was objectionably pulled into half-consciousness and quickly realized why: Halo was whining.  She does not normally whine at night.  My half-sleeping mind somehow decided that the whining might mean something, but the only reaction I could muster was to mumble at Chris, “Halo’s whining” like it was his problem to deal with.  I said this enough for him to finally wake and respond with a grumpy “What?” 

“Halo’s whining” I repeated.  I could tell Chris was irritated that I woke him up just because the dog was being annoying; it wasn’t the first time Halo had made enough noise to wake us up at night--just never by whining.  But my state of consciousness had barely surfaced in a pool of sleep and it kept me from thinking too much about the situation.  By the time Chris was awake, Halo had stopped whining, but had started scrambling around, scraping her cage.  This kept Chris from getting back to sleep and eventually, when he had had enough, he got up and moved Halo and her crate downstairs to the kitchen.
There.  Now we wouldn't be able to hear the scraping.
But that’s not what happened.  She started to whine again.  I remember thinking that she must merely be upset about being away from her people.
Chris tried to lure sleep back by playing some soothing music.  To no avail.  And Halo’s whining actually got worse.
Frustrated for a second time, Chris got up and went downstairs with a mind to move Halo and her crate to the basement, where she could make as much noise as she wanted without disturbing us.
In my sleep haze, I heard Chris’ startled voice come from the kitchen, “Halo!  Don’t move!”
Something was clearly wrong.  Had she gotten out and destroyed the kitchen?  She’s almost gotten out of her crate before.  And her knack for chewing and destroying things is quite amazing.  The hypothesis was plausible.
I called to see if Chris needed help.  A definitive “yes” was his reply.
Reluctantly I crawled out from under my warm blankets and hobbled down the stairs to the kitchen, eyes squinting at the offending light.  The situation became instantly clear.  Halo had been whining because she needed to go outside to do her business—and BAD.  She was standing, horrified, in the middle of her own poo. Unsure how to proceed, Chris was merely holding her steady in her crate so that she would stop spreading the poo around.

Together we managed to wipe off each paw as it came out of the crate and then Chris carried her into the bath tub to wash her feet more thoroughly.  We wiped the crate's tray (thank goodness its removable!) to get the worst of it before heading to the deep sink in the basement to give it a good scrubbing.  As I was standing there, Halo on the other end of the leash in my hand, I was suddenly shocked into angry yells as she squatted and pooed right there on the floor.  Mind you, this poo was not solid and my scolding caused her to attempt to move away from the scene of the crime while she was still committing her crime, thus causing an arc of poo across the tiled floor.  Oye….
At that point I realized she must be sick and decided it would a good idea to take her outside to work the rest out.  Poor girl…
I later found some vomit I had overlooked earlier near the first location of her crate—more proof that something hadn’t been sitting well in her stomach.

In retrospect, I should have known something was wrong with Halo.  I should have gotten out of bed when I realized her whining was unusual; I should have realized she was trying to tell me something. 
Instead, I lost two hours of sleep (more if you consider the low quality of the last bit of sleep I was able to snag before it was time to get up for work) and the entire house smelled of poo till late morning. 

The experience reminded me that communication between dogs and humans can be a difficult thing.  And that any deviance from a dog's normal behavior could and probably does mean something.

This was not the first time I have been punished for not listening to my dogs when they were trying to tell me something was wrong.  Leopold, who is prone to gastrointestinal issues, has dropped loads near the door after failed attempts at getting me out of bed to let him outside.

I will hopefully learn my lesson for good some day.  Until then, as punishment for ignoring their warnings that an impending movement is quickly approaching, I probably deserve the unpleasant task of cleaning up their poo messes…

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Welcome to Leopold’s Crate: Allow me to make introductions.

MEET Leopold:  

This is Leopold.

He is 65 lbs of what I believe to be one of the most handsome dogs in all of existence.  He is the first dog I’ve raised on my own, having adopted him when he was just 10 weeks new to the world.  He can be a goofball, stubbornly intelligent, and is the biggest wuss I’ve ever known.  He has eyes that can speak and has never met another dog he didn’t like.

He is one of the greatest joys of my life. 
His goofy antics light up a smile on my face, and every sloppy wet kiss he gives is a kiss that I cherish.  I feel special when he greets me at the door with his entire body in full wag.  And every time he saunters up to me in exhaustion with a gigantic, jovial grin on his face after he’s had a hard run at the dog park, I can’t help but feel lucky that I am the one who got to adopt him.  I cherish every moment spent in his company and will always want to hug him just one more time.

Leopold has also been the source of much grief, frustration, and veterinary bills due to a slew of issues ranging from allergies to anxiety to explosions of energy at inappropriate times.
He is the reason I've spent money, time, and effort trying to learn the best way to care for a dog in general and to help Leopold live a happy and healthy life in particular.

MEET the writer:

Laura with Leopold winter 2011
My name is Laura.  I could say to you that I’ve loved animals all my life, but I feel that this is not only trite but inadequate.  It would be better to say that in addition to an innate curiosity and fascination with the animals with which we share our lives and world, I have always been compelled by an unseen force to care for animals and to help animals in need.  Whether it be a squirrel pup that fell from its nest, the growing numbers of homeless dogs and cats struggling for their slice of happiness, or the dwindling populations of critically endangered species, I’ve always wanted to put in my time and effort to help animals live the happy and healthy lives they deserve.

As a result, my life has led me to be a pet owner, pet sitter, aspiring ecologist/conservationist, animal shelter volunteer, animal shelter employee, pet training instructor, family vet clinic volunteer, and, most recently, an emergency vet assistant.  I originally set out to fight for the lives of endangered species, and for a while I pursued a career as an ecologist.  However, not too long ago I realized that I would like to change paths—I now hope to go to vet school and become a veterinarian specializing in exotics.

In no way do I consider myself to be an expert on animal care.  Though I aspire to become an authority on the subject, I am currently just a person who has had some experiences that I believe will prove helpful to those of you out there struggling with the same issues I have.

MEET the blog:

This is a blog of what I’ve learned thus far from the experiences I’ve had caring for animals.  It is a blog of my missteps and retries, my clever tricks and experiments, my disasters and triumphs.  It is the journey I’ve traveled so far on my quest to quench a thirst for animal care knowledge and know-how—a thirst that might possibly never be satiated.

It seems to me that not too long ago owning a pet was a simpler task.  Apparently we didn’t know any better back then.  Now we feel responsible for the mental and physical health of our animals in such a way that requires more thought and decision on things like food, playtime and exercise, and even dental care.  And making the wrong choice could cost our pets their lives or at least their happiness.
Though I have learned much from caring for many different pets, including turtles, rabbits, birds, and many other pocket pets, I’ve learned the most from raising Leopold.   As such, posts on this blog will most likely center on canines.

My search for doggy knowledge has led me to books, videos, TV shows, chats with veterinarians, chats with fellow dog enthusiasts, and of course the internet.  The only solid thing I’ve learned from my search is that there is a lot of information out there on pet ownership and on dog ownership in particular.  The body of information for every aspect of pet ownership is enormous; and growing.  It’s hard to sort through it all and come out knowing what’s right and what’s not, especially when opinions and theories are sometimes contradictory.  While one could call this a wealth of information, I think it would be more appropriately called a mountain that takes forever to climb, or maybe even a flood in which a person can easily drown.

I have slowly been sorting through the depths of pet care information and am excited to share with you what I’ve learned thus far.

Welcome, again, to Leopold’s Crate.  I hope you enjoy your visits here