Setting Aside Judgement – Focusing on Education

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness.” ― James Thurber

Hocus Pocus and I teaching our local Girl Scouts how to be Canine Safety Smart this week
Our local Girl Scouts learning how to be Canine Safety Smart!  Hocus Pocus and I had the pleasure and honor of teaching and learning from these amazing youth leaders.

2014’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week is wrapping up.  It’s been a tremendously positive week with so many great messages about safety, prevention, and dog awareness being spread across the nation and world.

The goal that we educators and dog trainers are trying to reach this week is simple, but profound: educate the masses so we can change the statistics.   We can do this by teaching dog lovers to become more “Dog Aware” as Jennifer Shryock, Founder of Family Paws Parent Education, explains here.  We can change these statistics by changing the way we individually interact with, and think about dogs.  We teach our future leaders how to safely interact with dogs, and before we know it, they are teaching their community about dogs. Change begins with educating our youth.

The goal of this week is not to instill fear, to judge, or to place blame on people who unknowingly put their dog or children in precarious scenarios.  Rather, it is to help all of us become more aware of our dog, others’ dogs, children and family members, guests in our homes, people and dogs on the streets, and anywhere else you can think of that involves a dog.  This week is about educating people on how to be a more “dog aware”, and a responsible Conscious Companion to dogs everywhere, every day of the year.

Dogs are part of our families.  They are our companions, our friends. To many, they are our furry kids. But we must remember that dogs are hardwired to be dogs!  It’s in their DNA.  We must honor this fact buy allowing them to Be a Dog. When we anthropomorphize them, and when we put them on a pedestal and expect perfect, angelic behavior, we do them a great disservice.  We aren’t allowing them to be who they are – a dog, with flaws and all.

Instead of assuming that our dog is incapable of inflicting harm to another person or animal, let’s assume for a minute that they are capable of out-of-the-ordinary behavior.  What would that mean for you and your dog?  Would you begin to take more precautions around kids, other dogs, other people, and other animals?  Or would you continue to convince yourself that “my dog would never…”?

Any dog, of any breed, of any age is capable of biting.  Anything with a mouth is capable of biting! Acknowledging this fact can only help. It’s merely something to recognize and be proactive about.  We prevent dog bites through compassionate, science-based education.

If you or a family member has been bitten by a dog, it’s not something to be ashamed of, or embarrassed about.  If you have a dog that lunges at people or other dogs, don’t be ashamed or pretend that it’s not an issue.  Ask for help.  Find a qualified force-free trainer that understands your needs, and your dog’s specific needs.  There’s no need to hide and be embarrassed.  We learn from these experiences.  Sometimes our worst experiences help others.  There is a compassionate community that does care, who will not judge and condemn, and who wants to help parents and families in need, without blame and judgement.  But this does come with individual responsibility.

It’s our duty as dog guardians and parents to recognize when we need help. We must also learn how to recognize our dog’s specific canine needs, understand their subtle behaviors, know their thresholds, recognize when they have had enough, set them up for success, and to be their advocates every day.  We all “love” our dogs, but true, selfless love is doing what might not be easy or convenient to us.  We may have to move out of our comfort zone. We show love to our dogs when we take the time to educate ourselves, so we can truly understanding their nature and their needs. We show love to our dogs by learning how to read them, respecting their boundaries, training them without punishment and fear, being their advocate, and honoring them as dogs.

Dogs can be some of our greatest teachers if we allow them to be.  But we have to be willing to learn.  When we set aside fears, judgement, and blame, and we choose to focus on creating and participating in fun, compassionate education, we create a safe place for people to come and share their stories.  We create a prevention-focused, educated community.

“Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how animals enter our lives prepared to teach and far from being burdened by an inability to speak they have many different ways to communicate. It is up to us to listen more than hear, to look into more than past.” ― Nick Trout, Love Is the Best Medicine: What Two Dogs Taught One Veterinarian about Hope, Humility, and Everyday Miracles

Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road?

