Tuesday, March 31, 2009


OH, UGH! Sunday night I found the first tick of the season attached to the inside of Cory's ear. No matter how long I have been in practice, ticks still give me the heebie-jeebies! Today I had my first client dog with a partially engorged tick, so I don't think the one on Cory was fluke.

It is earlier than I usually see them; with my dogs I usually start noticing them in April when we are out tracking in tall grass and especially along fencelines at the edges of fields where trees grow. Generally May and June are the worst months for finding them on dogs in the clinic, although in more rural areas they are seen all summer long. However, Cory insists on "doing his business" right at the edge of the woods at the bottom of the yard, (that's "his spot" in the picture above) and lately there have been lots of critters to flush out and he has been running into the woods a bit (he KNOWS he's not supposed to, but...). I leave the woods and underbrush untouched as it is habitat for the birds and other animals. Which, I suppose, includes ticks! Also today I planted some flowers in my front planters, weeded my flower beds and pulled out some dead plants, and raked out some of the dead leaves that had accumulated in the flower beds over the winter. When I came in I kept feeling creepy crawly, but I kept telling myself it was too early for ticks. WRONG!

Tall grass, underbrush, dead leaves...

all are perfect tick habitat. The best prevention I have found for ticks is Frontline Topspot. Tick protection lasts for approximately a month. According to the company, it will not prevent ticks from attaching, but it will kill them before they engorge. What I have found on my own, longhaired dogs, is that if I keep up with the topspot I rarely to never find a tick attached, but I may find them crawling on top of their fur. I guess they don't want to get down close to the skin where the topspot is. Last year we were doing a lot of tracking in the spring during the height of tick season. I KNOW the frontline worked well, because I kept finding ticks on ME, but none attached to the dogs and only one or two all season on top of the fur. Remember that you should not bath your dog for 2 days before or after putting on the topspot. Here is a link to the company's website for more info:

Ticks can also carry diseases such as Lyme disease, Ehrlichia, Babesia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I don't see a lot of tickborne disease in my area, but I did have a dog who spent part of the year in New York state a couple of years ago that was tentatively diagnosed with Babesia. I also had a client with a tracking dog who exhibited symptoms of tickborne disease. He came in one day feverish, walking as if on eggs, and looking like every joint in his body ached. In addition, I was NOT his favorite person, and the fact that he was hurting but felt too bad to even object to an exam was an indicator of just how sick he was. Tickborne titers were a little equivocal, but suggestive of possible Ehrlichia. Based on his response to treatment, we are fairly sure that he had contracted this disease from a tick on one of his tracking expeditions. Interestingly enough, his owner had been noticing some similar symptoms in herself and was eventually treated for Lyme disease. This dog recovered from the Ehrlichia, but had some pre-existing health issues that worsened as a result of his not being able to move around much while he was sick and he eventually was euthanized as these deteriorated.

So it is official- tick season has opened, stock up on your Topspot and make sure to check yourself for ticks after working in the yard. Ick, ick, ick, nothing worse than a tick!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Dog Whisperer makes me want to scream!

Almost every day in my practice one of my clients will ask me "So, have you ever watched that "Dog Whisperer" on TV?". I grit my teeth, try to avoid grabbing them and shaking them (a very Cesar Milan like correction!), and try to answer nicely.

YES, I have seen him on TV. Unfortunately, so have many of my clients. To be blunt, I think he is one of the most dangerous trainers out there. Every episode I have watched has had multiple instances of both animals and humans being put in very real danger.

So just what is wrong with Cesar Milan?

The "Dog Whisperer" uses techniques that are based primarily on punishment and use of aversion; he relies strongly on dominance theory but doesn't even do a great job of explaining that. Dominance theory, or the idea that you need to be the "alpha wolf" in your pack, has pretty much been shown not to have either a basis in fact or a history of success in dealing with dogs with behavioral issues. When wolf behavior was studied closely in the wild, it was found that the ideas we had about how dominance functioned in the pack were in large part not correct. Besides which, dogs aren't wolves anyway and neither are people. In study after study involving multiple species, while punishment was sometimes found to be effective, it often times had undesirable side effects and in many cases would actually make the problem worse.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has condemned Cesar's techniques and come out with a position statement on dominance theory and punishment based training. You can read their info here:


Now, most of you who are my dog training friends are probably going to read that link. Most of my clients will not. So let's cut to the chase and talk about what is good and bad about the Dog Whisperer.

