Thursday, June 29, 2006

Agility: getting the weave pole entry

I'm between agility class sessions right now, and normally this would mean I'd be getting in extra practice sessions because the training fields are free every evening. I've been a bit lax, though, because it's been either thunderstorming or oppressively hot and humid. But I went out last night with both dogs because I have some summer training goals that I need to work on. The first is to get Mr. Gomez proficient at the weave poles, and the second is to work on Lucy's weave-pole entries.

Weaves are often the most time-consuming aspect of basic agility training, because it's the only obstacle that's not based on any "natural" dog behavior. I taught both of my dogs using the channel method, in which the dog is first taught to run a straight "chute" between the poles, which are moved closer together over time, introducing a gradual "weave" action as the dog tries to navigate a straight course (For a complete how-to on this, see Val Olszyk's Guide to Training the Weave Poles Using the Channel Method.) The advantage of this method is that the dog learns to do the weaving behavior independently of the handler (i.e., the handler should not have to "babysit" the dog and cue him to move in and out of the poles.) The disadvantage is that it requires a specially designed set of weave poles.

Mr Gomez still isn't quite able to do a "closed" channel yet, so I did drills with him last night with the poles about 2-1/2 inches apart, moving them about 1/4 inch closer for a second set. Lucy has been doing closed weaves for a a long time now, but we have some problems making the "entry" (i.e., she doesn't always start to the right of the first pole unless I "babysit" her, instead she often chooses to go in at the second pole), so I decided to start trying a weave-entry drill that Val Olszyk suggested.
Val's suggestion was to practice the entry using just three poles. She has several sets of weaves at PBH, some of which can be broken down into smaller units of six or three. The advantage of breaking down the behavior to just three poles is that it allows me to repeatedly mark and reward the correct entry without having to worry about properly marking and rewarding the whole obstacle. I used a target at the end of the three weaves so Lucy had something to drive toward (Lucy's target is a plastic easter egg with a treat inside. She knows there is a treat in there, but I have to open the egg and give it to her, so there's no incentive to cheat by running around the obstacle to get to the target more quickly). Here's a little diagram of the three-pole setup, with the dashed line representing Lucy's path:

For the first step of this training, I just got Lucy accustomed to the idea of only three weave poles. The first two times she hesistated and looked up at me, as if she was thinking "Really? Weave? Three poles?" After a few more repetitions she she got more confident about it, so I started angling the entry a little, and handling her from the right and left. I plan to go back over the weekend and add the next step, which will be to add a jump before the three-pole set, varying the position of the jump to the weave entry in a rough arc, somewhat like the rather bizarre-looking diagram below:


As we get more reliable entries from all angles, I will also start trying to keep more distance between myself and the weave poles, so that Lucy gets accustomed to finding the correct entry on her own without relying on the visual cues of my trajectory. This will come in very handy when we move up to Master's level (which could be soon if I manage to get that third qualifying score in Advanced Standard). I'll publish an update on our progress with this method, and whether I run into any pitfalls along the way. Meanwhile, I'll be interspersing some three-pole entry practice into Mr. Gomez's weave training now, because it's better to start off with solid entries that to have to go back and retrain later.

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Would you work longer hours if your dog were with you?

According to an online survey cited in a New York Daily News article, two-thirds of dog owners would put in more time at the office, while 55% would commute a greater distance to a dog-friendly company. Others said they would switch jobs or take a salary reduction to work at a dog-friendly company. The article also links to a dog-friendly job search site.

I think my employer would have to offer an on-site agility training facility to get me to want to stay longer, because the days I have to leave right on time are when I need to make it to classes or course run-throughs.

Besides, who's really looking for ways to spend more time at work, anyway? That's just sick.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Farewell to Moose, a.k.a. Frasier's "Eddie"

Moose, the Jack Russell terrier who played "Eddie" on the TV series Frasier, has died at the age of 16. I've always loved his story, because it's a classic tail, er, tale, of what a little training can do for a dog. Moose was way more than his first family could handle, because he "was destructive, barked a lot, refused to be house-trained and even killed a neighbor's cat." But trainer Mathilde DeCagny Halberg gave him a second chance, and after only six months of training he scored the role of Eddie. The part of the story I like best is that Moose was a full two and a half years old before he got any of his training. A lot of people still believe the old (and completely false) axiom that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Well Moose's story is a high-profile example to the contrary.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What is Flyball?

