Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The new dog books are here...the new dog books are here...!

Some girls are addicted to handbags...others its shoes. And although I cant tell a Jimmy-Choo from a Manolo-Blahnik I can appreciate a well made hiking boot when I see one.

My addiction is dog books, and the proof lies on my bookshelves, and the boxes of books in my closet & under the bed. I have books on breeds, dog sports,dog history,dog behavior,dog training & the human/dog relationship.And to add to my collection, I just received: TRICK SCHOOL FOR DOGS - FUN GAMES TO CHALLENGE AND BOND by Manuela Zaitz and SERIOUS FUN - PLAY LIKE A DOG by Sue Sternberg.

Trying to teach my 'old' dogs a few new tricks this winter, I dove straight away into Trick School for Dogs. Nothing kills the winter dull-drums better than a bowl of high value treats, a clicker and my dogs who are willing guinea pigs to learn another parlor trick.

Liam is learning how how to cover his face with his paw when I say 'Shame on you'. A pretty easy trick for him given his long legs. I just stick a post it over his left eye and when he tries to wipe it off I 'click' and treat.

Gimli is learning how to do 'dead dog' and lay on his side when given the cue 'dead'. Liam also does this trick, but he lies on his back and curls his paws looking cute. Gimli has taken this trick to the next level. When I say 'dead' He flops on his side with his legs straight out, his body is still and he doesn't blink until I release him. Its disturbingly funny. How cool would it be for both dogs to simultaneously fall over 'dead' when given the cue the next time we make a visit to the vet?

Looking for good doggie book? Check out dogwise

Friday, December 18, 2009

Socializing your winter puppy

Now that the Christmas season is coming to an end and the brutal Maine winter season has begun, it might seem overwhelming to get outside to socialize your new puppy. But it doesn’t have to be. Socializing your puppy doesn’t mean you need to spend long cold agonizing hours in a park! A quick introduction to something new is all that is needed. The most important thing to remember is to keep it positive.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while socializing during the winter months:

Safety First
• Dress your puppy in something warm when going on a field trip. Unless you have a northern breed puppy, it’s a good idea to put a fleece coat or sweater on a puppy when venturing out on a cold day.
• Salt on sidewalks and roads can burn and cause irritation to your puppies feet. Pad protection ointments like ‘Mushers Secret’ can be purchased at most pet stores.
• Make sure your puppy has had her first set of puppy vaccines
• Like all babies, puppies get tired easily. Keep your field trips to no more than an hour long.

Outdoor socializing
• The old port in Portland or downtown Freeport offer many great socializing opportunities. Many stores & banks will allow puppies, just ask before entering
• Make sure you have pocketful of soft treats.
• Start your visit by sitting on a bench near a busy area and observe your puppy. Reward her generously for being calm but curious.
• If your puppy appears fearful then calmly move away from what she is fearful of. Reward and praise generously for small acts of braveness. Laugh and smile at your puppy as she will not be sure how to respond to certain things (like strollers), and by being relaxed yourself, your showing her its ‘ok’, so she will be allowed to relax too.
• If someone wants to pet your puppy ask the person to give her a treat, while they are patting her.
• With each field trip, change your location and choose a different store to visit.
Indoor socializing
• Plan a ‘socializing party’ at home and invite friends of all ages to come over and meet your puppy. Have your friends wear silly hats (like a work-mans hat, party hat, cowboy hat) sunglasses, fake beards etc. Ask your guests to reward for your puppy for calm behavior.
• Walking on a new floor surface can be stressful to many puppies. You can introduce her to a new floor surface by stretching a plastic bag or tarp across the floor and rewarding for any interaction she has with the item. Start by rewarding with a soft treats for just looking or sniffing the new surface. Build up to big rewards when she chooses to walk on the item.
What about other dogs?
Dog parks are NOT good places to socialize a puppy. Many adult dogs do not like puppies, and may go out of their way to bully a youngster. Also, your puppy should not be around ‘unknown’ dogs or dog feces until they are completely up to date on vaccines. However, even if your puppy sees another dog while on a leash and is rewarded for calm behavior they are still being properly socialized.
What about puppy ‘play groups’?
Most puppy classes will allow some ‘play time’ during class. Although its fun to watch puppies play, this is a time for owners to learn how to observe what appropriate play is and isn’t, understanding play styles and when to step in. Finish Forward Dogs offers puppy kindergarten classes which cover not only socializing, but also baby obedience lessons, house manners & body handling. Please visit the website for more information on puppy classes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dogs of Christmas Past

As I sit here with pen in hand, I look around my living room. There is one theme that runs in my house; it’s my love for dogs. But the love for canines didn’t start with me. I come from a long line of dog lovers. I look at the portraits of my past and present family members which hang on my wall and grace my mantle. In almost every one the human is pictured with their dog.

