Moving with (problem) dogs + identifying emotions + putting on your oxygen mask

I missed posting on my every-other-week schedule the Thursday before last. I thought I might be able to squeeze one in, but there was just too much going on to sit down and write.

The pack and I moved houses at the end of February: it was a fairly sudden & VERY fast move that left all of us reeling and out of sorts for a bit. It was a really tough few weeks with a ton of adrenaline and cortisol pumping into everyone’s system, not just from the change in routine and acclimating to a new environment, but from the constant workmen that were working on the exterior of the old house (painter and landscapers), and then having to cope with the moving company and multiple visits from the AT&T techs to setup internet service at the new place.

It was a lot.

All this BUSY might not be a huge deal for some dogs, but when you have a pack of sensitive-anxious (Shine), fearful-anxious (Stormy), and hyper-aroused-anxious (Kit) dogs, a lot of strangers, stimulation, and general disruption to the routine, well… things get a little bit sticky.

Did I mention that my dogs are anxious?

They are.

What got us through was a lot of stuff to chew on (especially stuffed bones), soft instrumental music playing in the background to create a buffer from outside noises, early morning walks, some herbal/natural calming supplements, and me doing everything I could to practice self-awareness & self-care in the midst of all the needs and anxieties of the dogs… and there was one day that those last two things saved us from a likey meltdown.

Shortly before moving day I was (still!) trying to pack, and Stormy wouldn’t stop barking because she was so upset by the landscapers in the front yard. She had already finished or disengaged from all the chew items available and we didn’t have another room that she could go into that would calm her down. All I could do was draw the blinds, spray some “Peace & Calming” essential oils in the air, put on some Tibetan singing bowls on YouTube, and take deep breaths.

Despite all that, I found myself getting legit angry about her barking. I knew there was nothing to be angry about, I knew that the barking was caused by fear, stress, and anxiety, and that she was just doing what her body told her to do given its emotional and chemical state at the time.

But I was so, so on edge, so stressed by what I was dealing with in that moment, that I was becoming angry at her.

I took some time to dig deep and realized that what I was really feeling was helpless. My poor, poor dog felt like the world was coming down around her and I had already done everything I could think of to soothe her, but she was still upset AF and expressing it in a way that grated on my nerves.

I couldn’t help her, I couldn’t save her from the outside world or her own brain in that moment, and my frustration, irritation, and complete powerlessness had started to tip over into something more intense, so I did the only thing that I could think of: I took myself for a walk.*

I left the house to walk in the sunshine for about 30 minutes listening to the latest episode of Tara Brach’s podcast, and it was medicinal. I had half an hour without barking, workmen, moving boxes or obligations. It was the world’s shortest vacation, but it was what I needed, and–indirectly–it was what my dogs needed.

They didn’t need a mom who was a hair’s breath from snapping at them. They didn’t need my frustration to come seeping through my voice when I spoke to them. They didn’t need me to loose my cool because the y were expressing fear and stress the only way their little doggie selves knew how.

What they did need was a mom who knew to put on her oxygen mask first.

When I got back, things hadn’t settled in the house, but they had settled in my brain, and that was enough. I could continue doing what I could for the dogs, given the very real limitations we all faced, with a little (or a lot) more grace and empathy than I otherwise might have.

Those of us with special needs dogs know a very unique kind of frustration with them. It’s the kind of frustration where you get so upset but know that you’re upset about something that can’t be resolved in that moment. That you don’t have a way to fix things so that you feel better and your dog feels better. You know that yelling won’t help, and sometimes there aren’t enough biscuits in the world to settle your dog. When your well of resources has run dry and you have done all that you can, sometimes the only thing left to do is to take care of yourself, and that’s probably what your dog needs, anyway.

We’ve been in the new house for a little over 2 weeks now. The food bowls are in their permanent locations, the new wakeup and bedtime routines are established, and we’ve learned which houses in the neighborhood have barking dogs in their yards. We’re settling in, getting closer to fully unpacked, and enjoying the new space.

More than the space, though, I’m really enjoying and am consciously grateful for these dogs with all they bring to the table, good and bad. They are difficult, they are challenging, they are humbling, and they are my greatest teachers.

*if you’re wondering why I didn’t take the dogs for a walk with me, the answer is that t wouldn’t have a been a de-stressing experience for any of us, but that’s a post for another day.


Be Your Dog’s Valentine

Valentine’s Day is an interesting holiday that people tend to have very strong love or hate feelings about, and those feelings can change from year to year depending on the individual’s romantic life. Well, if you have a dog in your life, you will always have someone to be your valentine. Our dogs love us. Like, luuuuuuuuurve us, so let’s show them how much we love them!

