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Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Why Elite Runners Make Great Dog Trainers
Going the distance

I should have realized right away that something special was going on in a group dog-training session last spring. When I asked the participants to call their dogs to come and then run away, they all did, and with Whippet-like speed. Most people need lots of encouragement to run, and even then — looking sheepish — they tend to take a few half-hearted jogging steps at most. This was no ordinary group, but rather, some of the world’s best distance runners, athletes so good they are sponsored by the likes of Adidas, New Balance, Nike, Mizuno, Brooks and Reebok. They’re living and training in Flagstaff, Ariz., in pursuit of their Olympic dreams because this mountain town’s high altitude, abundant trails and sunny weather provide the perfect conditions for distance running.

Since that day, I’ve worked with other local elite runners, helping them teach their dogs to conquer fears of unfamiliar people, cars and leashes; stop chasing bikes; greet visitors politely at the door; walk nicely on leash; perform tricks like crawl, high-five, shake, spin and roll over; and continue running rather than be distracted by other dogs. The successes they have as trainers have everything to do with their success as athletes: they take what they already know about training to be world-class runners and apply it to training their dogs. The following principles apply equally to dog training and running.

 

Value consistent practice.
Runners understand that it’s the work they put in daily that leads to success. Similarly, dog trainers know that you have to practice skills with your dog every day.

It’s not how fast you run in training, it’s more a consistency, those back-to-back 100-mile weeks.
— Martin Fagan, Reebok-sponsored 2008 Olympic Marathoner and two-time Irish 5K Champion

Recognize that progress is incremental.

In dog training, there can be 100 steps from the starting point to the end point. Step one in recall work may be calling your dog to come when you’re standing in your distraction-free living room holding cooked chicken. Step 100 is calling your dog to come when he is chasing a rabbit with his best canine buddy. Small changes over time lead to success — a familiar concept for runners, who take years to build the fitness, technique and strategy required to race successfully at the international level.

Each workout seems to be building on the last.
— Andrew Middleton, All American and course record-holder at the Sedona and Tucson Half- Marathons, and
guardian of Poodle mix Scooter

Be goal oriented.

I often ask clients what they think success would look like. Do they want to be able to walk their reactive dog on leash through the neighborhood, or are they hoping to turn their little firecracker into a therapy dog? Do they want their dog to do a downstay when people enter the house, or is any behavior that involves keeping all four paws on the floor acceptable? Runners set goals, whether it’s running a personal-best time, following their race plan or winning an Olympic medal.

Setting an ultimate goal and stepping- stone goals help you to commit and make the ultimate goal tangible in your mind, which reflects in your daily actions, leading to success.
— Emily Harrison, Adidas-sponsored 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier

Welcome coaching and ideas for improvement.

Part of my job as a dog trainer and canine behaviorist is coaching — suggesting ways skills can be improved. I remind people to say a cue only once, help them with their timing, instruct them on modulating the pitch of their voice and guide them on giving clear visual signals. Coaches also give advice on modifications of everything from running form and breathing to when to make a move in a race. Athletes are accustomed to responding to their coaches, so they easily respond to my coaching, too.

Having a coach makes all the difference in the world, to offer outside advice with inside knowledge.
— Trina Painter, former U.S. 20K Champion and four-time Olympic Trials finalist

Know that little things matter.
When training a dog, the volume and pitch of your voice, where you’re looking, the direction your toes are pointing, when you stand still and when you move, whether you lean away from or toward the dog, and fractions of a second in reaction time all make the difference between progress and frustration. For elite runners, details matter, too, including those concerning workout duration and intensity, type of workout, nutrition, sleep, stretching and race strategy.

Attention to detail, making sure to do all the little things right, is at a premium.
— Ian Burrell, three-time All American and five-time top-five finisher in U.S. Road Championships, and guardian of mixed-breed Chili Dog

Understand that every situation is different.
Runners work hard to prepare for race day by simulating as many aspects of the competition as they can. However, at a race, the atmosphere, people, running surface, time of day, location and weather may all be different than they were during daily workouts. Knowing that differences and distractions affect performance allows elite runners to understand that dogs may also be thrown off by the presence of strange smells, a crowd of people, squirrels, loud noises, wind or anything else that is new and different. They also know that giving dogs experience with as many of these factors as possible is going to improve the dog’s performance when it really counts.

