TALKING THE WALK

I was walking a client’s dog last week in a relatively quiet DC neighborhood, like I do every week. The dog, Patches, is a scruffy little terrier with a long body and stubby legs. Patches is scared of other dogs. I’ve been working with Patches to help her feel less nervous around other dogs, including making sure she’s never put into a situation she can’t handle when it comes to being around other dogs on leash.

On this particular walk, however, we found ourselves in a difficult situation: with an off-leash dog running right up to us! The owner must have noticed how I was frantically trying to put myself between Patches and the charging dog, and they finally called their dog away – but poor Patches was already in a worried frenzy, barking and pulling at the end of her leash. This interaction was sure to cause a setback for her, and the worst part was it could have all been avoided.

Even though I was frustrated with the owner of the off-leash dog, this walk with Patches made me think about how not all owners are familiar with the needs of some dogs. So here are some dog walking tips that will help all dogs and handlers feel more comfortable when they’re out in the world:

1) Leash laws, leash laws, leash laws. I know it’s kind of a drag that I bring this up first thing, but out of respect for those of us with dogs who don’t love other dogs running up to them, following leash laws is very important. Dogs who cannot socialize with other dogs have every right to share space where other dogs might if those spaces are regulated with leash laws to keep everyone safe. If you want to run your dog off-leash, there are plenty of places to do it legally!

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2) Always ask to say hi. Even if the other owner doesn’t seem to be actively avoiding you as you walk up, it’s still important to ask if your dogs can meet. Some people aren’t great about speaking up that their dog doesn’t want to say hi, or they feel embarrassed asking you to stay away. For both your dog’s safety, and the safety and the comfort of the other dog, simply ask the owner before letting your dog approach.

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3)  Keep moving, please! If you do see a dog barking at your dog, or seeming like they’re having a difficult time as you pass by, please keep moving! Dog owners sometimes stop and stare as another dog reacts to the dog they are walking. The best thing you can do in this situation is keep moving along and enjoying your walk.

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4) Give your own dog space. If you have a barky dog who sometimes doesn’t do well with other dogs, instead of testing it at each introduction, you might want to consider simply moving off the path as you pass another dog. I know it can feel embarrassing when your dog barks at other dogs, and a lot of times simply increasing your distance from another dog will help your dog feel more comfortable! Space is really your best friend when it comes to passing unfamiliar dogs.

No two dogs on the street are the same, so no two interactions will go the same way. It’s important that owners advocate for their own dogs, as well as respect the other dogs they come across. If we are all a little more courteous towards each other, everyone is more likely to have an enjoyable and safe walk with their best friend.

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16 HOUR FOSTER DOG

Holy moly do I miss fostering. I knew I missed it, but I didn’t realize quite how badly until I was walking through the kennels at work and saw this adorable little face staring at me through the wires of her kennel door.

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The funny thing is that I was actually heading back to the dogs to check out this adorable pit puppy we’d just gotten in, but this girl with no name caught my eye. She was just so mini and waggy! I cooed at her through the gate, which just made her melt into me more, which then made me melt… I was done.

I went to inquire about her. She was a stray, which explained why she didn’t have a name. I had had had to take her out. I had to spend more time with her! She was just so cute. I hadn’t felt this way about a dog in a long time.

She came and hung out at my desk and did wonderfully. Bringing a dog to my cubicle is a good test, and can actually give me a lot of information about the dog. Does she settle well? Is she super extra curious? Does she get freaked at the office noises she hears? Can I occupy her with a chew? This pretty girl, of course, passed her test with flying colors. So obviously I had to take her home for the night.

Yes, I would say this is one of the perks of working at a shelter: being able to have a foster dog slumber party whenever you want. I geared the little one up, and off we went for our 16 hour adventure together.

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At this point she still didn’t have a name, so I called her Penny. Because she can fit right in my pocket.

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I brought her home and obviously my roommates fell in love with her. I also obviously broke my very own #1 rule of keeping a foster dog’s world small during the transition, and out we went with Penny to Meridian Hill Park. I made sure to bring lots of treats with us so I could show her the behaviors I did want from her while we were out (attention to me, loose-leash walking, etc.). Turns out, Penny rocks. Here are some pictures from our adventure:

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So then of course she was so tired that she was extra snuggly in bed with me that night, which is my absolute favorite part of fostering. It might have only been 5 pm to 9 am, but the time spent with Penny was a nice glimpse of what fostering was for me at one time and what it will be for me again one day. For now I will just continue to enjoy the times I do get to steal shelter dogs and call them my own… for 16 hours.