First we need to define some terms.

REINFORCEMENT is something that you do if you want to increase the odds of a behavior occurring. Positive reinforcement means that something pleasant occurs when a behavior happens so the dog is more likely to do it again, for example, giving them a treat for sitting. Negative reinforcement is when something unpleasant stops when a behavior happens; a good example is using an ear pinch to teach a dog to hold a dumbbell. You hold the dumbbell in front of the dogs mouth and squeeze the ear; dog opens his mouth to protest, you pop the dumbbell in and release the pressure (note: not my preferred method, but a very commonly used one!).

PUNISHMENT is something you do if you want to decrease the odds of a behavior occurring. Punishment can also be positive or negative. Positive punishment is what we most commonly think of as "punishment" in every day terms. This is when we apply something unpleasant to a dog after an unwanted behavior happens. A good example is swatting a puppy with a newspaper when they pee on the floor. Negative punishment is when we remove something the dog likes when an unwanted behavior occurs. We often do this when a puppy gets overly excited and mouthy in playing by ignoring him for a few seconds (removing the attention he craves).

So, to quickly summarize; reinforcement increases the odds of behavior occurring, punishment decreases it. If it is positive, you ADD something, if it is negative, you REMOVE something.
Clear as mud, right?

Now, I will step off the path of the AVASB just slightly. I do think that ALL of the above occur in everyday life, consciously or not, and we can put all of them to good use occasionally in our training program. However, I think the BASIS of any good training program and the vast majority of what a puppy experiences should be positive reinforcement. I also am one who thinks the proof is in the pudding, and when I see happy dogs who love to work and work well, I try to be open minded about how they were trained and learn what I can from the trainer. I also think it is important to realize that ANY of these methods, poorly applied, can result in a stressed, unhappy dog and worsening of the problem.

However, positive reinforcement most definitely is the most forgiving of the above techniques and the one least likely to cause undesirable emotional fallout and escalation of behavior problems. I ASSUME that a novice trainer is going to be very clumsy in applying what they are learning; the dogs are much, much less likely to suffer in the long term when positive reinforcement is used.

I use negative punishment on occasion myself in training; my dog Andy LOVED LOVED LOVED to run agility more than anything in the world, but he didn't always find it necessary to play by my rules which could have resulted in him getting hurt. So in his earlier years, I sometimes would remove him from the course and put him back in his crate when he did not follow the rules (initially it was for jumping off his contacts). I was crystal clear with him on what the rules were to play and the consequences happened EVERY time, no matter whether it was practice or a real trial. It worked beautifully with him and I can't even remember when he blew off a contact last. However, he was VERY motivated to play, and was a relatively "hard" dog (insensitive to corrections and not at all afraid of being wrong). For a softer dog the same treatment could have been very demotivating. I have his son who is a bit softer than him, and I can do this occasionally but I have to use it VERY judiciously as this dog is much more worried about pleasing me. Negative punishment works best on fine tuning behaviors dogs find very reinforcing (for Andy, running agility; for puppies, teaching them not to mouth excessively etc). Again, it is a TOOL, not the basis for an entire program.

Much of Cesar's training is done using positive punishment. Unfortunately, this often creates a fear based response as the dog is continously subjected to unpleasant consequences. In many of the cases he is dealing with, the dog is fearful to start with, so this can be especially disastrous. A huge percentage of aggression cases have at least some basis in fear, so treating them with punishment can only intensify the fear response. Sometimes it is immobilizing enough that the dog appears to improve for a while, but these are often the dogs whose owners tell us they thought were fine and then "suddenly with no warning" they bite. Well....rarely was it really with no warning, it's just that either no one noticed or understood the warning signs. And Cesar misses a LOT of them.

