Family Friday: How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend

Dog is man’s best friend, and woman’s too. Our dogs are always thrilled to see us, dinner’s exactly what they were waiting for, and they’ll do the darndest things just to earn a treat. This is the current version of the pre-dinner routine that our rescue Lab Kumba performs for a crisp crunch of cucumber.

We may think that we fully reciprocate the friendship with our dogs. We have given them room and board with sofa privileges, regular exercise, and chewy toys. But are we really doing everything we can to advocate for our pups when they really need a friend?

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training, knows that we can be better advocates when our dogs are stressed by: 1) learning their body language, 2) recognizing signs of distress, and 3) practicing defensive handling to get our dogs safely out of potential trouble.

Learn your dog’s body language.

We may be chatting on the phone or smelling the roses while we’re walking our dog, but Fido is constantly aware of his surroundings, especially someone or something approaching. Here are some signals to watch for in your pup.

Relaxed, pensive, politeAlert, concerned, tense
Ears backEars up
Head turnedHead down, or staring
Mouth openMouth closed
Body looseBody rigid

Each dog uses his tail to express himself, too. A slow wag might mean she’s relaxed and happy, or that she’s apprehensive. Carrying her tail high might convey pleasure or concern. A tail between the legs when you’re out for a walk? “Get me out of here!”

Common canine calming signals — self-soothing actions like a human’s nail biting — are lip licking and yawning.

Mimic or otherwise acknowledge distress.

Yawning or licking your lips, too, lets your dog know you’ve “heard” her.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Make distance your friend.

Put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the source of the stress.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Use the environment.

Move behind a fence or onto a porch. Lift your dog to safety onto a truck bed or into a trash can. Use a folding chair or a hose or your leash to create a space around you.

Do NOT pick up your dog. He will instantly become prey for the other dog. And you could be seriously hurt.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Use your voice.

A loud “GO HOME!” In an aggressive tone lets the enemy know he is not welcome.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

So, listen to your dog’s body language, just like she listens to yours, and you’ll both get more enjoyment out of being each other’s best friends. As always, thank you to the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, for bringing this dear boy into our lives!

Kumba, our rescue black Lab
Kumba, our rescue black Lab

You can read more of Alison’s guidance in previous posts: How to introduce your pandemic pup to a new dog, How to help your unsocialized dog say hello ,How to train your pandemic pup, and Why training your dog is not about the tricks.

Family Friday: How to Train Your Pandemic Pup

In Daniel Bortz’ recent New York Times article, Pandemic Pups Swamp Trainers, he cites the American Pet Products Association’s number of 12.6 million households that took in pets between March and December. That’s a whole lot of new dogs locked into homes with their humans 24/7 during the past year.

Before the pandemic, they would have needed to hire daytime walkers or find pet-friendly workplaces. Under current circumstances, they are getting time to bond, and the dogs are helping to ensure that their humans get outside at least a few times a day.

Daniel Bortz, The New York Times
Kumba in our yard, so happy to be waiting for a ball that he completely doesn’t care about hitting the lanai. His glossy coat is helped by a omega oils product Alison suggested, Shed-X

We adopted our Lab rescue, Kumba, through Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida in February. This sweet dog was weak, anxious, and had aggressive tendencies around other dogs, which Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training had just begun helping us with when the world went into lockdown. Here’s what we’ve done over the past year on our own to address these issues, and advice from Alison on how crate training may be the single most important thing we can do for our canine friends.

Socialization

Alison has found that, counterintuitively, the pandemic has done wonders for dog socialization.

The six-foot mandate has given dogs exposure to people, dogs, and places without being expected to interact. Being able to keep neutral — what I call ‘elevator behavior’ — is a great skill to give our dogs.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Having that space sure helped Kumba, who was docile and sweet around humans but nervous and downright aggressive around other dogs. Getting him accustomed to seeing other dogs without reacting was the first step.

Alison taught me to interpret Kumba’s reactions and reward him when he let down his guard as she and her dog walked parallel to us and at a distance. Although the pandemic cut short our in-person training, I continued the process in the subsequent months as I walked Kumba through our community. I looked forward to seeing other dogs as a training opportunity, instead of fearing the encounters. Slowly, Kumba relaxed, and one day he made his first dog friend: Reese, a wonderful little bundle of golden/dachshund happiness. Adam, the community’s friendliest French bulldog, and Leo, a new pug down the block, are also Kumba’s pals. My best friend, Coni, and her Goldendoodle, Linda, now take weekly walks with us. One day, they will be friends.