So, how do we show our dogs we love them? Treats, toys, play, sniff breaks, and of course training! Training can and should be fun, both for us and our dogs. Chances are if our dogs are having fun, we’re having fun, too, but how do we make sure that our dogs have fun?

Think about training as taking your dog out on a date, Valentines Day or any day! When you take someone out on a date your goal is to be more interesting, engaging, and fun than anyone else in the environment, right? You don’t want your date to look across the room and see someone else that they might rather be on a date with. When we’re training, we don’t want our dogs to look (or sniff) around and fine someone or something that they’d rather be investigating or hanging our with, either.

So, how do you become a “good date” for your dog? It’s not actually that different than with people: for both dogs and humans, a good date is cheerful, friendly, says nice things to you and buys you dinner.

Be Kit’s Valentine?

Be cheerful and friendly: If you go into a training session in a bad mood or already frustrated, you can bet your biscuits that your dog is picking up on your feels.  On a date with someone grumpy? you’ll check out pretty quickly, and so will your dog.  By keeping things upbeat and fun, your dog is much more likely to stay engaged with you. This is pretty easy to do just with your tone of voice. Dogs love, and I mean LOVE high pitched, squeaky, or otherwise cartoonish voices, and in my personal (and often very regretfully public) experience, they love being sung to, as well. When you’re communicating with your dog verbally, talk to him like you love him, sing his favorite song in a fun voice (Kit is a huge fan of a song that’s only lyric is “who’s a good dog?!?!” repeated over and over), and see what a difference in your dog’s level of interest in you.

Say nice things:  Would you want to be the valentine of someone who was constantly telling you what you were doing wrong? Neither does your dog!  If you focus on the (ahem) “areas of improvement” there isn’t much room for positive motivation  It’s pretty much common sense that being constantly criticized or told “no” is frustrating, and frustration is where I see dogs begin to shut down, disengage, and look for something more interesting (and reinforcing!) to pay attention to.
On the flip side, if you encourage your dog with praise and affection for all the good choices she’s making, you’ll see her excited to keep going on that right track. Being told “yes!” is going to build excitement, engagement, and endurance during training, as well as being the very foundation of positive reinforcement training: the more you’re able to reinforce the good choices you pup makes the more often she’ll make those choices!

Buy dinner: Aside from the fact that you literally always pay for your dog’s meals, when training it really helps to use food (most of the time: there are always exceptions!) to reinforce the behaviors you want to see repeated.  Food is known as a “primary reinforcer” which means that it’s something that dogs find naturally valuable, and that makes it a very potent tool for training. What kind of food? Well, would you rather be taken out on a date to a fast food chain or a 4-star restaurant?  The better the food, the more memorable the experience, and the more engaged and motivated the date, err… dog. Kibble and carrots probably aren’t going to be as powerful a reward as cheese, pastrami, or bacon, but ask your dog what he likes! Bring a variety or treats with you to a training session and notice which snacks make your pup’s eyes light up and focus become laser-like.

In Summary: If you go into a training session with a treat pouch full of special goodies, a heart full of love & patience, and a willingness to get a bit silly with your dog, I can just about promise you that your pup will not only have a great time, but gladly go out with you again.

Happy Valentines Day, y’all.


A Really Good Dog

Some time back, on a walk with Kit, a neighbor spotted us strolling along: Kit frequently looking up at me, making eye contact; me marking the behaviors I liked with a clicker and feeding him treats. She called out to us, “Looks like you have a really good dog, there!” I laughed and replied, “About fifty percent of the time!”

If only she knew, I though. This is the dog that has made me cry on dozens of occasions, the dog that came pre-loaded with explosive reactivity to other dogs, rabbits, skateboarders, running children, and mourning doves (yes, just specifically those birds). The dog that has to be muzzled and sedated at the vet in order for staff to get within 3 feet of him (Dear Pandemic, thank you for brining us vet-visits on Zoom). The dog that, when he first arrived at my house, would practically vibrate with stress and tension as he lay panting, shallow and hard, with nothing actually going on around him. The dog who is on a finely-tuned cocktail of medications, supplements, and Chinese herbs to bring his arousal level down to the point that he can live a normal-ish doggy life.

This is my “really good dog”.

Her words got me thinking, not just about what people mean when they say a dog is “a good dog”, but also about Kit, himself, how far we’ve come, and what we believe we are seeing when we glimpse dogs walking with their people.

I regularly refer to Kit as my “monster” or “30 pounds of fury”, but, in fairness, he’s come a long way since I fist brought him home and he unpacked his behavioral baggage. We’ve made a lot of progress, he and I. He hasn’t made me cry for a good long while. He’s able to rest and relax in the house instead of frantically barking, spinning, panting, or chewing on something. I can be in the bedroom without him vocalizing extreme displeasure at being left in the living room and I can leave the house without fear of what happens while I’m gone. He no longer spikes up so high when my partner comes over that I feel punished for having a personal life. We can pass telephone wires adorned with a dozen cooing mourning doves and he no longer blows up like a landmine.

