My… what big teeth you have!! National Dog Bite Prevention Week

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girl and puppy     This week (May 17-23rd, 2015) is National Dog Bite Prevention Week; a week created to educate people on canine behaviour, how to interact with them, and as awful as it sounds… how to teach people not to get bit.

Does that seem crazy to you? I’ve heard it said that all it takes is common sense to avoid being bitten, but what really is common sense? We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks and these shape how we go about our daily lives and consider “Normal” or “Not”. And beyond all this… accidents do happen. Here are a few facts from the American Veterinary Medical Association that they post in regards to NDBPW:

1. 4.7 million people in this country are bitten by dogs every year.

2. Children are by far the most common victims.

3. 800,000 Americans receive medical attention for dog bites each year.

4. Children are far more likely to be severely injured; approximately 400,000 receive medical attention every year.

5. Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs.

6. Senior citizens are the second most common dog bite victims.

The Montreal SPCA has even created a website, www.dogsandkids.ca to help facilitate the education process and to help understand some of the very very basics that is canine behaviour and areas to focus initial teachings with your children.

For trainers, caregivers, puppy and adult raisers, foster homes, shelter systems, private, and public facilities, these reported numbers are alarming! How can this be? Well we aren’t hear to place blame, point the finger, or create an example out ofbaby and dog anyone. The fact is, is that these statistics are partly a result of how we as a majority “HAD” educated ourselves and interacted with canines, assumptions we had potentially made about their physiology and psychology, and it isn’t because of how many of us currently “ARE” working with canines.

For me as an advocate for canine-related education, caregiver training and the creation of a bond based over mutual respect and understanding, doing what we do, and educating as many as we can is the most important part of our jobs! Unfortunately, accidents happen. But education is power, and spreading what we now know about canine behaviour and physiology through formal education (Bachelors and Master’s Degrees in Dog behaviour, Veterinarian), and the service dogs industry, will only help our society and local communities embrace, understand, and further integrate canines successfully, while decreasing ugly bite statistics that in a large part can be avoided with a little foresight and education! And anyone can do it! Just getting out, putting your best foot forward, and setting theory into motion shows everyone around you that it is possible, and that there is this new way to listen and interact with dogs!

So for all of you, EVERYONE, that gets out, puts a smile on, helps educate those around them by socializing, educating and working with their canine and people around them (even the very basic and small things), THANK YOU! From the bottom of my heart. You are all leaders, teaching by example, educating the “young” to the “not so young”!!! Keep it up!!

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March is Pet Poisoning Awareness Month – Do you know all the risks?

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Dog and FlowersThe start of March brings with it a change in seasons for many of us in North America. Spring is starting (sorry Eastern Canada), and we are getting the itch to clean, prepare and plan the coming warm months. March is also Poison Prevention Month and it’s a good time to remind everyone that there are many items in our day-to-day lives that are capable of putting our canines at a serious health risk if ingested.

sick puppyWith that in mind, I want to list a few things that are regularly found inside our homes, as well as items found outside our homes, that could affect our dogs. The first step is being aware that poisonous items, which we need and use daily, exist in our environment. The second step is to set our canines up for success by ensuring their environment is a safe space, with said items being cleaned up and secured away from interested and snooping noses. Here is the most recent list of top pet toxins provided by the ASPCA.

To protect your pet, simply follow the same processes you would as if you were taking precautions for a child.

Pet-toxic items inside your house:

  1. Human medication

Generally dosed for much larger bodies, even a small amount of medication can be dangerous. Keep all containers, tubes, ointments, vitamins and cold medicines away in a secure location so that pets cannot access or chew them. Don’t forget to also include veterinary products and medications. Flea and tick medication is highly toxic, as is joint and pain medication and supplements if they are taken in the wrong dosages.