Separation Anxiety

Kumba had been abandoned by his family at a shelter in Puerto Rico, so having his humans leave was traumatic. For the first few weeks, we hardly noticed: I was was home 24/7, and my husband left only periodically to do pandemic hunting and gathering. But on March 13 we were gone for several hours — picking up a car we’d ordered — and he barked non-stop (a neighbor told us) and chewed through whatever he could find, including this book. Clever dog.

Since then, we’ve made huge progress. Although Kumba came to us crate-averse and people-connected, he has learned that he gets a chewy treat when we go out (a filled Kong which we reserve for this special occasion), that his bed is his home, and that we’ll be back. We clear clutter to make it easier to behave and there is less and less amiss when we return. He no longer barks. And his greeting!

Crate Training

Alison is a huge proponent of crate training. At some point in their lives, dogs may need to be confined, in a kennel, in a vet’s office, at a friend’s. In our recent conversation, she got me thinking.

Being home all the time isn’t normal to us, but our pandemic dogs think it is. However, their humans’ constant attention may give us emotional support, Alison says, but can make them attention-demanding. The close bonds that have formed between house-bound humans and our canine companions may actually hamper our dogs’ well-being. In making dogs our emotional support, we forget that they need our support to become independent creatures, able to self-soothe and have down time.

A separate kennel gives a dog space to become independent.

Before the pandemic, I used to tell people, get a dog, then go on vacation so the dog becomes accustomed to being in a crate. A kennel becomes the dog’s home, for eating, for down time, for resting.I know that people resist confining their dogs, but they are truly den animals — anyone who has seen their dog digging in their bed or making a hole in the backyard or at the beach has seen den behavior.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

She recommends that people begin crate-training by having their dogs eat their meals in them, as well as be in them to rest after walks, after training, and randomly. If you’re working at home, put the crate in another room so the dog has their own space. This way, the kennel is not just the place you put your dog when you are leaving the house.

Which, now that we are vaccinated, we can do a whole lot more safely!

Alison Chambers at Complete Canine Training, (781) 424-2590,
alisonchambersdogtrainer@gmail.com

Alison Chambers and friend

Wellness Wednesday: How to Survive the Vaccine Hunger Games

Weeks after being buoyed by the encouraging news that remarkably effective coronavirus vaccines had been approved, millions of Americans find ourselves in an exhausting battle to get the vaccine into our arms. We are struggling against often contradictory communication, the lack of supply, and radically uneven access.

Trying to get vaccine is like being in an all too real version of The Hunger Games, a sci-fi story set a dystopian future in which teams of young people vie to survive in a televised fight to the death. Just replace vibrant youth with the frail elderly.

To win, Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen must count on partnership, collaboration, and strength. Here’s how these strategies can help us succeed in the vaccination process and get a needle in our arm.

partnership

My husband and I almost lost each other in 2019 when I became very ill while on vacation in Amsterdam. We don’t let a day go by without giving thanks for being together. We know how lucky we are.

We fare better with a partner. Batman had Robin. Roy Rogers had Trigger. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is paired with the kind and loyal Peeta, who also becomes her love interest.

Rachel Wegner’s recent article for the Nashville Tennessean featured newlyweds Florence (age 89) and Rudy (age 86) Saperstein, who married mid-pandemic and were recently vaccinated together. Being together during the social isolation imposed by the coronavirus has bolstered their spirits and kept hope alive.

Life with Florence is good, so I want to keep living

Rudy Saperstein

Not everyone is lucky enough to have an other to love. Reporter Wegner spoke with an infectious disease expert in her reporting, Dr. William Schaffer, Professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Schaffer confirmed that the psychological impact of COVID-19 on the elderly has been a top concern.

There’s been a sense of removal, loneliness and even depression because their social interactions have been so limited.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Collaboration

Whether we have a partner or not, it’s collaboration with others that gets the job done. Katniss and Peeta risk working with their competitors to achieve success. In the coronavirus hunger games, while we’re competing with each other to get that needle in our arm, we’re also helping each other get there.

This morning’s edition of The Palm Beach Post included an essay by Jupiter resident Leanna Landsmann entitled “Trying to get a vaccine in Florida ‘Hunger Games’.” About collaboration, Landsmann says:

Friendships now trade in links, tips, and phone numbers. Most don’t pan out, but they enliven the day.

