27 December 2010

Commercially produced dog food ~ making sense of the label

Commercially produced dog food - kibbles, cans and pouches - is big business, and with such a wide and differing range of brands and varieties, all claiming to be the best food that you could possibly give to your dog, picking the right one (or even a good one) is confusing to say the least. Even a high price is no guarantee of nutritional quality - maybe of quality of ingredients, but whether those ingredients are biologically appropriate and digestible requires a bit of study.

30 November 2010

At last - some snow!

Not much mind, but enough of a dusting to send Beau into a bumtuck the second his paws touched the ground first thing this morning.  Tilly on the other hand was less than impressed.  She didn't even leave the porch, and after letting out a couple of disdainful snorts, tippy-toed back inside the house.  It was a different story though a couple of hours later when I brought out her ball ...

12 November 2010

Top up on sunshine this winter

With the nights drawing in and the wintery weather upon us, just a little sunshine and fresh air can make the world of difference to our dogs' well-being, as it does to our own.  So if the sun is shining, get outside for a quick walk, or lay a rug out in a sheltered corner of the garden so that your dogs can soak up some of those all important rays ...

21 September 2010

Beau and Tilly pencil portraits

I usually use chalk pastel for portraits, but thought I'd have a go with some coloured pencils for these two drawings of Tilly and Beau ...

10 September 2010

Fireworks ~ How to help your dog cope

If your dog is okay with all the whizzes, bangs and flashes, count yourself lucky ~ some dogs are just naturally not bothered by this kind of noise, but for those who have dogs who are terrified by the noise of fireworks, gunshot and thunder, and tremble, shake, pant, whine, pace, hide, try to escape ~ this is for you ...


Fear of loud and sudden noise is common in dogs. This type of fear is what is known as a ‘somatic’ response, which means that a dog does not think about, nor decide, to be afraid. The somatic response to fear is involuntary, and produces symptoms such as trembling, rapid and shallow panting, hyper (excess) salivation, raised heart rate and blood pressure, and fleeing.

THE ‘DO’S’ …

... DO ensure that your dog has been walked and has peed and pooed before the fireworks are expected to start.

... DO ask your neighbours if they have any home fireworks planned so that you can plan ahead and prepare for the event.

... DO feed your dog (if it is normally fed in the evening) at least an hour and a half before the fireworks are expected to start to allow time for the meal to be digested. The part of the nervous system responsible for digestive function takes a back seat when the body is under the influence of extreme, somatic stress, so any undigested food is likely to remain in the stomach for much longer than normal, which can lead to digestive upsets and poor absorption of nutrients. Starchy foods such as potato contain substances that actually enable the dog to produce hormones that can help to counteract the effects of somatic stress, so including some potato or rice in the dog’s evening meal can be beneficial.

... DO keep your dog inside the house and close all windows and exit doors, and block-off cat and dog flaps. Inside the house is the safest place that your dog can be, however, in their panic to get away from the noise and flashes some dogs may try to escape from the house, some have even been known to break through closed, upstairs windows, so …

... DO close all curtains and blinds to obscure the view of the outside world and to minimise flashes.

... DO keep lights turned on inside the house. The brighter the better, as this helps to absorb the flashes.

... DO have some background noise on in the house. The TV or radio turned on at a normal volume (not loud) will help to minimise noise from outside, however, ‘white noise’, which is the continuous sound of static interference or static-type noise from appliances such as fans and fan heaters, washing machines, tumble dryers, etc, helps to absorb sudden/loud bangs and whizzes much more effectively than an loud TV or radio.

... DO allow your dog to pace around and whine ~ whilst this is a sign that it is stressed, pacing and whining actually serve a de-stressing function so it’s important to allow the dog to do this unhindered. If your dog does pace and whine …

... DO ensure that it has somewhere comfy to hide and let it go there. Some dogs will make a dash for the laundry basket, airing or under stairs cupboard or under a bed. It’s really important to allow your dog the opportunity to go and hide, and so it’s a good idea to prepare a ‘safety den’ in a suitable place as close to the centre of the house as possible using a pile of old clothes or blankets, and encourage the dog to go there.

... DO constructively touch your dog if it comes to you with some ear T-Touch or gentle but firm massage to the head, neck, shoulders and back. Ear T-Touch and massage is a PROVEN WAY to lower heart rate and blood pressure, which helps to relax the dog and counteract the somatic fear response. You will absolutely not be rewarding your dog for being frightened or reinforcing the fear by doing this! I heard a first-hand story last year from a dog trainer in the US who, going against her long-held training belief that touch reinforces fearful behaviour, almost certainly saved her dog’s life by giving it deep-tissue type massage during the 4th July celebrations when it went into stridor.