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PS – Penny was of course scooped up right away. Watching her walk out of the shelter with her new mama brought back some crazy bittersweet feelings!


BREAKING NEWS: YOUR DOG’S FOOD IS NOT MADE WITH A SUBSTANCE FROM MARS

First of all, I’d like to give a huge THANK YOU for the overwhelming support you all gave me after last week’s relaunch of the site. I’m so excited that you’re excited! Your encouragement and enthusiasm made all the work I put into it way worth while.

Now, let’s talk about food.

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Hi, I am a dog trainer who uses food in training – and I absolutely love it. I train using primarily positive reinforcement. What this means is that I add something good to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. If I add something and it does not increase the behavior, it’s not doing the job. More importantly, it’s the learner who decides what is reinforcing and what isn’t. Just because you want Fluffy to enjoy pets does not mean Fluffy will enjoy pets.

The thing about food is that it is a primary reinforcer, meaning animals are hard wired to like it and want it. Most of the time, food is good enough to make a behavior happen again (depending on the difficulty of the behavior and the value of the food, but that’s for an entirely different post). Toys, praise, etc. are not always a good enough reinforcer, at least in the beginning, to increase a behavior. It’s like the equivalent of giving you a glass of lemonade to mow the lawn, versus giving you $20 to mow the lawn. Which is more motivating? (Trick question: it’s actually your spouse’s nagging.)

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As much as we would love our dogs to work with us “just because they want to,” that is not the case. They don’t want the glass of lemonade. Well, some do. But most don’t. We need to pay them and make it worth it for them. There are times when toys or praise just won’t cut it with our dogs, especially for tough behaviors like not going bat s*%t crazy when the doorbell rings. Using food in training allows us to mark and reward behaviors we like so that our dogs begin to do them more often. Stay calm to earn a “good boy!” from my human? No thanks. Stay calm for some juicy hot dogs? Now you’re talking!

I totally understand the concerns people have about using food to train their dog. The three gripes I hear most often are 1) I don’t want a dog who will only work if I have food 2) I don’t want my dog to get fat and 3) I don’t want my dog to think he now deserves my people food. Here’s the shocking part to a lot of people: trainers who use food don’t want any of those things either!

If you use food correctly, you can avoid all of those issues. Seriously! 1) Don’t go to your treat stash until after your dog has completed the behavior. As in, don’t stick the treat in front of Fluffy’s face and then give the cue. Give the cue, then treat. This makes it a reward, not a bribe. 2) I’m a big fan of shifting calories away from the food bowl. This is a win-win because your dog is working for his meals and therefore not taking in a ton of extra calories, and he’s getting extra mental stimulation! Which we know is super important. Lastly, 3) People food is only “people food” if it comes from the dinner table. Have you checked out the ingredients labels on your dog food bag? It (hopefully, ha) consists of what we consider “people food” – not a foreign substance from a faraway planet. Your dog will not translate getting cheese as treats to automatically deserving a bite of your grilled cheese sandwich. (But then again if he does think that, just teach him an awesome “place” behavior while you eat dinner and maybe he can get a bite or two!?)

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Do I fade the food eventually? For many behaviors, yes. Or I at least move to a more variable rate of reinforcement with treats while transitioning to functional rewards like getting the leash put on before a walk or tossing the toy. But for some behaviors, like a potentially life-saving recall or serious behavior modification, I usually don’t. The strategies and theories behind how long and how often we use food are a bit more complex and for another post.

Now, of course, like with everything else in the dog world, there are exceptions. There are dogs who will bend over backwards for their human’s giggle or for the toss of a ball. For those dogs, those functional rewards are more motivating and reinforcing. But most dogs need that food when you’re teaching them. I’m writing this because I had a really funny/borderline mortifying experience when I did a taping for a local news show the other day (which deserves its own post) and I wanted to address the whole “treats in training” debacle before I write about that experience. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not working for just hugs, kisses or lemonade, no siree, Bob – and I wouldn’t expect my dogs to either.

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NEW BLOG, SAME US

Hi! Hi hi hi! Welcome back! I’m saying this to you all, but I’m also saying it to myself. Welcome to the new and improved Peace, Love & Fostering blog! (If you’re reading this in your email, that’s your cue to hop over to your web browser and check out our new layout... except maybe wait until you’re by a computer because mobile is nice but not that nice).

