In the dog food debate, I’m a hopeless moderate

Can I confess something?

I don’t like reading internet discussions about dog food.

I feed Silas mostly raw. I’m not the most diehard advocate for the cause, but I see the benefits. I agree that it can be a miracle for dogs with food allergies, which is why we do it. I enjoy being (mostly) in control of my dog’s diet. But I think raw feeding attracts a lot of very intense, very controlling people. And those people tend to butt in everywhere, even when they aren’t wanted. “What kind of kibble should I feed?” “Kibble is poison! Why did you even get a dog?!” I don’t like to watch it.

When we first switched to raw, I spent a lot of time looking for the “perfect” nutritional supplement and mix of foods to make his diet (you guessed it) “perfect.” I worried about the fact that one expert wanted X amount of vitamin E and another felt that Y was better.  I doodled little lists. I was in charge, dammit, and I was going to be great at this.

When our food allergy diet was finally far enough along for me to start adding in supplements, I tried a few. This is when I got hit by the ugly fact:

Silas is not going to eat that stuff.

There was a brief, shining moment where it looked like he might (finally) be okay with one multivitamin, and then that, too, fell flat. Salmon oil is the only thing he will take consistently.

At the same time, I’ve had to accept that we have a moderate but very real food availability problem. I am blessed with a year-round source of at least some turkey parts, including heart and liver. I can get pork, if I’m willing to pay for it (nobody in my house is eating factory-farmed pork unless it’s a serious emergency), but not organs. Venison is similar–for a price I can get plain ground, with or without bone, but no organs unless I wheedle them out of hunting family members.

Because we rotate proteins, this lack of liver is worrisome. I add slightly more during the times Silas is eating turkey, but too much liver at once is hard to digest. I couldn’t quite balance it out. This combination of fewer nutrient-rich organs and an inability to give supplements drove me back to (gasp! shock! horror!) feeding Silas some commercial dog food including (gasp! shock! horror!) one with grains. I don’t know that my mixed bag of foods will really save me from long-term nutritional issues, but it’s the best I can do.*

The long and the short of it is, though, that Silas’s allergies are inconvenient but apparently limited to proteins. I can’t see any clear reason why I shouldn’t let some commercial food into his diet.

And that’s why I don’t like listening to people go on and on about their elaborate supplement regimens and the twelve hours a month they spend pre-packaging ideally blended meals to put in the deep freezer. I just don’t see the benefit, except for the extreme minority of dogs who have more extensive allergies than Silas does. Neither the science nor my own experiences with a delicate flower of a dog support the hysteria.


*This is not to say that Silas’s diet is anything wild. I find it vaguely hilarious that I am half-expecting to get scolded for what is, in fact, still a very solid raw diet. On a typical day, he has Honest Kitchen (either Keen or Preference)+ground meat for breakfast, with some kind of plain bone-in meat at dinner. (Venison is ground+mix for both meals.) Once or twice a week he gets canned or freeze-dried food. There are actually a few kibbles out there now that Silas isn’t allergic to, but after all this time away he doesn’t seem to digest them very well in large amounts.

Be The Change for Animals: Heal Yourself

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I didn’t have a Blog the Change/Be the Change post lined up for today. Then the Universe kicked me in a not-subtle way, when a friend of a friend shared something on Facebook. That blog post, from a blog I don’t read and know nothing about, seemed so stunningly appropriate that I couldn’t keep it to myself.

Go read it. It’s short.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.–Thomas Merton

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It’s especially pernicious in people who work with animals.

We can wear ourselves so thin trying to save the world that, ironically, we are unable to act. We perpetuate the violence of the world on our own selves, in ways both small and tragically, devastatingly large.

If all you can do today is to take care of your own animals, do that. Do it without punishing yourself. Do it with love. Let yourself find joy in it.

The bigger fight will still be there when you come back.

 

You Can’t Reinforce Fear, Continued

Last Spring I wrote this post about how you can’t reinforce fear.

I wanted to revisit the topic today, though, because I still see this idea everywhere. Also, a conversation I had yesterday on Twitter with a blog-less reader made me want to add a few thoughts to my original post.

“Don’t give the dog a cookie while she’s scared! You’ll make her worse!”

WRONG.

Reinforcement increases behavior. Fear is not a behavior; it is an emotion. We don’t choose to have or not have our emotions, and dogs don’t have our ability to talk themselves out of their feelings. Technically, you could reinforce a fear-based behavior, like cowering, but that assumes a level of active awareness on the dog’s part that I personally haven’t seen. Could you exactly replicate the way you jump when someone slams a door behind you?