  1. Household plants

This includes lilies, mistletoe, holly, azaleas, etc. There is unfortunately quite a long list, as we tend to like plants with bright colours and cool designs, which in Nature usually indicate a level of toxicity as a warning to others. You can see that list courtesy of the ASPCA, here. For some. the leaves and plant can toxic, for others it is the fruit; and for others agai,n it can be the seeds, or a combo of all three. Be careful what plants you bring into your house and, if you do bring plants into your canine’s safe space, you MUST ensure they are safe!

  1. Toys with movable parts or stuffing

Easy examples include plastic eyes on a doll or squeakers in plushy toys, both of which can become lodged in a throat or intestine necessitating an expensive trip to the vet. Take the same precautions you would with a small child. Don’t leave them unintended and remember that no toy is truly indestructible!

  1. String, yarn, rubber bands, dental floss all can cause ugly intestinal blockages.
  2. Food Items

Some food products are straight-up toxic, while others can cause mechanical damage if eaten (cooked bones splinter and get caught in throat and intestine, for example). Gum has xylitol in it, which is very poisonous for dogs (a small dog can be in a lot of trouble just ingesting 1 or 2 pieces), chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which can be deadly to dogs. The list is fairly extensive here as well. Think that is it? Well avocado, bread dough, ethanol (alcohol), grapes, hops, macadamia nuts, moldy foods, onions and garlic also make the list. Take a look at this link here again provided by the ASPCA for toxic foods commonly found around the house.

Pet-toxic items outside your house:

  1. Antifreeze (ethylene glycol)

It tastes sweet if ingested, making it very appealing for pets to sniff out and lap up. Unfortunately, this common product is used in the radiators of our vehicles to keep them cool, to keep plumbing from freezing over winter, and also used in our home’s air conditioner. It is possible to purchase antifreeze without ethylene glycol, and if this product simply became the norm in the industry, we wouldn’t have to contend with so many poisonings related to this product.

  1. Fertilizers/Pesticides

Used to keep plants growing, grass green, and to keep all those bugs at bay, any such products are fatal if accessed by pets.

  1. Traps and poisons

Used for rodent control, ant control, etc., these products can cause injury and can most certainly kill, as that is their intended purpose. Never leave poison baits in your canine’s environment.

  1. Cocoa Mulch

You can buy this mulch at garden stores, and because of the cocoa component, it has an appealing sweetness to it that can lure pets. It does, however, have the same active (read: toxic) ingredients as chocolate and can be just as dangerous if ingested.

Being a canine caregiver means ensuring that our canines lead happy, healthy and safe lives. Just as is the case for our human children, there are a lot of products in our environment that are toxic when not used for their intended purpose. It is critical that we are first made aware of what these products are, and secondly, take action to ensure that our canines are kept safe from them.

Happy Puppy

Accidents do happen. If you think your canine has ingested something they should not have, don’t wait or delay, take them immediately to a veterinarian and explain what you think they have gotten into. If you are able to bring the product with you, do so – as it will help the veterinarian understand what active ingredients are present and what course of action must be taken to address the problem.

Not sure if your canine has been poisoned? Some signs that can be seen after ingestion:

  1. Nausea and vomiting
  2. Mild to severe depression
  3. Wobbly, uncoordinated (drunken-appearing) gait or movement
  4. Twitching muscles
  5. Short, rapid movements of the eyeball
  6. Head tremors/ seizures
  7. Lack of appetite
  8. Salivation and drooling
  9. Swollen glands
  10. Decreased righting (standing up) ability
  11. Increased urination and increased thirst

Higher Level “Shaping” Through Positive Reinforcement (No, it’s not a secret weight loss technique!)

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Ever watch a certified service dog in action, and envy their well-developed technique? It’s nice to daydream about your own pooch mastering these moves, but know it doesn’t happen by chance.  Service groups around the world spend many thousands of dollars, and hundreds of man-hours, perfecting technique and working up a skill set large and effective enough to ensure that these canines can pass their extremely difficult final exam.  Sometimes all this work pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just as not all humans are cut out to be brain surgeons, not all canines can meet the rigorous criteria that will allow them to work with a disabled companion.   As we look on at these service teams in awe of their abilities, it can be discouraging to consider that this level might only be attained by “the best of the best.” I’m here to attest to the fact, however, that you and your dog can achieve this higher-level relationship, and I’ll explain more below!