When I tell people I do dog agility, I often don't have to do a lot of explaining about what it is. Many people have seen it at least in passing on TV, and if I say "It's like an obstacle course for dogs" they know what I'm talking about. Not so with flyball--most people need a bit more of an explanation because it doesn't get as much exposure and, well, it is a bit strange, I suppose. A couple of years ago I made up a little web page that explained flyball as simply as I could (with helpful photos!), and I decided to put it up here because I figure it just belongs here in a blog about dogs and dogsports.

flyball border collieFlyball is a four-dog relay race in which each dog must outrun over four hurdles, trigger a spring-loaded box that releases a ball, retrieve the ball and bring it back past the finish line. It was first introduced to the world by Herbert Wagner on the Tonight Show in the early 1970s, and is an offshoot of scent hurdling. There are two separate santioning bodies for flyball competition in the United States and Canada, the North American Flyball Association and United Flyball League International. There are also flyball associations in Great Britain, Australia, Belgium, Finland, and Italy.
flyball yorkieWho can play Flyball?
Any dog breed or mix can play flyball. Dogs of all sizes can compete in flyball, and because the jump height for each team is determined by the size of the smallest dog on the team (referred to as the “height dog”), most clubs try to have at least one small dog in each racing lineup. Dogs must be registered with a sanctioning organization in order to compete in that organizations events. Dogs must be 1 year of age to compete. Dogs deemed by a judge to be aggressive may be banned from competition.

flyball viszlaWhat equipment is needed?
For flyball training, you will need at least 4 jumps (most teams make their own out of plywood or sintra, a strong synthetic material), and a flyball box. In addition, many clubs use a substitute for the box, such as a “chute” or a “target board” to teach safe and fast box turns before the ball is introduced to training. The flyball course is 51 feet long. The first jump is 6 feet beyond the start line, with three more jumps at 10-foot intervals. The box is 15 feet beyond the fourth jump (The NAFA Official Rules of Racing document provides diagrams and exact dimensions for equipment and the course). For competition, each club must provide its own flyball box and balls. The host club provides jumps, matting, ring gating, etc.

flyball judgeHow is flyball scored?
Each race consists of 3-5 heats, depending on the tournament format. To win a heat, a team must post the fastest time in which each dog runs “clean,” or successfully completes the course. To achieve a clean run, each dog must jump all four hurdles on the way to and from the box, trigger the ball-release mechanism on the box, and return over all four hurdles, carrying the ball all the way across the finish line. In addition, dogs may not false start (cross the start line before the timing light turns green) or pass illegally (crossing the start line before a returning dog crosses the finish line). A failure on any of these rules will result in the dog being “flagged” by the judge, in which case the dog must re-run the course after the original lineup has finished. If the team fails to successfully complete the course, they receive a “No Finish” for the heat and the win is credited to the opposing team (provided they successfully complete the course.) Teams receive points for winning heats, and additional points for winning the majority of the heats in a race. These points are then used to determine tournament placement. Complete NAFA rules are availble for download at the NAFA web site. U-FLI rules are available at the U-FLI site.

How do dogs earn titles in flyball?
In NAFA racing, points towards titles are awarded per heat on the basis of a team’s speed. If the team posts a time under 24 seconds, each dog that ran in that particular heat receives 25 points. For a time under 28 seconds, each dog receives 5 points and an under-32-second time earns each dog 1 point. If the team fails to run clean or come in under 32 seconds, no dog receives points for the run.

See the U-FLI site for their title schedule.

flyball teamHow do I get involved in flyball?
Many flyball clubs and dog training facilities offer flyball classes. To compete, it is necessary to be part of a club, which means either joining an existing club or starting your own, A list of clubs can be found at the NAFA website. Starting your own club is a matter of obtaining equipment and practice space and registering your club with NAFA (or with U-FLI--clubs may register with both organizations). There are no rules regarding how your club must be structured or how decisions must be made. You and/or your members can decide that. Other area clubs are usually very happy to offer advice and assistance to new clubs.

Links:
North American Flyball Association
United
Flyball League International

Unofficial “Flyball home page”

Equipment:
Jump plans

Target board plans

Norm Glover boxes
Key Products boxes
Willoughby Workshop boxes
Patriot Flyball boxes
Premier Flyball boxes

North Carolina Flyball links
Pet Behavior Help (flyball classes in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina)
DogGoneFast Flyball Club
Go Dog Go Flyball Club
Blockade Runners Flyball Club

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Babies and Pets in Slate:

Emily Yoffe weighs in over at Slate on the topic of pets and kids in Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The complex dynamics of babies and pets.

I don't think my parents gave even a passing thought to the issue of how we kids and the dogs would get along. They just figured it would all work out somehow ... and somehow it did. (Although my mother likes to tell the story of how, when I was a few years old, our beagle bit me and I just turned around and bit her back. I'm sure I deserved to be bit, but the beagle and I seemed to get along well from that point on.)

Advice on pets and kids is very good to know, seeing as how I teach puppy classes, but I don't believe I'll ever need to try it first-hand. I've decided not to have kids because it would cut into my dog training time. (Kidding--that's only one of the reasons I'm not having any!)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A burning question ...

Do dogs get poison ivy? Seriously, I've been trying to find the answer without much luck.

