Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Few New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone! When it comes to New Year’s Resolutions we tend to focus on ourselves. But since this is a dog training blog, I am going to focus on our dogs.  Here are a few resolutions based on my experiences with my own dogs and from helping my clients with theirs:

1) Incorporate dog training in my everyday routine – now that my “puppy” is full grown, it is very easy to let all that old puppy training fall by the wayside. So this year I will strive to reinforce my dogs’ training by continuing to incorporate them in my everyday routine. A few examples are:
• Asking my dogs to “sit” and “wait” behind the door before going for a walk so that they learn not to dash into the street.
• Asking my dogs to “sit” before I put the leash on them for a walk so that they learn to be calm before going out for a walk.
• Asking my dog to “sit” before releasing her to “take” the toy for a game of tug of war or fetch.
• Asking my dogs to “sit” and “leave it” until I am able to put the food bowl down on the floor before giving them my release cue (“o.k”) to take the food.
• Asking my dogs to “go to their beds” and “stay” while I am eating my meals.

Incorporating these simple requests to your daily routine will seem less like a chore (for both you and your dog).  In the end, you will have a well-mannered dog with relatively little effort.

2) Management – having a dog with good house manners is a combination of management and actual training. Often the management portion of this equation is overlooked. Keeping or removing food from the counter before leaving the house will reduce temptations for your dog and will help keep your dog from forming a habit of “counter-surfing.” Dogs will continue to perform behaviors that are successful for them and behaviors that do not reap any rewards gradually extinguish. So, if my dog is “rewarded” by getting a piece of food off that counter (even if relatively infrequent), there is no impetus for her to stop checking out the counter while I am out of the room. If my dog knows that food is not on that counter when I am not home, she is less likely to scavenge while I am out of sight. Management is also good way to keep your pup from destroying your favorite pair of leather shoes. Putting shoes away in your closet and closing the doors to your bedroom will prevent access into non-puppy proofed parts of the house when you are not home. Baby gates are also good management tools until your puppy passes the chewing phase and learns to chew the appropriate toys. If your puppy does not have access to shoes but instead has access to chew toys, you will protect your property. Who knew that having a puppy can lead to a clutter-free house.

3) Give my dog time to think - often we get impatient and we have a tendency to repeat the verbal cue over and over again thinking that it will make our dogs perform the behavior more quickly. If anything, it leads to your dog tuning you out. Instead, once your dog has learned the verbal cue for the behavior you are training, use the word once and give your dog time (10-15 seconds) to think about it. Repeating the cue while your dog is trying to figure out the behavior is the human equivalent of someone standing over your shoulder asking you, “what is 29x37” over and over again while you are trying to solve the equation. If your dog does not complete the task within that time frame, go back to the previous step in training (e.g. using a hand signal or lure with the verbal cue) and practice at that level until your dog becomes more proficient.

4) Exercise – regular exercise stimulates your dog not only physically but mentally. Your neighborhood is a smorgasbord of smells, sights and sounds that are different from what your dog experiences at home. A bored dog can be very destructive. When my dogs are bored, I often find little holes my backyard. Exercise can help channel some of that pent up energy.  Similarly, exercise can help with high energy and anxious dog.

5) Play more games with my dogs – playing games with your dog not only stimulates your dog mentally but it helps foster the bond with your dog. Although some dogs can play fetch until the cows come home, other dogs will get bored of this game after awhile (Northern breeds come to mind). This year I plan to introduce more games into my dogs lives beyond fetch and tug of war (which my dog never seems to get tired of). My dogs like to hunt and they love the “find it” games where they have to search for different objects to receive a treat. I also use training as a game and try to teach new tricks or combine different behaviors in a row (chaining behaviors) before the dog receives a reward. Keep training sessions short (5 -10 minute sessions at a time) to maximize on the “fun factor.”  For more information see my review of popular interactive dog toys on the market.

6) Give my dogs some down time – sometimes it is tempting to try to train your dog every day for long periods of time especially if you are working on modifying  particular behavior. I have found that it is beneficial to give my dog some down time from such intensive training because I want my dog to look forward to training rather than view it as a stressful event. Taking a day or two break can give my dog time to recoup and lessen the likelihood of burnout (for me too). Dogs need alone time too.

7) Appreciate every moment with my dogs – dog years are too short as far as we are concerned. That is why we should appreciate the time we have with our pets while they are with us. I have two senior dogs right now and I appreciate the confidence and tolerance that many older dogs have. The comfort and security that our senior pets provide is reflection of the strong bond formed after years of working together. Without my older dogs, I am sure my Akita puppy would have been a handful, but my older dogs have kept some of her rowdy teenage behavior in check. There is something to be said about the wisdom and experience of an older dog.

8) Keep expectations realistic – there is a temptation to expect too much from our pets. We have a 6 month old puppy and we expect them not to chew on our favorite chair. We expect a kitten not to climb up our drapes. We have a 10 year old dog and we expect them to adapt to new and strange situations like a younger dog. We expect an independent breed like a husky or akita to want stick to your side at all times or want to perform repetitive tasks. We adopted a dog from the shelter a few weeks ago and we expect them not to be fearful or anxious. This New Year, let’s keep our expectations realistic based on our pet’s age, history, temperament and personality. Realistic expectations reduce frustration and forge a better bond with your pet!

