Prepping for a Midwife Home Visit with a Reactive Dog

I’m now 16 weeks pregnant, and although I spent my entire first trimester trying to figure out how to get prenatal care through our very flawed healthcare system, I have finally been able to get my first doctor’s appointment out of the way. Now, my husband and I get to decide what kind of care we want, and where we’d like to deliver our baby. I’ve never been comfortable in hospitals and doctors offices, so a homebirth in an appealing option to me. I love the idea of being in my own comfort zone, and getting to stay home and relax in my own bed once I bring my baby into this world.

Birthstream Midwifery was the first midwife service we contacted. They provide all their prenatal appointments in the home, which seems like a selling point for someone interested in a homebirth, but this presents an extra challenge as the owner of a reactive dog. I don’t plan on having my dogs present for my birth, even if we do birth at home. My plans aren’t solid yet (I have time!) but I think I’ll likely have a trusted family member take them for an overnighter when the time comes. Having people and commotion in our home will be stressful for Muchacho, and Koa can be a bit of a worried “mama hen” herself, so I know that seeing and hearing me labor would be incredibly distressing for her, too. But still, I can’t send them away every time I have a prenatal appointment.

So this is how I found myself on the phone with a midwife asking, “What’s your guys’ comfort level with dogs?” Her answer wasn’t ideal, from a reactive dog mama/dog behavior nerd perspective, although perfectly logical, perhaps, to the layperson.

“We’re comfortable with good dogs,” she quipped with a laugh, sounding a little perplexed. Of course to me, my dogs are good dogs. The best. I love them dearly. But I knew that they (Muchacho in particular) wouldn’t fit this criteria. I explained in as succinct terms as possible, that one of my dogs is quite fearful of strangers, and will react like a “big scary dog” without precautionary measures. I explained our routine - that new visitors call or text when they arrive, so I am able to bring him out and take a short “walk” down the street together while treating him, before letting visitors enter the house first, followed by myself and Mooch.

When the day came, I had frozen KONGS in the freezer, a stash of string cheese in my treat pouch, and a leash in my hand. The two midwives arrived separately. I was waiting out front with Muchacho. My husband went to greet them to make sure they weren’t tempted to do the normal/polite thing and walk directly up to me to introduce themselves and say hello. Muchacho and I hung back and I fed him string cheese. As he relaxed, I closed the distance a bit, and was able to stand around six feet away and join in the conversation. When it came up naturally, I did mention that I’m a dog trainer (I hadn’t felt comfortable leading with this - sometimes it makes me feel as if I’m being a bit of a know it all to throw this tidbit in). When the second midwife arrived, the jingling of her keys preceded her, and set Mooch on edge a bit more. I increased distance a good deal and continued to feed him cheese. She’d already been running late, and then had gotten turned around, so I didn’t want to take too much time. I’d planned on putting Muchacho into the bedroom with his KONG, now that he’d gotten a chance to see who the visitors were, but he was more tense than I wanted him to be to walk him past the two women in our tight living room to get to the bedroom.

Evan ushered them into our home, where they got to meet Koa, who I reassured them would give them a sniff-over and then lose interest. Instead of following them, I had Evan open the back gate for me. From the backyard, I was able to walk Mooch through the bathroom, and into the bedroom. I closed the doors, and furnished him with his KONG.

When I finally came in and shook our midwives hands, I thanked them for their patience with our “new guest routine.”

“Your dog looks like he really appreciates you,” one said to me, “Just in the way he looks at you.”

It felt good to be seen, and to have my seemingly strange requests validated. People may not always understand where we are coming from, but at the end of the day, advocating for, and protecting the emotional well-being of our dogs is so worth it. 

Muchacho was perfectly quiet and relaxed throughout the appointment, and as predicted, Koa soon lost interest in the shoes of the newcomers and went to her crate to snooze.

Now as far as the birth goes, that remains to be seen - we are crunching some numbers and will decide soon whether or not the homebirth will fit into our budget!

We're Expecting!

Big news, Path & Paw family - the family is getting bigger! This time we will be bringing home a human baby, due January 2020. I am incredibly excited, and am hoping to share some of my dog/baby journey as the pregnancy progresses, and the baby arrives.

We're in for a wild ride! Baby Jordan coming January 2020.