I see the black & white photos of my grandparents and their beloved dogs, Petunia and Coco. My dad pictured as a boy with a collie mix on my great grandfather’s farm in Indiana. My mom, pictured with her Pomeranian mix, Ginger whose death she mourned for months.

These dogs are just as much a part of my family history as my relatives who cradle them. As I look at these pictures, I wonder if I would have become the same person if dogs were never in my life. Dogs teach us so much about the spectrum of humanity; empathy, patience, laughter, and above all unconditional love.

I was 5 years old when I started my love affair with dogs. Tippy was a spaniel mix that my dad dug out of a ‘free to good home’ cardboard box. I don’t remember the housebreaking, and crates were non existent back then. There were no puppy kindergarten classes, or puppy play groups. And, I hate to say it, but Tippy was never neutered. But somehow, in spite of these’ handicaps’, Tippy grew to be tolerant of sharing a rawhide and an occasional piece of kibble with curious child. He patiently let me dress him up in hats and sunglasses and sighed heavily when I would parade him around in front of my friends. He new many complex tricks, although no one ever remembers teaching him any. He never walked well on a leash, and sometimes ran away, only to come home the next morning hungry and tired. My parents jokingly referred to Tippy as my ‘brother’. But he was more than that. As a child, he was my rock during my parents divorce and I cried many teenage tears into his silky black hair. I still get a little weepy when I think about leaving home the summer I turned 18, and I will always remember the moment I said goodbye to him, knowing it would be the last time. He died that fall, and the ripe age 13 years.

Many more dogs graced my adult life. Nushka, my malamute, gave me strength, independence and encouraged my love for the outdoors. Doopie, my fearful rescue husky, taught me that patience was needed to achieve the reward of bringing light into the eyes of a scared dog.

My greatest teachers, healers, motivators & protectors were not human, but canine. Looking at the pictures of dogs whose lives have faded, I am proud to be a part of a human family who so graciously shared their lives with dogs. This holiday season, I will not only enjoy my dogs of Christmas present, but will honor the ones of Christmas past.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Have you played with your dog (or cat or rat) today?

This past week I was talking to my dad on the phone, a 71 year old widower who lives in Tacoma WA. The conversations generally start off with family chat, then to current events and onto politics. But this time, our weekly talk went into a very different & unexpected direction. My dad explained to me that the only way he can read his morning New York Times, is by placing all of Peaches (his 4 year old cat) toys in a paper bag, roll it up and let her bat the bag around the house until she can free all the toys. Once she has finished this task, she then brings him one of her balls and drops it at his feet, where my dad uses a wooden yard stick to create his own version of a ‘chuck-it,’ to fling the ball across the room. I found it funny Peaches trained him to play a game of fetch, and my dad was proud that he came up with the ‘paper-sack’ game as well as his yard stick ball- flinging invention.

Listening to my dad talk about his daily play session with his feline companion, reminded me how important play is. Play stimulates not just the brain, but also the body. It decreases stress and increases learning. Research (done on rats) has shown that there are cognitive benefits to play. And there are numerous books and websites on the subject of how play can benefit a dog’s behavior. Patricia McConnell’s booklet ‘Play Together, Stay Together’ comes to mind.

I learned about the power of play from my first agility instructor. In her class, teaching a dog to play was just as important as teaching the proper entry of the weave poles or safely navigating an A-Frame. I learned to safely play tug by obtaining & keeping eye contact during the game and by teaching the dog to grab, play and release on command. By becoming your dogs’ playmate, you are also becoming a provider of fun, and increasing your value to the dog. I took these ‘play basics’ into my class-room to show students that they can use more than food to motivate their dogs to learn.

One of my favorite classes to teach is a 4 week recall workshop. It encompasses everything I love about training. Like any ‘obedience’ class I have taught, it’s about decreasing the stress of owners by empowering them that they can train and motivate their dogs and enhance the relationship between dog and handler. I use food, toys, play and movement to keep students and dogs engaged. It’s amazing at what I can get adults to do all in the name obtaining a recall! Each student brings their dogs’ favorite toy (s) and they learn how to initiate and play a controlled game of tug, run, and romp with their dogs. At the end of the hour session students are usually leaving class laughing, tired and out of breath!

