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A Snip Decision: the Pros and Cons of Early Neutering Can Be Complicated

I have an intact dog. That comment will incense many people and a near equal amount will wonder why I am admitting it like a confession. It is a confession of sorts. I have been a rescuer for more than fourteen years. I have been involved in shelter work for longer than that. Having an intact dog goes against everything I believe in.

The majority of people I am close to would have made the appointment for neutering the second that their dog turned the magic age of six months. Kenzo is about to turn nine months old. I agreed to wait until he was a year old to alter him and it has been suggested that I wait until he is two years old. Some days, I want to chuck my agreement in the garbage and call the vet for a same day appointment. Other days, I am sure I can wait. Most days I waver between the two.

Kenzo, at 9 months of age.

Kenzo, at 9 months of age.

The subject of neutering (early or at all!) is controversial in some circles and causes blood boiling on both sides. I asked about neutering large and giant breeds earlier than a year, on my personal Facebook page a few months ago. It turned into a war zone. I had to delete some comments and moderate others. I defended my desire to neuter now or at all, with those who insisted neutering was never a good idea while with others, I defended my reasons for not neutering yet. It was a thin line to walk, trying to stand my ground without making myself a target for either side.

Some readers will wonder what the big deal is, why wait you ask? Why ask for input at all, right? Well, for those who have not followed along closely, and for those who have and may not have realized, Kenzo is considered a giant breed. Giant breeds of dogs grow more slowly than even large breeds; which I have always had and neutered as early as possible. Growth plates are not closed until at minimum, eighteen months and in some cases, two years. How much difference can that make with regards to neutering? That remains to be seen. Hence my perfectly innocent and inquisitive Facebook question.

Questionable studies were thrown at me, anecdotal “evidence” was cited, veiled threats were made, insults were thrown and nothing was truly accomplished. When it all comes down to it, it’s still my decision to make. I just have not made it yet.

How does this relate to multiple dogs? Trent, my eight year old neutered male Pit Bull is an insecure dog. He always has been. But until a little over a year ago, he had the most confident male dog in the world keeping him safe from the revolving door of foster dogs that came through this house. Of course, I am the one who has really kept him safe, but Trent adored Merlin and viewed him as his personal protector. Merlin is no longer here to protect him and now Trent is the “big brother” to a dog who has already eclipsed ninety pound Siri in size. Trent is a bit overwhelmed. Add the intact factor with Kenzo hitting the magic testosterone age of not quite nine months of age and you have a potential dilemma.

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Kenzo is just starting to test his boundaries. The marking outside over Siri and Trent’s urine has started, mostly in the yard but occasionally on walks as well. We have had two posturing/marking incidents in the house recently when Kenzo has felt the need to show that he had his big boy pants on; once with Siri and once with Trent. That got quickly redirected by yours truly, but the moment was still noted by Trent and that is what matters. And of course Siri just looks at Kenzo like he has lost his mind, so I’m not worried about her.

It has been obvious that Trent is more comfortable playing with Kenzo these days, which helps ease my mind. Siri is much more inclined to play with him that Trent though. She also feels more comfortable shutting him down immediately if he annoys her than Trent does. But I do my best to not place either of them in the position of having to do that. Many of these things are just puppy versus older dog issues but many more aren’t. The differences between having an intact dog in the house compared to a neutered dog are glaringly obvious, at least to me, a behavior expert.

Aside from the extreme interest in Siri’s urine that keeps his Jacobson Gland in overdrive, there is the instinct that drives him to pace their every pottying need. And of course, there is the wariness that all neutered males greet him with. He can’t help any of this but it’s still there. So my thoughts dwell on this test of time. Can I wait or should assured peace be claimed? The answer to that question remains to be seen. I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, feel free to add your POLITE thoughts on my quandary. Rudeness will not be tolerated, nor will name calling, etc. And keep in mind that Kenzo WILL be neutered. That is not up for discussion. The question is when. I have read everything I need to read on the subject, medically speaking. I am just looking for other’s experiences with multiple males in the household, both neutered and intact, preferably also with a female in the home. Thanks for being understanding.

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How Many Is Too Many Dogs? Part 2: When Rescuers Need Rescuing

This subject has been my most popular blog subject ever. Google searches on this phrase find the original blog more frequently than the website itself. The question itself crosses the mind of all who have more dogs than is considered the norm by the general public. The general public’s opinion, however, is not who anyone should base their perfect canine number on. Not by a long shot.

The renewed interest in this subject was prompted by a recent story locally of a breed rescuer who is being forced by local law enforcement, to reduce her numbers from more than eighty dogs, to twenty five dogs. Neighbors complained and ordinances are now being enforced. She has very little time to perform such a feat, meaning if seized, more than fifty dogs are facing a death sentence. This disturbs me greatly, for a number of reasons. Hopefully, by the time you read this, these dogs will no longer be in danger. Follow up to be noted when available, never fear.

Photo from a recent hoarding case.

Photo from a recent hoarding case.

But back to the reasons this disturbs me: there are so many, let me count the ways. Having been a rescuer (currently resting emotionally from that task), I can say with passion that it is really hard to say no to dogs in need. But I can also say with passion that I learned the hard way that if you don’t take care of yourself and your own dogs, first, everyone suffers and no one is truly helped. It is important to know your limit: emotionally, physically, financially, etc. regardless of whether you are a rescuer or just a plain dog owner who wants more dogs in your life. Know your limits!

