Zero Pressure

When a herding dog works a flock of sheep, he mostly does it with what herders call pressure. The dog uses his body language to make a statement: “This is my space. You can’t have any. The only space you can have is over there.” There’s no way the dog can occupy that much space at one time, but he pressures the sheep into thinking he can.

The same concept applies with our interactions with dogs. Your dog will start to back away if you get too close, although the definition of “too close” varies from dog to dog. Patricia McConnell uses pressure to keep a dog from breaking a stay–just as the dog starts to shift, you “take the space” first, a technique she calls the “body block.” This is incredibly useful, especially because it’s less aversive than the direct physical pressure of something like pulling on a leash. (Less is an important word in that situation. Be aware of what you’re doing.)

At the same time, it’s also important to keep in mind the more conventional definition of pressure–as in, the pressure of having high expectations. This is the kind of pressure you exert when you encourage a shy dog to take a cookie from a stranger, for example.

Pressure, of either kind, is not inherently bad, but very few of us pay it enough attention.

Most importantly, let’s state the obvious–pressure creates stress. 

Stress is also not inherently bad. It’s stressful for me to watch an episode of Mad Men, but I do it anyway. (If you talk about the current season in the comments, I will block you, people.) It’s stressful to get a promotion at work, but you wouldn’t turn one down.

When you have a dog who is already way out there on the stress charts, though, you need to be very careful about how–and how much–you add to that burden. Also, with a fearful dog, you’ll never know if they are truly improving, or if you’re just providing a pressure that is more powerful than their fear. That’s why the previous example, of having your dog take cookies from strangers, isn’t always the best thing to do.

The opposite of pressure is free choice, which is something I’ve been using with Silas a good bit lately when it comes to his various phobias. After all this time, I trust him to tell me when things are too much for him. And, hopefully, he can trust me to listen to that. He wants to leave the park after seven minutes, when it turns out to be busier than I expected? We go. He wants to take one step out of the garage, and then go back in the house? Fine by me. My job is to be happy but neutral, as long as he’s not endangering himself. No leash pressure. No bribing. No moving him a certain way with my body language. This isn’t to say he’s getting a free ride all the time–I still expect manners in regular, non-fear situations, although I always try to handle as lightly as possible.

What I find very compelling about this system is it’s pure, simple effectiveness.  Once Silas realizes that he can choose when to stop engaging with something, he will often deliberately go back to it, and with much more confidence than if I’d compelled him do it.

News and Updates

While I’ve been busy writing various rants for the last week or so, we’ve had some big changes behind the scenes. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, honestly.

First, Silas has started refusing to get in the car. This has been coming for a while. He was getting increasingly hesitant, but rather than working through it, I assumed we just needed more practice. After our road trip in March he had, indeed, been doing a little better. Then we took the trip where I forgot that my air conditioner was broken. Desperately afraid that Silas was going to have an actual heatstroke, after a very long walk while the car sat in the sun, I had no choice but to roll the windows down. After that, he was apparently done with the car.

In a panic, I e-mailed his behaviorist to say, “We both know that he’ll just get more and more paranoid if I don’t take him out, but I can’t get him in the car.” She adjusted his medication levels a little and changed his short-term anxiety medication. While I wasn’t really looking for more/different medication, it does seem to have helped. (This is the downside of having stopped our office visits. When I was seeing her in person, she was filled with sage training advice. Over e-mail, she mostly just changes his medication.) I like that the new short-term anxiety medicine, which I only give him when he really needs it, seems to work better even when I give him a much smaller dose.

With the new meds in his system, Silas decided that he could go out of the garage again. He used to do this ages ago–he would walk out our garage, down to the street, around the corner of the block, and back in our front door. For some reason he stopped, and I haven’t been able to get so much as a toe past the garage door since. On Friday night, even with loud Friday neighborhood noises, he walked out the garage and back in the front door.

Then, on Saturday night, I probably ruined it all. I could not find my house keys, and I really didn’t think Silas would go all the way around. At the corner of the block I realized that my husband was actually busy in the garage, and who knew how long it would be before he realized that Silas and I were standing at the front door. So I had to turn Silas around. He did not care for that. He is a dog who loves routine, and I changed the routine. I haven’t had much luck getting him out since. In hindsight, I don’t know why on earth I didn’t just unlock the door from the inside before we left. Oh, well.


