15 May 2012

The Greatest Gift I Have Given My Dogs

I consider myself very fortunate to live where I do. Our house and property sits next to 800 acres of wooded trails and open prairies. This little piece of paradise is called Farmdale Reservoir and its primary purpose is to protect East Peoria and surrounding communities from flooding. But that purpose aside, it is a big draw for mountain bikers, horse trail riders, trail runners, and hikers. And dogs are allowed off-leash as long as they are under verbal control. I spend a lot of time in Farmdale Park, most of it accompanied by my boys.
Sting and Graham know all of the cues that signal a walk in the park. It is the most animated you will ever see Mr. Graham, as he bounces from his front paws to his back paws and turns in circles, somewhat like a rodeo bull. Normally docile and lethargic, it is quite a sight to see him behave in this manner. Sting, always ready for an adventure, flies out the open door, nose immediately to ground, looking for adventure. I am always amazed that he does not just tumble tail over head in this manic flight of excitement.
What makes it truly wonderful for them is the fact that they get to do all of this off-leash. They are free to explore and smell what they wish, run like the wind, or trot slowly down the trail. Squirrels are fair game to tree and of course, it’s always fun to meet another dog or a person on the trail. When you are off-leash, you can mark any tree, bush, or plant that tickles your fancy. For these reasons, I feel that the work I put in to making my boys reliable off-leash, is the greatest gift I have given them.
I frequently tell the parents of my young daycare dogs that they not only need physical exercise, but also mental exercise. Hiking off-leash is an excellent way of getting mental exercise. As I posted last week, using the nose is excellent mental exercise for a dog, as is seeing all of the wildlife and meeting new people and dogs.
But is it safe? How much work does it take? Are all dogs capable of being off-leash? These are all valid questions and one that every owner should consider prior to starting off-leash expeditions. In healthcare, big decisions are often framed in terms of risk vs. benefit. Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
As you have probably guessed, I feel that the benefits of off-leash hiking far outweigh the risks in most cases. That said, I would never recommend off-leash time for you and your dog without the proper preparation.
1. Train your dog to have a reliable recall. I would recommend using a command or sound (whistle perhaps) that is not one you use on an everyday basis. Create a recall command that means something really good is going to happen. Again, I will recommend seeking a good trainer to help you through the process (Ann Goyen, alliancepetbehavior.com)
2. When you have a reliable recall, start your off-leash work in a safe place that has boundaries such as a fence or thick shrubs. But make sure there are plenty of distractions and temptations to fully test your dog.
3. Use a long line, such as a tracking leash that gives you a fighting chance of catching your dog should they get in trouble and you need a handle. This will give you a good feeling of security until you better trust your dog.
4. Teach your dog to stay with you, on command. I do not use the “heel” command. I use “stay behind”. Since we hike mostly on single track trails, I need a command that lets my dogs know that I want them to stay behind me on the trail and not run ahead. I use this primarily as a way of forcing a very energetic dog to rest or to keep them out of trouble if I see potential trouble ahead on the trail.
5. Teach and reinforce a “check-in”. Check-ins are simply your dog turning around and looking back for you or running back to you. I always want to see my dogs. This is not a problem for Graham, but Sting is much more adventurous and his nose can lead him astray. I simply call him back if he gets out of sight and then I release him as soon as he turns back and makes eye contact with me. He doesn’t have to come all the way back, just needs to acknowledge me and be in sight. I use a different command for this. Over time, he has developed a sense of how far ahead is too far ahead and checks-in frequently without a command. He realizes that this gains him more freedom in the long run.
6. Make sure your dog is properly I.D.’d with collar and microchip.
7. Carry your leash.
8. When you first start going out, keep your dog on the long line for safety and take the same trails over and over. This way, your dog will learn the trails and should he ever get lost or separated from you, he can find his way back to the car or home.
9. For safety’s sake, when I see strange dogs approaching, either on or off leash, I call my dogs in and get them under control for proper greetings.
10. Always respect other people’s rights on the trail. Not everyone loves your dog like you do. Some people are deathly afraid of loose dogs.

