Neutering my German Shepherd

I’m going to do it. Actually (remembering my childhood, where our family actually gelded our own pony, and it was common in those days to do that, maybe it still is, with elastic bands) I’m not going to do it, but my veterinarian is going to do it. She’s also going to do a gastropexy while she is at it, hopefully protecting him from torsion/bloat risk.

It’s hard to decide to neuter a dog. With Tigerlily, I waited til she was 3 years old. She was a rare breed (barbet) and in spite of how shy and prey driven she was, how she was really smaller than her siblings, I held onto that dumb desire to maybe breed her til she was three years old. She had a pretty miserable spaying procedure. Poor Tiger. I slept with her, holding a hot water bottle on her incision that night, and that helped. I wished I had spayed her earlier. Surgery doesn’t get easier as they get older.

M’Ocean is 3 years old too now. I am getting him neutered because I am realizing, I never want to breed him. I guess it takes me 3 years to realize that. Too many people use shock/prong/choke on these dogs and I don’t have a long list of people I would trust who want a GSD puppy. Also, a shock collar to teach him to avoid sexy coyotes seems like a worse training plan than neutering. As Denise Fenzi said, “If someone told me I could never eat another meal again, and there was a way to get rid of my craving for food, it seems like a no-brainer.”

M’Ocean is fully mature. 94 lbs. He’s basically a very confident assertive funny and friendly dog. I hate to do invasive things, but being a dog owner is invasive. Leash walking is invasive. The dog/human symbiotic relationship is as invasive as the hills. That dog has already left the doghouse. We’ve domesticated and changed dogs and we continue to do that.

It’s weird. Weird to have dogs who really feel like they are part of the family. My dogs feel like they are humans, kinda. They seem to believe I am their mom, or their Guru. They worship me, kinda. They aren’t looking to start another family. Well… my spayed older dog Bee is DEFINITELY not looking to start another family, but if I let M’Ocean spend a few days out in the woods this week, especially if I left bowls of food, probably he would go start another family, unless the male coyotes killed him first. But he’s living a good life amongst the humans, and in general he seems satisfied and well adapted to this domesticated dog arrangement.

I’ll let you know how it goes, and if neutering him changes anything in our lives, in good or bad ways. It’s going to cost me maybe $1000.00 which is just one more aspect of the ordeal. I really don’t like doing it, but after thinking it through, our risk versus benefit analysis, neutering him feels like the more responsible, safe, smart thing to do. And then next year, when we are hiking the Appalachian trail, I won’t have to worry quite so much about the dangerous ways sex hormones can influence coyote and dog behavior.

Resource Guarding, part one

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Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time this can develop into aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. Space is an important resource. Six dogs,  24 tennis balls, half acre, half an hour. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! Give beginner dogs several sessions to not worry so much about balls.  Let the balls just lay there. Ignore the balls, let them do what they want. Add more balls.  I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in a resource flooded environment. They sometimes collect maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the dogs have all the balls and chews they need. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who  stayed with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about bee keeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! IMG_9288

 

 

Boat Dog Doo-doo

IMG_0272We travel with our dogs, to competitions, festivals and educational events, via boat and plane and car. Of the many tricks they do, one that I am often asked about is , “You get them to “go” on the boat? How did you do that?!”

In a nutshell, the answer is, we taught them to go “pee or poop!” (help me come up with funnier cues! see comments!) “outside” first. And then, we taught them that the top deck of the boat is “outside” and we cued them to go “pee or poop” there.

Assuming you need more detail than that, I have to go all the way back to when my dogs were babies and newly rescued, and of course I crate trained them. Crate training does not mean puppy torture, it means I used a physical cue to help condition them to feel safe and relaxed on cue. Relaxing (and loving it!) on cue in the crate then helped me condition many other behaviors.

So first you need to teach your dog/pup to LOVE the crate. I’ll go into that in more detail elsewhere, but basically this is done by “leaving ‘em wanting more,” keeping crated sessions very short and highly reinforced. For example, try starting by locking a piece of stinky cheese, or supper, or a dog bone into the crate. Dog wants in! Let the dog into the crate only when the dog is really demanding it, and then when the dog leaves, lock the dog out! Dog wants to get into the crate! Yay! Trade (always trade, don’t just take stuff from the dog) beef bone for a piece of chicken if the dog tries to leave crate with dog bone. Leave dog bone in the closed crate. In our house, the crate is the only place we allow dogs to chew raw beef bone. That makes going into the crate a special opportunity to chew! Never take a pup out of a crate when he is fussing, always wait for that one quiet second (and then run!) to let him out of the crate when he is quiet and calm. See Susan Garrett’s wonderful CD and book “Crate Games” for more details on how and why you should crate train every dog. Her book “Ruff Love” is also helpful if you are starting with an adult dog.

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The lifejackets are most important when loading and unloading the dogs off and on the boat. They give you a handle to maneuver your dog as well as flotation.

Once your dog likes the crate, and you’ve got him sleeping in the crate through the night (my puppy crate would actually be either right beside my bed or actually ON my bed at this point!), leash in the morning before he fusses,  walk him to the door, and say, “outside!” as you go outside. Say “outside” every time you go outside to your designated convenient potty place.  Wait a minute, up to three minutes, for him to go pee or poop. If he “goes,” say your cue words as he is going, and deliver a wonderful treat right after he goes. If your yard is fenced in, the “treat”  could be letting him off leash. You could also just praise and pet, or praise and deliver a food treat. If he doesn’t “go,” don’t reward it. Bring him back inside, lovingly put him back in the crate, and try again in ten or fifteen minutes (or half an hour). Eventually he will “go”, you will deliver your cue as he goes, and now you can go for a walk or play off-leash.