As a Family Paws Parent Educator, dog/baby preparation, management, and safety are huge priorities. For those of us with reactive, fearful, or generally sensitive dogs, these preparations and laying a foundation of training is more important than ever. However, I will also note that many people that may have seemingly "well adjusted" or generally "friendly" dogs often over estimate their dogs' ability to cope with the huge adjustment that is life with a new baby. There is a huge difference between being neutral or friendly with the occasional kid while out and about, versus suddenly co-habitating with a living, breathing, unpredictable, noisy, and strange moving little two legged critter. Having reasonable expectations, may in fact be the one advantage for those of us with less easy-going dogs!

So, I do plan on sharing more specifics on training exercises and preparation as we get ready to greet the newest member of our family, but my first big lesson with this pregnancy was actually on letting go.

As is typical of me, I had big expectations for my pregnancy. I assumed I was going to feel great  (why? I don't know) and, in spite of the fact that the pregnancy and our big move to Sacramento happened pretty much at the exact same time, I thought I would have ample time to not only begin my prenatal training plans, but also that I'd be inspired to video and blog about every step of the way. That, of course, in addition to moving, starting a new job, and also getting my business up and running in our new location.

So newsflash to me — pregnancy is hard. First it was fatigue, then nausea,  and now migraines, topped with a heavy dose of stress. We are now living in a small duplex with a yard that we share with two other tenants, both of whom have dogs. Letting the dogs out in the yard to play and use the bathroom on their own is no longer an option - potty breaks involve surveying the yard, putting up an x-pen to provide an extra layer of security for unexpected appearances of the other dogs, and supervision. Because of that, daily walks are more important than ever - especially since for the first time in Koa and Muchacho's lives I'm working 40 hours a week at my new job (previously I worked shorter shelter shifts and was often home in between training sessions and classes throughout the day). Given the new needs of the dogs, plus the new needs of my body (and the new body my body is making!) giving the dogs regular outings and enrichment became a challenge in and of itself, my elaborate training and blogging ideas not included!

During the spare moments that I was able to stay awake, I was busy trying to get our new house set up, and spending long hours on the phone trying to get health insurance so that I could see an OB. My husband and I are both on probationary periods with our new jobs, and therefore are not receiving benefits yet, but that's a whole other story for another day.

All this not to say "poor me," as I know my story is not all together unique, but just to say that if I took anything away from my first trimester as a working dog mama, it was on the need to let go, and give myself a break. Sometimes, the dogs just get a short neighborhood walk. Sometimes I am stuck in bed with a migraine and all I can manage is getting them out to use the bathroom, before crawling back to bed with my ice pack. At the end of the day, I am a good dog mama (and wife, and trainer, and business lady, and employee, and friend, and...) but sometimes, not everything is possible in one day. As a perfectionist, this is a hard pill to swallow, but the thing about my pregnant body is, it does NOT care how much I WISH I was up and training and passing out flyers and hiking. It has it's demands (lots of sleep and even more food) and there's nothing I can do but take good care of myself and trust that my body knows what its doing as it manufactures a small person.

I still have plans, and I still plan on sharing our process. I'm now in my second trimester, and feeling a little less crummy (less nausea and fatigue, more migraines and acid reflux) so hopefully things will happen! Stay tuned, folks!

So long, Sonoma County

Well, friends, the next chapter of Path & Paw is unfolding...

My husband was recently offered a job in the Sacramento area, and with the promise of better pay, combined with the lower cost of living, it's too good to turn down.

We've so enjoyed our last few years here in Sonoma County, especially me because this is where I grew up! Being around family and living in such a beautiful place has been a gift, and I'm eternally grateful to all the wonderful pups and people that have helped my business grow and thrive here. Some of you may know that when we first moved out here, we were living with my grandma and building a tiny home from a barn on her property, which was lost (along with her home and all of our possessions) in the October 2017 wildfires.

We were overwhelming by the outpouring of love and support by our friends, family, and community, and were fortunate enough to be able to move into a back house on my father's property, where we're currently living. Without that help, we would have had to leave the area long ago. But now we're ready to look for a home that can accommodate the two humans and three animals in our family with a little more space, and as we look at Sonoma County real estate, it's become evident that it's time for us to move on. 