That smile.

Kit’s more in-tune with and responsive to me than any other dog in my life, past or present. He picks up on language-based cues as though he could actually understand the words, and he’s even learned to snuggle without trying to violently and lovingly force his way underneath my skin (well, sometimes). He’s not that bad anymore: he’s still a really challenging dog, in many many ways, but we have found a way to live with one another successfully, and with more peace and mutual affection between us than strife.

I can’t take all the credit for the progress he’s made. Outside of the actual training we’ve done, we finally worked out the right mix of meds and supplements for him, he’s nearly 3 years older, and therefore (theoretically) three years mellower, and my own effort to integrate the yogic/Buddhist tenets of acceptance and nonattachment have been a huge help in keeping my own behavior from amplifying his. The last three years have also tied us closer together, and the more clearly I’ve seen and understood him, the easier it’s been to give him the support he needs when he gets over-stimulated and his brain is reduced to a string of firecrackers. When I can meet his needs, he no longer fires up and erupts (at least as much or as frequently), which in the past would have set off a chain of emotional responses in me, and the cycle of anxiety and stress is broken.

I know that I’ll have many more blog posts about Kit, so I’m going to hold off on going into the details of some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the work we’ve done to get here, to this place of predominant peace. It’s enough now to say that we made it. Imperfectly, arduously, haltingly, and ungracefully, but we made it.

This is certainly not to say that we’re done making progress. I’m still looking for and working on anything that may help bring Kit down a decibel or two, and decrease the strength of his responses to certain triggers and situations, but if this, the Kit of now, was as far as we could go? I could live with it without feeling overwhelmed, and just as importantly, so could Kit.

My neighbor who saw us walking together didn’t see all that.

We never see the whole of each other in a quick glance, whether we’re looking at a dog or a human. We never see the full story when we notice a dog behaving well or poorly, but we quickly make assumptions about the dog’s temperament and personality based on the snapshot of behavior we are witness to. We boil these judgments all the way down to a declaration that a dog is “good ” or “bad”. My neighbor couldn’t have looked at us and been privy to the last three years of literal blood, sweat, and tears, just as no one could see all the progress we’ve made if they caught us during on a Bad Day when Kit erupts like an angry volcano and I have to carry him for long stretches of road to calm him down.

My neighbor just saw a devastatingly handsome Cattle Dog paying attention to his mom, and she saw a really good dog.

And you know what?

He really is.


On Attention, Engagement, and Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what “attention” and “connection” mean when we’re discussing training and living with dogs. 

I hear from private clients and students in group classes that they want their dogs to “pay attention” to them, but I think it’s important that we, as thoughtful and well-intentioned pet parents, take the time to examine what it is that we truly want, ask, expect of our dogs.

So, what gets packed into the picnic basket of “attention”?

Looking at us?
Responding to cues?
Moving with (not against) leash pressure? 
Relegating the rest of the world to a backseat to focus on us?

I think for many people it means that when we ask the dog to pay attention, that they should switch ON like an electronic device and remain attentive to us until we’re done giving commands.

All of these versions of “attention” are active on the part of the dog, and passive on the part of the human. We place ourselves in the position of being at the receiving end, with no responsibility to act.  The term “pay” as in to pay attention to is plainly one-sided and indicative of a inherent separation in the relationship: one pays attention, the other is the recipient of attention.

Additionally, asking for or requiring our dogs to “pay attention” makes no room for the dog – there is only room for the human’s priorities, and while in some emergency situations that’s a very relevant place to come from, the vast majority of the time it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize the validity of both partys’ experiences and perspectives.

I truly don’t feel like I’m just being pedantic here: words have power, sometimes so subtle that the indirect implications of the words we use are absorbed and soak into our subconscious. I do not ever want to feel that my dogs are obligated to pay attention to me because I exist, walk on two legs, feed them, and take them to the vet. I DO want to feel that my dogs are willing (and happy!) to connect with me because I give them the respect of being engaged with them.

Engagement as the direction of connection

I think about engagement with dogs as reaching for or being actively open to connection. I can engage with my dog Kit by attuning myself to his individual vocabulary of body language so I can interpret his mental and emotional state based on the signals and behaviors he displays.  When I see where he is at that moment, I can tune my communication with him to be best received and understood.  By doing this, by giving him acknowledgement of his existence as a thinking, feeling, expressive being, I am inviting Kit to engage with me. Through my actions I let him know (whether he’s cognitively aware of it or not) that I hear him when he speaks, I see how he feels that day, I recognize how is focus and interest may be split at that moment, and I make room for all of that in how I interact with him.

