Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Home Cooking for Your Dog: Easier than You Think!

I still remember the day I started cooking for my dog Blazer, around 12 years ago, before it was a thing that a lot of people did.  And yes, folks thought  I was crazy and that I was “spoiling” my dog because I wanted to feed him real food that would make his life better.

It all started when a tall, slender man came up to me in the dog park near my apartment in the Beach area of Toronto and started chatting with me about my dog’s diet.  He told me that he home cooked all of his dog’s food, and urged me to do the same.  He came to the park the next day with 2 books on home cooking for your dog, and insisted that I keep them as long I wanted, then pass them on to someone else. 

I don’t remember that man’s name, or the book titles, but I remember the feeling of excitement once I realized that I could do better for my dog, and that it wasn’t that difficult.                                                                              

It’s amazing how unquestioningly we do the same things for generations, just because it’s what our parents did, and it’s what everyone else did, too.  It’s embarrassing, how uneducated I used to be when it came to my dog’s health and nutrition, but it’s no wonder, when I see commercial pet food ads like the one I’ve included above….that one came out the year I was born, and that’s the kind of message and information I grew up with.  I won’t bore you with the gross details of the commercial pet food industry, or why most of it is complete garbage.  If you’re savvy enough to be considering a home cooked or raw diet for your dog, you already know.  The Documentary ‘A Dog’s Breakfast’ is worth a look if you want to hear more:

For many years I diligently cooked Blazer’s food, with long periods when I fell off the wagon and fed him commercial food instead.  But I don’t beat myself up for that, because at least I tried to do right by him.

And now I have CeCe, that spirited ginger puppy of mine, and I’m far more prepared to do this right, and for the long term.

Cooking for Blazer was definitely the right thing to do in theory, but I wasn’t necessarily doing the right things.  I made him stews made of various meats, vegetables, and grains, but I didn’t know that he also needed a whole bunch of supplements added to that, or what balance of ingredients would work best for him.  I basically just ‘winged it’, and it all worked out ok as far as I could tell.  But now I’m armed with more knowledge on the subject of canine nutrition, and more importantly, my secret weapon, Christine the Canine Nutritionist:  Christine has a legit certification in the field, but even more important to me as a dog owner, she also has over a decade’s worth of cooking for her own dogs and self-educating on the subject of canine nutrition.  To me, that sort of dedication and passion is even more valuable than her formal education, which is why I trust her, and her alone, with my dog’s diet.  Thanks to Christine, I now know that my puppy needs bone meal added to her food for calcium, plus vitamin E, vitamin B, selenium, zinc….well, you get the idea.  I was missing a ton of stuff.  Who knew?!  I do worry about the well-meaning owners feeding their dogs a home-cooked diet that isn’t properly balanced….just like people, dogs need all of those disease and deterioration-fighting vitamins and antioxidants that come from a variety of sources.  If you’re feeding your dog chicken and rice every day, you’re not doing him any favours, and are in fact putting him at risk.

Having a personalized recipe developed for CeCe has quite literally changed her life.  As you may have read in previous blog posts, CeCe arrived from Ohio full of stink, mange, allergies and ear infections.  Her coat was brittle, sparse, and smelly, and she had bald patches from the mange.   Even her breath had a strange, sickly smell to it.  Oh, and she was itchy all the time.  She was not a healthy dog, to put it mildly.

Taking into account CeCe’s age, size, weight, activity level, health concerns, and who knows what else, Christine  painstakingly developed a recipe (she even used math and stuff)  that would eventually transform that  mangy puppy into the picture of ginger health; shiny coat, pink ears, sweet puppy breath,  and a neverending supply of energy.  That last part is both a blessing and a curse.  Ah well.  ;)
Worried that it’s too much work?  Actually, it couldn’t be simpler.   One evening a week I throw a bunch of roughly chopped ingredients into my slow cooker (well, I weigh them first, to respect the math of it all), turn it on, and wake up to a giant batch of healthy, balanced, home cooked dog food.  To save time, I often chop 2 weeks ‘ worth  of veggies while I’m watching Hoarders; both activities make me feel good about myself.  Then, the following week, I take a large ziplock bag layered with the pre-cut, pre-weighed ingredients out of my freezer, pop it in the slow cooker, and 7 hours later I have a fresh batch of CeCe food!  BAM!