I know you guys watched me let PLF fall by the wayside over the past year and a half. I witnessed it too. I had so much else going on. I was too busy. I wasn’t fostering anymore. This site started as a way to get the word out about my amazing foster dogs – once I no longer needed it for that, what exactly was its purpose? Where was my inspiration? Well, sometimes it takes some time and space apart to realize you really were meant for each other.

So, darling blog, I am back for you. Whole-freaking-heartedly.

It all started a couple weeks ago when I got an email with an amazing new opportunity (which I’ll write about later). This person found me through PLF. After celebrating the offer, I immediately regretted not keeping up with posting here. What if this person had passed me over because I didn’t have recent content? Or they dug back into my early posts when I had no idea what I was doing because I didn’t give them enough good posts to read more recently? What if they took my lack of posts as a lack of commitment!? I could have missed this chance, and the thought of that really scared me.

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I immediately sat and thought about why I don’t post anymore (because the dog trainer in me HAD to figure out what was so aversive about it). There are a couple reasons, but one of the blaring ones was the feeling that the blog’s layout and style no longer fit me or my mission. It is very “me three years ago.” Don’t get me wrong – I loved my self-made layout and it served me well for many years, but it was time to grow up. It was time for my blog to reflect the person I am now, mid-twenties.

I contacted my good friend Dani DiPirro, blogger, graphic designer and positive thinker extraordinaire, and asked her for ideas. Turns out that rebranding is, well, what she does (among other things)! I jumped at the chance to use her creativity and expertise. The best part? She’s been reading PLF for years so she knows what’s at the heart and soul of the site. We started brainstorming, and all of a sudden the most amazing, perfect, I-couldn’t-have-dreamed-up-better PLF brand was created.

I’m armed with new graphics (seriously, Dani is a genius), I’ve taken new (real!) photos for my posts and I’ve written new menu pages (if you’re bored, go check them out!). I am absolutely head over heels in love with everything about the crisp new look. It’s so “me right now.”

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But on top of that, I’ve also got an improved outlook, voice and mission. Like I said before, the time I took away from the blog that I spent living and learning has left me with a new sense of self. I’ve got stuff to say! And I think I can say it in a way that will resonate with you! And the fact that I’m confident in that makes me really excited to WRITE! You might have noticed that I changed the tagline from, “The three ingredients to a warm heart and saved lives” to “Lessons learned from fostering, training and loving dogs.” Because that’s really what this space is about: living life, learning from it and sharing it with you – but luckily in a way that involves dogs so it’s not just me talking about myself, ha!

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The cherry on top is that I finally got my .com address. Yup, bookmark it: peacelovefosterDOTCOM. I love you, WordPress, but I just couldn’t live with you in my URL anymore. The site is still a work in progress (hey, life), but making this huge jump has been enormously refreshing and challenging and rewarding and so, so worth it. I feel lucky that I have this space in existence where I can brand myself outside of my training company or my events job – because, at the end of the day, I’ve got my own voice and I’m going to use it to make a difference.

Thank you SO much for sticking with me through all this. See you back here SOON!

MEJC


GROWING UP

It’s been a busy summer around here, especially with my two best friends from high school. You’ve met one of them briefly on here when I wrote about her gorgeous dog Kenji. Well, she’s getting married! We got to spend some quality time with Kenji yesterday after wedding dress shopping with his mama. It’s been so great to watch him grow up into a lovely gentlemen.

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More exciting news – my other best friend just adopted her foster dog from BARCS, Baltimore’s animal shelter! Ilana has never had a dog before and this new addition to her family has got me doing all sorts of happy dances. Dominic is the perfect dog for her, and I am so proud of her for adopting a pup in need of a home. She will be here with a guest post soon about what it is like to have a dog for the first time ever. Stay tuned!

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So we’re busy busy, and so grateful for this time spent with close friends – especially since catching up is usually extra dog related these days!

Are you all doing anything special this summer?


Taking Action for Animals – What “Action” Means For Us

When I was invited to attend the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) annual Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference here in DC this past weekend, I eagerly looked up what lectures were being offered.  One session called “Saving Pets” stood out to me (and luckily was on the only day I was able to attend). This workshop featured four speakers: one about increasing adoptions in shelters, one about decreasing the number of puppies from puppy mills sold in pet stores, one from HSUS’s Pets for Life program about helping under served pet owners, and one from Coalition to Unchain Dogs, a group that builds fences for dogs who previously lived on a chain.