9)  Nip those behavioral problems in the bud - sometimes it is easy to ignore some of your dog's behavioral problems.  For example, we let the dog jump on us because we think it is cute or affectionate but let it go on and one day your dog may knock someone over.  Your dog may start guarding objects or food and let that go on and it can escalate to guarding entire locations of the house/couch or the behavior may become more pronounced.  Sometimes, I get calls from people who have had a behavioral issue that has gone on for years.  In such cases the behavior can become so ingrained that it is harder to treat.  So, if there is a behavior that you find problematic or can foresee becoming problematic, get the help you need and address it before it escalates.

10)  Go at your dog's own pace - this is a corollary to #8 above. Often when we are working with our dogs, whether it be a puppy or a dog with behavioral issues such as fear or aggression, we may have some arbitrary time table by which we have set some goal or want a problem "fixed."  Sometimes our timetables do not match up with what our dog's is able to accomplish. Trying to push our dogs faster than what they can handle can backfire or lead to frustration on our parts. For example, if you have a fearful dog, bombarding the dog with the object he/she is afraid of (person, dog, garbage truck, motorcycle etc) over a short period of time may intensity this fear and cause the dog to shut down. Often with behavioral problems it may take weeks or months to resolve and pushing your dog above and beyond what he or she is capable of will only serve to increase stress levels.  Instead, just go with the flow and appreciate the accomplishments your dog makes even if it seems like baby steps.

Do you have any New Year's resolutions for you and your pet?

Happy New Year and Happy Training!

Pawsitive Feedback Training

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Eve Fireworks and other loud noises

In many cities, New Year's eve is celebrated with setting off fireworks (and sometimes even guns).  For the safety of your pet, keep your pet indoors on New Year's Eve.

If your pet is afraid of fireworks and other loud noises, follow this link to my earlier blog on how help your dog through the "noisier" holidays:


Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!!!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Gifts Ideas for Pet Lovers

Do you need to give a gift for an animal lover?  Want to give something meaningful for the holidays?  Here are some ideas and suggestions:


Here are some books that make nice gifts or are good holiday reading:

  • The Dog Whisperer Presents - Good Habits for Great Dogs: A Positive Approach to Solving Problems for Puppies and Dogs by Paul Owens.  This book covers positive approaches to solving problems for puppies and adult dogs.  It tackles modifying dog behavior from the perspective of changing habits.  This book also has a unique approach to dog training called “Take a Vacation from Canine Education.”  Those of you who have taken my classes might recognize this approach as a comprehensive version of the “Magnet Game” we play in class.  Not only is this approach easy to follow but it takes the stress and pressure out of dog training.  Small brag:  my Akita and Shiba Inu are in some of the pics.

  • Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals.  This book explains why clicker training is such an effective training tool.  Karen Pryor is a former marine mammal trainer that popularized the use of clicker training with dogs.  Her book has many entertaining anecdotes that demonstrate the theories involved with training animals whether it be a dog, a dolphin or even a hermit crab!

  • The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World.  Here is one that is on my reading list this holiday season.  Featuring illustrative human, pet, and wild-animal anecdotes, this book is a unique and fascinating introduction to a science that is truly epic in scope. Children quickly learn that actions have consequences. This elementary lesson is repeated again and again throughout adulthood as we adjust our behaviors according to the reactions they produce in the social and natural environment.

Donate to an Animal Rescue

During this time of year, animal rescues are in need.  Consider donating money or even your time to an animal rescue.  With the cold weather, many shelters and rescues need blankets and old towels to help keep the animals warm.  If you are no longer using your dog’s crate, x-pen or leash, consider donating it to a rescue.  Call first, to see if they have a need for your equipment.

Pet Portrait

There are many talented animal photographers in town who specialize in pet portraitures.  An animal lover would love to have a professional portrait of their pet as a keepsake.  A couple of people in town are:

http://www.pawprintspictures.com/about2.html - the photos on my website were taken by Erin Tomanek.

www.furryfotoes.com – I have used this company as well for pet portraits.

Gift Certificates

Many pet boutiques, pet stores, pet groomers and even certain dog trainers offer gift certificates you can give your friends. 

Gift Baskets

Many companies can make dog-themed gift baskets.  You can build a gift basket with dog treats and bowls or doggie toys.  Here are some fun ideas for interactive dog toys that they will be sure to love:


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Training Tips

Holidays are full of excitement for our pets: houseguests, turkey, ham, gifts under the Christmas tree and other temptations. Here are a few tips to keep your pet safe and happy during the holidays.

