Friday, August 28, 2015

River, the Story of a Trainer's Dog who Needs to be Trained: Part 1

My friend Katy, who calls me her 'puppy pimp' since I found her the two puppies she adopted this year, told me I should write about my puppy, River.  She thinks that other people might like to learn about my experience with him, and feel better in the knowledge that even I deal with day-to-day issues with my dog.  I will be the first to admit that we have good days and bad days, and I am trying harder with him than probably any other dog I've ever had.
This story starts in September of 2014.  Along with my boyfriend, John, I decided to adopt a new puppy. My dog, Paisley, was 5 at the time, and I thought, in my infinite wisdom that it would be a good age for her to get a puppy.  She wants you to know that she highly disagrees with me.  We wanted to get either a Boxer or a Lab, and looked around at a few rescues, with Safe Harbor Lab Rescue being one of them since I adopted Paisley from them.  There was a litter of lab mix puppies that would be available at the end of October.  We met our puppy, Milo, at 4 weeks old, and brought him home at 8 weeks old.  He was the best, sweetest, calmest, most wonderful puppy and I wondered how we got so lucky!
Milo at 8 weeks
Unfortuantely, when he was 16 weeks old, Milo developed severe bi-lateral pneumonia and went in to the hospital for what was going to be a week-long stay for treatment.  At 6am the first morning, the doctor called and said Milo has gone in to cardiac arrest, probably had an embolism, and died.  She said 'We did everything we could to save him'.  I was in shock, not awake yet, and asked her "Can we come say goodbye to him?" We held him for over an hour and left without him. That was the hardest day of my life.  It was a week before Christmas and we were all devastated.
The next morning, John and I were both up before dawn, still crying and wondering what happened to our beautiful puppy.  I said 'I want to get another puppy right away' and he agreed. I searched online and found a rescue who had a little Boxer mix puppy who would be available for adoption the next day.  Under his cute little fawn and black face, it said his name was 'Milo'.  Clearly, it was meant to be, and I paid for him and filled out the paperwork on the spot.  We decided to name him 'River', which means 'renewed life, courage, and determination'.
River at 8 weeks
(John is a firefighter so we took pictures on the truck of both puppies)
In my emotional fog, what I didnt realize is that River was from a litter that was transported in from New Mexico. His mom is a pure-bred Boxer (we met her) and dad isn't saying. But he is what I call a 'reservation dog'. In my professional experience, I know that reservation dogs (dogs who come from rural areas, mostly New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, etc), tend to have more genetic fear.  I wrote about the subject in this blog .
I was not anticipating ever adopting a puppy with major issues, but River certainly has them.  He was afraid of people, shy with dogs, skittish with sounds and objects (he was terrified of garbage cans on the road and fire hydrants, which is very ironic!), he barked at everything and nothing, submissively urinated, shook in terror, and his ears were always pinned back to his head like something bad was always going to happen. I felt so bad for him!  He lived in a constant state of panic, and I set out to help him, just like I would for any client's dog.
Stay tuned for what I did to help him!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pekoe- A Service Dog in Trouble