If you are sentencing dogs to hours upon endless hours in crates or kennels, with little to no exercise and human interaction; that is not rescuing. That is hell on earth. Don’t pull dogs from shelters if you are not bettering their situation. Don’t call yourself a rescuer or even just a normal multiple dog household when you are clearly in over your head. No one human can take proper care of eighty-something dogs. It’s just not possible. Even with a couple of volunteer hands, it’s not enough.

There is another new hoarding situation almost every day in the media. This person was found to have fifty cats. That person was found to have a hundred dogs. This is a sickness. It’s not well intentioned rescuing or a loving multiple dog household. It may have started that way but it did not end up that way. At heart, it’s about selfishness, not selflessness. Rescuers make themselves feel good about rescuing. There is nothing wrong with that if you are not also using that as the ends to justify the means. Rescuing a dog is more than simply keeping them alive. Being alive is not the same thing as living well.

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Dogs are sentient beings. They have thoughts and feelings and emotional needs, in addition to the physical needs of food, water, physical care and warm housing. No one would think it appropriate to expect people to live in a small space with no interaction or exercise day after endless day. It is equally unreasonable to expect the same of a dog, if the expectation is that the dog in question should remain mentally stable, that is! Placing unstable dogs is not appropriate without behavior modification and then we come back to lack of resources again.

The moral of this story is that as a multiple dog owner and/or rescuer, you dear reader, need to be fully aware of your limitations; physically, emotionally, financially, etc. Take into account your own basic needs, the needs of the dogs you currently have and calculate it all together in a PRACTICAL way. Then make a decision on whether to add another dog, foster or permadog, to your life. There are plenty of people on this earth who can care for a dog just as well as you can, I promise you this. If your urge to help a particular dog is strong but your limitations are stronger, sponsor the dog, promote the dog, do things other than adding the dog to your household to get him or her a good home. Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. And above all, be there for your current crew as a responsible multiple dog owner and/or rescuer.

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Holiday Manners: Teaching a Wordless ‘Leave It’ to a Multiple Dog Crew

Originally posted December 8, 2011

‘Tis the season for food in abundance and celebration en masse. Platters are laden; counters and tables hold feasts not seen on a daily basis. Temptations are great for both man/woman and beast alike. It’s hard enough for humans to not partake in excess. Yet many people expect their dogs to ignore such delights completely without giving a thought to training them for such a feat in advance.

Do you banish your crew from family gatherings that include easy access to tasty treats for fear of extreme counter surfing activities? Or do you include them, but live in fear of a guest dropping a morsel of food that isn’t dog friendly and having to move faster than you ever wanted to? Fear no more; train instead!

Image: Christmas Labs All in a Row

Leaving things alone that you have not personally provided to your crew is a behavior that should be a priority from day one, but it’s never too late to start. But train in advance of the need so that you and your pups are not frustrated. Until your crew’s training is perfected, practice good environmental management. This includes not leaving enticing things within reach on counters, tables, floors, etc.

Never reward your dogs in any way for jumping up on the same raised surfaces, such as with petting, verbal comments, etc. If you drop something onto the floor that you want to give to your dogs, pick it up and hand deliver it to them rather than pointing it out to a dog or two to get. This is a good idea all around when you have multiple dogs anyway as a lone high value morsel on the floor is a recipe for a brawl in some households!

Teaching a wordless leave it takes time. How much time will vary with each dog. Some dogs have better natural impulse control than others and some dogs simply pick this up faster than others. It is imperative that you teach this behavior one-on-one with each dog prior to trying it in a group, especially if you have any guarding issues with any of your crew members!

Buy the book, How Many Dogs?! click here Wordless leave it? Yes, indeed, wordless. Do you really want to have to endlessly tell your dogs to leave things alone, especially at this time of year, when the temptations are many? Wouldn’t it be so much more convenient to have them simply do it without being asked? Indeed it would. How you achieve this is in carefully trained steps. Here they are:

• Take a really high value treat in one hand and show it to your dog. Have more of the same treats in your other hand ready to offer as a reward. Put that hand behind your back.
• If your dog licks and paws at your offered hand to try and get the treat, don’t say anything. Simply wait for him to stop, however briefly that may be. It may take a bit and you may have to wear thin gloves to prevent your hand from getting scratched if your dog is super intent on getting the treat RIGHT NOW! Do not say anything to try to get your dog to stop, just be patient. The second your dog stops trying to get the treat or looks or backs away from the treat, even for a second, say “yes!” and offer a treat from your hidden hand. Be sure to be very enthusiastic in rewarding your dog verbally for a job well done. The timing of the marker word is important. That comes first, at the very moment that your dog makes that good decision. The treat comes after the verbal marker.
• Switch hands each time you repeat this procedure until your dogs starts looking at the hidden hand when you offer your hand. When this happens, you will switch to all treats in one hand, rewarding from the same hand that you have the treats in.
• Next you will place the treat inside your closed hand on the floor. Repeat the already described protocol, rewarding appropriately. The floor placement will make this procedure harder at first, regardless of how well your dog just did on the previous step. When your dog totally gets this step, it’s time to move on.
• For the next step, you will partially uncover the treat on the floor, being very careful that you can cover it before your dog can grasp it if he moves to take it. Remember, you will not be verbally correcting your dog at all. Your role is to mark and reward the behavior you want and only that.
• Next you will uncover the treat even more, again taking care to be faster than your dog should you need to be. It is of vital importance that you move at the speed that your dog needs, in order to make this a solid behavior. This is not a competition. Your goal is to train this into a solidly understood behavior.
• Every success with several repetitions within an individual training session is a cue to move forward to the next step but do so only briefly. End each session on a positive successful note.
• It is important to practice this behavior in any room that it would be applicable in as well as outdoors if appropriate.
• Your goal is to progress to a point where you can toss something on the floor and have it ignored, though I would suggest that when you begin to practice with this step, you leash your dog. You will also play goalie with this type of practice by placing your body between the treat and the dog, as needed. Never use the leash to separate the two, just the body language. This will turn into a situational cue. Your guests would not know what to say to keep your dog from going after something that they dropped on the floor but they will automatically reach for it, cueing the dog that it is not theirs. You will, of course, again mark and reward your dog for the exact moment that he chooses to not go after the treat. (a hint for this particular step: use a higher value reward in your hand than the one that you are tossing)