In addition, he seems particularly fond of using a technique called "flooding" which is exposing the dog to the thing they are afraid of at very high levels. The theory is that the dog will then "get used to it". The reality is that this very often escalates the fear response and makes the problem worse. I am terribly afraid of heights; I can't imagine what would happen if someone decided to cure me by making me live in a building where I had to walk across a high glass bridge to get anywhere and then proceeded to drag me across if I wasn't moving fast enough. I doubt very seriously if it would do much alleviate my fear!

Cesar is big on being what he calls "calm and assertive". I do think there is something to be said for being what I would call a "quietly confident leader". If you are confident in your actions and expect the same in your dog, AND you protect them from undesirable things happening to them, they will become more confident. However what I see in Cesar's program is someone who took a page from "winning through intimidation". I see someone who is aggressive, not calmly confident, and who essentially acts for all intents and purposes as a bully.

One of the cardinal rules of dealing with problem dogs is never to start a confrontation if you can't avoid it, and if you can't avoid it you'd better be darn sure you're going to prevail. Cesar sets up confrontational situations over and over again, which have huge potential to injure the owners and often other animals. The owners have already proven they have no idea how to win such a confrontation; so while HE may be able to win them, the owner is at great risk when they try to immitate him. And one confrontation often leads to another....so it becomes an unending circle.

I do like his philosophy of increasing exercise as a tired dog is often times much less likely to get into trouble. However, his METHOD of doing this by putting an untrained dog on a flexi with him on rollerblades is not a particularly bright idea IMO. And I believe he has been involved in a lawsuit involving a dog who died or was seriously injured being overexercised and undersupervised on a treadmill. So use a little more common sense in applying this idea than he does.

A recent study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science found that dogs trained with confrontational or aversive methods were much more likely to become aggressive. You can read more about this study here:

If you want a better example to follow, try watching "It's Me or the Dog" with Victoria Stillwell on Animal Planet. She uses primarily positive based techniques and the episodes I have seen have been fairly well done. (She did drive me a bit nuts on the "Greatest American Dog" show last year though- she's a bit overboard on the pure positive slant and seeing "abuse" in every corner).

My best advice....if you don't see joy and eagerness in your dog's face when he is working...if he doesn't get excited and happy when you pick up his leash and dumbbell....CHANGE YOUR METHODS. No matter what your scores or how well behaved your dog is, if there is no joy in working together, it's not working!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dealing with the loss of a pet

I have not been posting much lately...

Today is the one month anniversary of the death of my sheltie Andy. I did post a video I made about him, but have not had the heart to blog too much since. It has been a very tough winter for us...I lost my Hoppy cat in December; one week later we lost Grouch; and then on Feb 12 Andy passed away very unexpectedly. So many losses so close together have been difficult to bear, particularly since Andy was probably my "once in a lifetime dog", and Grouch was my favorite cat I have ever owned.

Andy was approaching his twelfth birthday, but was still very active and energetic. He was still competing in obedience and needed just one more qualifying score towards his UD. We had hoped to enter some tracking tests this spring. He was to have his retirement run in agility the weekend after he died...he was still fast and loved to run, but had developed a heart murmur and I was worried that he would run faster than his heart could handle.

On that Thursday night, he was active and up all day, wrestling with Cory; he jumped into the van and spun and bit the door just like always. When we reached home 15 minutes later, he collapsed in the driveway. I rushed him back to the clinic and attempted to stablize him, but we lost him before we could even consider surgery...he had bled out into his abdomen from a cancerous mass on his liver. In retrospect, it was lucky that he went so fast and that I did not know, as even had we operated there was not much we could have done, and the type of cancer he had would not likely have responded to chemo even if I had known it was there (he had normal bloodwork and x-rays just days before he died). It has been so hard to accept that he is gone, though, because i had no time to prepare. I did have just a little time to say goodbye; when I knew his leaving was inevitable I chose to spend those last few moments holding him rather than trying one more useless procedure.

I am so lucky in that I am surrounded by good friends who understand just how special the relationship can be with a pet. My friends that I train with and my clients have been so supportive and helpful; I have gotten more cards than I can count, and my waiting room was full of flowers. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be if I had to go to a "regular" job everyday where people just didn't understand that grieving for a pet does not make you weird or unbalanced- it just means that you are human.