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I was impressed with how much of this conference truly revolved around the word “action.” In the “Saving Pets” workshop we were not only told about current welfare issues, but we were also given ways we can take action ourselves. What can I, as your average animal lover, do to help those dogs being bred purely for money? What can I do to increase the quality of life for dogs who need to live outside? What can I do to help people who might not be able to provide for their pets? Of course we can write checks (which is also needed!), but TAFA gave us some tools to go a step further.

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While the presentation about sheltering and puppy mills were full of great (and heartbreaking) information, it was the Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs speakers that really stood out to me. Like I wrote about a few posts back, one issue in animal welfare that is currently at the forefront of my interests is helping under-resourced pet owners keep their pets instead of having them end up in shelters. Pets for Life and Coalition to Unchain Dogs both do just that. For more information about the two groups, I encourage you to follow the links to their websites in the previous sentence. I’d like to focus on some common themes behind the action that these groups are taking that translate to just about any work done when helping animals:

Leave your judgements at the door. I’m serious. All of them. Every single assumption you want to make about someone, all those stereotypes you believe in even if you swear up and down that you don’t – get rid of them. You will help more animals. I’m not saying it’s easy, in fact many times it can be quite the opposite – but when you go into a situation with your guard down and with no judgements, enormous changes can be made. That person might not take care of their pet the way that you do, but you sure as heck better realize that they love them just the same. Us having the mentality, “If they can’t afford to take it to the vet, they shouldn’t have it,” isn’t going to change anything about the situation at hand. So move on and start figuring out how you can help.

Relationship building is the most important task on your to-do list. Helping animals usually starts with helping their owners, and a lot of times the best way to get through to someone is to have a relationship with them. Relationships build trust and break down walls. Dolly’s Foundation is an amazing organization that offers owner support in Florida, and they report that it can sometimes take months before someone agrees to get their pet spayed. Dolly’s goes in judgement-free (ding ding ding!) and takes what little victories they can get, all the while building the relationship.

It is important to have the core belief that people love their pets. As Neya Warren of Coalition to Unchain Dogs said in her presentation, “A lack of resources does not equate to a lack of love.” Believing that people want the best for their pets – whether they can provide that or not – makes it that much easier to shed judgements and start helping.

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Ask open-ended questions. This is a tool I recently learned that I now use in all aspects of my life, but especially when doing application reviews with potential adopters. If you ask someone a yes or no question, it almost immediately removes an opportunity for discussion. Plus, you sort of make it seem like there is a right or wrong answer. Open-ended questions are amazing at getting people to open up and feel comfortable – plus it makes for a much more productive, two-sided conversation. We’ve all been there where we feel like we’re talking at someone. Open-ended questions put it on the other person to do some talking which, when working to help them or their pets, can be very important!

Nothing beats face-to-face interactions. I suppose I already covered this in the previous points, but the folks who make a huge difference are the ones who have their feet on the ground and who are out there meeting with the people who need their help. Facebook, tabling events, flyers, etc. are great, but they’re not going to get the job done. Laurie Maxwell from Pets for Life made the point that we have to get rid of the, “If you build it, they will come,” mentality. Most of the time it is knocking on doors that is needed most. It’s volunteers in the neighborhoods. It’s that face-to-face conversation and relationship building. It’s meeting them where they are.

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Those points are just a few snippets of the expertise from this workshop. I jotted down some phrases that came to mind as I listened to the presentations – concepts that came up over and over again – and the list included: feet on the ground, face-to-face, benefits everyone, non-judgmental, inspiring, conversation, dignity, listening, respect, open mind – and more. Do you see a common theme here? It’s time to start realizing that action for animals – especially those in shelters or who might end up in shelters – means action for people as well.

For more information about how you can help the people, and therefore the pets, in your community, check out HSUS’s Pets for Life program, including their extensive toolkit. I recommend you see if there are existing organizations in your community, like Ruff Riders in New York City, who are already working to keep pets with their families. If you prefer a different route for helping animals, I still encourage you to keep these “action” points in mind when you are working with pet owners, potential adopters, whoever. A little open mind goes a long way.

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P.S. – Check out who made it into HSUS’s All Animals Magazine!

