Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do I Really Need to Crate Train?

This was one of my first questions when we got Mocha as a puppy. I mean, I didn’t get this little 3 pounds of love to have him in a crate all day while we worked. But we did crate train him because if we left him out he’d get into trouble. One day I came home and he’d pulled out all my yarn and was playing with it like a cat!

Also, I always use a crate with my foster dogs. Most dogs that come out of a shelter need a little time to decompress. For some, the crate works wonders and will always be a safe place when they need some quiet time. All my foster dogs go in their crate for a little quiet time every day.

Let’s break down this crate training thing a bit:

What is crate training?
This is where you train your dog to spend some quiet time in the crate every day. Most people crate their dogs while they’re at work. We did this when our boys were young. Some people don’t want the dog in the bed, and crate them at night. If done properly, the crate will become a safe haven for the dog. It’s their quiet place.

Crate training pros:
  • Great potty training resource
  • Nice to have if you need them out of the way (painting, teaching, having guests over)
  • Safety feature for car rides
  • Safe place for your dog

Crate training cons:
  • Dogs can get a little stir crazy, especially if they’re crated for many hours at a time
  • May exacerbate separation anxiety, especially if you crate train wrong
  • Can be seriously messed up, and mess up your dog

Types of crates:
Mocha in his wire crate as a puppy.

Wire – These are pretty cheap and common, but I’m not a fan of the wire crate. Puppies will chew on the wires, and can really hurt their teeth. Also, if they have a tray that slides out of the bottom, dogs can really make a mess with that, pushing it out, chewing on it and getting stressed out.  

I’ve also found that a dog is less calm if they can see out of the crate at all angles. If you get a crate like this, you’ll want to put a towel or blanket over part of it.

A word of warning about the wire crate: I’ve heard of dogs getting stressed out and hooking their collar on the crate wires and hanging themselves. This was one of the lovely horror stories we heard at puppy kindergarten. If you do use this type of crate, please take off your dog’s collar before leaving them in it unattended.

Plastic – If I use a crate, I prefer the more solid, plastic kind. Less visibility means they’ll be calmer (generally). It’s also darker inside and noise is better muffled, all leading to a safer atmosphere. You can put a towel over this one too, maybe over the door, to reduce what they can see.

Mesh/soft – We have a pop-up X-pen that we use for agility trials, for when we have guests or for when I’m teaching piano. We spent some serious time training the boys to sit nicely in it. They’re never left in it unsupervised because they can open the zipper or chew/scratch right through the mesh. This is not for long-term, unsupervised crating.

End table/other – There are some cool designer crates out there that fit right into home d├ęcor. I saw one recently that was wood and looks like an end table.

Crate training 101:

1. Get the right sized crate. The crate should be big enough for the dog to walk in, turn around and lay down. That’s it. Any bigger and they’ll have room to potty in there.

2. Feed your dog in the crate. Some trainers swear by this. Giving them their food inside their crate is instant positive reinforcement because at least this one wonderful thing happens in their crate. Feeding your dog in their crate also helps with potty training because the dog won’t potty where they eat and sleep.

3. Start small. When you first start crate training your dog, do it in short increments. Five minutes at first, then 10, then 15. Don’t let them out while they’re barking or crying because then you’re reinforcing that behavior. Also, make sure you’re in the room at first, it helps keep them calm. If you put them in the crate and leave for three hours the very first time, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

4. Make sure they’re comfy. Give them a couple toys, some treats and something soft to lay on. We ended up having to take the bedding out of the crates because our boys ate it.

5. Reinforce while you’re home. This one was key for us. We always crated the boys while at work, so they came to understand that if we were crating them, we were leaving. Then they didn’t want to get in the crate. So every weekend we would spend a little time at home with our dogs in their crates.

6. They don’t have to live like this forever. I feel like once a dog hits about a year to 18 months old and is reliably housebroken, you don’t have to crate them all day while you’re gone.

Here’s my opinion:
I think crating is a useful tool, especially for puppies. It keeps them from getting hurt (hopefully) when you’re not home. It also helps to house train your dog if you do it right. However, I don’t feel like dogs were designed to live in a crate most of the day, like many dogs do. An adult dog that is properly trained and exercised every day shouldn’t need to be crated on a regular basis.

Un-crate training.
Ok, you made it! Your dog grew up, doesn’t chew on the furniture when you’re not looking, and they haven’t peed in the house recently. I think that this is the time you can ease up on the crating.

