How to teach your puppy not to bite, without needing stitches

Puppy biting is a pain in more ways than one. It’s important to understand that biting and nipping are a normal, natural behaviour for puppies and that they use their mouth and teeth to learn about their world, learn about what works for them and what doesn’t and to get access to things they want. It’s also important to know that they need to be able to chew on things to help develop both their jaw and their brain.

But none of that helps when we are yelping in pain, tears pouring down our faces, trying hard not to lose our shit at our tiny little puppy who just sank their needle sharp teeth into our delicate human flesh for the 73rd time that day (seriously, do we have a puppy or a shark??). Or when our 9th pair of pants are now rendered un-wearable due to our little fluffy darling latching on every time we walk past them.

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So what can we do about it? Read on!

Firstly, we want to make sure that we are setting ourselves, and our puppy up for success.

  1. Confinement: Giving puppy free run of the house means we have very little control of their space, which is a very important factor in stopping puppy biting (and so many other problem behaviours!) Setting up an ex-penbaby gate and crate help to create a smaller environment that we can puppy proof and control.

  2. Remove Temptation: Our feet and pant legs are just the right height to be super enticing and interesting as they zoom past our puppy’s faces and mouths. Think about what it looks like when we try to get our puppy to play with a toy. What do we do? We drag the toy around in front of the on the ground  or wave the toy in their face to try to get them interested and playing with the toy. Is it any wonder that puppies attack our feet and pant legs with gusto? Now add material that billows and flows as you walk and you have a recipe for disaster (or incredible fun, from your puppy’s perspective). Don’t wear loose, flowy clothing around your puppy until they have successfully learned that we are not their toys. Wearing shoes in the house allows us to be less reactive to puppy biting at our feet, as it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s hard to not react to rows of needles being sunk into your feet, but the bigger our reaction, the more fun it can be for our puppy, so wearing shoes can help eliminate that super fun reaction. Shoes without laces are ideal, because laces are also really fun to play with!

  3. Be prepared: Whether your puppy prefers their toys or food, we can use both to help redirect our puppy’s attention onto something more appropriate for them to have in their mouths. Timing is important on this one. Bad timing can teach your puppy that anytime they want some food or their toy, they come over and sink their teeth into your foot. Be prepared. Always (and I mean always) have food or a toy on you when you are around your puppy, ready to whip out and engage them with BEFORE they have attached themselves to your heels.

  4. Know your puppy: Knowing when our puppy tends to be the bitiest means we can figure out why they are biting. Does your puppy bite the most when you walk past them? Or when you play with them? When they get the evening time zoomies, racing around the house like a lunatic? Or when you pick them up? When you try to put their harness on? Or when you try to brush them? If they are biting because they have learned that it makes you go away, that takes a different approach than if they are biting because they hate their harness, or because they’ve learned it gets them lots of attention or because they are too over aroused and need some help calming down. Understand that what you do IS going to either make the biting worse, or better.Canva - The Teeth Of The, Puppy, Dog, Belgian Shepherd Dog

Secondly, prevention is always better than cure. The more we can change what we are doing before our puppy bites us, the better.

  1. Teach them that body handling is a good thing: We often expect way too much of our puppies and throw a leash, harness and collar on them, or whip out a brush and nail clippers with no real prep work to help them get comfortable with the idea. As little puppies they don’t really have much choice in the matter or ability to say “no thank you”, but A LOT of puppy biting is caused by them getting tired of being manhandled into a harness, or picked up and being moved around just because we are bigger than them and can do it. Puppies don’t come automatically loving the equipment we need them to wear or use, nor do they come automatically loving being picked up. Take the time in the beginning to help them love their equipment, and love being picked up.

  2. Help them learn how to play: If playtime is what winds puppy up into a frenzy of teeth, we need to help them learn to regulate their emotions and play. Make your play sessions short. 30 seconds to 1 minute to start, then take a break. Get them engaging with you in this break, doing things that require focus and attention like puppy push ups, nose touches or high fives. After a few minutes, when their emotions have evened out, go back to your play session. Slowly make the play sessions longer and longer, still taking lots of breaks and helping our puppy avoid the over excitement that turns them into a T-Rex. Canva - T-Rex, Dinosaurs, Teeth, Monza Park


  3. Keep them mentally stimulated and occupied: Puppies learn very quickly that teeth on human skin elicits all kinds of fun (for them) responses. We often give them our attention when they bite us, because we are trying to get them to stop biting us. However, from their perspective this just means that biting works REALLY WELL to get your attention when you are distracted or not paying attention to them, so make sure that when you aren’t able to focus on your puppy, they are safely contained in their confinement area with a kong/bully stick/chew/toy that has their attention and is keeping them occupied. They can’t be biting you if they have a mouthful of kong. Mental stimulation is such an important, often overlooked part of puppy rearing. So many “problem behaviours” resolve themselves simply by making sure our puppies and dogs have adequate mental stimulation and enrichment. Feeding our puppy their meals out of a puzzle toy instead of a bowl, is an easy way to add some mental stimulation to their day.


  4. Make sure they are getting enough exercise: Everything I said above goes for appropriate physical exercise for puppies too. We aren’t trying to exhaust them into sleeping for 12 hours, but they need adequate play sessions and running around sessions to ensure they are getting their physical exercise needs met.


  5. Exercise their jaws: Puppies who are fed their meals out of a kong and have to lick and chew to access their food tend to be less bitey, because their jaws are getting a good workout 2-3 times a day. Well worked jaws mean less chewing and biting on everything else throughout the day.


  6. Let them bite you: Huh? Yes you read that right, we do want them learning how much pressure is appropriate on human skin, so allowing your puppy to chew and bite at your hands/fingers GENTLY is important. If the biting gets harder than you are comfortable, follow the directions below. But as long as the biting is gentle and appropriate, allow it to continue. animal-bark-black-wallpaper-2238

Lastly, we’re not perfect, we are going to miss things, our puppy is still going to bite us. Then what??

  1. Confinement: Have all of your interactions with your puppy happen in or close to a confinement area. Play with them in their ex pen, or right next to the baby gate. If they bite you, take all attention and interaction away – remove your hands and the toy from puppy’s reach, don’t talk to them, don’t look at them, don’t engage them. If they disengage from you, you can carry on playing. If they jump all over you and bite at you trying to get you to continue playing, leave their confinement area, leaving them behind. Don’t make a big deal out of it (yelping just turns you into a great, fun squeaky toy). This ties in with setting yourself up for success. Having to walk across an entire room to leave only sets up your puppy to be hanging off your pant legs the entire journey. Setting yourself up right by the exit, means you are communicating your message that “teeth equal end of fun and interaction” in a much clearer way. You leaving the room is more effective, as picking up your puppy to put them in their confinement area gives them lots of opportunity to be biting at you as you pick them up and carry them to their area.

  2. Stop moving: If your puppy has latched on to your shoe, stop moving immediately and pretend you don’t have a puppy (remember they are masters at reading body language and this includes facial expressions so that indulgent smile we give them while watching them tug on our shoes can be a reinforcer for them). Part of the fun of attacking our shoes is the continued motion and chasing of the feet as we keep moving, so removing this fun part of the game makes it less interesting for our puppies to want to play with our feet. If they learn that every time they start playing with our feet, the game stops, they learn pretty quickly that feet are boring. Once they have disengaged from your feet, you can pull out the toy/treat you have on you and redirect their attention on to that so that you can keep moving and not become the family statue in the living room because every time you move you re-engage your puppy’s sense of fun.


  3. Be consistent: Remember all of this is hard for puppy to learn and doing it once or twice or even for a week straight is not going to get you the results you want. If you want your puppy to learn that biting doesn’t work for them, you need to show them that it doesn’t work for them in ANY circumstances and then it NEVER yields fun or attention or playtime. And that biting you is boring and means end of fun and end of attention, EVERY TIME.

Also remember that yelling, smacking, punishing your puppy as well as saying “No” in a “firm” tone or grabbing their muzzle can actually make biting worse. Follow the guidelines above consistently and you’ll have a puppy who understands how to use their teeth appropriately.

