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Posts from the ‘people problems’ Category

Self-Care Is Not Optional: How Burnout Ended My Career at the Shelter

Four years ago on my birthday I gave my two weeks’ notice at the animal shelter where I worked. Quitting felt like defeat, guilt, and failure, wrapped in a heavy, wet blanket of numbed out exhaustion. But it was still a good birthday present to myself. I needed out.

I knew I was in trouble months earlier when I started crying as I drove into work in the mornings. Towards the end of my time at the shelter, I began to move through the morning routine in a sad trance. Tears would silently roll as I went about filling food bowls, walking dogs out to the yards for their morning bathroom break, and putting meds together.

I was sad. I was really angry. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, down to my core.  And I knew I wasn’t helping the dogs anymore. I was in such bad condition that I knew I wasn’t able to do my job effectively.

I was completely burned out.

So I left. I felt guilty that I was leaving my fellow co-workers behind in the trenches to do the work I couldn’t do anymore. I felt sick at the thought of abandoning the dogs that were still waiting for homes. But I knew I had to go.

It took months to start feeling better. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was so busted that I didn’t feel like myself for more than a year after I quit. No joke.

Fatigue Fatague cartoon

These days I’m still involved in animal sheltering, but from a distance. In addition to dog walking part-time, I do some writing for an animal welfare non-profit. So I’m still in the loop. And in my work I see a lot of advice geared towards shelter and rescue workers instructing them to be more positive, provide better customer service, to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more understanding when working with the public.

It’s a reminder that in order to help the animals, we must also help people. We can’t hate people if we want to help animals. When I hear this advice I always nod in agreement. It’s the truth.

But a little voice – a voice from four years ago – always pipes up too: Remember, that’s easier said than done. Who is teaching shelter workers the skills they need to stay positive and open-minded with the public? Where is the compassion for underpaid, overworked shelter workers?

Because the truth is, the work is brutal. Caregiving is hard. All helping professionals struggle: nurses, firefighters, social workers, etc.

The nature of the job is a Catch-22. In order to do these kinds of helping jobs, you have to be empathic. But if you’re emphatic to a traumatized population, then you’re exposed to their suffering. The demands for your empathy are constant and often overwhelming, which leads to high residual stress levels. When this isn’t dealt with, it leads directly to Compassion Fatigue (CF). And that impairs your ability to be compassionate, positive, and helpful to the very population you serve.

Side note: there is one critical difference between all the other helping professions and shelter workers. We’re the only ones that sometimes have to kill those we are assigned to care for. As big as that is, let’s put euthanasia aside for the moment, because you don’t have to be a euthanasia tech in order to experience Compassion Fatigue (though it does correlate with high turnover rates). 

What is Compassion Fatigue? It’s exhaustion due to the stress and demand of being empathetic and helpful to those that are suffering. 

And this is what it looks like from the book To Weep For a Stranger, “When caregivers focus on others without practicing authentic, on-going self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions, substance abuse, poor personal hygiene, and emotional outbursts head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary stress known as compassion fatigue.”

Untreated, Compassion Fatigue leads to Burnout. But Burnout is different than Compassion Fatigue.

“Clinicians can experience burnout, but burnout can be experienced by anyone who works too hard, too long, or under too much stress without being exposed to trauma or trauma survivors, as is necessary in a CF assessment. Burnout pertains to the work environment, whereas CF pertains to the emotional involvement of extending empathy to trauma survivors.” From Resilience as a Protective Factor Against Compassion Fatigue in Trauma Therapists.

Once you’re in burnout, you’re not likely coming back. You hate your job at this point. But when you’re dealing with the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue you can, with help, come back from the brink. And, even more importantly, you can protect yourself against Compassion Fatigue through regular self-care and building resiliency.

Sadly self-care doesn’t come naturally to most of us working in shelters and rescues. For me, I knew in theory how to take care of myself, but when the going got really tough I just couldn’t manage to make self-care a priority. I was so tired that all I could do at the end of the day was eat ice cream and watch TV. Many of the people around me at work were also exhausted or numbed out. I think we were all waiting for a break in the relentlessness of our jobs to “catch up” on caring for ourselves. But the break never really comes. I didn’t know how to care for myself in a long distance race with no finish line. Or why it was so important.

The truth is that in order to do this work well – to care for animals and people – you need to be able to care for yourself first. Just having the technical skills to do the job isn’t enough. It’s not enough to know proper sanitation protocols or disease management. Or how to do skilled behavior evaluations. Or know how to handle, socialize, and enrich animals. Or how to speak with potential adopters and counsel them on choosing the right pet.

All of those are skills you need, of course. But you won’t be able to use any of those skills if you’re falling apart. Compassion Fatigue takes away your ability to do good work. Feeling negative emotions and not having the skills to cope with them impairs our ability to connect with other people, think creatively, problem solve, and work well with others.

So all the advice in the world, all the finger wagging, the training seminars, the shaming comments about shelter workers needing to stop saying “I hate people” – none of that is going help them do a better job. Not unless we address Compassion Fatigue and Burnout, since that’s one of the root causes of why they’re not being effective at their jobs.

So why isn’t addressing Compassion Fatigue as important a part of the job training as how to do an evaluation or talk to an adopter? Why isn’t this a priority at every organization?

No one ever said the words “compassion fatigue” to me when I took the job at the shelter. I didn’t understand that what I was initially experiencing wasn’t the same as burnout from a tough job with long hours. It didn’t happen right away, but when symptoms of Compassion Fatigue hit me, I was deeply affected. I felt like no matter how many hours were in a day, I could never give the dogs at the shelter the level of care that I knew they deserved and needed. I worked so hard. But it never felt like enough. No matter how much I did in a day, I rarely felt like I had succeeded. It wore me down.

Of course, there were adoptions. Glorious, wonderful, heart-filling adoptions. I can’t tell you how good it felt to send a dog home with their new family. It was joyous and hopeful and…for me, increasingly scary.

Dogs would come back, returned by the families that had adopted them. That’s part of the job. It was disappointing, but not devastating. But then I encountered a really bad stretch. Dogs that I had personally adopted out were coming back to us abused, neglected, and damaged. Not a lot of dogs. Just a handful. But when you find out that a dog you cared for and sent home with a family that you thought was OK was later found dead or comes back to you 20lbs lighter and covered in scars, it only has to happen a few times to shake you. I started jolting awake at night, sick from nightmares about the dogs that had suffered.

My favorite part of the job – adoptions – felt tainted.

I felt like I couldn’t really trust myself or others. How would I know when a family was lying to my face, as some clearly had? Despite my training and adoption counseling skills, I could never really know if I was sending a dog to an abusive, neglectful home. I had to be ok with that uncertainty, but I felt vulnerable and afraid instead. Which made me feel shut down and negative towards the public.

If you’re reading this now and thinking: You shouldn’t have gotten so hung up on the negative – studies show that the majority of adoptions work out. Or you can’t control everything and wait for the perfect home. Or always keep your eye on the big picture, rather than getting stuck on a small percentage of adoptions gone wrong. You’d be right.

But here’s what I know now, that I didn’t know prior to doing direct care for the dogs:  the map is not the terrain.

You can give people the very best instructions, the most effective techniques, the most cutting edge tools and research – the maps– but they mean almost nothing when you’re dropped into the reality – the terrain – of being a caregiver in an animal shelter.

For example: A map can tell you the elevation of a mountain. But just reading the map while sitting on the couch isn’t the same as what you feel while navigating the terrain. Until you do it, you won’t know exactly when your leg muscles will start spasming as you try to scale that terrain.

The map tells you suggested questions to ask potential adopters. The terrain is filled with the bottled up pain of the dog you just euthanized minutes before meeting a potential adopter, the fear of repeating your past mistakes, and the confusion of being unsure if the person you’re talking to is a good home or not as you try to ask those questions. The map alone isn’t enough to help you get through the terrain.

If we actually want shelter staff to do a better job, to be more compassionate towards the public, to be more effective and to save more lives than we have to do more than give them a really good map filled with “how-to” instructions for how to technically do the job. We have to make self-care a priority so they can stay healthy enough to tackle this complicated emotional terrain.