For many years, Mr. Gomez has periodically (once or twice a year) gotten red, blistery rashes on his belly. We take him to the vet, the vet says "bacterial infection" and gives us either topical or oral antibiotics (depending on how severe it is). We follow the protocol and the rash clears up very quickly.

We've been advised that it may be the result of an allergy, and because it often occurs in warmer weather and when Mr. G has spent a lot of time in forests and such, we speculate that it may be environmental (he swims a lot--bad water maybe). But the other day Mark asked me if I though it could be poison ivy. Well, I didn't know--everything I'd read previously indicated that dogs don't get poison ivy (although they frequently pick up the urushiol oil from the plant and pass it to humans). But I figured I should try and find out a definitive answer.

I decided to ask the internet, via Google. I may as well have asked a Magic 8-Ball, though, because it appears the answer is "Reply hazy, try again." One problem, of course, is that anyone on the internet can share an opinion, so you have to go with who seems the most authoritative. The Johns Hopkins University Student health center site, which seems like it might be credible, says Only humans and higher primates are sensitive to urushiol. That seems rather definite until the next two sentences: "Dogs and cats are lucky. They generally do not get poison oak or poison ivy rashes." Generally? So does that mean they actually can get the rashes, they just "generally" don't? A site dedicated to American Eskimo dogs, opines that dogs' fur confers somesome protection in blocking the oils. Would that mean they can get it on their bellies where there's not much fur?. Someone else says so:: "Yes, short haired dogs certainly can get a rash from poison ivy. Our dachshund's belly was covered with it after running through a patch growing on the ground." That, however, is from a forum, where there's no way to gauge the credibility of the poster. Did they somehow verify that the dog indeed had a poison ivy rash?

In Gomey's case, it's easy to think that it's not PI (but I must say the rash looks amazingly like the PI rashes I've had). First off, several different vets have diagnosed it as a bacterial infection, and even though they can be wrong, they do have a little more schooling in such things than I do. But the diagnoses have always been based on a visual examination--they've never taken any sort of culture to confirm. So is it possible they just don't consider PI rash in the first place because they believe dogs don't get it? The rash always starts clearing up a few days after we start topical or oral antibiotics ... but then again, a PI rash will start clearing up on its own after a few days anyway.

However, if Mr. G had picked up some urushiol from a PI plant, wouldn't he most likely have have passed it to us? He really loves his belly rubs and we often oblige, and the oils don't wash off with water alone (we don't usually give him a real shampoo-and-water bath after every trip to the woods--we'd be bathing him several times a week if we did). I've become quite sensitive to urushiol, and I think I'd show symptoms if Mr. G brought home even a small amount on his fur.

So to make a long story short (and to state what should be obvious at this point), I still don't know whether dogs can get poison ivy rashes or not. And I don't know what exactly cause the rashes on Gomey's belly. And I'd love to hear anypone else's theories and ideas.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More flyball fanatics hit the road ,,,

The DogGoneFast caravan that I blogged about earlier has arrived in Alaska! Also on the way are members of the Good2Go Flyball Club from Saskatchewan, and one of them is blogging the trip as well.

Alaska's first flyball tournament will begin in just two days! Even though my club has entered, I'm actually rooting for the home team, Alaska Dogs Gone Wild. Curtis and Stacy Smith (formerly of DogGoneFast) have worked very hard over the past two years to bring flyball to Alaska and host this tournament--they deserve a blue ribbon for that.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Pongo the Wonder Dog

There's something addictive about training dogs and doing dog sports, and it often leads seemingly sane people to acquire more dogs than perhaps they need. But three is not a bad number, right? I keep thinking that every time I meet a dog who seems perfect for me. Mark thinks differently ... I guess he's the voice of reason, because three dogs is a lot less manageable than two. But still, I keep meeting dogs that steal my heart and, coincidentally, need a home. Like Pongo, for example. I met him at an agility trial a few weeks ago. He would make an awesome partner for agility or flyball ... or maybe even canine musical freestyle if that's your thing. He really could use a home with a job, though. Know of one?

UPDATE: Pongo now has a very happy home!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Wisconsin shelter swamped after dog-fighting bust

The Dane County Humane Society in Madison, WI, could use some help after the seizure of 47 pit bulls from a suspected dog-fighting ring. They are asking for donations to help defray the $10 a day it costs to shelter each dog. The dogs, many of whom are injured, cannot be re-homed and must remain in the shelter pending the outcome of legal proceedings. To make more room for the seized dogs, the shelter is also waiving adoption fees on their available dogs until June 22 ... just in case you're in the area and happen to be looking for a new pal.

Frankencat

I know this isn't about dogs ... but maybe someday it will be: For only $3,950, plus a "processing and transportation fee" of $995 (pricing for US residents only), you can have your very own genetically modified hypo-allergenic cat. If you're not willing to wait two years for delivery, add on another $1,950 to receive your cat in a few months. Either way you have no choice as to coat type, color or sex. The company requires spay/neuter in the contract, but that's not because they care about unwanted litters or what would happen if mutant kitty genes mixed in the general kitty population like so much Roundup-ready crop pollen--it's because they own a patent on that gene and if you want more of it you'll have to pay.