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Vaccines vs socializing in puppies

One of the most common emails I get from people signing up for puppy classes is also the thing that drives me the craziest. “My vet has recommended not going to class until Fido’s 3rd set of shots, so we are going to wait until then”.

Sounds pretty standard, we’ve heard it for years. Keep our puppies safe until they are fully vaccinated, so what’s the problem? Why does this break my heart and piss me off at the same time? Why do I want to rant and rave and rage when I hear this?

Because I know what your puppy’s life is going to look like, the struggles they are going to have, the frustration and guilt you are going to feel, the tears and emotion that can sit with you for the rest of your dog’s life, because from a behavioural and socialization perspective, waiting until your puppy has had their 3rd set of shots before exposing them to the world is the absolute last thing you should be doing. Here’s why:

Early socialization period:

puppyFrom approximate 3-12/14 weeks, our puppies are in their early socialization period. This means they are wide open to learning about the world they are going to be living in. They are able to accept new things, accept change and get used to all of the different things that will comprise their daily experiences for the rest of their life. This is the time that they need to be properly socialized* to anything that they may potentially see/hear/experience in their entire lives.

Socialization window closes:

The window for the early socialization period closes around 12-14 weeks. And while after that it is still possible to socialize and expose puppies to the world, they have a harder time accepting new things, adjusting to change and rolling with the punches. And you don’t ever get that time back, you don’t ever get that same level of openness to learning. You cannot go back. A puppy’s 3rd set of shots only typically happens when they are 15 or 16 weeks old, which is already 1 month or more past their socialization window closing. As you can see this math just doesn’t work.

What does this mean?

It means that your puppy will have a harder time with new places (training classes, family members houses, grooming salons, coffee shops, parks etc.) It means that your puppy will have a harder time meeting new people, new dogs, adapting to change (which life is full of) and adjusting to things that are different from what their life looked like while they were kept home until their 3rd set of shots.

It also means that your puppy is much more likely to develop major behaviour issues like fear and aggression as an adult dog. Under socialization is one of the TOP reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters and euthanized for behaviour issues. Because fear is a very big cause of bites, a fearful and/or aggressive dog is just not likely to be adopted and not many shelters/rescues will take on a dog with these issues, for liability reasons.

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It means that even if you don’t surrender your dog, if you choose to work through the issues that have come up, that your dog is likely to have a much harder, much more stressful, much less enjoyable life. If you battle with fear/anxiety you can related to how hard life can be. How much work it can be to just get through the day some days, and that is WITH our ability to rationalize our feelings, to get help from doctors and therapists and to talk through how we feel to lessen some of it’s power. Our dogs don’t have that option. They feel what they feel and that is their existence.

Now in some cases, we can work with the dog and help them learn coping mechanisms as well as help them feel safer in a lot of situations, but we very seldom ever get to a place where a fearful or aggressive dog is 100% comfortable and in a lot of cases, it is NEVER possible to undo this damage.

So what the hell are you supposed to do? Some vets and breeders are telling you to keep your puppy away from all other dogs and people until they are 16 weeks old. Trainers and behaviourists are telling you it’s imperative to get the socializing started as young as 8 weeks. Who do you listen to?

There are a couple of questions you can ask and lots of research you can do to help you make the best decision.

Risk assessment:

Firstly, understand that nothing is without risk. There is always a chance that your puppy could catch a disease, however there is also always a chance that you could bring parvo into your house on your shoes/clothes.

What are the chances of my puppy catching a disease that could potentially kill them vs what are the chances of my adult dog being euthanized due to behaviour issues as an adult dog? According to Robert K Anderson, a veterinary behaviourist and member of both the American College of Veterinary Preventative Medicine and the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists:

“Experience and epidemiologic data support the relative safety and lack of transmission of disease in these puppy socialization classes over the past 10 years in many parts of the United States. In fact; the risk of a dog dying because of infection with distemper or parvo disease is far less than the much higher risk of a dog dying (euthanasia) because of a behavior problem.”

According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour:

“Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioural problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioural problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioural problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioural issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

Be smart and do it as safely as possible:

*When I talk about starting to socialize your puppy, it is all about doing it safely and smartly. There are things you can do to minimize the risks to your puppy in these early weeks home with you:

  1. Avoid dog parks. Don’t take your puppy to dog parks. Personally I don’t believe the majority of dogs should be at dog parks even as adult dogs, but definitely not puppies. And especially not puppies with only their first set of vaccines.
  2. Avoid meeting dogs you don’t know. Watching dogs from a distance is an important part of socializing, but adult dogs that you do not know should not be able to interact with your puppy, both from a disease and behavioural perspective.
  3. Avoid walking in your neighbourhood. Lawns, shrubs, trees and bushes are like the local bulletin boards, every dog in the neighbourhood is peeing on them. Don’t expose your puppy to that.

“Ok great, so now I know what not to do, but I still don’t know how to socialize my puppy safely”, I hear you saying. Read on, I’ve got you covered.

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  1. Join a well managed, well run puppy class and/or puppy socialization class. Not all puppy classes are created equal. You want to make sure that the person running the class has good, up to date, correct information. Puppy classes should use food rewards (science tells us this).
  2. Puppy classes should never have a choke, prong, or e-collar in sight. Puppies should be on harnesses to help save their delicate little necks and throats.
  3. Puppy socialization classes should NEVER be a big free for all play session. Lots of breaks should be taken, puppies should be closely watched and supervised so you know when to step in to help play and learning be positive and appropriate. If puppies are hiding under chairs while other puppies continually try to get at them, and the person in charge doesn’t step in immediately, take your puppy and go.
  4. If you hear the words “show your puppy who’s in charge/show them who’s alpha/dominate them” or anything similar, take your puppy and go.
  5. Puppy socials should have small, manageable numbers. Too many puppies of too varying age or size can be a recipe for disaster.
  6. Ideally you want to be learning about your puppy’s body language and why they do the things they do during play as well. The person running the socialization class should be educating you throughout the class.
  7. Location should be clean and sanitary. (This goes without saying)
  8. Take your puppy to dog friendly business (Home Depot, Rona, Canadian Tire and a lot of banks are just a few examples). Carry your puppy or have them in a cart or stroller of some kind so that their risk of coming into contact with where other dogs have been is minimized even more.                                                                                        puppy in bag
  9. Find puppies of similar size/age/play styles (again a well run puppy class is a great place for this) and set up play dates.
  10. If you know adult dogs who are safe, healthy and bullet proof with puppies (this is really important, puppies are annoying as hell and not all adult dogs can or should have to tolerate them) set up play dates with them.
  11. Allow your puppy to say NO. If they don’t want to say hi to the person who is gushing all over them/if they don’t want to get out of the car/if they don’t want to say hi to your friend’s adult dog – DON’T FORCE THEM. This is where proper socialization differs from simple exposure. If they are uncomfortable, your job is help them be comfortable, not force them to “face their fears”.

puppy adultIf you are smart about it, are making educated decisions and are managing interactions and environments closely it is completely possible to safely socialize your puppy as young as 8 or 9 weeks, after their 1st set of shots. Keeping your puppy inside, segregated from the world until 16 weeks is doing them a disservice and setting you both up to fail, in ways that can have a major impact on both your lives in the future.

 

How to pick a dog walker or daycare

Unfortunately, the dog industry is a completely unregulated one. This means there are no regulation or governing bodies in place to make sure that people meet certain standards of education, knowledge or care to look after your dogs or puppies. Anyone can wake up tomorrow, print out business cards and call themselves a daycare, dog walker or even trainer. Which is truly frightening.

Part of why it is so frightening is because there is so much misinformation out there about dogs and how to interact with, care for and teach them. It is so heartbreaking and scary to me the number of horror stories I hear from my clients about their dog walkers and daycares (and other trainers) and the things that have happened to their precious animals while in the care of said “professionals”. It is a confusing, scary, overwhelming world out there to pick someone you trust to look after your dog while you can’t be there, so I’ve put together a list of questions to ask your potential daycare and dog walker, to help you navigate through the confusion and find a place you can actually trust. (A lot of these work well to ask potential trainers too!)