I have been fortunate enough to receive a job offer at the Sacramento SPCA, working in their Behavior Department, and I'm excited to dive into the Sacramento dog community and begin to get my name back out there and meet more dog owners that want to learn about using positive reinforcement to communicate with their pets. If you'd like to help me with this, please consider leaving me a review on Yelp or Facebook!

I have a few clients that have proposed the idea of me returning to Sonoma County, perhaps monthly, and offering a day of sessions to my clients here, so that's something I'll be considering as I get settled in my new home. Let me know if you'd like to be "in the loop" about potential training slots during these visits. 

Once again, a huge thank you to all of you who have invited me into your lives, referred me to your friends, and become friends of mine, as well! I love you all, and as excited as I am about the new possibilities in my future, I am sad to say goodbye to such a wonderful community of dog lovers.

Adopting a dog that's "good with kids."

Working at the shelter, one question I hear from time to time is, "Do you have any dogs that are good with kids?" or, "Is this dog good with kids?"
Images provided by Family Paws Parent Education.

Now I totally understand why a parent, or expectant parent, would ask these questions, and I, in fact, commend them for asking questions to begin with - adopting a new pet can be a challenging process, with so many unknowns, so as a rule I always think more questions is better than not enough! But I always have a follow up question, which many people aren't sure how to answer:

"What does that look like to you?"

Unfortunately, many parents picture dogs and children growing up side by side - sleeping in the same bed, sharing toys, the dogs happily accepting exploring toddler fingers that pinch and pull on the their jowls, or fish in their mouths to pull out toys. They may picture their child wrapping her arms around the dog, pulling him in close for a tight squeeze, or even comically sharing sloppy kisses. But this is an unrealistic expectation for most dogs, one that puts them in uncomfortable positions and can quickly become dangerous.

Furrowed brow, closed mouth, lip lick. All signs up discomfort.
Dogs are family members, sure, but they are not people. They are animals, and their ideas about what is comfortable, or fun, or what feels safe, can be very different from ours. Most dogs, for example, are stressed out by hugging. Hugging is not a natural expression of affection in the dog world, and sure, many dogs tolerate it, and a select few may enjoy it, but for the most part it feels invasive and scary. Dogs' "kisses" in some cases can be an expression of affection, in other cases may be a sign that you're pretty tasty (Koa loves lotion!), and in other cases may be an attempt to create space during an unwanted interaction. In Family Paws jargon, we call this a "kiss to dismiss."

A shelter dog is largely a dog full of unknowns. There are many dogs that we meet and we can tell quite quickly that they're pretty easy going and may make a good "family dog" but even the "family dog" needs space, agency, and respect. Even a dog that appears "easy going" may quickly figure out that the smallest humans in the home are the most apt to inadvertently pinch, pull tails, or stumble over them, and they may become protective of their space.

So to me, whether or not a dog is going to succeed in a home with children is largely up to the parents or responsible adults in the home. Sure, there are plenty of dogs that simply need a quieter environment, and aren't going to do well with the happy chaos of a home with children. But for those that are relatively "go with the flow" there are still a lot of steps you can take to set them up to succeed, here are three big ones:

1. Management. Dogs and children, especially a brand new dog that you know little about, should be managed when active supervision is not possible. This means using crates, xpens, baby gates, or designated rooms to create space when an adult isn't guiding the interaction.

2. Supervision. Active supervision means the adult is present, preferably situated physically between the child and the dog, and is not multitasking - not on a phone, not watching TV, etc. The responsible adult should be aware of the child's location and the dog's body language at all times. Signals can change fast, so simply being in the same room is not enough.

3. Consent. Dogs should be allowed to choose when to engage
and when to disengage. In my home, this means that visitors are not permitted to pet my dogs unless my dogs choose to approach. No petting a dog that is snoozing or relaxing in a bed or comfortable resting place, no petting a dog that is engaged with someone or something else (big recipe for surprise), no following a dog that is moving away, etc. This also means practicing consent checks - "pet, pet, pause." Pet a dog once or twice, then remove your hands and see if the dog moves in for additional petting, or chooses to move away. This is important information about the dog's interest in continuing the interaction. Note that this is very difficult, if not impossible for some children, depending on their age, maturity, and interest in the dogs. It is our job as the responsible adult to intervene if they are not respecting these rules.

