Friday, September 25, 2015

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Let Sleeping dogs lie

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 6, 2014, 02.00 AM IST
 Have you ever asked yourself: Is my dog getting enough sleep? If you have not, you should. Just like how you need eight hours of sleep to be healthy, your dogs too need their full quota of sleep. A normal, healthy, adult dog needs up to 16 hours of sleep, while puppies, old dogs, sick dogs and even stressed-out pets need a lot more than that. Dogs living in cities are easily stressed, because they are like a sponge — they absorb 'our' stress.

Dogs are social sleepers. They need company to feel secure and to sleep well. Observe the street dogs — regardless of how intensely they guard their food and territory from other dogs, they all come together at night, perhaps on a sand pile in front of a construction site, to sleep together. If you want your dog to sleep tight at night, then the trick is to let him sleep in your bedroom. If you don't want to share your bed with the pet, then move his doggy-bed into your room. Dogs are also polyphasic sleepers — they don't sleep for 16 hours at a stretch; they sleep in short bursts and often move from place to place when they sleep. As long as you are home, they like to sleep in a place from where they can observe you. So it's a good idea to keep a little blanket or rug under the dining table, in the living room, bedroom, and outside for your dog to sleep; simple measures that go a long way in improving a dog's well-being.

My teacher always says: "Every dog deserves a sofa." What she means is: They just need some elevated surface to sleep. Dogs like that. I often see pet parents complain about dogs wanting to sit on the sofa. I provide two solutions. For the first three years, I did not let my dog Nishi get on the sofa. Instead, I got her a sofa of her own. When the guests settled down on the sofa, she settled on hers, as if she was ready for the conversation that was to ensue. The other option is to get a nice dust cover for your own sofa and let your dog on it. After the first three years, I caved in and let Nishi on our sofa and nothing has changed in our relationship, except for having made us all happier.

About 70 per cent of a dog's sleep is deep sleep. This is the time when the brain cells repair and regenerate. About 30 per cent is REM sleep. This is when they relive the activities of the day and figure out how to cope with it. Pet parents are familiar with their dogs eating or whimpering in their sleep. That's what is going on inside their furry heads. So, let their beds or sleeping areas provided be large enough for them to stretch out, and be able to express these actions. Dogs let their guard down completely when they are asleep. It is their most vulnerable state. They do not fall asleep till they know they are safe and secure. So when they are woken up suddenly, it can be unnerving. A startled dog may cower, yelp, growl or sometimes even snap. So, remember to let sleeping dogs lie.

I hope you are now armed with enough knowledge to give your dog good quality sleep and when he's asleep, no matter how adorable he looks, don't hug him or wake him up. Hug a teddy bear instead and let your dog sleep in peace.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The shape shifting genes

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 31, 2015, 09.07 PM IST
We have often heard of the nature Vs. nurture debate. But the newest concept in this discussion is the "shape shifting gene". This is a fascinating phenomenon where one's life experience can subsequently pass down to future generations, encoded in the genes.

We see this transmission of trauma to children via genes through what is called the 'epigenetic inheritance'. A research team at New York's Mount Sinai hospital analysed genes of children of holocaust survivors and concluded that they have increased likelihood of stress disorders. Another study on children born to Dutch women during severe famine during the end of the Second World War showed that the children had a higher propensity to schizophrenia.

At Emory University in Atlanta scientists did an experiment, the methodology of which makes me uncomfortable, but the results of which are rather critical. Mice were made to fear the smell of cherry blossom by pairing the smell with a small electric shock. Understandably the mice developed a severe fear of the smell. But what was really interesting was that their offspring, who had never been subjected to such shocks were born with fear of the smell of cherry blossoms. Other mice, born in the same environment, but whose parents were not subject to the shocking did not exhibit such fear.

This is important for us to keep in mind today, when we are faced with the mass culling of dogs. By going after dogs we are effectively making dogs wary of humans. The offspring of such dogs is likely to become more wary of humans and less friendly too. This is a situation that is likely to escalate and is potentially damaging to the harmony between humans and dogs.

Repeated studies on stray dogs or free ranging dogs has shown that their population will remain unchecked as long as garbage continues to pile high on our streets and animal birth control (ABC) is not effectively executed. To add to this, the above studies shows that the attempts to cull dogs can just make the future generation of dogs hostile towards humans.

On the contrary, examples in Jaipur and Istanbul unequivocally demonstrate that there is a very effective and peaceful solution to the perceived problem - ABC, nutrition and healthcare.
ABC addresses the first part of the problem. It keeps the dog population stable. This not only limits the number of dogs, it also leaves us with familiar dogs to deal with. Dogs stick to known territories and keep unknown dogs out of their territory. The more familiar we are with the dogs, the easier it gets to deal with them.