Are noiseless dogs next?

(Thanks to Wordnerdy for the link!)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Another idea for easing thunderphobia ...

Val Olszyk shared another idea she uses to combat thunderphobia. She calls it "the popcorn treatment":
"When I don't feel like running outside to play or want to just relax and watch a movie (Sunday night for instance) and there is a thunderstorm on the way I pop in the microwave popcorn. Then I have all the dogs lie in front of the couch and when I see a flash, I pick up the popcorn and start to throw it at each dog (saying their names to indicate who the popcorn is for). The dogs are so focused on the popcorn (which is delivered around the time of the boom) they don't even notice the storm."
Thanks, Val!

Dogs in the news ...

New York Times: Dogs and Their Fine Noses Find New Career Paths

Washington Post: The Inns and Outs of Weekending with Rover

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lipoma

Today, once again, I schlepped Mr. Gomez to the vet. Last night Mark, my husband, felt a lump in Gomey's abdomen, right below the center of his rib cage. It's about golf-ball size, and I'm surprised we never felt it before because Gomey loves his belly rubs. I immediately thought of lipoma because they are very common, especially in older dogs, although Lucy got one when she was only a year old. Anyway, I knew that any lump should be checked out, regardless, so to the vet we went.

The doctor who examined Gomey said he was very confident it was a lipoma. He didn't aspirate it, but we have to go back in a week and see another vet to follow up on Gomey's tick diseases, so I'll ask her to aspirate it to be sure.

Compared to a malignancy, lipoma is good news, but they can still cause problems. Steve Schwarz has written about Mr. Peabody's difficulties with lipomas, and I'm not eager to deal with anything like that. Fortunately the location of Mr. Gomez's lump makes it seem unlikely that it will interfere with much, and it's probably best left alone.

A note of thanks

I just wanted to publicly thank two people for developing some Blogger hacks that add some important functionality to this blog (things that Blogger hasn't yet built in to their otherwise fine--and free & easy--product):

Phydeaux3 developed a fantastic hack called Blogger Categories with Del.icio.us. He has made possible that list of categories in the sidebar on the right, which I hope will steadily grow as I blather on about dogs.

Amit Upadhyay wrote a hack that lets me create expandable post summaries. In other words, I can write outrageously long posts but show only the first few paragraphs on my main page, allowing my readers to click if they are willing to endure more.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Thunderphobia in dogs

The topic of thunderphobia came up on my drive into work this morning. We've had two thunderstormy nights in a row, and my co-carpoolee Chris was talking about it--it seems that his lovely border collie Lizzie suffers from a bit of anxiety during thunderstorms. (I don't have statistics to back up this statement, but it appears to me that border collies--and herding breeds in general--are quite prone to thunderstorm anxiety, although I know it's common among a lot of different breeds and mixes.) Dogs with thunderphobia may exhibit any number of symptoms, from milder behaviors like pacing, panting, excessive drooling, whining, trying to hide or seeking human company, to severe and dangerous behaviors like attempting to claw or chew through doors walls or floors, chewing through crates and other confinements and attempting to jump through windows. Some friends have a border collie whose front teeth are all broken from her numerous attempts to chew through the bars of her metal crate during storms (they have resorted to valium and have built an enclosure they call "The Rubber Room" for her).

Although genetics may give certain dogs a predisposition to it, no one seems to agree on exactly why dogs develop thunderstorm anxiety. In some dogs it may begin in puppyhood but it can start much later and can get worse as dogs age. Some anecdotal evidence indicates it may be more common among "rescue" dogs, many of whom have had unpleasant experiences in life, but I don't know any statistics on that either. Behaviorists and vets also differ on exactly what part of a thunderstorm dogs are reacting to: lightning, the sound of thunder, wind blowing, the sound of rain on the roof or even the changes in atmospheric pressure or electrical charges in the air that occur with storms. I think it's quite likely there's no one answer and different dogs react to different things.

My own Mr. Gomez, a border collie mix, has mild thunderstorm and fireworks anxiety (which indicates it's the noise that scares him). I used to indulge him a bit--letting him snuggle up to me, comforting him and trying to soothe him (I thought it was kind of cute that my 60-lb dog wanted to be on my lap). Fortunately, he never really got much worse, because it turns out I was doing all the wrong things. Comforting and soothing can actually reinforce fear and anxiety behaviors because they are good consequences from the dog's point of view (or "positive reinforcers," in learning-theory-speak). This can condition the dog to repeat the behaviors. In other words, Mr. Gomez was learning a pattern that when a thunderstorm started he should seek me out, act worried and I would comfort him. Well, this could be a bit of a pain when storms happened in the middle of the night and he wanted to crawl on top of me, and what was he going to do when I wasn't around for him? (I work full time.) Would it progress to the point where he'd try to dig his way to the floor through he crawl space under the house?

