9 Tips for stress relief

Living with dogs (or kids, or both for that matter) can be stressful. No matter how much you love your dog, we all have days where we just need a break. While we go deep into your own specific triggers in my one-on-one intensive, Speak Doglish, this post will help you get started in kicking that stress to the curb!

  • Slowing down your breathing activates the prefrontal cortex and can help you feel calmer. Take a few minutes to yourself in your room, your car, or in a closet if you have to, and shoot for 4-6 deep breaths per minute.
  • Get some sleep! When you are sleep deprived, not only are you grumpy, but your prefrontal cortex gets grumpy, too, and you get stuck with high levels of stress hormones. Your cells have trouble absorbing glucose, too, and then you start craving sweets and caffeine, which isn’t good either.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Try it for half a day, a whole day, whatever works for you – do whatever it takes to not get yourself down about something that happens. Don’t let the little things derail your day. If you can do this all day at work, imagine how much of a better state of mind you’ll be in when you get home!
  • End the day on a great note by keeping a journal and writing down one thing that you are grateful for or happy about, from the day. If it works better, you could start your day the same way.
  • If something goes wrong, give yourself the same advice you would give a friend in the same situation. We are usually easier on our friends than on ourselves, so take a step back and cut yourself some slack.
  • Exercise! This works for everyone and every animal. Whether this is running, walking, yoga, tennis, rock climbing, or something else – just get moving. Start with 15-20 minutes and build yourself up to more, or take two exercise breaks in a day if that works better.
  • Listen to music. This is something easy that you can often do during the day at work, or on the drive/ride home from work. Let your mind wander, let it go, and just listen to the music.
  • Get outside. There is something about being in nature that melts your stress away. If you don’t have easy access to anywhere green, get a tree or some plants to put around your desk/office/home.
  • Develop a hobby. Some people find knitting or sewing relaxing, others like reading or writing. If you want something more active, try dancing, playing an instrument, or playing video/board games.


Teaching your dog about polite greetings

My dog jumps on people as soon as they walk in the door! is one of the biggest complaints I hear from people. I get it – it can be really stressful when your dog goes crazy as soon as she hears a knock on the door or the doorbell. The good news is that there are a few strategies that you can implement to reduce this behavior.

1. If you know someone is coming over, take your dog outside to meet them and come in together.
 Sometimes just eliminating the high alert that comes from a knock on the door or from ringing the doorbell is enough.

2. Ask people to ignore your dog. Your dog is likely going crazy for one of two reasons – he LOVES people or he is SCARED of people. Either way, your dog is going crazy because he wants the attention or doesn’t want the attention, so ignoring the barking and jumping can be very effective.

3. Have some treats at the door so guests can ask your dog to sit or help your dog feel better. If your dog is super focused on the person coming in the door, having a guest ask for or wait for a polite sit can re-focus that attention and give your dog some training practice! If your dog is more toy motivated than treat motivated, have a tennis ball or other toy by the door instead of a treat.

If your dog wishes the person would just go away, have your guest drop a treat or two while walking past and ignoring the dog. Do not require your dog to take the treat from the person, and just have your guest continue to ignore your dog.

4. Ask your guest to go back out the door and try to come in again. Repeat as necessary. This is the one that requires the most effort from your guests, and is only effective if your dog is excited to see people. Here’s how it works: Guest walks in. Dog goes crazy. Guest walks out. Repeat until your dog keeps all four feet on the ground, or sits (whatever your preferred behavior is), and then your guest can give your dog attention.

Note: If your dog is afraid of people, this strategy isn’t recommended. Having the person leave might reinforce that the barking and acting crazy is a strategy that works and makes people leave.

Have you tried any of these strategies? Which one worked best for you?


Teaching your dog to “target”

“Target” or “touch” is one of my favorite things to teach to my clients and their dogs. It is really useful as a back up for “come” or when for when you are far away from your dog and need him/her to come to you. You can also use it for situations like getting your dog off the couch without having to physically move him/her or for getting your dog onto the scale at the vet. If you decide to get into agility, “target/touch” is great for guiding your dog through an agility course.