... DO ensure your dog is wearing some form of easily readable identification even in the house so that if it does escape and run off, it has a good chance of being reunited with you if found. By law, at least a collar and tag is required, however, collars can come off or be removed. Micro-chipping your dog gives you both the best chance of being reunited.

... DO give your dog time to de-stress and recover once the fireworks are over. A shorter walk the next day in a safe, familiar area, an extra blanket in its bed, and unless you absolutely have to, don’t do any activity that you know stresses your dog, for example taking it to the vet’s or groomer’s.


... DON’T prevent your dog from hiding itself away.

... DON’T leave the curtains and blinds open.

... DON’T dim the lights. Dim lighting inside the house will make flashes more visible.

... DON’T turn the TV or stereo up to full volume to try and mask the whizzes and bangs, it doesn’t work and the unnaturally high volume may make your dog even more stressed.

... DON’T ignore your dog if it comes to you. Giving attention to a fearful dog who is actively looking for reassurance absolutely does not reinforce fearful behaviour!  Be happy that your dog views you as its safe haven and give it some constructive touch such as ear T-Touch or gentle but firm massage to the head, neck, shoulders and back.  This will help to calm and relax your dog and reduce its stress (and therefore its fear level).  Be careful not to make your dog feel 'trapped' by pulling it close to you - give constructive attention when your dog seeks this, but allow it the freedom to move away too.   

... DON’T put your dog under any more pressure than it is already under, so don’t try and do obedience type activities. You will almost certainly get very shaky obedience for weeks afterwards.

... DON’T leave your dog alone in the house when fireworks are going off outside. If you absolutely have to leave the house, don’t get angry with your dog if you find that on your return, it has been destructive. Shouting at a frightened dog will only make it more stressed.

... DON’T tie your dog up outside while fireworks are being let off, e.g. outside a shop while you go inside, or leave it in the garden or in your car.

... DON’T take your dog to a fireworks display. Even if it isn’t obviously frightened by the noise, it doesn’t mean that it is happy. Panting, yawning, whining and general restlessness can be signs that your dog is anxious and stressed.


Valerian and Skullcap

This non-sedative, anti-anxiety herbal remedy is available from many on-line pet-stores in tablet form. I have used it for nervousness and anxiety in my own dogs and it really does help them to cope with and better recover from stressful events.

‘Thunderstorm’ flower essence remedies

Flower essence remedies often work very well for dogs. Thunderstorm/fireworks/loud noises remedies can help to re-balance the emotions during loud/sudden noise events. There are various brands available, including the traditional Bach flower remedies.

‘TFLN’ (Thunderstorms Fireworks & Loud Noises) homeopathic remedy

Available from larger pet-stores and many on-line pet stores. This may work for some dogs, but I’ve not seen much improvement in my own with it.


Non-drug-type anti-stress formula containing the milk protein amino-acid casein, which can help the body to produce it’s own anti-stress hormones to counteract the physiological effects of stress. Available in capsule form from your vet or from ‘pharmacy-type’ on-line pet-stores. I used this for one of my own dogs last year, but I’m unsure how much it helped her as her fear of fireworks is extreme. For dogs with milder fireworks stress it may be more beneficial, and giving it for the suggested 14 days leading up to the event may increase its effects.

Body wraps/t-shirts/Thundershirt

These work by applying a continuous, gentle pressure over the dog’s body allowing the dog’s natural response to ‘move into pressure’ to occur. This has the effect of lowering heartbeat and blood pressure and so reduces anxiety and stress.

Massage and TTouch

Deliberate massage or pressure (as opposed to gentle stroking) has a similar effect to body wraps but with the additional benefit of releasing tension and toxins within the muscles and skin.


Melatonin is a naturally occurring neuro-hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain.  In research by Drs Nicolas Dodman (BVMS) and Linda Aronson (DVM), melatonin has shown to be highly effective at treating noise phobias.  The suggested dose is 1.5mg for small dogs, 3mg for medium dogs and 6mg for large dogs.  Available in tablet, capsule, powder and liquid forms from health food stores, the standard, non-time-release tablet form is considered to be best for dogs, taking approximately 10-15 minutes to start calming the dog.  Please see this article for further information about melatonin, its benefits and safety.


The first year that Tilly was with us she was terrified of fireworks, gunshot, bird scarers and thunder.  The first bonfire 'fortnight' had a severe knock-on effect, and for the remainder of the winter and into spring, just one pop or crackle from a log on the fire would send her running to her crate where she'd stay for the entire evening.  The following year was much the same, although the fireworks didn't drag on for quite so long and valerian and skullcap seemed to help her a little. 