When I went to the store to get supplements, Christine provided phone support to help me get what I needed…sometimes I get overwhelmed, so that was a huge help.  I also called her during my first grocery trip, when I had a hard time estimating how much veg I needed to get.  Oh, and I emailed her at least a dozen times; “I forgot to add the water – what should I do?” or “They only have yams – are those the same as sweet potato?”   It was comforting to know that I had help and support at my fingertips.

 It’s so simple and easy to do, and I believe that my dog will live a longer, healthier, happier life because of it.  For those of you who are thinking about trying a home cooked diet but are daunted by all of the ‘work’ involved; do your dogs a favour and just TRY IT!  It’s soooo easy, and once you get into it, your only regret will be waiting so long.  And Christine will do the real work for you….you just have to follow her instructions and head to the grocery store.  Easy-peasy, right?  Follow this link to get started:

With the seemingly non-stop bulletins of pet food (and human food) recalls, it brings me great peace of mind to know exactly what goes into my dog’s meals, and know that it is made from fresh, healthy, unprocessed real food that is safe for any pet or human to eat.  As a vegetarian, the subject of feeding my dog meat via commercial dog food has always been an uncomfortable one, so home cooking for her allows me total control over the source of the meat I give her.  Buying your pet’s meat from local, free range farms is definitely the way to go, both in terms of health and ethics.  I get CeCe’s beef from my mom’s friend’s farm, where the cows roam free, and no hormones or antibiotics are used.  I will post the info for the farm soon….it’s a great family business; you can buy beautiful vegetables from the kid’s garden while you’re there!  If you live in the Toronto area, The Healthy Butcher on Queen St is a good source for organic meat.

The most basic thing we can do for our dogs is to make sure that they are given a healthy, balanced diet, and no amount of print or commercial ads from slick commercial dog food companies can fool a savvy dog owner into thinking that their dried, processed kibble is real food.

Whoever that man in the Beach was all those years ago, I wish I could thank him, and I wish he knew what a difference he has made in my life, and in the lives of every dog I will ever be privileged enough to care and to cook for.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Scoop on Feline Constipation

I realize that feline constipation isn't the most appealing topic of discussion, but for anyone who owns or even occasionally cares for a cat, it's an important one.  And we all know how much I love to talk about poop!!

Here's the thing about cats and their poop.  They are unique, complex creatures, and things can go from bad to worse very quickly, which is why it's so important to scoop your cat's litterbox daily, and to have someone else do the same when you're away.  Monitoring your cat's litter is the only way to ensure that everything is functioning as it should.

Lack of turds in the box is a no-brainer, but constipated cats may also show other signs that something is wrong, like straining, lethargy, vomiting, bloating and lack of appetite.  While an occasional brief period of constipation may not be worth panicking over (see my tip on prevention below), if you notice that your cat has been exhibiting any of these symptoms, and the letterbox is empty, take him to the vet!  Constipation in cats can be quite dangerous, so don't delay.

Factors that may contribute to constipation:

- gorging (cats should ideally have several small meals throughout the day)

- inactivity

- obesity

- dehydration

- existing medical conditions like hypercalcemia, hypothyroidism, diabetes, etc. 

Adding a small amount of plain canned pumpkin to your cat's existing diet is an easy way to prevent constipation, but it may not be enough in all cases.  Somewhere around 1/2 teaspoon per meal (introduced very slowly) usually does the trick… don't want to overdo it, since a fibre overdose might send the food through your cat's digestive tract a little too quickly, and some cats' systems need more time to absorb the nutrients from the food.  Cat grass provides fibre too, and is readily available at most pet stores….you can even grow it yourself!  Of course, my cats prefer to dig out the cat grass rather than eat it, and then spread the dirt all over my floor, but hopefully your cats aren't brats like mine.  And if you really want to go for it, add a daily abdominal massage to your cat's routine…..he'll either love it or hate it, but it sure gets the ol' pipes a-movin'!

There are lots of websites out there dedicated to pet health, but this is THE go-to resource for Feline Constipation.  It is full of information and extremely helpful tips.  Take a few minutes to at least scan all of the pages….you never know - it could save your cat's life.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cece's DNA Revealed

The results from the cheek swab are in, and no-one guessed correctly!!

