Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Alternate Route Available

Wrong Way road signI learned to drive in Boston. I’m proud of this fact because it means I can drive almost anywhere in the world and be unfazed by the culture of the roadways.

In Boston the use of directional lights is often an afterthought and don’t even think someone will slow down enough for you to change lanes and get to your exit in time. One must be careful, but be bold. I drive a fair bit in Puerto Rico as well and if the dented front fenders of many of the cars is an indication of anything, it’s that they’ve upped the ‘bold’ a notch. The main difference I’ve noticed between Boston and San Juan is that there seems to be less lingering animosity when one cuts someone off in San Juan. I’ve wondered whether climate has anything to do with it. But I digress, a comparison of the driving habits of New Englanders and those in the Caribbean was not my topic for the day.

I am neither proud nor embarrassed to admit that I am what I call a ‘directional dyslexic’. That some people can find their way back to locations they’ve traveled to once, or remember which direction they originally came from when leaving a shopping mall has always been a source of awe and envy for me. One of the biggest complaints I had about my years of driving around Boston was the ‘one detour sign’ rule that seemed to apply to roadworks. If a road was closed there was one obvious sign pointing drivers to a DETOUR. After that you were on your own. I was often on my own and lost.

One of the challenges dogs face when they are punished for performing inappropriate behaviors is that they, like me driving around, end up going the wrong way before stumbling on the right way. The alternate options may seem obvious to us, sit instead of jump, don’t pull rather than pull, move away rather than lunge, etc., but they may not be obvious to our dogs.

It’s helpful to show dogs the alternate routes available to them for getting what they want or need and what we want or need from them. Teaching dogs a variety of skills can help build a repertoire of behaviors we can steer our dogs toward when detours are necessary. Start at home and then take training on the road. Our dogs are often looking for the signs pointing them in the right direction. Make it easier for them to see them.


Put A Muzzle On It

black and white dog wearing a basket muzzleIn the contest of who dislikes the thought of putting a muzzle on my dog, I’d come in a close second to the dog who has to wear it. That is unless I think about the alternatives to not wearing one. A muzzle is not an excuse to put a dog into situations in which they’re inclined to bite a person or another dog, but should it occur, the muzzle will help minimize damage.

I have been getting both Sunny and I used to having him wear a muzzle. We will be spending time visiting family this summer and though in the past we have rarely run into people during our daily walks, the more often we do it, the more likely it is that we will. I decided that I’d feel less stress if he was wearing a muzzle. A big step for me was to replace the image of ‘Hannibal Lecter’ with ‘hockey player’ when I looked at him.

The Baskerville Ultra Muzzle has large spaces in the grid of the muzzle which make it easy to feed your dog treats. One problem that I ran into with it is that the holes in the strap are not easy to locate and require a bit of extra fussing when fastening it on. I attempted to remedy this with a pair of vice grips and a hot nail, poking a number of easier to find holes in the strap. It’s not a perfect solution but I think the more I use the ‘right’ hole the easier it will be to find it. I tried the additional head strap which snaps onto the top of the muzzle and reaches over his head to clip on his collar. Maybe I didn’t snug it up tight enough but as the collar slid around his neck it took the strap with it.

So far any of his attempts to remove the muzzle have failed. This is important. If a dog successfully gets the muzzle off they are more likely to continue to try in the future. I am also coming up with sequences of putting the muzzle on and taking it off that I hope will effect how Sunny ‘feels’ about it. Immediately after the muzzle goes on either the door opens and he can run in the unfenced area outside the house, or his leash comes off so he run around where in the past he hunted feral cats. The muzzle predicts good things. I take the muzzle off and bring him inside or put him back on leash. Neither of those outcomes is horrible, but being outside and off leash is better.

This is by far my favorite and the most inspiring training video I’ve seen on teaching dogs to wear a muzzle.

This recent post on the Notes From A Dog Walker blog shows how you can turn your muzzle into a treat dispenser.

The One Dimensional Dog

young boy and dog playing with a stick in the ocean

Play or a contest of dominance?

The last few weeks have left millions of dogs feeling the way I’d feel with my parents at a dinner party where other parents were talking about their kids getting ready to attend medical or law school, after they finish competing in the Olympics or return from the junior astronaut program at Cape Canaveral. The social media outlets have been rife with stories of dogs; dogs pulling unconscious owners off of train tracks, getting their families out of burning houses, grieving at gravesides, raising litters of kittens or piglets or the odd squirrel, guiding blind dogs, even winning the grand prize in Britains Got Talent show. How the heck is a pet dog suppose to live up to that?

