Quiet dogs get treats

One of my clients, Muffin, used to bark a lot on our walks.  She’d bark when trucks (UPS or FedEx) drove by.  Or she’d bark when approaching larger dogs.  I knew it was fear based but some times she frightened people.  When the postal carrier shouted at me in Chinese, I knew I had to take swift action.

So first I consulted with her mom.  I wanted to make her aware of the problem and get any suggestions she might have.  Then I went to Ms. Google who also provided some good advice.  And the combination worked.

Now when my little Muffin is about to bark (and I can usually tell), I say, “uh uh no bark.” And the instant she stops she gets a “good girl” and treat.  That way she’s being rewarded for appropriate behavior. Clicker training would also be ideal in this situation.  And instead of tightening up on the leash, which makes her more apprehensive, I relax my grip.

Hard to believe but within days, Muffin was a more confident and calmer dog.  She still barks when she sees her boyfriend but now we reserve it for special occasions.

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Pet therapy

In a recent conversation with my brother, I learned how his German Shorthaired Pointer had become a therapy dog.  As I mulled it over, one of my clients — who is a very special dog — came to mind.  Raymond is a 14-year old Labrador Retriever.  He is very affectionate, highly sociable with strangers (and children), calm in most situations, gentle and well mannered. When I raised the subject with his owner, she said, “Great idea.  Let me know how I can help.”

I began the process by calling the local senior center.   No good. They require that any dog working in their facility be certified as a therapy dog.   I was reluctant to put Ray through a lengthy process due to his advanced age. Besides, after walking him for seven years, I knew he’d be perfect for the job.

To my relief, few skilled nursing/rehab facilities in the area had specific qualifications.  Of course, they would want to meet Ray. But I knew he’d pass any interview process with flying colors. And just as I anticipated, he greeted every resident enthusiastically and calmly, allowing individuals in wheelchairs to pet him.  One family member even inquired whether Ray could pay a one-on-one visit to her brother’s room.

I can’t say whether this is typical, but Ray seemed to know what his role was the moment we arrived. He definitely has the makings of a great therapy dog.  When our time was up, and we walked back to my car, I said, “Buddy, did you have a good time?”   “Woof,” he barked.  And while I can’t speak for him, I know I felt better.

For more information about what it means to be a therapy dog, check out this helpful link:


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Howling to beat the band

I was walking one of my clients, a small black and white dog, when we ran into a special friend of hers, a contractor who lives in the neighborhood. I’m not sure what precipitated their duet, but he started to howl.  And not to be outdone, little Chloe joined in.

One expert explained howling as a  response to certain sounds or “triggers” deeply embedded in the dog’s ancestral makeup. But howling may have also functioned like a relay system carrying long-distance messages from one canid to another.

Everyone has his favorite story to share. Some dogs howl when they hear high pitched noises or shrill sounds — sirens, musical instruments, or crooning, and many dogs (according to YouTube) appreciate the musical intro to “Law and Order.”  And just like barking, howling can be contagious. When one dog in the neighborhood starts, others may chime in.

While some advice columnists attribute howling to separation anxiety, fear or pain, I think my little canine friend is just expressing something very primal and joyful that harkens back to her ancestors.

That said, if your dog’s howling is attracting unwarranted attention and complaints from neighbors, here are some helpful links:



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If only dogs could talk…

I was recently sitting on the subway across from a man who was staring at me intently. His gaze made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few minutes, I got up and moved to another seat.

Body language speaks volumes and our dogs (and cats) constantly pick up visual cues from us (and other animals) in order to predict our intention towards them. Patricia McConnell, PhD begins The Other End of the Leash with a chilling tale of how body language — even subtle changes in position and eye contact — can make a profound difference in how dogs respond to us.   If you want real insight into how dogs think, this is a superb primer from a well known behaviorist.

And with the new year upon us, what better time to revisit dog-human communication and behavior.  Some of my favorite books include:

  • The Well-Adjusted Dog: 7 Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend by Dr. Nicholas Dodman
  • The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs by Dr. Nicholas Dodman
  • If Only They Could Speak: Stories about Pets and Their People by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.
  • As you can probably tell, I’m a big Dodman fan. I interviewed him a few times when I was writing articles for the Tufts Veterinary School newsletter and he’s really top notch.  He not only brings a veterinary background to bear, but is director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.  That’s a mouthful, I know, but that’s his correct title.

And last but not least:

  • How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication by Stanley Coren; and
  • Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Ramond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.

All of these are excellent resources and will help you to better understand our four-footed friends.

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That smells funny, I’m not going to eat it.

OK, so you’ve just been to your veterinarian and s/he wants kitty to switch to wet food in order to lose weight.  (We’ll cover the merits of dry versus wet another time).  But right now you’re faced with what seems like a daunting challenge.