In honor of International Assistance Dog Week, I want to tell you about a very special dog and his person.
Pekoe is a 6-year old black Standard Poodle with bright brown eyes and soft fur. His person, Vince, is a quadriplegic after an accident 16 years ago.  I met Vince and Pekoe a few weeks ago when Vince contacted me about some behaviors Pekoe was exhibiting.  I learned a lot about their relationshp, how it started, what Pekoe's favorite things are (food, food, and food), about Vince's accident, and also that Vince used to be an NFL and CFL football player 'back in the day'.  He played for the Packers, and I told him I was a Vikings fan - thankfully he didn't fire me!  Vince's incredible attitude and humor, despite his circumstances, inspire me, and his love for his dog is unwavering, just like anybody else who adores his dog.
It's not uncommon for service dogs to become protective of their humans.  Being responsible for someone, like Pekoe is, can be very stressful and the 'job' comes with a lot of pressure.  About 2 years ago, Pekoe started become reactive when he saw another dog.  For whatever reason, he deemed dogs a threat to himself and Vince, to the point where Vince had to stop taking him with him when he went out.  Unfortunately, not being able to take your service dog with you when you are quadriplegic can be heartbreaking.  Not to mention, Pekoe is Vince's constant companion and they are two peas in a pod!
Pekoe and Vince
When Vince first contacted me, I wasn't sure if I could take on his case. I had never worked with a service dog before and had no experience with working dogs in this situation. But Vince was very convincing and I truly wanted to help him.  So, I contacted my colleague, Jennifer Arnold, at Canine Assistants in Atlanta. She spent an hour with me on the phone explaining the nuances of dogs with wheelchairs and how service dogs handle stress. She gave me a thousand bits of advice to try, and it was all extremely helpful. After we spoke, I thought about it for a day or two, and ultimately realized that Pekoe is actually just like any other anxious dog I've worked with. He just needed to decompress and have some fun again.
I decided that we would go back to basics and let Pekoe just be a dog for a while.  While I have been trying different reward systems on Vince's chair (he can't deliver treats), I have been experimenting with Pekoe's commands, getting him to pay attention to Vince when he's distracted, and adjusting the way he works with Vince's wheelchair.  Vince can move pretty quickly in that thing!  It is very important that I use only positive reinforcement with Pekoe as he is already stressed enough.  No prong collar, leash jerks, or punishment for him- only love, praise, food, and allowing him to make choices.
Yesterday was our 6th session and already, Pekoe is less stressed and wants to work.  I introduced him to Rufus, my fake stuff Rottweiler from a far distance and he offered me lots of fun behaviors that we have been working on.  While Rufus doesn't move, seeing him was stressful, but Pekoe learned very quickly that Rufus is a predictor of really good things and this process will continue to help him learn he doesn't have to protect Vince anymore.
Soon I will introduce him to my dog, Paisley, and then go on a few field trips.  I am sincerely hoping I can get him back to the point where Pekoe can be a service dog again, as I think he truly enjoys it. I know Pekoe needs Vince, and Vince needs Pekoe-they make a great team. You know what's really cool, though?  They think I am teaching them... but in reality, they are really teaching me.
Vince, Me, and Pekoe!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lily : From a Texas Shelter to a Loving Home!

As a college student living in an apartment, I was rather hesitant at the thought of getting a dog. The dog-lover in me eventually won over, though, and my boyfriend and I found a beautiful Shepherd mix in an ad by Ruff Rescue. The ad stated that “Wendy” was quiet and great for an apartment as she was small and well behaved. After meeting her for the first time at a local Petco we feel in love and took her home the very next morning. Taking her home for the first time, we realized that the ad had been a little off in terms of how Lily, formerly Wendy, actually was. She was extremely skittish and protective of her us. If she saw or heard anyone when we took her out of the apartment, she would break into a frenzied bark/howl that would probably send most people running for the hills, not to mention if she saw a dog AND a human! Never having handled a rescue dog like Lily before, we were determined to help her get better. After trying various techniques at home for a month or so, we found ourselves at our wits end, fearing that we might have to give her up because she would hurt someone. Realizing our last hope was to call a professional, we finally caved and called in Kari, who was recommended by Ruff Rescue.
Lily, calming on her 'Place'
During our first visit with Kari, I was completely impressed with how well she understood my dog, without ever having met her. In addition, she not only told us WHAT to do, but WHY we were doing it, so the engineering student in me was very please. The first training session was essentially training me on how to change my dog’s behavioral issues. Kari explained to me that it was Lily’s underlying anxiety that needed to be tackled first before any real behavioral work could begin. 
            Slowly, over time we began to see improvements, both in Lily’s anxiety and responsiveness, as well as our own ability to understand her.  Lily is no longer terrified for her life when she sees another person coming around or near her. Before all this training, she would sometimes be scared to the point where she would defecate on the spot. Now, she doesn’t even bark at people outside our apartment. Although, if she sees a dog, she will bark—but only once! Mental stimulation by her food Kongs and training techniques from Kari have helped Lily cure her overwhelming anxiety. Lily is now more attentive and can focus, despite the presence of her normal stimuli. We can even take her on runs with us, regardless of dogs or people being around, something we never imagined would be possible.

            We are so grateful for Kari and her positive training techniques—without her I fear we would have given up on Lily. Thank goodness we didn’t, because Lily is the light our lives and is showing us how much she wants to get better. In addition, through Kari, I feel like I know more about my dog and many others as well. Please do not give up on your pup! There is hope, and though it may be a long process, it is incredibly worth it in the end as both you and your dog will be much happier.
Thank you!  Taylor P and Lily, Golden, Co 