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution. ~ Turtle Conservation Coalition

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Turtles on the road are on a mission! Help them accomplish their turtle mission!

World Turtle Day is May 23, so I wanted to remind everyone to be conscious of these very special animals that share the roads with us!  Where we live, we are surrounded by natural wetlands. But there are highways and roads that also surround these wetlands. This often means that native turtles do not fare well when they need to cross the busy roads.  I have seen far more than my share of injured and crushed turtles in the three years that we have lived here, and every time I find one, my heart breaks.  Many of these turtles are endangered or threatened species. Yet, most people don’t seem to know this, or don’t even care. This is where we come into play!  Helping one turtle across the road can be the difference between life and death for the animal, and for future generations.  Educating our friends and family is how we can save species.

Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. 

April through October are the months that you will see many turtles actively crossing roads in the United States.  They do this for many reasons; in the spring, males are looking for females and territory to call their own.  May and June is nesting season.  At this time egg-bearing, female aquatic turtles leave the water to find terrestrial nesting sites, and this often requires crossing a road.  During late summer and fall, hatchling turtles are digging up from nests, looking for water.  Then later in the year males and females are heading to safe places for winter hibernation. Other times they will migrate to find a more suitable spot to live.

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Be a conscious driver and slow down for turtles such as this common snapping turtle!

 

The worst threat to snapping turtles is vehicle traffic. Each year many females get killed in their search for nesting sites. Often vehicles will not stop or even deliberately hit turtles because snapping turtles are disliked by many people. Nests on road sides and in gravel pits are often destroyed by vehicles and road grading. Hatchlings on their way back to the water are frequently run over. ~Tortoise Trust 

 

Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.
Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.

Although pre-dating dinosaurs by several million years, turtles everywhere are fast disappearing today. The “hide in my shell and wait it out” strategy that has enabled turtles to weather the geologic changes leading to the extinction of countless other species, however, has proven of little use in surviving the peril posed by fast moving trucks and cars. ~Dept. of Natural Resources

You can literally save a life – and even an entire species – by taking a few minutes out of our day to help them safely cross the road!

turtle crossing

How to help turtles safely across the road:

  • Safety First!  Busy roads and highways are dangerous for humans and animals.  Turn on your hazard lights and carefully pull off to the side of the road.  Make sure other drivers see you, before stepping onto the road.
  • Determine if the turtle is injured.  If he or she is injured, call your veterinarian to see if they will take it.  They may refer you to another vet that does accept injured wildlife.
  • Injured turtles:  If you see a turtle on the road that has been hit, PLEASE STOP to help it! He/she may not be dead!  Reptiles, especially turtles, have an extraordinary capacity to remain alive, even with severely injured.  They can do this because of their slow their metabolic rate.   The benefit of a low resting metabolism is that it requires far less fuel to sustain bodily functions.  This enables them to survive for long periods of time, even when injured!  Turtles can often survive, even if their shell is crushed, if they are given medical treatment in time. I have saved countless turtles who had been hit on the road by getting them to a vet in time.  Don’t let him/her just lay there suffering and baking in the sun!  Take them to a veterinary clinic near you.  Call the vet to let them know you are coming.  If the veterinarian does not have the ability to help you, they will send you to a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles and exotics, or wildlife specialist.  More about What to do if you find an injured turtle.   Check out some pictures of an injured turtle being repaired! 
  • When picking up a small to medium turtle, grasp it firmly and confidently on both sides of its shell between the front and rear legs (along its side).  Turtles have long legs and claws, so they might be able to kick at you, but don’t freak out.   Most will choose to stay safely tucked in their shell, during the brief time that you are moving them.
  • Keep the turtle low to the ground when moving them. Even small turtles have surprising strength.  If a turtle pushes free of your grip, you do not want it to fall and injure itself.
  • If it’s a very large turtle, it may be a snapping turtle, or a softshell turtle.  Both species can be large, heavy, and quite feisty.  They have a very wide reach with their neck and powerful jaws, so be careful.  I would not advise picking it up, but you can still help it cross the road by staying nearby – out of its way – while it continues to cross.  Let the passing cars see you and the turtle so they can safely go around you and the turtle. Learn more here about how to help snapping turtles and softshell turtles here. The video below demonstrates how to use your car mat to move one of these turtles safely across the road:

  • NEVER EVER PICK UP ANY TURTLE BY THE TAIL. This can severely injure them.
  • Place the turtle in the direction it was heading.  NEVER TURN THEM AROUND!  The turtle is on a mission and if you turn it around, it will just head back across the road when you are out of sight.
  • Do not move the turtle to a “better spot.”  Many people are tempted to relocate a turtle.   Turtles have a home range and females often return to the same general area to lay their eggs.  When relocated, they will often search for ways back to their “home base”.   Not only do these relocated turtles risk more road crossings, but if they cannot find their way back, will wander far and become lost.
  • Don’t be a Turtle-Napper!  Do not ever remove a turtle from its habitat.  They are not pets.  They belong in the wild.
  • Report turtle sightings to your local Fish and Game’s Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program.
  • Work with land trusts and town officials to help conserve important natural areas in your community.
  • Recommended Resources:  

—>  You can save a turtle! A project by Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre

—>  Help a Turtle Across the Road [ Help A Turtle ] by the Minnesota Herpetological Society

—>  Roadways and Turtles: Solutions for Safety_flyer

—> Discover turtles and tortoises in your state!

—>  Turtle & Tortoise Species Specific Sites

—> A Field Guide to Turtles: Eastern and Central North America

 

 

Whatever the reason a turtle is traveling, their destination can take him or her miles away from where they live.  As humans continue to encroach upon their habitats, turtles will be crossing more roads.  Research has shown that aquatic turtle populations across the United States have uncommonly high proportions of males because so many female turtles are being killed on roadways.  Turtles have a long lifespan, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and have low survivorship when newly hatched.  Because of these attributes, turtle populations cannot compensate for losses due to adult mortality without experiencing long-term consequences.  With turtle populations requiring high levels of adult survivorship, every individual is important to a population’s stability.  This concern is even greater in recent years because many U.S. turtle populations are becoming fragmented, isolated, and progressively smaller.

It’s up to each of us to ensure that turtle species stay abundant, healthy and safe!

Sammy the turtle crossing road

“For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal.”– U.S. President Thomas Jefferson

Nothing Happens “Out of the Blue”

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If this dog could tell us what she is thinking, it might be something like, “I warned you several times through my body language, but you failed to notice, so now I have to do this to make sure you leave me alone!”.

Myth:  Animal bites happen “out of the blue.”

Truth:  Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.  


When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind:  dogs, parrots, and cats.  All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter?  Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.

Now let’s look at humans.  We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves.  We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces.   Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake.  Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are.  They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative.  And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.

Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.

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Chopin is one example of an animal who was known for Trigger Stacking.

Communication is Key.

Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute  were the same way.  They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them.   When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe:  “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”.  That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there.  I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn!  How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten?  Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.

Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet.  Many of these animals could  bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.

It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe.  We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care.  We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild.  We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments.  We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people.  We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries.  Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe.  It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.


Safety in Your Home

I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility.   This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children.  I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first.  Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions.  When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.

At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?”   My answer was simply,”no.”

And here is why:  It’s very dangerous to our community to  say that bites are random occurrences.  If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it?   We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.


 

Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.

It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor).   Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time.   Animals do this because they know it works.

Very often, bites are a last resort for animals.  Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored.  The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.


Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.

Animal bites are never a random occurrence.  Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.

This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal.   Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.

Trigger Stacking_by The Crossover Trainer

Trigger Stacking_animal bites_dog bite_cat bite_agression_Conscious Companion


Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.

Make no mistake about it.  Bites can be prevented.  It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.

Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news.  The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing.  That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning.  The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!

There ARE signals. There are ample warnings.   They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.

Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals.  It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.

Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.


Respect Their Boundaries.

Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned.  I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries.  Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.

Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times.  Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault.  Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food).  One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded).  The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.

Learn and Grow.

Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it!  Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes.  We live and learn.  We then teach others.


Becoming a Conscious Companion

If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives.  I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore.  Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with.  I hope you do the same.

“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman

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Hocus Pocus teaching Girl Scouts about dog safety and bite prevention

Gardening 101 with Dogs

 How to enjoy your yard and garden with a dog!

Dog in garden

Dogs dig.  Dogs eat things.  It’s what dogs do.  As a homeowner or renter, we have to keep the yard healthy, clean, and looking great.  As a dog guardian, we also have an obligation to keep our canine companions safe and out of trouble in the yard or garden.  There is a balance between letting the family dog enjoy the yard, and allowing you to enjoy the yard, too!

Doggie School 101

Educating your four-legged companion is one of the best ways to protect the dog from things in your garden, and to protect your garden from the dog.  The best way to do this is to teach your canine companion (in a similar way that you would teach your children) not to put things in their mouths.  We also need to teach them where they are allowed to go, and where they are not go through positive, reward-based training.  It’s not really fair to be upset when a dog acts like a dog, especially when we have not told them what we want them to do.  Scolding or punishing them after the fact teaches them nothing, and only breaks down your bond.  Set your canine companion up for success by setting boundaries and teaching them what you do want.

Teach the “Leave It” and “Drop It” Cue 

“Leave it” is a phrase that you can use when you want your dog to leave something alone.  After he or she learns what “Leave it” means, you can use this cue to help them avoid things in the yard or garden that could hurt them, or things that are off limits.  Victoria Stilwell demonstrates how to teach your canine companion to leave something alone with positively training in this video.

Training your canine companion to “drop it” is just as important as the “leave it” cue.  Learn how to teach him or her to let go of whatever is in their mouth – on cue.   This release (drop it) cue is very important.  It protects them when they have something dangerous in their mouth.  It only takes a few minutes to teach most dogs the release cue “drop it”.   The idea behind this training method is to basically offer your dog a trade  – “Let go of the object in your mouth and something good will happen.”  In this video, Victoria shows you a really effective cue for “Take It” and “Drop It”. 

 

All Eyes on Dog

Another key to keeping your yard, garden, and dog safe is constant supervision.  You may not like the idea, but it’s what you signed up for when you brought that dog into your home. Many dogs need to be supervised in the yard, if they are prone to digging, chewing, or eating “unauthorized” items.  You wouldn’t let your child run amuck alone at the pool or candy store, so why do we do it with our dogs?

In this article from Modern Dog Magazine, Stephen Westcott-Gratton, senior horticultural editor at Canadian Gardening, discusses how to discourage digging, how to avoid brown patches throughout the lawn from urination, the flowers, shrubs, veggies and fruits to avoid, why going chemical free is best, and more!   Below is my favorite tip for avoiding unauthorized digging in the yard.

Dog Sand Box

Excerpt from Stephen’s article:  

To discourage Digger from excavating your flower bed and tunneling through your tomatoes, consider creating a space in your yard designed specifically for “paws-on activity.”  A shaded sandbox or sand pit is a great idea, particularly as many dogs love to dig out a cool space to lie in during the warmer months. Situate it at the base of a tree or surround it by low shrubs, and consider adding a layer of wood chips.    A lot of animals like wood chips because they keep everything quite fluffy and light up top and it’s easier for them to dig and bury than solid earth. Giving Digger a place of his own for his hobby may ensure that you harvest spuds from your potato patch and not a basketful of buried chew toys.

 

Read all of Stephen’s safe gardening tips here to keep your garden or yard safe and beautiful while keeping your canine companion safe and happy as you share during the warm months!

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