Leanna Landsmann, The Palm Beach Post

As I was finishing this essay, an example of this collaboration came flying in on my iPhone messages. My friend Al Pessin — yes, the author of thriller Sandblast and soon-to-be-released sequel Blowback — wrote to share a trick and a link. Jackson Health is using Twitter to advise when their website will go live with vaccination appointments. If you’re not yet on Twitter, what better time to start?

strength

Hunger Games’ Katniss is an archery whiz and all around athlete. I made it out of the ICU alive because I was very fit going in, but, even having that advantage, I had lost so much muscle in those six weeks that I was unable to move unassisted. It took me a year to fully recover, and I do not ever lose sight of the fact that, one day, something will want to take me down again. When it does, I aim to be as strong as possible.

One year ago this week, we added another soul to our home, our rescue black Lab, Kumba. He was terribly anemic and worn to within an inch of his life when he was flown in from a shelter in Puerto Rico by the Labrador Retriever Recovery of Florida. Kumba and I became part of each other’s recovery journeys over the past twelve months in daily morning walks. Have a look at this transformation, and know that, you too, can succeed in being stronger, a day at a time. Just watch out for unseen corners!

Wishing you love, partnerships, collaboration, and strength in meeting this challenging time!

How A Dog Saved Our Life

CNN and Palm Beach County’s Big Dog Ranch Rescue rang in the New Year with a mega puppy adoption gala, wrote Wendy Rhodes in The Palm Beach Post.

Photo: Big Dog Ranch Rescue

The event was right on trend to ring out the Year of the Pandemic.

… the hottest commodity during lockdown after toilet paper and sourdough starters turned out to be rescue puppies …

Venessa Friedman, NYT Styles Section

When we adopted our lab Kumba in February, my husband and I had no idea that we’d be on the leading edge of the upwelling of community kindness and care that opened hearts and homes to rescue puppies last year. As Emma Gray Ellis wrote in Wired, the organic surge in adoptions emptied animal shelters as people confined to their homes during lockdown sought companionship.

Or maybe it was the dogs who opened our doors, and then filled our hearts.

Lab rescue saved kumba

Kumba was left at an animal shelter in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2019 by a family that was leaving the island. As a pure Labrador retriever, he was tapped by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida (LRRoF) that fall. In November, he received the necessary rabies vaccine, and he was flown to Ft. Lauderdale in December.

But he was a very sick dog. LRRoF’s vet, xxxx, said he wasn’t sure how Kumba was even able to stand. He weighed just 50 pounds, was desperately anemic, and required transfusions and two rounds of antibiotics before he stabilized. He began to recover at his foster home.

Lab rescue believed in us

Meanwhile, my husband and I were realizing that we were ready for another dog. It had been two years since the death of our beloved chocolate Lab Django, and the awful black hole of absence had morphed into an empty space that begged to be filled. The story of Levi, our friends’ Golden Retriever rescued from Turkey, inspired us to seek out the equivalent rescue organization for Labs. We filled out the LRRoF application, passed our home visit, and scanned the LRRoF website for dogs ready for adoption.

Lucky us: we were the first family to meet Kumba at his foster home in January of last year when our daughter and her Lab Pancho were visiting (LRRoF requires that their rescues meet existing family dogs). We thought this Puerto Rican dog would pick us because we spoke to him in Spanish, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He was sweet and soulful and ready to be loved, Pancho didn’t care one way or the other, and Kumba’s foster mom approved. We came home and waited for Kumba to fully recover.

On February 2, we brought him home.

We believed in kumba

It was a rocky start. The first thing he did was pee on the antique chest of drawers my mother bought at the Rome flea market in 1961. Of course he did: he was all wound up from the car ride, and we brought him inside immediately instead of giving him a chance to pee outdoors. That never happened again. By the end of the day, we’d found our walking rhythm.

But Kumba was anxious, needy, nervous. He needed to be right next to us. This was easy to accommodate in our retired, homebody schedule, most of the time. But on the occasion when we both were out of the house, we returned to shredded newspapers and chewed up paperbacks. Voracious reader, you bet. We got better about picking up after ourselves. He got used to sleeping his swank dog bed outside our bedroom door. We got use to him lying on the couch.

Kumba was timid at first
Our rescue Lab, Kumba, was timid at first.

Then, on March 13, the country went into lockdown.

Kumba saved our lives

We were suddenly in enforced isolation, and the creature who needed us so began to give us fun and joy and variety. Kumba had increased our household numbers by fifty percent and our household energy by much, much more.

In a recent article for the Associate Press, Mary Esch wrote about how dogs are bringing comfort to isolated residents of a New York nursing home.

The love of an animal is incredible. It releases endorphins, reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety.