There will be times when your dog will scare you. He may disappear for longer than you like. He may chase a deer. He may greet another dog before you can call him back. This is part of life. But if you put the work in up front and trust in your relationship and your training, the benefits usually outweigh the risk. I can’t imagine not hiking off-leash with my dogs. And I contend that it is the greatest gift I have ever given them.

30 April 2012

Whose Walk Is It Anyway?

How many of you recognize this scenario? You have a few minutes available and you decide to take your dog for a walk. You will get him some exercise and you will get a little yourself. You leash Bruno up and out the door you go. You start off down the street at a brisk pace…no wait, Bruno stops to sniff. “Come on Bruno”, you say. Off you go again, thoughts of your blood moving briskly through your veins and the good deed you are doing for your heart. Bruno stops suddenly to sniff again and your heart has to wait just a while longer for the benefits of your intended exercise. “Come on Bruno”, you say again, this time a bit more tersely. You cruise along and start to feel a little relief from the guilt you have harbored all day for eating that candy bar after lunch. Whoa! Lost in your temporary reprieve from your guilty conscience, you have stopped paying attention to Bruno and he has stopped dead in his tracks to sniff the remnants of a dead squirrel on the road. You throw your hands up in exasperation and say, “Well, what good is a walk for you? All you want to do is smell things!” So you take Bruno home, toss him in the door (“so there”, you think to yourself), and you go out on your walk solo, thoughts of killing the calories from that candy bar, filling your head.
I pose this question. Whose walk is it anyway? Not to make you feel too guilty, but who was cooped up alone in the house all day? Who has been waiting all day for you to walk through the door and spend some time with him? Who does not have the choice of when to walk and when to stay home? And you thought that after-lunch candy bar caused you guilt. But guilt aside, I propose that there is an equitable solution for you and Bruno.

Why does your dog want to sniff all the time? Is there any hope that you can find a happy medium and enjoy your walks together? Of course there is. It all starts with understanding what motivates your dog to use his nose so much and looking at life from his perspective.
Probably the best way to gain some perspective is to think about how much information your sight gives you, every minute of the day. Close your eyes and think about how different your information gathering abilities would be if your sight was impaired or absent. As your eyes are your primary means of gathering information, so the nose is for the dog. It is estimated that dogs have up to a million times greater scent gathering/processing ability than humans. This is not only due to the much higher number of scent detecting cells in their nose, but also the large portion of their brain that is devoted to scent detection and analysis. Follow this link to a great article by The Whole Dog Journal regarding the amazing dog nose. http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/7_11/features/Canine-Sense-of-Smell_15668-1.html
I witness this amazing ability every day when I return home from the daycare. Sting greets me at the door and immediately begins sniffing me, starting at my feet and moving his way up. His favorite sniffing spots are about knee/thigh high on my pants. Lots of dogs leaning into me and slobbering on my pants leave a lot of scent. If he were to talk, I’m sure I would hear the following. “Joey was at daycare today. Did he play with that silly pink ball again? There’s Jax…he’s always a good time. Oh darn, Boerner was there today….I haven’t seen him in a while. Ahhh, there’s Bernie. Did he keep everybody in line?”

