Monday, June 27, 2011

Learn the language

There's a new show called "My Cat from Hell" that's quickly becoming one of my favorites. The host, Jackson Galaxy, answers the pleas of desperate cat owners as they deal with supposed devil cats. Having grown up with any number of feral cats that I watched, fed and at times tamed, the answers Jackson gave seemed simple to me. But it occurred to me at that point how there are many pet owners who take no time to understand exactly what it is their pets are trying to tell them.

I understand our two cats pretty well. Sunshine always wants affection, no matter what you're doing or how full your arms happen to be at the time. She is curious, playful and on the whole a cat who will roll with the punches eventually. Seline is a calico. For those of you who know calicoes, you understand that I am explaining the entirety of her personality in that one statement. I have learned to handle and cuddle her without the sudden bites that are so common in calicoes, but even so there are still times I am caught off-guard by her radical personality.

The dogs, by comparison, are fairly simple. Shammy is a very vocal dog, and can tell me with a few woofs and chirps (closest description I can come up with for that sound) exactly what he's trying to say. I'm learning Dozer's body language as well, and for the most part, the communication between us is pretty good.

If you own a pet, one of the most important things you can do for them is pay attention. How do they communicate with each other? How do they communicate with you? Are you getting across what you want to say to them, or is it obvious it's falling on deaf and permanently-confused ears? Dogs and cats, as well as some other household pets, are not merely "dumb animals" and I can't stand when people say they are. When you bring a pet into your home, you bring in an emotional being who needs as much love as it does food, water and bathroom space. Be sure to nourish the whole animal, mind and body. It will pay dividends in affection and devotion.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

He's got the look

One of the first things I taught both my puppies is the "look" command. Being new to the whole puppy training thing, it took my friend Donna to point out why this was important and how to do it, so I'm passing this information on to my readers to give them a jump start on training.

"Look" is a command that requires the puppy to stop whatever they're doing, and look you in the eyes. Seeing as how dogs do not dare do this with each other makes it amazing to me that they can be taught to go against their very nature to please us. Besides being just cool, it's also a necessary command in training. "Look" means that they have to stop what they're doing and, more importantly stop their current thought process, in order to pay attention to what you want. It also makes for better communication with the animal, since it has been proven that dogs do read facial expressions and act accordingly.

So how do you accomplish this fabulous command? It's really not that hard. Start out by putting your treat of choice in front of the puppy's nose, then bring it up to between your eyes. Say "look" or whatever command word you choose, then reward them for the proper behavior. In time, it will become an automatic response for them. I find that about 75% of the time, Shammy is looking without me giving any command to do so. Encouraging this kind of attentiveness is also necessary in establishing your role as a pack leader.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cats and dogs, living together...

Seline and my Mom and Dad's dog, Beau. See how happy she looks? It's ok, that's a trick question...
Like many animal lovers, my husband and I own both cats and dogs. I mentioned before our two cats, Sunshine and Seline. Not to seem biased, but our cats are the cutest, sweetest and best behaved cats in the world ...

Sorry about that. I had to pick myself up off the floor from laughing. Seriously, I love both of them to death, but the word "perfect" is not even close to what I would use to describe them.

Seline was my husband Mack's cat before we got married, and she is not friendly. This cute little calico may look like she wouldn't harm a fly, but that's part of the game she plays with unknowing strangers. Is it possible that her playful rub and the resulting flop onto her side is an invitation for affection? Yes, but rarely. Most times, it's just a trap. I myself fell for it when I first met her and got bit.

Sunshine is more friendly toward people than Seline, but both can go from zero to devil cat in .2 seconds when faced with a new animal in the house, especially dogs. So as you can imagine, this was great fun when introducing our puppies to the household.

Playtime for Sunshine and Shammy
Shammy was curious about the cats from the get-go, while they would have been perfectly happy had he suddenly poofed out of existence. We deemed chasing cats a mortal sin in our household, but even reprimanding him did little to quell the hunt. Perplexed, I turned to my friend Donna, someone who has enough experience to give advice on anything animal-related. Once she explained what was happening, it seemed so simple I couldn't believe I didn't see it before.

Dogs explore the world with their noses. In order for Shammy to feel that he had fully explored the cats, he would have to be allowed to smell them, actually put his nose to them and see what they were like. Does that mean he gets a new chew toy? No. Does it mean that he gets one sniff and he forever respects them? I wish. It does, however, satisfy a dog's curiousity enough to allow for further manners to be taught.

