Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dog Parks- The Good, The Bad, The Scary

I'm not gonna lie.
I'm kind of opinionated.
I tend to keep my opinions to myself most of the time unless someone asks me for my thoughts; at which time they immediately regret asking.

I spent the last two posts telling you about one of the things I feel strongly about- puppy classes. If you missed it, then luckily you can go here and here to catch up.
Dog parks are another of those things that I feel strongly about. I feel very strongly that dog parks can be a GREAT opportunity for you and your dog to socialize and exercise, or a terrifying and dangerous place for you both. Why the extremes? Because dog parks can be very unpredictable, that's why.
Lets put this in human terms with a few different scenarios.

The first scenario is a birthday party for a close friend which naturally, you will gladly attend. You will know most of the guests in attendance and can easily converse and interact with them. You know who you like best and who you only talk to for a few minutes at a time. A good time is had by all, even the one guest who drinks a little too much and gets a bit loud towards the end of the evening. You all understand that he/she doesn't know they become such a close talker after a couple drinks, and otherwise they are a respectful, easy going person. This scenario is easy enough, you just take turns getting that person home safely and they apologize profusely the next day, but overall there is no harm done to anyone.

The second scenario is a work holiday party which you are ok attending, but you know it's more of a required duty for you all than an opportunity to get together and have a good time outside of the office. You make the obligatory rounds to the boss(es) and cordially greet everyone else along the way, being careful to remain professional. At the end of the night you realize you did have some fun, got a little fun gossip, and free refreshments for the minor hassle. There were a few people who got especially obnoxious by the end of the night, so cabs were called and the night ended with minimal offense and structural damage to the building. You leave the party tired and glad that it only happens once a year.

The third scenario is a party that your sister/brother drags you to because they want to go but don't want to show up all by their lonesome. You are really only there because you are being nice to the one person you know and you don't know anyone else there. You're not even sure you want to know anyone else there. Your sibling abandons you to go flirt with the real reason they are at the party and you are left alone counting the minutes until you can leave. You may find a few individuals who seem as out of place as you, but in the end it's an akward and lonely evening for you and you can't wait to get back home. You make your sibling promise to never torture you in such a manner ever again.

The fourth (and final) scenario is the mall on Black Friday. You were again dragged here by a friend or loved one, but you spend the whole time questioning this relationship. There are people everywhere, running, yelling and pushing. They run into you and you're pretty sure you were just pick-pocketed. You try desperately to cling to the one person you know in this madness; after all they have the car keys. She/he keeps telling you to go find something in a store that looks like an epicenter for the craziness so they can go to another store to find something even more important. You start pushing back and yelling because you can't take it anymore and it's getting hard to think, let alone hear which blender your friend needs. You end up grabbing an old lady's walker and throwing is across the store and just running out. She had it coming and you're 95% convinced that she just had it for sympathy anyway. As you walk out and breathe fresh air you are grateful that you don't have to navigate this parking lot, but can't understand how anyone can look forward to this every year. Regret for tossing the old lady's walker and screaming obscenities at strangers sets in and you want to curl up and sleep the rest of the week. You have vowed to lock yourself in your house next year to avoid all human contact on this day...maybe every day.

In my experience, dog park trips tend to fall into one of the above 4 scenarios. Some dogs will thrive in all of these scenarios, just as some people can go into a party where they know not a soul (or only one) and have the best night of their life. Unfortunately, this is not most dogs.

-Sometimes your dog is that person who gets to excited and annoys everyone.
-Sometimes your dog is the one who is squirming to get away and is counting down the minutes until it is time to leave.
-Sometimes your dog is so uneasy that she feels the need to defend herself with all these creatures she doesn't understand.
-Sometimes a dog park is full of friends and good times. These are the times when the park is a wonderful opportunity for the dog and dog parent- exercise, play and overall good times will ensue.
-Sometimes a dog park has some friends, but there is an underlying tension that keeps everyone from relaxing completely (maybe one individual in attendance is pressuring everyone in some way).
-Sometimes there are friends/family, but that one individual everyone tries to avoid because they are a little difficult to deal with due to social ineptness or annoying habits.
-Sometimes there are no friends, but your pup is able to make due avoiding just about everyone in attendance.
-Sometimes a dog park is a busy, confusing place where everyone else seems to have their own agenda and honestly, it is scary.