What not to do – Don’t just leave one day without crating them if they’re used to being in the crate! 
And don’t give them the run of the house at first. Maybe just the kitchen or the dining room at first. You can also attach a wire pen to the crate and leave the crate open to the pen. Just make sure they can't jump out of the pen.

We started small, leaving the boys out when we went out to get the mail. Then we left them out when we got dinner or went to the mall.

Our boys at their customary place: right near the front door.
One day, I came home from work at lunch to walk them and didn’t crate them when I left. They did just fine (I think…). If you’re nervous about what they’re doing, you can set up Skype to automatically answer and go to video when you dial in. We did this for a while with a laptop in our kitchen until I realized they just lay by the door the whole time we’re gone.

Remember, every dog is different. My in-laws’ dog loves her crate, she wants to sleep in it every night and goes in it on her own when they’re not home. My dogs, on the other hand, are much more restless and anxious in the crate, so now we use it sparingly when we need to.

Have you used the crate to train your dog? Share your success or obstacles in the comments below. J

Monday, March 16, 2015

5 Steps to a Healthy, Pet-safe Lawn

We just bought our house last year, in 2014. Before that, we’d rented for… well a decade! My husband grew up in a condo, so yard work isn’t really his thing, but I grew up in the woods. We had a lawn, a forest, a couple gardens and a driveway to take care of. So I thought I knew a thing or two about taking care of our yard.

Boy was I wrong. We just have a little house in the city, so a small yard by my estimation, but mowing that thing every week is a pain! And then there’s mulch. My parents never worried about mulch, but our new house came with landscaping that I had to figure out how to maintain.

Anyway, I thought I’d done a pretty good job until September rolled around and our yard started to look awful brown. It dawned on me that mowing might not be enough. But I don’t want to put those chemicals on my lawns that so many of my neighbors do. You know, the ones that smell really strong and they put those little flags on the yard to tell you to keep kids and pets off it.

So I did a little research and put together a few simple steps to keeping my lawn healthy without hurting my pets or any other wildlife. I’m going to explain the “why” behind each step a bit, so if you just want to know the “what” I’m making it super big. Skim on through. 
Step 1: Water in the morning.
This is the easiest step. Water once in the morning briefly, wait an hour to let the water soak in, then
come back and do a deeper watering. This helps the water soak in better. I’m going to try to do this once a week to start and see how it goes.

Why water in the morning? You have less chance of mold developing because the sun evaporates excess water. Also, the later in the day you water, the hotter it is, so the more water will evaporate before hitting the ground. Seriously, like half the water coming out of your hose will evaporate. Why are you paying for that? Water early!

Step 2: Don’t cut grass shorter than 3 inches, and leave the clippings on the lawn.
Yes, this means you’re going to have to mow more often. But it also means you may have to buy less seed and fertilizer every summer. Why 3 inches? It’s tall enough to keep weeds from getting enough sun to grow, and also tall enough to keep from burning out in hot weather.

Leaving grass clippings on your lawn is a natural fertilizer as long as the grass clippings are short. If you have a mulching mower and you cut your grass regularly, you’re doing it a big favor.
Last summer, I waited until the grass was ridiculous to cut it, then it left huge clumps of grass behind which killed the grass underneath. Whoops…

Step 3: Aerate your yard in the spring and fall.

What is aerating? Ever go walking with your dog and you come across a yard with huge clumps of dirt pulled up all over it? They look like little dirt-poos. That’s aeration. It keeps the soil from getting too compact. Compact soil can strangle the roots of your grass.

There’s a couple ways to aerate. You can hire someone to do it. Or, you can buy an aeration machine that pulls behind your lawn mower or that you push by hand. The way we’re going to do it is to buy shoes with spikes in them designed to aerate. I’m going to wear them when I mow once in the spring and once in the fall. These are the shoes I’m going to try. The reviews say they work best if the lawn isn’t super dry.


Step 4: Put down compost in the spring.
Ok, so this one you’ll want to keep your pets off it for a day or two so they don’t get sick or track animal poo all through your house. I think organic compost is the way to go. Some people make their own. You only want it ¼” thick, which isn’t thick at all, so you can probably throw some clumps out there and rake them out.

