The Zen Dog; 7 Ways to Stay Sane with Dogs and Company

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It’s that time of year again! The hustle and bustle of the holidays is upon us. This is truly my favorite time of year–great food, cozy fires, welcoming family, and really taking time to remember all the things that we have been blessed with in the past year. The holidays also bring with them extra time spent cooking and baking, cleaning, shopping, and decorating. Really, we could describe the holidays at times in one word: madness.

Our dogs can feel the same way. As much as I am sure that your dog loves getting a little extra turkey or ham in his dish, there is definitely added stress with the additional traffic of nieces, nephews, cousins, and a great uncle from which side of the family you just can’t remember.

In the midst of the insanity, at times, it’s important to think of the one furry kid that got you through this past year, your dog. Following are my suggestions to provide for his sense of peace and well being, and his health and safety throughout the holidays:

  1. Make a space of his own

Let’s be honest now because you are only reading a blog, and what you think at this moment has no external consequences: Having company, no matter how much you love them, can be an extra burden and sometimes overwhelming, right? Your routine is off. You are constantly vigilant (if you are a great host) monitoring your company’s level of comfort. At times, we aren’t as relaxed even in our own home with company sharing our space. I can only imagine this is true for dogs as well. They may or may not be used to house guests. Maybe the guests get into your dog’s space, making him feel uncomfortable; maybe there are unfamiliar children involved, and the list goes on. The fact is, just as having guests in the house is not the same for you, they just aren’t the same for your dog either, so it’s important that you provide a space for your dog that is his own where, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, he can get away to relax and breathe and regain his Zen.

This space could present as a kennel in another room, a baby gate in your own room or master bath, or a laundry room. It needs to be a place where he can 100 percent let down and not have to worry that your second-cousin-once-removed is going to poke, prod, or pet him. He can just be in his own space.

Depending on your dog’s comfort level, he may need to stay in this private space the duration of the visit and taken on leash to potty and exercise as part of his routine.

  1. “Through a Dog’s Ear”

Let’s face it, “Jingle Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” simply are not on your dog’s playlist, but one that will help to maintain his Zen is the CD or MP3 version of “Through a Dog’s Ear,” a clinically proven music CD that is designed to promote a relaxed response in dogs. Playing this CD in his space will encourage a relaxed response and drown out the extra noise of company during your guests’ visit–and maybe even your niece’s fiftieth chorus of Frosty the Snowman.  

  1. Relaxation techniques

Time is of the essence with the holidays upon us, but there are many training techniques that I have taught my students over the years that help dogs use their own body to calm themselves. They are called biofeedback techniques, which include training the dog to use his own breath to calm himself as well as many other strategies that I have extensively covered in my book Control on Leash. I also wrote a blog on teaching impulse control through creating wave-like pattern exercises (click here for details). The goal, of course, is to train your dog to learn to be able to find his own Zen when he is under stress.

  1. Keep him busy

Dogs can’t play Candy Land or Elf on the Shelf. Nonetheless, even though your dog is sheltered away from others while in his personal space, he doesn’t need to be bored. Many puzzle toys, food-stuffed Kongs, and something to chew on such as a Himalayan chew, a bully stick, or an antler are easily available to the consumer. However, you want to be watchful for small pieces of anything that might cause accidental choking or other health issues.

  1. Avoiding intense amount of time with multiple family members

Recently, my niece and I were talking about athletics. She is a distance runner and can go many miles. I told her that I am not a long-distance runner, that I sprint and do interval training. As she was unfamiliar with the concept of interval training, I explained that, for my workout, I run as fast as I can for a specific distance, and then I walk for a specific distance and then repeat that pattern. My training is an example of how you need to manage your dog’s time with family—in intervals. He spends time with you and the family, and then he goes into the room of his own. Spending time in his room is equivalent to my recovery walk time when I am doing my regimen. This slowdown gives me a second to collect myself before I go at it again. Providing intervals of exposure for your dog is important because it will help set him up for success so that he does not become overwhelmed in an effort to “run the distance.” It gives him a chance to regain his Zen.