Val Olszyk, the owner of Pet Behavior Help (and the person I often refer to a "my trainer"), adopted Kira, a rescued Dutch shepherd with a lot of issues, one of which was thunder/fireworks anxiety. One New Year's eve Val had a party, during which there were fireworks nearby, and the dog went from guest to guest seeking solace. Instead of encouraging this behavior, Val told Kira to go lie down in her bed, and then rewarded and praised her for staying there. This may seem a little uncaring, but Val wanted to give Kira a coping strategy to use when there wasn't a human around to go to for comfort, so she taught Kira that her bed was a safe place to stay during scary noises.

As for Mr. Gomez and his mild anxiety, I found out the first time we had a beginning agility class during a thunderstorm (the class was in a covered but open-sided horse arena) that he was so focused on our training he had no time to worry about the thunder booming around him. So distracting him with other activities seems to work well, as does acting really chipper, as if nothing is wrong. A Penn State study suggest that my response may not be so important, but that having another dog actually seems to have more effect. My other dog, Lucy, remains serene during storms; perhaps that's the real reason Mr. Gomez never got worse despite my early mistakes! (However I know of several dogs in multi-dog households ho have severe thunderphobia, including the broken-toothed BC mentioned above, so go figure ...)

Distraction may be a good technique for preventing thunderphobia from developing in the first place. If you use an approaching thunderstorm as an opportunity for happy, rewarding time--playing with toys, doing positive training exercises, or letting the dog chew on a rawhide or goodie-stuffed kong--then your pup or young dog may learn not to worry about the noises or atmospheric changes. If you're out for a walk and a storm is approaching, don't panic, lest the dog pick up on your stress. Either stroll leisurely to shelter, or if you must run, make it seem like happy play ("Race 'ya home!"). This way the dog may be less likely to read the approach of a storm as a danger warning.

For severe cases, in which the dog may harm itself or destroy a home, the fix may not be so easy. There are a lot of methods to try for dogs with full-blown thunderphobia, including desensitization programs using recorded thunderstorm sounds, herbal remedies, and anti-anxiety drugs. (Links to more information about these are at the end of this entry) People who wish to try these should consult with their vet and perhaps a qualified behaviorist first. From what I've read it seems results with these methods are mixed.

I did read today about an interesting approach: the "Anxiety Wrap." It's based on the theory behind Temple Grandin's "Hug Machine", which is that gentle squeezing pressure can have a soothing, calming effect. Honestly, if I had a dog that was chewing through walls and I'd tried training coping strategies and desensitization, I'd be willing to give it a try for 65 bucks before I put my dog on drugs! I suppose that during thunderstorm season one would just have to keep the wrap on the dog all day while one is at work, or hop in the car and go home to put it on when a storm approached. That seems bit cumbersome, but some people who use drugs to treat severe storm anxiety are already doing the same thing. (If anyone knows someone who has tried the Anxiety Wrap, I'd love to hear the results!)

Here are a few resources for more reading about thunderphobia:
Applied Ethology article Thunderphobia in Canines by Paul Neider
Baytown Humane Society web page: Thunderstorm Anxiety & Storm Phobia by Gloria Manucia, PhD.
Holistic Health News: Spring Rain and The "Booming" Dilemma by Marian Brown
One pet owner's account of consultations with Dr. Nicholas Dodman about her dog's thunderphobia.
PetPlace.com: Fear of Thunder, Sounds or Noises in Dogs--Understanding Dog Anxiety

Friday, June 09, 2006

The importance of trimming dogs' nails

Until I started participating in dog sports, I didn't realize the importance of keeping my dogs nails trimmed. In agility and flyball, trimmed nails are necessary for the dog's safety and comfort, as Steve Schwarz already mentioned a while back over at his (excellent) Agility Nerd blog.

But nail trimming is important for the long-term health of all dogs, not just canine athletes. Overgrown nails can break easily and below the quick, which can be very painful for the dog. Long-term overgrowth can cause difficulty with walking, pain and soreness and eventually contribute to the development of arthritis. So I put a small lecture on nail-clipping into my puppy class curriculum and decided to make a handout with detailed instructions. My goal was not just to explain the actual trimming of the nails so much as how to make this a task less dreaded and stressed over by people and dogs alike. Most dogs instinctively don't want anyone messing with their nails, particularly with strange objects like a clipper or rotary grinding tool. I wanted to teach my students how to use a positive process of habituation and rewards to get their dogs to relax and allow nail trimming. I've rewarded my dogs so much for participating that all I need to do is grab a baggie full of treats and head for the bathroom (that's where I always trim nails) and the dogs jockey to be the first one in.