It's amazing….although I probably would never have guessed this particular mix, it makes perfect sense. 

CeCe is approx 1/4 Schipperke, 1/4 Chow Chow, 1/4 Australian Shepherd, and 1/4 pure mutt.

The small, fox-like Schipperke is an almost exact description of CeCe, particularly in personality and breed traits. The physical description matches too, minus the fuller, black coat and pointed ears.

"The Schipperke is extremely active and loves to be involved in what is going on around him…" That is an understatement. CeCe is the 'busiest' creature I have ever known.

Much like the mischievous Schipperke, the Chow Chow is aloof with strangers and a good guard dog, which also accounts for her deep orange/red colour. Oh, and did I mention that the roof of her mouth (and her brother's tongue) is that tell-tale blue!?!

"Affectionate and devoted to family, the Chow is reserved and discerning with strangers." That's my girl.

 And finally, a reason for her floppy little ears and insane agility and ball skill: the Aussie Shepherd. The Aussie is another breed possessing strong guarding instincts and occasional aloofness with strangers….it's no wonder I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle with CeCe's indoor barking and dislike of visitors!

The Aussie "needs a lot of activity and a sense of purpose to be truly content." Yup, that sounds about right.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about their own dog's DNA, I strongly recommend Wisdom Panel, since they have the largest database of breeds, and are known for providing extremely accurate results. Not all canine DNA testing companies are equal, and I've done the research for you.

Wisdom Panel:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Blazer

It's been almost a year since he died, and I still cry every day for my boy.

Blazer wasn't just a dog. He was my soulmate. He gave me so much more than the usual unconditional love we get from pets…..he taught me how to care for someone more than I care for myself. He taught me the true meaning of love and responsibility, and made me a better person in the process. The bond we shared was incredible….to be so closely connected to another living being wasn't something I had ever experienced.

But this isn't Letters to Pushkin.

The dark side of this love; the part no-one wants to talk about, is the end of it. That time when they finally ask us for something: the only gift we can give them in exchange for all those years of joy and devotion.

But how do you do it?? How do you look into the eyes of your best friend and make the call to end his life right then and there?

I'm still not really sure. It's almost a year later and I can't believe he's gone….I can't believe that this amazing dude I spent my entire adult life with, my partner in crime, isn't here anymore. I still expect to hear him stretch in the morning with that funny yawn, or to see him tear across the park chasing birdies. I sometimes smell something that reminds me of his breath, or pluck a ginger hair out of a sweater that's been hanging in my closet for a year……and I just can't believe he's gone. But he is. He died, and I helped him along. It was his time.

All I ever wanted for him was to enjoy life, and I did my best to shelter him from pain and stress. And I could do no less for him at the end. Blazer had cancer. And although my veterinarian presented me with some options for going forward, I decided that, at fourteen years old, I couldn't put Blazer through the pain and torment of further diagnostics and surgery. He hated strangers, and the vet's office was a source of sheer terror for him, so leaving him there, away from me to endure his very worst thing all alone....I just couldn't do it. And if he had made it through the procedures, he would have maybe gained a couple of extra months at best. I made the decision I knew he wanted me to make, which was to enjoy his last few weeks as much as he could; at home with his cats and his humans.

It is so excruciatingly hard to make the decision to end your pet's life. It's an unnatural thing to have to do, because we care for these creatures the same way some of us care for our human children, and there's nothing more unnatural than a child outliving a parent. And to actually have to be the one to say, "ok, pull the plug", well….that's just impossible to bear. Yet it's not. It seems impossible, but it has to be done, and so we do it. It is the final, and most important act of kindness we will ever do for them. It's horrible for us, because it's the beginning of our pain, but please remember: it is the end of theirs.

You can't tell someone to euthanize their dog; people are ready when they're ready. Only that's kind of the problem: you're never really ready. You can't possibly be ready to end someone's life. But you can ask yourself if your dog would want to continue living, given their quality of life. If there's one thing I know Blazer wanted, it was to live and die with DIGNITY. And so I promised myself that when the time came, I would do what needed to be done.

So I will tell you what I think Blazer would have said if he could talk. He would've told me to make sure that he didn't have to live in pain. He would've told me that a life without walks and fetching and tail wagging wasn't a life worth living. He would make sure that I knew that if he was incontinent and skeletal, he would have lost the dignity that helped define who he was. He would have said, "Mom, I don't want to walk anymore. I'm too sick. I don't want to eat anymore…..Mother Nature is telling to stop trying; that my time here has come to an end, and I'm ready to go."

