Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rainy Day Games: The Hallway Kibble Game

With August 2011 being possibly the rainiest month Philadelphia has ever seen, we've had plenty of time to play indoor games lately.

I learned about the Hallway Kibble Game from Leigh Seigfried of Opportunity Barks, who taught it as a method of doggy life enrichment. This game is ridiculously simple -- like, so simple that I didn't even try it for weeks because I thought there was no way dogs could conceivably be entertained by this -- but so far every furball I've tried it on has loved it.

To play this game you need: a handful of dry kibble, a dog (or dogs), and a hallway.

Then you...

(ready? ready??)

...throw the kibble down the hallway, a few pieces at a time, and let the dogs chase it down and eat it.

That is the entire game.

You can feed your dog's entire kibble ration this way. They just don't get tired of it.

Also, while I definitely would NOT recommend playing this game with a dog who had serious food guarding issues, Gremlin exhibited minor food guarding when she first came to us, and I really feel like playing the kibble game helped her get over that. Having a consistent supply of good food that she could eat safely in her crate probably helped a whole lot more, granted, but I think the kibble game helped too.

Playing this game taught her that she didn't have to fight Pongu for the kibble because more would come along seconds later, and if she wasted too much time trying to guard the kibble that had already been thrown, she'd miss out on fresh waves of food. The constant distraction of new food being tossed down the hallway also helped her ignore the presence of another dog nearby, and the fact that kibble is a fairly low-value food made it not really worth getting snappy over. Almost before she realized it, Gremlin was eating right alongside Pongu with no conflict whatsoever.

Obviously you would want to be very careful about playing this game with newly introduced dogs, or those with even slightly serious resource guarding behavior, but I did find it helpful in getting Gremlin desensitized to eating with another dog nearby. So, depending on the dogs you're working with, that may be a side benefit of playing the Hallway Kibble Game.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Proofing

"Proofing," in dog training, is the concept of practicing a trained behavior in new and gradually-more-distracting environments until the dog can reliably perform it out in the Real World. It's a critical part of getting a foster pup ready for adoption, because adopters expect that a dog who's advertised as "knowing how to Sit and Stay" will be able to actually do these things out on the street, not just in the quiet of his own living room.

Fortunately, it's very simple to do. It just takes time, patience, and repetitions. A lot of repetitions.

I ended up accidentally recording a demonstration of proofing in action when I started making a series of short Youtube clips to show Gremlin's basic obedience training.

We started with "Sit." By the time I recorded this clip, she had a pretty good Sit inside the house. But when I took out the camera to record it, suddenly Gremlin's response became a lot slower and more unsure -- because having the camera blocking my face was a new, alien element that puzzled her mightily. Behold:

However, even though she was confused by the camera, she still performed the command. Bravo!

When you're proofing something (or somewhere) new, you can't expect the dog to execute a command as perfectly as she did in the old familiar place. Substantial compliance is all you're looking for, initially -- you can always raise criteria as the dog gains confidence. But in the beginning, even a halting performance deserves praise and treats.

So we spent the rest of that session getting used to the camera, and the next day I raised the proofing criteria by moving our practices to the condo hallway: a place that Gremlin was familiar with, having walked through it many times each day, but where she had not previously been asked to do anything.

Again, a little bit of hesitation and confusion (and an awfully lopsided Down that would win no awards in competition, but that's okay, perfect form isn't my goal here). But, again, she does it after a moment's pause.

And then, finally, I moved from the condo hallway to our local dog park -- a very distracting environment filled with freely roaming dogs (including Pongu!), other people, lots of things to smell/chase/bark at/play with -- and asked her for a Stay. And because we had gradually increased the difficulty of the practice sessions, Gremlin was able to maintain discipline even in the face of all those distractions. Could she have done it the first day? No, absolutely not. But by slowly adding to the environmental demands and building up her confidence, Gremlin was able to keep self-control even in the dog park.

What a good dog.

Gremlin Finds A Home!

You just never know what's going to work in advertising a foster dog.

We try lots of things. There's the stylish "Adopt Me" vest that they get to wear when they're out on the town.

Gremlin had listings on and the rescue organization website, where she was the featured pet for several weeks. I put up an ad for her on my office's online bulletin board. We made "Adopt Me!" flyers for Gremlin and enlisted friends to help post them in local coffee shops, pet stores, and anywhere else that got a lot of foot traffic. And then, of course, there was plain ol' word of mouth.

But what ended up helping Gremlin find a home, unexpectedly, were the posts I made complaining about her on an Internet message board. All the rants and whines about the day-to-day hassles of fostering -- the ominous carpet puddles, poop-ruined shoes, exasperated neighbors, and cranky resident dog issues so familiar to everyone else who's walked down this particular road -- happened to catch the attention of a friend all the way over in Minneapolis who'd been thinking about getting a dog. (Well, to be fair, I'm told the Youtubes of Gremlin looking cutely monstrous, or monstrously cute, helped too.)