I’m just going to stop for second to address those of you that are saying to yourself: There are plenty of shelter workers that are terrible. They hurt and abuse the animals in their care. They’re hateful to people. They don’t care about lowering euthanasia rates. Shelter workers ARE the problem.

I know that there are some truly awful shelter workers out there. There are also some amazing shelter workers out there that really don’t get bogged down by all the negative stuff and need little help navigating this difficult terrain. They’re the two ends of the spectrum. The really horrible and the really high functioning.

But the average shelter worker is just a regular person that falls somewhere in the middle. They’re trying (and sometimes failing) to do a good job. They love the animals. And they need compassion and resources in order to do a better job. They are exactly the same as the public and adopters in that regard.  If our goal is to help the animals, we have to care for and help people – and that includes people who are shelter workers.

We can’t ask them to do better work without addressing the coping skills they’ll need in order to do a job that can be emotional hell. Let stop for a second and consider what we’re really asking shelter worker to do: We’re asking them to provide constant care for animals in need, some of whom are traumatized. To experience having little control in where those animals ultimately wind up. To feel the fear that things might go badly in an adoption and to let it go. To (sometimes) kill those they’ve cared for. To be vulnerable, to stay open, and to remain positive in the face of what scares and stresses them.

Not an easy terrain to navigate. American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodren, writes in her book The Places that Scare You, “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently towards what scares us.”

buddha 2

Shelter and rescue workers – just like the rest of us – aren’t Buddhist nuns. But that’s essentially what we’re asking them to be: comfortable being vulnerable in their compassion.  None of us – shelter workers to nuns – can do that without a lot of practice.

So what does help? Recent research shows that Resilience can protect against CF and burnout. Resilience is built through awareness and self-care. Self-care is when we commit to nurturing a life outside of work that can counterbalance the intensity of the job and the inevitable stress that comes along with it. When we take care of ourselves, we build the resilience we need to deal with the negative aspects of our job, as well as building job satisfaction. That helps us to feel positive and allows us to do our jobs better.

Self-care is about finding ways to restore a balance between the negative and the positive by cultivating aspects of our lives that support us when the going gets (and stays) tough. It’s about making a commitment to caring for yourself as deeply and seriously as you care for the animals. Because if you don’t, if you allow yourself to become mentally and physically run down, mired in negativity, sadness, and anger, then you can’t do your job all that well.

If you’re saying to yourself: “I don’t have time for self-care. The animals need me constantly!” I want you listen up:

Research shows that there is a correlation between ethical violations and Compassion Fatigue.  Which means Compassion Fatigue can cause us to cause harm to others.

That means: YOU ARE ETHICALLY OBLIGATED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.

When we disregard our own needs in order to keep giving to others it’s not just bad for us, it’s unethical.  So if you think that being a good caretaker means caring until you collapse you are wrong. In order to be a good caretaker, you must take care of yourself so that you can care for others properly. Otherwise, you have the potential to harm those that you are caring for.

Let me say this again: it is UNETHICAL TO NEGLECT SELF CARE. So it’s not indulgent to take care of yourself. It’s not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to commit to self-care. It’s the right thing to do. It’s not optional.

What does self-care even look like? It’s going to be personal for each one of us, but generally self-care and building resiliency looks like: setting boundaries, saying no, working less, exercising, eating well, going to therapy or a support group, cultivating friendships, monitoring our stress levels daily, stretching, journaling, having hobbies, breathing exercises, talking with a trusted friend at work, laughing, having interests outside of animal welfare, sleeping, allowing yourself to feel grief, dancing, meditating, practicing gratitude and positive thinking, and separating our work life from our personal life.

Regularly doing these acts of self-care builds resilience.  People who are resilient are able to bounce back from adversity, stress, and the heartache of getting a dog you loved returned to you abused and broken. It helps you bounce back from euthanizing animals.

Research shows us another key to building resiliency and fighting Compassion Fatigue: experiencing Compassion Satisfaction. All of us who have worked with animals have known Compassion Satisfaction (CS). That’s the joy in our job.

CS happens when you care for an injured animal until they are well again. CS comes from doing a wonderful adoption for a long term resident. CS comes from passing out peanut butter Kongs and listening to a choir of muffled, content slurps. CS is when you help a caring family keep the dog they love by connecting them to affordable resources. CS is what keeps us going, helps us balance out the negative, and see the big picture. But we can’t hold on to the positive aspects of CS without self-care.

If we really want to make progress in animal sheltering, then we have to make teaching and supporting self-care a foundation of our work. Entire organizations can be affected by Compassion Fatigue. And the organization itself can cause stressors for employees that contribute to fatigue and burnout, such as improper management, unclear protocols, lack of training, low pay, being understaffed, etc.

If we want shelter workers to do their best work, organizations and their management have to be aware of these issues and work to help staff and volunteers to identify healthy coping strategies and encourage them to build resiliency. We have to make this non-negotiable and as important as any other part of their training, since neglecting self-care has negative consequences for our work. It has to be a part of the culture of our profession: prioritizing self-care, so we can care for others.

If we want to save more lives, organizations will have to combat the plague of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout that wipes out entire groups of new, enthusiastic, caring, shelter workers before they even have a chance to make a lasting impact for the animals.

As a profession we have to prioritize caring for the caregivers by investing time and resources into this issue. We can’t just expect them to suck it up, stay positive, and do good work. I sure couldn’t. At the end the only way I knew how to help myself was to pick up the pen and write my resignation letter. The day I dropped it off on my mangers desk I knew, even though I felt terrible quitting, it was an act of self-care.



PDF Version for easy printing and sharing available here: Self Care is Not Optional

Despite being way too long, this blog only scratches the surface. For more concrete resources, please see my interview with Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project Founder Patrica Smith. 

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout affects professional caregivers of all kinds (as well as those that are caring for loved ones in their personal lives). This includes vet techs, individuals who live with challenging or sick dogs, dog trainers, animal control officers, and volunteers. What I wrote about here applies to all of us who are taking care of animals or people. Self-care is not optional for any of us.

And finally, because this had such an impact on me personally, this summer I became a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator.  11/2014 note: I now have a whole new website and more compassion fatigue resources here, including online classes and webinars to help you be well, while you do good work.

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Peace in the Yard: 7 Ways To Dog Proof Your Fence

Oh sweet, sweet fences.  How much do I love thee? Let me count ways:

  • Fences Keep Dogs Inside. My dogs are off leash, safe, and free to roll in dead stuff without getting tangled in long leads.
  • Fences Keep Others Out. Except for a family of Whistle Pigs and one mole with a grudge, no one is cutting through our yard.
  • Fences Provide Privacy. It is my right as an American to wear my pajamas all day and not have my neighbors see me slob out.


So clearly, fences are rad. They’re awesome management tools. Not only do they keep everyone safely contained, but they also allow you to do all kinds of fun stuff at home in your yard. Playing at home is super handy if you have a DINOS and need a break from walking your dog or you need to exercise them prior to a walk.


As you probably know, there are many different kinds of fences to choose from. Go check ’em out:

Solid Wood

Chain Link

Farm Fence

Iron or Aluminum 

Invisible (I have some thoughts on those)

Vinyl

Plastic (affordable option alert!)

In the end, what you choose will come down to your personal needs in these areas: Privacy, Finances, Function, and Aesthetics.

As soon as we bought out first home last year, we hired some pros to install a fence. We have a few acres, but could only fence in part of the yard. We chose six foot, solid wood fencing for the portion of our yard that faces the street. The rest is six foot, 2”x4” galvanized, no climb, horse farm fencing from RedBrand. The majority of our fence is the wire farm fencing. This allowed us to save a ton of money, but also provides unobstructed views of the rest of our property. This is a good option if neighboring dogs/properties aren’t an issue.

Farm Fence

Boogie’s first time off leash in our newly fenced in yard. It was a good day.

No matter what type of fence you choose (or what you already have, thanks to your landlord or the person who lived there before you), you’ll probably have problems with it. That’s the way life rolls.

Maybe your dogs are fence fighting with the neighbor’s dogs or kids are sticking their hands through the fence and you’ve been finding tiny fingers in your lawn clippings. Or your dog is a jumper, a digger, or a Chris Angel impersonator. Maybe your dog screams at passing skateboarders or the ice cream truck.

