Adventures in pet sitting

I’ve been pet sitting. And learning a lot. And practicing a lot. A couple weeks ago I wrote about how these new ventures are helping me deal with fear and Reggie. I am now beginning to see training and personality (and owners!) in a whole new way.

The range of ages I have seen is from 8 months to 9 years. The range of behavior has been nightmarish to pretty well behaved. Here are some of the lessons I have learned so far in my adventures.

Lesson #1: I am super protective

Ok I already knew this. For a variety of reasons I am always guarding Reggie. I watch him constantly in social situations looking for signs of seizure, discomfort, resource guarding, or anxiety. I am expert at reading my own dog- as any dog owner would be- but I fall short at reading other dogs. For example, Reggie rarely growls. If he does, there’s an issue. As his owner I am so conditioned to this that when another dog growls, as is common in play, I generally overreact and separate them- something that is not necessary. I need to lighten up a little.

Lesson #2: Others are way too lax

I have been amazed by how easy-going other pet parents are. Is that bad? I don’t know. If someone was watching Reggie I would certainly leave them information like where I was, phone numbers, and veterinary information. Of course I would also probably leave a three page outline of Reggie’s food, medicine, walk preferences, bed time, treats, favorite toys, etc. Refer to Lesson #1.

Lesson #3: Training and exercise are optional

Every household thus far does not walk their dog every day. I realize that I am an oddball in this regard, but I strongly believe that I should be the norm. Dogs need exercise, to expend their energy. Every breed is different and has different requirements as well. Training is essential to a happy, healthy dog, and a happy, healthy home. The ultimate tragedy is an untrained dog that gets away from you and meets its demise, or is unsocialized and gets into a fight (or fights) and must be put down because it has no emotional control. I am currently teaching a 130 pound puppy not to jump or nip; if this isn’t curbed as a 170 pound adult dog it will be more than a nuisance.

Lesson #4: I just love this

This is great. I love meeting so many new dogs. Different breeds, personalities, ages. Reggie has met some of them and truly, the interactions have been great. There have been a couple that I would not let Reggie interact with- my gut just said this would not be a good interaction and I’m ok with that. This is probably a better growth experience for me than for Reggie!

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Scent marking in dogs

Oh Reggie. You continue to surprise me. I have sung your praises (ok bragged) about how you don’t ever, ever, urinate or defecate on a walk because you know it’s exercise time and you go in the yard only. This week you surprised me. Well, you downright shamed me for a little while.

This winter has been brutal; for everyone. There is so much “yellow snow” I noticed Reggie started taking an interest in it. He’s never really done this before but we’ve never really had this much snow to retain this much…scent before. He started over-marking on walks a couple months ago. I was surprised because, remember, Reggie has never done this. But, I just chalked it up to the crazy amount of snow and unusual circumstances inundating his senses. He was just being a dog, right? Until this week.

We had another round of sub-zero temperatures which didn’t allow for proper outdoor walks so I decided to go to the pet store to get a new, novel toy for stimulation. At the store we met a 4 month old female pit bull Reggie made friends with and then we went in search of the toys. As we were walking, I realized that there was tension on the leash and Reggie was no longer walking with me. I looked down and there he was marking a display of cat food! For shame…

I was stunned. He of course had no need to urinate; he had done that before leaving the house. This had taken a turn. He’s never done this before and this is not yellow snow. Was he showing off for the (presumably un-spayed) female pit bull? What’s going on?

According to a study by the APSCA, 90% of the dogs who urine marked started doing so by the age of 2 years. Reggie is 7. So there must be another reason. First step is to rule out something medical. Frequent urination could mean a urinary or bladder infection, incontinence, or other medical problems. Reggie has just had his yearly exam with a clean bill of health so I know it’s not medical in his case.

Other reasons could be submissive urination, separation anxiety, or house training problems. Reggie is not urinating in the house so it’s not separation anxiety or house training issues, and submissive urination is when you greet your dog and he gets so excited to see you he leaks. That’s not this situation either. Hmm.