I definitely wasn't expecting that, but I surely can't complain. This will be a great home for Gremlin, and I very much hope she'll be a great dog for them. And it just goes to show: might as well try everything, since there's no way of knowing what's going to work.

So in a couple of weeks Gremlin will be leaving us for her forever home, and some time after that, a new mutt monster will come along to take her place.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Should You Buy or Adopt?

Jeebers, I've been neglecting this blog. Been almost a month to the day since I posted anything here. Resolved: that I should update much more frequently.


A topic that's come up quite a few times recently is "what's the best way for me to get a dog?" Because I can never remember what I've already said to whom, I live in perpetual fear that I'm repeating myself on this topic, so I'm just gonna post my thoughts on it here and refer people back to this post henceforth.

In my opinion, whether you should buy a dog or adopt one depends on what kind of dog you want.

As strongly as I advocate for shelter dogs (obviously, what with the whole fostering gig and all), I'm well aware that adoption is not the right option for everyone.

If you want a dog who can perform a specialized task at a very high level -- seeing-eye work, search and rescue, retrieving ducks from icy water after sitting in a boat for hours before dawn -- then it makes sense to buy a dog from a responsible breeder who specifically selects for the relevant traits, because you need a certain combination of strong instincts and specialized physical traits that most shelter dogs just won't have.

If you have your heart set on a dog of a very rare breed, then again, it makes sense to buy from a reputable breeder, because while dogs of all breeds do come into rescue (we just had a Carolina Dog/American Dingo pass through the shelter that Nessie came from), rare dogs are, well, rare. (Purebreds in general aren't too common, although you can certainly find plenty of pure or nearly-pure beagles, retrievers, and hounds in Southern shelters. And you can find plenty of pure pits everywhere. The often-cited stat that 25% of shelter dogs are purebreds may well be true, but my guess is that if you took out purebred pit bulls, that number would suddenly get a whole lot lower.) So if you absolutely must have a New Guinea Singing Dog and no other canine in the world will do, then you are probably going to have to contact a breeder about buying one.

But if all you want is a friendly, loyal companion and you don't care too much about getting a specific breed (or you want a common breed such as a golden retriever, husky, or Chihuahua), then I think adopting a dog is the only way to go. Millions of wonderful, sweet-tempered dogs die every year in this country for simple lack of homes. If you have a home to give, and all you really want is love, then in my view the only right thing to do is to adopt a homeless mutt.

So then the question becomes: which mutt? There are plenty of 'em out there.

How to choose the right dog for you is a highly personal decision and one about which books could be (and have been) written. I won't try to get into that too much here. My standard advice, though, is that most casual owners would probably be best served by adopting a well-socialized adult dog and, when possible, adopting one out of foster care.

Puppies are adorable, but young puppies are a LOT of work. They chew things. They have small bladders and limited muscle control, so they make a lot of housebreaking mistakes and they need to go out often (as in, every 30 minutes to an hour). As they get a little older, they go through a destructive and bratty I-can't-hear-you teenage stage, just like people do. It's no coincidence that so many dogs surrendered to shelters are between 6 and 18 months old. They stop being cute and they start being a nuisance, and off to the pound they go.

Adult dogs are past all that. They tend to be calmer and are often better behaved. They're more tolerant of young children's prodding and poking, and are less likely to be hurt by kids than small puppies are. It is absolutely not true that adult dogs don't bond to new people; our fosters, all adult or adolescent dogs, have bonded strongly to us within days. I believe that these dogs really do understand that they've been saved from a bad situation, and that they are grateful to the people who give them good homes.

And, to the extent that "who needs it most" matters, it's no question that adult dogs need homes the most. They're not as cute, they're not as young, and many adopters pass right on by, because the vast majority of people looking for dogs are only interested in puppies.

So, for those reasons, I think that people should at least consider adopting an adult dog.

Additionally, when possible, I advocate adopting out of foster care. A foster home will have much more information than even the best shelters about a dog's personality, likes and dislikes, talents and trouble areas. Dogs in shelters tend to be highly stressed, causing their behavior to be completely different from the way they'll behave at home and making it very difficult to evaluate whether a dog will be a good match for a particular family. A dog coming out of foster care, by contrast, has already spent some time in a home environment and can be more accurately evaluated -- and, importantly!, will already be familiar with concepts like "vacuum cleaners" and "ringing doorbells" and "the cat who lives down the street."

Of course there are never enough foster homes to go around, and the number of dogs in foster care is relatively small, so it may not be possible to find a good match among the mutt monsters available. But I think that's generally the best place to start your search, when you can.

And thus concludes my standard advice for where and how you should get a dog.