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Our furry munchkin, Leopold Snuggles, aka 'Leo', was a 6 week old stray that we adopted from a rescue organization when he was between 10-12 weeks old. He was a super social and happy puppy who bonded instantly with us and our two year old. The two of them were (and are) best buds. Then around 14-months, he began exhibiting aggressive behaviors towards people and other dogs. His behavior on the leash began to deteriorate as well. We couldn't take him anywhere with us anymore, he was anxious about everything, and even bit two dogs (one very badly). His leash skills got so bad that we couldn't walk him anymore. And Leo is one of the most athletic dogs we have ever seen, so no walking just caused more anxiety, as he couldn't get any energy out. If we tried to have him in the front yard with us and a dog or person walked by on the other side of the street, Leo would go crazy! He also started becoming more anxious with our son. We debated on what to do as we have a little guy at home who Leo was giving some strong warning signs to. Calling Kari was our last attempt to keep Leo a part of our family. 
Kari was WONDERFUL from the moment she arrived. Leo took to her right away, and we could see how trainable he actually was within that first visit. She discussed with us the reasons behind his behavior and how to correct each behavior with positive methods only. No need for a prong collar or shock collar, and we were very relieved. Within the first month of working with Kari and following her behavior plan, we were able to walk Leo in the driveway and he was no longer afraid of people walking by.
Leopold Snuggles 

After three months or working with Kari, our big success is that we can take him on 15-20 minute walks.  He does so well on the leash now. We even walked him in the middle of the street while two dogs were on both sides on the sidewalks with Leo completely ignoring them!  We know we still have a lot of work to do with him, but we now know that Leo can stay a member of our family and that our son will be able to grow up with Leo at his side.  
Jamie and Todd, Denver, Colorado

Monday, April 27, 2015

Interdog Aggression: Persey Graduated Today!

Persey graduated from her training sessions with Kari today.  As we said goodbye for now to Kari, and her dog Paisley, there were definitely a few tears all around.
We adopted Persey, a pure-bred golden retriever, at 6 years young.  Initially Persey was skittish and shy, had a history of severe fear aggression with other dogs, and being overly eager with humans, greeting them with jumping and a bit too much enthusiasm.  She came to us already on anxiety medications, and had already had punishment-based training with a shock collar. On her second day with us, our friends arrived to visit with their dog, Gryphon.  Although wearing a soft muzzle, Persey was out of control, and immediately went after Gryphon.  That’s when we knew we needed professional help.  We were determined to help Persey feel safe and happy in her new home and be able to have a few dog friends.
We hired Kari and she came to visit Persey for our first session.  She diagnosed Persey has having intense fear aggression and anxiety.  Partly related to genetics, prior training methods, inappropriate food, and not the right medications.  On the first visit Kari came up with a plan for change in meds, food, brain exercise, and routine.  She taught us how to keep Persey safe and distracted when encountering other dogs.  She recommended no attempts to meet other dogs until her confidence increased and her anxiety decreased.  She said it might take many months or years, which was hard for us to hear, as we are not the most patient people.    We were anxious to have Persey make friends with Riley, our niece’s dog and frequent visitor.
During her next several visits, Persey was able to meet Paisley, Kari’s chocolate lab, and started gaining confidence with her.  It was so great the first time Paisley and Persey could walk down the road together.  She quickly settled into her new daily routine, started exploring more with lots of tail wagging, and we were in love.  Next came her introduction to Riley (a large, leggy chocolate lab).  Using the same patience and confidence building, anxiety reducing approach, they were soon fast friends, and able to walk together without problem.  With Kari’s suggestion we  introduced  them inside by using a pet-gate to separate them.  Imagine our delight when recently they were able to be together in our kitchen, gate and leash free!
Persey and Riley
Gryphon returned for another play date:  what a difference!  Using the same techniques again, there was no lunging or aggression.  They made friends after a few minutes, and down the trail we went.  Since then they have been able to walk together, and Persey hosted Gryphon for a lunch date in our kitchen that went off without a hitch.

We know now that with the right structure, routine, and cues, Persey can enjoy a confident and happy life, and have a few best friends forever.  It did take several months, but because we went slow and steady, we were successful.  Thanks to Kari and Paisley for showing the way, we couldn’t have done it without them!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fear and Genetics in Dogs