Safer Dog Toys

I’m going to be just a little preachy today, then I promise I’ll stop for a while. From a conversation that came up on Twitter:

Many soft-plastic dog toys are still made from PVC. You might know PVC as the very stinky “new plastic” smelling plastic of shower curtain liners. In the calculus of material cost/benefit analysis, PVC is getting increasingly skeptical responses, and not just from old hippies. That’s mostly because PVC releases phthalates, depending on exactly how it is manufactured, which can disrupt a variety of your body’s natural processes. It’s a real enough concern that phthalates are widely banned in infant products, even in the slow-to-ban United States.

This is a big problem for your dog, who, like an infant, interacts with objects mostly by putting them in his or her mouth. Unfortunately, there are very few regulations for pet products. Even more unfortunately, the plastics industry thrives on innovation and, consequently, on paranoia about releasing formulas.

Toys that are most likely to be made of PVC are soft, thin plastic toys. Think rubber duckie. If a toy smells strongly of “plastic,” there’s a chance it’s PVC. (Silas spent most of his puppyhood deeply in love with a PVC ball, painted to look like a soccer ball, from PetSmart.) More pragmatically than leeching dangerous substances, this kind of dog toy easily breaks into dangerously swallowable pieces.

Suggesting alternatives is tricky. There’s an element of “the devil you know” in plastics. We all got into a tizzy about BPA a while back, but many “BPA-free” plastics are turning out to have similar problems. Some people have responded with attempts to go plastic free whenever they can, but it’s difficult to go entirely plastic-free with dog toys. Some dogs can’t be trusted with fabric toys, even squeaker- and stuffing-feee models. Also, the fabric industry is fraught with problems of its own. (Stuff like this is why people give up on environmental initiatives.)

So, I’ll offer up a list of plastic-like dog toys that are arguably safer:

While West Paw Designs doesn’t specifically list what material they use, they do claim that it is free of BPA and phthalate. They also list it as FDA compliant, but they don’t define that term. Even better, unlike many plastics, their Zogoflex material can be recycled into new Zogoflex, instead of being downgraded. Their toys are also fun. We have several.

Bionic’s bright orange compound “does not contain any harmful phthalates, hormones, lead, cadmium, mercury,…Bisphenoal A, asbestos or latex.” I can vouch that these are really durable. Silas adores the flimsy-looking Toss-n-tug, and it still looks brand new after many tugs and many tosses.

The good old classic Kong is reportedly made from natural rubber, which may raise other environmental flags but is safe for food products. The Kong product line is vast, though, and only the original toys are natural rubber. The others? Who knows.

Planet Dog/Orbee, is more coy. They claim that their plastic is “non-toxic,” which is an extremely loose term. Like West Paw, the toys can be recycled into similar products, which suggests that they at least don’t contain PVC.

Hard plastic Jolly Balls are made of HDPE (High-density Polyethylene), the same material as your milk jugs. The larger sizes are also too large for most dogs to actively put in their mouths. Their other toys seem to be less clear about the material composition.

This list isn’t exhaustive by any means; they’re just the brands I know and like.

As always, try to avoid buying new toys just because you can. No manufacturing process comes without a cost. You need your dog to have 435 toys; he’s probably happy with the same old one or two all the time.  This is always the hardest part for me, I know.

How about you–are you also a recovering dog shopper? Or are you powerless to resist? Is your dog’s favorite toy made in China from who knows what, like Silas’s beloved rubber hedgehog?

How Can Your Dog Protect the Environment?

Today, in honor of Earth Day and just in time for spring, I’m talking about going green with your dog.

Earth Day 2014

You may remember the article I wrote in January about lessening your dog’s waste. (As in, broken toys and plastic widgets, not poop.)  That’s still my most relevant post on the topic, and I highly encourage you to go over there and read it. Since I’ve already written that post, today I’m going to talk about a different facet:

What We Can Do In The Park and On The Street

People who own dogs take a lot of walks, and spend a lot of time in parks. This gives us some great opportunities to make an environmental difference.