Start with:
1) What is the maximum number of dogs at one time?

This is important. Our society has this weird fascination with and admiration for people handling large number of dogs at one time. While it may look neat, it is really not safe for the dogs. Even the most social of dogs don’t necessarily like to be surrounded by large groups of dogs at one time. Particularly large groups of dogs that haven’t been screened properly (see point 6 below). Just like even the friendliest person can lose patience and snap at/lash out on a bad day, so can our beloved dogs. And being constantly stimulated by large groups of other dogs can be an overwhelming, stressful experience for any dog. Social facilitation is also something to be aware of. Social facilitation is where one dog’s behaviour changes or influences another’s. In the event that a fight happens between 2 dogs, social facilitation can occur and other dogs who weren’t involved in the initial altercation, jump into the fight. Now having 4 dogs all fighting due to social facilitation is scary enough, how would anyone (no matter how many staff are there – see point 5 below) break up a fight between 10 or 20 or even 50 dogs??

For dog walkers group size is important for another reason, they are out and about interacting with the public. I refuse to walk my dogs in Richmond anymore because of the number of times I have been charged by large groups of unruly, out of control dogs with a dog walker yelling and hollering and (of course) having no effect on their dogs’ behaviour while my dogs sit at my feet wondering what the hell is going on. Your dog walker’s job is not just to exercise your dog, but to keep them and everyone else they encounter safe. The larger the group, the less likely this is to happen. And just because a large group of dogs is relatively under control when there are no distractions around, that doesn’t make it safe or ok. I care about how the dogs behave when there is a distraction or an interruption to their routine, because THAT is when accidents happen, and dogs get hurt.

You are looking for small groups, for both a dog walker and daycare 5 or 6 together at a time and someone who works hard at teaching the dogs what they want from them on every walk and every day so that in the case of distraction or surprise they can be confident that will have control over their dogs and able to keep everyone safe. I also really love the dog walkers who avoid the busy parks and off leash areas and instead take the time to hunt down smaller, lesser known areas where there is less chance of something happening.

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2) What happens if my dog does something they aren’t “supposed” to do?

Dogs are not robots. They also don’t understand what we want from them in situations, unless we clearly (and kindly) show them. Put a bunch of dogs together and a lot of the time stress and over arousal cause behaviours we don’t necessarily like or want (like humping, barking, bearing teeth, growling and even altercations). If the answer you get back involves any kind of punishment or “showing the dog who is boss” or mentions “Cesar Milan”, move along. “Dominance” based methods have been scientifically debunked so many times, so soundly and so often that it boggles my mind that it is even still a thing that is hanging on. We now understand that we need to set our dogs up to succeed so that we can reinforce the behaviours we want, because science has proven that reinforced behaviours will continue to happen. So if your dog is being set up to fail (too many dogs, groupings of dogs who don’t do well together, too much “up” time and not enough down time etc.) in a big group setting and being punished for it, not only is it incredibly unfair on our dogs but it can actually cause some pretty serious behaviour issues, both fear and frustration based, in the long term. Imagine if you were constantly being put in a situation you found stressful and overwhelming and every time you tried to say something or express how you were feeling, you were yelled at or pinned to the ground. How long would it take before frustration and/or fear caused you to lash out?

You are looking for a place that will have procedures and policies in place to help set the dogs up to succeed. Small groups, lots of breaks from play, a staff with a good understanding of body language who can read when the dogs are uncomfortable and intervene early enough to help everyone make good choices. In the event that staff do need to step in and interrupt a behaviour, it should be done without hollering and yelling, but rather with positive, happy, upbeat tones of voice and the use of food rewards and (this is the important one) cues that have already been practiced and instilled in the dogs before they need them (i.e. a good leave it, recall, collar grab). You want someone who is proactively working on these things with all their dogs so that when they are needed they can be sure the dogs will have a higher likelihood of responding.

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3) What is the routine throughout the day? (Daycare specific)

Non-stop play for 8 hours may sound like fun, but that much stimulation for a dog without breaks in between can keep them emotionally hopped up all day. Now that may mean you have an exhausted dog at the end of the day, but that isn’t a good type of tired. It’s the difference between us being tired because we had a good work out/run/swim/*insert exercise* and the type of tired we are from running on cortisol and coffee for weeks at a time.

You are looking for someone who understands this and has LOTS of breaks planned into the dogs’ day. Lots of “training” breaks, down time, crate time and nap time during the day to help your dogs regulate their excitement and arousal levels and not be running around on the equivalent of a sugar high all day.

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4) What education do your staff get?

Dogs and dog behaviour are intricate and complex and “having a dog my whole life” does not a good daycare or dog walking staff member make. Also, don’t be fooled by how long someone has been working with dogs. Doing it wrong for 15 years is still doing it wrong.

Education is important. You want a company who understands that investing in educating staff is important. And because we are looking for science-based education, continuing education is equally as important. Someone who studied something 10 years ago is not going to have the same up to date knowledge and education as someone who is continuously and consistently upgrading their knowledge. A solid understanding of dog body language as well as actual science and how dogs think and learn. If you hear the words “pack leader” or “dominance” or “Cesar Milan” at all, move along. Again, science has debunked this theory repeatedly.

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5) What is the staff per dog ratio?

The lower this number, the better. Once you have a good understanding of dogs and how they interact and how much work it can be to manage everyone to make sure they are happy, stress free and playing because they want to be rather than having been bullied into it (this happens way more than you would think), you understand how important it is for whoever is watching your dog to be able to give their full focus and attention to each dog. This gets hard with more than one dog at a time. The higher the number of dogs, the less able someone is to effectively keep an eye on everything that is going on, at once. It doesn’t matter how much experience someone has with dogs, we still all only have 2 eyes and a finite amount of attention that can be split at one time.

You want someone who understands that it’s not just about the money, it’s about the dogs and so they aren’t focusing on how many dogs they can get into a space or onto a walk and are focusing on keeping everyone safe and happy which means smaller numbers. My ideal number is 1 staff member per 5 or 6 dogs.

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6) What is your screening process for dogs?

Dogs don’t all just magically get along with other dogs. Are you BFF’s with the entire human race? Exactly, so why do we expect differently from our dogs. There are so many factors that come into play that determine whether a dog will want to interact with other dogs. Things like age, size of the dog, previous experience with other dogs in a group setting and the type of socialization the dog received as a puppy (yes this is important, how socializing was done is way more important than how many dogs your puppy met). Different breeds also have different play styles, which means that there are different characteristics of play for different breeds. Border collies, who tend to be more “hands off” in their play may not take kindly to a bully breed body-slamming into them in an attempt to get a game going.

Predatory drift is also a huge concern. Predatory drift happens when the interaction between large dog and small dog (who may have been playing beautifully together and may have played well for years even) changes from play to attack. This can be triggered by a number of things, but one of the common ones is the small dog making any kind of noise or motion that makes it look like “prey”. A squeak, yelp or squeal; or tucking tail and running low to the ground is all it can take. The larger dog’s brain slips into a place where they no longer see the small dog as their “pal” and sees them as prey and instinctually reacts as a predator would. It’s terrifying, incredibly quick (much, MUCH faster than our brains and instincts are able to respond to, to intervene) and can happen to any dog. It doesn’t matter how friendly or social your dog is. Predatory drift isn’t something that only happens with “aggressive” dogs and doesn’t make a dog a “bad” dog. It is a natural instinct.

You really want someone who understands predatory drift and takes the necessary precautions. Keeping large and small dogs (and puppies!) separate and following the 50% rule (the largest dog in the group should not be more than 50% bigger than the smallest dog in the group – so if the smallest dog is 10kg, the largest dog should only be 15kg) is something you want to ensure they are doing.
7) How are the dogs transported? (Generally dog walker specific)

Throwing a group of dogs together in the back of a van or truck is very common but unfortunately not very safe. With the driver’s attention on the road, this ups the chance of something happening. Dogs can get thrown into each other as the driver takes corners or must break suddenly. Even the most social of dog may not take to kindly to having another dog suddenly land on their head or step on their tail or paw. Dogs who may have some tension between them also get to spend the duration of the drive raising that tension by being in such close quarters, effectively unattended. If a dog gets sick or a has an accident, all the other dogs get to walk through that and spread it all over the back of the van. And most importantly, in the case of a car accident this mode of transport can be lethal. I unfortunately know too many people who have lost their dogs because they were loose in a dog walker’s van and the van got hit by another driver. Being tethered in the back to their collars doesn’t keep them any safer in an accident (imagine the damage of them hitting the end of the tether on their throat at 60km/hour). Personally, I believe the only safe way to transport dogs is individual crates.

