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Brain Games – How Mental Stimulation can be as Beneficial for Dogs as Exercise

The following post was written for us by TDWA member, Cindy Carol, owner of For Dog’s Sake, serving certain neighbourhoods in the west end. Cindy’s an experienced dog walker and trainer, a volunteer and foster home for Australian Shepherd Rescue, and a member of the High Park K9 Committee. She believes in continuing education and is therefore always growing her professional knowledge and skills.

Many of us dream of living the lives our dogs do. It sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Someone else goes to work to pay for room and board, cooks and serves the meals, does the housecleaning, and takes you out for a walk when they get home, all while you sleep on a comfy bed or couch all day. Who wouldn’t want to trade places with our well cared for dogs?

Our dogs do live wonderful lives. But we can also look at this scenario from another perspective. Picture this – your best friend gets up early in the morning, takes you out for a walk and feeds you breakfast. So far so good. Next, your friend heads out for the day, leaving you behind. You enjoy a nap, then wake up refreshed and energized, looking for some entertainment. But your friend forgot to leave you access to the radio, television or internet. You don’t have a book to read, or a pencil and paper to write or draw with. You can’t call your friends on the telephone or go out to visit them at the park or a café. You begin to feel a little bored and decide to take another nap. Later on, your friend comes home and you are excited to go out for a walk and some exercise. In the evening, you sit at your friend’s feet as they busy themselves with a project. You are happy to be together, but wish you had a fun activity to enjoy as well.

Like us, our dogs are at their best when their minds are stimulated and creatively engaged. Most of us go to great efforts to give our dogs lots of physical exercise. But if you have ever watched a dog chewing a good bone or learning a new trick, a herding dog working sheep or a hound dog catching a scent, you have seen that something truly comes alive in our dogs when their minds are as exercised as their bodies. There is a sparkle in their eyes.

When the weather is inclement or on those days when there just isn’t time for a long walk, exercising our dogs’ minds can be almost as effective as physical exercise in tiring out our dogs. Consider of how fatigued you can feel after spending a day on a mentally challenging task, sometimes it can be more tiring than heading out for a run. Even if our dog gets lots of physical exercise, adding mental exercise to the mix can increase the benefit. Mental stimulation can also be an important part of an overall treatment plan for behaviour challenges such as separation anxiety and excessive chewing.

What can we do to provide our dogs with lots of stimulating mental activity for those rainy days or every day? Here are some ideas:

1)    Use their instincts – give your dog a safe bone to chew, feed whole or part meals in a Kong or other treat toy, hide treats or toys around the home for your dog to find, or invent some scent games to play that require your dog to use his or her nose.

2)    Play games such as “come when called” in different rooms and with different people around the home. Tug can also be a wonderfully fun game that has the added bonus of teaching your dog self-control when played with appropriate guidelines.

3)    Teach your dog a new trick using an effective positive reinforcement training method. In fact, any form of positive training can be one of the best ways to tire out your dog, and you will have a well-mannered dog at the end of it! Good training methods build good relationships, and both dog and trainer will enjoy the fun.

4)    Take up a dog sport such as agility, flyball, dock diving, rally-o, herding or tracking.

5)    There are also many new puzzle toys and games on the market that your dog may enjoy.

Remember, providing your dog with mental exercise doesn’t have to be a daunting or time-consuming task. Even five minutes a few times a day of some trick training, or incorporating a Kong or treat toy into your dog’s meal routine or as you leave the home will provide considerable benefit. Who knows, your dog may even be happy to see you off to work, so he or she can catch up on some much needed rest!

Be sure to “like” our Facebook because we’re announcing a contest this week. The top prize is sure to help one lucky Torontonian dog beat the winter blues!

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What is a D.I.N.O.S.?

Happy New Year, Everyone! 2013 was an exciting year, but we welcome 2014 and look forward to continuing our work in the community, growing the association and getting to know new members.

What better way to kick off a new year than to remind everyone to be respectful of their fellow dog owners. In this case, we’re talking about D.I.N.O.S.: Dogs In Need Of Space. D.I.N.O.S. was created by fellow dog walker, Jessica Dolce who is “on a mission to educate the public about responsible dog ownership and the importance of being respectful of each other’s space.” And we are so grateful to her for creating this invaluable resource, and putting into writing what many of us are thinking. Please visit the D.I.NO.S. website and download the Manifesto.

