Thursday, March 3, 2016

Meet Trixie the Blind Pit Bull with the Sweetest Face Ever

I'm a foster mom to Trixie, a sweet-as-pie blind pit bull adoptable through Sean Casey Animal Rescue. Here she is.

Photos by Rachel Cohen Maso of Brooklyn DogTime

As you can see, she's pretty damn cute. Her tongue is too long for her face so it's perpetually hanging, she's missing one eye and the other is not functional. She was found at 7 weeks old in a dumpster in Bushwick outside a building where the super is notorious for periodically dumping litters of pit bull puppies at local shelters. So whenever they get puppies from that building or nearby, the Sean Casey staff calls them "Trixie's brothers and sisters." When she was picked up, she had pneumonia, hypothermia, she was severely malnourished, and of course, completely blind. Nobody expected her to survive. But she did, thanks to her humans at the time, who nursed her back to health.

Trixie's been in boarding at an animal hospital for about a year and just came home with me on Monday. Stay tuned for updates on her journey!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Client Chronicles: Lady's Story - A Tale of Canine Separation Anxiety Disorder, Part 2

Lady's Story
A Tale of Canine Separation Anxiety Disorder
Part 2

5 Things Lady's Owners Learned About Separation Anxiety Training

One of the most common issues I treat is Separation Anxiety Disorder. What does Zen Dog Training do that’s different from other trainers? To help explain, I invited one family to share their story. 

"We've been working with Alexis for a few months now. Here are a handful of the the things we've learned: 

Crate training isn't always best. A dog may not destroy an apartment if they're locked away, but anxiety in a crate is simply anxiety redirected if training doesn't go along with the crate. A dog could develop other bad habits, including causing harm to themselves trying to get out of the crate. 

Bark collars don't help either. At least not when it comes to separation anxiety. You're still gone, and the dog is still panicked about being alone. Maybe instead of barking, she starts shredding a couch. The bark collar doesn't address the deeper issues. 

A calm space -- that's the key. A dog appropriately crate-trained should see the crate as a safe space for himself. Why not create that safe mindset around a dog's bed, with the comforting walls of a baby gate? Done right, the dog can be trained to see the bed and gate combo as a fun game -- that they play, calmly, while you leave. 

(Bonus: For a big dog it's often easier to find space for a bed + gate combo in an apartment than the right size crate). 

Body language matters. I had no idea that dogs read so much of our body language. When training Lady, Alexis instructed my husband to put her treats on the floor, and not feed her from his hand. This way Lady doesn't look to his hand for cues, but rather focuses on what she is meant to do to earn the morsels -- in this case, walk to her bed and lie down. 

Timelines vary widely. I admit I'm frustrated with this dog. A lot. I would like this anxiety problem fixed yesterday. But I would be even more frustrated if a trainer had promised us a quick fix that proved unrealistic. Every dog has a different biology and a different history, and therefore it makes sense that each dog requires a different time frame for success. I certainly appreciate this realistic approach. I'd rather go through the correct steps designed to give Lady the best chance of success than throw away time and money on promises of quick fixes that don't work or make the problem worse. Thanks to Alexis, I understand why Lady does the things she does, and why it's important for the dog's development and behavior. Finally, I feel like we're on the right track."

Stay tuned for more posts from Lady's owners sharing their story as they work with Zen Dog Training on Lady's severe separation anxiety.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Client Chronicles: Lady's Story - A Tale of Canine Separation Anxiety Disorder, Part 1

Lady's Story
A Tale of Canine Separation Anxiety Disorder
Part 1

One of the most common issues I treat is Separation Anxiety Disorder. What does Zen Dog Training do that’s different from other trainers? To help explain, I invited one family to share their story. 

"This is Lady. 

Lady came to Brooklyn from suburban Michigan. She had never walked on a leash -- at least not regularly -- before moving east. Her previous owners had her on some drugs for anxiety, but they reported turning her over to a Weimaraner rescue group due to a family health problem. Lady lived with an experienced foster family for six weeks before she was adopted out, and seemed fine.

But she hadn't really been left alone at the foster family's house. 

Michael, her new owner, drove 16 hours one way to Michigan to fetch Lady, who would be the 15th Weimaraner in his family (his father has two). 