The holidays should be a fun time for all. Training your crew to ignore yummy feasts by teaching them that they get paid well for good decisions is a win/win situation for all. Wishing you and yours a happy and safe holiday season, regardless of what holiday you personally celebrate, from me and mine.

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Command Performance: Do Words Have Consequences?

I think “yes” would be the accurate answer to this question. Words like “command” and “obedience” reek of control. They are included in the “hammer” style tools of dog training. I much prefer the use of “cue” and “manners”. Like the saying goes, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” While this statement is typically applied to actual training tools, this equally applies to the word used in training as well.

Many people assume that words, once spoken, disappear. While that can be true but what can also happen is this; quite often, the words that are used can convey a specific feeling to the person who spoke the words. Words such as command and obedience are forceful. They imply those who they are directed to are inferior and in need of domination. This could not be further from the truth in relation to the dogs in our lives.

Photo of Dawn Goehring of Comedy Barn Canines. Photo Courtesy of Christine Romano, Rich Blessings Photography

Photo of Dawn Goehring of Comedy Barn Canines. www.comedycanines.com. Photo Courtesy of Christine Romano, Rich Blessings Photography

While our dogs certainly require structure and limits, they don’t need such words to provide said structure. What they need is kindness, empathy, understanding and clear communication. They are not looking to take over our world. We have the opposable thumbs after all.

“Breaking” is another word that is better off dispensed with in regards to housetraining. While the word is appropriately descriptive of the goal that is in mind – as in “breaking the habit” – it does speak to the notion that force can somehow resolve the problem.

According to Raymond Coppinger, dogs chose to join us; domesticating themselves by stationing themselves near human camps. The ensuing partnership was mutual. We provide for their needs. They know this. There is no need to lord it over them with force. They revere us already. They respect us when we work with them rather than on them.

Buy the book, How Many Dogs?! click here

Dogs are the most forgiving creatures I know of. We treat them badly and still they adore us. Using kind words goes a long way towards promoting partnership and trust far more than words that convey the need to wield control with an iron fist. Every step taken towards dismissing such a partnership makes an additional step easier. The ledge seems less steep.

Forceful words can cause even bigger problems in the multiple dog household. As with a multiple human household, personalities will differ among the crew. A dog that is pushier than another dog can feel emboldened by harsh words spoken at such from the humans in the household. Harshness can create bullies out of humans as well as canines. It is up to the humans to set good examples to be followed. Think of it in terms of children who are emotionally abused by their parents. While they may grow up stronger because of what they endured, there is an equal if not greater chance that they will learn how to be angry easier than how to be kind.

Compassion and respect should not be reserved for one’s fellow humans. All creatures are deserving of this. Choosing words that you would use with humans whom you love, with the canines in your lives, will go far towards building the trust that creates a wonderful bond. Words DO matter. Choose them with care.

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The Nature of the Beast: Respecting Your Dogs for Who They Are

This is one of those subjects that should automatic knowledge in humans but it never fails to surprise me how often I need to remind people of this. Dogs are not small furry humans. That statement may annoy some people, but it’s really important for any dog owner to grasp this fact fully.

Dogs don’t usually come trained for what any given owner wants nor do they understand human words without having been taught human words. If you got a fully trained for your needs, dog, then thank the universe as soon as you can! You are a lucky human and your dog is equally lucky.

Though not typically already acquainted with the words we want them to know, they sure do understand human tones of voices and body language/intent. This is also important to understand as some dog owners talk about “he knew he did something wrong”. Well no, not really, he just knew you were really unhappy because of your body language and/or your tone of voice. He also knew that very likely the last time you sounded like that, it did not bode well for a snuggle session for him.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the dogs from the humans.

I have had far too many experiences lately with dog owners having unrealistic expectations of their dog(s). Dogs are just that: dogs. If it helps people to understand this better, owners should equate the age expectations of puppies with humans of a similar age. IE: puppies vs. infants. Would you expect an infant to understand taking care of his digestion elimination needs in the bathroom from an age of say 3 months? Then don’t expect a puppy to immediately get housetraining, especially with human timing being the key player to learning!

Growing up is incremental. Children go to school for twelve years for a very good reason. Each year builds on the previous year’s knowledge and learning. Dogs need incremental learning as well. The same theory applies to dogs that may be adults in age, but never having the benefit of appropriate training, they are the equivalent of a human getting a GED after having reached the age of graduation. They key to surviving training either is patience.

