Things I Learned From My Dog

by Valerie Barry
Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 10.37.10 AM
Our oldest dog is closing in on 17, which is amazing – we’re so lucky to have had her with us that long. Reflecting recently on our life with Casey and all the things we have done together, I thought I would share some of what she has taught us. Adopting an adult dog is a good thing. Adopting a rescue dog is always a good thing and choosing an adult can be truly rewarding in many ways. When you adopt an adult, what you see is what you get with no exhausting puppy and adolescent antics. We got Casey when she was 4½ as a companion for our puppy. She was a natural “mother” type and became a wonderful friend and teacher. Casey certainly knew more about dog training than we did and was a big help raising our puppy. She became a fantastic helper in puppy and adolescent classes and was a big part in helping us teach our adolescent, “behaviourally-challenged” doberman social skills and manners.

A raw diet is a good choice.

Casey’s past was not very pleasant and she came into rescue about 20 pounds underweight. Her teeth were actually green – something I had never seen before. Thankfully, my vet recommended a raw diet. We had already been feeding our puppy raw food, so it was easy to do the same for our new girl. We were astonished to find that within a very short time she was a healthy weight, the green teeth were white and her breath was clean and sweet – still the same today! It definitely made my husband and I firm believers in a raw diet.

Tails are important.

I’m not a fan of ear cropping and tail docking. Aside from the critical role of the tail in a dog’s social interactions, I’ve really learned a lot about the many physical uses a tail has from watching my dogs. One of our dogs came to us with a docked tail but our oldest gal has her full tail. Having watched both of them running side by side for many years, it’s clear the tail plays an important role. When a dog is moving in a straight line, the tail follows. Cornering and moving around objects, that’s a different story. It’s fascinating how the tail twists and curves to help maintain the dog’s balance and agility at high speed on twisty trails. In contrast, our dog with a docked tail cannot make a corner without skidding almost to a halt to maintain his balance. As Casey has aged and her structure has weakened, her balance has been severely compromised. Once again the tail plays a critical role. I see it making all sorts of new and different movements to help her maintain balance and prevent falls. I’ve thought many times how grateful I am that she has her full tail.

A (near) perfect recall is possible!

Getting your dog to come when you call is a challenge, no doubt about it. I’ve taught the skill to many people over the years and have had challenges training my own dogs. We scored a win with Casey, though. Until she lost her hearing (at 14), I can’t remember a time she didn’t come when she was called and that includes the time 3 deer broke less than 5 feet in front of us causing complete chaos on an off leash adventure! One time on a neighbourhood walk a squirrel came out of nowhere and ran between her legs and under her nose. As she lunged forward on her leash, her collar broke and she was on the chase. Once again good training prevailed and she came back when we frantically called her off the squirrel. Interestingly, for years after that incident she would always pull at that exact spot on our walks – just waiting for that squirrel!

Mental exercise is essential.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of mental exercise for dogs. I find it important for so many reasons, and most dogs I work with don’t seem to get nearly enough. I know that doctors often recommend that we, humans, use our brains as much as we can as we age, and I believe that dogs are no different. I’ve read a lot of articles that indicate senility in older dogs is on the rise, so I think it makes perfect sense to exercise a dog’s mind as much as possible. My dogs get mentally challenging toys and games daily and thoroughly enjoy them. In the past couple of years, the only activity that Casey could continue to enjoy was working on a stuffed kong and pushing around her treat ball. She is still mentally sound today and interested in play. She hunts for her treat ball every morning without fail!
Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 10.37.46 AM

A confident dog is what we should all aspire to.

Confidence is not “dominance” and “dominance” is not confidence. Casey is the epitome of what a truly confident dog is. A confident dog is one who has no issues with other dogs. He’s not “friendly” (barging into your dog’s space) – he’s socially skilled and can resolve conflict without confrontation. A confident dog is comfortable being alone for a reasonable length of time. He is happy to meet new people but is polite, not “friendly” (jumping all over you) – he knows how to keep his feet on the ground. He can easily play with or appropriately respond to play invitations from other dogs. He knows how to keep play fun and to take frequent breaks so things stay calm and relaxed. A confident dog is comfortable being handled. He can share toys and treasured items with his family and with other dogs. Any training you plan to do with your dog should focus on positively building and maintaining confidence because a confident dog is a very easy dog to live with!

Keep it positive!

There is nothing more rewarding than having a dog who clearly enjoys working and learning with you. I took Casey through a trick training class when she was 10 and we both had a blast! Her favorite trick was “Bang – You’re Dead!” She would throw herself to the ground with great vigor. She performed with such enthusiasm that we were worried she would break something as she began to age! It’s really only through the use of positive training methods that you can achieve that special kind of partnership so thoroughly enjoyed by both dog and owner.

Have fun with your dog and don’t forget to look for the lessons they have to teach you!