1) Holiday Decorations, Christmas Trees and Candles – Holiday decorations are full of pretty shiny things and electric cords. However, some of these shiny things can be usafe for your pet. Avoid using tinsel and glass ornaments which can be torn off the tree, broken or, worse yet, eaten. If you have a puppy, use your management strategies such as pet gates, crates or exercise pens to prevent your puppy from getting into mischief when unattended.  Make sure electric cords are tucked out of the way or otherwise inaccessible.  Candles are another hazard, make sure they are out of reach of your pet (especially cats).

2) Holiday Treats – please remember that chocolates can be harmful to dogs so make sure that holiday chocolate is out of reach and in a safe place. Even the artificial sweetener, xylitol, has been found to be harmful to dogs.

3) Holiday Plants – plants are a popular gift or decoration during the holidays. For example, poinsettia plants are an irritant and cause vomiting so make sure holiday plants are out of your dog’s reach. If you are unsure if a plant is toxic, please visit the ASPCA poison control center at: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/

4) Guests – not everyone’s dog is a social butterfly. If your dog is shy or disturbed by having so many strangers around, make sure your dog has a safe room where he/she can rest and get some respite from all the excitement. Using management strategies like baby gates can also prevent your dog from running out the door if a guest accidentally forgets to shut the door. Conversely, not everyone is a "dog person" so giving your guests breathing room to socialize and eat can make the event more pleasant and stress-free. Training your dog to go to his/her bed or place is also handy if you want your dog to hang out in a particular spot when people are eating or hanging out. If your dog needs a little more training, using short-term management strategies like baby gates can help.

5) Food on the table - again, training your dog to station himself/herself on a mat or bed while people are eating is essential.  Teaching your dog a good "leave it" cue can also help if you are vigilent.  But the reality of the situation is that you are often too busy playing the host to worry about your dog and if your dog is not that trustworthy falling back on management strategies such as crates, baby gates, the back yard or another room are perfectly acceptable options.

6) New Year’s Eve – like 4th of July, New Year’s Eve can also involve fireworks (or in some areas people firing off guns). Please keep your pet inside to avoid mishaps. If your pet is afraid of loud noises, please see my 4th of July blog for tips for the noise phobic dog: http://pawsitivefeedback.blogspot.com/2010/06/4th-of-july-tips-for-fireworks-fearing.html

Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday
and a happy New Year!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Foul Weather Friends

Now that the rainy season has officially started here in Southern California, you may find that you are holed up in your house with your pet because of inclement weather. Your dog may not be able to take his/her daily walks and whenever you look up you find a pair of big, sad eyes staring at you expectantly, anticipating every move that you make.

Fear not, being indoors just changes the activities that your pet can engage in. Rainy days are when I break out some of my favorite interactive dog toys and play some indoor games that reinforce my dog’s training. Here are some examples:

Training – why not use that time in the house to reinforce some of your dog’s training? Put together a series of behaviors for your dog to perform and reward your dog for the last behavior in the chain. Go to your spot, lie down and stay is an example of a training combination. Or teach your dog a new trick. YouTube and other websites have videos of how to teach your dog to do simple tricks.

Hide and Seek – playing hide and seek games where your dog has to find you in different parts of the house is a great way to reinforce your dog’s recall (coming to you).  When training a dog to come when called, always remember that when they find you to reward them with praise, petting and/or treats.  Teach them that finding you is a big party.

Some toys can be used when the dog is left alone or for times when you need to keep your dog occupied (e.g.when you have guests over, you are busy at the computer, when you are having a meal). These toys must be fairly indestructible and have no small parts. Most people have Kong toys but there are many others you can order online or obtain from most pet stores.

Kongs (http://www.kongcompany.com) are great toys that can be stuffed with your dog's kibble, treats, and other foods. Your dog will spend a lot of time trying to get the contents out of the Kong. Think of it like a doggie pacifier. For heavy chewers the Extreme Kong (black version)would be a better choice. The Kong website has instructions on how to use it with recipes and I also posted a blog about the many uses of Kongs which you can read about here.

One of my favorite ways to use a Kong is to hide one or more Kongs around the house (I like to use places other than the kitchen or dining room) and ask your dog to find it. My dogs have been taught that the word “find it” means go hunt for the object. An empty Kong makes a great fetch toy as well.

Tug a Jug - This toy, made by Premier Pet Products, requires the dog to manipulate the jug and rope to try to get the treats out. If you use smaller treats, it is easier for the dog to get the treats. If the rope is destroyed, you can place balls in the jug for continued play. The other nice thing about this toy is that the jug is see-through so the dogs can see the treats inside. This toy has a high difficulty rating in my book so it may be too difficult for inexperienced dogs like puppies.

Here is a video of my two year old Akita, Kiku, who takes a patient and systematic approach to problem solving:

Twist and Treat – this is another similar rubber toy called the Twist and Treat is made by Premier. This toy is probably better for smaller dogs and less powerful chewers. This toy has the advantage of being adjustable depending on the size threat you are using so I find it easier for most dogs.

Buster Cube - The Buster Cube has been on the market a long time. This was one of the original toys I used with my 10 year old Shiba Inu when she was a puppy. The Buster Cube dispenses dry treats randomly when the dog moves the toy around. You can also adjust the level of difficulty depending on the skills of your dog.

