Sunday, March 11, 2012

Babies Vs. Pets (Round One)

It has been about two months since Matt and I found out that we were going to be parents to an actual human being. The news was exciting and we were happy, but like many women who experience that kind of shock, I cried immediately. However, my tears had nothing to do with worries that we might not be good parents or that we couldn't handle the situation. My initial panic was brought on by the irrational thought that being pregnant would make me suddenly dislike my pets. All of a sudden, I was one of those people.

This was something I had thought about in the past, even before I considered that I might actually want a baby. For so many years I had watched one person after another abandon or become completely cold to their pet the moment a baby entered the picture. I even heard more than one person say that "Once you have a baby, your dog just becomes a dog." That saying never sat well with me and deeply irritates me to this day.

I remember being teary-eyed and looking down at my sweet Obi-Wan and goofy Cricket... I even looked over to Sugar, our foster dog at the time, and cried even harder. What if everyone was right? What if, like them, I suddenly stopped caring very much for my pets? I knew I loved them and I didn't feel that anything could change that but what if pregnancy, with all of its insane physical and hormonal changes, could cause some crazy chemical imbalance in the brain that forced a woman to abandon all nurturing feelings she once had for her beloved pets?? If that were the case I could never be me again. The thought, irrational or not, was terrifying.

Despite the comforting words and reassurance from Matt that I would always be me and that nothing was going to happen to our dogs, it has taken quite some time for me to calm down about this. That isn't something that I like to admit but is something I find myself having to constantly face. If you've ever been in my shoes you might have experienced having people you barely know (or some who actually know you fairly well) imply that your dogs/pets have no place in your life anymore. No one has actually come out and stated this to me (who would really be brave enough to insult me in that fashion while I'm a crazy pregnant lady?) but it has certainly been implied.

Of course, I am still me. Since finding out the news of being pregnant I've taken on more dog training clients, taken in a blind border collie foster puppy, and spent this entire weekend by the side of my poor Obi-Wan who just endured surgery to have his blind eye removed. I am somewhere around 14 weeks along and so far the hormonal voices in my head haven't instructed me to dump anyone at the shelter just yet. Their only demands thus far have been for popsicles, grilled cheese, fruit snacks, and cold turkey sandwiches that I'm not allowed to have.

As suggested by a friend, I will try to document some of the things that we do to prepare our four-legged family for the presence of a two-legged addition. Hopefully, this will be helpful to others and we can fight society's message that having a baby somehow means it's perfectly ok to suddenly abandon your dogs or cats. I don't believe it's normal for an animal lover to suddenly stop loving their animals. That said, I don't claim to know exactly what it's like to be a mother. I fully expect this to be a challenging, difficult road. I also expect to love and value my human child even more than I love my pets. But I guess that's the point that I'm trying to make: It's not about loving them equally; I honestly don't believe that is realistic. If you absolutely had to choose between the two you would easily choose your child. However, I also don't believe that this should be misconstrued or misrepresented as diminished love for your pet. Instead, it should be regarded as a testament to just how much a human being can love their own flesh and blood. I have a great deal of love and respect for my pets and will always do everything I can for them. Knowing that the love I'll have for my child is going to be even stronger than this gives me great hope that I will be a good mother.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's Your Choice.

As a volunteer for our local (amazing) shelter, I recently attended an adoption event at a large area pet store. While walking one of the shelter dogs and working on some really simple leash exercises, I jokingly said, "Alright, let's make good choices!" Oddly enough, even though I knew the dog had no idea what I was talking about, I wasn't really kidding.

"Shiloh" the shelter dog
learning the beginnings of
impulse control.
The reality is that anytime I have a shelter dog (or any dog) on the other end of my leash, I'm very much focused on the choices he's making versus the ones that I want him to make. Is he lunging at other dogs? Is he pulling me around like crazy? Even though dogs are usually very impulsive creatures, they have to make choices just as we do. Our responsibility is to teach them to consciously make the appropriate decision even under challenging (exciting) circumstances. Trust me, you want a dog to stop and think before he acts. Acting purely on impulse tends to be bad for anyone, human or pet!

So, how do you want to accomplish this? How can you possibly keep your crazy, unruly dog from making bad decisions when he has no apparent interest in doing what you ask?