One of the reasons that the “reinforcing fear” myth is so pervasive is that there is a distantly related scientific truth. You will, absolutely and without a doubt, have the best results from counterconditioning/desensitization if the dog is what behavioral scientists call “under threshold.” That is, the ideal time to deliver your reward is to do it before the dog starts reacting to something. So, yes, once your dog is already cowering or barking, you’re behind the curve. In a perfect world, you would deliver every reward while the dog is calm or happy.

Let’s get this clear, though:

The absolutely worst thing you can do for a fearful dog is to do nothing. 

So, you make a timing mistake. Your dog sees or hears something that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you have a situation like thunder phobia where there is no “milder version” or “greater distance” to work with. If you believe that you will reinforce fear by delivering a cookie, petting, praise, or even by getting the dog out of the situation, your dog’s behavior will deteriorate. This is science.

Once your dog is reacting fearfully, he is over threshold. Not only is being over threshold bad for your dog physiologically, it will sensitize your dog to future encounters. His threshold for future fear reactions will lower. Sensitization and the lowering of thresholds is bad enough for problems like leash reactivity, but for conditions like separation anxiety or thunder phobia it can be disastrous. For any fear, once that threshold gets low enough, your only choice will be to medicate, because it is no longer possible for your dog to be safely counter-conditioned otherwise.

Now that your dog is over threshold, you have two choices: you can either do nothing, because it “reinforces fear” (bad idea), or you can deliver an admittedly sub-optimal reward. What your poorly-timed cookie/praise/petting/escape will get you is the chance that your dog will go back under that threshold. You may or may not get long-term learning out of it (whatever the books say, counter conditioning in the real world is hard, imprecise work), but at the very least you are stopping the damage.

Your frightened dog is not making a choice that you can validate or (heaven help me) punish. You are helping your dog–a creature who completely depends on you–handle a bad situation, whether he’s coping in an ideal way or not.

Control Issues

I’m a person who likes ORDER and ROUTINE. I balance my budget to the penny. I always go to the grocery store with a list. I read the care labels before I do the laundry. My husband and I once went to the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for six months.

In other words, I’m a control freak who doesn’t tolerate change well.

As I’m sure you can imagine,  Silas and I struggled a lot in his early life. There’s some of this evident in the earlier parts of the blog, but most of it had happened before then. The dog training facility we used rolled puppies straight from puppy class to Obedience I. There were our pals from puppy class, gazing adoringly at their humans, begging for instructions. And then there was Silas, at the end of his leash, checking out everything but me. That’s how he was everywhere. When he was about a year old, we were on some trails with loose dirt over rock, and he pulled me completely off my feet. I went back to the car and cried. It wasn’t that it hurt; it was because my dog didn’t seem to even know I was outside with him.

I wasn’t “in control” of his behavior. I couldn’t even influence his behavior.

It changed everything when I realized that he constantly scanned his environment, apparently not paying me any attention, because I was the one thing out there that he could count on.

I also distinctly remember reading a passage in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. McDevitt brings up that old saw–you need to be more interesting than your dog’s environment in order to get your dog’s attention, and you need your dogs attention 100% of the time. Then she says that it just isn’t true:

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interesting or rewarding to your dog. But I am relieving you of the burden of having to be the best thing in the galaxy at all times….It should be very rewarding for your dog to work with you, and I hope it always is. If it isn’t, you need to thoroughly examine your training structure and methodology. But you don’t have to take this concept to the extreme to train your dog…and you don’t have to feel like a total failure if your dog occasionally wants to act like a dog. (54)

Since then I’ve thought a lot about control. How much do we need in our relationships with our dogs? What purpose does it serve?

Silas

Force-free dog training changed the methods that we use to teach our dogs, but it hasn’t always changed the assumptions that underlie what “good dog training” looks like. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I wrote about failure. We don’t want our dogs to fail, because we still believe that failure is something bad that needs to be punished. Since we know we don’t want to punish, we feel like we can’t allow failure.

Control is on that same continuum. Traditional dog training said that your dog should be “under control” 100% of the time. Obedience trials are expressly designed to test that level of control. Will your dog stay in a cued position even when you aren’t there? Will your dog work devotedly even when there are no tangible rewards?

Perhaps ironically, positive dog trainers are often more intense about control than trainers who are willing to use punishment, because we feel like we have fewer options. I’ve seen a good bit of paranoia about dogs “self-reinforcing.” There is a real fear that our reinforcements won’t be reinforcing enough to get the behavior that we want, unless we keep the poor dog in some kind of sensory deprivation the rest of the time.

Obviously, an “out of control” dog is a problem. Dogs have sharp teeth, strong muscles, and poor judgment. Dogs need to be kept safe, from themselves and from the world, and people need to be kept safe from dogs. Also true, a dog with unlimited access to reinforcement isn’t going to make a great training partner. Why work for something you can get for free?