That is the answer I give when people ask me about dog parks. It can be a great place, it can be a scary place. It can be a few things in between as well. If you can take your dog to the park at the same time with the same dogs, and they all like one another (or at least know how to properly navigate each other) it's a good time had by all. If you show up with your dog on a Saturday morning with 20 other dogs that neither of you knows, it may be a bit stressful.

In addition to my long-winded answer, I tell people that there are great alternatives to dog parks if they are not something ideal for them and their pup. A group obedience class is a wonderful opportunity for socialization and exercise with people and other dogs (even though it's all on leash, there can still be opportunities for safe on leash interaction). A well run, organized, supervised doggie daycare that does assessments and places dogs in supervised play groups can also be a wonderful, safe play opportunity for your dog. Getting together with your sister/brother/aunt/uncle/parent/friend/coworker who has a dog your dog gets along with and letting them play off leash or go for a hike is another great play opportunity. What's the best way to determine whether your dog is happy or not? Watch your dog play. Is she happy when she gets there, but still able to listen long enough to get her leash off? Is she playing with her friends but taking occasional breaks to sniff around on her own or slurp up some water? She's probably ok. If your dog wanders off and never plays with other dogs or always clings to you or *eek* blunders up to every dog in sight like a charging bull (not a polite greeting in the canine world), you may need to rethink what's going on and if the dog park is your best option.
I'll go into detail later on about canine body language, but in the meantime I'll refer you to one of my favorite books- Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff. This is absolutely one of my favorite books and I end up referring it to my clients whose dogs are sensitive, aggressive and fearful, but it can be helpful for any dog owner.

A personal note: My dog would do one of two things in a dog park: play well with most of the dogs, but kind of harass everyone as she gets would up OR run up and grab onto someone's neck and hold on, having some trouble letting go. Oh Crap. Terrifying. For Everyone. The day she did that was one of the most terrifying and embarrassing days in my life. I had no idea she was even capable of doing such a thing, she had always played well as far as I knew and is the most gentle dog with people, especially kids. We hadn't had Roxie very long when this happened and honestly I did not know much about canine body language. Looking back, there were clues along the way that she was uncomfortable and the dog park was way too exciting for her. She's not safe to take to a dog park, so we don't. She is only off leash in the house, and if you passed us on a walk, you would only see a dog wagging her tail and looking at her human momma as you pass us. I think she prefers human company to dogs anyway, and she's great with our son, so she's doing ok without the dog park.

What has been your best/worst experience in a dog park?
Is your dog the annoying close talker that all the other dogs just put up with?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Puppy Classes Really ARE Safe

I can't tell you how many people I have had ask me about the safety of puppy class. If I had a dollar for every time someone disputed the safety of a Puppy Kindergarten class, I'd be writing this from my vacation home in Hawaii. It's not just puppy parents either- they are just worried because they are uninformed, by their breeder, groomer, veterinarian or Aunt Sue (if I had a dollar for every person who has a dog expert in their family, I'd have a nice vacation home on a private beach). Now, before everyone goes getting mad at me for disagreeing with their own pet expert- however experienced (or not) they may be, lets be clear. Most of these people are only speaking with concern for you and your puppy and that is commendable.
They are still wrong.
At least in regards to a well run puppy class, with an experienced, certified trainer present.

We discussed last week the requirements for my puppy class, but lets review just for fun:
1. Puppies need to be between 10 and 16 weeks of age at the start of class.
2. Puppies need to have had at least one DHPP vaccine (usually one is given between 6-8 weeks, with two boosters, given at four week intervals (6, 10, 14 or 8, 12, 16).
3. All dogs in all of my classes must have a negative fecal within the past 6 months.
4. Any dogs who show signs if illness (vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, etc) are not allowed into the classroom.
5. All dogs in all classes are required to have a leash and collar/harness.