I was hoping to find a ready-made tutorial on the web and hand it out (with proper attribution, of course!) Alas, the only one that seemed to take the approach I wanted, a guide by "Doberdawn" (click the tiny "How To Dremel Dog Nails" link on the left), is way too long to expect the typical puppy class person to read. (Some of them don't even look at the "homework" sheets I hand out every week summarizing what we covered and explaining how to practice it.) I needed something relatively concise, so that it could be handed out on a single sheet. I also wanted to include both common methods--clipping and dremeling, because I use them both (the Dremel for the little normal dog, clippers for the big scaredy-cat dog). Lots of dog folks insist that their way is the only way, but I know from experience that one size doesn't always fit all.

In the end I decided to write my own tutorial. It's still probably a little long and needs some more editing, but it covers the basics and fits on a single sheet of paper (front and back). Here it is:

How and Why to Trim Your Dog’s Nails
This information is not intended as, nor should it be taken as veterinary advice. You should consult with and follow the advice of your own vet who knows you and who has seen your dog.

Why should I trim my dog’s nails?
There are more than just aesthetic reasons to trim your dog’s nails--untrimmed nails can cause a variety of problems including broken nails, which are painful and bleed profusely. And unlike humans or some other animals, a dog walks on his toes like a horse, not the soles of his feet. Long nails can cause the dog to rock back on his paws, causing strain on his leg assemblies and interfering with his gait. Some dogs (particularly overweight ones) may may find it uncomfortable to put their full body weight on their feet with overgrown nails, causing sore feet, legs and hips. Over the long term, this can also contribute to the devlopment of arthritis.

Many people have their dog’s nails trimmed by a groomer or at the vet’s office, which is usually affordable and quick. However, it can also be a very stressful experience for the dog, because rarely do such places take any time to ensure the dog is calm or comfortable. Really, they’re probably only charging $10 or so for the procedure, so if your dog puts up a fuss they’ll just restrain him, perhaps muzzle him, and clip away. It would be far better, and nicer, for you to handle this frequent task with care and compassion, which is why I recommend doing it yourself.

Getting started
There are two popular methods of trimming dogs nails: using a clipper tool and using a Dremel-style rotary grinding tool, which is my preferred method. The Dremel method is increasingly popular among owners and groomers because it has several safety advantages (which I will discuss below), but it’s good to know the ins and outs of both methods before you choose the one that is right for you.

Whichever method of nail-trimming you decide to use, the first step is to make sure your dog is comfortable having his paws handled. If your dog is hesitant or fearful of allowing you to handle his paws, you may need several sessions (or more if your dog has ever had a negative nail trimming experience) of touching and holding your dog’s paws, praising him, and giving him food rewards for allowing this contact. It is very important for you to remain calm, reassuring and confident--your dog can pick up on your stress and will react accordingly. If you get frustrated it’s best to stop the activity and try later when you are calmer. Keep sessions short at first until you and your dog are both confident and relaxed.

Once your dog is allowing you to touch and hold his paws, you need to get him comfortable with the trimming tool, whether it is a pair of clippers or a Dremel tool. Start by having it near the dog while you are rewarding/praising him for allowing paw-handling. Then start touching the tool to your dogs nails while rewarding and praising him for allowing it.

Some handbooks instruct you to drape your body over your reclining dog so that if he tries to get up you are restraining him. This position may cause anxiety and some struggling by the dog because it’s a dominant position that feels threatening to some dogs. It is far better to slowly help your dog learn that allowing nail trimming brings rewards. Even if he never loves the procedure, using care and rewards will convince him to allow it without the necessity of restraint.

Trimming nails with clippers
Clippers may be a convenient nail-trimming choice because they do not require power to operate. They are also less expensive to purchase than a rotary tool, but their blades can get dull rather quickly and need to be replaced. There are two popular styles of clippers for dogs: scissors style and guillotine style. The style you choose is a matter of personal preference, but many owners/groomers find the guillotine style to be easier to use on a regular basis (although for dogs whose nails have been allowed to grow so long they are curling, the scissors style may be more practical.) The guillotine-style clipper has a stationary ring guide through which the toenail is placed, and when the handles are squeezed a cutting blade moves across to slice the nail. Scissors-style clippers are positioned at a right angle to the nail with one blade on either side; squeezing the handles moves both blades together to cut the nail.

Regardless of which style you choose, the biggest challenge with clippers is avoiding the quick, which is the name for the blood vessels and nerves that supply the nail. Cutting the quick can cause bleeding and considerable pain for the dog (and will likely undo much of the work you have put into getting your dog to relax for paw handling!) It is far better to cut small bits off of the dog’s nails and do it more frequently than to try cutting too much and running the risk of hitting the quick.