There is, however, a vast amount of grey area between no control and too much. Most importantly, trying to control your dog all the time is filling your world with NO, and that’s exactly what positive dog training is trying to change. Our dogs will be happy to work with us without Stockholm Syndrome. Let yourself off the hook. Sometimes it’s okay for your dog be a dog.

October Goals

We’ll be working on lots of things in October, because we’re always working on lots of things. Tricks, obedience behaviors, and sidewalk-walking will all continue apace. I’m hoping to improve Silas’s rear-end awareness, and we’re continuing our quest to have more fun.

But, we also have official goals this month.

Nineteen of them, in fact.

Dog nails that need to be cut

Yep, that’s a real-live, just-taken photograph of how horrible Silas’s nails are.

Silas hates having his nails done. Like a lot of his handling issues, we’d settled on the pragmatic–do it fast, get it done, have a party afterwards. Because Silas’s very first stress response is to stop eating, he’s tricky to counter-condition with food in the moment. But while the post-procedure party worked wonders for bath time, nail trimming was just not improving. Then, for reasons that are only reasons to an anxious dog, it started getting worse.

Now Silas has determined that he will not be put on the table, then only place he didn’t squirm too much for me to safely trim. It wouldn’t be too important, except that Silas spends very little time walking on concrete, so his nails grow quite quickly.

That means my big October goal is to counter-condition the process of nail clipping. I really hope it doesn’t take all month, but it may. Past attempts to work through this have always hit a plateau somewhat before actual clipping can happen.


 

I had this post largely drafted yesterday, when I heard that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away. I’m incapable of writing a tribute that can do her justice, but this post is very much in her spirit. Dr. Yin cared deeply about how dogs and cats felt about being handled during grooming and medical procedures, and she used her position within the veterinary community to both advocate and educate on their behalf. I can’t write her an appropriate tribute; I will try to practice one instead.

Our Favorite Treats

Last week I talked about tug toys. But what about cookies!? We use play as a big training reward, but we also use a lot of cookies.

For a long time, I’ve been in allergy dog treat mode. That is, if I read the label and Silas can actually eat it, I buy it. Finally I decided that enough is enough. I’m tired of going all over town to buy Silas’s treats. I’m tired of always feeling like we’re running out of treats, because there are five open bags with two cookies left in each one. So, I’ve started keeping bulk quantities of his favorites. I keep a large variety of treats because 1) I can and 2) I need to match any protein-based treat to Silas’s rotational diet.

In reality, we use two kinds of cookies. I like training treats to be extremely small. A wise dog trainer once told me that dogs do not care how big the bite is; they care how many they get. Also, a fast-paced training session could easily use up the majority of Silas’s daily calorie allotment if I’m using big treats. That’s why so many people use their dog’s kibble to train, but that isn’t really a luxury we have. Because tiny training cookies are more of a “gulp and move on” item, I also keep some bigger snack-sized cookies. Silas gets a snack cookie when we leave him home alone, and he usually gets a few snack cookies around 5:00. His stomach seems a little better if he gets some “filler” in the afternoon.

These are what I’m keeping on hand right now:

Silas's favorite dog treats. Honest Kitchen, Ziwipeak, Cloudstar, Orijen, Smiling Dog

Small Training Cookies: 

Honest Kitchen Quickies.

Cloud Star Itty Bitty Buddy Biscuits, Peanut Butter or Cheese & Bacon flavors. (I break these in half for training.) These are not grain free, but Silas doesn’t seem to have a problem with grains.

Silas-approved kibble, usually something I’ve gotten as a sample-sized bag. Fromm Pork and Peas, Zignature Turkey (not pictured), or Pure Vita Turkey. Because Silas doesn’t get kibble, he thinks it’s pretty good stuff.

Ziwipeak Daily Dog Venison and Fish. Doubles as higher-value training treats and the occasional backup meal.

I also dehydrate turkey liver and turkey heart into small training treats. (not pictured)

Snack-Sized Cookies: 

Primal Venison Lung Puffs.

Cloud Star Grain Free Original Buddy Biscuits, Peanut Butter or Cheddar flavor.

Honest Kitchen Beams. (not pictured)

In Betweeners: 

Orijen Wild Boar freeze dried treats. These can be broken up in a limited way for training treats, but mostly I use them for tempting Silas to eat when he’s in one of his phases or for delivering tablet-style medications.

Smiling Dog Freeze Dried Pork treats are really high value for Silas. They are simultaneously too large and too apt to reduce themselves to dust, but I keep them for special situations, like training at the park.

 

What are the best treats at your house? How many do you keep on hand?

Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.