(Does this sound like coddling?  You could look at it that way if you think your dog is able to see the world through your eyes and make decisions large and small with your desires and priorities in mind. Guess what?  Your dog can’t do that, but you can, and that’s why it’s on us to go the extra mile for our pups.)

So, what is the dog’s responsibility here? What does it look like to have a dog who is engaged (again, that’s a dog who will reach for or being actively open to connection) with his person? How do you get that?

I think of an engaged dog as one who keeps his person in his sphere of awareness, even if the person isn’t his main focus at that time. On a walk this could look like a dog who is able to sniff and explore but primarily stays within the parameters of the leash voluntarily, responds to his name with a glance and a tail wag when called, and checks in with his person with reasonable frequency without being cued to do so. That pretty much describes what most people want from a walk with their dog.

Some people are lucky and have dogs who are like this naturally from day one, even if the person on the other end of the leash is not actively engaging with the dog (have you seen these pairs? The dog who keeps looking to his human for some semblance of interaction while the human twiddles on his or her phone?). For the rest of us, especially those of us with adolescent or reactive dogs, it takes a lot of work to build engagement.

Work, and patience.

If you have a dog who isn’t innately tuned in with you, whether at home, on a walk, at the park, wherever, that means it’s your responsibility to cultivate that engagement by giving your dog a good reason* to engage. And that’s what well executed positive reinforcement training does: it gives dogs a really good reason to choose to do the stuff we would prefer they do.

I’m not going into the nuts and bolts of creating engagement and connection here, that would be a much longer post, or possibly a separate one) and I also don’t want to dictate what connection with your dog should look like for you. The way I engage and connect with Kit is different from how I engage and connect with Stormy or Shine: each dog has different skills, vocabularies, priorities, interests, and motivations.

Think of this as a starting point for your own journey with your dog, where you, maybe for the first time, make space for your dog’s experience of the world and allow that to gently shift how you interact with him; you can turn interactions into dialogues and walks into conversations where you each have a voice.

When Kit and I are connected, when we are each listening to the other, we are dancing with one another (or sometimes acting out a comedy routine; I am always the straight man!), we are moving together, with as much synergy as a dog and a human can. That doesn’t mean our dances, our training sessions or walks are always easy, but they are always performed as a partnership between to beings who are open to each other and willing to listen.

And that feels so good.

*To be clear, that’s a good reason from the dog’s point of view, not yours.


What’s in a name?

Have you been wondering about the significance of the name “Birch Bark”? Has it been keeping you up nights?
We certainly hope not, but we’re still happy to explain.

One of the primary characteristics of birch trees is their flexibility: their ability to bend without breaking. If these tall and slender trees were rigid, any force that pulled at them– strong winds, the weight of ice and snow clinging to branches in winter, climbing children (or, let’s be honest here: adventurous adults, too) — would cause their trunks to crack. With their tendency towards bending, however, the tree does not attempt to deny the forces that press against it: they do not stand erect and unchanged by events. It is the tree’s capacity to accept and move with its stressors, rather than unyieldingly resisting its environment that allow it to survive and thrive.

Often, when a dog is exhibiting a concerning, frustrating, or upsetting behavior, our instinct as owners is to resist it without accepting it for what it really is, which, from a purely superficial standpoint makes sense: it’s a problem and we want it gone.
The issue with that point of view is we are ignoring a big part of the equation: the dog. Your dog’s behavior, no matter how annoying, or even alarming, is serving a purpose for your dog. In order to address any behavior or training problem holistically, we have to take into account the lens that the dog sees the world through. Once we accept the dog’s experience as valid and relevant can we take steps to change it from a foundation of compassion and empathy.

It’s not just the humans who can benefit from building mental and emotional flexibility when faced with an upset, however. Whether it’s put in these exact words or not, most behavior modification serves the purpose of teaching a dog to resiliently accept the stressors of their environment, to move with the changes in their world without breaking apart over them. Whether your dog becomes so frantic in play that she can not seem to control her bite or she falls to pieces when she encounters another dog; whether he panics when you try to leave the house or cowers and growls when a visitor enters, these reactions are valid emotional responses based on where your dog is standing at that exact moment, but can, and for the benefit of both of you, should be changed.

With science-based training, formal behavior modification protocols, and the crucial mixture of patience, empathy, dedication, and time, we can help our dogs see the things that make them scared, anxious, hostile, or frantic as No Big Deal, or at least not worth getting upset over.

So, the name “Birch Bark”? It is because I want to, as a dog parent, trainer, and behaviorist be flexible and fair to the creatures I live with, work with, and love. I want to teach them to bend with the wind of the world: to become strong and resilient creatures that can adapt and adjust to the stressors they face.

And, ya know, cuz dogs bark.