Luckily, there are some ways to prevent these common dog-related fence problems (escaping, reacting, being tormented):

1. Landscaping: If you have a dog that is a jumper or likes to patrol the fence line, consider using landscaping as a way to keep your dogs away from the fence. By planting dense shrubs, like Boxwood, along the fence line, you’ll force your dogs to back up, making the jump further (aka harder). And if you have a patroller, the landscaping will make the buffer zone between the fence and your dog a few feet wider, which might help your dog take the day off from guard duty. Just remember to check in between the shrubs on the regular to make sure the dogs haven’t created a secret tunnel to Naughtyville.


2. Bamboo/Reed Rolls, Garden Fencing, and Slats: If you have a chain link fence and you find that your dog is reacting to stuff he sees on the other side of the fence, try zip-tying rolls of reed fencing onto the inside of your chain link fence. It looks nice, it’s cheap, and it’ll give you a lot more privacy (note: it’s not 100% opaque). The reed fencing comes in 4 or 6 foot high panels and can be cut easily. Bamboo looks nicer/is much sturdier, but is also more expensive.

bamboo or reed fencing

Or, you can feed plastic slats through your chain link fence. They even come in “hedge” (!) style. Either option will also stop others from putting their hands/snouts through the fence.

If style isn’t your thing, but function is, you can try a black plastic construction fence as a visual block.

And if you have a fence that your dog is able to stick their head through, but you don’t care about privacy, try adding rolls of garden fencing to your fence to block ‘em in!


3. L-Footer:  If you have a digger, consider an L-Footer. That’s wire fencing laid down against the base of your fence and bent perpendicular (90 degree angle) to it. You know, like an “L”. You can bury this fencing underground, but it doesn’t have to be buried to work. Some people just lay it on top of the grass and maybe add some rocks and garden gnomes to hold down the fort. This site explains it well (and has tons of other great tips). Also see Bad Rap’s rebar tip.

L Footer (source)

L Footer (source)

4. Concrete Footer: If you have a serious digger, consider pouring concrete along the perimeter of the fence line and sinking the bottom of the fence into the concrete before it dries.  It’ll take some work, but this is super effective.

5. Coyote Rollers: If you have a jumper or climber, you can try these rollers, designed to make it impossible for coyotes to get a grip on the top of the fence (the bar spins). Think rolling pins at the top of your fence. You can DIY this with PVC pipe, if you’re handy.

6. Lean-Ins: Another option is to build lean-ins using farm fencing, so that the top of your fence is angled in a bit horizontal to the ground. It’s like adding a little awning of security. Here’s one to check out. It’s like a cat fence, only sturdier.

If your dog is a champion jumper, and none of this is enough, you may have to consider an expanded exercise area that is totally enclosed with a ceiling. Or a Bio-Dome (sans Pauly Shore, since you actually like your dog).

You can score this kit here

You can score this lean-in kit here


7. Redundant fences:  Redundant fences are the jam. I know of more than one family (mine included) whose backyard life got an extreme makeover when they put in one of these babies. So what is a redundant fence exactly?

It’s a fence within a fence. You can put up a secondary, internal fence on just one side of your yard – wherever the problems are occurring – or all four sides. Most people I know have it on just one side of their yard where they share a common fence with a troublesome neighbor, with a busy commercial building or street, or with a damaged or ineffective fence that can’t be changed for some reason (like when you rent or your neighbor owns the fence).

The idea is to manage the situation with a secondary internal fence, set back from the common fence line, thereby preventing your dog from making bad choices, rehearsing behaviors like fence fighting, or escaping easily. Plus it can help speed up training and will prevent other people/dogs from putting your dog in dangerous scenarios.

The redundant fence doesn’t need to be expensive.  We used to rent a house that had a rickety old wood fence that belonged to the next door neighbors. Since we couldn’t do any repairs to the fence, we put up a roll of green plastic fencing about 3 feet back from the common fence line to keep our dogs from poking their heads through the broken fence. We also used a plastic, staked-in-the-ground, corner piece at one point. Could I have trained them not to poke their heads through the broken fence? Sure. But putting up the cheap redundant fence was easy, cheap, fast, always effective, and did I mention easy?

Depending on what issue you’re trying to prevent and your dog’s personal kung-fu skills, the redundant fence may need to be as strong as the outer fence. For some dogs, just having the visual of light pvc fencing will work, for others, they’ll need a solid wood fence to contain them safely.

One more thing about redundant fences: do it. I think people feel funny about a fence inside a fence. It seems silly to have two fences, especially if you just paid to put up the first one! But the families I know that went for it are enjoying their lives again. So if you think it could provide you with some peace at home, just do it.

For more on redundant fences, please check out Puddin’s Training Tips for ideas and some examples. She loves them so much, she wants to start a double fence movement!


BONUS: here are two more ways to keep your dogs inside and safe:

Airlocks: These are perfect for areas without a fence. You’ve probably seen airlocks at your local dog park or boarding facility. These handy gated areas are built in front of your main entrance, so that if the door opens and a dog escapes, they are still contained by the small gated area (the airlock) right outside the door. For some dogs, this may be as simple as adding a sturdy baby gate to the opening of your front porch. In other homes with other dogs, this may mean building a small fenced in area with a locking gate in front of your door. Grisha Stewart’s BAT book has some more tips, including adding a doorbell to the airlock, so that visitors have to wait outside the airlock (instead of at your front door) for you to let them in. We did something similar with our enclosed porch that leads to our front door (see here).

If you have kids, this one addition could mean the difference between being able to keep your dog and surrendering him to the shelter. I can’t tell you how many families brought in dogs to the shelter where I used to work because the dog was always escaping when the kids opened the door. If you have an escape artist or kids that let the dog out, add an airlock.

Airlocks are commonly used at doggy day cares (like this one)

Airlocks are commonly used at doggy day cares (like this one)


Locks: They keep your dogs in and other people out. We have 10’ swinging gates on our fence and after a few bad storms we discovered that the gates would sometimes blow open. We added a second lock (on the inside) to help keep those bad boys shut.

Depending on where you live, it’s not uncommon for people to let themselves into your fenced in yard. Maybe they wanted to cut through your yard and throw empty 40 bottles at your wind chimes (it happens). Whatever the reason, you don’t want people to be able to let themselves into your yard without your permission. So consider adding locks on the inside of your gates. It can be as simple as a big hook and eye.


All that being said, prevention is awesome, but supervision is always super important. Don’t leave your dogs unattended in your yard. Don’t. Especially if they fence fight or are canine Houdinis. Not only can they get into trouble sniffing snakes (I’m looking at you Boogie), but they’re likely to get bored. And bored dogs want to go on adventures. Give them a reason to stay inside the fence by hanging out with them and playing.

Of course, if nothing else, I’m a realist. So I know that most of us do leave our dogs unattended in the yard sometimes (even if it’s just for a minute) and that’s why all the above stuff should be considered. It’s our job to prevent, manage, supervise, and train…

So, training. Duh. Teach your dogs the skills they need to ignore dogs on the other side of the fence, to come when called, and to stop escaping. That’s really important too.

But all in all, training goes a lot faster when you can prevent your dogs from practicing naughty-pants behaviors like door dashing, tunnel crafting, and fence fighting. So no matter how much training you’re planning on doing, the solutions above will support your dog as they learn, keep them and others safe, and will only make things easier for you. And easy is my favorite.

Now go on and get! Hit the local hardware store and: Set your dogs up to succeed!

 

7 ways to dog proof fence

Happy International Assistance Dog Week: How Not to Be a Jerk to Working Dogs

It’s International Canine Assistance Dog Week! In celebration of all the amazing service dogs out there, here are a few basic etiquette tips. Remember, service dogs are DINOS – they need space to do their jobs! When you encounter a working team, please be responsible for your actions and respectful of their space.

Happy International Assistance Dog  Week



If you encounter a service dog and their handler, please keep these tips in mind:

1. Do not touch the dog.

2. Do not let your child touch the dog.

3. Do not let your dog approach the dog. This includes obeying leash laws and having your dogs under your control at all times.