It's an amazing thing that when an animal reaches this point, we are able to assist them and end their suffering. The fact that we can't do the same for our human loved ones is inhumane, in my opinion. But you don't have to agree with that.

Part of what makes it so hard is the way our pets hide their pain from us. Even the sickest dogs still seem to enjoy and show interest in certain things, and they often seem alert and even happy at times. They sometimes rally near the end, with brief spurts of energy and life. And when we see these glimpses of what they once were, we are tempted to put off the inevitable, to their great disservice. They are so strong, and so brave compared to us….it can be hard to fathom that they are truly at death's door.

I've talked to people who live with the guilt of extending their pet's life for their own, selfish reasons. They put it off another day, another week, another month, because they couldn't bear the thought of saying goodbye. And then they end up watching their beloved pet suffer, and sometimes die on a cold metal table in an emergency clinic rather than in the comfort of their own home, with their loved ones surrounding them.

The days that follow will be almost unbearable. There is no way around that. I wish I had some tips or advice on how to get through it, but just take it one day at a time. I completely fell apart; I could hardly get off the couch, I lost almost 20lbs, and I really had little desire to continue on with my life. I think what got me through was being surrounded by people who not only loved me, but also loved Blazer, and understood what devastation his passing has caused. The fact that they felt it too, and mourned him as I did, helped a lot. And here's the most important thing to know: when your pet finally passes after being sick and in pain, you both share something precious: relief. Embrace it. It doesn't mean that you didn't love him with all of your heart and means quite the opposite.

As I see the anniversary of his death looming, I don't feel his loss any less acutely, but I have fewer breakdowns and I guess that's a start. I also never thought I could love another dog, but I was very wrong about that, so don't bother trying to close yourself off to it - if it's gonna happen, there's nothing you can do about it. My puppy CeCe can never fill the void that Blazer left, or compare to him in any way, but that's ok, because she doesn't have to. Blazer was a once in a lifetime companion - my first true love. And I'm finally able to accept that loving CeCe doesn't take away from that. If he could, Blazer would give me his blessing.....I know that with 100% certainty.

And if Blazer could say something to you, he would tell you to please listen to your pet. Thank him for all he has given you, and give back in the most important way, at the most important time. Don't wait too long. Don't wait until it's too late to help. Guard and protect their dignity because it is precious, and when it's gone, their essence goes with it.

Blazer was beautiful, and proud, and noble. He was a creature to be admired, and loved, and appreciated for everything he was. He died at home, with his best people around him. I had a vet come to the house. There was a thunderstorm immediately after. It will always be the worst day of my life. But I know that if he could thank me, he would. And I have no regrets.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Q & A with Denise Joyce on Positive Reinforcement Training and Choosing a Dog Trainer

*This is the follow-up to my previous post, How NOT to Train Your Dog


A. Training is meant to bridge a communication gap across species to increase understanding for a harmonious relationship. Most of the behaviours we expect from dogs are largely unnatural for them so the road to a harmonious relationship will have its challenges, regardless of the type of training you choose, but the humane methods will build a bond like no other.

This issue of positive vs. punitive has polarized dog owners and trainers around the globe. There are many, many considerations when it comes to discussing how dogs learn, the best way to teach/train, etc., but I like to keep it simple; if every person working and living with dogs would step back and consider exactly what is required to perform the two options for training, I would hope that most people would make the smarter, kinder choice. I know there will always be a certain type of person who feels that physical force is the only way to train an animal. It reminds me of the situation with human parents who believe that hitting their children is necessary to teach them how to behave.

#1 Training Style: includes Lure/Reward, Marker Based /Positive Reinforcement

This method asks you to show your dog how to behave and reward them for doing so – regardless of age. For the behaviours you don’t like you must remove any reward the dog might enjoy as a result of the unwanted behaviour. (The opposite of reward is no reward). You must remain patient, calm and consistent. Your timing is important to speed learning but a few seconds here or there doesn’t typically have any negative repercussions. You will need to be ready to enjoy and celebrate your dog’s success and feel pride when they learn to control their own behaviour in the presence of any distraction. This method typically prevents unwanted aggression and can rehabilitate all sorts of unwanted behaviours, especially those caused by anxiety.