For a dog that is new to nail cutting, you may want to give a treat reward after every nail cut. For dogs that are more experienced and relaxed you can give fewer treats, but it is always important to make the nail-cutting experience rewarding for the dog: praise him and give him treats or play when it’s over for a job well-done. Most importantly: it’s best to avoid stress and strife that will make the experience unpleasant for your dog. If you become frustrated stop and try again when you are more relaxed. If you must get the nails cut soon, take your dog to the vet or groomer this time so he doesn’t associate you with the unpleasant experience, and continue working at home getting the dog to relax for you.

Trimming nails with a Dremel-style rotary tool
Clipping a dog’s nails with guillotine- or scissors-style clippers involves squeezing the nail and putting pressure on the sensitive quick, potentially causing discomfort and pain. There is also the risk, especially with dark nails, that you will cut throught the quick and cause considerable pain and bleeding--and perhaps make your dog afraid of nail cutting forever. The difficulty involved often makes the human stressed, which in turn stresses out the dog and makes the entire operation more nerve-wracking and prone to error.

A properly used Dremel (or similar rotary tool) involves no squeezing or pressure on the quick. Further, Dremeling makes it easier to check the nail as you grind so you can judge when you’re getting close to nicking the quick and stop in time. With the Dremel, you can also grind off all around the quick so that it recedes faster and you can get even shorter nails. The closer you can get to the quick, the more you can force it to recede and the more quickly it will recede. Finally, you can grind off all the corners and rough edges leaving nice smooth nails.

Remember that the first step is to help your dog relax and allow paw-handling. After this, you are ready to acquaint him with the Dremel too so he will not fear it. Start with the tool off, and leave it nearby in full sight while you handle your dogs paws and reward him. Then pick up the Dremel--keeping the power off--and hold it near him and allow him to sniff it. If he shows little fear or interest, touch the Dremel to a toenail or two and reward the dog for allowing it. (If he won’t allow, go back a step). Remember that making the first experiences positive is very important!

Once he’s comfortable with the Dremel off, you will need to habituate him to having it turned on. This is very difficult for some dogs and may take many sessions and some patience. Turn on the Dremel and hold it while praising your dog and giving it treats. Do not restrain the dog and force him to stay near the dremel. (If he’s on a leash, let him go to the end of the leash if that’s what he wants, but don’t use it to pull him back. You could try all of this in the bathroom with the door closed so they are always near enough to lure back.) Lure him with treats, the closer he comes or stays, the better the reward. Gradually work toward holding the running Dremel close and closer to a paw, rewarding and praising your dog for allowing it. The next step is to tap the running Dremel head against the end of each claw briefly and reward. You are not actually trying to trim at this point, just getting your dog accustomed to the idea.

Once he is comfortable with the touch of the dremel, you can start spending more time grinding each nail. The friction from the Dremel can generate a lot of heat, and so it’s important not to hold it too long at each nail. A few seconds on, a second or two off is a good pattern. Also, do not apply pressure to the nail with the Dremel--this will also make the nail too hot. The friction of the sandpaper and the spinning of the drum will do the grinding for you.

It’s better and more comfortable for your dog if you take very long nails to their desireable short length by doing more frequent grindings of small amounts than to try and grind large amounts all at once. Plan twice-weekly sessions and take a little bit at a time until you’ve reach your goal, and then keep a weekly or bi-weekly schedule to maintain it.

Dremel makes several corded and cordless models. Corded models may be best for large dogs and multiple dog households, but cordless models work well for many dogs, are great for traveling and are more maneuverable. (I use a cordless and it works very well.) If you choose a style that has more than two speeds, keep it on 1 or 2--any faster and you may generate too much heat too quickly.

Tips:
  • If you have a dog with a longer coat, you may want to trim the fur on the paws before dremeling so it will not get caught and cause pain.

  • Styptic powder is handy to have in case you do nick the quick and need to stop the bleeding.

Tick-disease update

To update my previous post about tick diseases, the results of Mr. Gomez's blood work back and he has at some point been exposed to three tick-borne diseases: Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease.

The good news is he is responding well to the treatment.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Flyball fanatics on the road

Two members of my flyball club moved (back) to Alaska a couple of years ago and formed Alaska Dogs Gone Wild, the first (and so far only) flyball club in that state. They are hosting Alaska's first flyball tournament this month, a small affair with only four clubs participating, because it's not easy for people from the continental US, or even most of Canada, to transport themselves, their dogs and their flyball gear to Alaska to compete.

Nonetheless, several members of my club are crazy enough (and have enough time on their hands) to try. Three humans and nine dogs in two RVs are trekking toward Alaska right now. A fourth team member will fly in to Anchorage just for the tournament itself (stupid day job!). One of the overland trekkers is blogging the experience, complete with photos.