There are so many reasons why an on-leash dog may not want to meet your dog, and why it may be inappropriate for your off-leash dog to approach. So while your dog may be friendly, please obey leash laws and give other people and their dogs the space they need, and help crate a positive experience for everyone and their pooches!

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Lost Dog Prevention

It’s better to be safe than sorry, right?  Well, this adage has never applied more than to the professional dog walker, a person charged with the safekeeping of vulnerable, cherished loved ones.   Most dog walking-related tragedies can be prevented, and in this blog post we’d like to share with you exactly how.

This guide is a collective effort between TDWA members, Kelly’s Dog Walking, Rover Achiever, Tail Blazers, oh my dog! and Dog Embarks. We wanted to share our safety tips and check lists with you, our fellow professionals and pet owners, so that you may benefit from our experience, and more accidents can be avoided.

We all know that when we set out in the morning, anything can happen. So we try to be prepared for anything and everything. And when each dog is returned home safely at the end of the day, a good dog walker does not take that for granted. We sweat the small stuff when it comes to our jobs because, the thing is, it’s not all small stuff. The tiniest detail could safe a life.

We were prompted to write this post because of the rash of dogs recently lost while under the care of professional pet sitters and foster ‘parents’. Admittedly, we all know that horrible things can happen to great dog walkers; accidents happen. But each of us sleeps a little better at night because of the set of guidelines we’ve created for ourselves. We’re hoping that fellow pet sitters and dog owners will read this and take something from it.

Door darting:

Safety protocol starts form the second the key hits the lock. Before you even arrive for the first walk with a new dog, ask clients explicitly if their dog is a ‘door darter’. Even if they say “no”, open the door slowly and with caution on the first day. If they say yes, you’re prepared, but ask them if there’s also a way to block off the doorway inside so that you can enter safely, close the door and leash up.

At the dog park and on the trails:

  • Keep a constant head count, and never count a dog unless you have an actual visual.
  • Work on recall from day one, with only the most delicious of treats.
  • If a dog does stray from the group, keep calling them so they can hear your voice.
  • Never change locations in a larger park without a visual on each dog.
  • Never let brand new dogs off leash until they’re well established, comfortable with you, making eye contact, and coming when called in a fenced park.
  • Make sure you’ve attached the leash to the right loop, rather than the ID tag ring.
  • When things don’t feel right, collect your group and move on. You can only do this if you’ve got control to begin with.
  • Make sure all dogs have an up to date name and number tag.
  • Add other walkers’ numbers to your contact list and call for help right away if needed.

Know your dogs and your surroundings. Here are just 9 scenarios in which a dog might bolt:

  1. Thunder phobic dogs during a thunder storm.
  2. Chasing wild life
  3. Chasing another dog and then getting misplaced from group and becoming frightened.
  4. Dog is distracted (maybe sniffing, eating garbage) as the group moves on, when the dog looks up he panics and races to look for his group in a panic
  5. New dogs in the car should always be tethered, crated or in front seat as they are not used to the door opening and closing.
  6. When another group of dogs charges at your group, a frightened one may run.
  7. Picking up a scent of garbage
  8. After a fight dogs may panic and bolt
  9. Separation of group. ie. two walkers walk together and then separate, the dogs might be working to keep group together or not know who to follow.

Tips for on-leash walkers:

  • Some use a carabiner to clip the dogs’ leashes to themselves so there ‘s never a dropped leash.
  • Never leave dogs outside of condos, buildings, coffee shops etc.
  • Make sure collars and harnesses fit properly, especially when they’ve just had haircuts <hot tip: sometimes owners loosen the collars and harnesses after you tighten them>
  • Use martingale collars whenever possible; they are designed to tighten if the dog jerks or pulls away, which will prevent slipped collars. Most other types of collars or harnesses can be slipped out of, given the right degree of panic.
  • Don’t let the dogs cross the street before you enter into the street yourself.
  • All dogs need to have a safe and strong leash – no retractable leashes.
  • Examine leash & collar for signs of wear and tear before every walk.
  • Ensure that all harnesses and head collars are secured with a safety strap.
  • Double check that leash is clipped to the collar ring and not the more flimsy tags ring <this one was worth repeating>
  • Whenever possible, position yourself between your dogs and possible sources of fright, like busy roads, other dogs, police horses, sidewalk cleaners, garbage/recycling bins, construction sites, cement trucks, sandwich board signs on windy days, etc.
  • When stopped at an intersection, keep dogs several feet away from the road.
  • Always be fully alert and present while crossing streets.

If you use a vehicle:

  • From day one, all dogs should be trained to wait until they are given the “ok” to jump out of the car.
  • Always open the door a crack, then slowly open it, blocking the gap with your body. Have a hold of ALL the leashes before allowing them to jump out one by one.
  • Grab the leashes of the more excited ones first.
  • Be aware of smaller dogs who might be hidden from view, and creeping up towards the front.
  • Keep your windows up, or not open more than a crack; on hot days use your air conditioning instead and have a second set of car keys if you need to. If a dog can fit his head through a cracked window, he can fit the rest of his body though also. This is because dogs’ shoulders move freely, unlike a human’s, and also applies to the use of chest harnesses.   Also use your car’s child lock system for automatic power windows to prevent curious paws from accidentally opening a window while you’re parked OR while you’re driving.

Please feel free to add your comments and suggestions. Each tip and story we share makes us better dog people and decreases the odds of a dog going missing.  This blog post is a great example of why we started this association in the first place, and why we do what we do. These dogs mean the world to us, so let’s be Safe, and not Sorry!

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On Prong Collars

Our first post is written by Maggi Burtt from Tailspin Petworx. Maggi provides dog walking in Rosedale and Summerhill, and private dog training sessions across Toronto.

Prong collars. Readily available at a majority of pet stores, sold to loving pet owners who need to control their dog’s pulling or lunging or whatever other misbehaviours they’re struggling with.  They’re often sold without any discussion of the potential fallout from using this type of training collar, and usually badly fitted.  We see them on dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds.

Prong collars, along with choke chains and slip collars, can cause or exacerbate many problems in our dogs, such as reactivity and fear, and health issues like collapsing tracheas or puncture sores. There have even been indications that collar pressure (from any type of collar) can affect the thyroid gland. This is not only in cases of misuse or overtly harsh applications but can occur in general use.

These devices work by applying pointed pressure spikes into the soft tissue of the dog’s neck. The behavioural fallout can be immense. If they didn’t apply discomfort and pain, they wouldn’t work. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong.  The common reaction to concerns from trainers like myself is “but he gets excited when I get the collar out to go for a walk”.  In reality, the dog is excited about going on the walk and will tolerate the collar in order to get the immensely rewarding activity with his owner. The collar appearing is a cue to the dog that the walk is happening. It’s Pavlov…classical conditioning at work.

Here’s the unfortunate thing about classical conditioning: it works both ways. Think about it this way, when working with aversive punishment of any kind, you take a chance that the dog will make associated connections between things that you do not intend. Unpleasant associations.  See another dog and your dog pulls towards it, even if it’s just to say “hi,” the prong tightens.  Suddenly the sight of other dogs become a sign that an aversive is imminent. In other words, unknown dogs become associated with bad things and now you’ve got a reactive dog.

As a dog-walking and training professional I see misapplication of many different tools and methods, including positive methods. They all require skill, timing and an understanding of how dogs learn, but what they do not ALL have is the potential for the kind of fallout that creates more serious problems than you are dealing with in the first place. There is a plethora of equipment choices available for walking or training our canine friends.  Collars, harnesses, head collars…some more dog friendly than others.

Think carefully before choosing a tool. Recognize that any tool for walking also requires training to go along with it.  Ask a positively based training professional to help you choose the tools and methods that will benefit both you and your dog. Make sure your dogwalker does not use aversive tools to control their clients’ dogs or their own. Going on a walk should be a mutually pleasurable event, not physically or emotionally traumatic to either of you.

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