The New Game

Silas can’t have a lot of things to chew because he’s allergic to them. The ones he’s not allergic to are expensive, so they’re special occasion only. We’ve mostly filled this gap with cardboard boxes. Silas loves tearing up a good box, and he’s always very careful not to eat the pieces.

He has now used the cardboard boxes to invent a new game. Problem is, I don’t understand it. At all.

He will get a little scrap of tape off the box, then bring it to me, proudly. “Look what I’ve got!” If I act like I don’t notice it, he will push it further out of his mouth. “Don’t you see? I brought you this!”

Then he will act like he wants me to play.

This is where things get murky. If I reach up to take the tape, or the little piece of cardboard, or whatever it is, he shies away. Not like he’s playing–it seems more like a legitimate “I’m really uncomfortable with you reaching for my mouth to take this thing.” (He is not a resource guarder, so I have no qualms about respecting his rules.)

If I hold out my hand, he puts his face in it and play bows. “Why aren’t you playing tug with this? I’m trying to give it to you. See?!” If I can grab it at this stage, he’ll play tug, but who wants to play tug with a wet piece of packing tape?

I thought, “Okay, he wants to trade this for a treat.” So I ask him to give it to me, he spits it out, he gets his treat. Then he looks puzzled, finds a new cardboard, and starts the whole thing over again.

I’m perfectly happy to practice “give” with him; it’s one of his weaker commands. (He’s 100% consistent with it IF he can see the treat.) I just can’t help the feeling that I am somehow disappointing him.

Words I Hate

I’ve gotten to the point where a few words, in the context of dog training, can send me into a gibbering rage. There are the usual suspects–alpha, for instance. It’s cousin “leader” is starting to bug me, too, because it’s so often a handy disguise for “alpha,” leading in to a prettied up version of the same old garbage.

My real enemies, though are “Always” and “Never.”

Consistency is a wonderful thing in dog training. If you want your dog to learn the rules, the rules need to be applied in the same way all the time. If you want Rusty to sit for his dinner dish, you need to ask him for it every time you feed him.

Routine is also a wonderful thing. Dogs, especially dogs like Silas, benefit from knowing what to expect. We wake up, we go downstairs, we go outside, we have breakfast, we sit on the couch together, we play some ball, we go back to sleep. (That last one isn’t technically a “we.” Not most days, anyway.)

But there’s a fine line between having a “consistent routine” that comforts your dog and having a “rigid schedule” that doesn’t allow for spontaneity. There is no room in a rigid schedule for joy. No time for your dog to do happy things, like race downstairs to find his ball before he even uses the bathroom.

“Always” and “Never” also crush down the differences between dogs, and don’t give owners options to do things the way that suits their dog the best. While surely some owners do things that are indisputably “wrong,” not every dog needs to be trained to do a particular thing. Not every dog can benefit from the same tactics, even. I was beside myself with tiny Silas because, to give a silly example, all the experts demanded that I feed him from a food toy, not a dish. Silas hated to eat. If I’d made it hard for him, he would never have done it. Letting him go hungry just sent him into the yard to eat rocks.

What really gets to me, though, is that dogs are capable of making incredibly fine distinctions between situations. Incredibly. If you’ve ever had a fearful or reactive dog, you’ve probably spent some time scratching your head, wondering how on earth this trip to the park or that person could possibly have been different from last time. Your dog knows the difference, though. Acting exactly the same in every situation can be useful to a degree. Again, consistency is important. But don’t make your fearful dog miserable because you believe that flexibility is wrong.

This morning’s rant is brought to you by a training book I’m reading and Judgy Lady With Perfect Border Collie at the park yesterday. (She didn’t say anything, but boy did she look it.) Silas and I have a deal–when we leave the park, he gets to run like a crazy dog across the parking lot back to the car. Silas adores running like a crazy dog. So, I figure I have three benefits: we’re actually getting back to the car (I’ve had to carry him out of many a park), Silas is not getting the world’s highest value reinforcement (away from the scary things) for pulling on his leash while we walk, and we’re associating an awesome thing with a really scary place. But to the casual observer, I am letting my dog run amok. He is doing easily half a dozen things he isn’t “supposed” to do. This is not a polite, trotting by my side run. This is a “thank goodness he isn’t big enough to pull me over” mad dash. But for my crazy, anxious dog, inventing our own no-rules rule works. “Never” let your dog pull and “Always” be in control of your dog on walks doesn’t.

Think about what your dog really needs. Make your own rules. Then be prepared to break those, too.

Silly Dog Videos

I’m an overthinker, as you’ve seen. Things have been a little heavy around here lately.

