Thursday, February 11, 2010


Since we brought Teddy into our home (garage?), I've gotten a lot of questions about shelters, the surrender process, why people give up their dogs, and animal abuse. I though I'd answer a few questions about shelters first.

What was wrong with the dog?

There can be quite a few reasons why dogs end up in a shelter. I divide them into 'understandable' reasons and 'questionable' reasons.

Some understandable reasons I've heard are:

  • An elderly owner had to move to a nursing home or needs assisted care and has nobody else to take their dog.
  • The owner dies and the rest of his family aren't in a position to keep or care for the dog.
  • The owner has to go on military duty or make a sudden move to a place that does not accept pets.
  • A family experiences severe financial hardship and can no longer adequately care for the dog.
Some questionable reasons I've heard are:

  • Starting a family/having children.
  • Claims of not having time for the dog or not being able to "give him the love he needs".
  • Allergies. I've only heard one allergy-related rescue I believe where the husband developed breathing problems and his mild allergies became more severe. In this case, the family re-homed their dog and she did not end up at a shelter.
  • Landlord threatening eviction due to excessive barking, jumping, marking.
  • The dog had an aggressive episode and the owners are afraid.
(Notice that almost all of these are predicated on a behavioral problem the owner does not know how to fix.)

Then there are a whole collection of completely ridiculous excuses. I won't go into them other than to say that I wish people would just be honest and accountable and say, "I wasn't ready for the responsibility of a dog." Or, "I didn't want to take on the commitment of finding an acceptable home myself."

What happens when a dog is surrendered to a rescue or shelter?

When a dog is surrendered to a rescue or shelter there is at least a 15-minute intake session. The owner should be prepared to provide as much information as possible regarding the animal including vaccinations, spay/neuter status, behavior, training, food, and other information that might help the rescue re-home the dog appropriately.

The owner usually signs a document covering the information given and a release form that states the shelter will make every effort to place healthy, friendly animals in new, loving homes. This is not a guarantee rehoming. The placement of an individual dog for adoption is based on an evaluation of his or her health and temperament

Once an animal is up for adoption, the time limit in which he or she can remain up for adoption depends on facility. Some have a fourteen day adoption period, some have no time limit, others are based on ongoing temperament testing as may dogs develop shelter shock and accompanying neuroses that can effect aggression response.

New owner-surrender dogs go through a pretty rough transition. Unlike strays that are usually happy to be inside, clean, warm, and feed (at least for the first few days), owner-surrender dogs often bark themselves hoarse out of stress. Most adoption wards have about 25 other animals in cages in close quarters who are barking, whining, sleeping, or banging about in their cages.

If they are at an average shelter, they may get taken out in the morning and then again at night. The volunteers have to make the choice between keeping kennels clean or getting dogs outside. Cleaning kennels always takes priority. One shelter I volunteered at had so few volunteers and so many animals that the dogs were often in their cages for days at a time. (One day I spent eight hours there and tried to walk as many dogs as I could outside for five minutes each. I got through less than half the dogs.) For an owner-surrender dog, this can be the most distressing aspect of shelter life. They've learned not to go potty inside and they certainly don't want to go in the place where they sleep and eat. Breaking their housetraining is one of the most difficult challenges for the dog and they know they broke a rule. Once they realize their family isn't coming to get them and they have soiled themselves, they begin to exhibit what animal care workers call "shelter shock".

When a dog has shelter shock, he is often overly quiet, depressed, and sometimes unresponsive. Many pace restlessly in their cages. Some dogs deteriorate dramatically in a kennel situation and it can take a period of normal home life to gradually undo the damage. Many shelter dogs begin to "fence-fight" or show other signs of barrier-aggression.

It is sad to see this happen, but it is the reality of a dog turned over to a shelter. If you or someone you know can no longer keep a dog or no longer handle the responsibility of dog ownership, please take as much time as you can to re-home your dog yourself. Advertising on websites like and local papers can be helpful, reaching out over social networking sites can help reach a wider area than just your hometown. Be honest with yourself about how much time it takes to re-home a dog. Give yourself at least six to eight weeks of active effort to re-home your dog.