The complete irony is that while dogs are out there being heroes, performers, parents, and damn good friends, the range and sophistication of their abilities remains unrealized by many of us, not least of all by the very people who should know better; dog trainers, or as some label themselves, rehabilitators or psychologists. When dogs behave in ways we approve of we ascribe them with emotions and behaviors as varied and rich as our own. They are selfless, loving, brave and intelligent. Should they behave in ways we do not approve of they are……dominant. Growl at a person to keep them away-dominant. Jump up on someone in greeting-dominant. Rush out the door to explore the latest scents-dominant. Pull on the leash because the world beckons-dominant. It would be funny, except that it isn’t.

When trainers and owners see dogs’ behavior through a single lens they not only do a huge disservice to the dog, it’s an insult to the animals who will sit for years at a train station waiting for their never-to-return owner to step off the car. If you’ve ever been the victim of a misinterpretation of your behavior and intentions you know how upsetting it can be. It’s a popular theme of many movies, the protagonist, accused and prosecuted for a crime they did not commit spends the next hour and a half risking their life to prove their innocence. As a kid my habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink was interpreted as a way to ‘upset my mother’. Though a therapist might disagree, my real issues were laziness and immaturity. The biggest impact of the mislabeling of my lack of dishwashing behavior was that my parents took it personally, and it was upsetting to them on a whole different level than it might have otherwise been.

Does the desire to be dominant exist in dogs? It does, to a much lesser degree than currently being touted, but the desire to cooperate, avoid conflict, play and have a friend, also exist. Misinterpreting and labeling a dog’s behavior as ‘dominant’ often causes them be treated in ways that range from merely inappropriate to downright cruel. This can lead to a further degradation in their behavior and unfortunately in the scripts of many dogs’ lives there is no last minute reprieve from the governor.


By the looks of Sunny’s half-hearted feints at whatever was in the leaf litter that had caught his attention, I was guessing snake, or toad. I am a fan of amphibians and have no grudges with reptiles so hurried over to be sure Sunny didn’t do any damage. What I found dragging itself through the leaves surprised me. I was sure it was some kind of mutant, a poor insect, its tiny wings stunted by pesticides or a cruel genetic mishap. Its body, at least 2 inches long was larva shaped, covered with a thick coat of white hair and as fat as my thumb. With three pair of maroon colored legs it clutched a brown leaf as I reached down to pick it up.

I debated what to do with it. It had a pair of perfect antennae each one shaped like a leaf that had nothing left to it but the veins. If I put it down a swarm of ants might attack it, and have dinner for months. I could try to carry it home and see what became of it but I feared I’d crush it or break something if I wasn’t paying attention. Stepping off the trail I found a small beech tree and let it crawl off my finger and onto the trunk. It clung to the bark and as its body had three strong contractions I realized what Sunny had found.

My four dogs continued up the trail, as this was our habit. One by one I heard their paws pounding on the packed dirt as they returned to find me. Sunny was the first, Finn the last. I called their names as they raced past, not looking for me off to the side in the trees. When they realized I was not going anywhere they discovered a variety of things to keep their attention. Nibbles bounded after chipmunks and squirrels rustling in the leaves, Annie and Sunny had a short squabble over who had the right to put their head into the hole being excavated in the dirt at the base of a stump, and Finn chewed first on sticks and then began pruning saplings while making noises that would make you think he’d been angry with them for years.

During visits to the cloudforest in Costa Rica I’d watched Blue Morpho butterflies emerging from their chrysallis. Their wings are initially pliable and small, but as they hang from their former home they begin to pump the fluids from their bodies into their wings. I watched as the same thing began to happen with the insect I had placed on the trunk. Its two pair of wings were a soft green, the same color as the young leaves of the tree it was on. The larger wings had a line of a deep maroon along their top edge. There were hints of spots, one on each wing.

No matter how closely I stared and tried to see the changes I could only note that they had occurred, the process was so gradual. The wings wereluna moth soon longer than the body, which was gradually shrinking. I sat for an hour watching big changes I couldn’t even see. Once I was sure that I was watching a Luna Moth becoming itself, with the dogs’ hearty approval we headed off again. We follow a loop that brings us to what remains of the orchard of an old homestead, through a pine forest and across two streams. Back at the start of the loop I decided to repeat it and see if I could find the moth again. I remembered that once their wings are fully formed they need to harden and set. I’d hoped to be able to see its first wingbeats. I was able to find it and the tendrils of the second set of wings, that had been smaller than the first, were now longer and still slightly curled and soft.

I’d never seen a Luna Moth during the day. They are rare, but not unusually found battering the lights on the porch at night. I’d certainly never seen one in their journey from pupa to adult. Not knowing how long the whole process took I decided I was satisfied with what I had been fortunate enough to see. The dogs had enjoyed the delay and the detour but were happy to turn around and head home. Two of them were unrecognizable from the dogs they were when they first came to live with me.

It was a great day to have wings.