Now you have read the great article by Whole Dog Journal and understand the dog nose. I have guilted you into thinking about life from your dog’s perspective. How can you meet both your dog’s need to smell and your need to work off that candy bar? It’s simple really. Designate a portion of your walks to your dog’s needs and a portion to yours. I would suggest starting your walk with 5 minutes or so of letting your dog lead the way. If he wants to sniff, let him sniff. If he wants to walk, let him walk. If he wants to go North, go North. You get it. This first 5 minutes is his and he gets to choose. Put this on command so he knows that it is acceptable (“go smell” or whatever). Now it’s your turn. Get about your business of walking. Pay attention to Bruno and remind him that it is your turn. Again, you will put this portion of the walk on command (“let’s go” or whatever) and encourage and reward desired behavior. Now take a breather and give your command “go smell”. Go back and forth with this schedule. If you really want to be successful, team up with a trainer ( I recommend Ann Goyen at alliancepetbehavior.com) to work specifically on this. As your dog begins to understand the difference between his time and your time, this will go smoother and who knows, maybe you will be jogging that candy bar off instead of walking.
Watch what happens as you do this for your dog. A 30 minute walk of straight walking and no sniffing will help your dog to get physical exercise. But it will not give him the same mental exercise that 20 minutes of walking and 10 minutes of information gathering and exploring the world with his nose will give him. You will have a much more contented dog at the end of your walk. I see it over and over in the daycare. My dogs that interact, explore, and use their brains during the day are much calmer and more content than those dogs that simply wrestle or run all day.
Next week, I will continue in the vein of “walking the dog”, as we explore the benefits of off-leash play.

10 January 2012

Free to Be

I believe in letting dogs be dogs.  And I enjoy watching dogs be dogs whenever I can.  So when I ran across an article in The Whole Dog Journal titled, “Free To Be.  Observation Without Direction”, I was very interested.

This article describes how one trainer uses observation of her dogs to learn what truly motivates them.  What will they choose to do if they are not given direction?  What motivates them?  She then incorporates this information into her training program.

Follow this link to read the full article.  Good stuff!


4 December 2011

Top 5 List

My husband loves to poll people on their top 5 favorites. Top 5 polls may include top 5 movies, top 5 rock songs of all time, and at this time of year, top 5 best Christmas songs. As I was running with the boys at Farmdale Park this week, I contemplated what their top 5 favorite activities would be.


1. Swimming (especially in Wisconsin)

2. Running/Hiking with Mom and Dad

3. Playing at daycare

4. Squirrel watching/chasing

5. Sleeping



1. Eating

2. Chewing a good raw bone

3. Hiking (not too much running please)

4. Snuggling

5. Going anywhere in the car

It wasn’t hard to put these lists together and I’m pretty sure they accurately reflect the way the boys feel. One doesn’t have to be a “Dog Whisperer” to communicate and know what their dogs love. One simply needs to be observant. Dogs are transparent and witnessing their pleasure and joy is easy if we take the time to observe. What is your dog’s top 5 list? If you’d like, post your list to the Play All Day Facebook page. It will be fun to hear what they love to do.

13 November 2011

No Bad Dogs

I have recently written Play All Day’s policy and procedure on play group management. One of the first lines addresses my belief that there are no bad dogs. Dogs may exhibit undesirable behaviors or behaviors that are not compatible with a play group setting, but this does not earn the dog a label of “bad”. Bad, and good for that matter, can unfairly categorize a dog. When we think in terms of good and bad, the lure of assigning ulterior motives is very strong.

How often have you said or thought, “he did that just to get even with me?” Come on, admit it…you’ve done it…even though you know your dog is not out to get even with you. The big problem with this type of thinking is that it stirs negative emotions.

If a dog is labeled as bad, he walks in with one strike against him and it is very hard to keep an open mind and perspective about the behaviors that he is exhibiting right there and then. That is what needs to be addressed when one is managing a group of dogs. What is happening right now with each dog? Is it appropriate for the group or is it inappropriate? Why is the dog doing it? What will help the dog to exhibit a more appropriate behavior? The same is true for the label of “good”. If we think of a dog as a good dog, it is even more vexing when they display inappropriate behaviors. Or we may let inappropriate behaviors slide because he’s such a “good boy” the rest of the time.