Some trainers (like me) recognize the pressing need to keep dogs out of shelters and will volunteer a few sessions or references to other training programs to the new family as a bonus.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Teddy Stays

The Junkyard Dog is still in my garage.

Without an appropriate foster home to bring him to, the rescue coordinator began to scrounge for a place to keep him. She found a place for Teddy The Junkyard Dog at a boarding kennel.

Meanwhile, my friend Amber and I were working with Teddy.

Amber has worked with dogs (and cats, birds, goats, chicks, baby ducks, rabbits, and ponies) her whole life. She just has a natural connection with all animals. Her methods are all based on her instincts and her experiences. I've learned invaluable practical techniques and timing from her. She is always open to hearing new research, comparing it to what she knows, and deciding if she thinks it will work. While we may differ on some of our approaches and philosophies regarding dog training, we complement each other.

We preformed a series of temperament tests and challenges for Teddy. Like his first night here, we listened to what Teddy had to say.

He's a fast learner. He is a resource guarder. He wants to be friends with other dogs but doesn't know how. He has been hit and kicked. He is still about 18 months old. He loves belly rubs. He has never been on a walk. He was attacked by another dog at least a year ago. He has not been to a vet before yesterday. He has not had rules. He has been poked with a stick or rod or something in that shape. His collar has been at the same size for at least three months. He hasn't had a bath in at least six months, if ever. He is a people pleaser and wicked smart. He's confused, but happy here.

When I got the call that the only place to take him was to a kennel, I was torn. Teddy does not know how to live with other dogs, so this isn't the best place for him. But it is better than a kennel. In my experience, Teddy doesn't have too much time left before some of these negative learned behaviors become compulsions that will be very difficult to fix. What is the point of saving a dog's life if his life is going to be limited to a cage, shelter shock, and developing neurosis?

Teddy is staying here.

This makes things a little difficult. I have to rotate shifts between Ollie and Marshall's outside time and Teddy's. Teddy is crated in the heated garage any time he isn't outside. (Amber joked that maybe that is a good thing. Perhaps the smells of motor oil and returnable beer cans make him feel more 'at home'.) In the garage we work on resource guarding, "leave it", and crate training basics like getting in and sitting nicely while the door is being opened or shut, and snuggling and pets to help make the crate his happy place.

Sit, Teddy. Stay. At least for a little while.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Chance

Well, at least the dog in my garage has a chance.

Sunday night after the Super Bowl, I checked my email and found an urgent foster request. A dog on Death Row at a local Animal Control was slated for "The Long Walk" at 2 pm on Monday. They have a limited hold policy that doesn't give a lot of time before euthanizing.

I wasn't sure what we were getting ourselves into, I didn't know much about the dog. I volunteered to take him as a temporary emergency foster while they looked for a full-time placement.


Throughout the day I had a few conversations with a rescue volunteer named Susan* and bit by bit found out more parts of his story through her questions.

9:00 am His name is Teddy because he reminds me of a huge teddy bear. I'm not sure how he is around other dogs. Is that ok?

Sure. We'll figure it out. Just get him out of there.

2:00 pm We're at the vet and he tested positive for heartworm. Can you give him medication?

Of course. Not a problem.

2:30 pm He's filthy. I'm pretty sure Animal Control didn't give him a bath. Are you comfortable bathing a big dog?

Yeah. I am. How big? 65 pounds? That's not too big.

3:00 pm If he gets along with your dogs, I don't know about bringing him in the house. He's not neutered so he marks like crazy.

Fine. We'll plan on crate training until he's neutered. Or use belly bands.


Susan got here around 6:00. Teddy was overly excited and launched out of the car, dragging her down the driveway, finally lurching to a stop to mark my mailbox and the telephone pole.