Because most cats react to new foods with the “one sniff and walk way disdain,” here’s a simple plan.  Introduce the new food gradually. The theory is to get kitty used to its scent.  Place a dollop of the new food next to her regular kibble. And to entice her, you might even add a little something she relishes such as tuna juice.  Now that will get a girl interested.

Then very gradually over the next week, so as not to upset her GI tract, mix the new food with the old in small increments.  By the end of 6-7 days, she should be acclimated to her new diet. But be patient. Don’t remove the old food completely until she’s on board.  Hunger strikes are especially dangerous for overweight cats, who can develop life-threatening liver problems if deprived of protein for more than 36 hours.

And remember your long-term goals.  If your vet has recommended this switch, it’s to prolong your cat’s life and to prevent serious conditions such as diabetes.  Good luck and bon appetite!

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Hold the tinsel, please!

From a cat’s point of view, what could be more alluring than tinsel? After all, it’s shiny and easy to bat around. However, when swallowed it can cause choking and do serious damage to the intestinal tract.

Below is a list of other holiday hazards to avoid:

  • Christmas tree decorations
  • Open votives and let’s not forget illuminated menorah candles
  • Decorative holiday lights and wiring
  • Mistletoe and holly
  • Liquid potpourri
  • Stagnant tree water
  • Christmas trees are fun to climb so make sure yours is anchored down

In case your cat gets into trouble, here’s some sound advice from an expert: http://thepreventivevet.tumblr.com/post/14017054377/the-12-pet-hazards-of-christmas-day-1

And if time has run out and you forgot to buy kitty a gift this year, no guilt is required.  Your little one(s) will be perfectly happy with a paper bag.  It’s safe and guaranteed to provide hours of contented play.

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No-noes for Fido this holiday season

While it may be tempting to reward your dog with table scraps this holiday season, especially when he’s being begging at the table (oops being charming), an ounce of prevention is better than a midnight trip to the vet.

Below is a list of foods to avoid as well as helpful links:

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When kitty is ruling the roost

At a holiday party, a pleasant older couple regaled me with tales of kitty.  Their 4-year old male cat controlled the house:  waking them every morning at 5 for his breakfast, growling when he didn’t get his way, or biting when he wanted out. The poor chap asked me whether it was appropriate to chastise his cat with “Bad kitty!”  I positively cracked up and said, “You know, I think you’re way beyond that.”

How do you know if your cat is displaying dominant behavior?  S/he’s the the one who pounces on the newspaper you’re reading, demands your undivided attention, nips at your toes when you’re still snuggled in bed, lunges at feet as you pass by.   While this may be part of your cat’s personality,  many experts believe it becomes reinforced over time.

What to do?

  • Avoid confrontational situations with your cat.  Because you know something, you’re not going to win.
  • Never yell or spank your cat.  That will only make matters worse.
  • Adopt a policy of tough love. Kitty has to work for food, affection and treats.
  • Get to know your cat’s body language.  But more about that next time.
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Wet welcome … or how to eliminate submissive urination

I was recently hired to walk an eight-pound Yorkie.  She’s sweet and affectionate as they come.  But every day I’d come in the door, she’d wet the floor.  Dogs use their body language to communicate their intentions and many display submissive behavior to prevent aggression.  Remember when your dog was playing in the park and suddenly rolled over on its back.  What that posture is really signaling to other dogs is, “I’m a puppy, I’m a puppy … please don’t hurt me.”

So, when Tammy tinkled on the floor, I knew enough not to scold her.  That would have only exacerbated the situation. And the second time it happened, I turned to my good friend Ms. Google.  The advice seemed sound so I tried it out.

Next day when I came in, I ignored Tammy.  Yes, it was tempting to pet her but I resisted the urge. Instead, I stood in an upright position, looked down and blinked (signaling that I’m submissive), and avoided petting her head.  In canine lingo, reaching over a dog can be very threatening and be perceived as a challenge.

Once we got outdoors, I gave her my unlimited affection.  “Good job,” I said.

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Snacks for cats

It’s only natural for us to want to reward our cats with yummy treats.  Of course, it’s always a good idea to check with your veterinarian first.  But here’s the rule of thumb.  Treats SHOULD NOT exceed ten percent of kitty’s daily caloric intake.   For instance, the can of turkey and giblets dinner on my desk right now, contains 187 calories. That was a shocker to me because I expected more.  While that information was not listed on the can, it is readily available by calling the manufacturer’s 800-number.

Also,  keep in mind that many kitty snacks are not “nutritionally balanced or complete” unless certified as such by the AAFCO stamp of approval.  So, if you’d like to incorporate those into your cat’s diet, look for that rating.

Junk food aside, some some human foods are downright dangerous to your cat’s health.  They include:

  • alcohol
  • chicken bones
  • coffee and caffeinated teas
  • raw egg whites
  • onions chives and garlic
  • grapes and raisins
  • mushrooms
  • salt in large quantities
  • Xylitol
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