You want someone who understands that they can’t put a price on their client dog’s life and know that taking smaller groups, so that they can ensure safe travels for everyone is 100% worth it.

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8) Are all staff First Aid Certified?

Accidents happen. Even when all precautions are taken, it is impossible to guarantee against accidents. Being prepared to deal with an emergency or an accident is imperative for someone looking after your dog. Like human first aid, canine first aid needs to be renewed every 3 years, so make sure your potential dog walker or daycare has current certification and not just something they did 10 years ago.
9) What are your emergency protocols and procedures?

People who are prepared with a plan in case of emergencies are the ones you are looking for. You want someone who will lay out their entire plan for what they will do in an emergency – what will happen to your dog in the event of an emergency with another dog? What will happen in the event of emergency with your dog? What will happen in the event of an emergency with the dog walker themselves? What will happen in the event of a fire or other emergency at the daycare facility? You want people who have already thought about and planned for all these eventualities.

An important note on this point. You also want to find out who will be held responsible in the event of something happening between your dog and another dog, or your dog and a staff member. We never like to think that our dog could ever be involved in an altercation with a dog or person, but the truth is that all dogs can bite, given the right set of circumstances. In the worst case scenario that something does happen, you want to make sure that the daycare or dog walker will take responsibility and pay for whatever vet or hospital bills come up (if any). The entire point of having someone else watch your dog while you aren’t able to is for someone else to be looking after, taking care of and beings responsible for your dog. Unfortunately some companies will try to get their clients to pay vet bills when the altercation was a direct result of the companies own policies and procedures. Should an altercation happen, you want a daycare or dog walker who takes responsibility for it (and this includes financial responsibility – that is after all one of the reasons companies have insurance). With proper screening and management, altercations shouldn’t be happening but if they do, it should be a learning experience to all involved to look at their management, policies and procedures and find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
10) What equipment do you use?

Most good daycares and dog walkers will use their own equipment with your dogs. This is because they can regularly check for wear and tear and make sure all equipment is always safe and in good condition. If the answers include choke chains, prong collars (aka starmark collars), shock collars (aka e-collars, mini educators, pet correctors) or flexi leashes (aka extenda leashes or retractable leashes), move along. These (except Flexi leashes) have been proven to cause behavioural issues because they work by causing pain and fear. Flexi leashes are dangerous because they get tangled around legs and paws and because of how thin and strong they are it is easy to cut and maim said paws and feet. Dropping a flexi leash can also spook a dog who can take off with this huge plastic contraption bouncing along the ground behind them, scaring them even more.

You are looking for companies that use harnesses, food rewards (it’s science!) and their own sturdy leashes. Not all harnesses are created equal however, so make sure you do your research into good harnesses (my recommendations are the Freedom Harness, the Balance Harness or the Perfect Fit Harness). However (this is important) you want a company that won’t leave harnesses on the dogs during play (it is too easy for a paw or jaw or tooth to get stuck and for a dog to panic and for the interaction to very quickly turn to biting and fighting to get away in panic). So, make sure they also have their own ID tags attached to your dog’s collar as well as your up to date information on your dog’s collar, just in case.

Hopefully this has given you a good starting point and some good questions to ask to help you find the best place to leave your dog. After all, they are family and we want the best for them. We want them to be comfortable and safe and genuinely having a good time.

Find what you like – and reward it!

Boone sneezes on cue. It’s adorable. It’s funny. It’s fun. It’s mostly useless. It’s an amazing party trick. And people are always impressed and I can see their estimation of me as a dog trainer go up as they watch him. Honestly though, it was one of the easiest things in the world to teach. How? I just fed him every time he sneezed.

Okay there is a little bit more to it (but not really). I know Boone sneezes a lot when he gets excited. So, I armed myself with my clicker (and my “YES” marker word for when I hadn’t anticipated his excitement) and made sure I had treats on me all the time (which most of us do anyway). Every time he got excited and sneezed, I marked it and fed him. After about a week he sneezed, got his reward, looked at me thoughtfully and offered a “by choice” sneeze.  From there it was a matter of pairing the behaviour with cue (me pretending to sneeze with a big old “atchoo”) and voila – a dog who sneezes on cue.

Aw cute. Great. Wonderful. But why are you telling me about this?? Because, so often we get caught up in how “hard” training can be, or “how much work” it can be. Now don’t get me wrong – dogs and training is a lot of work – but it can be FUN work, the kind of work that doesn’t actually feel like work.

Dogs repeat behaviours that are reinforced. We use this to our advantage when we are teaching dogs to be the well behaved companions we want them to be, but we often make things much harder than they need to be by trying to get our dog to do all these things we want them to do instead of finding what is already there, what is already happening, what they already do naturally – and reinforcing that.

What about when your puppy chooses to lie down quietly and just hang out, watching the world go by?  What about dogs who check in with us on their own on a walk, with no prompting from us? And the dog that DOESN’T bark when she hears neighbourhood dogs barking, or your neighbours coming home, or people talking as they walk by your back yard? What do you think would happen if you reinforced these behaviours heavily? YES – you’d have a puppy who settled calmly in the house, a dog who walks politely on a leash and recognizes that we are on the other end of the leash and a dog who didn’t bark at every little sound she heard.

Remember, rewards don’t always have to be in the form of food or a toy. Sometimes getting to go out the front door is more rewarding to a dog than any food you could offer them. Or allowing them to go over and say hi to that person they really love, or sniff the bush that every dog in the neighbourhood has peed on. Using things the dog finds rewarding (life rewards) can be very powerful. Paired with a behaviour the dog is already doing naturally – and you have the magic recipe!

I often hear people say “Well, my puppy doesn’t really bark that much” when we do these exercises in class. Amazing, excellent, fantastic that they don’t bark – thank them for not barking. If we get complacent with things our dogs do or don’t do (and don’t reinforce it) we can’t expect that the wonderful behaviour we love so much will stick around.

Doing some of our training like this moves us away from the “no no no” mentality and gets us out of the tunnel vision of all the “bad” things we want to “fix” with our dogs and into all of the great, wonderful, amazing things they already do.

I challenge my classes to find 5 things a week that their puppies and dogs do naturally (things that haven’t been trained by us), that they like and start reinforcing it. I’m issuing that same challenge to you. (Yes this means being a little prepared by having food easily accessible in every room of the house to set you both up for success!). I’d love to hear about the behaviours you taught by finding what was already there and rewarding it.

 

Positivity, not just for the dogs

One of the most common things I hear from dog professionals as to why they got into (or want to get into) the industry is “I don’t like people, I’d rather spend my days with dogs”. And fair enough to a certain degree. Spending your days with dogs is a pretty amazing way to spend your time in my opinion. Dogs are not judgmental, they love unconditionally and they have this way of making us feel better about ourselves just by being with them. BUT until dogs master the skills of being completely self-sufficient, of getting jobs and paying for a roof over their head, of getting their own food, of paying for their own dog walks or training classes the reality is that if we want to spend our days with dogs we have to be dealing with their people. There is no way around it. Depending on which side of the dog industry you get into will determine just how much you have to deal with people (dog walkers for example may deal less with people than dog trainers who offer classes or private training where they are working directly with the people). Make no mistake though the people are our clients, not the dogs.