I enjoy being my dogs’ playmate, as well as a teacher, provider, companion and benevolent leader. By using play as a reward, we are showing our dogs the ‘lighter’ side of our human nature that is mutually beneficial.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Therapy Dogs

Last spring my dogs and I became certified therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs Inc. Since then, we have become members of the therapy dog program at Maine Medical Center.

I was so nervous when Liam and I made our first visit. My tester and all around therapy dog guru, Mary, along with her super cool standard poodle Cato quickly put us at ease as we walked through the maze of hallways toward the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. I had no idea what to expect, or even what to do. What I did know was that my laid back dog had a rock solid temperament and although he is 27 inches at the withers and is a giant by most standards, he is gentle and has a soft and welcoming way about him. People are drawn to him like a magnet, and I knew it was ok if I didn’t know what to do; I would watch my dog and follow his lead. He would guide us into conversation with patients.

And guide us he did. I asked Liam to lie down so that he was less imposing to the kids. And the kids came to him, as they always do, touching his soft ears and long muzzle as he slowly wagged his tail. Some kids hugged him, while others stood in the doorway and just watched.

I stood there, proudly watching my big squishy dog and answering questions. What kind of dog is he?’ ‘How old is he?’ does he know any tricks?’ ‘Does he like to play ball?’

Since then, we have visited almost every area of the hospital. And I have found that the questions are the same regardless of the floor we visit. But I don’t mind. I love seeing the reaction of patients & their visitors as we enter the room. That moment that they forget how strange it is to see a dog in a hospital. I love that my dog can bring some kind of normalcy to a person who is in pain. I love that, because of my dog, I have made a human connection I would have not otherwise made. I love that my dog and dogs in general, have this kind of power over the human heart.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my health and grateful for the dogs in my life. I am grateful that they, for a few moments, can make someone else as happy as much they make me happy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Calm Waters and Precision Heeling

This morning I walked on Ferry Beach in Scarborough with my two dogs Liam & Gimli. It was just me, the boys and a flock of gulls enjoying the beautiful, but cold morning at low tide. As we slowly made our way down the beach, the wind at our backs, my little corgi Gimli, trotted at my side in the perfect heel position.

As a dog trainer, I have spent many hours working with my dogs. As demo dogs for every class I have ever taught, my dogs have shown off their PhD levels of obedience tricks, have wow'd audiences and in short…can be very charming.

I love training my dogs. Shaping behaviors with a clicker until a complex new trick emerges. Watching their eyes twinkle as their brains are processing what is being asked and then celebrating victory when the right response is achieved. But as a trainer, I know there is more then just having a clicker, good treats and perfect timing to having a healthy, enjoyable relationship with a dog.

As the progression of a trainer’s career goes, there is pressure to put titles on our dogs. To some, titles are like the platinum American express card of dog training. The clout that one is ‘worthy’ to teach dog classes for a living. I see validity in titles...but I also believe there are other forms of currency. I am impressed when a handler and dog are disciplined enough to obtain precision heeling, straight sits, and the perfect front and finish. I am even more impressed, and envious, when I see a handler and dog equally enjoying their time in ring, working together as a team and walking in balance. As a former agility buff (until a non agility injury permanently removed my dog from the game), my best runs were not the ones where I achieved a qualifying round…or even a ribbon. They are the ones where my dog and I shared an invisible tether of pure blissful energy. Where 1 minute of speed was slowed down and we moved in perfect harmony.

I tried to achieve that same connection in the obedience ring with my corgi. But he had other thoughts. Not the serious competitor as Liam, he is more of a class clown, where tom foolery is the name of the game. In class, he found the only good thing about heeling in a predetermined area, like an obedience ring, were the remnants of treat smells from the team prior to us. Needless to say…I worked A LOT in class to get him to not sniff the 6 inches below him but instead look the 5ft above. Not easy for a dog who is 10 inches off the ground. After weeks of classes and drills we both became bored. Then in class he started to ‘check out’, and it was obvious to me that this was no longer fun for him or for me. I took the high road and made the decision that the obedience title meant more to me than it did to him, and we gracefully bowed out.

Maybe someday I will get a pure bred dog that loves the obedience ring as much as my mixed breed loved the agility ring. But until then... I will fast forward to this mornings walk. Unleashed on a huge stretch of deserted beach, Gimli chose to give me that perfect heel. I smiled down at my funny little dog who smiled up at me, and we enjoyed our invisible tether of pure blissful energy that no ribbon or title could ever replace.