Buy the book, How Many Dogs?! click here

No sane person would place a baby on the ground outside and expect him to come when called. Then why expect a similar response from a puppy or a dog with no previous training? Puppies, like babies, learn by exploring and showing interest in their surroundings. It is normal for a puppy to explore. It is up to the human caretaker to set limits and guidelines. The same applies to the adult dog learning guidelines for the first time.

Without covering a previous topic, limits and guidelines should be pleasantly enforced, not scary and painful. Think good parenting 101 if you will. Be the human that your dog turns to for knowledge, info and benevolent guidance. Set your guidelines realistically. Be the best connection your puppy or dog has and you won’t fail.

If your dog or puppy is getting into mischief when you are out of sight, then be in sight. They don’t know they are doing something inappropriate when they are out of sight. They have more freedom than is called for if they have the chance to get into something inappropriate. Supervise, supervise, SUPERVISE! As my favorite magnet gifted to me by a dear friend says, “Don’t Complain, TRAIN”. Agreed wholeheartedly!

I cannot count how many times I have heard someone say that that their dog doesn’t respond to basic word “commands”. I prefer the word cue vs. command, but the point of this is that first you have to make sure that your puppy or dog has been fully taught the meaning of the word that is being (typically) overused. Puppies and dogs are English as a second language creatures. This means that they need taught the action first, then to have the action associated with a word cue. Repeating words that have no meaning to a dog will only frustrate you and your dog. They will understand enough to know that you are unhappy but not why you are unhappy.

The best gift that you can give yourself and your puppy or your newly acquired adult dog is to get registered in a quality training class or treat yourself to a qualified in-home trainer. Learning how to effectively communicate properly with your dog(s) will last a lifetime and there is no price on that kind of happiness.

Consider it a celebratory light bulb moment in your lives when you have a mutual meeting of the minds. Those who remember when you first had these moments, please take a moment to tell below to share it with us all. Hand to paw for more.

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Time in a Bottle: Finding Time to Meet the Needs of a Multiple Dog Household

Puppies are time consuming. That statement doesn’t even begin to properly convey the situation. Let me emphasize it. PUPPIES ARE TIME CONSUMING!!! I am a pro at this game and *I* am tired, so I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it must be to non-pros.

It has been very beneficial to me as a dog training and behavior professional to have a puppy in my life. But it sure has brought home the point of time constraints. However, the main difference between myself and my clients, aside from how I make my living, is that I know how to live with my puppy in such a way that I am teaching him beneficial info pretty much every moment that I interact with him.

Kenzon at 5 months

Kenzon at 5 months

I strive to teach this to my clients as well, but it’s not something that comes as second nature by instinct, unless of course you happen to be a dog trainer! Learning how to do this can be done but it’s not what most people are used to. Training by default can make your life easier but it involves making changes to your routine. Learning to wait for the behavior that you want can be the hardest thing to do for some people. But being patient is the best gift you can give yourself and your crew.

Front cover, How Many Dogs?! book

Enlisting the aid of your adult dogs, provided they have reliable behaviors that you can reward will make your workload lighter. That is a gift from any angle! Siri and Trent are good role models for Kenzo as they are appropriate in any situation in the house. I never have to worry where they are and what they are doing. The same was true of Merlin and Kera. I like life this way so this is my goal with Kenzo. I notice the behavior that I want with the older dogs so Kenzo hears this praise and makes note of it. This has helped considerably in the kitchen, with meals. I can now trust Kenzo to wait until he is served, usually after the others are served, to build impulse control.

The same good example setting takes place on walks, with exaggerated verbal praise for what I want, being noticed by Kenzo. Of course, at his age, his exploratory nature takes first precedence, but seeing or hearing his “big brother and sister” getting some serious attention can remind him that there is virtue in paying attention to his family when outside.

Front cover, How Many Dogs?! book

Most of the time, my schedule would make even the most die-hard type A personality run for cover so it’s imperative that I make the most of the time I do have. I believe in making my actions count. So far, the basics are taking care of themselves, thanks to this method. Now onto to stepping up his social schedule so that he remains well socialized with other dogs. Wish me time in a bottle!

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A Little Bit of Heart & Soul: Remembering Merlin, My Heart Dog

Originally posted on September 23, 2012.

I have thought about how I should honor his life endlessly as this emotional anniversary approaches and I have decided that remembering some of my fondest moments with Merlin was the most appropriate way. I want to celebrate his life. He was a remarkable dog, He touched so many lives. I hope that I can honor him properly. So I chose to speak directly to him.

To Merlin from mom:

I was attracted to you the second I saw you, so small at about three months of age, but so sassy in that cage at the shelter. It was my first day walking dogs who weren’t on the adoption floor and I had just lost my Layla only a week prior to seeing you. You looked at me with such sly eyes, so knowing, so full of intelligence and humor. It only took one look and I knew you were to be mine. You knew it too. I was told that you had “sexy” eyes by another shelter volunteer, such an odd compliment for a dog but clearly true as well; something more than in most canine eyes at such a young age. Such potential.

Merlin, on a walk, grinning.

Merlin, on a walk, grinning.