And how we deal with the people determines our success at the end of the day. People choose me to work with them and their dogs for training for a multitude of reasons. They choose me because my facility is close to their home, because the timing of my classes works with their schedule, because I was the first trainer that came up in their Google search. Thankfully more and more people are choosing me because of the positive methods I use. A large percentage of my clients are referred by current or past students because they were happy. But a surprisingly large number of my clients are choosing me because they started elsewhere and did not like the way they were treated or spoken to in their interactions with other trainers. And clients speak very loudly about how they are treated, usually without saying a word but by choosing where they will spend their money, who they will talk to about the service they received and what they will say to people they know and meet who need a dog professional. We could be the best dog trainer/walker/sitter/groomer in the world but if we don’t master the skill of positive reinforcement with our human clients, our business will pay for it. Telling a client all the things they are doing “wrong” with their dog does not leave them open to hearing how to change things or do things differently (the human ego is a very fragile thing, and we all have one and they are all triggered by different things). Berating a client or potential client for not starting training earlier with their dog or puppy does not leave them feeling trusting or open towards working with you and hearing what you have to say. Lambasting other professionals online or behind their backs for methods or choices you don’t like does not leave the people who see you doing that with a very good impression of you or with a feeling that they can trust you not to do the same to them when their backs are turned. Lecturing a client on their training when you have been hired as a dog walker does not leave them feeling open to hear what you have to say and change anything (and quite possibly will have us losing the title of their dog walker as well).

As dog professionals we need to find a way to connect with our human clients. To make them feel that we are on their side and we are here to help them help their dogs (because, really isn’t that what it’s about at the end of the day?? Helping?? Making a difference, making things better for the dogs and for their people?). We need to find a way to communicate the knowledge and information we have in a kind way that leaves people open to making a change, that leaves them open to wanting to learn more, that leaves them feeling good about their experience and interaction with us. And we need to find a way to reward and celebrate when our clients get it right, to enable them to continue making the choices that allow them to get it right, until it becomes a habit for them because they are hooked on how good it feels to have such a great relationship with their dogs while having worked through and dealt with whatever issues brought them to our doorstep in the first place.

Who’s right and who’s wrong doesn’t even really play into it a lot of the time. There was a time we all knew less than we know now. There was a time some of us “knew” completely different methods and ways of thinking than we do now. There was a time we all knew nothing about dogs. And if we can get our today-selves in touch with ourselves from that time we knew nothing and remember that (most of the time) people genuinely want what is best for their pet, they just don’t have the same information and knowledge that we do. If we can remember that it is our responsibility as dog professionals to help get that information across in a way that actually hits home and doesn’t leave them feeling defensive and aggressive towards us. If we can use the EXACT same methods that we positive reinforcement professionals use to work with the dogs – communicating in a way that the dog understands, rewarding the behaviours we like, ignoring or redirecting the behaviours we don’t like. Just directed at both ends of the leash.

And it’s not just our clients that we need to be doing this with. The dog industry is hugely unregulated. There are lots of people out there doing a lot of damage (mostly unintentionally, led by ego and ignorance). But trying to change what they are doing by attacking them only makes most people dig in further to what they are already doing and close off their ears to hearing anything you have to say (regardless of how “right” or good the information may be). Think about a time where you have felt attacked (whether you were in the right or in the wrong). Were you able to just remove your emotions and focus on what was being said, or did you baton down the hatches and dig your heels in and stubbornly hold on to your belief simply because the other person was attacking you and you felt the overwhelming need to protect and defend yourself. Setting up that kind of environment never leads to anything positive, it doesn’t lead to change and it certainly doesn’t lead to us having a good relationship with the person or having a good reputation in the industry. Apart from being unregulated, the industry is also very very small and people watch and take note of how we behave and interact with others.

I struggle with the above point immensely as I have a very strong sense of injustice and needing to right a wrong. I absolutely admit and acknowledge that I don’t get it right all the time, that I stumble and I fall and I have my moments that ego and emotion takes over and I behave in a way that I really wish I hadn’t.  But I try really hard to look at it from the perspective of what change am I making or am I just pissing people off and causing myself to be angry and miserable. One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous quotes: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” comes to mind often for me here, because as much as I would LOVE to be able to control other people’s behaviour, the simple fact is I can’t. We cannot control what someone else is going to do. The absolute only thing we have any control over at all is our own behaviour, reactions and choices we make. Leading by example, being positive in our interactions with others, practicing being kind and focusing on what we can do to make a difference is the best way to make a real and lasting change. It is also a pretty good way to make a living, working with dogs (and their people).

 

Mental Health Days

It took me much longer to write this post than it usually would. It took me much longer to even get started, to even be able to sit down in front of the computer and open the window and get the thoughts from my head to paper. It took me much longer to sort through my thoughts and make sense of what I wanted to say enough to get them out of my brain and onto the screen. For the last 2 months my days have consisted of me struggling to get out of bed sometime between 11am and 1pm. Of being so exhausted, no matter how much sleep I’ve gotten. Of walking around in a mental maze, feeling like I’m stupid because I can’t seem to remember the names of things or find the words that I want to use as they swirl around in my brain in a fog, slipping through my grasp at the last moment. Filled with guilt and embarrassment and berating myself for not being able to do the things I can usually do, for not having the energy I usually do, for not being able to leap out of bed and face the day with joy and eagerness. Guilt at having to cancel consults with clients, so much guilt at some days not being able to get my dogs out for as long a walk (or even a walk) as they are used to.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this exact experience either. About 5 years ago, I was right where I am now emotionally. I battled to get out of bed, rolling out and dragging myself out of the house 10 minutes before I needed to leave to pick up all of my client dogs for our daily hike. Trying to plan the easiest route for a walk so that I would be physically able to do the walk and the dogs would get their exercise, and my clients would get what they paid for. Stumbling into the house after my hike and some days not even making it to the bed again, but collapsing on the couch until as some form of cosmic joke, late evening would roll around and instead of being tired and ready for bed, I was awake and actually had some energy. Lying awake in bed until the early hours, the fear and panic taking hold, worrying about what was wrong with me. Too scared and too tired to actually convert the thought of going to see a doctor into reality. Convincing myself that this was just a really strong bout of the depression I’d been living with since I was 19. Subsisting on take out because standing at the kitchen counter, preparing food was so far beyond what my body, mind and emotions were capable of. Not doing any kind of training at all with my dogs because if it wasn’t perfect I got swept away in a wave of anger and frustration, so doing nothing was easier than subjecting them to me at my worst. Yelling at people who stressed me out in any small way because my ability to deal with even the smallest level of stress was gone.

After 6 months of this being my daily life, I had 1 day where for whatever reason, I was able to motivate myself enough to go and see someone about this. Diagnosis: Depression (no surprise), anxiety (a little surprise) and adrenal fatigue (say what now?). I learned that the years of stress caused by running my own business, by being responsible for other people’s dogs on a daily basis, by always feeling like I needed to take on more and more (oh, Ms. Client, you’re going away last minute and would like to drop your dog off for boarding at midnight even though you don’t have a booking and I am already over booked with the number of dogs I have in my home for this weekend and I am going to be over stressed trying to manage everyone and make sure everyone stays safe and each and every dog gets the one on one attention they need which means I will get exactly zero down time – SURE, NO PROBLEM!) had flooded my body with so much cortisol (stress hormone) that my adrenal glands were no longer able to cope and function as they should.

As it turns out, everyone needs downtime. Everyone needs time off. Everyone needs a break from work and responsibility and everyday life. Everyone needs mental health days. I learned that I needed days where the only expectation I had of myself was to take care of me, to rest, to recoup, to lounge around and read and snuggle with my dogs. To go for long, leisurely strolls with them where the goal wasn’t exercise or mental stimulation but simply to be and to enjoy ourselves. To allow myself to gently and kindly replace the thoughts of everything I need to do the next day with thoughts of being right here, right now in this very moment and just enjoying it. To find ways to help distract my brain from the laundry list of things to do (because a day off is not a day off if the mind is still occupied with work). To allow myself to get completely lost in my favourite book (that wasn’t dog related). To (gasp!) actually take a vacation and spend money on myself without the fear of what would happen if an emergency arose and I had “frivolously wasted” that money on downtime and vacation time. To shift my perspective to understand that in order for me to be able to give the very best to my clients, I needed to take time for myself. I needed to learn to say no to them. I needed to learn to honour the time I needed and to understand that it didn’t make me lazy or unproductive and that my business wasn’t going to fall apart if I took 2 weeks off.