We tried to introduce Ollie. That didn't go so well. It started out with two happy dogs, but Ollie's warning growl triggered Teddy's fight response and they were separated. Both dogs by this point were too stimulated, so I brought Ollie inside and then stood in the backyard with Susan while we watched Teddy explore the yard.

That's when I found out more of Teddy's story.

On a mission to rescue a pair of emaciated pit bulls someone had reported, Susan saw Teddy chained to an abandoned building. He was in an exceptionally bad area of Detroit. The lot next to the building appeared to be a junkyard of sorts and the "Beware of Dog" signs seemed to indicate Teddy was guarding the area. She approached the dog and his little nub of a tail wagged so hard it turned into a full body wiggle. He licked her hand and leaned his whole body against her leg, looking up at her with his big brown eyes. There was no water, no shelter, no hay for the dog to bed down in. It was 19 degrees with a wind chill of -11, all the houses were burned out and abandoned. Susan couldn't leave him there to freeze to death, so she went to the truck and got the bolt cutters. That was three weeks ago.

This is all we will ever know about Teddy for fact. Anything after this is deduced through reasoning and listening to what he tells us. In the last 18 hours, Teddy has told me someone once loved him enough to teach him to sit for a treat or meal. He also said that he's never been inside a house and going through the door is breaking a rule. (Probably because of the continuous marking.) Last night, he showed me how he is easily entertained, likes comfy things and will keep his bed clean overnight. He told me he wishes he didn't feel like he had to mark everything all the time and that it is exhausting. Oh, and his tail would like to add that Teddy really wants to do the right thing.

He has so much to say.

So sad no one listened to him before this.

*not her real name

Monday, February 8, 2010

Little Leash Work

A friend of mine recently took a very brave step. Or maybe was very brave after a bit of a shove.

My friend is married with three teenage boys. The boys have been begging for a dog for a long time. Actually, as long as I've known her. Unfortunately, she had a pretty big fear of dogs. Fortunately for her boys, she was willing to confront the fear with cuteness. Cuteness in the form of a little mutt pup named Lenny.

She's surprised me, I have to say. I thought that the boys would be the primary caretakers of the pup. When she told me they were adopting, I imagined her making a kaper chart connecting each boy's name with dog duties on a certain day. I imagined her holding a coffee mug in her hands, watching the boys play with the puppy in the living room, smiling at her family bonding over the dog from a position of observer rather than participant. Instead, she is the primary caretaker, intensely bonded complete with silly nicknames and dog voices narrating his thoughts.

Not. What. I. Expected.

With my friend in mind, I wanted to post a few additions to my Leash Work post. That post is focused mainly on young adult to adult dog leash work.

Here are some tips for littles and puppies.

Try a harness rather than collar

Some puppies like Marshall learn quickly that pulling means an icky feeling around the neck. The Marshalls of the world are the easiest to work with because they naturally want to be next to you rather than pull. They are rare. Most pups will flop around at the end of the leash, pull and yank, and seem oblivious to the fact that they are tethered to you. A harness will protect the pup from a hurt throat and neck while you have leash time. It also protects you from accidentally hurting your pup as you train yourself to resist jerking the leash as a correction. Only use a harness for leash work and walking-- don't let the dog wear it all the time.

Keep a loose leash

When we want to control something or keep it safe, we tend to instinctively hold it tighter and closer. This is a problem for leash work. Keeping a short, taut leash keeps the puppy feeling constant tension on the lead and he won't realize when he's pulling. In some working dog breeds-- breeds like huskies, mastiffs, and Bernese Mountain dogs designed to pull carts or sleds-- the tension activates the instinct to pull and will encourage pulling. If the puppy is at your left, the leash should be long enough for you to hold the loop in your right hand, hold the leash about 12 inches from the loop in your left hand, and fall loosely to puppy with enough lead for the pup to go about two feet in front of you.