Kibble Nibble: This is another Premier toy similar to the Buster Cube. The object of the game is to roll the ball around to make the kibble come out.The ball is see-through and the dog can see how much kibble is left. It takes some experimentation to determine what size kibble/treat works best so that it is not too easy or too hard.

Here is video of my Shiba Inu, Mitsu, playing with the ball. She is almost 11 years old now and she is going after the ball with gusto. This video is not sped up, this old gal is actually this frenetic. She ended up playing with this ball for about 15 minutes, did a couple of shiba yells at the ball, got a drink of water and came back for another 10 minutes before I took it away from her. During the video you can see a treat flying out of the ball:

Toys Requiring Owner's Participation
This category of toys are toys that involve the participation of the owner. Examples of traditional toys requiring owner participation are balls, fetch toys, tug of war toys and frisbees. There are also toys that involve problem solving skills. Nina Ottoson has created a whole line of toys which help hone your dog's problem-solving skills and at the same time help develop the bond with your dog. These toys require human supervision and they must not be left alone with your dog.

The Dog Brick - this toy requires the dog to remove the bricks and slide the covers to get to the treats. The link provided contains an instructional video on how to use this toy. Below is a video I made showing how my dog solved the brick.

Dog Tornado: This toy has a higher difficulty rating than the Dog Brick and it is definitly more challenging. What is fun about this toy is that you can potentially put your dog's entire meal (especially for small dogs) in the Tornado thereby slowing down their eating and preventing gulping their food. Again, these toys require your supervision because there are small parts.

Here is a video of my female akita, who is a little more sophisticated at solving puzzles, using the Tornado at a more advanced setting to make it more difficult to have access to the treats:

And some of these toys are not limited to use for dogs. Even cats can get in on the fun. Here is my cat using the Dog Tornado as a way to keep her occupied and to prevent her from gulping down food too fast.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween: a few safety tips for your pet

My Dog's Scout Costume

With Halloween quickly approaching, I just wanted to highlight some safety tips for our pets:

Bring your pets indoors—even if your pet is used to being outdoors, bring your cats and dogs indoors. Unfortunately, animals can be the target of pranks and teasing during Halloween, especially black cats.

Keep your pet in a safe room —little children and energetic teenagers dressed up as goblins, pirates, scarecrows or the Grim Reaper may be a bit too much for our furry friends, especially if they are on the fearful side. Sometimes, it is best to have our pets in a safe room (covered crate, a gated-off area or a back bedroom) with a stuffed Kong or bully stick. With the door constantly opening and closing, we want to make sure our pets do not accidentally run out the door.  So, keeping them in a safe room will prevent accidental escapes.

Make sure your dog has an I.D. tag and is microchipped - during the holidays is when a lot of lost pets are turned into shelters.  Pets can accidentally run out of the door either because of fear or someone carelessly leaving the door open.  Microchipping has saved many pets lives and resulted in happy returns. 

Make sure your dog knows how to "wait" behind the door or keep your dog on a leash - If your dog is going to be loose in your home (I prefer using a safe room), make sure he/she understands the cue for “waiting” behind the door and can handle seeing people in costumes. Keep your dog on a leash to prevent darting out the door. If he/she shows any signs of stress, anxiety, or aggression, put your dog in a safe room.

Keep your pet at home—Although it is tempting to have your dog go trick or treating with the kids, with so many strange looking people out and about, it can scare your dog. Your dog may panic and get loose or react negatively and nip a costumed stranger trying to pet him/her.

Go on Candy Patrol—often the day after Halloween, I find candy and cellophane wrappers on my porch and front yard. Make sure you check your home and front yard for stray candy so that your pet does not accidentally swallow it. Raisins and chocolate can be toxic to dogs as well as the artificial sweetener, xylitol found in chewing gum and other sugarless candies.

Beware of Jack-O-Lanterns & Candles—sometimes our pets are a little clueless about fire. Happy dogs with big wagging tails or cats jumping on a table can knock over a candle.   Also young animals may be overly curious and burn themselves.  Keeping your dog in a safe room can prevent these mishaps.

Some dogs hate costumes—while cute, some dogs are not very tolerant of costumes and can get cranky and snappy. If your dog looks stressed, unhappy or uncomfortable, take it off.

A bandana is as much as my dog can handle. A costume would put her in a very foul mood.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

4th of July Tips for your dog

With 4th of July just around the corner, it is important to keep your pet safe and secure.   Many dogs are afraid of fireworks.  Here are some things to keep in mind to keep your pet safe and happy this holiday:

* Avoid keeping your pet in the yard.  Fearful dogs will often try to dig, jump or climb their way out of the yard to escape the noise.  Many dogs get lost and end up in the shelter this way. 

*Make sure that your pet has proper ID in the event that he/she gets lost. Consider microchipping your dog.

*Avoid the temptation to take your dog to fireworks shows or outdoors. A fearful dog could bolt and get lost. Fearful dogs can also feel trapped and may lunge or bite people or other dogs around them. Play it safe, keep them at home.

