I ran across this snippet online yesterday: “I took a while, but we trained through Issue X. I’m so glad I didn’t follow my vet’s advice and try medication.”

It was a “close the computer and walk away” moment.

I don’t think psychiatric medication is the solution to every training issue. Not even every fear-based issue. I tried every positive training method and mood enhancing magic widget out there before we switched to medication; I understand why people are hesitant. But if your dog has a problem severe enough that your veterinarian is recommending medical intervention, why on earth would you persevere through training without it? If your dog is that miserable, why are you withholding help?

Let’s pretend this comment was about, say, Kennel Cough. “It took a while, but my dog finally quit coughing. I’m so glad I didn’t use medication.” Does that make sense to you?

What’s at issue here is fear and misunderstanding.

People assume that a dog on medication for a mental problem is going to be stuck taking it forever, and they assume that the dog will become a zombie robot. 

Neither of those things is true. 

According to our veterinary behaviorist, very few of her patients require medication indefinitely. Psychiatric medication in dogs is largely a training aid–the medication helps your dog have a milder reaction to X, and over time they learn not to have a bad reaction to X anymore. That learning stays in place, even when the medication is gone. It isn’t a fast process, but a year or two (the timeline the behaviorist mentioned as fairly common for her patients) is not forever.

As for the zombie-robot angle, that is also not true. If medication makes your dog act lethargic, it’s not the right medication or dosage. Dogs who are hyper-vigilant may start to sleep more when they feel less anxiety about their environment, but that’s a good adjustment to a more “normal” way of living. We do have one medication where the top-end dosage made Silas very clumsy, so we don’t give him that dose.

Silas still wants to play from 5:00 until bedtime. He still has enough energy that he’s hard to entertain in a townhouse with no yard. Last night, he ran around upstairs with my husband, then we played upstairs/downstairs fetch, then I did a training session that included running to get treats, then I took him in the garage and did some car training, and THEN he was still so energetic that he and my husband had to chase each other around and around the garage at top speed. We don’t do that much every night, but it’s within the normal range.

People also believe that using medication means you are a failure as a trainer. 

That isn’t true, either.

Dogs who need medical help overcoming a problem often react so strongly that there’s simply nothing you can train. This is what finally pushed me over the edge with Silas. I read 8000 books and articles saying “start in a place where your dog can see what he’s afraid of, but doesn’t react to it.” Without medication, that place does not exist for Silas. He could see a glint of metal through the trees at the park, and we had to leave. Just being outside was so hard for him that he literally could not eat a cookie or play with a toy, even in familiar places. His medication gives me enough room to do real training. Which brings me to my last point:

Medication is not magic.

The other misperception is that the right pill will “fix” a problem dog immediately. Silas did not start walking on the sidewalk as soon as I handed him the first pill. What the medication let me do was start training him. We could go to a park with cars on the horizon, and we’ve meandered up from that over the last seven or eight months. Yesterday, he stopped to sniff a bush while we were next to the street, and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down in glee. His “walks” on the sidewalk are literally in the one minute range. But he’s out there. It’s possible that if I had stacked just the right combination of non-medical remedies we might have eventually made similar progress, but I don’t see the point in dragging out his misery just to avoid a well-established medical protocol.

Canine Muscle Development

What follows is my attempt to hash through my research about muscle development and maintenance. Please note that I am not an expert–click through my sources for more authoritative information.

Their are two topics that really dominate dog-fitness discussions outside of the dog-sports community.

First, it’s well documented that the average American dog is overweight. There’s a great overview of obesity here at Dog Aware, which is a licensed reprinting of an article originally from the Whole Dog Journal. While it’s important for an overweight dog to get some exercise as part of his or her recovery, exercise alone is not enough.

The other driving topic in these discussions is the fact that elderly dogs lose muscle as they age, especially in their rear ends. This aggravates other elderly dog problems, like arthritis, and contributes to the difficulty elder dogs have in situations like climbing stairs getting up from the floor. (Although, as this article points out, regular “old dog” symptoms can also be other medical conditions.)

Where does that leave young, not-overweight dogs? How much muscle development does a non-sporting dog need to be healthy? My research has not turned up a definitive answer there. Most resources on dog fitness programs are written for competition dogs, who have very specialized needs. It’s logical to say that a certain level of muscle development is a vital to aging well, since muscle weakness contributes to mobility problems. It’s also logical to say that your dog needs to be able to do the things he loves–an ability that, for most dogs, will naturally come from simply doing that thing.