Now, lets talk about why these things are important and why they mean safer classes.

1-2. All the puppies are the same age vaccine-wise, and very close in age. This is planned so that both physically and developmentally they are going through the same things. This means that they are all at the same risk for disease. By requiring a minimum of one vaccine (most have two by the start anyway), there is very, very little risk for catching something like distemper or parvovirus. I have seen both of these diseases firsthand and have no desire to see the effects again, especially in a sweet puppy student! I could go on for days on this topic alone, but instead I'll refer you to a much more concise statement put out by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior on puppy socialization... right here... In short, it's really not worth the risk since there is very little chance of them actually being exposed to one of those nasty viruses. In addition to the vaccine safety, I like puppies to be close in age because they are developmentally the same- they are curious and playful before they are fearful in development. If we can get them to accept new things and explore in a fun way before they start developing fears, they will be better equipped to deal with new experiences in the future. The saddest thing to me is a puppy who is 6 months old and has had no experience with other puppies or only had exposure to a limited type of humans (no children, no hats, etc). By not being exposed to them early on, they can have trouble accepting these new things and can develop irrational fears. I know a dog who was obtained by a very loving family from a questionable 'breeder' and showed fearful reactions to many new things in this new home. In a effort to reduce his fears and stress, they tried to avoid these things, and still do to this day, 10 years later. While their hearts were in the right place, the fact that the dog has lived his whole life sheltered from these things and unable to cope with them is very sad. I do all I can to prevent this for my clients, and PK is a great way to start. Also, did you know that your new puppy is more likely to be euthanized because of a treatable, preventable behavior problem than a virus? It's sad, but true. 
3. Poop is gross. You know what's even more gross? Intestinal parasites. If you really regret your lunch today, take a look at this awesomeness from Novartis about them:
Also, I don't typically recommend clients google much, but if you type intestinal parasites into a search engine, you'll get some pretty gruesome results. I promise.
Aside from the grossness, parasites can make your dog pretty sick, even kill them if they go unchecked for a long time. Usually it's just GI upset, but as you know by now if you read about them, they can cause some pretty severe damage otherwise. You know what else? Some of these nasty creatures can be transmitted to people. Hookworms, for example can be transmitted to people when a person is say walking barefoot in an area that is heavily infested with the little guys. The larva can actually BURROW INTO YOUR SKIN. Because of all that, I am not a fan of parasites. I do everything I can to keep them out of my class. I bleach the floor after class (when I have an indoor class), and I keep unknown dogs out of my class area when I have outdoor classes. If any dog has diarrhea, they have to skip that week. If an owner tries to come into class without proof of negative fecal, I stop them at the door and tell them they cannot enter without it. I have no exceptions with this rule. Dewormers are good at stopping intestinal parasites, but since there are so many different types of creatures, there are multiple types of dewormer and they don't all work on all worms. To treat a parasite infection, the correct dewormer needs to be used for the correct amount of time. That's one of the many things you truest your veterinarian for. I will never accept proof of deworming in place of a negative fecal and if I do, it's time for me to retire. Not only do I not want any of my clients dogs exposed to these buggies, I don't want to be exposed to them, I don't want my family exposed to them, and I don't want my human clients or their families exposed to them. I've gone on long enough about this. No clean poop=no class.
4. This is pretty straightforward, if your kid was puking, would you send her off to school? I certainly hope not. If you do, you are deciding to not only make your poor sick kid get up and go to school when all she probably wants to do is sleep, but you are putting everyone at the school at risk. Other students, teachers, aids, the school nurse, other kids families, etc. It's irresponsible and I don't allow it in my classroom. Things that are terribly contagious like kennel cough are hard to get rid of in a classroom and will spread like wildfire. One dog who has diarrhea in class can be exposing everyone else to what they may have crawling around in that poop. That vomiting dog? He may have a heavy load of parasites that are wreaking havoc on his body. The best thing for him and everyone around if to get checked out by his veterinarian so he can get better.
5. If a doggie parent does not have the proper equipment for their dog (leash or harness and collar), how can they keep track of their dog?! I will ensure that this equipment fits properly at the beginning of each class, on each client as they enter the room (you'd probably think I was just greeting you and your dog, but I'm really checking out his collar/harness/leash to ensure that everyone is safe. Why? Because I don't want anyone to get hurt!