First, decide what word you will use. Any word works (target, touch, here), just make sure you choose one that you and your family members will use consistently.

Then, to train “target/touch”:

1. Extend your palm towards your dog and wait for him/her to sniff it.

2. Click and treat.

3. Once he/she will touch your hand 8-9 times out of 10, add the word “target/touch? before you offer your hand.

When you get to the point of adding the command word, you can start moving your hand to either side, and then further away. Don’t change your hand position until your dog has mastered the previous position (8-9 times out of 10). If you go a few steps away and your dog looks at you like he/she has no idea what you are asking for, move closer.

* If your dog won’t sniff your hand after 3-5 seconds, move your hand closer. If that doesn’t work, remove your hand and re-try. As a last resort, try dabbing a little bit of peanut butter or smearing a little bit of something tasty on your hand!

5 Questions to ask your dog food company

Finding the best dog food isn’t just about looking at ingredients (although that is important, too). When trying to find the best dog food for your dog, you should be able to find most of these answers on the company website. If you can’t easily find this information, the answer may not be the one you are looking for!

Where is the food sourced? Most reputable companies will work with the same farm/ranch, regardless of how the price of the product fluctuates. Lower quality brands will change their farm based on who is offering the cheapest product.

Do they have a qualified nutritionist on staff? Developing a good diet for a dog can be difficult, so a nutritionist who is on staff or consults with the company will ensure that the formula is properly balanced for your dog and your dog’s life stage (puppies, adults, and seniors have different nutritional requirements).

Do they continue to research and improve their formulas? 

Do they have their own, self-contained plant to avoid cross-contamination? This one is especially important considering the frequent pet food recalls!

How do they test their product? Some dog food companies simply do palatability test on pets, while others intentionally cause problems with laboratory dogs to find out how their food affects the problem.

Stop blaming yourself

I made mistake after mistake with our first dog Chilli. Even though it didn’t work (at all), we used a choke collar on her. We didn’t know what else to do.

We didn’t take her to formal training classes because she listened “good enough”. Or so I thought.

One night I let Chilli off the leash to run around on the beach. She got scared by something and ran up to the road where there was a group of people. She was confused and disoriented and she ran onto the busy road. She got hit by a car that didn’t stop. The car behind that one did stop and told us where the closest vet was. We got her to the vet within 10 minutes, but it was too late.

And just like that, my Chilli was gone. I was devastated.

She was our first dog, and we adopted her from someone whose kids got tired of her and didn’t want her anymore. She lived in a crate and they just gave her to us for free.

I blamed myself for what happened to Chilli for YEARS. How could we save her from one bad situation and then let this happen? Then the what-if game – If the car had’ve hit me instead I could have survived, If I would have trained her, this wouldn’t have happened, If I hadn’t have chased her she wouldn’t have kept running… and on. And on.

Maybe that night wouldn’t have happened if she had been better trained, or if I didn’t chase her, but it was too late to change any of that.

It took me at least 2-3 years to get over the actual accident, and I still have lingering effects (I get extreme anxiety if I see any dog near a road), but I have realized that the only thing I can do now is never let that happen again to one of my dogs. I needed to learn from my mistakes so that Chilli’s accident wasn’t in vain.

Why am I sharing this story?

So that you can stop blaming yourself. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes, sometimes little ones, sometimes terrible ones, but we have to learn from them. We can’t change the past, we can only change the future.

Forgive yourself. Don’t forget the past mistakes, but let go of the hold they have on you. Commit to learning from that past and making the future better.

You, your dog, and your family will be much happier because of it.

Does your dog hate nail trims?

If your dog hates getting his or her nails trimmed, there is hope! If you have a puppy, get his or her nails trimmed regularly, and have puppy massage time when you pet your dog’s feet, ears, head, back, tail, being sure to gently squeeze the areas as well. This will get your puppy used to being touched, and will help out with future vet visits as well.

If you have an adolescent or adult dog who hates getting nail trims, you can use a very effective strategy called desensitization. Desensitization is the process of gradually adjusting your dog to the uncomfortable situation until the situation is no longer uncomfortable.

