It’s not the dog, it’s the people!

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How often do we hear those words?

“It’s not the dog, it’s the people!”

I have to admit I really take offence when I hear it and I’m not shy about speaking up when I’m faced with someone who says it so off-the-cuff.

When we bring a dog into our lives, we do so with the best of intentions. We do so because we love dogs, we want companionship, we crave unconditional love, we want to excel at a sport or activity, because we long to care for something or someone. We visualize our lives with said dog – family barbeques with our lovely dog running with the kids, playing fetch or running through a sprinkler, hiking with our dog, dog parks, play groups, daycare, training classes, sports like agility or flyball, long road trips with Fido’s head out the window, tongue flapping in the wind, lazy days at the beach, tossing a stick into the water only to have it retrieved and barked at for more.

Most people don’t adopt a dog with the hopes of having a dog who barks and lunges at other dogs, people, children, cars, small animals, cyclists and joggers. We don’t dream of adopting a dog whose separation anxiety is so bad that they claw through our walls, barking all day, causing us to get eviction notices. It’s not often we check off the “most desired behaviour challenges” on that checklist at the breeder or shelter. Most of these behaviours are founded in fear and anxiety and not always because the dog had a traumatic event relating to one of these triggers.

We often hear clients tell us that their new rescue is afraid of men with beards and it’s likely that the dog was abused by a man with a beard. We trainers beg to differ. I would say that more often than not, it’s because the dog had little to no opportunity to build a positive association with men and beards; it’s likely that they were simply not socialized together and now this trigger is ‘new and scary’.

Fear doesn’t need a reason. Sometimes it just is.

Whether we adopt an eight week old puppy from the most spectacular breeder or a four year old rescue dog from the streets of Mexico or a nine year old dog from a hoarding situation, the bottom line is that it’s not always the people who have caused the issues. Genetics and environment always play a part in behaviour so let’s not be so quick to judge the person holding the leash. They’re doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.

I remember the looks I used to get walking Parker down the street two weeks after I adopted him from the SPCA where he had his hind leg amputated. He had been starved and was a wobbly bone-rack, hauling it down the street, barking and lunging at dogs.

People assumed it was me who was so cruel, when I was the one who pulled him from that shelter and gave him soft beds, home cooked food, four walks a day, so much love. If someone had ever said to me “it’s not the dog, it’s the YOU”, I would have crumpled into a ball on the floor.

So before you speak those words, please rethink it and give the person a compassionate word of support and remember that even if they’re making mistakes in training, creating negative associations, even using outdated methods and tools; they’re doing the best they can with the knowledge they have and they truly have the dog’s best interest at heart. 

The world doesn’t need more judgment; that’s for sure.

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Moving. With a geriatric dog. Who has isolation distress.

There is really no other title this blog post could possibly have. I sit here at my breakfast bar wearing my winter boots and coat, randomly picking up my keys and putting them down. All my students who are working through separation anxiety and isolation distress are likely doing the same thing this weekend. We could start a support group. 

Yesterday, Mandog and I moved back to Toronto into a condo where it’s just the two of us. Granted, we lived in this building from 2004 – 2010 so it’s familiar to him and I both. I should also mention that timeframe is when he suffered from isolation distress the most in his whole life. Hopefully it’s not the building…! 

Walk to door, pick up keys, walk back to stool and sit down, resume typing.

What is Isolation Distress? It’s an anxiety-disorder that occurs in dogs (or any animal, including people) who suffer from anxiety when left alone for a period of time. 

Separation Anxiety is similar, however it occurs in dogs (animals, people) who suffer from anxiety when separated from a specific person (or other animal). 

Parker (affectionately known as “Mandog”) has always suffered from isolation distress. His has been the most severe case I’ve seen to date and has gradually gotten much better over the years. We went through years of barking, howling, whining, pacing, tearing doorframes, baseboards, clawing doors, clawing through concrete, drywall, tearing screen doors and windows, jumping out of windows, locking himself in the bathroom, turning on the tub, explosive diarrhea, you name it. I would come home to a bloodbath from all the destruction. 

Take off coat and boots, open door, close door, resume typing. 