  • Pick up an extra poop. You have the bag in your hand anyway, don’t just stand there and feel superior. Leaving it in the park contaminates local water supplies and gives dog-owners a bad reputation around town.
  • For that matter: your special biodegradable dog poop bags? They’re not going to decompose in a garbage dump. Nothing decomposes in modern garbage dumps, in part by design. (If you’re interested in trash, I highly recommend Garbology by Edward Humes, which was a fascinating read.) If you’re drowning in difficult-to-recycle plastic produce bags, don’t feel bad for repurposing.
  • But, while we’re at it, don’t get plastic bags at the store just because you use them for dog poop. If nothing else, the special dog poop bags are smaller and thus use less plastic. Or try a piece of newspaper, or any non-recyclable container that you’ll be putting in the trash anyway.
  • Collect some trash and recyclables while you’re out. My local park has millions of trash cans, but also a huge problem with litter, especially around spring and summer holidays. While your dog is sniffing a bush, grab that styrofoam takeout container and throw it away. Even recyclable items are better off contained in a trash bin than blowing free where they can cause more harm. Keep a special eye out for small pieces of plastic, like bottle caps, which are easily ingested by wildlife; and styrofoam containers and plastic bags, which blow in the wind.
  • Skip the disposable water bottle. Carry water for you and your dog from home, with a reusable bottle and bowl.
  • If you’re socially minded, get your friends together to make a concerted effort at park clean up.

I’m not saying that the entire park is your responsibility. You have a right to walk your dog without becoming the Earth Police. Little things stack up, though. If nothing else, cleaner parks stay cleaner. No one wants to sully a perfect environment, but if there’s already a chronic dog-poop and plastic cutlery problem, people don’t feel like “just a little” more will do any harm.

On Motivation and De-motivation: A Parable

I have one of those “activity trackers” that you wear on your wrist. (Seriously, people, we just need to own that we’re all wearing pedometers. Me, you, and your grandma.)

It tells me when I’ve been sitting down for too long with a little red light. The little red light goes away when you walk a certain time or distance, although I can’t figure out exactly the magic number.

I hate the little red light.

You know why? Because it has ambiguous–and dare I say stupid–criteria.

Yesterday, I cleaned house for 45 minutes, and the light never went off. Every time it would get close (you can tell because it flashes), I would need to stop walking for a second or two to do something like fold a shirt. In the activity tracker’s little computer brain, not walking=sitting, and apparently sitting for one second is enough to negate several minutes of walking.

A similar thing happens when I’m at my desk at my volunteer job: a trip to the bathroom or the water cooler isn’t far enough to keep the light from coming on, let alone enough to make it go off once it has. So you know what I do instead? I don’t bother. Walking to the water cooler isn’t “good enough,” so I’m not going to do anything at all.

After a few weeks, I have learned to completely ignore the little red light, and the number of steps I walk in a day has actually gone down the longer I’ve owned the device. The little red light cares about nothing except me pacing, and the light going off is not motivating enough for me to just wander around.

Don’t let your dog training become the little red light. Fairness, consistency, and clarity are motivating. Arbitrary, ambiguous criteria with weak rewards are not.

Pavlov in Your Kitchen

New dish, happy dog

Every second that you spend with your dog, you are teaching something. Often something you don’t want. On top of that, your dog is pairing environmental cause-and-effect in his own instinctive, superstitious way.

It’s a terrible, wonderful burden.

Behaviors you didn’t really teach are tricky to change. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what the cue is that’s setting off the behavior. Sometimes you know the cue, but it’s not in your control. Sometimes the entire situation is completely in the dog’s head, and you’re just guessing.

That last situation is where we’ve been lately with Silas’s breakfast. I know some of you (ahem, Jodi and Jessica) have dogs whose begging for breakfast is a problem behavior, but we are the opposite. Silas has never been a great eater, and his medication suppresses his appetite. Plus, after years of food allergies, he’s naturally suspicious of food. Medically, there’s nothing wrong with him. (This is always the first thing you should check when a dog loses his appetite.)

Silas had entirely stopped eating breakfast. I couldn’t even get him into the kitchen anymore. Without his stomach problems, it wouldn’t be a big deal if he naturally preferred to eat one meal a day, but his acid reflux gets really bad if he doesn’t eat.

I finally realized that Silas had developed pervasive bad associations with eating. I think the last straw was me putting his medication in his breakfast, where it dissolved too quickly and made his food bitter. It could be lots of things, though. He eats in the kitchen, where I also trim his nails. He has stainless dishes, which some dogs don’t like. Because of his allergies, Silas has a long history of food making him sick. (Have you ever eaten something that made you throw up? Did you ever eat it again?) It really could be everything in combination–like I said, dogs are superstitious.

If I wanted him to eat, I needed to change all of the situation around him eating.

I started feeding him in the crate in the living room.

I bought him a new dish, in ceramic instead of stainless.

I switched his breakfast meal with his dinner meal, to give him the food he prefers when he’s less inclined to eat.

Sneakily, I started all these changes to correspond with our rotation to Silas’s favorite food.

So far, he’s eaten breakfast every day.