*Keep your pets indoors and provide a secure place for your pet stay in.  This can be a crate or a quiet, pet-proofed room in your home that does not receive as much outside noise. Dogs can try to chew their way out of an area when scared so make sure it is a secure area.  Close your windows and front door to shut out outside noises.

*What if you have a new dog or puppy and this is their first 4th of July? Play with your dog. During those hours when fireworks happen (usually 9 p.m. to midnight here in Los Angeles), play games with your dog. Play fetch or tug of war. Give your dog a toy to play with or work on a Nina Ottosson interactive puzzle with your dog. Click here for examples. Interacting with you will keep your dog's mind off the noises outside and on the games you are playing with your dog. Here is an example of my dog working on Tug-a-Jug under my supervision.  She is so preoccupied with working on this toy that outside noises are unlikely to distract her:

*Consider playing music or keep the T.V. on as background noise. There are music CDs that have been created specifically to calm dogs.  Through a Dog's Ear is an example of a CD series. 



*Alternative remedies:  For mild cases, some dogs respond well to flower essences and homeopathic remedies. Bach's Rescue Remedy for pets is one of the older brands out there and can be found in most natural pet stores.  For homeopathic remedies you can consult with a homeopathic veterinarian for suggestions and dosage instructions.

*Body Wraps: many people have had success with body wraps which in effect "swaddle" your dog. I often use this product with fearful or anxious dogs. In her book, "Help for Your Fearful Dog," Nicole Wilde discusses a variety of methods of doing this and the proper way of introducing your dog to a wrap. In addition, there is a body vest marketed under the brand names, "Anxiety Wrap" and "Thundershirt" designed to achieve the same result. However, you should first acclimate your dog to the vest before a storm or fireworks so your dog does not react negatively to wearing the vest.

*Another calming product is Dog Appeasing Pheromone that can be sprayed on your dog's bedding or used as a room atomizer.  It is usually sold in pet stores under the brand name "Comfort Zone." 

*For severe cases talk to your vet:  for severe cases of anxiety or if your dog is at risk of injuring himself/herself, prescription medication may be necessary to keep your dog calm and safe. In such cases,  it is best consult with your veterinarian before the holiday.

My old akita had mild to moderate anxiety to fireworks. I made sure that he was in a pet-proofed room with the T.V. on and the windows closed. Sometimes I distracted him with toys and games he liked to play. I also used a Thundershirt and distracted him with Nina Ottosson puzzles which seemed to help:

Los Angeles Dog Training: www.pawsitivefeedback.com
Recommended Reading:

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:  http://www.pawsitivefeedback.com

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dog Bite Prevention - Can You Read Dog? A primer on dog body language and stress signals

This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week and I will be posting relevant articles throughout the week to address this very serious topic.  Here are a few statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) about dog bites:
  • 4.7 million people in this country are bitten by dogs every year
  • children are by far the most common victims
  • 800,000 Americans receive medical attention for dog bites each year
  • children are far more likely to be severely injured; approximately 400,000 receive medical attention every year
  • most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs
  • senior citizens are the second most common dog bite victims.
So this week we will address dog bites from two perspectives, that of the owner of a dog (especially fearful, shy or aggressive dogs) and that of a parent, child or other person meeting an unfamiliar dog. 

One of the most important things that dog owners and non-dog owners should learn and become familiar with is canine body language and stress signals.  Many signals that dogs put out are very subtle to the human eye because they are so different from primate body language. Often dogs show us these signals to let us know that they are uncomfortable or stressed.  Conflicts arise when we humans fail to recognize these signals or we misinterpret the message our dogs are trying to convey. 

Here are a few common signals that are important to be on the look out for:

Lip Licking

This is a behavior dogs will often perform when they are under stress or unsure of what is happening around them. What distinguishes this behavior from a dog “licking his chops” is that it is more frequent and more like a tongue flick. It is a behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal" (see book reference below). A "calming signal" is a behavior that dogs display to each other to prevent or reduce the risk of conflict.  It is a way for a dog to try to defuse a situation and calm the other dog (or person) down or even to calm themselves down.

In the photo above, my male Akita just came into the house to find my dad’s dog sleeping on his bed and also blocking his path. He paced back forth several times in front of her licking his lips before he finally walked past my dad’s dog and found another place to sleep. My Akita is not very confident and tries to avoid conflict as much as possible so the lip licking not only shows his discomfort approaching the new house guest but also his attempt to walk by her in close quarters without triggering a reaction or make her feel threatened.

In the videos below, the dogs show this behavior in response to the camera being too close to them:

Head Turns
One of the more common signals a dog will emit is the head turn away from another dog or person. This is another behavior that Rugaas considers a "calming signal."  I most often see this behavior when a dog is being approached by another dog or human and the dog is not quite comfortable with what is happening or when the dog is trying to show the other dog that he/she is not a threat. In the picture below, my shiba inu is not very comfortable with my dad’s dog and is turning her head away from her to avoid direct eye contact, which can be threatening to another dog. 