I'm sorry to say my attempts to follow Donna's advice to a tee were a stupendous failure. According to Donna, the best way to get dogs and cats to live together in a household (I have no reason to doubt she's right about this, but I don't have good enough control over the cats to succeed in this) is to only allow the dogs to touch the cats when they are on your lap. To accomplish this, sit in a chair with the cat in your lap (not a couch, that's asking for trouble), then invite the dog over while holding the cat. Allow the dog to sniff all he wants within reason -- don't let it drag on for too long -- but the minute he tries to mouth the cat, tell him no and have him back up. Through this, the dog will learn that there is a time and place to examine the cat, and a correct way to do so.

In theory this is an awesome idea, and if you can manage to do it, do so. Donna has dogs and cats in her household and they get along wonderfully because of this technique. How I've ended up dealing with it is a bit different.

After a few battle scars from keeping the cats in the chair with me while I tried to give Shammy a chance to give them a once-over, I decided instead to try a different approach. I'm not sure what made me think of it -- maybe the blood loss -- but at one point, when Sunshine was as close to Shammy as she allowed herself to get, I held onto Shammy's collar as he approached the cat. I let him within sniffing distance and Sunshine (definitely the right choice for this initial exercise) grudgingly let him do what he had to.

I do this every chance I get, but usually the reinforcement comes more in the form of letting them know that they are in trouble for chasing the cats. The severity of the chasing has lessened, however, and since Dozer joined the family, Shammy generally has more important things to worry about than two cats who don't want to play. Namely, a puppy hanging from his keister who is telling him in no uncertain terms that HE will be more than happy to play.

With Dozer, it will be the same process. I really foresee there coming an uneasy truce in time with the dogs and Seline. I am happy to report, however, that Sunshine and Shammy seem to be forming a strange kind of friendship. Sunshine will stand very close to Shammy and start griping at him in her croaking little meow, which evidently is cat for "Dog, it is time for you to play with me for my amusement." Shammy obliges by snuffling all over her with his nose, and she rubs around his legs, purring for all she's worth. Occassionally that game gets old, so she flops onto her back and nips at his back legs. Shammy keeps his cool and seems to genuinely like the play. This above all things gives me hope for the one big happy family I hope to have with the humans and animals of the house.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Training Do's, Dont's and Never-evers

My husband works with Shammy. You will notice, in addition to my husband's dashing good looks, Shammy's focus during training
This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and while most of it is based in research, there is still quite a bit of opinion thrown in (this is a blog, after all). This list, and any advice on this blog for that matter, should not take the place of good, solid research:

-Realize the difference between active training and reinforcement: Working with your dog at the front door in a controlled situation is active training for manners. Telling them to wait when the pizza guy gets there is reinforcement. Both are necessary for good behavior.

-Set your puppy up for success: When actively training, select a place that is as free from distractions as you can make it. This could include outside sounds, sights and smells; toys; visitors or other pack members.

-Have a positive attitude: Dogs can pick up on facial expressions, emotions and attitudes. Be sure yours is one that encourages learning and good behavior. Aim for calm, yet firm.

-Be prepared to reward good behavior: This is one I had to learn first-hand, so I hope this tip will prevent the headache I dealt with. Do not wait until they do the proper behavior before reaching into that treat bag, even if they do it without 10 times a day. If you dig around in a treat bag, it asks as a distraction and keeps dogs from understanding what behavior you're rewarding. Same goes with toy incentives. Be prepared to immediately give it to them for following commands.

-Keep training sessions short: Dogs are always aiming to please their humans, but extended training sessions will cause them to lose focus. Try every day for three or four sessions of no more than 15 minutes.

-End on a positive note: Always end with something you know your dog can do, so that the last thing in their mind is praise, not frustration at the dog/human communication gap.

-Get lax on reinforcement: Do you want your dog to wait patiently before coming inside? Then every time you open that door, They have to wait for the command before they go in. If they manage to slip past you, and this has happened to me. Calmly collect them and get them back outside, then wait for the proper behavior. Manners do not stop being necessary simply because of inclimate weather or rushed schedules.

-Lose your cool: Training should always be a fun time for you and the dogs. If they are not giving the proper behavior or are having problems with a new trick, try some tried-and-true commands before getting the more difficult ones. Keep in mind, that the "difficult" commands may change from day to day, especially in puppies.