Reading all this and thinking, "Dang that sounds like a lot of work! I'm better off just getting a puppy instead!" Stayed tuned for my next post about why adding a puppy to a household with children requires just as much care!

Does my dog need to have dog friends?

This is something I've been thinking about lately, especially as I've worked with dog owners that have dogs that are exhibiting problematic behaviors around other dogs. Often, owners have a hard time letting go of the dog park, or of giving their dog free, unstructured playtime with other dogs. "Don't they need to play?" they fret.

The simple answer is no.

Puppies, of course, need socialization in order to become well adjusted dogs. They need safe, positive interactions with dogs as they grow up in order to learn how to properly interact with other dogs and read body language effectively. But a lot of us get our dogs when they're older. The socialization window is miles away and who knows what has happened during those fragile months of the dog's life! All we can look at is the dog we have NOW, regardless of their history, and figure out what works for them and what doesn't. If the dog in front of us is showing us behavioral patterns that indicate that they are not cool with other dogs, then we need to respect that — for our dog's sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of other dogs, too. For some dogs, unstructured play can go wrong abruptly, but parallel walks are fine. For some dogs, play with strange dogs is off the table, but may be okay after slow and careful introductions done on neutral ground and over time. For some dogs, learning to cope with another dog simply existing in the distance is a good place to start.

So do they need play with other dogs? Nope! What they need is engagement, stimulation, and exercise. Recent studies have shown that dogs tend to gravitate more towards their people than to other dogs. What they need is play from YOU! More and more, dog owners are getting creative with how they can engage with and enrich the lives of their dogs. Taking long, meandering sniffy walks to explore new environments and engage their incredible olfactory senses, for example. Training games to teach dogs fun new skills, from tricks to sports to handy every day behaviors. Engaging with toy play like fetch, tug, or using a flirt pole. Creating food puzzles out of every day objects like rolled up towels or empty cardboard boxes, or using store bought puzzles, food dispensers, and long lasting chews to allow dogs to express natural hunting behaviors.

It doesn't hurt, of course, to work on improving your dog's social skills by practicing appropriate behaviors in the presence of other dogs — in fact, I highly recommend it! But setting realistic goals, moving at the pace your dog needs, and finding other ways to keep them busy and engaged are all super important, too. If your dog is a little reactive, then by all means, practice parallel walking with the distance they need to stay comfortable and connected with you, but don't allow that well meaning person with a bouncy adolescent dog approach your dog when she is clearly not ready for that interaction! If your dog is easy overwhelmed by multi-dog play, then by all means set up a play date with a familiar dog friend, but don't ask him to behave well on a busy day at the dog park! Setting your dog up for success will help your dog learn that you are her advocate, and you will not put her in situations she is not ready for. Some dogs will never be social butterflies. Some dogs are much happier to hang out at home, in a predictable environment with their people. And that's absolutely okay.

Know your dog, respect and love your dog for who they are, and for goodness sake — play with your dog!

An Open Letter to Off Leash Dog Hikers

Hello Off Leash Dog Person,

I see that, like myself and my dogs, you and your canine companion enjoy getting out on the trail to get some fresh air and exercise. There's nothing quite like hiking with your dogs, is there? I am so grateful to my dogs for motivating me to get outside more often.

Your dog seems really friendly, it looks like you've built a great relationship and it's wonderful to see that trust between dog and handler that allows you to feel confident letting your buddy roam at her own pace. But I hope you have really, really good voice control and recall. And I hope you will be courteous enough to put your dog on a leash when you see me, or anyone else with on-leash dogs, headed your way.

You see, I don't have that chill, easy going dog. My dog is not okay with being approached by an off-leash dog, and we are working really hard to be confident going past on-leash dogs. If you get too close without leashing up, I may call out, "My dog's not friendly!" What I'd like to say is, "My dog didn't have a great start in life. He's very friendly and he loves the dogs and people he's built a relationship with, but he's worried about strange dogs and strange people entering his space. If your dog rushes us, he may flip out - bark, growl, lunge. It's a defense mechanism we are trying to unlearn, but we can't do that if we can't keep our distance." But I don't have time to say all that. So I have to tell you that my dog is unfriendly while you glare at me and begrudgingly grab your dog. Sometimes, instead of dealing with all this, I'll just tromp off-trail, through knee high grass, onto precarious hillsides, to try and get space. Please don't make me do those things.