4. If you want to do #1-3, you must ASK FIRST, then wait for their response. Speak directly to the person, not the dog. Treat the human with dignity, please.

5. Respect the handler’s response. If they say “no”, accept this and move on. It’s not personal. You have no idea what the handler is dealing with and they may not be able to safely interact with you or your dogs in that moment. Sometimes handlers will be happy to talk with you about their dogs and other times they won’t be able to do so. Have compassion (they need a service dog for a reason – not just because they’re cute) and allow them to carry on.

6. Do not distract a service dog by whistling, calling out, or offering it a treat. This dog is working and needs to keep his attention on his job. Distracting a service dog can result in the handler getting hurt.

Finally: Never, ever, fake a service dog with your own pet dog. Seriously. Don’t impersonate a service dog team so that you can fly your dog in the cabin or take them into Target with you to shop for sassy t-shirts. It’s ruining things for real service dogs and their people. Don’t exploit someone else’s hardship. It’s just not ok.

international assistance dog week

Purchase this retro-tastic print to raise money for IADW: http://www.cafepress.com/assistancedogweek


Want to learn more?

Please obey leash laws. Leash Laws keep Service Dogs Safe. 

Excellent etiquette tips from Please Don’t Pet Me

Know the Law. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the TWO questions business owners are allowed to ask.

Resources for people with working and assistance dogs: Working Like Dogs

International Assistance Dog Week resources. Celebrate in your community.

You’re Old and I’m Broke: Conversations With My Dog About Surgery

Remember that time my dog tore her cruciate from lying in the sun too hard? Yep, that would be Birdie. My 11.5 year old dog decided to go blow a ligament in her rear leg the other week. Super expensive surgery has been recommended. Beer, please.

Here’s the thing about working with dogs all my adult life: I’m pretty good at giving compassionate, reasonable advice to people who are struggling to make the right call for their dogs.

And here’s the thing when it comes to my own dogs: I am not very good at hearing the kind, reasonable, forgiving lady that lives in my head. She talks to everyone else, but clams up when I ask her to weigh in on my problems. Most times, I can only hear a weepy confused kid spinning around in panicked circles calling me a dick for not being a better dog owner. That kid is such a drag.

So during our recent consult with a very nice surgeon, I found myself suddenly fighting off hot tears when I forced myself to ask her what would happen if I couldn’t afford the surgery that Birdie needs. It made me feel like I was saying, “I don’t love my dog.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here’s what the surgeon said, “You should feel supported if you choose not to do the surgery.”

You should feel supported. Those are some good words right there.

And she went on to say it was reasonable for me to weigh all the variables, including my dog’s age, her activity level, and my financial situation when making the decision to opt for surgery – or not.

Surgery is how much? Just cut it off. I have three more.

Surgery is how much? Just cut it off. I have three more.

 

The surgeon also patiently answered my two million questions about Birdie’s pain levels and what would happen over time to her other limbs since they’d have to pick up the slack of her bum leg.

We ultimately agreed that this was not emergency surgery and it was reasonable to give Birdie four weeks of rest combined with cold laser treatments and hydrotherapy (with an awesome physical therapist  Birdie knows and loves). And then we’d revisit the idea of surgery.

 

Of course, four weeks from now, if the results from physical therapy aren’t what we hope they’ll be, it still won’t change the gist of the conversation I had with Birdie on the way home from the surgical consult:

Me: Your dad and I are broke.

Birdie: Phumpfh.

Me: You’re kind of old.

Birdie: Phumpfh.

Me: We’re broke and you’re old. I feel like maybe it’s ok to choose not to sink an entire line of credit into one of your legs. Right?

Birdie: Phumpfh.

Me: Birdie, listen. I feel like an asshole trying to figure out how much your leg is worth. I don’t want you to be in pain, but that’s a lot of money. If you want the surgery, I’ll rob a bank to pay for it (or use a credit card). Just tell me what you want me to do. I don’t want to make the wrong choice and have you suffer for the rest of your life. I hate the idea of putting a dollar sign on your leg. You deserve all the bionic legs a dog could ever dream of having…I’m sorry I’m not rich. Just tell me: What do you want me to do?

Birdie: zzzzz-phumpfh-zzzzzzz.

Me: Dammit.

Birdie on bed rest looks just like Birdie on every other day.

Birdie on bed rest looks just like Birdie on every other day.

 

I wish dogs could tell us what they want. One of the hardest parts of caring for our dogs is making decisions on their behalf and feeling badly that we’re not doing the right thing.  A lot of us are beating ourselves up and second guessing everything – from the everyday decisions about diet and training to the excruciating choices we need to make at the end of their lives.

It’s no fun being the one in charge of making the call. As humans we carry around all these conflicting, painful thoughts – about the various options available and what the future holds for the dogs we love so much. Luckily, our dogs continue living in the moment. Knowing stuff is our burden, not theirs.

You might think that those of us who make a living working with dogs would have an easier time making choices for our pets. We know all the questions to ask about quality of life and the different scales to help measure their good days and bad days. Plus we have tons of personal stories from clients and colleagues, etc. to mentally reference in order to help us put our own situations in perspective.

Turns out, when it comes to my own dogs, like most pet care pros, I’m in need of the same sort of outside perspective and compassionate counsel as everyone else. The situation isn’t life threatening (for the record, I’m grateful the diagnosis wasn’t something more serious), but I needed someone else to help me get my footing. And to tell me I’m not a jerk.

I really appreciate that the surgeon told me not to feel guilty for considering my financial situation. And I could have hugged her for saying I should feel supported in trying a non-surgical option first.

It’s what I would have told myself if the confused, weepy kid in my head wasn’t busy shouting about how I was turning into Cruella De Ville for allowing money to pop up when thinking about what Birdie needs. It’s what I would have told any of you, if you were in the same spot.

Thanks for the compassionate advice Doc.

We’re starting rehab next week. In the meantime, Birdie still seems to love me, despite the fact that I’m thinking about the value of her leg repair versus the potential span of her life divided by my credit line. Maybe that’s because she’s thinking about snacks and smelly stuff to roll in, not surgery. That’s my job.

 

p.s. if you’re interested in some alternatives to surgery, this article at Whole Dog Journal is really helpful.

 

Mom Was Right: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

A good friend of mine is about to bring home her very first dog. As you can imagine, I want to give her buckets of advice to help make this an awesome experience. I want to tell my friend everything I know, so that she can avoid all the mistakes anyone has ever made in the history of owning a dog.

I bet you guys can relate. If you’re involved in animal welfare or a pet-related business you’re probably doing a lot of knowledge dropping. From trying to explain the problem with puppy mills to trying to convince someone to leash their dog, we all want to get others to listen to us. It’s not easy!

It got me thinking: How can we share information with others in a way that’s truly helpful and well received? How do we keep the conversation going and create the right conditions for learning?

Over the years, I’ve picked up some tips that have helped me to get better at talking with others about stuff that I’m passionate about.


Here’s one thing I know for sure:

Being right is not enough. What good is being right if no one sticks around to listen?

How we give people information is as important as the information itself. Mom was right when she told us, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!”


These are the four nuggets that I try to keep in mind, so that I’m not just talking to my cats:

  1. Avoid Information Overload
  2. Personal Experience is King
  3. Help Them Save Face
  4. Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers



Avoid Information Overload

You can’t know too much, but you can say too much. – Calvin Coolidge

When sharing information, particularly with a newbie, we have a tendency to blast the pants off of them with information. One sure way to kill a learning buzz is to overwhelm someone. When I’m overloaded, I just shut down. Like a fainting goat.

Myotonic fainting goat

too. much. information. (source)


One of the hardest lessons for me to learn back when I was working at the shelter was that adopters can only take in so much information at once. I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING they might ever need to know right then, while I had them in my clutches sight. So I would start burying them in information: health and medical needs, behavior and training advice, favorite toys, treats, tools, books, what the dog’s poop looked like, and a brief history of how man domesticated the dog.

What they wanted was to get their hands on the dog in front of them and experience it for themselves. They could only absorb a tiny smidgen of what I was saying.