Last year, having done some further research about sudden noise phobia, I was much better prepared.  Every evening throughout the entire duration of each evening's fireworks I found something to put in the washing machine.  I ran a fan heater in the living room from 6pm until late.  I dosed her up on valerian and skullcap.  When she was lying beside me on the sofa, I massaged her ~ and amazingly, although there was the occasional louder bang outside, on the whole she stayed put.  And once the firework season finally came to an end there was no knock-on effect like the previous years, and she spent many warm and happy evenings throughout the winter, dozing on the sheepskin hearthrug in front of the wood-burner.

This year (2011) I didn't bother with the valerian and skullcap and we tried a Thundershirt and melatonin instead, and wow, what a difference.  I put the Thundershirt on her at about 2pm on the Saturday (which was Nov 5th) as she was fussing and not settling and I needed to get on with some work.  This seemed to relax her for the rest of the afternoon until about 4.30 when it started getting dusky outside and she began to get quite anxious again.  So I fed her at about 4.45pm, gave her a 3mg melatonin tablet, and put the fan heater on in the living room for a bit of white noise.  She went into her crate after her tea, as she sometimes does anyway, fell asleep and remained asleep for the next couple of hours until David came home, when she came out, said hello to him and had a fuss, then went back to her crate for another snooze.  All the while, fireworks where going off, some close by, some further away, but she remained relaxed and snoozing throughout ~ I even heard her sigh at one point.  At about 8.50pm she came out of her crate and hopped onto the sofa.  9.15pm brought a run of crackly-whizzes from a neighbouring garden ~ she looked up, I rubbed her ears, she sighed and went back to sleep.  10.20 brought a couple of loud bangs from somewhere behind the house and she didn't even notice, unlike Beau (who is not bothered by fireworks) who shot off the sofa and stood at the back door, waiting for whoever was 'knocking' to be let in!  So a combination of Thundershirt for the initial anxiety and melatonin at tea time really has worked wonders this year.  I can confidently say that bonfire night is no longer going to be a stressful time for her, and we will be doing exactly the same next year!

30 August 2010

Dog agility ~ It's not just a collie thing

What do you picture when you think of dog agility?  Crazy collies racing over hurdles at warp speed, their handlers barking out commands as they try and keep up?  Ever picture a 35kg Labrador doing it?  Cue Beau ...

The hurdles and tyre jump are homemade.  For instructions on how to make simple jumps and hurdles see here ... http://www.agilitybits.co.uk/Equipment/equip_index.html

I used 2"x2" lengths of wood fixed together with screws rather than nails so the hurdles and tyre jump are really sturdy.  The tyre jump is my own design and can be raised and lowered.

Food bowls are boring! Cue Tilly ...

When we're not trick training, this is how Tilly has her breakfast ... 


The video has been edited to less than 2 minutes long as it actually takes her about 10 minutes to empty the Dog Pyramid - a tough plastic food dispenser toy that has a weighted base, making it easy for the dog to control, but unpredictable enough to keep it interesting!

29 August 2010

Leadership ~ What does it mean?

'Leadership' has become a popular doggy buzzword in recent years, however, I find that it's a word whose meaning continues to be misunderstood by many people.  Owners of unruly pooches are frequently told that their dogs 'lack leadership', however, it's often the trainer's explanation of leadership that is equally lacking.  The result is usually an even more confused dog, and after an initial self-esteem boost, an owner who feels as though they are constantly 'battling' to keep their dog's mis-behaviour in check. 

It's important to realise here that our dogs are not on a never-ending quest to take over the world.  So many unruly behaviours are mis-labelled as 'dominant', whereas in actual fact for the most part they are expressions of a dog's confusion, anxiety, frustration, excitement or stress.   

To truly grasp what leadership is, it's important to realise what leadership is not.  Leadership isn't about taking care of a dog's needs - that's just being a responsible and caring dog owner.  Leadership isn't about 'controlling resources', 'having the upper hand' or 'putting a dog in its place'.  Neither is it forcing a dog to yield to human authority, for example, 'correcting' a dog's behaviour or making a dog give up right of way through doorways.  These are all dominance-related activities, and dominant-subordinate interaction is about 'can't do' and 'mustn't do' with the purpose of setting social boundaries and limiting behaviour.  Dominant-subordinate interaction is not leadership, and too much of it results in a dog that either gets trapped in a cycle of anxiety and frustration and becomes even more unruly as it tries harder and harder to interact, or a dog that simply gives up trying to interact and shuts down because either its efforts always fail, or they are met with hostility.  Leadership has nothing to do with eating before your dog eats, or being 'the alpha' or 'the pack leader' either, in fact these things don't even fall under dominant-subordinate interaction, but that's a whole other topic.  