The dog on the left is emitting a calming signal to avoid
confrontation with the dog on the right.

Another scenario where I see head turns is when a dog or puppy is being hugged or kissed by a human being and the dog is not comfortable with this show of affection. Hugging for a primate is a normal expression of affection but is not comfortable for most dogs.  Often accompanying the head turn in this scenario are other calming signals such as lip licking or yawning (see below). This is probably one of the most common situations where humans fail to read the signs of the dog’s discomfort and if ignored can lead to a growl or dog bite to the face.

This dog is doing both a head turn and lip lick

In the picture above, my shiba inu is not comfortable with someone taking a picture so close to her when she is on her bed.  She is displaying both a head turn and lip lick. When you see this behavior in this type of scenario, it is best to give your dog more space.

This dog is merely tolerating being hugged. Note the head tilted away from the person.
The ears are also tilting backwards.

The picture above shows my dog being hugged by someone he knows fairly well. You can tell he is straining to turn away from the person. While he is tolerating being hugged, he is not really enjoying it. He is a shy and somewhat fearful dog that I rescued as an adult. Therefore, this is a situation where I would tell guests not to hover directly over or hug this dog, especially young children. Even though this is a large dog, the same rules would apply to a small dog that shows the same behavior. In fact, I rarely grab dogs around the neck or kiss them on the face.  I find that most dogs would rather be petted and given a little more breathing room, especially from strangers.

It is important to respect these signs and reduce your pet's stress and discomfort by not putting them in situations that make them uncomfortable. Working at a dog’s comfort level helps build a more trusting relationship. One way to do this is to approach an unsure dog by turning the side of your body to the dog. Hovering, hugging and direct eye contact can be intimidating to a dog and can provoke a dog to growl or bite. Most dogs are comfortable approaching a human when the person's side is facing them and the person's head is slightly turned away (a calming signal).  This is especially true of fearful dogs. 
This dog is more comfortable being held but then my face is also not close to hers and I am not hovering over her or trying to make direct eye contact.  Note the relaxed expression and mouth.

Colleen Pelar who has written several excellent books on raising children with dogs has the following videos on her website demonstrating the stress and calming signals dogs exhibit when they are being hugged or kissed. When you watch these videos, try to identify the calming signals. The videos can be found at:


Body Turns

Another "calming signal" is a body turn.  Often when dogs approach each other one or both will turn their bodies rather than approach head on. If one dog approaches and the other turns away very deliberately, the dog is signalling that “I am not a threat.” It can also be a sign that the dog turning away does not feel comfortable or does not want to interact.

These two dogs do not know each other very well and are
cautious around each other.  The dog on the left is blocking the other dog's path and the dog on the right turns her body and sniffs the ground
which is another calming signal this particular dog seems to do a lot.

Mitsu (dog on left) keeps her body and head turned away.

In the pictures above, the two dogs are showing a lot of calming signals.  It is these signals which help maintain harmony and minimize altercations.  In the days since these photos were taken the two dogs have become more comfortable with each other and there is less supervision required on my part.  Fortunately, both dogs are surprisingly good at expressing calming signals and have made my job much easier.

Sometimes in class I see dogs doing body turns or head turns (usually accompanied by lip licks or yawns) away from their owners. Usually I will ask the owner to give the dog a break from training for a few minutes. The dog is not trying to ignore the owner or being obstinate, an example of when dog behavior is often misinterpreted, but rather the dog may be stressed or is uncomfortable with something that is happening around him. 

The interesting thing about calming signals is that humans can reflect a calming signal back at a dog.  For example, turning your own head or body from a dog that is exhibiting a calming signal (yawning, lip licking or head/body turns) can help put them at ease.


Sometimes dogs will yawn for reasons other than fatigue. This is another behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal."  Yawning can occur when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable.  Try yawning back at your dog when you see this behavior and see if your dog relaxes.

Sometimes when I point the camera at my dog, Kiku,
she will yawn in response because she is not quite comfortable with the camera. If she gets too uncomfortable, she will walk away (a scenario that some people incorrectly attribute to "stubbornness").

Relaxed Face

The pictures below show dogs who are relaxed and comfortable with what is happening around them. The mouth is relaxed, not tensed and the eyes are soft.

Relaxed mouth, relaxed face, ears in normal position

Relaxed mouth, soft expression, ears in normal position

Tense Face

In contrast, dogs who are on guard, nervous or uncomfortable usually have a tight, closed mouth or tense face.  The look in the eyes may be hard or intense and the ears may point forward rather than be relaxed.

Closed, tight mouth, worried expression
Closed tight mouth, ears forward,
hard expression in the eyes


Mitsu guarding the avocado and giving a warning growl to another dog. 
Notice the forward posture, stiff body, forward ears and tense face.

Shaking off

Often you will see dogs shaking their bodies in much the same way they shake off water after a bath. When I see this with my dogs, they are usually reacting to something unexpected or trying to dissipate some nervous energy or tension.  The video below shows some examples of this behavior.

Play Bow

Most people recognize this move.  It is an invitation to play and most dogs react positively when they see this posture.