  1. New dogs possibly coming into town

Occasionally, family may bring along their own dog while they are staying with you. Depending upon your dog’s history of comfort with other dogs, you will need to carefully consider and monitor his ability to tolerate the their presence in “his territory” especially during this time of otherwise high stress. Pay attention to his cues of stress. Some dogs will do great and genuinely enjoy the presence of a playmate while others not so much. If you sense your dog is becoming overly stressed by the presence of another dog, make necessary adjustments by using baby gates or allowing him some Zen time in his private space. (Click here for more information on signs of stress.)

  1. Problem with bolting?

Plan ahead. There will likely be doors that are opened and closed more often than if it were just you and your family. You may be busy making sure the turkey doesn’t overcook or putting the egg in the nog. You need to plan ahead for the possibility that your dog may inadvertently pass through an open door. Management is key, and as a professional trainer, I will tell you (ahem), you need to work on bolting before the guests arrive!!! Please train this important skill. However, with little time before the big events of the season arrive, in-depth training may not be possible, so management is essential. (For additional training information, please see my previous blog on bolting and also in my book Come, Boy!.)

One possibility to ensure your dog will not “escape” is to keep him tethered to you (leash attached to something in the room you are in, or to you or a designated person) while you are going about your hosting responsibilities. Or, an x-pen works well in a specific room, or a kennel so your dog is still able to view the activities but is safely confined. Be sure to communicate to all guests your concerns for your dog’s safety if he should get outside through an open door, but remember it’s your responsibility to keep your dog safe. Nonetheless, even if you have taken the precaution of advising everyone of your concerns, more than likely someone may forget, and I would rather have you err on the side of caution by using these management techniques. After all, once the bell is rung, you can’t unring it. If your dog escapes, he can easily become lost or worse.

The holidays are surely a time for rejoicing and celebration, but there’s no question that they pose additional stress for everyone including your beloved dog. Don’t run the risk of allowing the holidays to become anything less than merry and bright. To ensure that they are as cozy as the fire you toast your toes by, as spirited as the eggnog you cheer your friends with, as warm as the embrace of your loved ones, give the thought and take the necessary steps now so that everyone, including your best pal, can have a Zenfully jolly holiday!

Blog by Michelle Huntting

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Train and Save; Prevent Bolting

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One of the preeminent responsibilities of any pet owner is to provide for the safety of the pet. So much of what owners and trainers do is to ensure that the pets in their charge are safe and well cared for. Owners vaccinate, feed a proper diet, make sure their pets get adequate exercise, give them lots of love and attention, and so much more. Trainers dutifully work to make the lives of both the owner and the pet easier and more in sync with one another.

One of the most important and challenging safety precautions for dog owners is how to prevent their dogs from bolting from an open car door when the dog is along for the ride and the owner makes a stop at the store or bank, for example. It doesn’t take more than once for a pet owner to realize the horror of a dog running around a parking lot or out into the street.

The solution to this frightening possibility is for the dog to be well trained in the stay and release commands. Following are the steps I recommend to teach both cues and ultimately prevent bolting.

Stay
S
tay is an extremely important cue if bolting is an issue for your dog. You must work on a strong cue so that if the door is opened either to the vehicle or to your house, you can cue “stay,” and your dog will be able to have the impulse control to wait until he hears the release cue.

The stay cue promotes strong impulse control for your dog and helps him learn to focus. You will use stay while out walking your dog, before you cross the street, if you need to tie your shoe, and a plethora of other occasions, not the least of which is when he is inside your car and you want him to stay there.

When you first start teaching the behavior of stay, you establish the behavior by encouraging duration. Once you’ve established a 15- second duration, you will start working with distance by having the handler back up.

How to Teach Stay:

To teach the stay cue, you will have first taught sit.