Neighbour complaints, eviction notices, repairs after repairs, sick days from corporate jobs, annoyed bosses, citronella spray collars, longer lunchbreaks, shock collar, exhaustion, depression, guilt, it nearly broke us. Then I got properly educated and became a force-free trainer, ditching the collars for a clicker and smarts.  

Go to door, pick up keys, touch door handle, put down keys, resume typing. 

When we moved in yesterday and he was a bit tired out so he seemed to be settling in quite nicely. I have an Adaptil plug-in that seems to be helping a bit. I would normally be playing Through a Dog’s Ear but sadly Mandog lost his hearing this past year so the music would just be calming me down instead. I’ve booked off a few days from work to help him settle in and work through this process with him before actually leaving him. This means my groceries will be delivered and he’ll come with me on dog-friendly errands for now. 

Put on hat and scarf, pick up keys, sit down, resume typing. 

 Earlier today I noticed he was shadowing me; following me around, laying outside the bathroom door while I showered, watching me like a hawk as I moved from desk to kitchen to bedroom to desk. If I was out of sight for longer than 1-2 minutes he would get up to move closer to me. You see…dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress are seeking comfort and predictability. They cannot be rushed in this process so we have to take baby steps to build up their tolerance to being alone or without us. 

Put on coat and boots, pick up purse and keys, sit down, resume typing. 

Today I checked his baseline – I put on my coat, boots, hat, mitts, picked up my purse and keys, left, locking the door behind me, and walked down the hall and around the corner. I waited 3 minutes and then returned. I had video-recorded this so that I could see at what point he was becoming stressed but I didn’t really need to. The second I put my boots on and pick up my keys, he perks up and starts tongue-flicking. There. He is stressed. He whined for about 8 seconds when I was down the hall and then lay on the mat in the hall where he can watch the door. He wasn’t settled – he was alert and waiting. Had I left him for longer than 20 minutes that time, his anxiety would have built up and he would have started howling and barking. 

Take off coat and boots, jingle keys, sit down, resume typing. 

So today I will spend writing client notes and catching up on email and voicemail while desensitizing my departure cues. What does that mean? All the cues that mean “Mama is leaving” (such as picking up my purse, putting on my coat, putting on my boots, picking up my keys, even going toward the front door, and doing my makeup) now have to mean something different. So I pick up my keys and watch TV. I put on my coat and boots and work on my computer. I pick up my purse and make dinner. I do this so many times over and over again until he couldn’t care less what I’m doing. 

Put on coat and boots, pick up keys, open door, step into corridor, come back in, close door, resume typing. 

You can see how things are progressing. I have been doing this since 8:30am today and in between I return calls, answer emails, clean my new condo, make meals, unpack boxes, and look forward to leaving Mandog alone in the apartment long enough to go for dinner and a movie. In the same night. It’ll happen soon – this is just our refresher course since we’ve been doing it for almost 11 years now. 

It’s now 6:00pm and I have progressed even further than just stepping out into the corridor at this point. I’m doing graduated departures, which means that I (get winterized every time,) leave for 2 seconds, come back (de-winterize and settle every time). Then I leave for 5 seconds and come back. Then 10 seconds. Then 4 seconds. Then 8 seconds. 14 seconds. 5 seconds. 20 seconds. 10 seconds. 30 seconds. 40 seconds. 10 seconds. Change departures cues again (pick up keys, make a tea. Put on boots, go to washroom…etc…). Then I leave again for 1 minute. Then 2 minutes. and so on and so forth. 

I make it random but consistently increasing the time with easy breaks in between and longer breaks too (for both of us because man….is this tedious and dizzying!) 

I set up my Skype on my MacBook and my iPhone, started a video call and left to go to the convenience store for a snack. He didn’t show a single sign of stress as I laced up my boots, put on my coat, opened the door. I watched the whole way to the store and back. As soon as I was 10 feet from the door, he got up and went to his bed (great sign!) on the other side of the condo, away from the door. He stayed there, relaxing until I came back. His greeting at the door was happy but nowhere near frantic. 12 minutes on the button. 

I settled for 5 minutes at my computer and then put on my coat, boots, etc…again and called him to go for a walk. He was excited but not frantic.