Left alone in a Park Slope walkup, Lady would howl. She managed to open the front door and run down three flights of stairs to the landlord's basement in her panic. She cried and carved a two-inch chunk of wood out of the front door another time, so desperate was she to escape and find her people. You could hear her cries through closed windows on the third floor all the way down on the street. 

Maybe Lady cried and howled at her first home too, but maybe it didn't matter, because maybe the neighbors couldn't hear (or didn't care). Urban environments have benefits -- socialization, access to dog walkers and other services, and proximity to areas like Prospect Park. Many city dogs get more exercise then suburban ones. But shared apartment walls and cramped quarters can sometimes exacerbate problems that weren't an issue in the suburbs -- you just can't predict. 

From their previous dog, Lady's new family had a relationship with dog walkers  Rachel and Francesca at Brooklyn DogTime. Rachel quickly referred Lady to Alexis at Zen Dog Training. 

Rachel experienced Lady's panic first-hand. When they first met, Lady barked frantically and howled at the stranger for several minutes, much longer than expected. Her eyes dilated and stayed that way for the better part of a half hour, despite Rachel's best attempts to calm her. 

While Rachel knows her dogs, she also knows that separation anxiety like Lady's often needs a specialist to truly fix. This isn't just learning to sit, heel and not eat a child's toys. Anxiety training is about helping the dog reach a calm state of mind -- a much harder task."

Stay tuned for more posts from Lady's owners sharing their story as they work with Zen Dog Training on Lady's severe separation anxiety.

Friday, July 25, 2014

How to stop your puppy from barking

One of my clients has been having trouble getting their puppy to stop barking. They have tried ignoring him when he barks and rewarding him when he's quiet, but it hasn't been working. A friend of theirs suggested taking a  can of pennies and dropping it on the floor when the dog barks. They want to know what I think, so I thought I'd put my response in my blog so others could benefit.

Here's my advice:

Don't use a can of pennies.
I would not recommend using a can of pennies. Whatever you wouldn't do with a toddler, you shouldn't do with a dog, especially a young puppy. Basically, what the can of pennies does, if the best case scenario is achieved - meaning the noise was timed exactly right - the dog will learn that barking causes the feeling of a momentary heart-stopping fear of getting physically hurt. I won't go into all the reasons why using these types of methods in training is harmful and risky, but I will say that it usually swaps out one problem for one or several much bigger problems. In the case of barking, what if the puppy was barking because he had to go outside? Or if he wanted to warn you of danger? Or of anything else that you actually might want him to be able to communicate to you? Then you're not only teaching him not to bark, but not to tell you when he wants to go outside, or not to alert you when he things something is really wrong or when he's distressed. If he's barking for attention or some other reason, whatever is in his mind or environment at the time of the can dropping is going to be something he's going to avoid.

Why isn't the no-punishment approach working?
Anyway, enough warnings. What do they do about it, then? Their neighbors are angry and they are pulling their hair out.  And they've tried the force-free approach of ignoring him when he barks and rewarding quiet, which, like I said before, is not working. This is because changing behavior is a 2-pronged endeavor, and doing one or the other simply will not work 90% of the time. What these particular dog owners are doing is the first prong or component - they are attempting to install an alternative behavior. They're removing the reward for barking and rewarding for quiet instead. Great. However, they are not doing the other component, which is equally crucial. They are not preventing the unwanted behavior from occurring in the first place, thereby addressing the cause of the behavior.

So what should they do?
They should use the 2-pronged approach to behavior change - they should 1. prevent the unwanted behavior and 2. install an alternative behavior. Here's how:

1. Prevent the unwanted behavior
Pups bark for three reasons, usually. For attention or to communicate, to alert to something in the environment, or out of boredom. So to prevent these from happening, we want to do the following:
  • For attention: continue ignoring barking for attention. 
  • Use white noise and visual blockers to keep the pup from hearing every little noise and seeing squirrels, leaves and other things moving around outside. Wax paper is a good way to block a window but still let in light.
  • Give your pup the equivalent of a really good novel to get out all his mental energy. This takes creativity - I have yet to meet a puppy who is challenged and interested enough in a toy you just pick up off the shelf at petco. Use food-dispensing toys in creative ways - with interesting scents like fish oil or coconut oil - that are intriguing to your pup. Find ways to get him thinking and working and he'll have less mental energy left over to bark. This is major. If you do nothing else, do this, and you will probably see a change. In addition, this is necessary to success. You can do all the training in the world, but if your dog isn't getting enough mental stimulation, it won't work.
  • Make sure your pup is getting enough physical exercise and jaw exercise. Running and chewing.
2. Install an alternative behavior
We don't want our pups to bark, but we can't expect them to never want to get our attention or alert us to things. They depend on us for survival, so it is unreasonable to simply remove all their tools for initiating any communication with us as their caretakers. So here's what to do:
  • Reward for quiet in situations where he would usually bark. Alone in his pen, when a squirrel runs by, when someone walks up the stairs, etc. Also, reward when he stops barking - meaning, when he skips a bark, or seems to think to himself, "Is it possible this human won't respond to my barking?" Then you want say, "YES, that's exactly it, I don't respond to barking, I respond to you standing there and thinking about how to get my attention."
  • Train auto-behaviors. These are behaviors that your dog can offer without being asked to get your attention or to get a reward. For example, you can train your dog to "sit to say please." 
SO, that's my advice. Tried and true, and no risky punishment training involved. I'd love to hear other peoples' stories, ideas and comments - do you have any great ideas for setting up sensory barriers to stop your dog from alerting to every little thing? Or how to keep your dog busy for long periods of time? My favorite is a squirt of whipped cream in a Kong Genius. I'd love to hear your ideas.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What we're missing about the seductiveness of punishment training

There's a lot of discussion about the ills of punishment training among modern dog trainers. We know that there are many pitfalls - major emotional and behavioral fallout. So why do people still do it? Why is it so "seductive?" (Kathy Sdao used this word in her recent webinar entitled 'The Seductiveness of Shock'). 

One of the most commonly cited reasons is the temptation of a quick fix - a magic solution that, although ugly, we can turn a blind eye to for a moment and go on to a sunnier future. Since our dogs can't talk, we can apply a swift leash correction and pretend it doesn't really hurt, that a minute later it never really happened, and the result is a happy and harmonious existence of man and his best friend. (Obviously it doesn't just go away, your dog doesn't forget, and the emotional memory cannot but have negative effects - but that's another article entirely).

The other reason punishment continues in dog training is the unbelievable power of authority in human society. If someone of authority says to do something, many people will do it, even if it causes great pain to another living thing. It's this faith that we have in people who presumably have more knowledge than us to look out for the greater good.

But there's something we're missing about the seductiveness of punishment training, and I think it's at the crux of the average dog owner's reluctance to abandon punishment.  People tend to see behavior change more in terms of discipline than choice. Discipline, for the purposes of this post, means preventing yourself from doing something you want to do. That's how we operate, generally. Dieting means not eating that donut and eating a salad instead, even though we really want the donut. Quitting smoking means not smoking. Conditioning, however, means wanting to do something different. We worry that if we don't make a conscious effort to NOT do something, we may still do it. But maybe that's why we smoke, why we have trouble with diets, and why we stay in unhappy relationships when we shouldn't. If discipline is such an effective way of changing behavior, why is it so hard, even if we are getting punished every day for our lack of it? It's because it doesn't work on its own. The absence of a behavior is NOT something that truly registers with us. Being rewarded for NOT eating too many calories is ok, but what if we could instead truly crave non-fattening food just as much as the fried goodness, red meat and cheese? That's what reward-based dog training is all about - creating healthy behavior, not just creating a vacuum. And that's why it works better than punishment training. According to punishment-based trainers, our dogs should see a squirrel, feel that desire to chase it, but just bottle it up and not do it. They should have discipline. But that bottled up energy - it doesn't disappear. Reward-based trainers instead focus on getting the dog to see a squirrel and feel a desire to do something else. Get hungry and want to eat a salad, not a cheeseburger. So much better than wanting that cheeseburger and foaming at the mouth outside of Five Guys. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Zen Dog on Channel 11 News

Well, they're pretty off-base with the Buddhism emphasis - we're definitely not trying to get your pets to meditate. But they certainly got the positivity part right! See the clip here.