When we brought Kera home after you “chose” her just a month later, you were thrilled that I got you such a wonderful “toy” until you realized you had to share me! You made Kera “pay” for a couple of days, then you made her your partner in crime, deftly giving me a crash course in multiple dog ownership/training.

Having only had “easy” dogs up until you, you challenged my mind at every opportunity. You performed magic feats on doorknobs and crates, opening both without difficulty and with humor. You fully earned your magical moniker. You forced me to increase my training and behavior knowledge and I will always respect you for that.

You had both drive and persistence which made training you a challenge. You refused to be pushed around in the name of training and rightly fought back to any man-handling attempts. Your delight was evident when I learned a better way to teach you. We made strides faster than the speed of light and your responses made me beam with pride.

You became a dog trainer’s dream dog, able to go anywhere and be trusted with anyone. You helped shy and scared dogs learn to be brave. You showed reactive dogs that you were not a threat and that playing with another dog could be fun. You helped some dogs get certified to be canine good citizens; others, you showed your large repertoire of cues so they could watch and learn.

Front cover, How Many Dogs?! book

You were kind to everyone as long as they were kind to your family. You approached every situation as friendly until finding out otherwise. You LOVED puppies and helped raise Siri and her siblings until we sent all but Siri off to their forever homes. The memory of you laying on the floor letting puppies tug on you from various angles brings a huge smile to my face. You cared for the multitudes of foster puppies who spent time under our roof like they were your own. You grinned happily as they took new steps. And you sent them on their way to their forever homes with a smile.

You were welcoming to the many foster dogs that passed through our lives, on their way to their forever home. You helped them to feel comfortable and loved and happy. When corrections were needed, you issued them appropriately, showing kindness and restraint. Even as you eventually grew weary of one too many fosters, you handled it with dignity and grace and understood that we had a purpose higher than we may have preferred at times. You accepted our role and loved me despite minor inconveniences to your life. You understood that our little family was always number one and comforted by that fact.

You helped keep us safe in an urban neighborhood, sometimes fraught with strangeness. You always knew when to step in and when to let me handle things, perfectly assessing every situation. I didn’t teach you this, you were born with it.
You lived it. I respected your perfect instincts and understanding more than I can express.

You viewed life as an adventure, every new situation as something to look forward to. You trusted me to have your back and keep you safe.
Your sense of humor brought smiles to my day. You made every day fun and laughter. You reveled in the outdoors and made sure that every day had relaxation in it. Without your nudging, I would not have had as much play as I should have. You loved to go places, riding in the Xterra like a champ, “elbow” resting on the window ledge like a human male, grinning out the window with pleasure.

It was on one of our many outings that the first sign of trouble reared it’s ugly head. The day that we took our first trip to the vet, almost directly from am outing. On the way to find out what caused you such distress, I could not shake the feeling that my life had changed dramatically that day. I hoped I was being melodramatic but sadly, I was right. I would give anything to change what happened but I am grateful for the chance to have the extra time with you that no doctor said I would have. You handled all your vet visits with grace and dignity and even humor, making you a favorite at the specialists. They admired your good temperament and disposition, they loved your humor. They mourned with us when you were lost to us. Your loss created a void in the lives of many, the cards and condolences were plentiful, your memory a flame that will go on.

You took such good care of all of us, Kera, Siri, Trent and I, me being at the top of the list. It I was your number one priority and truth be told, you were mine. I loved you best, feeling at one with your soul. You were more partner than the others. That always feels odd to say, fearing that some may not understand but I know that many will know what that means. It is a oneness with another creature that can only be described in that way, fully mutually understanding another without guessing, an ability to share thoughts and communicate without words. While that ability exists to an extent with my other beloved dogs, it has never reached such an understanding as with you. There is a piece missing now that can never be replaced. That’s okay now, as much as it can be, because I know that someday I will see you again. With that purpose in mind, wanting to live up to your ideal of me, making you proud, I move forward for you. I miss you with every ounce of my soul and I will celebrate your life as it deserves to be celebrated.

I have written and re-written the above in my mind a dozen times already. I wanted perfection for Merlin’s memorial but perfection is always out of reach; this is real life and there is no perfection. So I will “settle” for simply from the heart. Now an update on our emotional progress…

Front cover, How Many Dogs?! book

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year since I had say goodbye (for now) to my precious Merlin. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him multiple times a day. I can go from okay to tears in an instant with the right trigger. But it IS easier now to try to move forward. It was and still is a struggle randomly and I would be lying if I said it has been easy. I suppress a lot of trigger reactions. I basically forced myself to move forward, for the sake of Kera (who joined Merlin on June 1st), Siri and Trent. After we lost Kera, we would have continued into an even deeper downward spiral, so deep was the loss in our lives, if things continued as is.

Those of you who follow this blog know that what changed the direction for the better was Kenzo. Daily, I am grateful for the gift of his addition to our lives. His presence forced us back into the game of life. No matter how much complaining I may do about never subjecting myself to puppyhood again, the laughter that he brings us is worth his eventual weight in gold. I will forever be in debt to my dear friend who made Kenzo’s life with us possible.