Depending on just how uncomfortable your dog is, you can start in one of several places with this.

  • The first one is to clip just a couple of your dog’s nails at a time. Clip 2-3 nails every 2-3 days, or even every other day until all of your dog’s nails are clipped.
  • If more than one nail at a time is too much, go for one nail at a time, every couple days.
  • If that is too much, then distract your dog with a treat that they can take little bites from or put a frozen jar of baby food in front of your dog’s face to distract him or her while you clip a nail or two.
  • For some dogs, it’s the clip of the nail trimmer that freaks them out, work on desensitizing your dog to the sounds of the clippers. Get some treats, and click the clippers, then give your dog a treat. Do this a few times over the course of a few days until your dog looks to you for a treat when he or she hears the click.

Start at what your dog can tolerate, and gradually increase until you can clip multiple nails (or all of them) in one sitting.

It’s also important to choose your battles with things like this – if your dog can tolerate a few nails being clipped over the course of a week, maybe that’s the way you clip your dog’s nails. It’s not worth stressing your dog out to go to a groomer and do it all at once, if it gets easy to do it that way at home!

Another option is to ditch the clippers and try a nail grinder. Just be sure to go slowly, don’t do too much at a time, and be careful not to get your hair (or your dog’s fur) in the wheel. If your dog has never heard a grinder before, take some time to get your dog used to the sound. Turn it on, give your dog a treat, turn it off. Repeat a few times and then that’s it for the day. When your dog doesn’t show any signs of nervousness when you turn the grinder on, try a nail or two.

With a little patience and perseverance, you will be cutting your dog’s nails stress-free in no time!

Problem solving dog behaviors (free worksheet!)

Whether you are trying to figure out what to do about a problem behavior or trying to figure out why your dog isn’t listening, use these tips (or call me ?) to figure it out:

What is the behavior – what does it look like? Strictly observations – don’t add any emotions or try to analyze it.

What kind of situation causes the behavior? What happens before the behavior occurs?

What happens right after the behavior occurs (aka how is the behavior being reinforced)?

What would you like your dog to do instead (or what is the replacement behavior)? This is where you have to get creative. Think what about this behavior can I reinforce or what can I change so that I can reinforce a different behavior?

Once you figure this out, you (or a dog trainer) will need to teach your dog the replacement behavior and reinforce that instead of the problem behavior.

Example 1

What is the behavior – what does it look like? My dog Junior jumps up on people.

What kind of situation causes the behavior? Guests coming into the house, walking past strangers on the street.

What happens right after it (aka how is the behavior being reinforced)? We yell at him to get down or people push him away at our house (which is actually giving him the attention he is looking for), jerk back on the leash.

What would you like your dog to do instead (what is the replacement behavior)? Sit or stand politely.

Training Plan: Teach him to sit or stand when guests arrive by having guests ignore naughty behavior and only give him attention when he has all four paws on the floor. Keep him on leash when people arrive and step on the leash so that while you aren’t jerking on it, he cannot jump. When all four paws are on the floor, reinforce with a treat or with attention from the guest.

On the walk, ask people to wait until he sits, or try the stepping on the leash technique.

Example 2

What is the behavior – what does it look like? My dog won’t sit on the hard floor, only on the carpet.

What kind of situation causes the behavior? Asking her to sit on the hard floor.

What happens right after it (aka how is the behavior being reinforced)? I give up and take her to the carpet to practice sit.

What would you like your dog to do instead? Sit down on any surface.

Training Plan: Buy a carpet square and practice having your dog sit on the carpet square on the harder surfaces. As your dog gets more comfortable, cut the square so that it is smaller and smaller, and eventually your dog will not even realize that she is sitting on the hard floor!

What problems are you dealing with? Try using this problem solving worksheet, and let me know how it goes!

7 Calming signals all pet parents should know

“Calming signals” is a term that was developed by Turid Rugaas, and are signals and techniques that dogs use to avoid potentially threatening situations and to calm their nerves. Dogs do these all the time, and you have probably noticed some of these already!