  1. Cue your dog to “sit.” Using a clicker, my preferred training tool, click when he sits. Stand by him and give an occasional treat.
  1. Once your dog is able to sit with you standing by him for about 15 seconds, then move on to the next step.
  1. Start adding movement. Click if your dog stays in a position. Note: If my dog moves into a complete down (lying) instead of a sit, I find this acceptable.
    1. Rock back and forth. If your dog stays in a sit position, click and treat.
    2. Pick your feet up as you rock back and forth. If he stays, click and treat.
    3. Move your feet back and forth in front of dog. If he stays, click and treat.
    4. Pivot your foot back and forth. If he stays, click and treat.
    5. Take one full step to the side then the other side.
    6. Take one full step back.
    7. Take two full steps back.
    8. Take a step to the dog’s side. If the dog stays, click and treat.
    9. Step to the dog’s other side. If he stays, click and treat.
    10. Walk around the dog while luring him with a treat in front of his nose.
    11. Give your dog your back while you turn your head to maintain eye contact.
    12. Dance in front of your dog.
    13. Talk in a high-pitched voice.
    14. Run up towards your dog.
    15. Sing in front of your dog.
    16. Give your dog your back and only look back occasionally to build stay
    17. Walk away, giving your dog your back, but still look back occasionally.
    18. Move halfway around your dog.
    19. Shift weight and rock in front of him.
    20. Move all the way around the dog.

Get the idea? You want to vary your position and your movements so that the command does not become linked to a single position in your dog’s mind. Once the dog is able to stay while you move, it is time to add the “stay” cue. I verbally cue this, but I also add the non-verbal cue of my hand flat out in front of the dog’s face. You will repeat all the steps listed above, but this time you will add the cue.

Importance of the Release Cue

Once you have completed the training for stay, you must, of course, teach your dog when it is acceptable for him to leave his position by releasing him. The release cue is very important and often forgotten. When handlers forget to communicate the release cue, dogs are confused or hesitant. Dogs need consistent communication. Be consistent with your release cue no matter what behavior you are releasing because, to your dog, this cue means he will have permission to move around.

I use the word “okay” to release my dogs from a stay. You can use the activities on the preceding page and then the release word that you choose. As you give the release cue, be sure to remain stationary. If you move as you say your release word, your dog will learn to watch your body movement rather than learning to listen for the verbal cue. If you move and then say the release word, he will more than likely follow your non-verbal cues.

Cue “stay” —> Do one of the activities —-> Cue verbal release —> Move

Following the pattern I have suggested will help you set your dog up for success. After you say the release cue, then you should encourage your dog to get up (by using movement, a kissing sound, snap of fingers, or a hand clap). Using this method will help your dog to begin associating the behavior of moving out of the stay position with your release cue.

Prevent Bolting from Car

Now it is time to put your training with stay and release into practice to prevent bolting.

While you are working on this next exercise, please have your dog on a dropped leash for safety purposes. In addition, park your vehicle in a safe environment such as near an open field or a park so that if he should bolt before you have successfully completed his training, no harm will come to him.

  1. Once your dog has an established stay, place him in his typical resting place in the vehicle Cue a “stay” and release him out of the car to you. Repeat this 3-4 times for 2 sessions.

Be sure to make the release a “non-event.” In other words, after you release your dog, don’t make a big “hooray” deal. Rather, go about your business as normal. If you do act excited after the release, it will encourage your dog to bolt and this is not what we want!

  1. Practice getting in/out of the vehicle and cueing the “stay.” Leave the door open after you get out. Repeat this 3-4 times for 2 sessions.
  1. Once your dog is successfully and calmly staying, you can begin to add some distractions like a person walking by at a distance or any other thing that you have been having issues with (like another dog on leash). Be sure when you do add distractions that you do so with distance and that your dog is leashed.
  1. Once you are confident your dog has mastered the commands, it is time to take stay to the road. Practice your stays in different locations. The first place can be in your vehicle parked down the road from your home, but thereafter, you will need to add some realism to the training.

VOILA! Though it is unlikely you can ever completely secure your dog’s safety, just as it is unlikely you can completely ensure your own or your other loved ones’, by successfully teaching the stay and release cues, you have taken a giant step toward protecting your dog from a potentially life-threatening situation. If you are going to carefully choose just the right food for your dog, just the right exercise regimen, cuddle and love him, it only makes sense to take this vital step to ensuring his safety in the car or elsewhere.

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Blog written by Michelle Huntting