In many ways, Kenzo reminds me of Merlin. I like to think that this was by design, Merlin’s that is. Kenzo lies down to drink water a good bit of the time. Merlin did that for his entire life, preferring the path of least resistance in many areas. Merlin also liked to play in water all of his life, starting with the water bowl as a puppy, as Kenzo has and continuing to splashing in any available stream or other accessible body of water. The only area that they differ with regards to water is Kenzo’s dislike of rain. Merlin loved all things wet, rain included. Kenzo, not so much! Merlin’s fur was forever dancing about the floors in fuzzy balls. Kenzo has accepted the responsibility of continuing that tradition down to the exact color of the fur balls. Kenzo is vocal when cuddled as Merlin was.

But make no mistake, they are two different dogs. I know this. I accept this. I would not have accepted a breed that reminded me of Merlin because I am not ready for that yet. I don’t know if I ever will be. I hope so as I love Dobermans with fierceness but I don’t want to make any comparisons so I wait. I miss my pokey nosed baby boy too much to risk more traumas. In the meantime, every black and tan (orange) butterfly that I see seems to be Merlin checking in with me. When my loss was brand new, I saw Merlin or thought I did, out of the corner of my eye, in various places he used to be. I do still see that but not often enough. I need the continued connection but I don’t think Merlin wants to me to dwell too much so I march forward and know that we will meet again. Until then, I love you more than words can say, my “little boy dog”.

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Correct Me If I’m Wrong? I Have a Better Idea

This may not strike you as a multiple dog subject and strictly speaking, it isn’t. But it’s a dog behavior subject that affects all dogs so that is multiple enough for me. I have been mulling this subject over for a couple of weeks now, prompted by recent conversations I have had with a couple of people, all via internet which is never the best venue.

Denise Fenzi at work.

Denise Fenzi at work.

As anyone who has either read my book or knows me in person is aware of, I am a positive reinforcement trainer. That wasn’t always the case. I started my training knowledge with the more old fashioned techniques now known inaccurately as “balanced training”.

At the time, it was simply the way that things were done. My fellow trainers and I were never intentionally harmful to the dogs that we were training or so we saw it that way. Of course the corrections that we issued to these dogs were intentional in that they were meant to be corrections. But did we see these forceful actions as harmful? Not at all. It was simply how we were told that dogs learned. But did they really learn? Sure, they did but at a cost and part of that cost was often a loss of trust. Humans are very unpredictable and can cause pain. They learned that right away. Best to avoid that pain by toeing the line we drew. Dogs are amazingly adaptive. They can learn despite the failings of humans.

I will always have to live with knowing that my beloved Merlin and Kera were initially “trained” with choke chains and a jerk on the leash. And let’s not forget scruff grabs and the like. My sweet Siri got far too familiar with a prong collar for during her late teenage months. Until I heard the cry of pain from one particularly enthusiastic launch forward during a hike, that is. That was the last time she had to bear that medieval device. It has made a great back gate latch since then.

My training method crossover did not happen fully overnight. I was dead set against using food rewards at first. But I attended my first positive training class with a dog from the shelter that I taught at, instructed by a local positive trainer who taught at another local shelter. I was initially horrified at the amount of food used. But I could not deny that my shelter ward for the class was attentive to what was taught. Soon I was bringing my own dog (Merlin) to the same trainer’s class with an eagerness that I never felt about my own classes. The transformation had begun.

The majority of that transformation was the fact that Merlin was not a dog that accepted corrections lightly. When they even made a dent in his consciousness, it was because he fought back. Merlin was a confident intelligent dog. He saw no need to be roughed up. When I learned a better way, the difference in attentiveness was like night and day. I had finally had the sense to give this brilliant dog the job that he had been craving. The end of his reactivity on leash to pretty much anything that moved had begun in earnest. I was delighted!

Years have passed and my knowledge has grown by volumes. My eyes have been opened. I have been thinking about this awakening in depth recently and I liken it to those pictures that get forwarded around where there are hidden images. Until you spot the image, you are confused and frustrated. Everyone else can see it, why can’t you? But then the skies clear, the image is undeniable and you wonder with amazement how you missed it even for a moment. As my dear friend Jackie says about other subjects, you can’t un-see it. Your life is forever changed. This is how I see balanced trainers versus positive reinforcement trainers. I see that image and that can never be changed. I wish they could see it too. It makes me sad that they can’t.

I will try very hard to explain this without judgment. Having been on the other side, I truly know that there is no cruel intent in most balanced trainers’ methods. I say most because some people will always take pleasure in their so called domination of another species. This is not said lightly. I have names in mind. This writing is not about those people. I do not feel that changing the view of those who feel that way is within my reach. Their path is in their control and they will follow it where they are directed to. I wish them clarity someday.

One of the questions I was asked recently was, did I think someone I know who is a balanced trainer hurts dogs? I said no initially because I truly don’t think she means to, as explained above. But after giving this more thought, the real answer is, “Yes, I do.” Using shock, jerks on choke chains or prong collars, and other physical corrections, DOES hurt. It’s designed to. That is the whole reason behind the use. Correct the dog, he won’t do that again! But what does the dog learn from that? See above.

The dog in question does not change how he feels about what caused him to get a correction issued. He just learned that it hurts when he does that. It doesn’t mean he won’t do it again. It means that he will weigh his options and may choose what is more rewarding for him in the immediate moment at the expense of potential pain. This is a bad position to place a dog in.

The relationship suffers. There is no way of getting around that. There are various schools of thought that a dog should do whatever is asked simply because pleasing the human that asked is the best reward. It sure can be a huge part of it!