I encourage my staff (and myself) to think not in terms of good and bad, but to view each interaction and categorize it as appropriate or inappropriate for the setting. A great example of this is the act of one dog mounting another dog. This is a perfectly normal behavior, but in a play group setting, it can lead to very intense and anxious play, so it is inappropriate. But when my two dogs play at home, and exhibit this behavior, I classify it as appropriate (as long as it doesn’t get out of control).

All of this said, one of my commitments to my families is to always be honest regarding behaviors that are witnessed during the play day. When I discuss these behaviors with Mom or Dad, I encourage them to not think of the behavior as good or bad. They are just facts. If some of the behaviors are inappropriate, here is what we are doing to manage it and here is what you can do to help at home. And if one of the behaviors is so inappropriate that the daycare setting is not in the best interest of the dog, then that does not make the dog bad. It just means that this is not the best option for that dog. In my mind, we are a team, trying to create a great experience for our four legged kiddos.

So, my challenge to you over the next several weeks is to throw away the terms of good and bad when it comes to describing your dog. Take that 10,000 foot view and look at the big picture. What is going on when an inappropriate behavior appears? Take all ulterior motives out of it. What is your dog hoping to achieve with his behavior? That is step one in turning the inappropriate behavior into an appropriate one.

26 October 2011

Reading Recommendation

I used to read a lot of magazines and then it actually became a chore so I stopped all of my subscriptions, except two.  One is the Whole Dog Journal which gives a lot of great dog care advice and interesting reading.  But my favorite and the one I look forward to every other month is The Bark.  It is like the New Yorker for dog lovers.  If you do not subscribe to this magazine, I strongly suggest it.  I usually read it cover to cover and am never disappointed.  Enjoy…and let me know what you think of it.


21 October 2011

Endearing Traits

We’ve had a lot of puppies at Play All Day in the past several months. I am always struck by my emotional response to puppies. I go all gushy inside and just want to nurture them. They are so adorable, yet so needy. And they really don’t understand acceptable dog behavior and communication, let alone dog/human interactions. This lends itself to pretty wild play and often times corrections from the older dogs. But I just sit and laugh at their antics because they are so darn cute. I’m sure this is nature’s way of making sure that mothers don’t kill their young. Because let’s face it, puppies are challenging and can test your patience. One of the things that keeps you from killing them are unique endearing traits.

My Sting is now 8 years old and Graham is 7. They both have unique endearing traits that always make me smile and can still make me go all gushy inside. Graham loves to be around when I put my pants on. He likes to come between my legs after I pull my legs through and get scratches on his chin and neck. Sting likes to greet me by putting his mouth around my arm and leading me around. These things would probably be annoying to other people who don’t know Sting and Graham, but to me, they are a part of our history.

When I watch the Play All Day puppies at play, I wonder what endearing traits their people see in them. I know what traits are making me go all gushy inside, but I wonder if they are the same ones for their people. Some of the puppy traits that have endeared me are Sidney sashaying around with a bone hanging out of her mouth like a cigar, refusing to give up to sleep, Riley jumping straight up into the air like the ground beneath her feet is electrified, Lilly making little “Gremlin” sounds when she chews on her bone, or Newman sitting on one hip, tasting pebbles with his tongue hanging out of one side of his mouth.

When you are sitting at home tonight with your kiddos around you, think back to when they were a puppy or when they first joined your home. What endearing traits drew you in? What will stop you… still today, and make you smile.

7 October 2011


I love to buy my dogs new toys. I know that the toy will be destroyed within days of purchase, sometimes hours. But I still love to watch the joy and excitement on Sting’s face when he sees me pull it out of the bag, take the scissors out of the kitchen drawer to remove tags, and talk in that silly human voice….saying “What does Mama have for her good boy? Is he a special boy? Yes he is!” And I love to watch Graham in the background, looking dismayed that one of his own species is so overtly animated over a stuffed toy. Graham would be equally animated if I brought in a live rabbit, but not so much for a stuffed one. But he loves his brother so he forgives him for this tiny transgression.