So, I learned to tell them just the most important information and then put a cork in it. This was excruciating. Cutting to the chase is not my strong suit (see: this blog). But I knew that if I wanted them to hear the really important bits, I had to cut back on what I said overall.

Avoid overloading your listener. They don’t need to know everything all at once. Try to let the newbies – whether they’re new dog owners or new to a challenging experience or an animal welfare issue –  get their footing before you slam them with everything you know.

Keep it simple, give them a few concrete actions steps, and send them home with stuff to read later. Patricia McConnell says so. If the situation allows for it, make yourself available for a follow up. The follow up is important because…


Personal Experience is King

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
― Will Rogers

I have to pee on the fence. So do many adopters, clients, advocates, and probably your uncle Larry too.

We learn by doing and we’re not the only ones. Remember learning to drive?  No matter how good the manual may be, it’s not the same as actually driving a car. Once you have some time behind a wheel, then the manual suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. Oh, you think as you hit your first patch of black ice, that’s what skidding feels like. Which way do I turn the wheel again?!

It helps to acknowledge this need for experience, so you can let go a little.

At the shelter I learned that people needed to experience living with the dog before they could truly make sense of the resources they’d received.

Before: it was me yammering at them while their brains were hijacked by shmoopy-faced dogs. What I was saying couldn’t compete and didn’t feel relevant in that moment.

After: they had experienced the shmoopy-faced dog taking a dump on their rug and it became real (and smelly). They could put what I had said about house-training into context. It was suddenly personal, relevant, and really believable!

Once I understood this need for experience, I did two things: I incorporated hands-on learning during the adoption counseling (ex: I would have them put the harness on the dog themselves to learn how it fit) and I made myself available for help after they brought the dog home.

Is that lady saying you need to crate train me? She's crazy. I'm perfect and I never poop.

Is that lady saying you need to crate train me? Don’t listen. She’s crazy. I’m perfect and I never poop.


Until we’ve experienced something for ourselves and figured out how it’s relevant to us personally, it’s tough for us to understand something new or believe it to be true. There’s a kinesthetic learner in all of us.

That’s why it’s such an a-ha moment when someone lives with a reactive dog for the first time. Suddenly, they understand everything anyone has ever yelled at them, like “my dog needs space!” because now they’re living the DINOS-dream for themselves. It wasn’t real until then. Personal experience is king.

I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t try to help others understand things in advance. Anyone who is a little further along in the journey should try to put down gutter bumpers to help newbies do the right thing and prevent anything truly bad or dangerous from happening. But we also have to accept that people need room to do some learning on their own. Which means that mistakes are inevitable…

 

Help them Save Face

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

When people make mistakes, your job (if you want them to learn anything) is to protect their dignity. Help them save face, so they’ll stay in the conversation.

In other words, try not to shame the shit out of them. If you do, you’ll lose them in a heartbeat.

Years ago I met my now-BFF while she was working in a Philly pet store that sold only very high quality food. The brand my family had fed my childhood dog (it rhymes with Defiance Riot, which is also the name of my imaginary hardcore band) wasn’t for sale. I mentioned that the food must have been OK, since we bought it from our vet.

My friend, who probably wanted to vomit all of her holistic health and nutrition knowledge at me, simply said, “Yeah, it’s not so great.” And she causally pointed to a book Food Pets Die For, if I was interested in learning more. The book was also her way of saying, it’s not just my opinion. Check out this expert.

Her super laid back brilliance allowed me to absorb this surprising new knowledge while maintaining my dignity. I was privately embarrassed that I knew so little about dog food. My friend, who wanted me to learn more, helped me to see where I had room to improve in such a generous way. She didn’t put me on the defensive. Instead, she opened the door a crack and gently suggested I take a look.

And I did, because I didn’t have to admit I was an idiot in order to do it.

So hard to do, isn’t it? I know. But we have to remember this isn’t about us showing off how much we know or how skilled or smart we are about a topic. It’s about helping someone else feel comfortable enough to check out what’s on the other side of the door.

Help others save face when they share something that you may not agree with or when they make a mistake.

If you blast them with negative information – telling them how wrong or dumb they are or how horrifyingly awful that product/trainer/idea is that they like – you’ll run the risk of shutting them down in embarrassment and shame. It doesn’t matter how right you are, if the person you were trying to reach has left the conversation because they hate they way you’ve made them feel.

I’m still learning how to do this, btw. It is hard.

side note: Have you guys heard about “spontaneous trait transference“? That’s the phenomenon where people spontaneously and unintentionally associate what you say about other people with you yourself. So if you’re talking about a certain dog trainer or co-worker’s negative qualities, guess what? The people listening are associating those negative qualities with you. It works in reverse too, thankfully.


Small Steps Deserve Big Cheers

“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.” Anatole France

So you’ve got someone who’s listening? Cool. Here’s my favorite way to keep people interested in learning: Be a cheerleader. Pom poms are optional, but kind of awesome.

Celebrate whatever it is that you want them to do more of – no matter how small – and build the foundation of a genuine and positive relationship with your adopters, clients, friends, and neighbors (maybe even your adversaries!). When people feel good, they stay engaged.

Don’t wait for them to get it all right before you start celebrating their accomplishments. Remember these words, spoken by the great sage Bill Murray in What About Bob?:  Baby steps.

Small steps deserve big cheers. Even if you’re dying for them to speed things up and get to the other side, keep rooting them on if they’re headed in the right direction (p.s. they may never get to the other side, so try to accept that not everyone will do things exactly as you do). They’ll appreciate your support and encouragement. It will make them feel good about themselves and their choices. And that will help them stay motivated to continue, even if things get more challenging. They may even allow you to continue on the journey with them.

baby-steps

“I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.” – Bob


There’s tons more advice out there about how to effectively share what we know, but those are my guiding nuggets. The truth is that I still fail at all four of these steps all the time. But I’m always trying to improve, because every once in a while I really want to help someone learn something new or useful. I bet you do too.

So consider how you’re sharing what you know. If you don’t, you might get pegged as the Crazy Dog Lady. That’s an easy way for others to dismiss all the great stuff you have to share. And that would be a bummer for the dogs. They need you!



Accepting Reality: I’m a Crazy Dog Lady

Well, it finally happened. Today I officially became a Crazy Dog Lady.  I’ve been teetering on the brink for years, but this afternoon I went ahead and jumped the shark.

Picture this: There I was, driving down the road with Mr. Dog Walker (aka the Snow Ninja).  I looked over to the right as we cruised by a sweet little house that we’ve passed before. Once or twice, I had spotted an old black Lab lying out in the driveway of this house, sunning himself.

Today as we approached the house I spotted my friend again. Thinking of him enjoying this sunny day, warming his senior bones on the blacktop, I felt my heart swell up a little.

“Aw, look,” I said to Mr. Dog Walker, “I love that dog.” I pointed towards the driveway as we passed in front of the house.

Mr. Dog Walker looked at the driveway and looked back at me. He was looking at me like he thought maybe I was having a mild stroke.

One glance at his face and I knew I had done something weird. Again. Let’s face it, I see this look on his face a lot.

So I slowed down and looked more closely at the dog, lying there in the warm mid-day sun. And to my utter horror I realized that this dog, the one who I thought was taking a peaceful snooze was actually a…

wait for it…

wait.

for.

it.




A duffle bag.


A black gym bag, if you will.  Some discarded luggage behind a parked car in a driveway.

Crap.

Yes, there had been a dog there in the past. But not today. My crazy dog lady brain had taken one look at this slouchy duffle bag and transposed the body of a resting dog.

Not only had I seen the dog instead of the bag, but I was moved by this bag. The sight of this bag at rest had made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

I was touched by a duffle bag.


black duffle bag


“Oh ha! It’s a bag,” I said to Mr. Dog Walker who was now laughing partly at me, partly in fear of me.

“There was a dog there before. I swear.”

Right. Like it mattered.

In one brief moment I had rocketed over the line from: Professional Dog Lover to Crazy Dog Lady. The kind of dog nut that sees dogs everywhere and in everything. The kind of person that is moved to the brink of tears by the sight of a Lab-shaped duffle bag “napping” in the sun.

Oh man. The first step is admitting you have a problem right?