Food is the next part of the plan. Certain foods are heavy sources of an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted into a chemical called serotonin which gives a feeling of wellbeing in humans as well as dogs. After a heavy meal, rich in tryptophan, one is hardly in a mood to fight. Aggression is rarely seen in dogs after such heavy meals. A tryptophan heavy meal would consist of basic chicken and rice.
Finally, an unhealthy dog will be irritable and exhibit behavioural problems. So it comes down to dog lovers to notice the friendly neighborhood street dog's ailments and get the necessary medical attention to avoid misdirected aggression.

A few animal welfare organisations will help in transporting dogs to vets. The dog-lover network online is also strong enough in Bengaluru to lend a helping hand. If one wants to take charge and address the issue, the support system in Bangalore is strong enough to make it happen.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Merle's Door: Lessons from a free thinking Dog

Just finished reading Merle's door. I can see why it became a best seller. Ted Kerasote is a wonderful story teller and can put a great voice to a dog. It's almost like he is in the dog's mind, as he puts subtext to his interactions with dogs. For a dog lover, it brings a brings a great amount of joy to engage in small banter with a joy and makes one giggle at the thought of such conversations.

"Bonjour Monsieur". His read end swayed in a greeting. "Votre odeur m'intrigue". Your smell intrigues me. "Le cerf, peut-etre?" Deer, perhaps?"Very good," I replied. "Nous avons les cerf aussi ou j'habite." We also have deer where I live.The Mayor of Chamonix took another appraising breath of my leg and let out a small sigh: "Ah, Monsiuer, j'aimrais bien rester plus longtemps et vous connaitre, mais comme vous voyez je suis un chien tres occupe." I would like to stay a little longer and get to know you, but as you can see I'm a very busy dog.Raising his shoulder, he gave me one more look: "Alors, au revoir et a beitot, j'espere." Good-bye then, and see you soon.And with that he hurried off, touched noses with several dogs around the fountain, and headed towards the river."

Kerasote's respects the free thinking mind of a dog and makes a very compelling case in his book. This is reflected in his views on training. He shares a relationship of equality with his dog and presents the joys of such a relationship and his ruminations on why such relationships are superior to the ones based on obedience. 
"But such training-which would have made my commands into absolute law-inevitably would have changed Merle's and my relationship. We would have become the sort of dog-human couple that millions of down owners aspire to: an alpha human giving  orders to a subordinate dog, orders that must always be obeyed...I doubt, however, that it always produces the happiest of dogs or real harmony. What it often produces is a simmering conflict between the social ambitions of the maturing dog and the human who believes that the dog sincerely welcomes staying a perpetual child. When the dog then goes ballistic - chewing furniture, peeing on the carpet, barking, or engaging in power struggles with it's human-dog experts offer a variety of reasons for the sudden appearance of these dysfunctional behaviours. The dog is bored, it needs more exercise, it's anxious, or it's trying to be the dominant individual in the relationship and needs to be put in its place of he's an uncut dog, castrate him. The dog wants not dominance, but equality. No one ever makes this suggestion because it sounds preposterous." 
A particularly interesting view on this subject is when he likens the this relationship of a domination human with a dog to Stockholm syndrome. "By a thousand different cuts - our control of ingress, egress, food, water, elimiation, and fun - we reduce dogs to a state of quiet capituation, a softened version of the Stockhome Syndorom. The hallmarks of the syndrome - a powerful individual's coercing a captive into submission and even the demonstration of affection - have now been identified in cases of dependent children, battered wives, prostitues, prisoners of war, and victims of hijackings"

Kerasote also very interesting lifestyle of granting the dog complete freedom of movement. This means that he uses no crates for his dog. He makes his case for not using crates by citing Elizabeth Marshal Thomas and studies in Italy show that not all dogs like dens, how they are built for specific reasons and not all dogs get good rest if in dens. However, the alternate he suggests seems a bit extreme where his dog has a free run of the entire village. While it's a luxury he can afford, it can easily alienate his audience, due to it's impracticality. The suggestion of the free run of the out doors borders on dangerous based on where one lives and hence is something that needs to be given sufficient caution. 

Kerasote has some great illustrations on how to provide a dog with great mental stimulation and enrichment. 
"As we scribed and laid each log in place, he smelled them, and when the interior walls went up he inspected each room. As soon as we had put up a skeleton staircase Merle scrambled up it. I had gone to the great room and heard his pant from the balcony above. He was looking down at me, lashing his tail and grinning from ear to ear: "This is so cool." He followed the electrician around. He pushed his nose into the plumber's toolbox. He stayed on with the crew. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the crew long gone, I'd wander over to see what progress had been made, and I'd find him walking around the house as if he were tallying the day's work." 
This could inspire several dog owners to allow dogs to explore. On the flip side, though, he talks about far too many activities that he does with Merle, that eventually leads to injuries in the dog. 