Neophilia (preference for novel objects) has been described in research studies. Kaulfus and Mills undertook a study in 2008 that showed that dogs gravitated towards novel toys the majority of time. This does not necessarily mean that they preferred them over their tried and true toys, but they definitely recognized novel toys. It is always great when research supports what you witness anecdotally. So what does this mean to us? If I think of novelty as it relates to dogs, I think of more than just the toys that I bring home to Sting. I think of food, activities, people, and many more things. Take a moment to think about your dog’s daily life. Then take a moment to think of yours. You see new things, eat a variety of foods, try new activities, go new places, and on and on. What does your dog experience? If your dog is like mine….not a lot unless, I put a lot of thought into it.

So, not to fill us all with guilt, I would suggest that our dogs do not experience the angst that we humans do when we are not fulfilled as Maslow described so many years ago. But do they deserve the satisfaction that novelty brings? I would say yes, they do. And its not that hard to achieve.

Diet; who said we have to feed our dogs the same thing every day? How would you feel if you ate the same thing every day? People food is not evil for dogs. Granted, we don’t want to create beggars at the table, but what’s wrong with sharing a little bounty from the leftovers? And who knows, you may actually be balancing out some of the deficits from your dog’s daily diet of kibble.

Exercise; change it up. Take a different route for your walk. What’s that, you say you don’t walk your dog, you just let them out in the yard to potty? Get out there and walk your dog. Let him see new things. And let him smell as you walk. Your dog’s nose is his window to the world. If he is not allowed to sniff, he is walking blindly through life. And if you want to get into your dog’s “Dog Owner Hall of Fame”, teach him to be reliable off leash and take him to a nature preserve to experience all that nature has to offer. It can be done and it is awesome for your dog.

Is that too big of a step to take right now? Understandable. There are simple things you can do at home. Buy new toys and introduce them one at a time. Only bring out specific toys for special times and then put them away for a later time. This makes them more special. Play ‘find the toy’ in the house on rainy days or outside in the yard on nice days.

People; if your dog loves people, do they get the opportunity to meet new people and interact with them? Make opportunities for this, either at your home or with visits to others’ homes or dog friendly businesses.

Know that as I write this, I am as guilty as anyone of keeping my dogs in a rut. I know that they need novelty in their lives, but forget this as I get busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are a few of my clients (John, Crystal, John & Amy) who I admire greatly for the time and effort that they put into their dogs and ensuring that they lead fulfilling lives. Its not that time consuming to give our dogs what they need, but it does take some thought.

So next time you unpack that new toy and see the joy on your dog’s face, use that as a reminder that novelty is as important to your kiddos as it is to you. Let it inspire you to take more steps to provide novel situations for your beloved friend.

15 September 2011

Is Dave Matthews a Dog?

For years, my friend Stacie, encouraged (practically begged) me to listen to the Dave Matthews Band. She was a huge fan and had been for many years. I heard the occasional DMB song on the radio, but didn’t pay it much attention, neither liking it nor disliking it. But Stacie is very persistent and for some reason, she knew that this music would resonate with me. How she knew that, I do not know…but she did.

Eventually I gave in and downloaded “The Best of What’s Around” off of iTunes. And I did like what I heard. But this was not good enough for Stacie. She now felt that I needed to “experience” DMB. To her, the magic of this band was in their live performances. I have later discovered that DMB is to their fans, what the Grateful Dead was to their fans. And actually many of those old Grateful Dead fans are DMB followers. So Stacie gave me several copies of live DMB concerts on CD. They were OK, but you couldn’t follow the lyrics and there was a lot of jamming, of which I have never been a big fan. Regardless, I was becoming a fan and expanded my DMB CD collection and began to get a feel for the style of the band and the message and sincerity of Dave Matthew’s lyrics. Next in Stacie’s master plan was a live show. And she did that with a bang. My first DMB concert was at Alpine Valley and I was smack dab in the middle of the experience. We were in general seating, right in front of the stage. It was a mass of people, all standing, dancing, and singing at the top of their lungs. We were just off center stage and about 5 rows back. Simply put, it was phenomenal! In addition to good music and lyrics, this band performs and the joy of performing their music is evident. And this is most apparent in the band leader himself. He plays, sings, and dances with wild abandon. If you’d like to see some fun examples of this, just put ‘Dave Matthews dancing’ in YouTube search.