Training Lucy is a lot like training for a big race that doesn’t quite work out. Training her one-on-one always goes really smoothly, like running a workout I’ve done a dozen times. In practice, everything goes fine, but race day can be a different story.
— Vince Sherry, NCAA Championship qualifier and guardian of Lab/Border Collie cross Lucy and Border Collie/Chow cross Baxter

Accept setbacks as part of the process.

Progress is not always smooth. Setbacks teach us what we need to do to move forward. Accepting this as part of achieving goals is a trait these runners carry with them from their professional lives into their other pursuits, including dog training.

Setbacks are bound to happen, but if you approach it properly, I think you can come away much stronger and much smarter.
— Brett Gotcher, Adidas-sponsored 2009 U.S. 20K Champion and 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and guardian of mixed-breed Taz

Want success.

Elite runners love to win and hate to lose. In dog training, as in all endeavors, actively pursuing success makes its achievement more likely.

Times are nice, but I want that first place, that gold medal!
— Jordan Horn, Adidas-sponsored sub-four-minute miler and guardian of mixed-breed Wicket

 

It’s a joy to associate with people who are so talented and willing to sacrifice so much in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Yet, what I love most about working with elite runners is what I love about working with all of my clients: they love their dogs. “Many of the athletes and all of the coaches have dogs that we love like children,” says Trina Painter, assistant coach of Team USA Arizona, which includes many of these athletes. “They protect us, love us when we’re happy and sad, greet us with licks whether we’re sweaty or clean. They run with us and play with us. They keep us laughing with their silly faces and tricks and speak to us with their expressive eyes and body language. They are, for many of the runners, their best friend and source of unconditional love each day, and a wonderful warm and furry positive distraction from running.”

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Not-So Hypoallergenic Dogs
New study finds certain breeds don’t have fewer allergens

For so long, allergies prevented many of my friends from having a dog. But in recent years, the popularity of “hypoallergenic” breeds brought some hope of finally adding a canine member to the family. But those who’ve gotten one of the “hypoallergenic” dogs have had mixed results depending on the breed, the severity of their allergies, and, interestingly enough, the individual dog.

Until now there hasn't been much research about the so called “hypoallergenic” breeds. But according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy, there’s no scientific basis to claim that hypoallergenic dogs have less allergens.

Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital collected dust samples from 173 homes that represented 60 different dog breeds and tested them for one of the major allergens found in canine saliva. There was no statistical difference between the dust samples from the homes with “hypoallergenic” breeds and the samples from homes with “non-hypoallergenic” breeds.

The reason some breeds, like Poodles, have been called hypoallergenic is because they shed less, and therefore produce less dander. However, as the study showed, not all allergens are connected to dander.

This study only looked at one type of allergen, but the research shows that “hypoallergenic” breeds are not a universal solution.

Do you have experience with a “hypoallergenic” breed?

News: Guest Posts
4th of July Safety Tips
Keeping dogs healthy and happy while toasting the founders

Other than a cloud-and-drizzle-loving barista friend of mine, nearly everyone I know delights in summer. And what’s not to love about long days, blooming gardens, barbecues and picnics? But like so many good things, summer, and especially the Fourth of July, aren’t without their risky aspects—especially for pets.

To help keep the holidays joy-filled and injury-free, the ASPCA* has provided a few sensible, easy-to-follow suggestions for the season.

1. Be sure to keep people food and drinks at barbeques away from your animals. There is something about dining outside off paper plates that results in an abundance of low-hanging fruit for poaching dogs—look out! People food and drink, especially alcohol, can be dangerous to pets and should always be kept out of reach.

2. Do not apply any sunscreen or insect repellent product to animals that is not labeled specifically for their use. From what I read, there are plenty of these products that are none too good for us humans either.

3. Always keep matches and lighter fluid out of your pets’ reach. Certain types of matches contain chlorates, which could potentially damage blood cells and result in difficulty breathing—or even kidney disease in severe cases. Lighter fluid can be irritating to skin, and if ingested can produce gastrointestinal irritation and central nervous system depression.

4. Never use fireworks around pets! Do we really need to say this? While exposure to lit fireworks can potentially result in severe burns and/or trauma to the face and paws of curious pets, even unused fireworks can pose a danger. Many types contain potentially toxic substances, including potassium nitrate, arsenic and other heavy metals.

5. Confirm the contact info on your dog’s tags are up-to-date, and attached to a properly fitted collar. A dog frightened by fireworks might bolt from a yard or through an open door. Proper identification and micro-chipping improve the chances an escaped pet will be returned home safely and promptly.