Come play with me!


Some dogs sneeze multiple times when they are excited or stressed.  My Shiba sneezes and prances excitedly when I come home and greet her. 

These are a few of the many facial expressions and forms of body language that are expressed by dogs. In this blog I am focusing on some of the calming signals and other less obvious behaviors that dogs will also exhibit to humans.  It is important to recognize these signs and identify what may be causing your dog discomfort or stress. Knowing these signals can also enhance your own interactions with your dog. To learn more about dog body language, the books below are a few good resources:


Next time we will review how to safely greet a dog.

Los Angeles Dog Training www.pawsitivefeedback.com

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Caring for the Senior Pet and End-of-Life Issues

About six weeks ago, my 16-year old Akita, Tomo, passed away.  While his health and mobility had gradually deteriorated the prior 2-3 months and I knew 16 was ancient for such a large breed dog, I was still taken by surprise when I woke up to find him barely conscious.  He passed away 20 minutes later. Dealing with an aging pet entails a whole set of issues that can sometimes be overwhelming both physically and emotionally.  Moreover, when a pet dies at home, there are issues an owner needs to address that are normally taken care of by the staff at the veterinarian’s office.  Based on my experiences during the last 6-8 months of Tomo’s life, this month’s blog will address the needs of aging pets and the end-of-life issues that every pet owner will likely face.

Health, Medical and Behavioral Issues

One of the harnesses I used to help Tomo stand up

Mobility Issues: Taking care of an aging pet can be challenging.  They may have mobility issues from arthritis or illness and they may need special accommodations to help them get around.  Arthritis and spinal degeneration may also manifest itself as incontinence or soiling in the house. If you have a large dog like my 90 pound Akita, you may have to physically lift your dog to help him get around. There are special mobility aids that assist both you and your dog including: special harnesses, steps, ramps  or other lifting devices. See my article reviewing some common mobility aids.

Pain Management: An ill or arthritic pet may also be in pain. Signs that your pet may be in pain include: decreased appetite or changes in appetite, difficulty getting up, favoring a particular part of the body, decreased activity, excessive panting, hiding, being less sociable, agitation and whimpering or yelping.  It is also not unusual for dogs to become aggressive and defend their personal space when they are in pain. It is important to speak with your veterinarian about pain management options to make sure that your pet is as comfortable as possible.  

Dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction): Aging dogs can also get dementia (termed Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or CCD) much in the same way that humans can.  Often the signs are subtle and people mistake them for something else.  Symptoms include:  confusion or disorientation, getting “lost” inside the house, pacing (especially at night), barking for no apparent reason, failure to recognize family members, getting stuck in corners, increased anxiousness and eliminating inside the house. Keeping  furniture in the same place can help with disorientation. Medication may be prescribed by your vet to lessen the severity of the symptoms.  However, there is no cure for CCD. 

Increased Anxiety:  Many aging pets can experience increased anxiety or agitation whether it be from CCD, loss of hearing/sight or pain.  Anxiety aids such as a Thundershirt or DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) can help calm a dog.  My dog started exhibiting occasional bouts of separation anxiety and I used a Thundershirt in combination with ambient music to keep him calm.  Many of these anti-anxiety aids are discussed in this article

Incontinence:  As mentioned above, your pet may become incontinent due to a physical disability or due to CCD.  If an aging pet becomes incontinent, it is important to have your vet first rule out a medical problem such as diabetes, kidney disease, spay incontinence or bladder infection.  Encouraging your dog to eliminate outside more times a day can help lessen the number of accidents in the house and in some cases your vet may prescribe medication to address this issue. In some cases, doggie diapers may be needed.

Deafness and Blindness:  Many aging pets eventually become blind or lose their hearing.  In the case of blindness, it is important not to move furniture around so that your dog will have an easier time navigating.  For blind dogs you can make your presence known by shuffling your feet or calling your dog’s name to prevent your dog from getting startled (and perhaps reacting defensively).  In my case, my dog starting going deaf so it was important for me to make sure he could see me before I used my hand signals to ask him to do something like sit, come, wait or lie down.  In addition, I would clap my hands to get his attention because he seemed to be able to still hear higher pitch sounds.  Inside the house, I would tap the floor or simply get up and stand in front of him to get his attention because deaf dogs can easily startle as well. Here are some resources for owners of deaf or blind dogs:

Deaf Dog Education Action Fund:  http://www.deafdogs.org/training/

Blind Dogs.Net:  http://www.blinddogs.net/ 

Reaction from other pets – It is not uncommon for other resident dogs to pick on an ill or aging housemate.  It is important to keep a watchful eye on their interactions and intervene if you see bullying behavior.  You may also need to set up management practices (separate feeding areas, crating, gating etc) to keep the senior dog from being harassed.  In serious cases, contact a certified dog trainer or behaviorist to help you with this issue (see my article on selecting a dog trainer).