Step 5: Fertilize with organic fertilizers in spring and fall.
Probably going to do this right after we aerate. Why organic? Because they have less nitrogen, so there’s less nitrogen runoff into the ground water. Also, they don’t contain those synthetic pesticides that were developed during the World Wars. Those are some nasty things, those pesticides, and are really bad for your pets.

This is another one where you’ll want to fertilize and keep your pets/kids off the yard for a day or two.

So there are the 5 basic steps, and it doesn’t cost much at all. I’m thinking of putting down some grass seed too after I aerate to fill in the sad brown patches. If you put down seed, be careful what you buy. Kentucky Bluegrass is the most popular type, but it also needs the most water out of any type of grass. Also, last fall I bought seed and it was bright blue. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think plants make seeds that color. Freaked me out a little bit, I felt bad for all the birds consuming those neon blue chemicals.
What works for your lawn? If you have any quick, pet-safe lawn care tips, please share!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Finding a Respectable Breeder

Shih-poo puppies at the breeder we got our boys from.
Breeders – What’s the big deal?

What’s the big deal with breeders? Why are so many people convinced that’s the only type of dog they can get? Why are other people convinced that it’s the most terrible crime in the world to adopt a dog from a breeder?

Not all breeders are created equal.
That’s it in a nutshell. There are some great breeders out there who have been breeding for a long time, treat their animals like family, and take great pride in what they do. In my opinion, these breeders are in the minority. There are a couple different types of breeders:

A good breeder.
This breeder breeds dogs for temperament and health. They’re usually very involved in dog events and especially with breed specific organizations. So if they breed labs, then they’re usually a member of a national Labrador club or association.

A breeder with good intentions.
I think this is the type of breeder we got our boys from. They were a nice couple, and I think they really loved their dogs even if they don’t treat them quite like we do. They just loved having puppies and were hoping to make a little money selling them.

A greedy breeder.
Have you ever heard of a puppy mill? I’m going to post about them one day, but they make me sick. It’s a terrible terrible place, and it’s where all those little doggies in pet stores come from. A lot of dogs sold online come from puppy mills too.

In a nutshell, a greedy breeder has lots and lots of dogs. Way more dogs than they could ever take care of properly. The dogs are always in wire crates. They don’t get held, petted or walked. Many of them have automatic feeders and huge water bottles that don’t get cleaned. The only time a human touches them is to take them out of the cage to breed.

These breeding dogs don’t get shots, don’t see a vet and often have eye/ear/jaw infections. I could go on and on, and one day soon I will, but for now you can learn more about puppy mills here.

How do I find a good breeder?

This is the tough one, especially for people who really haven’t gotten into the dog world yet.

Beware the internet – We can say anything we want on the internet. If you find a breeder for yorkies, for instance, that only has pics of the puppies in a basket or something, beware! Never ever EVER buy a puppy sight unseen over the internet. NEVER. Please never do this.

Let me see! - You want to be sure to see and be able to meet both parents and see where the puppies are being raised. A good breeder will be very happy to welcome you into their home to see their awesome parents and pups. Don’t buy dogs off a lady in a parking lot, ok?

Inside, please – Please don’t buy from a breeder that has their dogs in a shed in the backyard. These puppies should be in the house, that way they’re learning socialization and training skills right from the beginning. Pregnant moms should be inside.

Quality over quantity - There should be one, maybe two litters at a time at the very most. Watch out for places that offer 10 different types of designer dogs. Overbreeding causes health problems in the puppies. And there’s no way a respectable breeder could properly take care of 4 litters of pups plus all the parents they would need to have on hand to have all those different mixes.

Learn about mom - Be sure to find out how often the mother breeds and how old she is. Most dog breeds shouldn’t have their first litter before 18 months, some people say two years. And she shouldn’t be bred every heat. (Dogs go into heat twice a year or so.)

Don’t ever buy a dog from a pet store. EVER. – A good breeder does not take their dogs to a pet store. A good breeder wants to carefully screen every person who adopts a dog. And I’m going to stop there before I get angry…

OMG I just want a dog…

There are great breeders out there, and the right people know them. Go to a local training club or an AKC dog show. These are the people who love their pure bred dogs and take great pride in pedigree. Yes, these dogs will be expensive. But, they’ll also be healthy and have a good temperament.

Why does this matter? Because if you get a dog from a bad breeder, it might be aggressive, have anxiety, or have health problems. I think it's especially important to be careful with the big dogs like labs and German Shepherd that get hip dysplasia.

Learn from your mistakes.