In this way, my dogs learn to go to the bathroom on cue right at the beginning of our adventures. Some people make the mistake of walking until the doggie goes potty, and then that’s the end! Dogs learn to hold it FOREVER in order to get a longer (and longer!) adventure. If my dogs don’t go to the bathroom pretty darn quickly, I end the walk, crate to prevent accidents, and try again just a little bit later. In this way, my dogs learned that when I pull over to the side of the highway and say “pee or poop,” their best bet is to go to the bathroom immediately, and then I might let them sniff around for a few minutes afterwards. At dog events, I take them out and if they don’t go immediately, they go back in the shady car, or back into their crate in the show’s crate room. I associate the phrase “pee or poop!” with the activity so often (regularly!) that they hear the phrase and know they know that this signals a limited opportunity. If they need to go, they go, and if they don’t go, the opportunity goes away for now.

And so on the boat. I brought them up on deck, said “lets go outside” as we went from the cabin up the companionway onto the deck, then I said “pee or poop!” Both my dogs were worried about this at first. They held it and wished we were going ashore. But we weren’t going ashore. Tiger lily “held it” for a record of 36 hours. But then she peed. Bee (as I knew she would) got this right away. Once the two of them both “pee or poop”’d once or twice on deck, and were rewarded for it, it just was easier and easier. They just go right on the deck and I put poops in a composter can, and wash off the urine (see a previous blog post for this detail). So I don’t want them to hold it till we go ashore, so they’ve learned that after they go to the bathroom, I take them to shore.

Nowadays, they are mature and I only crate them at dog events.  We can stop on a dock for a few days and then go to sea, and they are flexible. They let me know that they want to go “outside,” and they are adapted to going wherever and whenever I tell them to go. Sometimes, Tigerlily (who is 12 years old) has a hard time waking up, so recently I’ve found that starting up the boat engine is a cue to her that she better wake up and go while the going is good. I start the engine, she wakes herself up enough to get up on deck. We clean up, weigh anchor and off we go.

Questions? Alternative cue ideas? Put them in the comments section below.

Teaching dogs to predict the future

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My dog can’t tell me the winning lottery number. But teaching a language your dog can understand allow your dog will be able to know a lot about whatever is coming up next. This ability to get clear information from words builds dogs’ interest in whatever I have to say.

Many people chat, but idle chatter is confusing to dogs. For example, people say “down” when a dog is jumping up on them, yet they don’t expect the dog to lay down. Dogs don’t “naturally” understand words, especially similar sounding but differently used words such as “no” and “go” and “okay.” It requires regular practice.

Guests are often surprised by the lack of dog mayhem at our and doors gates. My dogs are relaxed not because I’ve had to “show them who’s boss”, but  because I can usually tell them who is at the door, and if they are coming outside or not. I can tell them to relax. When I say, “this is for Tigerlily,” only Tigerlily gets up and walks to the door. If a door event does not include dog participation, I say,  “sorry! Dogs stay!”and  they barely lift their heads, thump a tail, and go back to sleep. With experience  their ability to understand grows stronger year by year.

Of course I must use the full palette of dog training tricks (food, toys, praise,privileges) to teach my dogs, but because I formally teach and use words, I can use words to reinforce desirable behaviors. Information is very reinforcing, so I let my dogs know when I see a “stranger” dog approaching.  “Do you see the dog?” It  helps my formerly “nervous Nellie” dog to avoid getting suddenly startled by a hairy beast. “Oh that’s Rover. He’s a nice dog!”

My dogs have lots of  intentionally trained experiences with all these words. Their understanding puts me in a leadership position. They don’t need to warn me about the dog, because they can hear that I already know.  They see I am not  hysterical. My words help them predict that we will safely navigate any situation.

Sometimes people ask me how many words my dogs understand.  The last time I counted, many years ago, it was about 100 different words. That’s not many, my dogs are mutts not border collies, but just  few trained words can  go together to make almost an infinite number of  different sentences. They are constantly learning new words.

When I  first taught Tigerlily the difference between ball, rope, and pencil, I saw her struggle to recognize subtle differences between English language sounds.  So now I never (ever!) use the word “no” because it sounds perilously close to “go”. When I was teaching “down” and “bow” and I saw that “bow” sounded  like “down,” so I changed the verbal cue to “ta da!” Much easier!

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Some words (cues) are quite challenging to train, but many are easy! When I bring the puppy outside, I say “outside!” Serving water, I say “water!” Raining hard outside? For fun  I try explaining, “water outside! Water, water, water!” It’s fun to see the light bulbs go on in their brains.

Choosing words carefully is a huge part of this training game. For example,  the word “down” only means “lay down.” When I go downstairs I simply say “stairs!” or (on the boat) “go below!”If I want the dog to put all her paws on the floor I say “off” (not “down”).

Teaching clear precise words also helps us better observe how dogs think. It was very interesting to me to see that my dog Tigerlily identified her realistic looking toy squirrel as a “squirrel.” When I tell her to “get the squirrel and put it in the basket!” to my dogs, we were sharing a good joke!

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