As an antidote, I’ll give you some silly videos I shot a few days ago, of Silas working on his problem solving. In the first set, Silas is finding treats that I hid around the room, under boxes and things. There’s a break in the video because he ran off to chew one of the props, and there is a missing first video that was mostly him figuring out what was going on. I love that he clearly prefers the plastic cups to the treats. In the second set, Silas is doing his Nina Ottosson toy, and it’s just split for the length. I like how you can see him really figure it out in the second video. Apologies for the quality; I’m a novice camera person with very novice level equipment. I’m also hosting these at Flickr, which is emphatically not great with video.

If you want a better view, click on through to Flickr and you can see them larger.

After the Craze

I mentioned yesterday that last week was a little tough around here. New random fears, intensification of some old fears, escalation of the few actively bad behaviors that Silas has, food issues. Blah, all around. But since Friday or so, things have been fantastic.

The progressive parents I know say things like, “Oh, Junior is having a rough time lately. I think he’s about to enter a new developmental stage.” While “stages” for dogs Silas’s age aren’t a well established psychological fact, I’m starting to wonder.

Fear is, for good or ill, not as linear as other dog training behaviors. A dozen things can factor in at any one moment. Subtle differences in context can make a huge difference for a dog. Is there just a scary thing? Or a scary thing and a weird smell? Or a scary thing and an uncomfortable stomach? So, I wouldn’t expect to see a sharp extinction pattern with fear like you sometimes see with a routine offered behavior.

After our bad week, though, we’re getting some very compelling evidence that there has been a leap forward of sorts. I give you Exhibit A:


We’ve had this chair Silas’s whole life. He has never, ever liked it. It’s one of those IKEA chairs that flexes, and he is not a fan of the moving furniture. He won’t even sit with a person in that chair. Sunday night when my husband got up to help with dinner, Silas hopped right up, curled up with the pillow, and started taking a nap.

Monday he was willing to go out on the sidewalk, in the middle of the day. Monday afternoon we went to the park (a different park than the one he’s been afraid of lately), where he walked better on his leash than he ever has. Exhibit B:


And that was from the second we got across the scary, scary road. Silas doesn’t always pull on his leash, but he is always as far ahead as he can possibly get. We spent at least half of the walk with an actual “U” in the leash, not just no tension.

One last gratuitous park photo:


He jumped directly onto that log. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but it’s easily waist high or more on me. I stepped back to the end of the leash to get the photo, and you still can’t really see the ground. Hard to believe that a baby gate keeps him out of the bathroom, isn’t it? (Poor baby; I forgot his water, and they closed a lot of the trails in the park so we had to go the long way. He was way too hot by this, which was at the end of our walk.)

I’m definitely going to take it easy on him the next few days, after the sidewalk and the park in one day. I can’t count on this being a “phase” rather than a “freak event.” But I can hope.


Years ago I worked with someone who was in graduate school to become a therapist. She was so nice to talk to, because she always understood what you were feeling and cared. She said things like, “Oh, poor dear, I see why you feel that way! That must be so hard.”

Which is why I’m always confused by my reaction when someone comments that Silas is a difficult dog. Don’t we want people to affirm our feelings? I mean, he is a difficult dog. I have a whole blog mostly devoted to how difficult he is. For goodness’ sake, I can’t even feed him without drama. He’s afraid of the park. Not the dog park–the people park. When it’s not crowded. Without fail, though, I always say to those sympathetic people, “Oh, no, he’s really great most of the time.”

I started drafting this post on Friday, which was the unpleasant icing on a fairly miserable week of cake. Difficult, shall we say. I had quite a rant typed in here, about all the terrible things he had done, almost knocking me down the stairs, being afraid of the park, herding my husband. In typical Silas fashion, though, he was an angel all weekend afterwards, taking all the sting out of my rant.

Which is why, I think, I always rush to his defense. He always gives me hope, and he always has hope himself. He is always willing to try again. Every time I open the car door, he happily jumps in, even when he is scared of almost every place we go. For all of the “I can’t do thats” there’s a corollary “but I can do this!” Sometimes it’s hard to find, and sometimes it’s a smaller step than you could imagine, but it’s there. The way forward is never easy, not with this dog, but there is always a way. Difficult, yes, but worthwhile.


Interactive Toys

We’ve been branching out lately with our interactive toys. We’ve had regular Kongs from day one, and I bought Silas the Kong  “Goodie Bone” when he was neutered.

Kong Goodie Bone

The Goodie Bone is a weird toy, I have to say. I usually just fill it like a regular Kong, since Silas can’t eat a lot of biscuit-style dog treats. Then it takes him forever to get the filling out.