That high of a value being placed on verbal acknowledgement as a reward ONLY comes with a stellar relationship. If you are an unpredictable human and you sometimes cause pain, then you are not to be fully trusted and a verbal reward will never be at the same level for a dog you are training than with a dog and human combo that has a trust filled relationship.

There, I said it. Let the flames begin. That is fact and you can spin it any way you want to try but that is how relationships work and we all know it. It’s the same with humans. Trust is trust. If you trust the person on the end of the leash to always have your back, then you will do pretty much anything for that person. Positive reinforcement training gives you and your dogs the opportunity to truly communicate with one another. It’s a two way conversation, with respect for both.

I realize that I must clarify the above somewhat. I am well aware that there are some crossover trainers who had great relationships with their dogs prior to crossing over. But I feel safe saying that these trainers have great skill with timing and that their corrections were rarely or never at the extreme end. The average dog caretaker who takes a class from a balanced trainer doesn’t have the same skill and understanding and the relationship WILL suffer.

Now none of this is not to say that positive trainers never lose their cool. We yell at our own dogs periodically, we have faults, we make mistakes, we are all human. But the effort to avoid having any emotional and physical pain in the name of forced compliance is a huge consideration. Again, this is not a judgment on those who I think simply have not seen that image. This is a plea to you to try to see that image. For your dogs, for the dogs you train. There is a better way.

I hear so much silliness from balanced trainers that well trained dogs trained by positive reinforcement is not the norm. We must have as our own dogs or train only soft dogs, not the dogs with drive like they train. Again, sorry to be blunt, but hogwash! I have dogs with drive. Merlin was never an easy dog to either live with or train but let me say, once I learned the right way to train, he was a pleasure! I could take him anywhere. He could be off leash standing next to a deer and he would come to me to be rewarded for ignoring said deer. I train dogs like this all the time. I turn reactivity and aggression around all the time. As with any client base, owner compliance is important to success. But success is the norm here. I am also far less worried about the damage that my clients can do to their dogs with bad timing of verbal markers and treats than giving them the permission to jerk their dog when the feel the need!

Anger is easy to escalate. Having been in this position, I say this with conviction: it’s far easier to simply jerk a leash again when compliance is not forthcoming than to take the moment to show the dog what you want instead. Anger begets anger. I choose to show people how to teach their dogs to make better decisions and to give their dogs a voice in the outcome of any situation. I can sleep better this way and I know that the majority of my clients do as well.

This is a subject dear to my heart so I need to curtail my ramblings now or I will fill far too many pages for this blog! I will end this with some comments from other cross over trainers on what moment gave them pause to “cross over”, edited for space.

Dawn Elberson Goehring in Gaitlinburg, TN is in the entertainment business at the Comedy Barn Theater with her dogs. With a background in working with wildlife, which involves hands off training, she could not understand why leashes were needed to train a dog. So she went hands off with her trick training and found an amazing attitude with her dogs that serves her as well with training clients today.

Nan Arthur, trainer in Lakeside CA and member of the faculty at Karen Pryor Academy and author of “Chill Out Fido”, says that her defining moment was attending a class with her six month old puppy and seeing the instructor correct another dog so hard that he was slammed into a brick wall because of his barking. She walked out and found a better way.

Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws in Fairplay, MD and author of numerous books on positive training as well as training editor of the Whole Dog Journal, states that her light bulb moment came when her marvelous dog Josie ran and hid under the deck when she brought out her utility dog equipment. She never looked back from that moment. It is well documented what has resulted since then!

Miranda Workman, trainer in Amherst, NY and former president of the CCPDT, offers that her Boxer who had been attacked by another dog, became reactive and was made worse by punishment based training techniques. He was no longer safe to be around. This situation helped her not only cross over but to become a professional trainer.

Casey Lomanoco, of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training in Endicott, NY has Monty to thank for her awakening. I cannot possibly edit her story and still do it justice so simply read it for yourself here. http://projectmonte.wordpress.com/about/

All these situations have something in common: they saw the image in the picture. For those of you who have seen the image, feel free to share your story here as well. For those who have yet to see the image, if you are local, come watch me work. If you are not, call a qualified positive trainer and ask to watch her/him work. I wish you clarity.

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Too Many Dogs? How Many IS Too Many?

The answer to that question lies in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. Two is too many for some households, ten is too few for others. My own personal best number feels happiest at four. I cannot tell you why I feel that way. That is just when peace and contentment seem to fully set in. But truthfully, that is only because I am the sole human in residence at the moment. There is only so much one person can do, in my opinion. There would be more if I had more help!

I used to think I was the oddball since having four dogs (before I lost Merlin) raised so many eyebrows. Having run a rescue for thirteen odd years, four was the fewest in residence most times. I once had nine here, five of them being puppies. That was a hectic time! I have had eight adult dogs at once, with four being either boarders or temporary fosters on their way somewhere else. Again, hectic!

Nine dogs on a futon.

Nine dogs on a futon.

Not being a fan of hectic, I have since learned to pace myself. Someday, when I have more room, both inside and outside and possibly another human to assist, I want more dogs as the status quo, but until that day comes, I will stick with a maximum of four permanent canine residents.