There are some really fascinating tidbits out there, though. For instance, a dog who “is not fatigued . . . will have good control of his core muscles and his back will not sway appreciably [as he walks]. As he tires,  these muscles fatigue and back movement becomes loose” (Sarah Foster, Canine Cross Training). Which means, a stronger core will help your dog go on longer walks. Dogs who have better baseline fitness and strength are also better able to twist, turn, run, and to recover from doing those things, which is obviously useful both on a sporting course and in everyday life. According to Dr. Carol Helfer, “A few simple exercises can dramatically change a dog’s quality of life. In athletic dogs, the proof is in their continued good health, enhanced performance, and absence of injuries. Elderly and sedentary dogs benefit, too, and they quickly show increased range of motion and a renewed enthusiasm for activities” (The Whole Dog Journal November 2007). 

It’s somewhat easier to find advice about what kinds of exercises to do. The article I linked in the previous paragraph has a great list, but I suspect it’s behind the WDJ paywall. If you are very serious and have the room for fitness equipment, Sarah Foster’s Canine Cross Training is worth a look. SlimDoggy has some great resources–my favorites are here and here. I also love this visual representation from So Fly. While fetch can be great exercise, do make sure that you aren’t causing potential injury, especially for a dog who isn’t already well-conditioned. I think Susan Garrett’s warning in this blog post is crucial.

I’ll be posting some followups to this conversation over the next few weeks. My main interest is to keep Silas in shape, even though our ability to go for walks is at an all-time low right now. The specifics of that process will be the focus of future installments. If you find canine fitness to be generally interesting, I’m pinning my findings to this Pinterest board.

Wordless Wednesday: The Red Chair Part II

A lot of you clamored for a picture of the chair I wrote about Monday. Digging around in my archives this morning revealed this one, of puppy Silas in action. That grey smudge by his face is a wad of stuffing that he is pulling out even as I snap the photo.

Young puppy Silas


Until this, I had forgotten that we had to both move the chair upstairs and put a sheet of cardboard over the stuffing.

The Red Chair

When I was in graduate school, I rented an apartment for $375 a month, in the kind of town where I should have been paying twice that or more. It was a weird place. It was in a scrupulously clean small complex, owned by an elderly couple.  At some point, it had apparently been leased furnished. I had pastel blue carpet, and my living room had burgundy and blue wallpaper with cherubs on it.

For my $375, I got probably as many square feet, if not less. My kitchen was a stove and a refrigerator, side by side, and then you turned around and had that much counter space, minus a sink, on the other side.

In my living room, I had the choice between books and a sofa. I picked books. I had a desk chair and a burgundy Queen Anne chair, and if I had people over we sat in the floor.

The Queen Anne chair was actually a nice piece of furniture. One summer while I was in college, I worked at a Heilig Meyers furniture store as they were going out of business, and while I was there I bought the chair. My desk chair was not a nice piece of furniture. So, for five years, I did everything except watch TV sitting in this red chair. (My tiny TV had to sit on top of the dresser in the bedroom, because there was no room.) Homework, eating, teaching prep, computer work. Once, after a rough day, I sat down in the red chair to make biscuits, and sloshed buttery dough all over the seat. There’s still a stain. This chair and I, we have a sentimental relationship.

When Silas was a puppy, he also adored the red chair. For different reasons, of course. Namely, the bottom side of the red chair, perched up on its Queen Anne legs, is not upholstered, leaving its various layers of foam filling right there at puppy tooth level.

Silas was smart, even as a puppy. He would take a toy over to the red chair, drop it, and then crawl under the chair to get it.  And while he was there, he’d grab a quick mouthful. Once I wised up, I had to switch the red chair with an uncomfortable IKEA thing from our upstairs office area, putting the red chair behind a baby gate.

Now, Silas is just confused by the red chair. I still go to sit there from time to time, even with it in our seldom-used office space. He doesn’t fit in it with me, like he does in the chair that matches our sofa. Unlike the IKEA chair, it doesn’t have an ottoman he can hop up on.

There’s only one thing he can do:

Asleep on my feet

Sleep on my feet.

April Update and May Goals

I had three goals for April.

1) Work on Silas’s focus when we’re outside

2) Go to the park twice a week

and 3) Get back in the habit of daily training.

I’m going to grade us at a solid “Eh?”

Goal #2 completely fell apart on me when Silas started refusing to get in the car. And I mean, terrified crouching and huddling next to the door to the house, not just “I would prefer not to.”

Goal #2 basically took goal #1 down with it. I can’t work on focus when we’re outside if I can’t get, you know, outside.

Goal #3 was going extremely well until the last week or so, when I got slammed with both deadline knitting for a baby shower AND my husband’s major work event of the year. (Still ongoing; if I’m not around much this week, that’s why.)

Our training made some good progress this month. Silas has a pretty reliable foot-targeting behavior, with speed and accuracy. He’s making slow-but-steady progress on “Sit Pretty,” and he almost has bow on cue now that we’ve renamed it “stretch” to make the cue more distinct.