When I eventually bit the bullet and worked up enough courage to take a vacation, I agonized over how to tell my clients, worried that I’d get a backlash of frustration and anger because I wasn’t going to be there to offer the service they were paying me for, for 2 weeks. What I got instead were emails filled with support and comments like “Wow, it’s about time, you really deserve a break” and “I hope you have a fantastic time, I’m so glad you’re taking time for yourself”. I was flabbergasted. I had made myself a priority and other people thought that was a good thing. Who knew?? I took my dogs and spent two weeks at a lovely B&B, spent my days reading, napping, exploring with my dogs, sitting in the hot tub and I even went horse riding (something I hadn’t done in years and invigorated me more than I ever could have imagined). That was the start of me getting me back. Together with the treatment for adrenal fatigue, depression and anxiety, I slowly started seeing more of myself again in my days. I started feeling more of myself in my days. I started taking one weekend a month where I had no boarding dogs. Where I didn’t think about the coming week and what needed to be done, but spent it in the moment, celebrating and enjoying my own dogs and my life. I lost one client because I said no, and the amazing realization I had was that that was ok. Losing that client lowered my stress levels even more because they were replaced by another client who respected my boundaries and my down time and didn’t expect me to always say yes and was much much easier (and nicer) to deal with.


So why am I here again?? I take 2 days off a week; for the most part I succeed in not doing work related things on those days. I spend them with my dogs, I read for hours, I go for long walks in the beautiful BC country and I don’t think about work (mostly). This time around what I have learned is that being in an industry where caring is such a big part of my job, where becoming emotionally invested in the lives of the dogs that I work with is inevitable and where not being able to fix everything for them, where sometimes having to watch people work with their dogs in ways I know are damaging to the dog is something I have no control over, can require more rest and more mental health days than other industries (There’s a term for it actually: Compassion Fatigue). Learning to be detached and to realize that I can’t help everyone, that I can’t fix everything, that I can only do what people will allow me to do in terms of helping them and their dogs and to learn to focus my energy on the people who get it, the people who want my help, the people who will do the work and make the changes needed is what I need to do, for my own sanity and my own mental health. But also (so important!!) to learn to be kind to myself, to not beat myself up when a session or client doesn’t go the way I had wanted. To take the time to do the things (haircuts, exercise, eating well) that send myself a message that I am taking care of me. Because taking care of me means I am setting myself up for success to be able to take care of and help the dogs and their people out there who need my help. And because everyone, including me (including you) deserves to be taken care of.

 

How to choose a puppy class

2G4A6679-X2Getting a puppy is a really exciting thing for a lot of people. You are starting off on your journey with this little ball of fluff that is going to share your life and your home for many years to come. You meet your puppy, you find the right fit, you bring them home…and then what?

Finding a puppy class that fits your schedule and budget while using methods you are comfortable with and help you learn how to teach your puppy what you need them to learn while managing the crazy puppy stuff that comes with it can be hard. There is so much conflicting information out there, so many trainers offering the same or similar services, so many buzzwords being used that it can be a little overwhelming to find a puppy class that matches what you’re looking for. So where do you start?

Ask questions. A lot of questions. Ideally a trainers website will be able to give you the answers to a lot of questions you have, but if it doesn’t don’t be afraid to call or email and ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable in your decision. Someone who doesn’t want to answer your questions or doesn’t take the time to make sure your questions are answered sufficiently, or even tries to make you feel bad about not just trusting what they say off the bat and asking questions might be someone you want to keep moving past. Questions and transparency are important. But what questions should you ask? Here are a few to start:

  1. What is your experience/what are your credentials?                                                                   The dog industry is hugely unregulated and literally anyone can open up shop as a dog trainer with no experience or knowledge about dogs at all. Would you go to a vet or a Dr who had no training and just woke up one day and decided to be a Dr? Would you send your children to a daycare where the people looking after them had no experience with kids but had “watched a lot of shows about kids and spent a lot of time around kids”? Why would you entrust the mental and emotional wellbeing of your dog as well as your relationship with your dog to someone who didn’t have up to date, accurate information?
  2. What happens when my puppy gets something right in class?*    Unfortunately advertising “positive reinforcement or positive methods” doesn’t always mean that is what happens. Asking this question allows you to get a good feel for what will actually happen in a class. This ties in with the next question as well.IMG_20160323_202814
  3. What happens when my puppy gets something wrong in class?*                                            Any answer that involves the puppy being corrected in any way (leash pops, loud voices, yelling, “they just get a little jerk on their neck to let them know”) are red flags. These are not positive reinforcement methods and we never need to use any physical force or coercion, pain or fear to teach a dog or a puppy anything.
  4. What is your maximum class size?                                                                                              Puppy class is an exciting place for puppies: it’s new, there are other puppies there that they want to go and play with and other people that they want to go and visit. It can be a very stimulating and sometimes overwhelming place and too large a class size can make it hard to have enough space for each puppy to be able to focus and work well with you. Larger class size also equals less individual time that you and your puppy will get. The larger the class the harder it is for the trainer to stay on top of who needs what and give everyone appropriate attention and guidance.IMG_20160106_185824
  5. Is there puppy socialization time and if so, how is it managed?                                                    It is important that puppy’s experience with other dogs and puppies is positive. Not all puppies play well together, not all sizes of puppies are appropriate to play together. Puppy socialization time in class can be a wonderful way for your puppy to experience other puppies if handled well. Small playgroups of size and personality appropriate puppies together, with appropriate breaks can be wonderful. Puppy free-for-alls can do the opposite and can potentially cause a fair amount damage so should be avoided.IMG_3196
  6. What equipment do you use?                                                                                                     Classes where you are required to use any type of aversive training tool, (prong collars, choke chains, shock collars etc) no matter what story is used as to why they use them and how they don’t really hurt the puppy, should probably be avoided. Think about it for a minute, these tools are designed to work by using pain and fear, if they don’t cause pain and fear (i.e. they don’t really hurt the puppy) then they aren’t doing what they were designed to do and therefore aren’t working. So now you have a tool that isn’t working and is damaging your relationship with your dog..hmmm. Head halters, front clipping harnesses, clickers, treats, toys – these are things that can help you teach your puppy the things you need them to learn, without causing pain, fear or using force.
  7. How old must my puppy be to attend classes?                                                                    According to the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour), the primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first 3 months (12 weeks) of their life. This means that puppies should be in a class before they have received the veterinary recommended full set of shots. Waiting until after the 3rd set of shots means you miss out on vital socialization opportunity. Safe socialization, as in a well-run puppy class after their 1st set of puppy shots can help avoid potential behaviour issues developing later on due to under socialization (Behavioural issues are the number one cause of death for dogs under the age of 3, NOT infectious disease). HERE is the full article on their position with more informationIMG_20160106_185751.

Asking these questions gives you a good insight into what the classes will be like, what methods will be used and what you can expect from class but also gives you time to get a feel for the trainer. You want someone who studied and subscribes to the most up to date scientific methods built around how puppies and dogs think and learn (positive reinforcement). You want someone who is professional and kind, who will work with you and your dog and not try to make you feel bad about where you and your puppy are at, because everyone is different and everyone has different capacities. You want someone who will be open and honest with you and work with you to get the results that you want in the kindest, most positive, most fun way for both you and your dog!

These questions are just a guideline and starting point. Do you have any others you have on your list of questions to ask? We’d love to hear them.

*Thank you to the Jean Donaldson Academy for Dog Trainers for those 2 great questions!

I’m not being rude (and neither is my dog)

I consider myself a fairly friendly and personable person. I like to smile and say hello to people I pass by, I strike up conversations with people in checkout lines and elevators and I like to generally try and feel connected to other people.