So where do I register? Is there a certificate that I should apply for, so that I can make my new status as a Crazy Dog Lady official? Will the DMV stamp a turd-shaped stencil over my photo? Do I register with local law enforcement to warn them of who they’re dealing with if they encounter me on the loose?

Really, I do feel like I earned at least some sort of official acknowledgement.

I certainly reached a new level of…something.

Should I add CDL to the end of my name? Jessica Dolce CDL (Crazy Dog Lady).  Or like dog trainers, it could be CDL-KA for Crazy Dog Lady – Kraziness Assessed.

Maybe this was meant to be and I should roll with it. I can take inspiration from the “Lab” that changed it all aka my Heart-Duffle.

We recently bought some land, with a barn. Perhaps it’s time for me to open my own rescue. I could start by taking in small purses from last season. Maybe a clutch or two. Then move on to unwanted messenger bags, moldy gym bags, and backpacks. If I can secure 501c3 status, I might be able to raise funds to support a sanctuary for unwanted steamer trunks and unclaimed luggage.

They could live out the rest of their days in my fenced in yard, sitting in the sun, and capturing the eye of other Crazy Dog Ladies who drive by my house.

Sigh. Welcome to my new reality.

I mean well, I swear.

Yours Truly,

Jessica CDL

Dog Walker’s Hair Goes Gray Overnight: Says Invisible Fences Are to Blame

I’ve been trying to write a funny take on how ridiculously stressful it is to walk past yard after yard of dogs who are behind invisible, underground fences and charge me as I pass by. It’s like the ultimate game of dog walker chicken.

The dogs are running towards me – there might be a fence to stop them, but maybe not – do I keep passing by or retreat?

 

Obviously I retreat, full of anxiety as I wonder if the dogs are going to chase us down the street. I age two years every time this happens. After more than a decade of playing dog walker chicken I’m starting to look like Cloris Leachman’s older sister.

So, yeah, this was going to be funny, but then a dog I love got hurt this week. One of my clients was walking her dog when they passed a house with a large dog and owner playing ball in the yard. The large dog saw my client and ran at them, slamming hard into her dog and grabbing a mouthful of fur.

Where was the other dog owner? Hiding behind a bush in her front lawn. That my friends, is a whole different blog.

Why did the owner allow the dog to run loose? She didn’t. The aggressing dog was in his yard behind an invisible fence when my client walked by. He busted right through the “fence”, happily taking the shock in order to get to my friend.

My dog pal has spent the last week with a swollen shoulder. She’s unable to shake her head or be touched on her left side without yelping. It could have been worse. Oh wait. It was. She’s reactive around some dogs. Thanks to this encounter, we’ve likely moved back a step or two.

Nothing funny about that.

I’m super tired of walking by these fences. How about you?

 

Every time I walk past a yard where I see dogs charging across their lawns towards me and my dogs I have to think: Do they have an invisible fence? If so will it stop the dogs? I quickly scan for little white flags. Sometimes the flags are there, but sometimes they’re not. Are they not there because there is no fence or because the owners took the flags down? Are those pesticide signs? Is there a sign anywhere else? The clock is ticking. The dogs are charging. Twenty more of my hairs turn gray, my stomach flips, and I do an Emergency U-turn.

Playing dog walker chicken with overstimulated, unsupervised dogs just isn’t my steez.

white fence flags


There’s already so much written about these fences, but in case it needs to be said again: Invisible fences are not REAL fences. Traditional fences are designed to keeps dogs in, keep others out, and they provide a clear visual barrier so people passing by know the dogs on the other side are contained.

Hit pause: I understand that these fences work for some of you. I’m not calling you a bad dog owner for using them. But these fences scare me and my friend just got hurt, so I’m gonna call out some problems with them. Nothing personal, ok? You know I love you guys.

Ok, so while no option is perfect, these invisible fences fail the average dog owner in many ways. Allow me to elaborate based on my experiences with these fences (as a dog walker and shelter worker where I was a frequent host to stray dogs with failed underground fence collars):


They fail to keep some dogs in:

  • Plenty of dogs are happy to take the shocks in order to get to whatever high value item is on the other side. This happens a lot. A dog sees: squirrels, turkeys, dogs they want to play with, a dog they want to chase away, a kid on bike, an ice cream truck, the Philly Phantic, etc. and they’re motivated enough to take a few shocks in order to get to it. See also: my friend this week.
  • Some of those dogs will leave the yard, but won’t take the shock to come back IN the yard. It’s not fun taking the pain just to go back and sit in your yard.  So now your dog is loose.
  • There are dogs that figure out that the batteries in their collars are dead (no warning beeps) or their collars are loose enough not to feel the shock. So off they go to explore the world!
  • When snow banks are high enough, dogs can walk right over where the invisible fence line reaches. And off they go again!
  • Some dogs will bolt when they are scared – thunderstorms, fireworks, etc. – and they don’t care about taking the shock if they think it’ll help them escape what’s frightening them.

 

They fail to keep others (animals and people) out:

  • It doesn’t prevent anything or anyone from entering your yard.  These fences don’t keep anything OUT.
  • Some dogs are perfectly happy to stay in the yards, dead batteries in their collars and all, but they are surprised to find other dogs have entered their yards.  Or wild animals, unwelcome people, or aggressive dogs that got loose from someone else’s house. Your dog will get shocked if they try to escape the yard/the threat.


They can cause behavior issues:

  • Some dogs are so frightened by the shocks they receive that they don’t want to go outside anymore. Like for days.
  • When dogs charge the boundaries of their yards every time they see a dog/bike/person and get a shock, this can cause behavior issues. Some dogs will associate the pain they feel with what they see. This can potentially lead to aggression or reactivity.
  • Some dogs won’t leave their yards for fear of a shock, even when they’re not wearing their collar. I knew a dog that had to be driven down the driveway, past the fence line, in order to leave the property for a leashed walk.
  •  Some dogs become afraid of beeping. Because their collars beep as a warning before they receive a shock, the dogs become fearful whenever they hear a similar beep. Like from the microwave.

 

They frighten people passing by who can’t tell if the dogs are really contained or not:

  • See: playing dog walker chicken. Also: delivery guy chicken, young children and senior citizens out strolling chicken, and jogger chicken. It’s scary to walk past your yards folks. Really scary. 


Look, there are no absolutes in this world, so I’ll be the first to admit that some of these things can happen no matter how you contain (or don’t contain) your dogs. Dogs dig under wood fences, jump chain link, gates swing open, etc.

And despite how much I can’t stand underground fences, I’ll acknowledge that there are two ways that these fences might not be totally unreasonable options for some families, provided the owners do the proper boundary training, have excellent recalls, and do not leave their dogs unattended in their yards:

  • As a secondary containment system for escape artists. If you have a dog that is able to scale or dig out of traditional fences, using an electric fences as a backup system, might be worth exploring.
  • As a containment system for rural properties with many acres. If you have acreage that can’t be fenced in because it is so large, using an electric fence at the far boundaries may be worth exploring.


And to keep the conversation rolling, here are two of the common reasons that responsible, dog-loving people I know pick Invisible Fencing:

  • Cost
  • Housing Associations


For cost: Underground fences range from $100 (for a DIY kit) to a couple thousand bucks. There are some affordable alternatives out there. Like these fence kits. My choice for affordable AND sturdy is farm fencing. I know because that’s what we choose for our yard. It’s comparable in price to a professionally installed electric fence. You can build it 4-8 feet high. You can bury part of it below ground if you have diggers. It doesn’t obstruct views and you can fence in just part of your yard if you have many acres.

 

We waited and saved for 5 years until we could put up a fence. Until then, we relied on leash walks and supervised time on tie-outs in the yard. This was Birdie’s first run in her new, fenced in yard!

We waited and saved for 5 years until we could put up a fence. Until then, we relied on leash walks and supervised time on tie-outs in the yard. This was Birdie’s first run in her new, fenced in yard!


For housing associations: please talk with them. Nothing will change if no one challenges the rules. Ask if you are allowed to fence in part of your property (maybe just the back yard). Discuss different types of fencing options. Can you put up a low physical fence, perhaps with Invisible Fence as a back-up if your dog can jump it? Can you fence in a portion of the yard with non-privacy fencing, like the options above? I know it’s not likely to work, but please try!