Now I hope you have a better idea of how a well-run, organized class for any age dog should go. This is even more important for puppies. I work hard to ensure that every aspect of class is safe for everyone, and that there is as little risk of your puppy getting sick or hurt as possible (unfortunately, you can never get rid of all risk completely). My PK classes are fun for everyone, safe for everyone and we get some pretty awesome pictures from week to week. The next time someone tells you that PK isn't a good idea, ask them why- they may just not know how class should go for the little fuzzballs.

AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines

Novartis Guide to Internal Parasites:

American Veterinary Society on Animal Behavior

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Best Class I've Ever Taught

It's that time of year again. I know most of you are thinking of the Super Bowl, but I'm talking about the Puppy Bowl. Why on earth am I talking about the Puppy Bowl when the title of this post refers to the best class I've ever taught? Because the best class I've ever taught is pretty much every Puppy Kindergarten that I teach. Puppy Kindergarten is basically the Puppy Bowl, but in real life with a few commands thrown in.

First, lets go over what my PK classes are:
-a five week course, with class meeting once a week for about an hour
-open to puppies 10-16 weeks of age at the start of class (as long as they meet minimum vaccination and deworming requirements)
-a great socialization opportunity
-a super learning experience
-a ton of fun for everyone in attendance
-safe for everyone in attendance
-80-90% off leash play between puppies and owners

Back to the Puppy Bowl, because I want to paint a clear picture of this for you so you can love it as much as I do. The PB is a group of puppies running around, playing, wrestling and tossing toys everywhere. There is a referee to make sure everyone follows the rules and nobody gets hurt. If you've never watched it before the Super Bowl, do yourself a favor and watch it today. I guarantee you will smile and your blood pressure may even drop a little. It's that cute.
You still with me? Bundles of cuteness and fuzziness running all over in their perfectly sweet innocence... Now add in a certified trainer who is helping you to teach your puppy simple commands like come, sit, down, wait, and leave it. We only tackle one new command a week, so there no added pressure to learn multiple commands in an hour like more advanced classes (you have enough to worry about with trying to keep track of an excited puppy).
My favorite thing about PK? Puppies learn to listen to their owners amidst distractions!! That's right. I will make you practice recall while your puppy is playing with his friends. I will help you teach him some self control with 'wait' and 'leave it'. The other puppies will help him learn some bit inhibition. The other puppy parents in class will help to reinforce no jumping and no biting rules. I'll admit it is pretty tough to get a 12 week old puppy to choose you over his new friends but with practice it will happen, and it's freaking amazing when it does. Puppies who develop a strong recall in a super distracting environment like that will retain it down the road (as long as puppy parents practice).
Puppy parents are told to not give any attention when puppies come up and jump they are to turn around or walk away, so puppies learn not to do these things.
Puppies are introduced to different people- tall, short, male, female, kids, elderly, people with hats, coats, and gloves... and people with treats and love. Puppies learn that the people they meet in class are trustworthy, that people that their parents hang out with are pretty cool and that if they sit or lay down, they may get a treat and they will definitely get attention and verbal praise! I introduce puppies to a vacuum cleaner, mop and nail trimmers (among other new stimuli).
Man, doesn't that sound like fun? It does to me, and that's why I love teaching it!
Now that you're hooked on the idea of Puppy Kindergarten, check back next week for why (properly run) puppy classes are perfectly safe for everyone.