Stacie has completed her mission of turning me into a DMB fan. My husband now regrets the day I met Stacie because he really gets tired of hearing the music. As you can guess, he is NOT a DMB fan. I know he wonders how his usually very serious and focused wife (at this time, I was still running a fairly good size medical practice) became such a fan of this band, who’s fans resemble Dead Heads. His conservative wife who rarely did more than sway a little bit now and again during live band performances was now dancing freely (albeit poorly…think Elaine on Seinfeld) every chance she got. And truthfully, I was wondering the same thing…what was it about this band that resonated with me?

The truth of it hit me as I have been considering “The Art of Being a Dog”. It struck me that Dave Matthews is very dog-like. Perhaps that is why I was so drawn to the band’s music and performances. The lyrics ring of living in the moment, living without regret, and pursuing personal happiness. One of my favorite songs, “Lie in Our Graves” speaks to the joys of simple pleasures such as splashing in the water and then ends with the thoughts of “I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our days well. I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves thinking of things we might have been”. It is a song of no regrets.

And to watch the band perform, it is very reminiscent of dogs at play. No one up there is worrying about their appearance. They are lost in the moment and the joy of what they are doing is evident on their faces. It is the same type of expression I see when I watch a group of dogs. They are lost in the moment and the joy on their faces is evident.

So maybe my sudden love of DMB is not so strange. Perhaps it is the soundtrack of my evolution. For those of you that have watched my dog videos on Facebook, you have probably heard DMB playing in the background. What you do not see in the videos is the woman behind the camera who is slowly melting away years of worrying, regrets, and anticipation. You do not see her getting lost in the moment and busting out a wacky dance move every now and again. But it is happening and it is joyful! Thank you Stacie.

31 August 2011

Little Investments

The hummingbirds are very active now. I suppose they are loading up the calories in preparation for their upcoming migration. Their feeders are right outside of my kitchen window, so I have good views as I make dog meals, do the dishes, or prepare dinner. I also have a great view of them when I sit on my sun porch and relax. I enjoy them very much, but almost missed them this year.

In preparation for starting a new business this summer, I decided to cut out all of the unnecessary tasks so that I would not be overwhelmed as the business grew. One of the unnecessary tasks was feeding the hummingbirds. I am usually diligent about keeping the feeders full and keeping them clean and did not want this to be just “one more thing” that I had to do. In early May, my hummers arrived, hovering just where the feeder usually hangs and looking in the window as if to say, “Hey Lady, we’re here…where’s the grub?” I told myself that they would move on and find another food source, but they did not and I finally gave in and made their feeders a week later. I don’t regret it. It only takes minutes and I enjoy watching them. It is a small investment to make for the enjoyment I receive.

This incident made me stop and think about what I do invest in. We all like to think that we invest our time wisely. One investment that I never regret is my dogs. My biggest regrets come from not investing in them. They really do require so little from me in order to be happy. Taking 30 minutes to walk them on the grassy path behind our house means so much to them…to smell the smells, roll in the grass, run freely, and be with me. Its such a small amount of time but it means the world to them. When the weather is bad, we play hide and seek in the house or “find the toy”. Again this only takes minutes of my day, but the result is happy and contented dogs. It is so easy to just flop down on the couch for must deserved rest after a busy day, but the next thing you know, it is bedtime and neither you nor your dog has anything to show for the time. So, this week I encourage you to take stock of your investments. Are your dogs included?