Your dog may be the friendliest dog in the world, but has he ever been snarled at before? This wouldn't be the first time that an off leash dog's friendly approach quickly turned into a rather one sided fight when my dog reacts by growling or barking. The friendly dog doesn't always take so kindly to this response, and the resulting ruckus can result in injury to your dog, or as more often been the case, injury to me and my dog.

There's a reason we are on a leash-only trail, not hanging out at the off-leash dog park. This trail is for everyone, and it's not just my dog that may not want to meet yours. The dog you see up ahead may be a shy puppy, still being carefully socialized, and an exuberant greeting by an off leash dog may be really overwhelming for that little guy! He could be an old dog with bad vision, or hearing, or sensitive hips that make him wary of greeting strange dogs. It could be a bouncy, exuberant teenage dog, who's owner is trying to teach her that not every dog she sees is a friend for her to play with. Not to mention, dog or no dog, some people don't want to be approached, either. It's unfair for someone who has a scary history with dogs, or a family with small children, to feel unsafe on the trail because you can't be bothered to leash your dog when you see others approaching.

So please, enjoy your hike. If you must let your dog off leash, do so when you are certain  you can recall him, even from a snarling, barking dog, even from a bouncy playful puppy, even from a squirrel or a turkey or a deer. And when you see others coming, be courteous, and leash up.


Reactive Dog Person

Halloween Safety for Dogs

I'm not sure what my favorite holiday is, but Halloween is definitely up there. I love making costumes, carving pumpkins, I love the creativity and humor that people bring to the holiday. But this can be a particularly stressful time of year for our dogs, so here are some tips to help you think a little bit more like a dog and create a more comfortable Halloween for your pups:

1. Costumes

It's very tempting to put your dog in a costume, I know — it can be so cute! But for many dogs, being in a weird garment that may be constraining or have odd dangling bits can be super uncomfortable. So, know your dog; if your dog is comfortable wearing clothing and has been gently desensitized and conditioned to enjoy dress up time, then you may be fine. If your costume is simple and lightweight/small or resembles something familiar like their harness, then maybe they're okay. But for most dogs, a full body costume (especially worn for long periods of time or while out and about) is just too much.

2. Trick or Treaters

Some dogs may already hate the sound of the doorbell, whereas some may love visitors. But in either case, having strangely attired little humans appearing en masse on the doorstep may be REALLY WEIRD. Management is really important so that your dog is not able to escape, so think ahead about crates, baby gates, or setting up a comfortable quiet room, maybe with some white noise, so that your dog isn't spooked enough to bolt.

Avoid letting trick or treaters approach or pet your dog — conversely, don't let your children approach strange dogs in costume. Many dogs are already uncomfortable with kids, and the costume may just put the over the edge. It's safer for everyone to maintain a safe distance. You can practice blowing a kiss or waving to a dog as an alternative greeting.

3. Candy

Chocolate isn't the only hazard to your dog's health — xylitol, an artificial sweetener found in many candies, is also poisonous to your pup. Keep candy stashed well out of reach.

4. Going Out or Staying In

It can be hard to leave your pooch behind when you're going for a stroll around the neighborhood, but keep in mind that costumed little people (and many adults, too!) aren't the only frightening sights. Many homes will be decked out with strange statues, spooky sounds, and even mechanical decorations that jolt out at passersby! If your dog has been thoroughly and carefully exposed to lots and lots of strange stimuli ahead of time in preparation for the big night, and you're prepped with a loaded up treat pouch and a flexible schedule to accommodate your dogs' needs, then maybe they'll be happy to come along. But if you're just trying to enjoy a fun evening with friends, or take the kiddos out to score some sweets, save both of yourselves the trouble and leave your four legged friend cozied up at home in a safe place with a nice chewy or Kong.

5. Double Check IDs

As vigilant and careful as we may be, accidents happen. Doors get left ajar, guests leave gates open, and dogs sometimes escape. Halloween is a big, busy night for shelters for that reason, so make sure our dog's tags and microchip are up to date — just in case!