And so to what leadership is ... 

In contrast to dominant-subordinate interaction is leader-follower interaction.  Leader-follower interaction defines what a dog can and may do. 

What leadership means in relation to our interaction with our dogs is to provide direction, to show and teach them what they are allowed to do, guide them towards what they can and may do instead of engaging in nuisance-type behaviours such as jumping up, biting on hands, pulling on the lead, barking, or barging through doorways.  And 'do' is an important word here - it's not enough to say 'I want my dog to stop barking' or 'I want my dog to not jump up' or 'not pull on the lead' - leadership is about teaching them what we want them to do instead, not what we want them not to do. 

Leadership requires concerted and constructive effort on our part, and involves us prompting and coordinating friendly social interaction, activities and behaviours that bring beneficial results both to us as leaders and to our dogs as followers.  It's about quality of life and enriching the  bond that we have with our dogs.  

Leadership requires us to communicate clearly and compassionately with our dogs, to be patient and tolerant while our dogs are learning to follow and trust our direction, and above all, to remember that we are on the same team as our dogs - always.

26 August 2010

'The Gambling Effect' ~ How to keep your dog addicted to training ...

If, like me, you have ever found yourself standing in front of a slot machine, losing game after game but still continuing to feed in your money in the hope that Lady Luck is smiling favourably upon you and that on your next go, the machine is sure to pay out - just like it did 10 minutes ago - you'll understand what I mean by the gambling effect.  Because we won something once, we are prepared to continue our efforts and put up with getting nothing, time after time, for the chance of winning again - maybe even hitting the jackpot.

If after a while we haven't had a win, we might decide to cut our losses and give up.  The chances are though that the next time we and the slot machine are together in the same room - even if this happens a few weeks later - we'll be flash with our cash and play it again because it's our wins that we remember, not all the countless games that we lost.  This is because when we have a win, a big release of the neuro-hormone, dopamine, floods our brain.  Dopamine is the stuff of desire, of want and addiction, and it's what keeps us feeding that slot machine in the hope that it'll pay out again soon ... and so long as we get an occasional payout, we'll keep putting our efforts into winning even though overall, we have probably lost more money than we have gained.

We can apply the principle of 'the gambling effect' with our dogs too.  I don't mean that we can train them to play the slot machines for us while we sit and chill with a beer and then collect our winnings at the end of the evening ... although that would be pretty cool ... no, I mean that when our dogs receive something really rewarding, the same thing happens in their brain as it does in ours - dopamine is released, and what the dog was doing immediately before the reward is likely to be repeated in order for that reward to occur again.  The trouble with using rewards such as food tit-bits in training is that the value of the reward decreases if it occurs every time - or rather the 'desire' for the reward lessens.  The desire for the reward hinges on its unpredictability, and once a reward has become predictable its value goes down.  In the presence of other rewards that don't occur very often, that once high-value reward is next to worthless, and no longer worth the effort to try and obtain unless there is nothing better on offer.  At the other end of the scale from this, efforts made to obtain a previously once-gotten reward that consistently end in failure result in the 'why bother effect', and effort ceases completely.

Using the gambling effect to keep the value of a reward high, and so the chances of the effort required to obtain that reward high also, involves making the occurrence of the reward unpredictable.  Not giving the reward every time our dogs do as we ask is difficult.  We want to reward them because we want them to repeat that behaviour the next time we ask for it, however, what happens then is that we, not our dogs, fall under the influence of the gambling effect, and it is we who end up holding out for the desired behaviour, rather than our dogs holding out for the reward. 

Once we are sure that our dogs have learned a new behaviour - which usually happens after only a few repetitions, sometimes even upon the first go if our timing is spot on - we need that behaviour to become a habit and so for a while, we need to reward it every time it occurs.  Once the behaviour has become a habit then we need to start making the reward unpredictable, which means not paying out every time our dogs put the effort in.  We can still give a cheery 'good dog!' if it makes us feel better, but the reward that we have used to train the behaviour in the first place needs to be saved for another time.  So long as that reward does happen from time to time in the near rather than the distant future when the behaviour is repeated, and occasionally the reward is even better than expected, it will remain desirable and therefore worth the effort of our dogs doing what it takes in order to obtain it.

23 August 2010

First post

It's taken me most of the evening to set up this blog ... so many design options and gadgets to choose from!  My dogs - Tilly, Labrador x terrier (pictured right, except she's not a Lab x terrier as I have since found out, see this post) and Beau, Labrador (pictured left) - will soon be letting me know that's it time for them to go out into the garden and chase the frogs around the paddling pool ... so more from me another day.