The book sways in it's own opinions. There is a whole chapter dedicated to debunking the dominance based training used these days and it uses the latest reports of David Mech to explain why the older studies on wolves can no more be used in dog ethology. Yet, there is another chapter that talks in detail about Merle being top dog and maintaining his status thus. 

This lack of consistency is visible on the training front as well. While the authors view on training are rather refreshing, he does illustrate the use of some very out dated training tools like the choke collar and shock collar. He also uses desensitization that seems rather unnecessary to things that seem very traumatic to the dog. 
"Some animal behaviourists suggest that, in the case of gunfire, some dogs can be cured of their fear through gradual exposure to what they call an increasing range of potentially traumatic experiences from an early age...I loaded the .22 target pistol. He watched me with apprehension. He cocked his head. I fired the pistol in the air. He tried to flee. I held him. Panting terribly, he looked at me with distress. "Easy", I said, "easy", stroking him affectionately and offering him a biscuit. He wouldn't take it. I fired once again. Merle began to yelp wildly. I unloaded the pistol, cased it, hugged him  and took him off the leash. He immediately jumped at my face in relief. "No more bird dog training," I exclaimed"
But the author repeated goes back to the topic of trying to get the dog to go bird hunting, trying several other tactics later.

Overall, it's a great narrative and a refreshing new perspective on giving a dog the respect it deserves. It recognizes the mind of a dog. However, it stops there. The book, by no means should be mistaken for a text book or a training book and parts of the book that have to do with training or behaviour need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The book does have some great insights that leave one thinking. 

"The "just" phrase, the phrase every privileged lass has used when trying to protect its interests while disregarding those of whom it considers inferior: He's just a slave, she's just a woman; it's just a dog."

Monday, August 24, 2015

Understanding addiction in dogs

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 24, 2015, 09.44 PM IST
This week I write to you from San Francisco. Priding itself on being the most pet friendly city, it has a lot of activities one can engage a dog in. I particularly like the talking walks in the parks and balmy weather is perfect for it. That's exactly what I have been doing. I have been walking a particularly lovely bulldog whose human presented me with a rather unique problem. The dog does not like to walk or sniff on walks. So we set out to figure out the nature of the problem.

On our first walk we headed out towards the beach. The dog that does not like to walk made a bee-line for the beach. Upon hitting the beach the dog's humans started playing with the dog. The dog played long and hard. But on the way back the dog was limping and as described, did not stop to sniff a thing.
As I sat down with the humans to understand the situation better, I learnt that the dog suffers from a ligament tear. This is common in dogs that play fetch or rough games. Heavy and large dogs are particularly susceptible to this injury. This injury is extremely painful. Dogs are quite stoic and don't show pain. When they start limping, it's a very strong sign that the pain has gone too far. We had cracked on part of the puzzle. It was due to this injury that she was not interested in walking or sniffing. It was just too painful. We made a plan for the family stop playing fetch immediately.

But why does the dog insist on playing the game of fetch despite it hurting her to the point of making her want to limp? The game of fetch, along with causing injury, also increases adrenaline in the body. Adrenaline temporarily masks the pain and gives a high to the dog, like a drug. The dog starts enjoying this sensation and gets addicted to it. Hence the dogs seeks out this feeling. I had to break this habit for her.

On the next walk, I decided to change routes. The dog did not like this at all. So we had a stand-off. She stopped on the street, not turning into the lane that led her away from the beach. I stood facing away from her. We stood like this for a long time.

Fifteen minutes to be precise. She finally decided to give in and change directions. What happened next was fascinating. She actually started sniffing and did not protest for the rest of the walk. She does have trouble dipping her head to the ground. But she sniffs the higher hedges.

Why did this happen? Once the walk routes changed, the dog was no more in a frenzy. Her mind cleared up. Slower walks are not pain inducing. Hence the dog does not see the need to seek out adrenalin. When the mind is not fixated on seeking out a fix, it now looks for other things to engage in. Hence her doggy instincts kicked in. She got curious about the scents around her. To put it another way, she was looking past her addiction and noticing her world.

We also have been methodically examining all other aspects of her lifestyle to identify what other actions cause pain and are addressing it, including simple things like elevating the feeding bowl. We still have stand-offs during walks, but they are getting shorter. This is still work in progress, but we now know what we need to do for her. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Happy Birthday Turid

Turid's zest for life is contageous
August 15th, apart from being the Indian Independence day, is special to me for another reason. It's also Turid's birthday. Her grit, determination, energy and intelligence have been a huge inspiration to me. Having trained more than 60,000 dogs in her life and taught in more than 25 countries across the world her experience is mind blowing. And yet she spends extraordinary amounts of time learning new things, sharpening her brain and observing dogs to pick up something new. If she has absolutely nothing to do, I find her solving puzzles.