In Colorado, we are lucky to have several puppy rescues that transport puppies in from other Western states, including New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, and Texas.  These puppies face certain euthanasia as rural areas don’t have high rates of adoption. But rural areas do have a high number of un-altered dogs who continue to add to pet over-population.  Most of the dogs from rural areas are herding or livestock-guardian mixes: Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Anatolian Shepherds, Great Pyrenees, German Shepherds, etc.  all of which are known for their herding, guarding, shyness, and somewhat reserved/fearful behavior.  I call these puppies ‘reservation dogs,’ and they comprise about 60-70% of the dogs I work with on a daily basis.   The behaviors are genetic, both in the breed characteristics and from the puppy’s parents and grandparents, therefore it is no surprise that these puppies grow up to be shy, fearful, reactive, and scared.  Many of these dogs don’t do well in the city, as the sights and sounds are too much for them to handle.
Here are some of the genetically pre-wired behaviors reservation dogs may have and of course, not all dogs of each breed will have every characteristic. However, this is a short list of potential behaviors to consider when adopting (source- Wikipedia):
Australian Cattle Dog- Herding Dog: energetic and intelligent with an independent streak; reserved with people it does not know and naturally cautious in new situations; attitude to strangers makes it an excellent guard dog when trained for this task; good with older, considerate children, but will herd people by nipping at their heels, particularly younger children who run and squeal; forms a strong attachment to its owners, and can be protective of them and their possessions.
Australian Shepherd- Herding Dog: may show reserved and cautious guarding behaviors; kind, loving, and devoted to those they know; loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well; protective of its property; inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity; intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play; a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie may invent its own games, activities, and jobs; does best with plenty of human companionship; require a minimum of 2–3 hours a day of play, exercise, and attention.
Great Pyrenees- Livestock Guardian: confident, gentle, and affectionate; territorial and protective of its flock or family when necessary; general demeanor is of composure and patience and loyalty; strong willed, independent and reserved; attentive, fearless and loyal to its duties; will patrol its perimeter and may wander away if left off  leash in an unenclosed space; protects its flock by barking, and being nocturnal, tends to bark at night unless trained against such behavior.
Anatolian Shepherd- Livestock Guardian: independent and forceful; responsible for guarding its master's flocks without human assistance or direction; rugged, large and very strong; these traits make it challenging as a pet; intelligent and can learn quickly but might choose not to listen; likes to roam; not recommended for living in small quarters.
Border Collie- Herding Dog: require considerable daily physical exercise and mental stimulation;  very demanding, playful, and energetic; may develop neurotic behaviors in households that are not able to provide for their needs; infamous for chewing holes in walls, destructive biting and chewing on furniture, and digging holes out of boredom; may not be good with young children, cats, or other pets due to their strong herding instinct; can be motion-sensitive and may chase moving vehicles.
Kuvasz- Livestock Guardian: intelligent, aloof and independent; intensely loyal; instinctive need to investigate strangers and protect its owner; not usually interested in meaningless activity, such as tricks; experienced handlers only.
German Shepherd- Herding/Working Dog: highly intelligent, active, and self-assured; willingness to learn and an eagerness to have a purpose;  curious which makes them excellent guard dogs and suitable for search missions; can become over-protective of their family and territory, especially if not socialized correctly; not inclined to become immediate friends with strangers.
Belgian Malinois- Herding/Working Dog: active, intelligent, friendly, protective, alert and hard-working; energy levels that are among the highest of all dog breeds; excessively high prey drive; can be destructive or develop neurotic behaviors if not provided enough stimulation and exercise; enjoy being challenged with new tasks; known to be easy to train, due to their high drive for rewards.