#2 Training Style: includes physical punishment via leash corrections, pinning, electric shock and various other pain causing devices.

This method asks you to show your dog how to behave by causing severe pain whenever they make a mistake – regardless of their age. You must be on alert for any deviance from desired behaviour to administer punishment (i.e. pain). You will need to remain, patient, calm and consistent as you administer severe pain and your timing must be impeccable. The pain must be severe enough that the dog will never want to experience it again. This type of training has been proven to exacerbate existing anxiety or cause anxiety and stress where it had not existed in a dog prior to training.

If given the right information, I like to believe that any decent human being will choose to not administer pain to their companion animal. They are meant to be our friends, our family members, not our adversaries. The fact that they are a different species does not justify the administration of pain.


A. Well, the Term Positive Reinforcement Training has taken on a bit of a generalized meaning. First of all, “positive” does not mean it’s all rainbows and lollipops. It is a scientific term meaning the addition of....
It’s all part of Classical and Operant Conditioning as described in the Laws of Learning. Generally, people hear terms such as clicker training, marker based training, positive reinforcement training and lure/reward. The punitive method is actually Positive Punishment; the addition of punishment.

The general idea is this: you bring meaning to a previously neutral cue (sound) by pairing it with a highly prized reward. The same can be done using pain, by the way, but again.....why would you?

Whenever the dog does something you like – you mark it and reward it. All creatures repeat behaviour that is rewarding. If behaviour is not rewarded, the animal will cease doing it over time. This is called extinction of a behaviour.

You can add sounds, verbal cues and or hand signals to name behaviour and you are essentially teaching English as a second language. Dogs don’t come to us knowing any of the words we are saying.

I think it’s very important for the detractors of positive training methods to know that positive does not mean permissive. Food is just one way to reward the dog and there is a scientifically proven way to remove food as a reward. One of the common criticisms I hear is that we are bribing dogs to perform and that is simply not correct. Often, dog owners will take one obedience course and they get stuck using food, not knowing when and how to wean the dog off food reward using other principles of reward.


A. This is a bit tricky. Anyone can call themselves a professional dog Trainer.

Get a recommendation from three people whose dogs’ behaviour you like.

Ask the Trainer(s) for references and for a copy of their Training biography.

The responsibility is on every dog owner to understand the animal they have invited to join their family - due diligence, so to speak. I recommend as a great source of reputable authors on all things dog. You want to read Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr. Patricia MacConnell, Karen Pryor, Brenda Aloff, Pat Miller, Jean Donaldson, Dr. Stanley Coren, Karen Overall and Ray Coppinger, to name but a few.

Ask a lot of questions in an interview and if any answers make you uncomfortable – ask more questions until you feel comfortable with the information or you decide the Trainer is not right for you.

Ask the Trainer what they plan to do with your dog before they ever lay their hands on your dog.



A. I find it most unfortunate that largely incorrect information is disseminated through such a powerful medium as television. Just because it’s on TV it doesn’t make it true. You know, TV, the medium that brought us such superlative shows as Jerry Springer. I can only suggest that people question what they are seeing and reading with healthy skepticism and probe in to someone’s sources. The “alpha dog” myth which is becoming a bit of a societal syndrome isn’t supported by any scientific research. Behavioural Scientists and Animal Behaviourists the world over have decades of research to disprove some of the dangerous but prevalent ideas put forward by some so-called Trainers.


A. It means that Behavioural Science has put forward some theories, based on research through observations and experimentation. These theories have yielded results that are rigorously scrutinized and then tested and verified by many others working in the field. The theory can then become a scientific law. I believe everyone is well acquainted with the laws of other disciplines, for instance - Newton’s Laws. Training falls under the Laws of Learning.

In short, the Laws of Learning tell us that learning occurs through experience and involves making judgments about current and future behaviour based on what was experienced in the past. All creatures learn primarily by association. These associations will occur whether you are consciously training your dog or not. The dog is making associations and picking up patterns of events all the time.