That leaves territorial marking. Dogs communicate many things with pheromones in the urine; gender, state of reproduction, disease, age, status, etc. On a walk, dogs will sniff the scent-marks and remember that for when they meet every dog in order to scent-match and make that connection- “that Labradoodle lives on the corner.” Historically speaking you would want the biggest, strongest member of the pack to mark to warn predators. Others that smell that mark would know the status, health, and gender and in theory would leave that area.

So why is Reggie territorial marking now, at 7 years of age, when he’s lived in this home for several years? The answer I interpret from two sources, John Bradshaw author of Dog Sense, and Dr. Myrna Milani from Dog Watch. Reggie is stressed. From Dr. Milani, “the less confident the dog and the more complex the environment, the more likely marking will occur, the more frequently it will occur…” Uh oh. The problem is me.

Marking is not bad, but in Reggie’s case it is out of the norm. I am not displaying adequate leadership or training to Reggie which is causing him stress and making him feel like he has to protect (mark) the path we take around his home. The indoor exercise and enrichment activities I am doing to beat the sub-zero temps just aren’t a long term substitute for outdoor walks. Reggie needs this. Moral of the story? It’s the weather’s fault!

The anatomy of a tail wag

On a walk with Reggie this week we encountered a woman about my age with a young looking Yellow Labrador. She asked me if they could meet. Hurrah! This hardly ever happens; usually I am the one that asks if the dogs can meet. Or my pet peeve (ha) the other dog has already charged Reggie whilst the owner is saying “he/she is friendly, is yours?” (what if I said NO?).

Reggie sat calmly with his tail wagging slightly, ears perked, as the woman and her dog approached. My eyes went back and forth from Reggie to the other dog. As soon as the other dog got close, he went into a play-bow and started growling and charging at Reggie. It was not aggressive it was play, but depending on the day one of two things will happen where Reggie is concerned: he will respond in kind, or he will dog-conversation tell you to back the hell off that’s not how you say hello. More often than not, it’s the latter- he doesn’t like being charged by dogs that aren’t his “friends.”

On this day it was the latter. It was instant growling, and darting in and back at the other dog. I was holding Reggie back when the other woman said, “oh, he just wants to play. Look both their tails are wagging.” I looked and Reggie’s tail was wagging. But, do wagging tails always mean happiness, playfulness?

The Anatomy of the Tail Wag

You have to consider the position of the tail as a sort of emotional barometer as well as the wag. A middle position relaxed tail is a relaxed dog. A horizontal tail is alert and attentive (think Pointers). A high tail is dominant or threatening. A low tail, or tucked under the body, is fear, anxiety, and stress. These are all relative to the normal position of your dog’s tail. A Greyhound will normally have a low tail and Chow will normally have a high tail curled over its back. Know your dog’s normal.

k9behavior_tailA slight wag of a relaxed tail is seen as tentative but generally friendly (“I’m here”). A broad sweeping wag of a relaxed tail is the non-threatening wag, the “I’m happy you’re home wag,” especially if the hips wag with it. A slow wag with a low tail signals insecurity. Tiny, high-speed movements with the tail in any position usually mean the dog is about to do something- like run or bite. If the tail is in a high position with short rapid movements, this should be taken as an active threat.

81409-71991A bit of useless trivia (or not so useless) in recent studies when dogs saw their owners their tails wagged more to the right. When faced with an aggressive dog their tails wagged with a bias to the left.

In hindsight, I don’t remember how Reggie’s tail was wagging. It wasn’t an extreme; a very high tail or very low tail. But he certainly wasn’t relaxed. Did he have a sort of low tail with short rapid wags because he felt stressed or threatened by the playful but charging dog? I’ll be sure to pay attention for that from now on. And I’ll keep trying to keep Reggie calm and not be an energy mirror and greet other dogs in normal way (sniff, sniff…)!