Having said that, when I’m out with my dogs, either on or off leash that becomes a little harder to do. Here’s why:

I have a leash reactive dog. She is losing her eyesight and things that used to be completely mundane and normal for her are starting to startle or scare her, as we find our way through this process. So when she is on leash and cannot regulate her own space she barks, because she is scared and she wants to create distance between her and whatever it is that is scaring her (and that changes daily, depending on the time of day, the lighting, my mental and emotional state and a myriad of other factors). When I’m walking her through our complex to go and potty in the designated potty area, we can pass no people, or we can pass 10. And she may not be bothered by anyone or she may be scared of everyone. Luckily for me, we have a good relationship and a good bond and she trusts me and I use positive reinforcement – rewarding her for things she does that I like and never punishing her for things I don’t like – so when I ask for her attention in a scary situation she gives it to me. In order for this to work though, I need to be asking for her attention at the right moment, BEFORE she is in a place of feeling so scared that she is barking. Which means that I need to be really paying attention and scanning our environment for potential things that could bother her and then watching her body language VERY closely to make sure I am getting her attention on time.

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While I am trying to do all of this I am also working hard at keeping myself calm and not working myself up emotionally because I am worried someone might come around the corner and startle Piper and set her off. Now here’s the key part…I’m only human. As much as I try to stay calm and as much as I know that me being calm is a huge part of her being calm, and as much as I trust my knowledge and my skills in handling these situation – I’m not perfect. Far from it in fact, and I make mistakes, often. And when I make a mistake and Piper ends up barking and lunging at someone because of it, I feel a wave of different emotions (oh hello shame, fear, anger, embarrassment and humiliation) that aren’t really conducive to being in a positive friendly headspace. And lucky me, anger is my go to protection emotion, that comes riding to the forefront to protect me from the vulnerable, deeper level emotions I’m feeling. So there I am, dealing with a dog who is losing her mind out of fear, looking quite scary as she does it, me desperately trying to find a way out of the situation, while trying to pay enough attention to her to see when she is again able to offer me her attention, playing a map of the area I’m in, in my head to calculate which way back to our unit is less likely to bump us into someone else (because at this point her tolerance for dealing with scary things on leash is MUCH lower and she will be more likely to react to something that usually we are able to walk past with no problem because her body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline), frantically trying to keep an eye on the person Piper is reacting to, trying to keep a distance between us because a lot of the time they don’t seem to understand that we need some space and are trying to talk to us/come closer all while trying to control my shame/fear/embarrassment/humiliation that is showing up under the guise of ANGER.

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As if that wasn’t quite enough, I’m also dealing with judgement. My own judgement on how I should be handling the situation (I’m a dog trainer, I do this for a living, I should be handling this better etc). People who don’t know me’s judgement (why do you have an aggressive dog, that dog shouldn’t be allowed in public, can’t you control your dog, what a bad dog/parent etc) [As a side note, I’m pretty convinced that the only reason I don’t get more people hassling me about it is because Piper is so small and cute]. And people who do know me’s judgement (she’s a dog trainer, she does this for a living, she should be handling this better, wow if she can’t control her own dogs how does she deal with other’s etc).

Does any of the above sound like a recipe for an airy, happy, friendly interaction with the other person? So next time you are out and about and bump into someone whose dog is lunging and barking as they are desperately trying to drag the dog away or get their attention; or someone who sees you coming and runs the other way with their dog and is trying to hide behind vehicles and garbage cans; or even just someone who is intently focused on their dog and keeping their dog’s focus and attention on them and doesn’t look up and say hi or smile as they walk past you, please give them some space – go the other way, cross the street or just stop walking to give them a chance to get some distance between you and please try and find some compassion for them and try to understand that maybe they are not being rude (and neither are their dogs) and maybe they are doing the best they can at that moment, desperately trying to keep it all together to try and keep their dogs as safe as possible and make the best of a very stressful situation.

Dog Safety in Vehicles

A few weeks ago a friend of mine’s dog was tragically killed when her dog walker’s vehicle was hit by another vehicle. Radar was lying curled up on the front seat, asleep. She wasn’t seat-belted in or crated and she lost her life because of it. An article was written in which my friend urged people to secure their dogs in their vehicles as a standard practice. Some of the responses to that article inspired me to write this post.

I am pretty much eyeball deep in the dog world, and am surrounded by many people who love their dogs very dearly and who would do anything for them and spend any amount of money to help them and do spend any amount of money to make sure they are mentally enriched, physically safe and emotionally taken care of. They do everything they can think of to keep their dogs safe and happy, except confine them in a vehicle. There seems to be some sort of disconnect in our brains around the fact that dogs can be thrown and injured or even killed in an accident. What is it that makes us overlook the fact that they don’t have some miraculous ability that will keep them safe in an accident? What is it that has us strapping our children into their facing-the-right-direction-tank-of-a-carseat while our dogs sit loose in the seat next to them? From numerous conversations with people, I know it isn’t a lack of caring or a feeling that dogs somehow aren’t deserving of protection. So how do we shift this mindset to one of ensuring that our dogs, who place their very lives in our hands every time they get into a vehicle with us, are safe and secure to the best of our ability to protect them in accident?

The best of our ability also seems to be called into question a lot around securing dogs in vehicles. One of the most common responses to the above article that I saw was that “most crates and seatbelts don’t even work” and then a link to the Center for Pet Safety (who if you aren’t aware, test pet safety devices like crates and seat belt harnesses for pets). Their research does indeed show that many of the seat belt harnesses and crates on the market do not do what they should do in the event of an accident, BUT they also have a section (albeit right now a small one) where they recommend certain products that have passed the crash tests. So maybe part of our shifting our mindset looks like moving away from the “well these ones don’t work so I’m not going to try anything” to “something is better than nothing”. (Vancouver Animal Wellness veterinarian Dr Kathy Kramer is quoted in this article: “Kramer acknowledges harnesses aren’t perfect and some can even harm an animal in a crash, but she believes they’re better than nothing.”) or even  “I’m investing the time and money into a safety apparatus that is proven to help my pet, even if it involves a little more work and money on my part”.

Now, as a professional dog trainer, I love crates in vehicles for many different reasons (anxiety, reactivity and practicing calm, settled manners in the vehicle to name a few) but another common argument I hear is “A crate won’t fit in my vehicle”. I’ve helped many people fit crates they didn’t think would fit into their vehicles, all it takes is a little bit of creativity and Tetris skills in most cases. Sometimes it involves buying a smaller crate (a lot of dogs are in crates that are much too big for them anyway). If you’re struggling to fit a crate into your vehicle for your dog, please do get in touch I’d be happy to try and help.

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Coco and Blue modelling their Center for Pet Safety certified Sleepypod Clickit Sport Seatbelt Harnesses

Being an instructor for the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, previously having been a dog walker and sadly the loss of poor Radar while out with her dog walker started me thinking about the topic of professional dog walkers securing dogs in vehicle which takes on a completely different level. As an individual pet guardian I am responsible for my own dog’s lives when they get into the vehicle with me. As a dog walker that responsibility sky rockets. Dog walkers are responsible for all of their client’s dogs as well as their own, every day, from the minute they are picked up from home to the minute they are dropped off afterwards and all of the travel time that is included in there.

Securing multiple dogs safely in a vehicle has so many different benefits. Here is why I personally like crates:

  • Keeping dogs safely separated in a confined environment (crate) eliminates potential squabbles over space;
  • You can provide a Kong or other distraction to a dog safely in a crate, without worrying about other dogs trying to take it from them or squabbles over them, which allows anxious or over excited dogs to focus on something distracting, which makes for a calmer, more enjoyable car ride for everyone;
  • If a dog has an accident, it is contained to the crate and makes for easier clean up and less mess throughout the vehicle;
  • If dogs have an altercation on the walk, they can safely be separated after the walk, eliminating them going back at each other in the vehicle;
  • Dogs cannot be a safety hazard to the driver if they are in a crate, they can’t jump over seats or up on the back of seats, or get in your rear view mirror;
  • And of course: it’s safer for them. In an accident properly secured crates that have been crash tested are going to stop dogs from being projectiles, which stops them from being injured by hitting the dashboard or windshield as well as injuring you or other dogs in the vehicle and when emergency services arrive, they don’t have to worry about a frightened loose dog who could potentially bite or escape (and either disappear or be hit by a car).