A. It’s not that punishment doesn’t work. If the pain is severe enough and timed correctly it can certainly “teach” a dog to cease doing something. So, by this method the dog experiences its environment through a series of negative experiences and has to learn how to behave by process of elimination. It also requires the handler to micro-manage the dog’s behaviour and always “be in control”. The question is: why would someone want to cause severe pain in their companion dog? The fallout of this style of training is stress and anxiety. Stress, anxiety and fear are known to result in generalized aggressive behaviour or anxiety disorders. What if instead - you can provide consequence to inappropriate behaviour that will signal to the dog there is no reward forthcoming? If the behaviour does not net a reward it will eventually extinguish. That also falls under Laws of Learning and has been scientifically proven. The dog owner need not hurt their dog or their relationship with their dog to make a point about what constitutes unwanted behaviour.

I think it is important to ask any Trainer or person working with dogs how they chose their methodology and where they get their “philosophy” for working with animals. When I hear anyone using terms like “alpha dog”, domination, superiority, etc., I know this person is using a homespun method of punitive training and from where this information came......nobody knows. I can say without hesitation, it is completely and entirely incorrect. We have more than sixty years of animal science data that can really shine a light on these amazing companions and our complex and wonderful relationship with them. I know from experience, that you can be a “leader” for your dog without ever putting your hands on him/her.

Something else to consider; fear and stress is the greatest predictor of aggression in dogs. Is it reasonable to punish a fearful response? Punishment tends to add stress and create anxiety and it sets the dog up for more reactivity and aggression. Let’s look at leash walking as a perfect example of how punishment can go very wrong very quickly. The dog owner wants their dog to walk in a strict “Heel” position. Their three month old puppy is excited to meet and greet every dog, person, squirrel and blowing leaf. The pup forges forward with excitement and then gets a yank. Their excitement keeps them in a moving forward pattern and they keep getting yanked and the “corrections” become more severe as the other dog or person approaches. In no time, most dogs will develop anxiety and then leash reactivity. Dogs who are otherwise friendly and lovely will become furry chainsaws on a leash. From the dog’s experience they have learned that the appearance and proximity of another dog (or whatever) means pain for them. Dogs use snarling, growling and lunging as distance increasing signals. They want the other creature to go away so they won’t feel pain. The walk becomes something akin to an urban minefield and that isn’t fun for anyone, dog or human. I know of two popular training companies in Toronto who advise owners to leash correct any movement away from the formal Heel position and they like to add in a pseudo-growl to admonish the dog for wanting to explore their surroundings. Some people, including Trainers, are unfamiliar with canine body language or the natural body language of dogs. Dogs use all sorts of body language to negotiate social situations. They perform calming signals which help diffuse tense greetings and they begin these ritualized behaviours the moment they see the other animal. Signals such as sniffing the ground and looking away will prevent unwanted conflict from as far away as 20 ft. If a dog is in a strict Heel and on a tight leash the calming signals are prohibited and the ensuing leash corrections will remove a dog’s basic social skills. It gets very ugly quite quickly and then the dog is no longer capable of living in our society and we know what happens next....our shelters are full of anxiety ridden dogs with reactivity and aggression issues. Some dogs will go straight to the veterinary office for their last needle. Some people don’t realize they are the incubators of tomorrow’s problem dogs.

I believe that when enough people have the correct information we will see progress in the human species and our relationship to dogs.

For anyone interested in learning more about dog behaviour and training methodology and where the heck I get off making such bold statements please see the following sources:


The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
Aggression In Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention and Behaviour Modification by Brenda Aloff
If Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier
Positive Perspectives by Pat Miller
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas
How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks by Ian Dunbar
Dog Behavior by Ian Dunbar
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia MacConnell
It's Not the Dogs It's the People by Nicole Wilde


Whole Dog Journal
Animal Wellness
PETS magazine
Dogs In Canada
Pet Age
Modern Dog

About Denise Joyce:

After finishing her studies at the University of Toronto, Denise decided to turn her passion into her full time profession, dedicating herself to working with dogs and their guardians. In 2000, she opened her own pet sitting, training and behaviour consultation business, with a focus on holistic care and positive leadership. Denise has worked with animal advocacy groups lobbying for responsible dog ownership, and has assisted rescue organizations in an effort to keep dogs in their forever homes. Denise has worked as the Head Trainer for several full-service organizations and she developed a reputation as a knowledgeable, caring and professional trainer using humane and positive methods. Denise has appeared on Breakfast Television, Cityline, and Animal House Calls. She has also been featured in the Globe and Mail, Bloor West Snap, and Dogs,Dogs,Dogs. Denise shares her life with her partner and son and is owned by her mixed breed rescue dog, Hank.

