What dogs teach you


Dogs teach you

About yourself,

About life and love.

You will always owe them more than they will ever owe you.

Yes, even though you feed them, pet them, give them shelter,

Buy them squeaky toys and take them for walks,

Pay for vet visits and pick up their poop.

That’s nothing.

A dog will unfreeze your heart,

Softening parts you didn’t even notice before.

A dog will crack open your mind,

And challenge that harsh tyrant within.

A dog will teach you to love; a love you’ve only paddled in.

They’ll tug you from the shallows of the shoreline,

To swim with them in the boundless and mysterious pool

Of Love.

Yes, swim with them

in that boundless pool of Love.


Tragic pose


After waiting patiently as I took dozens of photos from different angles, he finally sank into exhaustion.

Letting the dog win

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed Zeke’s increasing joy in life. Maybe it’s because spring has arrived, but at four years old, he’s growing ever more puppyish, gamboling over to me to offer a toy.  I play with him every time he does this, dropping whatever else I might have been involved in. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, we play.

And he always gets the last word in the conversation.

Sometimes I just stop, laugh and go back to whatever I was doing. Other times I imagine I’m being more communicative and I will say “Ok, you can have it”.

There’s no perceptible difference in the result of those two responses. He looks happy either way. Sometimes he shakes the toy or prances around, sometimes he just drops it and flops to the floor himself and sometimes he goes to his bed and settles.

Just depends on him, I guess.

I started this ‘letting the dog win’ approach a few weeks ago, not long after watching Peta Clarke’s Chihuahua play what Peta calls ‘casuals’ .

As I watched the Chi drag a toy in front and over the Bulldog, ‘casually’ hoping that Luka would be lured in, I realized once again, how clumsy and unsubtle I must seem to my dogs when I’m playing with them.

I resolved to let go of criteria like ‘he should grab the toy immediately when I offer it’ and ‘he should drive to me’ and ‘he should grip the tug hard’ and decided to get casual. I also abandoned ‘I should always be the one who decides when we play, what we play, or when we stop’.  I ‘let’ him win. A lot.

What I received from him instead, over the ensuing days, was greater joy, increased invitations to play and more obvious connection (focused but confident eyes, soft body, graceful movement, happy ears). In between play sessions I saw more honest, chosen relaxation, as opposed to me directing him to lie down and quit bugging me.

I’ve also noticed positive changes in how he interacts with my Schipperke. In the past, whenever he would see her with a toy, he’d charge over and take it away. But a few days ago I held my breath, as I watched him squirm on his back in front of her with a toy in his mouth, playing casuals.  I don’t think that behavioural change was coincidence, but a direct application of the change he saw in me. He took the idea that we could play without worrying about who was winning, who’s turn it was or who’s toy it was and applied it with another playmate.

Since then I’ve also observed he is growing more relaxed around her, even when he’s in an aroused state. In the past, if he was anticipating playing with me, anticipating dinner, or affected by other environmental triggers such as my husband coming home, or passersby on the street, he would predictably re-direct aggressively to her.  Now, I’m observing him choosing to turn away and refocus on me or pounce on a nearby toy.

So by letting go of the idea that my dogs must immediately respond to me whenever I offer a toy, and by relaxing and laughing and playing ‘casuals’ I move ever closer to my overarching goal; that of building a more trusting and respectful relationship with my dogs.




Don’t feed the dog at the table!

This morning, as I ate my breakfast, I tossed a piece of my bacon slice onto the mat where my dog lay behind me. 

My husband gave me a look.He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Don’t feed the dog at the table! That’s the admonition my parents used to make, an eon or so ago. 

But of course, I’m not “feeding the dog at the table”. I’m reinforcing the dog for staying on his mat while we eat breakfast. Feeding the dog at the table would be, well, feeding the dog when it positioned itself at the table. Of course,  I fed the dog something from my plate, simply because that’s where the nearest reinforcement I could put my hands on was. The dog knows I have food on my plate. Not feeding him from it isn’t going to change that knowledge. All I did was reinforce his position; remaining calm on his mat behind me while my husband and I eat breakfast. 

Enjoy your bacon bit, Zekie! 


Crap Handler

Ah, Nosework. It’s exquisitely elegant. The rules of the game are quite simple, just not easy.

Rule #1. The dog rules the game.

Rule #2. The handler must perform his or her job as assistant to the dog correctly and completely.