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Ammo, Dennis and Monster modelling an unsafe, but unfortunately common way to travel

The most common rebuttal I have heard from dog walkers regarding crating is:

My vehicle isn’t big enough to fit in crates for all of the dogs that I walk. This is a valid concern, particularly for dog walkers who already have an established clientele and a vehicle. Again, I wonder if simply reframing how we look at the situation would help. Does it change things to ask yourself “Would I still be in business (either by choice or by circumstance) if a dog lost their life in my care in an accident because they weren’t secured in?” (This is by no means a judgement, but a very important question I feel we should all be asking as dog professionals).

With this question in our minds, does the perspective shift a little bit? Does looking into ways to either work with what you have or change to what you need become a little more of a reality?

There is the option of shopping around for a new (or new to you) vehicle. One that would allow you to safely secure your group of 6 dogs while still allowing for adequate airflow and easy accessibility. Keeping in mind that buying a vehicle can be a tax write off as well as could potentially save your business and most importantly a life, may help shift the perspective towards what can be done instead of what can’t be done.

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Let’s say buying a new (or new to you) vehicle is completely out of the question, how could you restructure things to be able to continue to use your current vehicle yet safely secure all dogs in the vehicle? What about:

  • Taking smaller groups. Marketing your groups as smaller for safety draws in a certain type of client who may be willing to pay a little more for your walks if it means their dogs are both transported in a safer manner and in a smaller group on the trails. This option allows you to whittle down group size without losing money which allows you to stay in business. How many crates or seats for seat belts can you fit in your vehicle? How much would you need to charge per dog to cover your financial costs? Is this viable for you?
  • Taking smaller dogs. Fitting 6 small/medium crates in a standard dog walking vehicle is pretty doable. Maybe your niche area in the dog walking market could be small/medium dogs. Large dogs and small dogs are a risk to walk together and many small dog owners look for small dog only care. Is this something that you would enjoy? Do you already have a large percentage of small/medium sized dogs?

I want to touch very briefly on two things that in my opinion do not count as safely securing a dog in a vehicle. Firstly: tethering a dog to the inside of the vehicle via a leash/chain/line attached to their collar. Think for a minute the impact that would have in an accident as the dog hit the end of that tether, attached by their neck, going 60km/h. And secondly, dogs being transported in any manner in the back of a pick-up truck with no canopy (even with a canopy makes me squeamish as you can’t see them/hear them/know if something is wrong).

Now what about cost? I’ve heard many people balk at the cost of harnesses ($69.95 – $89.95 USD  [approximately $98 – $125 CAD] per harness is what the Sleepypod Clickit Sport sells for and crates sell for similar prices).  For some people that is expensive, especially dog walkers who would need to be purchasing 6 or more (to keep different sizes on hand). There are a couple of different things that come to mind for me:

  1. As harsh as it may sound, is your dog’s life (or the lives of your client dogs) worth $98-$125?
  2. Could you find something to go without for a month (Starbucks, cigarettes, movies, dinners out etc) to be able to afford them? (I promise you can go right back to it the next month..except maybe cigarettes, but that’s another blog post altogether!)
  3. Is your birthday or anniversary or holiday season coming up? Could you ask your friends and family to band together and only buy you 1 gift (hint..the harness/es or crate/s) for this occasion?
  4. For professional dog walkers, could you explain why vehicle safety is so important to your clients and ask if they can provide their own dog’s safety harness?
  5. If, as a professional dog walker you end up buying all harnesses (or crates) for your clients, they could be considered a tax write off (check with you accountant).

Part of shifting a mindset is also changing habits and the only way to successfully change habits is to do it over and over again. So now that you have read this post and it is on your mind, what can you do right now to start changing that habit? Can you go online and order your harness now, before you forget and it gets relegated to the back of your mind and bottom of your to-do list? Can you pull out the crate that has been sitting in storage and secure it in your vehicle now? Can you start looking at your groups of dogs to see where you can make changes? What step can you take now to help set yourself up for success?

These are just a few ideas. If you decide that you are going to commit to ensuring dogs (whether your own or in your charge) in your vehicle are as safe as they can possibly be, there are many ways to make it work. Shifting our perspective and looking at from a “How can we do this?” standpoint opens up so many different options that we may never have seen before. As an added bonus for professional dog walkers, you might be surprised at what a great marketing tool vehicle safety focus can be for your business, and the peace of mind for both dog professionals and pet guardians alike, that you are doing everything you can possibly do to ensure your dog’s safest outcome in a worst case scenario situation is, as the ads say, priceless.

Walk your own dog…

346I have had a few articles published on Dog Walking, questions to ask potential dog walkers, questions to be able to answer as a Professional Dog Walker and without fail I always get one person who will throw out the “Walk your own dog, isn’t that why you got one!” comment. I usually try and avoid getting into discussions (particularly ones I feel could decline into argument fairly quickly) in the comments section of anything so I figured I’d write a blog post to answer that question.

There are a couple of different reasons that I can think of as to why people can’t always walk their own dogs and the need for professional dog walking comes into play.

Firstly, we live in a society that is built on people being over worked, over scheduled and constantly on the go. Not just built on, but celebrated. If you don’t have a million different things to do, and a million different places to be and at least a hundred different calls to make, there is a problem. (This phenomenon is a blog post all of its own!). The sad reality is that a lot of people simply don’t have the time to walk their dog, every day. They may manage to get out for long hikes on the weekends, but dogs need more than just weekend exercise. So should these people be denied the joy of having a dog in the family? Should dogs be denied a safe, loving home? Isn’t it a better solution all round to have both family and dog happy and content because everyone has what they need? Humans have a quiet, tired, well behaved dog to hang out with in the evenings for family time; dogs have a safe and loving home, and are treated better because they are quiet and well behaved because they got out for a great romp with their certified professional dog walker?

Secondly, unfortunately, oftentimes not enough research is done into the breed of dog and their exercise needs before making the commitment to bring the dog into our homes. Should it be different..YES! Is it likely going to happen overnight..NO! So we work with what we have. The busy family with kids soccer and hockey and swimming and piano and dance and karate and recitals and grocery shopping and work isn’t perhaps best set up to appropriately see to the needs of a herding breed puppy. Hiring a professional dog walker means that puppy gets exercise, mental stimulation and (if you’ve done your research and hired a dog walker who does things right) is grouped with play style and personality appropriate playmates for positive, well managed socialization. Again, we have a family happy to spend time with their tired, quiet, well behaved puppy and a puppy who is treated better because they aren’t jumping off the walls in frustration from lack of exercise.

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Another point to consider is that we live in an EXPENSIVE society as well. Particularly in Vancouver, BC where I live, cost of living is ridiculous. This means that we no longer have as many (if any?) families with one person home during the day, able to spend time with, train and adequately exercise the family dog. Instead we have both people working full time and running out of time to do everything else around the house that needs doing. Hiring a professional dog walker again means that both dogs and humans involved are getting their needs met and are enjoying their time together more.

I’ve heard some die hard dog people comment that people I have described above don’t have lifestyles that fit with having a dog, and in some cases, I agree. Maybe if a person’s career requires them to be working 16 hour days and weekends, as a norm, and there is no one else around to spend any time with, walk, pee, enjoy a dog’s company: a professional dog walker might not be able to fill that large a gap. But if you expect your average, every day working family (with or without kids) to rather not have a dog if they can’t walk it themselves, while the option of hiring a certified, professional dog walker is right there…well that just seems a tad unrealistic and unfair to me.

I do need to point out though that hiring a “dog walker” is not enough. There are unfortunately many people out there, who don’t understand dog body language, or use outdated methods (linked to many myths that have been debunked) in dealing with dogs. All that is needed to be a dog walker in today’s society is to have a vehicle and print out some business cards (and in some cases, not even those two!). So please, do your research carefully. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to get all of the information you feel you need. I have linked here for an article I was interviewed for on what questions to ask your potential dog walker.

I also have a list of dog*tec Dog Walking Academy certified dog walkers in and around Vancouver and The Lower Mainland listed on my website. These people have invested their time and money into continuing education, in an industry that doesn’t require it of them. That speaks volumes to me.