Some of you might choose the route of using an ultimatum. Either Fluffy does what you ask or else. The "or else" is usually a jerk on the leash, smack on the bottom, or other aversive measure. If Fluffy truly knows the command that you're asking of her, then those corrections could be enough to make her do what you want.

Then again, let's say your reprimand is a smack on the bottom but Fluffy is in a brand new place and really excitable around other dogs. There are at least a few other dogs around and Fluffy is losing her cool every two seconds. In turn, you lose your cool and after yelling "NO" several times you resort to smacking her rear end. Depending on her personality, it might actually work. However, in this scenario, Fluffy is a feisty dog with a real zest for life (i.e. "attitude") and continues yapping, lunging, and carrying on in the most embarrassing way imaginable.

So, now what?

Even Obi practices tolerance with the
foster puppy, Kota.
If you're like most people I've observed, you'll stand over Fluffy relentlessly repeating commands as you grow more and more frustrated. In order for your punishment (be it spanking, leash jerks, etc.) to work you will obviously have to be more harsh with them. Meanwhile, Fluffy continues to get more worked up by the other dogs and excitement around her. This is usually the point when I see a very angry and mortified dog owner reach down and physically turn the dog around, grab its muzzle, snap the leash, or otherwise maneuver the animal with some level of force. This is also a common scenario during which I've observed a nip from the dog who is now completely overstimulated. Once your dog reaches this state of anxiety/excitement, it isn't learning. Chances are, if you've let it go this far you're not really using your brain very much either.

The alternative to this, and what most people (and even trainers) do not focus on, is to teach your dog the correct way to behave. Physically pushing, shoving, or jerking your dog around doesn't really accomplish this. In your mind you're trying to teach her what not to do, but that seldom gets you very far when you've laid no foundation on teaching impulse control or working under distractions.

What if your dog truly obeyed when you told her to "leave it" and knew that doing so was a great decision? Sure, it takes a little time and practice, but it's a fantastic tool when taught properly.* The same goes for any obedience command; they exist for a reason and if you haven't trained your dog to the point where those commands are actually useful, then you've got a lot more work ahead of you. Just because your dog has mastered commands at home or in the back yard doesn't mean she's acquired the impulse control and expertise she needs to exercise those lessons in a busy park or store. Practice! It is an unfortunate fact that there is no easy way around this unless you're ok with upping the ante on the amount of fear or pain you're comfortable exerting upon your pet. Some of the more timid dogs will respond to those things quickly but the more outgoing animals may very well require a real beating before your punishment outweighs their desire to explore, play with, or greet things in a very stimulating environment. I doubt any of us really want to take things that far and if you do, then it's time to find a new home for your dog (not to mention, some mental help and anger management for yourself).

Using rewards doesn't make you weak. Rewarding your dog doesn't magically take away any "respect" that he has for you or cause him to think that you're a two-legged joke. What rewards will do is quickly create a thinking animal. I strongly prefer to see a sparkle in a dog's eyes as it tries to figure out how to obtain his reward than a cringe, jump, or cower when he suddenly worries that he's going to get in trouble for getting something wrong. Dogs trained solely with reward-based methods and true understanding of dog behavior will guess at things and work for you. They will actually make up new "tricks" when trying to figure out what you want. When working on teaching Obi to pick up a toy and hold it, he offered many interesting behaviors including picking up the toy, walking backwards, then sitting against a wall! Sometimes they can over-think things.

Foster puppies make for great
Rewards can be anything from a treat, to a toy, to a life-based reward (such as allowing your leashed dog to explore a grassy area because he chose not to pull you there). Believe it or not, when you train a dog with rewards and teach him the right thing to do rather than focusing completely on what he's doing wrong, he will learn to immediately listen to you and to do so habitually. He will defer to your clear direction whether or not you have treats. Proper training results in your dog learning that he can communicate with you and that you're able to communicate back. Frustration, pain, and fear will eventually lead to aggression and a dog who no longer has the confidence to stop and think about what you're asking. On the other hand, a confident, thinking dog can go on to accomplish nearly anything that his owner/trainer desires.

*More to come on how to teach and proof the "leave it" cue.