Yesterday, I set up two runs on my front stairs. I wanted to do them before I headed off to an appointment.

Handler Error #1. Don’t be in a hurry.

Both dogs found the hides readily, and I was pleased with my handling, which was mostly watch your dog, trust your dog, get out of the way of your dog, reward your dog.

I put them away, grabbed my purse and headed out the door.

Handler Error #2. Don’t be in a hurry.

The next morning, I reached into a jacket pocket and brought out a hide. Hmmm. Went to the Nosework kit to check. Yup. Missing two hides. I remembered that Zeke last night had gotten into my closet and dragged out the jacket. Hmmmm. Thankfully, I hadn’t said anything to him, but had just closed the door of the room.

Horror. Maybe he’d EATEN the hides? Nah, the Schip, maybe, but not a Cattle dog.  But where were they?

I hunted through the closet and the room.

Husband says, why don’t you ask the dogs to find them? Thanks, dear.

Zeke searches for a few moments and then stops and looks at me. I give up and walk into the kitchen. Zeke continues to the back door and sits. I follow. The light goes on. Could I have committed the BIG Nosework no no?

I go out the door to yesterday’s search area and yes indeed, there remain the two hides I left in place, because I was in too much of a hurry.

Thanks, Zekie, you little genius.

Must revisit Rule #2.

Questioning accepted wisdom…

A few months ago I took Zeke in for a veterinarian checkup and bloodwork. My vet is excellent. She’s confident and decisive but she still listens well and respects my decisions. One of my decisions has been to leave Zeke intact. During the appointment, my vet declared that 90 percent of behavioural issues including fear and aggression, were resolved with neutering.

Many, many people have advised me to neuter him as a step towards improving his reactivity. I have been unable to find any scientific studies to show that neutering Zeke would improve his behaviour. To the contrary, I found quite a bit of evidence to show that by neutering him I would be putting him at much higher risk for a number of significant health problems. Still, I respected the fact that my vet might have access to better professional research than me, so I asked her to please show me the research to support her claim.

Later, I remembered reading the works of Dr. Chris Zink, a veterinarian and researcher with a strong interest in agility and performance dogs. She has been a lone voice challenging the conventional wisdom that favours spaying and neutering dogs. I emailed her that evening, asking her if she knew of any strong scientific evidence that neutering fearful and aggressive dogs improved their behaviour.

A couple of weeks after my appointment, a letter arrived from my veterinarian.  She enclosed one very small and inconclusive study with her hand written note admitting that there seemed to be little evidence to support her claim.

Today, I was delighted to receive a response from Dr. Zink. She wrote,
” There is no good evidence that neutering improves behavior, and in fact there is some strong evidence that it increases aggression both to people and dogs.There is an article on my website http://www.caninesports.com that shows some of the initial data on this subject from a paper I hope to publish this fall…the best thing is to keep your dog intact (your vet or any veterinary surgeon can do a vasectomy if you want to be sure he is never bred) and continue your behavioral work with him”  

Thank you, Dr. Zink, for being a true scientist and questioning conventional practice.

It’s another LIFE Q

This evening I was taking tea on the front porch with Zeke when a gaggle of neighborhood kids started milling around the front sidewalk. Then the family that lives across the street came home and unloaded their toddlers and gear. I offered Zeke a favourite toy to tug; a wretched and smelly old soccer ball that he adores.

No, thanks, he said, I’d rather watch. I could see him winding up a bit so I knew I had to work through that little “Don’t wanna, don’t hafta” moment a bit farther away from the distraction. Just inside the front door, I got down on the floor and slapped the toy on the floor (something I learned from SG, when she worked Swagger through those moments as a tiny puppy) Darned if he didn’t TUG with real enthusiasm!

We slowly worked our way back out onto the porch, still tugging. Then, for a change I tossed the ball for him. Now he’s relaxing out there, watching the view. (It’s quieter though)
A HUGE life Q for us. And it’s something I am very, very grateful for, today.

Nova video

Great little video about the intelligence of dogs.

Nosework Class #3

Zeke had a great third class. He hunted well and seemed calmer for both runs, although his second run was more relaxed. 

When we get home he’s really charged and wants to tug and play. I thought nosework was supposed to tire him out! 


Ah, wait.

Maybe it was a sugar rush from all those treats.

When he’s bad he’s very very bad.

 But when he’s good, he’s angelic.