6. Loud, crowded fireworks displays are no fun for pets, so please resist the urge to take them to Independence Day festivities. Instead, keep your dogs and cats safe from the noise in a quiet, sheltered and escape-proof area at home. (If you’re dog struggles with loud noices, talk to your vet about a sedative.)

7. Keep your pups hydrated. It’s coming on heat-wave season, and dehydration is a serious risk. Be sure you always have a generous amount of fresh water on hand to quench your dog’s thirst.

Have we missed anything? How do you celebrate the Fourth with your dogs?

*Update: I’ve added a few more helpful tips from SEAACA (Southeast Area Animal Control Authority), which provides animal care and control services for 14 cities in southeast Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Physical Therapy
Finding a conditioning program for your pup

Last weekend, I attended a canine conditioning seminar given by Petra Ford, P.T., CCRT and Kristine A. Conway, D.V.M. of Aqua Dog Rehabilitation. I'm always interested in ways I can keep my dogs in top physical condition, particularly since I compete with them in agility.

Canine physical therapy and rehabilitation has been a rapidly growing field in recent years. I think this is partly due to veterinary medicine taking a more holistic view of the dog and more people participating in a variety of activities with their pets.

When thinking about physical therapy, rehabilitating injuries naturally comes to mind, but what I found most interesting was physical therapy's role in preventing injuries. During the seminar, Petra and Kristine first evaluated each dog's structure and then recommended stretches and strengthening exercises we could do to prevent injuries in the future.

I've taken my dog, Nemo, to get chiropractic adjustments and massages, but what I really liked about physical therapy was the active role I played in Nemo's treatment. Petra and Kristine showed us how we could do these exercises at home and make a real difference in our dogs' physical condition.

Learning the exercises was great, but the most critical lesson of the day was how important it is to know your dog's normal behavior and movements. I know from experience that our dogs will do whatever you ask of them, even if they're hurting. It's really up to us to diagnose an injury before it develops into a serious problem.

If you're interested in learning more about canine conditioning, ask your veterinarian to recommend a physical therapist in your area. It's ideal to see one in person to get a baseline evaluation and hands-on guidance, but if that's not an option, there are many books and DVDs available on the topic.

News: Guest Posts
Say No to Dog Bites
More than 4 million preventable injuries each year
Body Language of Dogs

Out with friends last week, one of our group revealed that she had been bitten by a dog as a child. It was a serious bite and, 40 years later, I can still see the scars on her cheek. It quickly turned into a dog-owner-busting session: The mothers in my group complained about how people let their dogs wander right up to their kids. I agreed that’s no good but I also told them I often have the opposite experience: Parents allowing their children to zero in on my dogs, even as my dogs turn away or cower. (They aren’t used to being eye-to-eye with toddlers.) While we’ve never had an incident, it’s unnerving and we calmly steer out of their path.

I know a dog doesn’t have to be a “biter” or behaviorally challenged to bite. Sometimes they are simply afraid, and when the person inspiring the fear can’t read the signs of fear in the dog, the outcome can be injurious.

Around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, many of them children. Fortunately, the majority of these painful interactions can be avoided. During this National Dog Bite Prevention Week, it’s a good time to bone up on why dogs bite and how to avoid being on the receiving end.

Behaviorist Sophia Yin created a downloadable poster illustrating signs of fear and anxiety in dogs along with a video demonstrating how to approach a dog appropriately. It's an excellent primer on bite-avoidance.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s tips on how to avoid being bitten include:

  • Don’t run past a dog. The dog’s natural instinct is to chase and catch you.
  • Ask for permission from the owner before petting a dog.
  • Don’t approach a strange dog, especially one that’s tethered or confined.
  • If a dog threatens you, don’t scream. Avoid eye contact. Try to remain motionless until the dog leaves, then back away slowly until the dog is out of sight.
  • If you believe a dog is about to attack you, try to place something between yourself and the dog, such as a backpack or a bicycle.

On the owner side:

  • Obedience training can teach dogs proper behavior and help owners control their dogs.
  • When a stranger comes to your home, keep your dog inside, away from the door in another room. (The AVMA's tips are especially focused on mail carriers, who are on the front lines of dealing with dog attacks.)
  • Dogs can be protective of their territory and may interpret the actions of visitors as a threat.
  • Spay or neuter your dog. Neutered dogs are less likely to roam and bite.
  • Dogs that receive little attention or handling, or are left tied up for long periods of time, frequently turn into biters.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
K9 Massage Growing in Popularity
More and more pups benefit from massage therapy

Last year my Sheltie, Nemo, and I were running an agility course and he uncharacteristically ran around the last few jumps. He wasn't limping or showing any pain, but I knew he wasn't himself. So I brought him over to the massage therapist who had a stand set up alongside the other show vendors.