Catherine Farrell, director of therapeutic activities, Hebrew Home

We had no idea a year ago how much we would need this dog. We think it’s probably mutual.

How to Prepare Your Rescue Dog For Being Alone

As I wrote about earlier this year, one of the upsides of this awful pandemic has been the increase in animals being adopted from shelters across the country. Faced with being home, many families increased their number by taking in a rescue pet. We had nothing but time last spring, and a new furry creature would add to our entertainment and soften our loneliness.

We adopted Kumba, a four-year-old black Lab flown in from Puerto Rico by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, in February. Our hearts had healed from the 2018 loss of our chocolate Lab, Django, and my body had healed from my 2019 near-death illness in Amsterdam. Bringing this sweet, unsure boy into our home was the right thing to do. As soon as he himself had healed: he arrived in Ft. Lauderdale dreadfully anemic and underweight, but the LRRoF and his wonderful foster mother, Kim, cared for him as he fought his way back to health.

Kumba at his foster home

It broke our hearts to know that his dear boy was left at a shelter by his family. His foster mom told us that he would stay by our side indoors or out, and that he did not like being left alone, much less being crated.

That all sounded fine to us. We were homebodies even before the pandemic hit. Kumba became my morning exercise companion as I continued to strengthen my legs on long walks, and he sat at my feet as I wrote until lunch. He followed my husband around the house the rest of the day, a dutiful apprentice to whatever project was underway, including watching TV. We bonded as lockdown closed off the outside world.

We knew that we would leave him at home when we needed to go out together. When my new car arrived at the dealership in mid-March, we were gone for four hours. Our neighbor mentioned that he’d barked the whole time. Kumba took his anxiety out by chewing on a paperback book. Yeah, he’s a literary critic. I agree that it’s not the best writing, but it’s a best seller.

Nearly eight months later, Kumba and all the other dogs brought into a new home have become used to their humans’ 24/7 availability. Animals brought into a home during the pandemic have not had the socialization (with other people, and, especially, with other dogs) and periods of being left alone that would have naturally occurred before lockdown. Now, as children return to school and adults resume outside activity, dogs used to the permanent company of their humans may experience separation anxiety. The stress, and the destructive behavior a dog uses to cope with that stress, can overwhelm well-meaning families, leading to surrender or abandonment

Michael W. Fox’s syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor recently listed the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommended steps to get pets ready for their humans’ return to normal life. Which, of course, we don’t really understand ourselves.

One: introduce a workday routine

The AVMA suggests setting the alarm clock and feeding and walking your dog as you would when you return to normal routine, and leaving the house on a regular schedule.For us, this meant forcing ourselves to get out of the house together without the dog. We go on walks without Kumba, although the neighbors miss seeing him. We give ourselves the treat of a couple of hours at the beach mid-week when it’s only us oldsters there.

TWo: take anxiety out of your departure

Practice short departures daily, gradually extending the time. Stay calm when leaving or returning. In our home, we slowly extended the amount of time we were out of the house.

Three: exercise your pet before leaving

Play and activity burn energy and can keep pets calm and relaxed. That’s true for people, too. Kumba and I do a couple of miles every morning, and he plays fetch very nicely, especially with his stuffed animals.


Four: keep them busy

Long lasting treats, food puzzles can entertain pets while you’re out. We have a Kong that we stuff full of good things (okay, peanut butter and carrots) that Kumba can chew on while we’re out. Initially, his anxiety was too high to allow for that until we got home, but just yesterday he cleaned out a Kong while we ran a 20 minute errand.

Five: create a safe space

Set your pet up for success by eliminating environmental temptations. Reduce the roaming area. The AVMA suggests using a crate while you are working from home.

We crated our other dogs, who came into our home as puppies, and we did consider forcing the issue when it appeared that Kumba couldn’t be trusted to be alone in the house. Instead, we limited the risk by closing off the bedroom doors and removing newspapers, socks, shoes, bills, books, and bags from harm’s way.

It’s like when we had a cleaning service during our working years — we always picked up the night before. You have to wonder if Kumba is training us.

SIX: LoOk signs of stress

Barking, whining, chewing. Poor Kumba’s first act when we brought him home was to pee on a piece of furniture. It was our fault for not letting him to relieve himself on the grass outside after the nerve-wracking car ride. It hasn’t happened again, but he did enjoy a good chunk of The Palm Beach Post while we were at the beach last week.

What we are seeing in our boy Kumba these days is a dog who is at home being home. Our daughter recently visited for the first time since January, when she met Kumba at his foster home. It’s fair to say that it’s mutual love now in our household, pandemic and all.