The surprise development of April is that Silas is now pretty reliably walking out of the garage, around the corner on the sidewalk, and then back in our front door. This sounds like a huge  deal, which it both is and isn’t. What Silas really wants is to walk on the sidewalks inside our townhouse complex. The self-appointed HOA police scolded me for letting him play on the grass out there, so I’m very sensitive about taking him out the front door. If we come in from the street, though, I can tell evil HOA lady that we’re just on our way back from a walk.

Too-smart-for-his-own-good Silas very quickly learned that if he really wants to go out front, we need to go through the garage and down the street. It’s major progress, to the extent that he’s willing to go out next to the street at all. Not only is he willing to go out, I can say, “Do you want to go for a walk?” and he is excited. That’s the kind of regular-dog stuff that just doesn’t happen around here.

On the other hand, we scurry around the sidewalk as quickly as possible, short of actual running, and turn right back in as soon as we get to the gate. Because Silas sees the sidewalk as a means to an end, I’m not sure that we’ll ever build it up to anything else. The exposure is still good for him, though, especially since he would be in the house 24/7 otherwise.

Another surprise development is this:

No gate!

That’s my upstairs bathroom with no baby gate. See that huge ragged place in my rug? Blame Silas, who subsequently couldn’t be trusted to leave the bathroom rugs alone. The door there doesn’t securely close, so for two years we’ve been stepping over a baby gate. (Before that, the gate was at the bottom of the stairs.)

Which leads us to: May Goals

1) Keep up with the daily training

2) See what I can do about getting Silas in the car. I haven’t been worrying too much about this, because my air conditioner is still broken. It’s too hot to put Silas in the car anyway. On Saturday he insisted that he ride with me on an errand (in my husband’s car with the AC), so maybe we’ll be okay.

3) Keep getting him out on the sidewalk. I would love to start having him turn the other direction sometimes, which gets him back inside equally fast, before he’s decided that he can only possibly turn left FOREVER. I’m not pushing it, though.

Do you have goals for May? How was your April?

Product Review: The Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

Last weekend my husband and I cleaned out our closet. There were the usual suspects–pants that didn’t fit right, shirts that turned out to not be flattering after they’d been washed, and other perfectly nice things that needed a new home. Those are in a stack to send to local charities. Then there were clothes that even the thrift store wouldn’t want. Shirts with conspicuous darns or stains, hideous polo shirts with corporate logos, blue jeans with busted seams, and stretchy synthetic fabrics that no longer stretched.

So, what do you do with that stuff? I already have more household rags than I will ever use up, thanks to the demise of two pairs of flannel sheets in the last few years. I didn’t want to put these things in the trash–when you combine industrial and personal use, it’s estimated that we put an average of 68 pounds of textiles in the trash every year, per household. (Source here.)

Then I remembered Molly Mutt, a company I found while I was writing my Force-Free Shopping campaign.  Molly Mutt makes what they call dog duvets. That is, they make the outside parts of dog beds, and you put whatever you want in the middle. Silas needs a bed for upstairs by my desk, but I’ve been putting off buying one. Dog beds are expensive, and filled with who knows what.

Not anymore!

Our package from Molly Mutt got here today, and I ran right upstairs to put it together. While I was waiting on the package, I snipped away the buttons and zippers from all the old clothes, so that there wouldn’t be anything poking anywhere.

Silas knew right away that this thing was his.

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

Then he thought that me trying to put things in the bag was the most hilarious game ever:

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

So I had to relocate to the bathroom and shut the door.

With my stack of clothes in there was still a good bit of room,

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

so I also added some of Silas’s surplus of fleece blankets. Now that it’s summer, we can get by with just one or two downstairs.

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

For the top layer I put in the crate pad that came with our soft-sided crate. It has a fleecy top, a water-resistant bottom, and a huge hole that’s kept it on the mending pile for a year.

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

To be totally honest, Silas is dangerously fascinated by the dog-bed-full-of-people-things. Or, he’s after that crate mat, which he was so obsessed with that he put a huge hole in it in less than a week. Might be something to think about. This duvet is really well put together (I’m especially thankful for the thorough zipper cover), but nothing is going to stand up to a digging terrier for long. I may have to make the filling slightly less attractive if a little training doesn’t tone it down.

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

He did finally decide to take a little rest, though:

Molly Mutt Dog Duvet

I think that face says “It was a lot more fun to try to dig through this and get to the filling.”

Our duvet is the Romeo and Juliet pattern, in size Small. It’s too little for 30 pound Silas to really sprawl out, but that was deliberate. I don’t have room for a huge bed in the space, and he’s usually happy to curl up.


Fine print: I bought this my own self, although Molly Mutt did send me a super cute little leash pouch after I mentioned them on Twitter.

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?