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Vicarious Fostering With Lady Bug

Back in January I wrote all about Rudy, my friend Eran’s foster dog. Eran even wrote a guest post on what it was like to foster for the first time. Since those posts, Rudy has been adopted and Eran and his roommates have brought another foster dog home. Her name is Lady Bug and she has proven to be quite the awesome little (not actually little) dog.

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Eran fostering Lady Bug has been the closest I’ve come to the fostering experience since I handed Johnnie’s leash over thirteen months ago. Eran pulled me into the process as he and his roommates began to look for a new dog, so I have been working with them from the beginning. Knowing what his house’s needs and wants for fostering were, I hooked them up with Jasmine’s House. Jasmine’s House would allow them to pull a dog from a shelter and bring that dog into the rescue program.  Eran and I went to the Washington Humane Society to look at possible foster dogs – an opportunity I hadn’t really ever been a part of because my foster dogs always had a way of finding me versus me picking them. It was overwhelming to have rows of faces as options, each one wagging and saying, “pick me!” Eran and I would go over each dog and talk about their personality, the pros and cons, the potential that they would fit in with a busy house of six young guys, etc.  It was daunting. How could we predict the way these animals would act in a home environment? I, having worked with shelter and foster dogs for years now, know what could go wrong, and while I tried not to be too pessimistic, I felt like I needed to bring up the “what ifs.” The WHS staff and volunteers were wonderful in helping us sort through the options.

After lots of back and forth about what dog to bring home, Eran and his roommates ended up deciding on a three year old black pittie named Lady Bug. She was actually at a different shelter location than the one I went to so I never even met her, but he and I had had so many discussions about what to look for in a potential foster dog I was sure they made a good decision. It was their dog, not mine, after all! Eran reported that she was very outgoing and friendly, she wasn’t mouthy or too jumpy and that she had a BFF that she played with at the shelter named Oink. That’s about the best we can ask for, right? They were totally in love with her soft fur, stocky body and wonky eyes. I have to admit she is pretty endearing.

First picture at home!

First picture at home!

Just like when I brought Zabora, Baxter, Otis and Johnnie home, I held my breath with Eran the first few days and nights after they brought Bug home. What would she be like once she got into a home? What part of her behavior was her true personality and what was still hidden from the stress of the move? What challenges would arise as she settled in and decompressed? She’d been at the shelter since December, so it was anyone’s best guess how the stay affected her.

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As expected, it felt like something changed every day that passed with her. The first weekend she was had some episodes of fear-based reactivity. We immediately started counter conditioning. Luckily Eran and his roommates are fabulous at taking advice and they care deeply about Bug’s well being, so improvements happened quickly. Then Lady Bug started having episodes of hyperactivity where she would become barky and mouthy. We brainstormed endless ways to manage her and be proactive about curbing the episodes. Lady Bug got food puzzles and Kongs and long walks. When that didn’t really help, we decided to take her to the vet. After putting her on a careful chicken and rice only diet, her inappropriate behavior has practically disappeared. Maybe it was a food allergy or maybe she just settled down, but either way she has become quite lovely – and her skin and coat have improved tremendously! Amid all of these changes, she also started to dislike her crate. Like many foster dogs, the challenges felt like they might never end. We had to keep in mind that this transition is difficult and stressful for her, and that we needed to be understanding of her needs.  Talk about a refresher on being patient!

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I am happy to report that after being in their home for about five weeks, Bug seems have worked through most of her issues, and she is turning into one of the friendliest, snuggliest, happy-go-lucky dogs I’ve ever met. It has been so rewarding to watch her settle in and become more comfortable with her surroundings. Now she seems happy to just snooze the day away with her (six!) boys. She has learned sit, down, touch and mat through clicker training. Her fosters are so awesome and have taught her that she can feel safe where she is. No matter if they are hanging out around the house, having strangers visit, doing training, etc. – Bug knows that her boys won’t hurt or scare her, and they will keep her safe. There is so much trust among them, and I’m very proud of all the roommates for facilitating that!

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I didn’t realize how much I missed fostering until I became so attached to Bug throughout this whole process. It reminded me how invested you become when you worry so much about another creature, and they are not even yours!  I’ve enjoyed working with Bug’s fosters along the way and getting to use my new knowledge to help them help her. Though I’m not sure I’m looking forward to the familiar heartache of letting her go once she finally gets scooped up!

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