How NOT to Train Your Dog

I have been a professional dog walker for over nine years, and boy have things in the dog world changed a lot between when I started my business and now. Dog training theories have come and gone, and then come back again, so the controversy and the debate continues…..what's the best way to train a dog?

I have decided that for me, it is with Positive Reinforcement training. I have not always been consistent with this over the years because I have received so many mixed messages from so-called experts and even from the media. But I want to really hone my skills in this area (we live and learn, right?), so I'm currently learning the Karen Pryor style of dog training, which I will write a separate blog about as my journey progresses. I am starting with the Foundations of Clicker Training Course, and intend to end with Karen Pryor's Professional Dog Trainer Certification Course. I don't want to become a professional dog trainer per se; I just want to be the best dog walker I can be, and the best dog owner I can be for my puppy CeCe. Of course this is just my personal choice, but there's some general information I'd like to share and hopefully make you think about the choices you're making with your own dog.

In the preceding decades, we as dog owners relied heavily on punishment-based training methods, because that's what our parents did (yup, my own loving parents used to throw a hunk of chain onto the floor to scare our Lab Lucy into stopping whatever Lab-y thing she was doing), that's what the trainers did, and that's what the books told us to do. Well, some of them, anyway. When I think about the ridiculous stuff my parents used to do to 'train' poor Lucy, and the equally ridiculous stuff I used to do to keep my own dogs from misbehaving….I have to laugh. We were seriously on the wrong track most of the time. Which is why, when I adopted my very special Collie/Husky mix, Blazer, all those years ago, I really had no idea what I was doing in terms of training. It was truly a blessing that he came into my life, because what an incredible teacher he turned out to be. I very quickly learned that patience and persistence were the keys to helping Blazer to let go of some of his fear-based aggression, and I also (perhaps most importantly) learned that there were some things that I just couldn't force. Through trial and error, we learned to live in perfect harmony with each other, and I wish every owner could experience the depth of love and bonding we shared as a result.

I shudder to think what might have happened if Blazer had ended up with someone else…someone who, with the best of intentions, had subscribed to aggressive training ideologies that advocated dominating and pinning him to the ground. Instead of dealing with his fear issues, it would have intensified them (and the accompanying aggression), and I'm quite sure someone would've gotten hurt in the process. Or worse: the greatest dog in the world might have been euthanized because humans failed him from day one.

As Toronto-based professional dog trainer and behaviourist Denise Joyce points out, "fear and stress is the greatest predictor of aggression in dogs. Is it reasonable to punish a fearful response? Punishment tends to add stress and create anxiety and it sets the dog up for more reactivity and aggression."

And so why are we continuing to punish our dogs?

See, the problem is, as dog owners, we do what the trainers tell us to do (especially when they're on TV), because they're the experts. But there are SO MANY different methods and training schools - how's an owner to know what to do??!

I'm not an expert, but I do know a few, like Denise, and I also have common sense. I read, I listen, I ask questions, and most importantly, I observe. Every day I see crazy owners with their out-of-control dogs, like the woman who brings her French Bulldog to the park and angrily shakes a tambourine at him to make him stop harassing other dogs. No, it doesn't work…..but somebody obviously told her it would. At the same park, another woman brings her dog to the off-leash area, stands on the other side of the fence before entering and yanks him by the neck when he gets too excited. There's even a psychotic dog walker who flips dogs over and pins them on the ground. I can only imagine what he does to the dogs behind closed doors. Needless to say, none of these methods are working and are only causing stress to the owners, the dogs, and the people around them.

These people all need the help of a pro (I have a feeling that Tambourine Lady may have gotten that idea from some weirdo trainer), but choosing the right trainer can be overwhelming. Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of anyone who is overly extreme in their views, and close-minded toward any reasonable (note, I said reasonable) alternatives. For example, is it possible that treat training doesn't work for every single dog? I'm sure it is, since some dogs aren't food motivated, but that doesn't take away from its validity as a training method… has trained Dolphins to jump through hoops, after all! Trainers like Brad Pattison* (remember that show, 'At the End of my Leash'?) have a different ideology. In an interview with Slice TV, he says:

"At the end of the day, “gentle” negotiation techniques such as treat training and constantly repeating verbal commands undermines the owner and empowers the dog to an alpha status, and we generally do not see the resulting danger until the dog has lashed out or threatened a family member or friend."