Gentle Crazy Lady

The Crazy Lady method works well, but remember to be gentle. As pup passes you, turn and walk the other direction. If the pup rushes to the end of the leash, call him back to you and start walking the other way rather than turning on your heel and jerking the leash. Remember not to use the 'come' command for this. Whistle, click your tongue, or snap your fingers to get pup's attention so he sees you are changing direction.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Leash pops and corrections (tightening the leash and then releasing) should last less than half a second. They should not be hard enough to move the dog along the sidewalk or take the puppy's feet off the ground. Corrections should be within two seconds of unwanted behavior. To put this in perspective, that is four to six steps at a moderate pace. Try to use 'uh-uhn' instead of 'No!' so that 'No!' is always a command.

Make it Fun

Practice walking around the house and yard. Practice dropping the leash and then running in the opposite direction, calling the puppy in a happy voice. Give puppy a treat when he follows you and comes. Use a squeaky toy to get puppy's attention when he starts to get ahead of you. Use calm praise when puppy is following the rules and 'You Won The Lottery!' praise when you're done with your session.

Know When to Stop

Keep leash work less than ten minutes at a time if there is a lot of pulling. If puppy is overexcited and not listening after a few minutes, it's time to stop for him. Go do something fun and wear him out a little before trying again. If you feel yourself getting frustrated and find yourself losing your timing on corrections or wanting to shout or yell at the puppy, it's time to stop for you. Go do something without the pup to give yourself some time to remember why you are training in the first place: to be able to spend more time with your dog.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oooh. Scary.

This summer, I was working with a client whose dog has some fear and angry/scary issues. The owner isn't quite sure what had happened or why it had started. She left for a week and returned to her house-sitter telling her that her dog was a monster and nearly attacked another dog while they walked through the park.

Before she called me, she talked to three other trainers and breeder. The first trainer told her to use a choke chain (ew!). The second one suggested purchasing a prong collar (ew! ew!). The third trainer wanted her to sign a document stating she would only train with the trainer around and not to take the dog for a walk until the "problem was fixed" (what?). Finally, the breeder told her she may have no choice but to put the dog down.

All of this not-so-great advice based on a telephone interview with a woman who didn't know a lot about dogs other than she loved them. (No offense to my client, of course.)

Most dog trainers constantly reiterate that it is important not to ascribe human ways of understanding fear to dogs. Dogs don't develop fear and learned responses the same way we do. And when it comes to uncovering what is wrong, we can't ask probing questions and get insightful responses in the way we are accustomed to doing with our friends. Dogs don't get to sit around and talk and decompress with their friends by shopping. Or over a couple of beers and a game of pool. Or coffee. Or shopping. (Did I say that already?)

The sometimes frustrating thing is that the dog's body language that shows fear to their own species often causes fear in humans. Behaviors like lowering heads, growling, hackles raised and backs arched, or close fake-out snaps are warning signs to dogs and other animals. Dogs are saying, "Dude, I'm serious about this. Back off." We read, "I'm going to attack you any minute."

In animal minds, this message is received, processed, and the decision is made to either fight or leave. Most of the time, territory or food isn't worth the hassle. Other dog walks away. This is neither cause for alarm or remembering. It is a communication.

Female dogs with puppies have a very low tolerance for crowding and tend to skip the first few signs and go straight to snapping. In dog's experiences, this is no worse than your parent smacking you upside the back of the head for saying something rude to your cousin at the dinner table.

For humans, especially children, just seeing a dog in what we perceive as an aggressive state can be traumatizing. If I child misreads the subtler signs like shifty eyes and a very low murmur, a bite can appear to come out of no where. Dog bites, lunges, even nips that draw blood or cause bruises can cause a child to grow up to be an adult with an irrational fear of dogs.

For some reason, some trainers want to correct aggression with more aggressive response. Dominance. The dog equivalent of, "If you don't stop smacking your brother, I'm going to smack you." It may stop the behavior at the time, but it doesn't stop the cause of the behavior. I wasn't necessarily surprised by those trainers jumping to choke chains and prong collars. I was just offended by the lack of professionalism and wondered if my client had managed to find three people in a row who had an unrealized fear of dogs.