In many ways, losing a pet can be harder to deal with than losing a member of our human family. Grieving for other people is to some extent formalized and expected; going through the motions of funerals, memorial services, flowers, sympathy cards etc can be hard but at the same time they help us to pass through the stages of grief. Most of us have a support network which kicks in and others EXPECT us to need help in dealing with things for a while. But when a pet dies, we are often left to deal with our emotions on our own. In some instances we are expected to "buck up" and act as if nothing has happened- after all, it was just a dog.

I lost my grandfather and my much loved old sheltie Levi within a few months of each other in 2004. My grandpa had been my hero since I was a little girl; our family is pretty close and I saw him frequently and grieved for him terribly after his death. And yet, the death of my dog affected me more on a day to day basis and was harder to get over. It had nothing to do with loving one or the other of them more- I'm not sure just how you prioritize one love as more important than another anyway. I loved them both. But Levi had been my 24/7 companion for nearly 17 years, represented a link to my vet school days and friends, and was an important part of my social network which revolved around training and showing. On a day to day basis, I missed him more than my grandpa who I saw or talked to every week or so. When my grandpa died, I had a large circle of family who came together and supported each other and a formalized process for processing his death. With a pet, even with the best of support from family and friends, you are still much more on your own.

One thing that struck me in losing Andy was the importance of the different stages of grief. Anger is a stage that is often seen in my business; it is natural to feel anger that your loved one is gone, and unfortunately that often is directed at the veterinarian whether or not it is justified. When Andy died, I felt terribly numb...I could not be angry, even at myself, because I knew that he absolutely had no symptoms that any reasonable person would have followed up even as much as I had, much less more. He had a quick death and a wonderful life, he got to do all the things he loved most right up until the day he died, and I was lucky to have him. But when his pathology results came back and confirmed, as I had suspected, that it was hemangiosarcoma that caused his death, I finally felt angry. I was angry at the cancer...that was a cancer that Goldens or shepherds got, darn it, not shelties! I had tested him for every genetic disease I could in his breed, I had done every most paranoid wellness test on him and had monitered his diet and his every move to the nth degree. He had been stuck for bloodwork so many times in his very healthy life that it's a wonder he didn't leak through all the holes when he took a drink. How DARE this cancer take my dog. Especially without giving me a chance to fight it. And I discovered that anger is a much easier, more cleansing emotion than sadness. It serves its own purpose in helping us heal. It really didn't matter that it makes no sense to be angry at a disease process. I have a new understanding and sympathy for clients who need to be angry with me now.

If you are grieving the loss of a pet, I think it is important to allow yourself time to deal with all the emotions. Don't let well meaning friends tell you when you should be feeling better- love is love, grief is grief, and whether the loss is a pet or a human really doesn't matter much when you are hurting. Find one person who understands and take advantage of their support. If you don't have an "in person" support network, there are a number of online pet loss support websites and email lists. It was very healing for me to make Andy's video. He never would have watched it, and although I posted it to this blog I made it primarily for me, not for anyone else. I am finally reaching a point where I can make it most of the way through without crying, and I can smile when I look at some of the pictures. I have his scrapbook out ready to put his last few pages in of titles he finished that I hadn't gotten to yet, but I think it will be a little while before I am ready to do that project. In the spring I will plant something in the garden that will bloom every year, and make a special place to remember him.

Please know that you are not alone, and that there are people who understand what you are going through. And thank you to my wonderful friends- you know who you are- who have helped me through this tough time. I am so lucky to have you.
Rest in peace, my beautiful boy...I know you have thundered over the rainbow bridge and are holding your contact at the end waiting for me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Free puppy books!

It's not often that you get something for nothing, but check out this link:


Dr. Ian Dunbar has made two of his books, "Before You Get Your Puppy" and "After You Get Your Puppy" available for FREE download as a pdf file. Dr. Dunbar has very good, sound training advice and we have recommended his video "Sirius Puppy Training" to our clients for many years. The books cover some basic advice on selecting a dog, and then talk you through some of the basic developmental stages of puppyhood and how to deal with them. I don't agree with EVERYTHING Dr. Dunbar has to say, but for the most part I think he has a good basic philosophy.