As a dog lover, I'm very wary of anyone who doesn't advocate "gentle" techniques, but obviously many people agree with him, since he has a TV show and an expanding dog training business. I'm told that I have to be very careful about what I say here, so I'm going to leave it at that, and will include a link to the entire Slice interview at the bottom of this page so you can read it and form your own opinions on him, based on his own words and not mine.

Moving on. Denise makes a good point regarding treat training:

"I think it’s very important for the detractors of positive training methods to know that positive does not mean permissive. Food is just one way to reward the dog and there is a scientifically proven way to remove food as a reward. One of the common criticisms I hear is that we are bribing dogs to perform and that is simply not correct. Often, dog owners will take one obedience course and they get stuck using food, not knowing when and how to wean the dog off food reward using other principles of reward."

With all the mixed messages and choices out there, it's overwhelming, especially for new dog owners. Treats? No treats? Clicker? No clicker?? I don't have all the answers, but I am lucky enough to know Denise, who has the wisdom and experience to advise me, and she has kindly explained it for all of us in an easy-to-understand, pleasant-to-read serious of Questions and Answers. I have included them in their entirety in the next blog, linked here:

On a side note: I wish that more positive reinforcement dog trainers would be more…well……positive. They tend to be (and yes, I am making a generalization here) extremely rigid and forceful in their views (ironic, no?) and leave some dog owners feeling attacked and angry, which naturally pushes them even further the other way. As a vegetarian living among meat eaters, I can totally relate to this. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that leading by quiet example will create far more converts than the whole preachy-soapbox routine.

Luckily, there are many wonderful, positive-positive (I think I just invented that term) trainers, so ask around, do your research (I recommend starting with the Denise Joyce** Q&A), read some Karen Pryor, and make an informed decision!


*To read the entire Brad Pattison Q&A interview with Slice TV, follow this link:

**About Denise Joyce:

After finishing her studies at the University of Toronto, Denise decided to turn her passion into her full time profession, dedicating herself to working with dogs and their guardians. In 2000, she opened her own pet sitting, training and behaviour consultation business, with a focus on holistic care and positive leadership. Denise has worked with animal advocacy groups lobbying for responsible dog ownership, and has assisted rescue organizations in an effort to keep dogs in their forever homes. Denise has worked as the Head Trainer for several full-service organizations and she developed a reputation as a knowledgeable, caring and professional trainer using humane and positive methods. Denise has appeared on Breakfast Television, Cityline, and Animal House Calls. She has also been featured in the Globe and Mail, Bloor West Snap, and Dogs,Dogs,Dogs. Denise shares her life with her partner and son and is owned by her mixed breed rescue dog, Hank.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The DNA of an Mutt: to be Continued.....

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a DNA test kit for my rescue mutt, CeCe, and it has finally arrived!! Now I just have to do a couple of cheek swabs, send it back in the envelope, and wait for the results.

The company I'm using, Wisdom Panel, claims to have the largest DNA database of breeds available on the market, at 190 breeds. I figure this should give us a pretty good chance of determining what exactly this little ginger mutt of mine is. We've had lots of guesses from interested folks, including Shelti, Basenji, Finnish Spitz, Jack Russell, Beagle, and a bunch of others.

The Wisdom Panel website lists some of the reasons for DNA testing your mutt:

"A dog’s ancestry can influence him in surprising ways. Obvious and not-so-obvious physical traits plus behaviors like digging, herding and barking all come from the various breeds in a dog’s family tree. Once an owner understands a dog’s natural tendencies, it makes it possible to create a tailored training, exercise and nutrition program to fit his one-of-a-kind needs."

And it's true; the more you know, the more you can do for your dog. Of course I don't really care what breeds CeCe turns out to be (I'll love her even if I did accidentally adopt a terrier), but I'm sooooo curious to know, and eager to gain any insight I can into her genetics.

I will post the results as soon as I get them. I can't recall ever being so excited to get back test results!!!!

For more information on Wisdom Panel Canine DNA Testing, visit: