Once in a long while, usually when we are taking about something that their dog does that bothers them, a client will tell me that they “tried training on” their dog, “and it didn’t work.” That phrasing always sets me back a bit, because it demonstrates a limited understanding of what “training” is, and also of what dogs are capable of doing.
Training is the process of building a vocabulary of signals that allow the human handler to communicate to an animal, quietly and efficiently, what behaviors are desired. Training is not a one-way street —training also involves the human handler learning to “read” the animal, and sometimes teaching the animal cues the animal can use, so the human can tell what the animal needs and what works for the non-human partner.
People who say that “training didn’t work on” their dog have an idea that training is essentially a process of installing “sit” and “down” buttons to control behavior. This view sees training as a finite process with a starting point and an end point, often with no maintenance or development afterwards. Training can be that, if we want, however it does take an expert technician to install those buttons and keep them from sticking. Even when installed by an expert technician, those buttons will usually stick without maintenance. It really is more fun to approach the training relationship as something you build/do WITH your dog rather than just a procedure you do TO your dog.
People often ask me if “old dogs can be trained.” I suppose this question arises from our emphasis on puppy classes and early learning, as well as on the tendency for institutions like Guide Dogs for the Blind to use their own puppy rearing protocols. There is also a strong bias in our society towards putting young dogs into training for various jobs and dog sports. It would be of benefit to remember that part of the reason for using dogs started as puppies for these jobs is that the dogs’ training represents a significant investment in time and money, and the greatest return on that investment is achieved by getting an early start. It is also faster and easier to habituate a young dog with few expectations to their eventual work environment than it is to habituate an older dog. This doesn’t mean that older dogs CANNOT learn. They do, however, often take longer to reach proficiency at complex tasks than younger animals, or dogs with lots of learning experience.
Human beings learn throughout their lives. We establish new relationships, read books, learn new words, acquire new skills and refine old ones all the time. If there is a payoff in learning something new, we will do it. It may be more difficult as we age to remember new information, but if the information is important — or repeated often enough — we remember.
The same holds true with dogs. If we make new information or new skills important enough to them through practice and payoff (read: repetition and reward!), they will eventually “get it.” Dogs who have a lot of practice with early learning are more skilled at acquiring new information/skills than dogs who have had very little experience with training. However, if we are kind and consistent (and persistent!) and make the behaviors we want PAY for the dog, even an arthritic 14 year old dog with vertigo can earn a title in Nosework.
So… the next time you are frustrated because your six year old exuberant Labrador nearly takes down Grandma in a paroxysmal frenzy of joy or your nine year old terrier threatens to break the window in an urgent need to eat a cat, remember that with patience and persistence (and possibly professional help) you CAN teach your dog… to do something ELSE instead!
You may not think so, but that flabby tabby sleeping on the couch probably has stress.
Consider how cats were designed to live, inhabiting an acre or more, primarily solo, occasionally interacting with another cat with an intersecting territory, eating mice and/or birds. (It takes a lot of mice to feed a cat – all of that hunting takes a lot of time.) Maintaining their territory and protecting their resources is essential to survival. They are naturally vigilant and neophobic (afraid of new things), and give suspicious objects and individuals a wide berth. If there is too much stress in a neighborhood, they move.
Now consider how indoor cats live with us. They are usually confined to an area of less than 2000 square feet, in close proximity to other individuals without the opportunity to select their roommates, sharing potty areas, sleeping spots, food, and water. Their environment may change at random (new furniture, new odors, favorite items stolen, strange people knocking down walls and altering countertops, etc) and they have no control over the access of other animals to the borders of their territory (windows, doors). The list of stressors can be endless.
Combine the elevated stress hormones with an endless supply of high-carbohydrate dry food (spaghetti with meatballs) and an almost empty calendar of events, and it’s no wonder most tabbies are flabby!
While this lifestyle does protect our feline friends from being hit by car, bitten by dogs, getting lost, and a host of other bad things, the obese and sedentary lifestyle comes with a host of negatives of its own. There is an intricate interplay between stress hormones, obesity, and inflammation that can influence pancreatic health and diabetes, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, interstitial cystitis (formerly known as Feline Urologic Syndrome), and probably every other inflammation-prone tissue in the body. There are also behavioral consequences of this lifestyle, including urine marking, inappropriate elimination, inter-cat aggression, and aggression redirected toward humans, other animals, or the environment.
So what can you do?
The most important thing to remember is that cats have less stress when there are more resources. Not more in bulk, but more in terms of access points. A larger number of resource clusters allows cats to exist in a smaller territory.
Food: Choose a high-protein dry (unless your cat’s medical status dictates otherwise) to supplement a canned base diet. Canned foods should be without added carbohydrates. An extensive review article published recently in JAVMA indicated that the protein content of the food drives water consumption and influences a number of other factors which are beneficial to urinary tract health, gastrointestinal health, and weight management. Dry food should ideally be distributed in small quantities around the house, either in bowls or in food-dispensing toys. Food can be elevated on a perch, on the floor, under the bed, in a closet… Or hidden under a box. The cheapest food-dispensing toy ever is simply a toilet paper tube with one end closed. Spreading out food like this decreases stress in multicat households and allows the cat to engage in some purposeful hunting behavior, mimicking a cat’s wild feeding pattern.
Litter boxes: Even a cat living solo may need more than one toilet, especially if the cat is arthritic or the house is especially large. Split level homes should have a litter box on each level – think one litter box per shared people restroom if you only have one cat. Multi-cat households need even more – a good guideline is one more litter box than you have cats, but here it gets tricky. Two litter boxes side by side, with no divider, is really one restroom with 2 toilets and no privacy. Kitty stress will be reduced and litter box access will be improved if the litter boxes are at least separated, and are arranged in a manner which prevents one cat from guarding access to them all at the same time.
Scratching posts and perches: People have people furniture in every room of the house. The cats should have some furniture, too – at least in shared areas. Scratching posts should be somewhat spread out, ideally with one per cat because the posts really are territorial markers. I personally find the combination kitty towers to be attractive to the cats, attractive to the people, and effective. Perches do not have to be limited to kitty towers and the tops of posts, however. Beds on the corner of a desk, on an accessible shelf, or in a window work well. The more cats you have, the greater the need for multiple elevated perches. Elevation provides the cat with a sense of safety and security, and in a multi-cat household reduces the likelihood of agonistic encounters.
Petting and play: To a great extent, your level of interaction with your cat will be dictated by the cat. However, your cat needs some interaction every day. Cats who “don’t like to be petted” may have legitimate pain issues which should be addressed. That being said, most cats are up for a good head rub now and then. Cats can be taught to accept grooming, if you are careful, use a matt rake, and keep sessions short. “Play” for cats can vary greatly, from actively running and jumping after a wand toy to simply watching an object move. If you keep play sessions short, and offer them often, even pretty lethargic cats can be induced to at least throw out a few swats now and then. Wand toys and laser pointers are the most popular toys among cats.
Outdoor access: For some cats, a little taste of the outdoors can make a big difference. There are a number of “window seats” designed for cats that can be installed even in rental units to allow your feline companion his or her own bay window. There are also outdoor units designed like hamster habitats that allow you to create a series of “kitty tubes” outdoor. Some companies make kitty kennels that can be placed outside a window fitted with a cat flap to allow outdoor access. There is often a concern about other cats having access to your cat through the mesh of these enclosures. The kitty kennels can be protected by strategic placement of a few Sssscat units. Motion-activated sprinklers can be used to protect larger areas, like the perimeter of a yard. In reality, as long as direct cat-to-cat contact, with bite wounds occurring, and access to areas used for potties by outside cats is restricted, the risk to your housecat in having this kind of restricted outdoor access is minimal.
In most cases, a few simple adjustments to the environment can make a huge difference in kitty stress.
Brenda Mills, DVM
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that usually causes kidney failure but may also cause meningitis or liver failure. Symptoms may include fever, weakness, pain, inappetence, vomiting, and diarrhea. The organisms are shed in the urine of affected animals, including wildlife, and may survive for weeks or even months in water or moist soil. Leptospirosis is commonly considered to be a “wet weather” disease, and direct exposure to carrier animals is not required for infection due to the possibility of the organism being carried in runoff.
To acquire immunity, the immune system must be exposed to characteristic structures, usually proteins, that serve as a fingerprint for a bacterial or viral organism. These structures are found on the outside of the organism. There are three ways for an immune system to see these structures:
Through natural exposure to the organism (infection)
Through intentional exposure to key parts of the dead organism (killed vaccine)
Through intentional exposure to the living organism after the organism has been rendered harmless (modified live vaccine)
While infection typically results in the longest-term immunity to an organism, the disease caused by infection is what we are trying to avoid by inducing immunity. Killed vaccines are much safer than natural infection, however, since the organism is dead and not reproducing in the animal or doing anything else to excite the immune system, an adjuvant (irritant) is required to provoke the immune response. While the organism portion of the vaccine will be removed in the course of developing immunity, the adjuvant usually remains behind and may act to chronically provoke the immune system. Modified live vaccines introduce actual organisms which are unable to cause disease but otherwise behave exactly like an infection, provoking the immune system without the need for adjuvants. These vaccines are completely cleared from the body when their job is done.
Most of our vaccines are against viruses, which are much smaller and have less complex fingerprints than bacteria. Vaccines against bacterial diseases are difficult to develop, very complex, and result in short-term immunity. The original Leptospirosis vaccines were made by essentially running the actual organism through a blender to rupture and kill it. This produced a vaccine that was safe from the perspective of not being able to cause disease, but which had a tremendous capacity to over-excite the immune system because the vaccine not only exposed the individual to the important structures on the outside of the bacteria, but also to all of the stuff on the inside. This gave Leptospirosis vaccines their reputation for causing “bad reactions.” These vaccines typically last approximately 11 months.
What we use:
A huge improvement in the safety and efficacy of Leptospirosis vaccines came with the advent of genetic engineering, which allowed the production of purified subunit vaccines. Through the magic of gene splicing, E. coli was used to produce specific proteins which occur on the outside of the bacteria, reducing the number of molecules in the vaccine, making it safer and more effective. This vaccine still requires the use of an adjuvant and provides approximately 11 months of protection.
A newer vaccine, which now provides immunity against the four major species of Leptospirosis, is a non-adjuvanted modified live vaccine. A virus has been engineered to infect the patient’s cells with harmless components which make the cells pump out proteins and train the immune system to recognize the fingerprint of Leptospirosis. This vaccine mimics natural infection without causing disease, provoking immunity which has been shown to last at least 15 months without the use of an adjuvant and this is the vaccine we are currently using – Recombitek by Merial.