We also have the Kong “Wobbler” toy, which is a new favorite. Silas is a very paw-oriented dog, and he loves to knock over the Wobbler.


The great thing about the Wobbler is that it will hold larger treats. I really struggle to find things that will fit into something like a Buster Cube. Silas doesn’t eat kibble and can’t eat a lot of the treats out there. His special treats tend to be on the large side, unfortunately. The Wobbler will hold something like pieces of freeze-dried liver.

In my attempt to get something challenging enough to keep my smart guy busy for a few minutes, I bought one of the famed Nina Ottosson toys last week. Ours is the “Tornado.”

Nina Ottosson Tornado

Nina Ottosson Tornado

The objective of the “Tornado” is for the dog to spin the various levels independently of each other to uncover the treats. Alas, it took Silas two minutes to solve the “Tornado.” It came with some modifications that let you make it harder; I’ll have to try those next time. The nice thing about this toy is that it’s quite large. If your dog is an over-enthusiastic kibble eater of a medium breed, you could probably hide an entire meal in there.

Last, but not least, we have the classic “Hide-A-Squirrel.”


My silly dog gets the squirrels out as quickly as possible, then carries the stump around like it is the coolest toy ever. Bonus points if he gets his head entirely in the stump.

I have to say, though, Silas’s favorite interactive toy is some treats under a plastic cup. Actually, his favorite toy would be just the plastic cup, if I weren’t such a meanie and would give one to him.

Are you a fan of interactive toys? What’s your favorite?


I’ll confess; I’m a terribly judgmental person. It’s not a tendency I like in myself. It’s not something that is reflected in the way I vote, or the way I live my life. I try to keep it out of my conversations. But my internal dialogue is filled with critical observations about the people around me.

It’s amazing to me how much having the dog helps me work on it. These days, while I still criticize other dog owners in my head, nine times out of ten I automatically think of my own equivalent “failure.”

Thursday in PetSmart someone let their little Yorkie run right up to me. It was on an unlocked retractable leash, and the owner was on the phone trying to get the right dog food. I thought, “Idiot. What if I’d had my dog with me?” Then I thought, “Oh, yeah. My dog can’t come to PetSmart.” (He’s actually okay in the store, but not great. I try not to take him with me unless I have to.)

Friday at the park we met an off-leash dog. I’ve never had any trouble with off-leash dogs at this particular park; that’s the main reason we go there. Silas did fantastic–he was on his long line, so I gave him plenty of slack. We had a nice, polite mutual bottom sniffing, then I called Silas to “go this way!” and he came right along. Once the “crisis” was past, I was getting all self-righteous about leashes and how that owner wasn’t paying attention to her dog. Then I thought, “Well, my dog is on his leash because otherwise he would be who knows where. At least her dog was perfectly well behaved.”

Dogs: excellent servers of humble pie.

Book Review: Scaredy Dog! by Ali Brown

Scaredy Dog: Understanding and Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog

I’ll preface this review with the fact that I’m not really looking for what this book has to offer. Silas is not a reactive dog per se. Which isn’t denial on my part, or at least not entirely. I would say Silas is on the cusp of reactivity. For me, a truly reactive dog has a more universal pattern than Silas does.

So, I read books like this one looking for advice on reducing his general nervousness and predicting his behavior. I recognize how easy it would be for Silas to become a reactive dog, and I want to intervene in that process as early as possible.

I’m starting to get frustrated with what I’m coming to consider the core assumptions of advice about reactivity. These are 1) that your dog is willing or able to look to you for guidance in times of stress and 2) that your dog will take treats in times of stress. What makes me so frustrated about this is that a trained monkey could “solve” reactivity if this was true. You put dog in mildly stressful situation, dog checks in with you, dog gets a treat, dog learns scary thing is okay. Practice it enough, and you’re all done. Since lots and lots of serious, educated dog owners struggle with reactivity, it’s obvious that these assumptions aren’t true for a lot of us.

Sure enough, this book also hinges on those assumptions. I laughed and laughed and laughed when she told me not to let my dog out of the car at the park until he was able to check in with me for a treat. Instead, I should put him back in the car. Ali Brown obviously has no idea how hard I had to work to get poor terrified Silas up to the point that he would get out of the car without me picking him up and putting him on the ground. Putting him back in would be like the best reward ever. Way better than the chance at a measly turkey heart that he’s too stressed to eat anyway.

I’m willing to give any book like this some credit, though, because every dog reacts differently to different things. There’s no way one book can consider every scenario. And I do think that Brown’s treatment of canine stress is more nuanced than what I’ve seen. She recommends, for instance, that you give your dog a stress-free period, away from his triggers, before you begin any counterconditioning. This lets his stress hormones dissipate and gives him the best possible chance of success. I love this logic, although I struggle to apply it: Silas stresses about 26 things a day, on days when we don’t ever leave the house.

