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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Heaven is a Big, Red Barn

Two semesters ago, one of my animal behavior classes took a field trip to a farm in Brewster, New York called Green Chimneys. It's an incredible place where kids can go to learn when traditional teaching environments have failed them. Not only are they stocked with incredible staff members and teachers, they also have some extra special residents equipped with fur, hooves, talons and wings. Green Chimneys is a farm where many animals come to live out their days in peace while also helping these troubled kids learn compassion and acceptance. Nestled in the beautiful scenery of New York State, this farm is lush and green in the summer and painted white with snow in the winter. It's quiet, save for the sounds of rescued birds of prey and farm animals.

After only a few hours in this place, I knew I had to come back and spend more time surrounded by the magic. So I applied (through a rigorous screening process) to become a volunteer at the horse barn, where many semi-retired and gentle horses serve as therapeutic mounts for the resident kids. The staff like to have volunteers, who can ride, take a test to be a 'barn buddy' so that the horses can get some regular schooling. Horses are smart animals and they need to be challenged, and therapy horses often just spend their days walking in circles. As a barn buddy, I get to give the horses that extra mental stimulation and keep them from losing their manners, so to speak. My first buddy was Cash, a tall, handsome Chestnut gelding who once served as Mrs. Bloomberg's fox hunting mount.

He was a willing old chap, but couldn't do much more than walk and trot a little. When the equine dentist came to float the horses' teeth (file them so that there are no sharp points) he determined that poor Cash was actually significantly older than they'd thought, and probably well into his 30s. That's quite old for a horse, so they decided then and there to retire him for good. He'll stay at the farm for the rest of his life being pampered and loved, but that left me without a buddy. My new mount, and the fellow I rode today, is Chewie, short for Chewbacca. You can see the resemblance.

Chewie is an old man as well, and he can only walk when I ride him, but we do challenging patterns and work on his ring manners. Truth be told, even though I am a fairly advanced rider, I'm so happy to be sitting on a horse that just walking quietly with Chewie in the big indoor ring is perfectly acceptable.

In recent months, thanks to a light work schedule and a rough economy, I've had to cut back on my visits to Green Chimneys. After all, it takes a Metro North train and a $15 taxi ride (each way) to get to the farm from Queens. I have to wake up at 6:30am to make the 7:47 train, and I get home around 6pm, utterly exhausted. I spend the days shoveling saw dust, mucking stalls, scrubbing manure stains from the stall walls, hauling hay bales, sweeping the aisles and hayloft, moving horses from place to place, and completing various other odd jobs. What many people get paid for, or do in exchange for board, I essentially pay to do. When I'm waking up in the dark, piling on my layers, I often ask myself why on earth I'm volunteering if it's such a hassle. But then I get to the farm, and I'm greeted by the sight of the huge red barn nestled in the rolling hills, and a sense of pure joy rushes over me and I remember why I do this. These horses feed my soul. The least I can do is feed them lunch.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

One Dog Night

There's an old Australian story that when the bushmen got cold sleeping out in the open, they would curl up with a dog to generate warmth. Colder nights required two dogs to keep toasty, and the absolute freezing ones were called 'three dog nights'. Last night in New York City would have been considered such a night, with the lows dipping well into the teens. Thankfully we have modern heat and plumbing to take the sting out of the temperature, but it was still bitterly cold.

Now I'm a finicky sleeper to begin with. I get accustomed to one bed and then can't sleep well in anything but that bed. So pet sitting, while a great source of income and a nice mini-vacation from Queens, generally takes its toll on my energy. Every owner has different requirements for their dog when they sleep. Some dogs require a lift up onto the bed, others have their beds on the floor next to the human bed, and still more spend the nights in their cozy crates. My current charge is content in either his crate or on the bed. Since I'm such a light sleeper, I opted for the crate, at least for the first part of the night.

I am used to waking up around 5am to feed my cat (she's high maintenance) so I was up, and figured the pup might want to run out and relieve himself. We bundled up and braved the cold only for as long as it took for the pooch to pee and poop. When we got back, I figured he'd enjoy cuddling up on the bed, so I invited him in the bedroom. I was not aware that whippets are burrowers! He nosed right on down into my knees and made himself quite comfortable under the comforter. Within 3 minutes, I was completely overheated and sweating. How is it possible that this skinny little dog made practically of skin and bones could generate SO much heat? But alas, he'd made himself at home and who was I to disturb his slumber? I made do.

So out in the open bush of Australia, maybe you need three dogs curled around you on a night like the last, but here in Manhattan, with a down comforter and a clanking radiator, one dog is plenty, thank you very much.