Euthanasia/Hospice Care

There may come a time when you need to assess the quality of your pet’s life.  In my case, my dog had good days and bad days and I was constantly monitoring the number and severity of the bad days.  Although in his case, I did not have to make this decision, I have had to make this decision with other pets and it is important to be aware the condition of your pet and whether it is getting progressively worse.  Some of the issues I monitored were:  

Appetite - amount of food eaten and whether meals were missed;

Pain - whether my pet was in chronic pain and how it was affecting day to day activities and mobility;

Interactions - is my pet interacting with members of the household (human or animal) or being withdrawn?  What is the nature and quality of the interactions? Is my pet hiding or spending a lot of time alone? 

It is best to discuss these issues with your veterinarian who, other than you, can assess the physical condition of your pet.  Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on hospice care or whether euthanasia is the best option for your pet. 

These services often take place at the veterinarian’s office but there are also mobile vets who can come to your home.  This may be a less stressful option for you and your pet.  In my case, since I had such a large dog who had mobility issues, I had the number of a local mobile vet on my refrigerator door in case I needed their services.

When your pet dies at Home

It is less common for a dog to pass away suddenly or unexpectedly at home.  In my own experience, when a pet was euthanized, as had been the case for my previous pets, the veterinarian’s office took care of all the arrangements after the procedure and I did not have to worry about what to do with my pet.  However, if your pet dies at home, you will have to make these decisions and contact the appropriate facility. 

Pet Mortuaries and Crematoriums – you will need to find a local mortuary or crematorium that caters to pets.  They will come and pick up your pet and deal with the remains based on your instructions.  You essentially have two options: cremation or burial.

Burial -  Many cities prohibit the burial of animals in a resident’s back yard.  For example, in the City of Los Angeles,  “no person shall bury an animal or fowl in the City except in an established cemetery.”  Therefore, if  you want to bury your pet, you must contact one of the pet cemeteries in the city.  Burial at one of these facilities is the most expensive option.  Here are 2 cemeteries in Los Angeles:

LA Pet Memorial Park - www.lapetcemetery.com

Cremation:  A less expensive option is cremation.  In addition, cremation gives you more options as to how you would like to deal your pet’s remains.  Most mortuaries or crematoria will do individual or mass cremations (the latter being less expensive).  If you would like your pet’s ashes returned to you, then an individual cremation would be necessary.  Often the ashes are placed in an urn or box and some companies provide a plaster cast of your dog’s footprint.  Individual cremation is the option I chose for my pets.  Here are two facilities that I have used:

Royal Pet Mortuary (Culver City) - http://petmortuary.com/

Guardian Animal Aftercare (Sun Valley) - http://www.guardianaftercare.com/

City Removal – many cities, including Los Angeles, will pick up your pet free of charge.  However, your pet's remains will not be returned to you.  Your city’s animal control department can provide more information.  In Los Angeles, the Bureau of Sanitation (not Animal Services) provides this service. 

Other Pets

The other pets in your home may experience varying levels of behavioral changes after the loss of your pet.  Some pets may act withdrawn or reclusive, others may not react differently at all.  One issue that I had to address since my dog passed away at home was whether the other animals should approach him after he passed away. It was an issue I never had considered before and a cursory search on the internet did not have a definitive answer.  After discussing it with the mortuary (because they could not get to me for several hours), I decided to let my other pets approach Tomo if they chose to.  My cat and Shiba Inu did approach him while my other Akita avoided the room he was in altogether and she appeared distressed prior to and after his death.    

Although this is completely anecdotal, my Shiba and cat did not exhibit any significant behavioral changes.  My Akita, who spent a lot of time playing with Tomo, became very reclusive and spent a lot of time sleeping in her crate.  She did not want to interact with anyone the weeks following Tomo’s death.  In addition, she did not want to spend any time in the yard.  This lasted for about 2-3 weeks.  In the meantime, I tried to maintain her regular walk schedule and arranged for play dates with my dad’s dog to keep her active and engaged.  After a few weeks she started coming out of her shell and within the last few weeks she is almost back to normal. But every dog will be different and it is best to maintain your dog's usual routine and provide enough attention but at the same time not go overboard and force your dog to interact with you if he/she chooses to rest or sleep.  Sometimes, people feel like they have to keep them occupied every minute of the day but sometimes our pets, like people, need time to themselves.  

My other dog spent a lot of time in her crate after Tomo died.


It is normal to grieve in the weeks and months following your pet’s death and you will likely go through a range of emotions from sadness to guilt and depression.  Sometimes it is helpful to commemorate your pet in some special way, especially if you have children.   In my case, I spread some of my dog’s ashes in a grotto at a favorite hiking trail. 

A favorite place where we hung out

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help pet owners cope with their loss.  Here are some resources that you may find helpful:

ASPCA Pet Loss Hotlinehttp://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-loss/

Tufts Pet Loss Support Hotlinehttp://www.tufts.edu/vet/petloss/

Association for Pet Loss and Bereavementhttp://aplb.org/index.php

Pet Loss.comhttp://www.petloss.com/

Tomo in his much younger days
at a favorite hiking trail

Los Angeles Dog Trainer:  http://www.pawsitivefeedback.com