Our canines all have amazing skill sets that can successfully contribute to the family “pack,” and have a positive impact within our communities.  I’ve discussed a number of Canines By Design concepts already that help you get to the finish line: T.A.P. For Success, Set Up For Success, and Proofing: What is it and how to do it. These concepts focus on preparation, frequency, and environmental interactions, but what about the actual training itself?

I would like to introduce two terms for your training considerations: shaping and chaining (specifically forward chaining). Both terms have been accredited to B.F. Skinner and his work in behavioural psychology. I’ll also provide some examples showing just how valuable these skills are at teaching canines – did you know we already use teaching techniques with children much in the same fashion?

Inquisitive German Shepherd

It’s as simple as A-B-C…

Shaping is defined as a conditioning procedure, which uses “differential reinforcement of successive approximations” (thefreedictionary.com, 2014).

Translation? We always have a particular end-point (goal) in teaching that we wish to reach.  For example, when we teach the alphabet to children, our end goal is to have them learn and recite all the letters of the alphabet.  However, we don’t expect a child to learn all the letters on the first attempt, nor do we expect them to recite in proper order.  So what do we do?  We start with A, then B, then C…  We offer testing periods along the way to help solidify the steps taken to that point, and then continue with new steps (or letters in this case) once the previous steps have been mastered and reinforced with praise and the positive feelings we all get when we succeed.

Easily enough, the same applies for canines! When I’m training a service dog to turn on a light switch, I do not expect them to walk up, place their paws perfectly, use their nose to flick the switch up, and their teeth to lightly pull the switch down, in the first five minutes.  Nor do I expect a young puppy integrate “lay down” and “roll over” at first go.  I break the task down into manageable, achievable steps (A separate from B) so that the canine can succeed and receive that praise (positive reinforcement) at each step.  Once those steps are perfected, we continue to add further steps (A + B + C) until the canine is completing the task from start to finish.

Chaining is the form of learning in which the “subject is required to make a series of responses in a definite order” in which each response, when sequenced together, forms a complex behaviour.

Let’s return to our alphabet example:  When we teach children the alphabet, there are two important aspects we focus on: one is the letters themselves, and the second is the order in which they exist in our alphabet.  We try to set ourselves (the teachers) and our children (pupils) up for success so we have created an alphabet song that shapes the behaviour of knowing the alphabet by forward chaining each letter together in their assigned order using a melody.  By doing so, we can not only teach them the letters, but also the order.  Could you imagine trying to teach your child the alphabet order by first saying “D comes after C but is before E”?  Behaviours are hard enough to learn without becoming frustrated or struggling with complicated instructions.

For canines, it is the same.  If our end-goal is to have our canine recycle pop bottles into a garbage can, we must first take that particular behaviour, break it down into learnable pieces:

  1. Recognize the bottles
  2. Pick them up
  3. Carry them
  4. Move them over the garbage can
  5. Drop the bottle in the can
  6. Slowly combine each step [successive approximations]
  7. Learn that each step is a part of one behaviour and therefore one command “go recycle”).

I developed the “ go recycle” command for a behavioural course project as part of my Master’s Program.  Check out my course video (sorry for the quality, it was “home” recorded)  – it visually explains the concepts of shaping and chaining without actually using the terms.

At Canines By Design, I take my academic education in psychology, canine behaviour and animal biology, and apply terms, research, and teaching methods to your relationship with your canine. This knowledge should not only be reserved for service dogs. Using positive reinforcement techniques, shaping, and chaining will help open up the doors of possibility and will have you thinking up cool news ways that your canine can contribute to your household and community.

TheFreeDictionary.com . (2014). Shaping Definition.  Retrieved from:  http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Shaping+(psychology).  Accessed on: June 18, 2014.

Britannica.com (2014).  Chaining Definition.  Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/334034/learning-theory. Accessed on: June 18th, 2014.