As you can see, many of the breed characteristics above include ‘reserved’, ‘cautious’, ‘protective’, ‘high prey drive’, and ‘will nip at heels’.  While these behaviors are normal to the dog, they may be unwanted in a family, or in day-to-day life.  It is imperative that new adoptive pet parents understand these behaviors and set their puppies up to succeed in all situations. I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of these genetically fearful puppies in the past 22 years, and I have adopted 2 reservation puppies from New Mexico myself.  Every adopter, including myself, has very good intentions with socialization, desensitization, and training, and it was different even for me to experience these behaviors, as I have only had Siberian Huskies, Great Danes, and Labradors before.  However, many of these reservation puppies are intrinsically ill-equipped to process a lot of confusing environmental stimuli at once and then those good intentions can be disastrous.     Many of these puppies grow up to growl, snap, and bite because of their breed characteristics. It doesn’t have to be that way if humans understood their ‘genetic’ predisposition better.
There are a few important things to remember if you adopt a fearful puppy or adult dog:
1). Reservation dogs need training that is different than other puppies.  The focus should be on building their confidence and helping them to cope with scary environmental things slowly instead of putting them in situations that will make them more scared.  ‘Flooding’ can be detrimental to their psychological well-being.
2). Behavior is always context specific. Your puppy is going to behave differently in certain environments: friendly at home, and scared at the vet; running around happily in the backyard at home, or hiding under your legs at the pet store.  It is crucial that you take ‘context’ into account when analyzing your dog’s behavior. 
3). Behavior is individual to every single dog. Just because you had a wonderfully behaved German Shepherd when you were growing up, doesn’t mean that the one you adopt today is going to be the same way. Every dog is different even if they are related.  We are different from our siblings, and we have the same parents, too. 
4). Training must be done when your dog is not afraid, adrenalized, or stressed, and your puppy must always feel safe at all times.  If your puppy’s brain is in full-blown fear mode, she cannot learn. She can only shut down, or suppress her stress, which will make her fear and anxiety worse in the future, and may cause more aggression. 
5). Punishing, forcing, leash correcting, yelling at, squirting, throwing things, or shocking your puppy is not going to help her.  It will inevitably make her more afraid, or worse, more aggressive because she feels pain/fear.  Punishment increases stress, it’s as simple as that. She may ‘behave’ after getting shocked, but only because she’s afraid of getting shocked, not because she’s less fearful or stressed. 
6). Growling is not bad!  Please do not punish your puppy for growling, as it is the most appropriate warning a dog could ever give.  If he growls, he is telling you he’s scared, and then its up to you to help get him out of the situation and/or redirect him.  If you punish your puppy for growling, he’ll stop growling i.e. stop warning, and guess what? Then he’ll go straight to snapping and biting as a warning. 
7). Fearful, shy, stressed, and aggressive puppies need professional help in the form of dog-friendly, positive, confidence building behavior modification. Please call a positive dog behavior professional, and please stay away from punishment-based or ‘balanced’ dog trainers, as both use fear, corrections, and intimidation in their training.  
8). Dog behavior is not about being dominant or alpha, and shouldn’t be characterized as such.  If you try to be ‘dominant’ over your dog, you will make him scared of you and more anxious about his environment.  Dominant dogs are calm, stable, friendly, and confident.  Fearful dogs are anxious, shy, shut down, reactive, and can be aggressive.    
Whether you adopt a reservation puppy, or rescue a fearful adult dog, there are many things to consider when training and socializing.  Every dog is different, and his or her individual needs and genetically pre-wired behaviors should play the biggest part in how you teach, desensitize, and work towards building confidence and social skills. If you have any doubt, please hire a professional so you don’t inadvertently make things worse.  If you make one wrong step, or try to work through fear and anxiety on your own, it could have dire consequences for your fur baby.    

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Her name is Heidi because she hides (or used to!)

My boyfriend lost his beloved shepherd mix. “Lulu” in December of 2012.  He half-heartedly looked at other dogs throughout 2013, but Mike always had an opinion about our selections- too similar to Lulu, not similar enough to Lulu, it was a prime number on Tuesday in a leap year, you name it.  One day, I sent Mike a link to this picture and said “I know I said I wouldn’t send any more pictures but here’s ‘Cherry’."
Heidi at the shelter
I don’t even know why I sent him this picture.  Anyone who is remotely fluent in dog language will tell you that this puppy is terrified by her first 10 weeks of earthly experiences.   But boys will be boys and I was greeted with a text of  “Can I borrow your crate?  Do you want to meet a puppy?”   So, we ended up at the shelter 10 minutes before closing and we couldn't find her in the kennel.  The shelter staff assured me that she’s there but in a 3x5 run, where can you hide?  Turns out the answer is under the cot in the back corner.
“Cherry” was renamed “Heidi” by Mike’s niece because she hid under and/or behind any available surface.  Then Mike had to go out of town and he was going to board her in a traditional facility.   Knowing Heidi and how soft she was, I knew that experience would scar her in ways that even the most diligent owner could not help a puppy recover from.  Instead I called Kari and asked if she would help us with a shy puppy. 

To say Kari 'helped' Heidi sounds so trite and hollow.  Kari did an intense 10-day 'stay & train' at her home, which was so much less stressful than a boarding kennel.  Heidi became fast friends with Kari's Lab, Paisley, and having another dog around really helped Heidi learn to play and not be scared of other dogs.  With Kari's patience and guidance, Heidi developed coping skills so that she was confident to handle the world around her.  Kari desensitized her to scary things, helped her feel safe while she was training, and gave her so much love she didn't want to come home.
Paisley and Heidi 
In fact, after the time with Kari, she jumped in a raft and went on a white water rafting trip with Mike.  Heidi spent 10 days with Kari when she was 16 weeks old and it ultmately and profoundly changed the trajectory of her life.  Kari’s not a 'miracle worker' or a 'dog whisperer'.  But she used dog-friendly, positive, confidence building techniques to lay the majority of the foundation for Heidi to become trusting, confident, and happy.  After that, it was up to us to do the work to build that bond and trust with Heidi.  If you do that, the results will blow your mind and your puppy will thank you for the rest of her life!   Katy and Mike