In the end, if you do choose a hidden electric fence please: Go with a professionally installed product, like the Invisible Fence brand, rather than a DIY job. Do the boundary training, slowly and as positively as you can. Make sure your dog has an excellent recall.

Never leave your dog unattended. You need to know if your dog leaves the yard. You need to know if another dog enters your property.

 

Finally, know your own dogs. This just isn’t the right fit for every dog. For some dogs it won’t keep them in, for other dogs it has the potential to cause serious issues. Never use them with dogs who have a history of reactivity, fear, phobias, or aggression.

For all of our sakes, I repeat: those of you with invisible fences (or no fences at all) have to stop leaving your dogs unattended in your yards. It’s crazy frightening to see dogs charging you at top speed, white flags or not.

And if you think your friendly dog would never do such a thing, I invite you to nanny-cam your yard. Betchya a five spot that lots of your dogs are having a blast playing dog walker chicken while you’re gone.


More on fences and fence problem-solving here!

 

 

10 Signs The Other Person’s Just Not That Into You (or Your Dog)

It’s Dog Bite Prevention Week again and lots of good lessons about understanding dog body language are being shared. We all need to learn dog body language.  Life would be grand if everyone understood and respected what dogs are trying to tell us.

But have you noticed that some humans pretty much stink at understanding human body language…or even spoken language (aka “language-language”)? Maybe we’re expecting a lot of  those folks to ask that they become fluent in dog body language. For them, we might need to start with some same-species tips. This one is for them:

Hello humans. Many of you love meeting new dogs and people while you’re out walking the dog. That’s neat!

But here’s the thing: some people just aren’t that into meeting you or your dog. It really doesn’t have anything to do with you. You’re awesome. It’s just that some of us prefer solo time when we’re out walking. Not every dog can socialize on walks. Some dogs need a little space to stay safe and healthy and don’t want to be approached.

In other words: there are people who don’t want to say hi, even if you and your dogs are super friendly.

But how will you know who’s down for a jam session with you and your pup? All you have to do is pay attention to the person holding the leash. They’ll let you know.

Here are 10 clues that the other person’s just not that into you or your dog:


Clue #1:  A furrowed brow (also known as the “11”) in between the eyebrows. This indicates annoyance. Or that your brights are on.

Bonus Clue: There are some people who can’t warn you off this way because of Botox. Tricky, right? 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/emerycophoto/3092372870/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Photo credit: Emery Co Photo (Some rights reserved: Share Alike, Attribution)



Clue #2: Eyes that are wide open are a sign of fear or shock. The only time a person is shocked in a good way is when they find money. Are you a bag o’ cash? Then keep on going.

Also, notice the open mouth.

Are words coming out? If so, listen to them. They may be saying something important such as, “Please stop. My dog needs space.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/chaparral/1217286092/

Photo credit: Chapendra (some rights reserved: attribution, non-commercial)



Clue #3: If you heard words, but are still not sure what they mean, look at their face again. People who are horrified that you’re not listening to them may look like they accidentally got wet cat litter in their mouths.

If you think this expression means, “Let’s get a man-pedi on Friday after work!” you are mistaken.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/seandreilinger/527326068/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger (Some rights reserved: share alike, attribution, non-commercial)



Clue #4: Nope. Still not psyched to see you and your dog.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenna77/458620318/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Photo credit: CapturingJenna (some rights reserved: share alike, attribution, non-commercial)



Clue #5: Words spoken at a normal volume are often misinterpreted. Is that other person making a joke? Is it Opposite Day? No. 

If ignored, many humans will shout. Do you see the fillings in their back molars? This is a sign to retreat. You may compliment them on their dental work, but only from a distance.

Buster Benson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erikbenson/490822943/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Photo credit: Buster Benson (some rights reserved: share alike, attribution)

 


Clue #6: Still not sure if they want to hang out or not? That’s when a good detective of human body language looks at the person’s hands. 

When a person’s requests are ignored and they feel trapped, some humans may go nuts and start to pull out their hair. Or punch you in the crotch.  

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bcymet/3292063588/

Photo Credit: B. Cymet (some rights reserved: attribution, non-commercial)



Clue #7: Wait, there’s more! Keep looking at their hands. Do you see a palm? If the other person raises their hands, showing a flat open palm, it means “Stop!”

It does not mean “How long is my life line?”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/3570379993/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Photo credit: Steven Snodgrass (some rights reserved: attribution)



Clue #8: Finally, if you’re looking at the back of a person they are now ignoring you. They can still hear you. They aren’t turning around because they don’t wanna. 

If you see a person’s back while they are running away, do not follow them no matter how friendly you and your dog may be. 

Accept that this fleeing human is not your new BFF. 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/thestarmama/69575028/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Photo Credit: StarMama (some rights reserved: attribution)



Clue #9: Let’s put it all together now. This person’s body language says, “Leave me and my dog alone!”

Or possibly, “Do you know who got eliminated on The Voice last night? I’m rooting for Team Shakira!”

credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bo47/6087907898/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Photo Credit: Bo47 (Some rights reserved: share alike, attribution, non-commercial)



Clue #10: Don’t worry nice folks with dogs! There are plenty of people that want to hang with you and your dogs. Like these dudes. This is the loose body language of people who want you to know that they give out free hugs. So bring it on in, nice and close. These are your people.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterbaldes/3908166694/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Photo credit: PJ Baldes (some rights reserved: attribution, non-commercial)


Want some real thoughts on how to prevent dog bites and make our communities safe and enjoyable for everyone? Check out my real PSA: Ask First! and learn more about how being respectful and responsible is super cool. Really, all the cool kids are being polite these days.

p.s. If you’d like a little help telling the world that your dog needs space, there are all kinds of nifty items to check out here. 

How Steve Martin Helps Me Deal With People Who Walk + Text

A couple of years ago I started encountering a new obstacle while I was out dog walking: people who walk right into me while they’re looking at their cell phones.

I don’t mean talking on their cells. I mean they’re looking down at their phones, texting, for entire block lengths. Maybe even miles. Not only are they not looking where they’re going, but people who are tweeting highlights from Teen Mom 2: The Reunion Special tend to weave a lot too. They’re hard to navigate around.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this new walking hazard. It’s gotten to be so bad that talking and walking and/or texting and walking made an appearance in the book “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” in the chapter dedicated to taking a city walk with a blind woman (in order to experience the city through senses other than sight). Author Alexandra Horowitz writes, “I saw examples of cell-phone walkers weaving, violating the time-honored stay-to-the-right street rules. Most critically, they were not checking: they did not look up.”  Horowitz’s blind walking companion shared that she had been in a number of full body collisions with cell phone users who did not look up in time to see her walking nearby (with her white cane!).

 


So back to my dogs walks: There I am, walking towards the phone-focused with my dogs and trying to avoid a collision by moving from one end of the sidewalk to the other. The weaving is all kinds of awkward, not to mention I look like I pounded a six pack of Zima in between dog walks.

Finally, I came up with a new, more effective approach. I just stop and stand still.

I wait until the person on the cell phone is a few steps away from bulldozing me and then I say, loudly, “LOOK UP!

Which they do, because I just startled them so bad that their butt cheeks seized up.

Of course I only do this with dogs that are super people-friendly and with people who look like they’re not armed. If the dogs aren’t comfortable watching someone jump out of their flops, we just step right off the sidewalk and escape the cell phone zombies by walking in the street (with people who are doing the same thing with their phones, only they’re in cars**).

But I really do love the “Look Up!” moment and try to squeeze it in whenever I can. Just for funsies.

Not only is it effective, but every single time I do it, I think of Steve Martin in this scene from The Three Amigos and I laugh, laugh, laugh.

Please enjoy it here:


Almost everything I know about dog walking, I’ve learned from Steve Martin.

OK, maybe just this one thing.

**On a serious note: Today while dog walking I watched a woman driving the wrong way down a one way street in front of a hospital. She weaved around the cars coming straight at her, while I waved at her in an attempt to point out the huge “DO NOT ENTER” sign that she was passing. She didn’t notice. She was too busy looking down and texting.