-Settle for half measures: Either the dog does the command or he/she doesn't. Doing what you want yields rewards. When a dog halfway does something, you are opening the door for a dominance game.

-Train your dog in a vacuum: Ok, while it sounds like I'm saying don't stick Fido in the Hoover, what I'm really saying is that you should make sure your family and close friends are part of the training and socialization of your dog. Make sure they can get the behavior you expect out of your dog. You never know when last-minute changes in plans will lead to someone else caring for your pup.

Never ever:
-Take frustration out on the dog: This goes back to the positive environment aspect of training. If you are angry, the training stops being a positive experience for your dog and he/she will no longer look forward to it. If you can't regain control of yourself, walk away for a minute or two of deep breathing, then come back.

-Forget the fundamentals: Even if your dog is trained to ride a unicycle through a flaming hoop (if you have done this, btw, please send me a video!), it doesn't mean they don't still need to remember sit, come, stay and lay down. For a well-rounded dog, avoid tunnel vision when training.

-Think it's a problem with the dog: While there are certain behavior disorders associated with dogs, if your dog is usually focused and attentive, understand that it's probably a communication problem when they have trouble mastering a command. In my experience, 99% of dog behavior problems are actually human reaction problems. Try a different method of explaining before blaming your canine.

-Forget who your dog is: I have found that if Shammy and Dozer are having problems with a command, it helps if I take a step back for a minute, or better yet just finish up the training and ponder for a while. When I do this, I remember their personalities, what motivates them and what distracts them. Usually I see what the problem is and can work around their eccentricities to get the correct behavior.

Hopefully these tips will help. I will be posting specifics on some of the more common commands later on, as well as some fun ones for you and your dog. A cursory search on can yield results like the ones listed below. Cesar Millan is a true inspiration to me and I love his way of approaching dog rehabilitation and training. As far as the "for dummies" book, while I have not read this one in particular, I have yet to read a dummies book that wasn't extremely helpful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How full is your treat bag?

 I am sorry to say that my day did not start out that well. My allergies decided to wage all-out war with my body, so I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a truck. So with a frustrated mindset, I met Shammy and Dozer first thing this morning.

Mornings are not a calm time for the puppies anyway, considering the fact that they are getting out of their crates and feeling the possibilities of the day. Add my bad mood and I had two crazy, out-of-control animals who were totally unable to settle down.

After taking them out for their morning business, I put Shammy inside to take his energy out on the toys while I let Dozer explore all the amazing nooks and crannies of the back yard. Then I stepped away for a moment, taking a few deep breaths and resetting my thinking. How could I make this situation better for me and my dogs? It was at that point I had my epiphany -- my treat bag was empty.

When I am at home with the puppies, I carry around treats in a ziploc bag. In my way of thinking, this reaffirms the training I do in the fact that at any moment they could get a treat for their good behavior. It seems to work fabulously, especially at times when I need them to focus (you'd be amazed how quickly they come to realize what the sound of a plastic bag rattling means), so I keep doing it. In time, the treats will be less and less, and my verbal acknowledgement of what good boys they are will be the reward for the majority of day-to-day life.

But I'm going astray of the point of this story, because my epiphany had nothing to do with how the dogs reacted to the treat bag, but what it meant to me.

I don't view the treat bag as a distraction, or a way to solve problems, but instead as a promise of good deeds to come. Every morning, I put several different kinds of treats in the bag and my puppies never fail to give me good reasons to dole them out. I realized that this is a metaphor for life, as silly as it sounds. Am I walking through life with a treat bag empty, expecting no good things and no reason for rewards? Or am I a treat bag full kind of gal, ready at any moment for the rewards that come from greatness. Though I'd like to say I'm the latter, I'm really more of a treat bag half-full type -- not exactly the optimist I wish to be, but not the pessimist I fear becoming.