The reasons for this will shortly become clear. I have a check-list of minimum requirements for a multiple dog household. My own personal check list includes the basics, of course, such as appropriate affectionate attention to all, exercise sufficient to maintain canine (and human!) sanity, extra curricular dog activities when appropriate and cash flow sufficient to properly feed and vet all. Vetting, for me, also includes a monthly pet insurance payment, which actually makes the actual sickness and illness vetting process much easier. Peace of mind does have a price after all!

Your mileage may vary. But my own preferences aside, providing for physical needs is important. Remember, your crew must trust that you can take care of their physical needs in order to FULLY trust you, so this forms the basis of that trust. Do not take that need lightly.

Space is important as far as how many dogs you actually have room for in your home. Indoor space is important, but breed types can determine how important your indoor and outdoor space is. For example, if you have multiple Great Danes, although large, in general, they are not in need of a lot of exercise and running room so a large yard is not necessary. They are also known for liking to lounge around the house so again, as long as you have the space to accommodate such lounging, your house need not be large.

On the other side of the equation, having multiple herding breeds such as Border Collies, will make you wish that you not only have a large fenced yard but a few sheep to herd as well! Know your breed preference requirements when deciding on a happy number for your household!

Multiples mean more work such as laundry, vacuuming, poop scooping, training, walking but also more fun, more laughs, more kisses and love. You have to decide what your own limit it.

One other caveat that is of vital importance: everyone should get along. No one should have to live with permanent barriers between dogs who get along so badly that that there are safety concerns. Mistakes WILL happen. Eventually. So if there’s no fixing the problem, consider re-homing the most recently added crew member who is part of the problem.

Now that I have covered all the high points of how many is appropriate, take the time to tell me in the spaces below, what your crew consists of and why if there is a why? Join me in celebrating a household of multiples!

Please contact me if you want to know, “How many dogs can I have?”

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Can You Feel the Love? Dogs and Emotion

Do dogs love? I was recently very startled to hear someone I thought of as pretty dog savvy, say that dogs don’t think nor feel. They only act out of instinct. I don’t think a statement exists that I disagree with more than this one. This statement was made in reference to dog/dog relations, but either way it is inaccurate.

Do these dogs have feelings for each other or does it only appear that way?

Do these dogs have feelings for each other or does it only appear that way?

I could fill another book with the whole “do dogs think” part of this statement but since solid information supporting thinking in dogs is not only prevalent anywhere you care you look including science, I will simply address the feeling part of this equation.

Several brilliant minds well known in the behavior world, with far more initials following their names than I have, have already addressed the matter of dogs and emotions before. This information is also available in print. They have come to the same conclusion that I have.

Of course they feel emotions! One only has to live with and observe them with any regularity, to fully grasp this fact. Personally, I think it’s especially obvious when dealing with multiple dog households. If at least two of them get along, that is.

Dog/dog interactions aside, whether a dog feels emotions or not, also applies to their interactions with humans as well. To be blunt, why have a dog or any pet for that matter, if there is no mutual bond to share? The thought baffles me.

Of course, all of the “evidence” I will be discussing here, is anecdotal. For science, see Patricia McConnell, Marc Bekoff and Vilmos Cysani for starters. But I am not a scientist; I am a dog behavior consultant. I don’t conduct double blind studies in sterile labs. I do, however, make my living observing dog behavior. This observation that I do, gives me the information that I need to successfully modify the behavior for the better, of my client’s dogs. I have to assume that my observations have thus far been pretty accurate since my clients are pretty happy with the results.

My observations so far are too numerous to catalog in entirety on this subject. But my knowledge of this subject is not limited to my observations alone. Plenty of dog caretakers have the same stories to tell. My most recent story that doesn’t come from my own experience is from a friend who I asked to let my dogs out while I was gone too long one day. My friend commented that Trent was very protective of Kera, who is suffering from not only canine dementia but also kidney failure. She said that he stuck very close to her in my yard when she let them out to potty.

Front cover, How Many Dogs?! book

Siri declined a potty break that day, so clearly she had no qualms about Kera’s safety with my friend, who is by the way very well known to my dogs. I told my friend that Trent had never done that when I was there, not in the yard any way. Both Siri and Trent are attentive to her needs including indicating that they are waiting for her when need be. Trent is also very mannerly about letting Kera enter doorways first, when mannerly is not necessarily his foremost trait. So this story was interesting to me.

I have too many stories of my own observation to list. Trent took great care of Merlin in his last months. He was very focused on cleaning his ears frequently as well as circling him when he was walking with him to seemingly ensure his safety when he was tired. Siri stood sentry by the truck the day Merlin wasn’t up for getting out at our favorite spot until he finally did venture out. Then she followed him while he walked slowly. She does the same thing with Kera now.

Siri’s brother, Xander was almost inconsolable at first when his “big sister” Mona passed away. He wasn’t present the loss so he only knew that she left one day and never came back.

When Merlin spent the day and an overnight at the vet’s for an operation, the other dogs were visibly ruffled. The joy that they greeted him with when we picked him up the next day was undeniable. They were very gentle and careful with him.

They shared the loss when we had to say goodbye to him. I made sure that they were present so that they would know what transpired. I wanted them to understand and the transition was much easier for them than it was for Xander and his Mona.

Trent adores Siri. He fawns over her as often as she allows him to do so. He would be lost without her. He would lay on her if she would let him.

Almost every multiple dog guardian I know has stories like this. Many include other species in the bond, in addition to a dog/dog one. Feel free to add your story in the spaces below. Let’s dispel the old fashioned myth together.

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