In case you wandered in off the street and don't have any idea what flyball is ... well good question! I have gotten that question a lot and could never find a concise but thorough answer, so I put up a page myself: What Is Flyball?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Teaching your dog to "come" reliably

Twice in the past two days I've seen examples of how NOT to get your dog to come to you when called. Once was yesterday, when a dog trailing a rope wandered down my street, and a few minutes later a guy in a car came down the street trying to retrieve the dog. The guy opened the passenger door of the car and angrily growled "Get in here now!" The dog turned the other direction and then took off across the street. The guy got out of the car and managed to frighten the dog enough that he (she?) hunkered down and cowered, giving the guy a chance to go grab the dog's rope and put the dog in the car. But the dog never actually came to the man, and he could have easily taken off running again, perhaps into traffic on the busy street a half-block away. (I certainly didn't blame the dog for running away from the man in the first place!)

The second time was this morning, when I was walking my dog Lucy. A schnauzer pushed through an unlatched screen door to chase us. I alerted his owner by yelling toward the house, and when she came out she yelled rather angrily "Walter, get in here." Walter backed away from her a little and it was only when she opened the door wider and he saw his chance to safely dart past her into the house that he went in.

Both of these dogs got the message from their owners that nothing good was going to happen if they obeyed the command to come. It seemed pretty obvious that these people had taught their dogs NOT to come when called.

Teaching a reliable "come" can be easy if you have fostered a positive relationship with your dog and he sees you as the highlight of his life. However, even if you've ruined the word "come" with some negative connotations already, it's not too late to pick a new word and start over again. I know of a woman who uses the word "sausage" and has taught her dogs that it means "No matter what you've done, all is forgiven once you get here!" And that is the key: The word you choose must always mean good things, and only good things.

The basic method for beginning to teach "come" is simple, but it must be practiced and rewarded consistently before you can expect the dog to actually do it off-leash, especially in the face of something enticing like a squirrel or another dog. The simplest method to start with:
  1. Have a friend hold the dog's leash.

  2. Get a handful of tasty treats (if dog has not yet eaten, you can use some of his dinner kibble) and show the dog you have them (a quick pass under dog's nose should do.)

  3. Take several steps away from the dog, then say his name in a happy voice. As soon as he is heading toward you (your friend can drop the leash once the dog is heading toward you) say "Come" once.

  4. Reward him with the whole handful of treats

  5. Repeat several times (five is good) this session, and at least one session a day for about a week, then at least once a week and in increasingly distracting situations. This is a skill that you will want to practice periodically through your dog's entire life so that when you really need it--when it may save his life--he knows exactly what it means.

In outdoor situations, you may want to invest in a longer leash (my mother made us each a 50 ft. leash using nylon webbing and hardware she bought online). If you don't have a person to help, you can teach it yourself: let your dog get several feet away on a leash, take a step or two away and say the dogs name happily and then add "come" after the dog has already started toward toward you. A great way to reinforce the "come" is to reward offered behaviors: If your dog is already running toward you, just say "come" and then reward your dog's arrival.

There are several important caveats to consider when teaching "come"
  • Never call your dog to you for punishments or anything the dog hates.

  • Say the word "Come" only once--otherwise your dog will start to learn the command as "Come! Come! Come!"

  • Try not to say the word "Come" until your dog is already heading toward you, and only practice the command when you are assured of success (i.e. the dog is on a leash and can't run away). Using the word when you aren't guaranteed success only teaches the dog to ignore it.

  • Chase games should always involve the dog chasing YOU and not the other way around. If you chase your dog for fun, he is liable to think that you running toward him (a common response by people when their dog has taken off toward the street or has just grabbed the Thanksgiving turkey off the table) is an invitation to play chase, and taking off running may be what he thinks you want him to do.

  • Always reward a successful come! This is one behavior that you want your dog to believe will be rewarded no matter what--it could save his life! If you ever have to use it without having treats available (i.e. in an emergency), always follow up soon with a practice session in which your dog gets lots of rewards for coming when called. (I try to have treats with me on most of my dog walks and hikes as a matter of course--you never know when you will need to get your dog's attention very quickly!)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tick-borne diseases

It's tick season, and they seem to be especially heavy this year, at least in NC, thanks to and early spring and plentiful rain (ticks like humidity). My dog Mr. Gomez gets to go on a lot of excursions in the woods, and he frequently picks up a tick or two, which we find later. We treat our dogs with Frontline Plus, but it can take between 24 and 48 hours to kill a tick after it's hitched a ride on a treated dog. A tick carrying a disease can transmit the organism in as few as five hours. (Other canine tick-borne diseases include Ehrlichiosis, Basesiosis and Lyme Disease).

Unfortunately, we may have let a tick stay on Mr. Gomez a little too long, because we suspect he may have a tick-borne illness. His symptoms included lethargy and loss of appetite, and when they took his temp at the vet it was a little over 104 degrees F (Normal dog temp is 102 F). An initial blood test showed low-platelets, which can be an indicator of tick-borne diseases. We're awaiting the results of the tick serology, but in the meantime the vet prescribed doxycycline and prednisone, which seemed to perk him up soon after the first dose.

So now we're reminded to be more vigilant in checking for ticks, and when we find them, take care to remove them properly.