I also loved the fact that Brown discussed the relationship between food sensitivities and your dog’s behavior. Although it’s hard to remember the details of his past behavior now, I do remember being amazed at how much Silas calmed down when we got his stomach issues under control.

Bottom line: A good chunk of this book is a nice, solid, counterconditioning program. While I didn’t find it particularly useful in our circumstances, you might. The surrounding discussion of stress and the triggers for reactivity put this one ahead of its peers.

Fear Itself

One of the crazy-making things about a fearful dog is that the fear can wax and wane in a way that seems quite random. Take our week:

Monday morning: a helicopter landed across the street to air-lift some construction materials to the roof of a high-rise building. Silas did not react, at all, until my staring out the window convinced him that something might be up. Oops.

Monday night: We tried to do our walk out the garage, and Silas refused to even go out onto the patio. Once I clipped his leash on, he got into the chair and trembled. This, after five or six successful walks.

Tuesday afternoon: the landscapers came. I forgot it was Tuesday. Silas curled up on my lap and listened to them go by. No barking. They came back by a second time for some reason. That time he got mildly upset, so we did some more of our training. Overall, though, I think our counter-conditioning is really starting to work.

Tuesday evening: The weather was perfect, so we went to the park. So did everybody else in town, something we should have thought about beforehand. We had to park at the far end of the parking lot, which meant a long walk through the cars to the park. Then the park itself was pretty busy. They’ve also cut down some of the trees that blocked the view of a highway. Usually when Silas and I go to the park, it’s during the daytime and the interior of the park is pretty quiet. With the park busy, Silas was scared. He refused to go far enough into the park to get away from the things that were scaring him, and almost immediately he started making a beeline back for the car. The only good thing is that I carried his favorite dehydrated turkey hearts, and he was able to eat a few.

Wednesday morning we had to go to the vet for Silas’s vaccinations. He started shaking the second the car pulled out of the driveway. He shook all the way to the vet. He walked into the office like a champ, but then he got into my lap and shook the whole time we waited for our turn. He did okay, but not great, during the exam. Since he needed shots, he had to get onto the table, which he wasn’t wild about. He was apparently terrified to get on the scale. He was so desperate to get out of the office that I could barely check out.

So, ups and downs. And, to be honest, mostly downs. Some of them make sense–he had to stay at the vet for a bath last time, he’s always been afraid of cars, etc–but some of them don’t. Such is life with my fearful dog.

Food Allergies: A Portrait in Customer Service

Silas had a bad reaction to some treats while we were in obedience class. We thought it was the beef-based treats he had gotten from the trainer, but after a while we realized that it was (or, probably more precisely, was also) the Zuke’s Mini Peanut Butter Treats that we had bought him. They were the only thing in the store that was a good size and didn’t have an animal protein. A listed animal protein. (Turkey based treats are hard to find; in most stores we’ve had better luck getting cheese or molasses or peanut butter.)

Taking a cue from my gluten-free friends, I realized that the “natural flavors” on the list were possibly hiding something like a chicken-based flavoring. I e-mailed Zuke’s. I already knew I couldn’t feed him the treats, but all the data we can get about his allergies is useful. Zuke’s promised me that there was no MSG in the product, and that their flavorings were fresh, natural ingredients.

I wrote back, in frustration, that my dog has serious allergies to lots of “healthy, natural” things. While I appreciated that they couldn’t tell me their secret recipe, I would appreciate just a quick “yes or no” on whether or not their natural flavoring included an animal protein. I didn’t even ask which animal. I got no answer.

Around the same time, I bought some CloudStar Peanut Butter treats. I believe they’re the grain free Buddy’s Biscuits, but I don’t have the bag at hand. Having learned my lesson, I double checked for the natural flavors before I opened the bag. And, sure enough, there they were.

Today, because we’re getting low on treats, I e-mailed CloudStar (who makes Tricky Trainers, Buddy Biscuits, and Wag More Bark Less treats) with a similar question: “I know you can’t tell me your secret ingredients, but could you tell me if your natural flavors use any animal proteins at all.”

I had an answer in two hours or less. I’m not going to post it here, because I didn’t ask permission to do so. I will say that the representative agreed that pet owners should be willing to ask questions like that and gave me a more specific answer than I requested.

What I will tell you is that I will recommend CloudStar treats to anybody who asks. They have lots of flavors and options, including a wide variety of treats that have the ingredients list more explicitly spelled out. And if you have questions or concerns, there’s a good chance that the customer service will really answer them.