Turid with her dog McKenzie

It's very interesting to watch a dog around her. The dog is instantly drawn to her. She says nothing. She does nothing. Yet she exudes a calmness that reassures the dog and the dog seems to find the one person in the room who seems to get him. Really get him. He goes right up to her and seems to exchange a few quick brief notes with her. None of the showmanship we often come to expect of dog trainers.

A true advocate of dogs, she does not hesitate to speak up for them, even if it means saying hard hitting truths. She expects humans to be adults who can handle the truth. She knows who she is batting for and there is not a doubt in one's mind about that for a single moment. But if one is willing to put aside ones own ego and listen to what she has to say, she is an encyclopedia on the subject. I have been learning from her for a few years now and yet every time I sit down to listen to there is something new I learn, not just because her knowledge is so vast, also because it is so rapidly expanding all the time.

It's hard to be in a profession that is in it's infancy. This is particularly true of the profession in India. So I often have to reach out to her directly for mentorship. Not once have I not got the help I need. She has the unique ability to look past the help I seek and actually give me the help I need. She has rarely helped me directly on any of my cases. She always insists that I think for myself and get to the solution myself. But she has a way of boosting my confidence, helping me find my resource pool and draw strength from it.

It's not just the dogs, but the profession as a whole that has gained a lot from someone like her. Her knowledge combined with her ability to mentor is an asset to professionals across the world. Read more about her life and her work here and feel inspired!
Turid watches as McKenzie explores

What dog is that?

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 17, 2015, 08.55 PM IST

"Indian dogs were highly prized among the Persian aristocracy; Xerxes I (489-65 B.C.E.) reportedly took a large number of them with his army when he marched against Greece. One of the Persian satraps of Babylon assigned the revenues derived from four large villages in that province to the care of his Indian hounds. A dog belonging to Darius III (336-30 B.C.E.) supposedly refused to leave his corpse after he had been struck down by Bessus." -- EncyclopaediaIranica on the topic of Indian Mastiff.

While we think of Indian breeds not many perhaps come to mind. The Indian spitz is something many people have perhaps seen. Then there is the ubiquitous aboriginal INDog. However there are several native breeds that are perhaps less known. Today, I present some lesser known breeds here.
Among the native breeds several hunting breeds are prominent. The Rajipaliyam, Mudhol hound, Rampur greyhound are the more popular of them. These breeds are all sight hounds. Sight hounds have very sleek bodies, long snouts and slightly curved in the back. They are fast runners and have excellent vision. Their body is built for some very fast short distance running.

Such dogs, when on a hunt, will exhibit tremendous speed. Due to their excellent vision, they can be hyper alert and very sensitive to movement. Interestingly they are not built for trotting along or sitting. Such dogs should be walked very slowly and never be asked to sit. They may enjoy short bursts of fast galloping once in a while.

Lesser known sight hounds include Kanni and Mahratta greyhound. "Kanni" is a Tamil word for maiden. The families that breed them adore these dogs. Previously they were sent along with their daughters, as the bride left for her husband's home. We also have a few mastiff varieties. Among these are the Bully Kutta, Gaddi Kutta and Kumaon Mastiff. Mastiff-type dogs are often bulkier dogs and bred for guarding. Guard dogs are excellent with the family. However when put in a position to guard, they take their job very seriously. Such dogs, when left to care for children or property, get into a guarding mode. The Bully Kutta apparently got his name from the flatish snout that resembles a Bulldog. The Gaddi Kutta is a mountain dog and consequently has lush fur that can protect it from the elements. Folklore suggests that the Kumaon mastiff was introduced to the people of Kumaon by Alexander the Great in 300 B.C.

The Kaikadi is a terrier type dog. Terriers are good at hunting small mice and rodents. Like sight hounds, they can have excellent vision. In addition, they may also have a proclivity to digging. The Bakharwal Dog is an ancient breed from the Kashmir Himalayas. The Gujjar nomads treasure this breed and kept the dog to guard their livestock. Breeds meant to guard livestock often do that by alerting people of perceived danger. They can be notorious barkers due to this expectation of them. The Combai is a bear hound from south India. Due to his job, he is stockier with powerful jaws and yet is agile.

While we have all these different breeds, my favourite still is the naaty dog or the INDog. Rather ubiquitous, this is more of a farm dog. Farm dogs are versatile in function and will do a little bit of everything. They are alert and will inform in case of intruders. INDogs show some of the physical traits of sight hounds. They are very good family dogs as well. They are hardy and live long. Here is a toast to the great dogs of India!