I had never gotten a massage for Nemo before, so I was skeptical if it was really going to do anything. But I quickly saw him relax and the the therapist showed me how to feel for the inflammation she found in his back thigh muscle, which is probably what was causing his reluctance to jump.

It was amazing to feel so connected to Nemo and his well being. I've been wanting to take a pet massage class every since and it seems that I'm not alone.

The New York Times writes that pet massage workshops have grown in popularity in recent years. The International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork's membership has more than doubled in the last four years. Instructors all over the country are reporting that they can barely keep up with demand for classes.

Although there are no studies that prove the benefits, it's thought that pet massage therapy can aid in increased circulation, improved digestion, strengthened immunity, stress relief, muscle relaxation, and relief from conditions such as arthritis.

The verdict varies among veterinarians. Some recommend massage to aid in recovery, while others are concerned that done incorrectly, massages could aggregate a medical condition or prevent people from bringing their pets to the veterinarian.

I know many people who have seen the benefits firsthand, but proven or not, I see nothing to loose in spending quality time with your pup.

Has your dog gotten a massage before?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
If I’d Known Then What I Know Now
What would YOU do differently?

It’s common to hear people who train dogs say things along the lines of, “You have to ruin one dog before you know enough to get it right with other dogs.” I don’t think first dogs are “ruined” by a lack of experience, but I do believe that subsequent dogs often benefit from what we learn along the way that helps us do better by our dogs.

  Who among us doesn’t think back to former dogs and wish we’d known then what we know now? For my part, when I look back on my experiences with my first dog I wish had known more about nutrition. I did my best to feed him high quality food, but I could do far better now with what I’ve learned since then.   I also wish I had been more skilled at canine massage and other bodywork. I regularly massage dogs, but like any other skill, it takes practice. I practiced on my first dog, learning a lot in the process, but I’m better at it now than I was then. In his older years, he had some pain and discomfort in his legs and hips. Though I did everything I could to ease his suffering with medical help and what I could do for him at home, I can’t help but think that I could have made him feel better now than I was able to then.   What do you know now that you wish you had known with a previous dog? 

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Preparing for an Emergency
Are your pets ready for the worst?

All of the recent natural disasters has me thinking about preparing for emergencies, including making a plan for the dogs. April also happens to be Pet First Aid Awareness Month, so it's the perfect time to put together a first aid kit and emergency supplies. Here are some tips I came across when I started thinking about my emergency plan.

Think Ahead

  • Put an "Animals Inside" sticker on your door (available free through the ASPCA)
  • Know which hotels along your evacuation route are pet friendly
  • Know which friends, relatives, boarding facilities, animal shelters and/or veterinarians can care for your animals in an emergency

Prepare Your Pets

  • Include pets in evacuation drills
  • Get pets used to going in their crates
  • Make sure all pets are wearing collars with identification and/or are implanted with a microchip

Gather Supplies

  • Create a pet first aid kit
  • Create a portable emergency kit with leashes, harnesses, food, drinking water, medication, and information on feeding schedules, behavior problems and medical records
  • Create "lost posters" with current photos of each of your pets (a free template is available on the Animal Rescue League website)

Check out the Red Cross' and the ASPCA's web pages for more resources on creating a pet first aid kit and preparing for an emergency.

Do you have an emergency plan for your pets?

 

News: Guest Posts
Spring Showers Bring Flowers and Some Risks for Dogs
Beware foxtails, slug bait, busy wildlife and more
Harley leaping for joy.

If it wasn’t for the stubborn little crocuses in my front yard, I’d be hard-pressed to believe spring has come to Seattle. But officially the season has sprung, and in most parts of the country, the change is happy news for dogs, who will be spending more time sniffing, romping and rolling in the outdoors. Hooray!