We got Mocha and Ninja from a breeder in Missouri. They’re Shih-Poos. I’d never owned a dog before and was afraid of getting a rescue dog. I only really knew of the dogs in the pound, who can come out a little… wild… Also, I have some serious pet allergies, so I needed a dog that didn’t shed. And I wanted a small dog because my husband was in medical school and I knew his hours would get crazy eventually, so I looked for breeds that would be small and good with kids if trained properly.

I found the breeder on Google, which was quite a feat since most nothing is on Google in north east Missouri. She had a litter and we went up to see them. Really nice old couple. I believe they love their dogs, I really do. But in hindsight, they weren’t the best example of a breeder.

The adult dogs were only in the house when pregnant, other than one little poodle who was their indoor dog. The other puppies and dogs were kept in an outside kennel, and the youngest puppies were kept in kennels in the garage. These dogs were in crates with no bottoms so they didn’t need cleaned as often… And I distinctly remember the lady complaining when we got our second dog from them that the state was requiring that they heat the outdoor kennels.

It hurts me inside today to think of the dogs at her home. They’re not socialized in any way before adoption. She also adopted to us even though we lived in a place that didn’t allow dogs. (I would not adopt my foster dogs to us as we were then.) Mocha has severe joint problems and arthritis in his back, and he’s four. Ninja has seizures and a collapsing trachea, which our vet says you don’t tend to see in a dog younger than six. He’s three.

One final note.

Last week I talked about animal rescue. This is a great option for finding a pure bred dog. You know, some dogs live a long time. Just because a dog is over 1 year old doesn't mean they're not worth having. And senior dogs have a lot of love to give.

Right now at this very moment, the Lake Erie Labrador Retriever rescue has 11 pure bred labs up for adoption. Want a poodle? Google poodle dog rescue, you'll find a rescue group near you.

Not all breeders are bad, and not all rescues are good. (Don’t even get me started on shock collars…) Do your research and listen to your instincts. Talk to people, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and do what is best for you and your family. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where to start with dog training.

My little Mocha Bear that first week we got him.
I've talked a bit about specific training ideas, including teaching your dog to come to you, and teaching them to go outside in a way that is easy to handle.

When Nathan and I were planning on getting Mocha, we got a book by Victoria Stilwell. We'd watched her show, It's Me or the Dog, on Animal Planet, and we got her book as a kind of "in print" version of her advice. We read it cover to cover, and it helped so much. I love that she always uses positive reinforcement. I think that's the best way to train a dog that's forever loyal. This is the book we got:


The book did not, however, prepare us for Mocha's little personality quirks. For example, Mocha learned super fast that if he went potty, we praised him and gave him attention. This resulted in him trying to pee every 15 seconds or so, and if we didn't pay attention to him, he'd bark at us until we looked at him and then go pee.

One night, I got up to go to the bathroom (Mocha was sleeping in his pen in our bedroom at the time), and by the time I came back, Mocha had laid out a huge poop for me. He knew that if he pooped, I'd come back and give him lots of attention.

Needless to say, we needed professional help! (Mocha has always been smarter than me...) We took him to puppy kindergarten, the S.T.A.R. puppy program, in Columbia, Missouri. It was a great experience for him, even though he was the teeniest, tiniest dog there. (This picture on the left is Mocha at about eight months old next to a four month old lab,)

 The S.T.A.R. puppy class focuses on socializing your dog with other people and dogs. This is so so important. Mocha learned that it was OK to be petted by other people and to greet other dogs. He also learned sit, down, and how to walk on a leash. You can see everything on the test here.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you are lucky enough to get a puppy, either from a breeder or a rescue, please enroll them in a class. There are just some things that dogs learn better in groups, and it will help your dog a lot with behavior in the future.

Finding a dog training facility.

Honestly, the way we found ours was by doing a Google search for dog trainer. You can also search for All-Breed.The AKC has many clubs with good trainers, you can do a search for their training facilities here.

Do be sure you read the reviews. The first place we tried, the people were super nice but it wasn't very clean. Because we lived in a rural area at the time...let's just say there were bug problems. 

Also, sometimes dog people/trainers can be a little...socially awkward. Sometimes they're downright rude. I'll get into that another day, but it's not you, it's the people who treat dogs poorly that have turned otherwise caring, compassionate people into short-tempered people who can be more direct that we're used to.

Good luck! And let me know if you have any trouble finding a class, I'll try to help!