• Head Turning/Avoiding Eye Contact. Dogs do this when they feel uncomfortable, or when they feel threatened by another dog or person.

• Lip Licking.

• Freezing or walking very slowly.

• Play bow. We see this very often in play, and the bowing dog is showing the other dog his intentions – “I just want to play!” Sometimes dogs will also do this when a situation becomes too overwhelming to try and lighten the situation.

• Yawning when you know she isn’t tired.

• Sniffing. A dog that sniffs a lot at the dog park or sniffs around the room, avoiding everyone else and/or the other dog in the room probably feels uncomfortable. Some level of sniffing is normal and expected, but when that’s all your dog does, it’s likely to be a calming signal (don’t pay attention to me, I’m not a threat).

• Curving around another dog when meeting them. A dog coming straight at another dog is rude, so dogs generally give each other a wide berth when coming in to meet or say hi.

4 Ways to give your dog mental exercise

Mental exercise can save your couch cushions, your shoes, and can alleviate your dog’s anxiety when you leave home (it can also replace physical exercise when the weather doesn’t cooperate).

The good news is that mental exercise is relatively easy, and doesn’t require a ton of effort on your part!

• Stuff a Kong. This is a good one for when your dog goes into his crate, or when you are leaving the house, and is probably the easiest one to do. Get a Kong, put some treats or kibble in it, seal it with peanut butter, and put it in the freezer until you need it. If you only have one dog, you can give it to her before you leave in the morning, and she can eat through the peanut butter to her breakfast! This is not a good idea if you have two dogs, no matter how well they share and get along when you are there. All bets are off with a high value treat like a peanut butter Kong!

• Puzzle toys. Ranging from somewhat easy to difficult, the nice thing about Kyjen puzzle toys is that you can modify them to first train your dog how to use them, and then make it more challenging once your dog gets the hang of it.

• “Find it.” Hide your dog’s favorite toys or bone around the house and tell them to “find it.” You might have to help them out at first. You can also play “find it” with people – have one person hide and then have your dog find the person. This is also great practice for the command “come”.

• K9 Nose work. K9 Nose Work is a newer craze for the companion dogs, and it basically a modified version of scent training that police dogs and rescue dogs go through. Visit the K9 Nose Work website to search for trainers in your area that might be offering classes, but the beginning stages are pretty easy to do!

Reading dog food labels: A quick lesson

There are two components of the dog food label that I’m going to focus on here – the AAFCO nutritional statement and the ingredients. While the guaranteed analysis is another important component, I have found that it doesn’t vary all that much from brand to brand and just isn’t that important to the average consumer.

1. The AAFCO nutritional statement – AAFCO is the non-governmental, non-regulatory body that provides guidelines for assessing food. Diets evaluated under AAFCO are tested for the required nutrients and that those nutrients are presented in the proper amounts.

There are 4 possible statements that you will find on dog food:

– Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Diet X provides complete and balanced nutrition for ____ life stage (put through testing and passed).

– Diet X is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO Dog food Nutrient Profiles for ____ life stage (means diet either failed or wasn’t actually put through testing).

– Diet X provides complete and balanced nutrition for ____ life stage and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product that has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests (means diet either failed or wasn’t actually put through testing).

– This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only (should not be your dog’s main meal).

2. The ingredients – A good rule of thumb is look at the first 5 ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so the bulk of most foods are in the top 5-7. You want to see whole meat or meat meal, but not by-products, and not a lot of grains. Byproducts are questionable and can contain feet, necks, undeveloped eggs and intestines, though by AAFCO definition does not include feathers or heads.

If there are grains in the top ingredients, look for whole grains (rice, oats, barley) vs. corn gluten or soybean meals. You want to see fruits and vegetables, too, though these will probably be further down the list.

As far as oils and fats go, look for specifically named fats and oils vs. “animal fat”, mineral oil, or vegetable oil.

There will also be some preservatives with long, strange names. Look for Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E) and Asorbic Acid (Vitamin C). Not many foods still have these in them, but you should definitely avoid products with BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin.

Here are some examples, which one do you think is the best nutritionally?

Merrick Real Chicken Brown Rice + Green Pea Recipe