  While longer, warmer days bring joy to our hearts, they bring some risks to our dogs. “Every seasonal change can bring dangers, but spring presents some specific risks that can be easy to address, as long as pet owners know what to look for,” says Dr. Peter Bowie, a veterinarian in Marin, Calif.    Among Dr. Bowie’s seasonal priorities is antifreeze. While the deadly chemical is most often associated with winter, he says, veterinarians at the Pet Emergency and Specialty Center of Marin see just as many antifreeze poisonings in the spring. Whether it’s due to shade tree mechanics cleaning their radiators, unidentified leaks, or portable basketball hoops, ethylene glycol–based antifreeze winds up in driveways and streets where it tastes sweet to dogs and, even in tiny amounts, may cause sudden kidney failure.  
   Foxtails are another not-so-fabulous right of spring. These grass awns, which sprout in abundance this time of year, have microscopic barbules along their surface. Once they catch on animals’ fur, they can become lodged in their skin (most often in the webbing between the toes), ear canal, or nose. Foxtails cause extreme discomfort and often lead to bleeding, infection, and, in the case of ear canal migration, ruptured ear drums. If swallowed, foxtails can lodge in the throat, causing swelling and infection. If accidentally inhaled, they can cause serious damage and infection in the airways or lungs. (Check out Protecting Your Dog Aganst Foxtails by Nancy Kay, DVM).   
    Activity in the garden can also be detrimental to our dogs, the use of slug and snail baits, in particular. These combine an attractant, usually apple meal or some other sweet-smelling base, with an active chemical compound such as metaldehyde to poison whatever swallows the bait. Unfortunately, this can include our pets. Increased rat activity also means increased use of rat poison this time of year, one of the deadliest things your pet can ingest. 
    Fertilizers, even organic or natural fertilizers, can harm pets. Blood and bone meal are common organic fertilizers, which makes it tasty for pets but can cause vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatic inflammation. Grass and flower fertilizers can also contain toxic chemicals that may be deadly if ingested.   If you’re planting, remember some plants are toxic for dogs, including azalea, chrysanthemum, daffodil, rhododendron, sago palm and tulip. Consumption of these plants can lead to kidney failure in animals. The ASPCA provides a complete list of toxic plants with images.   “I urge pet parents to get outdoors and enjoy the season, just remain aware of your pets’ surroundings,” says Dr. Bowie. “Changes in the environment can be stimulating to them, but new smells in the yard or garden can also be harmful. Simply take extra precautions: be sure all chemicals are completely out of your pets’ reach, keep small pets on a leash at all times when outdoors, and remove foxtails as soon as you see them.”    Wildlife Companion animals aren’t the only critters more active this time of year. Brian Adams of the Massachusetts Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) reminds us that spring is a time when wildlife is on the move. He suggests a few simple steps to minimize or prevent conflicts between us or our pets and wildlife.  
  • Never feed wild animals intentionally or they will view your yard as a food source. The includes cleaning up spilled birdseed from feeders, which may attract turkeys, rodents, and the animals that prey on them. If you have bears in your area, remove bird feeders.
  • Avoid unintentional feeding by keeping trash and compost secured and by feeding pets indoors. 
  • Drive carefully and watch for wildlife crossing roadways, especially in areas where road salt remains from winter storms; this attracts wildlife.
Learn more from MSPCA about how to humanely live with wildlife, including advice on critter-proofing your home and what to do when you discover an orphaned animal.   If your dog spent a good chunk of the winter, cashed on the coach, eating a few too many sweet potato chews, you also want to be gradual about bounding into a spring exercise regime. “Often, pets get overly excited to go outside and strain themselves,” says Heidi Ganahl, CEO and founder of Camp Bow Wow. “Make sure you monitor your pet and start slow before engaging in strenuous physical activity.”   Still, there's no denying it’s a perfect season for launching a daily exercise regime. Dawn Marcus describes the health benefits and a plan for starting a successful walking plan.   Finally, another ritual of the season, spring cleaning poses risks for our pets. It’s important to think smart about your cleaning. Many cleaning products are irritating or even toxic for dogs. Invest in eco-friendly products, such as homemade cleaning solutions featuring vinegar or enzyme-based cleansers.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Healing Power of Dogs
More health care professionals are bringing their pets to work

Any dog lover knows the unique ability our pets have to cheer us up when we’re not feeling well. As a pet therapy team, Nemo and I have seen firsthand the power of pets to cheer people up at the hospital, often a very depressing place.

And it seems that health care professionals are catching on. The Wall Street Journal reports that a growing number of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other therapists are bringing their dogs to work to calm patients.

Research shows that a few minutes spent petting a dog decreases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in both the human and the dog. It also increases prolactin and oxytocin, the hormones that control nurturing and security, as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that boost mood. One study found that five minutes with a dog was as relaxing as a 20-minute break for hospital workers.

Even medical schools have acknowledged the importance of pet therapy. Many schools, like Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, offer a human-animal interaction class for medical and psychiatry students. As more studies are done on this topic, I hope that more health care professionals will be encouraged to listen to the research and bring their pets to work.

 

 

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