Success. It’s never a straight line and it’s never a short line. It is a long, squiggly line that gets tangled in itself until it reaches its destination. 

I’m going to give it a rest tonight, order in some Thai and watch BBC’s Sherlock. Tomorrow, we begin again. We’ll get there. 

Stay tuned…

Let’s get personal.


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Recently I’ve been having some skin problems – dry skin, mostly. Since November. On my face – mostly my eye lids. What does this have to do with dog training? Well. A lot. Hang in there.

I’ve seen my doctor four times since November and each time we try something different. Moisturizing creams to start, then 0.5% hydrocortisone cream, then a prescription hydrocortisone cream, then a ban on makeup for two weeks, then *only* Clinique cleansing products (goodbye, bank account), then only hypoallergenic mineral makeup, then back to a makeup ban, finally, a dermatologist.

Throughout this whole process I’m frequenting the snazzy sections of department stores, talking to “experts” of all kinds. Clinique experts, Dior experts, estheticians, makeup artists, MAC experts, Elizabeth Arden experts. I didn’t even know half these brands existed! I’m surrounded by makeup and cleansers, toners, washes, foaming this and that, exfoliating yadda-yadda, wax-bases, anti-wax bases, you name it. I have no idea what they’re talking about and I’m sure I have that dim smile on my face as I nod with feigned interest.

By the end of it, I’ve bought almost $400 worth of products and so far, nothing is working. I’m at the end of my rope. I go to Sephora because three people have now told me that they’re *really* the experts. I walk in and a salesperson approaches me and we talk about my issues. She nods knowingly and leads me to a rack of products that look so soothing and lovely. She proceeds to smear product after product on my face with Q-tips, cotton pads, her hands. My face feels clean and fresh. I feel like a complete idiot.

I tell her what I’ve been using so far and she acts shocked. “That won’t moisturize your skin! You can’t use that product – you have to use something that doesn’t have water! Here, let me show you…” and she trails off on a tangent about this product that is “all-natural” (aren’t they all?) and made from grape seed oil and it will solve all the world’s problems. A tiny tube for $200.

I take the names down of each of the products and thank her for her time. I’ll get right on that. As soon as I win the lottery and can spend $200 a week on face cream. In the meantime I will suffer through this charming cracked eye lid and looking like a drawn, exhausted dog trainer with no makeup on.

I leave the mall, over-stimulated and a bit shaky. I call my fellow dog trainer friend and come pretty close to crying.

“Now I know exactly how clients feel. They go from trainer to trainer, expert to expert, salesperson to salesperson. They get conflicting information each and every time. By the end of it, they want what is best for their dog but they don’t want to spend $800 experimenting. They just want the truth. This is exhausting and I give up.”

Where I am with my dry skin is exactly where most people are with their dogs. At a critical point where they know something’s gotta give, but have no way of knowing who is telling the truth. How do you make a decision?

“Go with your gut.” – easy to say. Part of my gut tells me that putting any more creams and chemicals on my face is not the way to go, so I’m going to do a full detox and cleanse and see if I can change this from the inside out. I’ll work with a naturopathic doctor and a dietician and see if that helps. Another part of my gut says “screw this – slather on hydrocortisone and fix this once and for all and WHO CARES ABOUT THE 18 PAGES OF SIDE EFFECTS!!!”. Another part of my gut says “I’m hungry so where’s that chocolate bar?”. What does my gut know?

When it comes to dog-raising, it’s not easy. Our guts gets confused easily. Everything sounds accurate and it’s so easy to believe that a dog is behaving a certain way because of dominance, just like it’s easy to believe that the moisturizer my doctor recommended is supposed to hydrate my skin and fix this problem.

I wish I had some wise advice to close off this post, but I don’t. I’m an expert and I can teach you what I know, but who knows. Maybe I’m an Elizabeth Arden expert with only Elizabeth Arden training. All the more reason for me to continue studying and relying on *science* so that I can bring you the most accurate, unbiased information possible without causing you to go broke or give up.

I’m always telling my clients to question everything. No matter who the expert is – you have to use your common sense, do your research, learn what you can so that YOU become your own expert. Nobody knows you or your dog better than you do.

Go on, question away. I’ll be right there with you.