Friday, January 29, 2010

All for Nothing

I don't bill myself as a professional dog trainer. I would feel guilty doing so, as most of my training abilities are self-taught (and researched heavily). I will, however, happily offer my services as a 'behavior mentor' to assist my clients in teaching their dogs basic manners.

But I ask something in return.

Extra money would be nice, but like I said, I would feel wrong asking for money for something I'm not technically qualified to give.

No, what I ask for is commitment from my clients. Not just a nod of the head and a grunt of understanding when I explain something. A full on devotion to giving your dog the best possible chance to behave well.

Dogs learn incredibly fast, but they unlearn just as quickly. So for all the effort I put forth teaching a dog not to launch herself towards other dogs on the street to say hello, if my client doesn't try just as hard as I do, it will all be for naught. As I've learned, corrections (quick tugs on the leash) may work in the immediate present to stop a behavior, but they have zero effect on preventing behavior in the future. A dog must consistently be told when she's doing something RIGHT (positive reinforcement) in order for her good behavior to continue in the future. So when my pup sits quietly when she sees another dog, I reward her with praise (maybe a treat) and permission to say hello. Then her little brain will tell her, "Gee, when I sit nicely, I get all sorts of good things!"

On the flip side, no matter how many times my pup sits and waits when I walk her, every time her owner skips that step and allows her to launch wildly towards another dog, all my work unravels. Dogs are not stupid- if there's an easier way to do something, they'll do it.

It's hard not to redirect my frustration with an owner towards their dog, but I can't punish the dog for doing what comes naturally. So if you have a dog that you let 'get away' with naughty behavior, even if it's just every once in a while, remember that your pooch will never learn anything if you're not consistent with your teaching.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Dogwalker's Motto

"Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep me from my appointed rounds."

Those postal workers sure are committed.

The dog walkers have a similar motto:

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep me from my appointed rounds...
but I sure as heck am going to complain about it as much as possible to anyone who cares to listen.

As you may have guessed, it's snowing this morning. But we'll be out, trudging through the New York brown slush. So if you're a dog owner, and you've got someone who takes your dog out for you, be sure to be extra grateful for them today. Because I really, really hate precipitation. And cold.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wonder why your dog is terrified? Hint: it's YOU.

I was in the small dog run at Washington Square Park today with one of my pup clients. He's a rambunctious terrier, capable of jumping 4 feet straight up in the air. Needless to say, when someone is holding their dog in their arms, he leaps up with all his might to try and get to said pooch. The dog in question was a long-haired chihuahua, very small and very cute. But my pup was pestering her owner(?)/dog walker(?) so the guy put the chihuahua down. Well, my pup became INCREDIBLY excited and chased the chihuahua around, trying to get a decent butt sniff. And what did the chihuahua do? Well she ran screaming, of course. This only caused my little man to chase more enthusiastically, because a fleeing butt is much more enticing than a stationary one. Here's where the giant mistake was made, and where the lesson must be learned. The owner/walker/noob didn't quietly stride over and calm his terrified charge. He RAN, yelling with fear, and joined my pup in the chase of the frightened chihuahua. When he caught up with her, he scooped her up and clutched her to his chest, "reassuring" her with panic still in his voice. And what did my pup do? Why, he jumped up to try and sniff the chihuahua again!

So what needs to be said about the events that transpired?

Well first of all, it should be common knowledge that picking up a dog in a dog run (or around any group of off-leash dogs) is HIGHLY inadvisable, because most dogs will jump up to see what the fuss is about, and the dog being held will feel EXTRA defensive ("Daddy must be holding me because he's scared, so I will protect him with my little teeth"). If you must pick up a dog to remove him from a tussle, do so quickly, and put him back down ASAP.

Secondly, dogs pick up on our emotions. If we panic, they panic. I'm sure this little chihuahua was scared for SOME reason that may or may not be legitimate. But she's a dog, not a defenseless infant. If she had said the right things to my pup in doggy language (a squeal or a snap of the teeth generally works well, with a little snarl thrown in for good measure), he would have backed off, or at least stopped chasing her long enough for her to be 'rescued'. Instead, her caretaker panicked, thus making her think she was completely justified in being scared. So she continued to run, and my pup continued to chase. In short, we only escalate our dogs' fear by losing our cool. If we want to help our pooches overcome their fears, we have to show them that we are confident, so they can be, too.

And finally, if your dog is scared of other dogs, maybe throwing her in with the sharks isn't the best way to help her deal with her fear. Start slowly, by doing leashed introductions one on one with calm dogs in familiar environments. When she can handle those without issue, let her sniff dogs through the fence of the run, and then finally ease her in. The key? KEEP CALM. If you don't give her a reason to be afraid, she'll take her cues from you and bravely march onward.