We all need to stop texting and driving. In the past few years I’ve had to alter the way I dog walk because so many drivers are totally unaware of me and the dogs walking in crosswalks. People are driving with their heads in their laps. Most of us are guilty of doing this. We all need to stop thinking we’re the exception to the rule and can text and drive safely. We can’t. No one can. And we could wind up killing someone. Werner Herzog’s short file “From One Second to the Next” is a hard look at the consequences of our bad behavior.

Please be safe out there everyone. Look up!

 

 

Stop Caring What Others Think and Stand Up for Your Dogs

It’s almost dog bite prevention week, so I want to talk to you guys about one of the keys to reducing dog bites (as well as making life better for your dogs all around):

You need to stop caring what anyone else thinks about you and your dog.

If you do this, you will free yourself up to make better choices on behalf of your dogs. When you make better choices, you are setting your dogs up for success in our crazy world. And when you do that, they are less likely to get into trouble which they will wind up paying for big time.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Stand up for your dogs. Be assertive in protecting your dog’s physical and mental health, as well as the safety of those around them. 

2. When you’re not sure if your dog can handle something, always err on the side of caution. Choose management over “I don’t know, so let’s find out!”

Dogs need us to do both of these things more often, so that they don’t feel like they need to take matters into their own hands teeth.

Obviously, dogs need lots of other things from us too: socialization, training, proper management, and a never ending supply of peanut butter that they can roll around in like it’s a canine version of that scene in Indecent Proposal. People also need to learn how to read their dog’s body language,  understand stress and fear, and not screw their dogs up in general. But we’ve covered that before, here and all over the web.

What I’m talking about now doesn’t really have all that much to do with the dogs. It’s about us humans and how uncomfortable many of us are with being forceful, direct, and making unpopular choices that we’re afraid will make people not like us. This is causing some problems for our dogs.

Too often we choose not to speak up for our dogs, even as things take a weird turn. We recognize that our dog is uncomfortable with the hyper kids running circles around them. We suspect that the unfamiliar dog approaching our dog isn’t as friendly as their owner is claiming. We don’t know if our dog is ok with the cleaning lady entering the house while we’re gone. But we allow it anyway.

We allow our desire to be perceived as friendly or nice or easy going to override our own gut instincts or what our dog is trying to tell us. Our desire to be liked – to avoid being seen as unfriendly or rude or “bitchy”  – is powerful stuff.

It’s so powerful, that humans will choose to ignore their own instincts and proceed into potentially dangerous scenarios, just so they don’t make a bad impression.

Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, says that unlike other living creatures, humans will sense danger, yet still walk right into it. “You’re in a hallway waiting for an elevator late at night. Elevator door opens, and there’s a guy inside, and he makes you afraid. You don’t know why, you don’t know what it is. Some memory of this building—whatever it may be. And many women will stand there and look at that guy and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want to be the kind of person who lets the door close in his face. I’ve got to be nice. I don’t want him to think I’m not nice’.” More on that here. 

If we’re willing to walk right into a metal box with a stranger that totally scares us just so we won’t be seen as rude, imagine how difficult it is for many people to be assertive on behalf of their dogs with nice folks at the park, their neighbors, visitors, family, and friends. We’re willing to deny our fear around murderers. It’s no wonder we’re not comfortable speaking up for ourselves around people we pass on a dog walk.

The problem with our discomfort is that dog bites often happen when we are:

1. In denial about our dog’s limitations and/or their behavior issues. To be a good advocate for them, dogs need you to see them as they are, in the present.

2. We know their limits, but we still hesitate to take action.

And the flip side of suspecting or knowing your dog has issues and not speaking up is:

3. When we are in complete denial that our “good” dogs would ever bite someone.

Number 3 is a whole blog in and of itself. This blog is really about the first two points. But I’ll sum up #3 real quick for good measure:

All dogs have the potential to bite. ALL of them. Breed, size, age, zodiac sign – doesn’t matter. Push any dog hard and long enough or in just the right way (You mean it’s not OK for my 2 year old to crawl into my “good” dog’s crate while he’s sleeping?) and they run out of options and will bite. So don’t push any dog’s luck. Don’t allow them to be treated roughly or inappropriately or fail to properly supervise them because they’re such “good dogs.” Your dog needs you to stop thinking they’re a robot with no limits and respect their boundaries. Don’t fool yourself. Your dog will appreciate it if you help them out by setting them up to be good.

When we let dogs bite, the dogs pay for it. They might hurt a person or another dog or get hurt themselves. They might cause your home owner’s insurance to drop you and then you can’t keep your dog. They might be declared dangerous. They might make the news and inflame the public into calling for a ban on all dogs that look like your dog. They might be taken from you and euthanized.

Dog bites aren’t the only consequence, of course. When we don’t step up other not-so-great stuff happens, like we put our dogs into situations that make them stressed and miserable. Or they have a bad experience with another dog and then they become a DINOS. But this post isn’t about dog behavior. It’s about us and our malfunctions.

Sometimes, we have to step out of our comfort zone in order to be effective advocates for our dog’s safety and health. Do not let others pressure you. Stop caring what anyone else thinks and just do what you know is right for your dogs.

Channel your inner Ron Swanson:

ron swanson

Now, I recognize that there are things that happen that are beyond our control. Also, I understand that sometimes we genuinely think we’re making the right choice and it turns out to be the wrong one. And of course, I want you to socialize, train, and do new stuff with your dogs, which means that inevitably there will be goof ups. I get it. That’s life.

What I’m talking about here is when you’re hesitant to do what you know needs to be done or when you’re afraid to err on the side of caution because you think it’ll make you look like a “square.”

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you all permission to stand up for yourselves and your dogs. You have to do it. Your dogs need you to do it.

The next time someone tries to force themselves or their dog onto your dog, you’re going to boldly step in front of your dogs and say “STOP.”  Say it like you mean it. Then drop the mic and walk away.

The next time someone comes over to your house and you’re not sure if your dog will be OK with them, you’re going to put your dog in another room or in their crate or on a leash.  When your friend visits with their little kids or the landscaper needs to use your bathroom or the police* bangs on your door, you’re not going to hold your breath and see what happens.  You’re going to tighten up your core muscles and say, “Please wait while I put my dog away.” When they say, “It’s OK, I love dogs”, you will hold your ground and follow through with the plan.

And the next time you’re at the vet or the groomers and you don’t like the way they’re handling your dog, you’re going to say, “We need to do this another way.”I struggled with this one. But I’m over it now. Same thing goes for trainers. If you don’t like they way a trainer is working with your dog, you’re going to say, “Thanks, but we need something different.”

Yes, the other person may say nasty things to you or about you. They might call you a “bitch.”  I want you to not care. Because in that moment what you really are is your dog’s hero. You just took their well-being into your hands and acted with conviction. You made the right choice and they’re safe because of you. Bravo.

And who cares what people call you?  As my future BFF Tina Fey says, “Bitches get stuff done. Bitch is the new black

Tina Fey

Look, the other person will get over it. They might not even care at all. For them, the discomfort of dealing with hero-you won’t last long. Even if it does, even if your neighbors think you’re kind of stand-offish, it’s not rocking their world.  But for you, the consequences of not standing up for your dogs might be long-lasting and deep-cutting. Set those limits, then don’t give a hoot what anyone thinks about you.

p.s. There are other ways to set limits and not giving a crap what anyone thinks, like: if they need it, walk your dog with a muzzle on. You will get weird looks. But you don’t care, cuz you’re being Safety First.

Hey, I know this is uncomfortable for some of you. But I know you can do it because you love your dogs.

If it helps, I want you to think of me standing next to you, cheering you on as you stand up for your dog’s needs. I’m five feet worth of NJ/Philly-loud-talking-feistyness and I don’t give an eff about saying “No” to anyone if it means making sure my dogs don’t get into trouble or have a bad experience. So picture me there beside you the next time you need a boost. Know that every time you make that tough choice to stand for your up dogs, I’m yelling, “Rock Star!!” just for you.

Now go get ’em Tiger.

* You have the right to secure your dog before letting the police enter your property.  ALWAYS do it.

Want to give this blog to your clients or friends? Here’s a printer-friendly PDF version: Stand Up For Your Dogs