How full is your treat bag? Try to fill it every day and prepare for life's possibilities.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Introductions: first things first

My two puppies, Shammy (top) and Dozer.
I don't really know what to say on the first post of a blog. While I have blogged before, this is the first time I have done so with a purpose other than random ramblings and far-stretching topics. This blog will spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about my puppies, and in so doing will lead the reader (hopefully) to an understanding of dogs, their relationships to humans, and what we can learn from them. I'll be sure to add plenty of training tips, fun dog-related materials and links to keep things interesting. In the end my intent is to have something that is enjoyable and educational for anyone who has ever had, currently has or is contemplating getting a dog. So lets get started on this journey, shall we?
I guess the most important thing is to introduce myself and my furry family. My name is Jen, and I'm a 31-year-old housewife in Texas. My husband and I decided about three months back to get a puppy. We had talked about it any number of times, but we both worked nights and realized that a dog could not flourish in such an environment. Then, when he started working days and I could afford to stay at home and work, we decided it was finally time for a dog.
I think it's important to mention at this point that we have two cats, and as it is with almost every cat in the known universe, they thought we existed to serve them. Seline and Sunshine, a calico and a gray tabby, respectively, were about to get a rude awakening.
Enter Shammy, which is short for Shaman. I thought the name extremely clever because the ad we found in Craigslist said he was a "healer" mix. When we went to see Shammy and his nine brothers and sisters, I was immediately drawn to this mostly-chocolate, speckled pup. He had gray-green eyes, which is as close as I can get to describing that color. He just watched us from under the porch, and I knew there was a brain behind that awkward, lanky appearance.
I decided right at the start that I was going to take a very active role in training him. I am by no means a certified trainer or anything of the sort, but I knew that I wanted a cool dog who would be comfortable and well-behaved in any situation. Armed with some internet research, the advice of a friend who had a lot of experience raising puppies and what I thought was plenty of patience to carry me through, the training began.
I am happy to say that Shammy is an incredibly bright puppy. This is not just a puppy parent's pride, I have had several people who have confirmed as much. He took to the training easily, and quickly grasped the concept of anything I taught him. His smarts also got him into a lot of trouble, though. It wasn't that he didn't know any better about chasing the cats, chewing the chairs, or any of a number of small transgressions he committed, it was that he thought he could find a way to get away with it. However, given the spectrum of bad dog behavior I have seen and heard of, I think we still are very fortunate.
About two weeks of having Shammy convinced both my husband and I that he needed a companion. It wasn't that he was a terribly destructive or overly-hyper puppy, we simply knew a second puppy would help tire him out and make his world "right" in a way that we could not. I had arguments for health reasons, namely that a puppy's immunity needed to be given time to build up through vaccinations, so we decided to revisit the issue after his set of puppy vaccines were done. This brings us to a little over a week ago, with a quickly-growing, leggy 4 1/2-month-old puppy who is way smarter than he had any right to be. This time, the ad was in freecycle, and when we saw the pictures of one solid chocolate butterball, we took a trip to the house and instantly fell in love. The puppy we chose and later named Dozer for bulldozer (believe me when I say it fits to a tee) was the first of the three pups to come out and greet us and had the same haunting eyes of our Shammy pup. We brought him home, introduced the two and they have become fast friends in a very short time.
So what are their personalities like? They are the quintessential odd couple -- Shammy is a runner, Dozer's more of a "let it come to me" kind of pup; Shammy is shy and very patient, Dozer has a fiery temper and a ferocity far exceeding his size when he gets riled up; Shammy's a picky eater, Dozer vaccuums up his food. You get the picture. But they do have quite a few things in common -- they understand the hierarchy of the house and are pleased as punch with the structure; they both love nature documentaries; they are fully convinced tug-and-pull is the greatest game ever invented; and they would do almost anything for a treat. That last behavior and the fact that they are both totally unafraid of eye contact with me has done half of the job of training for me.
And how is their training going? Stellar, in my humble opinion. I find the hardest thing with training Shammy is that he learns commands more quickly than my ability to come up with new ones. So far he has learned sit, lay down, come to me, look me in the eyes ("look" is the command), roll over, shake, up (on the couch usually), down (for the same) and the rudiments of frisbee catching and loose-leash walking. There may be some that I'm leaving out, but suffice it to say he knows a lot for his age. Dozer's training seems to be going equally as well. At 7 weeks, he now knows look, sit and come to me, something I consider very good for a puppy that young.
I can't say my methods are perfect, but I hope I can offer some new insights that other dog owners could use. Mostly, I just want this to be a fun and informative read for everyone who decides to stop by. If you like what you're reading now, be sure to subscribe, bookmark, scribble down the address on a post-it or whatever method you use to remind yourself to come back. I would like to see your comments and stories as well, so don't be shy.