Living with dogs

Elsa and Luna coexist. It is important to understand their communications.

Elsa and Luna coexist. It is important to understand their communications.

I am constantly asked what I do. My licence plate says Justdogs so when people see it or I give them my email address they always ask “what do you do with dogs?” My typical answer is “I’m a dog trainer,” but if they really want to chat about dogs then I elaborate to photographer, writer, blogger, webinar creator, baker for dogs, temperament testing, online courses…etc. etc. But what I really do is “life with dogs.”

My Just dogs with Sherri mission statement is:

To bring humans and canines into a symbiotic relationship.  Where each thrive with the presence of the other.  Alone they are just man and just dog; together they complete the perfection of a "canine lifestyle."

Life with dogs should be amazing but it isn’t always. The relationship can take a beating when we don’t understand one another. Humans understanding dogs is the first step to creating an amazing connection. When we understand our dogs; then they will be able to understand us.

Let’s face it, humans often forget that dogs are not furry humans. Sadly many of the biggest issues when living with dogs is the fact that we treat them like humans. We put human emotions on our dogs and assume that they communicate as we do. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dogs are dogs and to think of them as furry humans is a disservice to them. In many ways dogs are far superior than us; especially in the communication department. But if we don’t now how they communicate then we don’t “get them.” So many people have no idea what their dog is saying or trying to communicate. Humans often misread information given by their dog and there in lies the biggest issue.

Dogs have a lot to say. It’s funny because just the other day as my husband and I were walking Elsa and one of our Grand-dogs, I thought about the fact that our dogs never say anything. My husband and I were chatting away as we walked, Elsa and Luna said nothing. That is, they didn’t say any words but they were constantly communicating. Our dogs often have a great deal more to say than we do, but are we listening? Watching?

Understanding how our dogs communicate is all about watching. They are master body language communicators. But much of their communications go unnoticed because they are so tiny and fleeting that we miss them. I often hear from guardians that they have no idea what happened when there dog seems to have a behavior issue. This can be because we regularly miss what they are saying. Some folks haven’t a clue what their dog is saying ever.

Living with dogs can and should be amazing. But, living with dogs can be stressful, frustrating and regretful. If we don’t take the time to learn about the dog or dogs that we are living with, then there will be fallout. Finding out how your dog communicates, understands and learns will lead to a much better relationship, bottom line.

We expect so much from our dogs. Sadly many of us don’t really understand how dogs work. Many people tell me “I’ve lived with dogs all my life,” meaning that they know dogs. But if you’ve never taken the time to really learn about canine communication; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived with them. You simply may not have been understanding them the entire time.

Admittedly I don’t know much about cats. I don’t live with cats so it doesn’t really matter that I don’t “get them.” If I was interested in them then I might do some research; but I’m not a big cat person so I stick to dogs. I believe if you are going to live with an animal; you should know as much as you can about them.

Our biggest problem is us. We humans tend to think like humans and put those thoughts on other animals. It is the easiest for us to not have to learn about other animals but it is most definitely not the best. Truly learning about the animals that we live with means putting our human ways aside for a while. If we are going to have dogs in our homes with us; then we should learn about them and how they work, right?

I love dogs, they are amazing creatures. There is nothing like a canine/human connection at it’s bet.

Genetics vs. Environment in Canine Temperaments

Personally, I want to see a wiggly, wagging little butt coming my way.  I'm looking for the puppy who says "HELLO human, I love you;" delivering kisses while squinting.  Dropped ears is an extra bonus. Choosing puppies from a litter of adorable little bundles of fluff is tough.  This is one reason I feel very strongly about a breeder doing the job for prospective puppy buyers.  That said there are breeders who don't know what they are looking at and cannot place puppies correctly.  

The first and most important part of puppy temperaments is genetics.  I've met a lot of not so friendly puppies over the years.  When I delve into the genetic make-up, it is clear that the apple does not fall far from the tree.  One specific puppy I remember who was extremely aggressive at a scary young age had an almost identical Mother.  When I asked the owner about the parents she told me "no we couldn't touch the Mom."  Oh...was all I could muster up.  Although I was thinking "really?  and you took a puppy anyway?"

Genetics is not everything, but it is definitely there.  What a breeder does with their puppies as far as socialization is huge.  But even still genetics can come creeping up through the litter.  Sadly many breeders overlook temperament; when in fact it should be at the very top.  I have juggled with temperament/health and soundness for years and have finally decided that temperament is #1.  Sitting close behind at #1.5 is health then soundness.  

Why is temperament #1?  No matter how gorgeous and correct a dog is; if no one can live with it, that's a fail as far as breeding.  Temperament should NEVER be pushed down as an afterthought.  If a breeder is breeding companion dogs then they should come from good companion parents.  Meaning that the puppies are going to be fairly easy for any prospective puppy buyer.  Are the parents friendly?  Are they biddable? Of course each breed has it's own version of friendly, friendly can be relative. 

Every person is different, every puppy is different.  Matching the correct puppy to their special person should be much like  :)  Not with the creepy guy on the advertisements though, leave him out of it.  I hate seeing puppies chosen at birth, two weeks of three weeks.  You have no idea of what you are getting.  

If you want a good match as far as your next puppy, wait.  If the breeder wants you to choose quickly, move on.  If you have to take what comes out with regard to color, sex or deposit number, move on.  If your breeder does the matching through temperament and drive; make sure that your breeder is knowledgeable in doing that.  Perhaps puppies placed in previous litters can be given as reference, if you aren't sure.  

I know that Elsa was chosen perfectly for us.  I had to absolutely rely on my breeder to be my eyes because of distance.  I ask an insane amount of questions because I do temperament testing and I know what I am looking for.  Elsa fit like a glove in our home.  She came out of her crate saying "hey there, my name is Elsa," wagging like crazy and was happy to meet each member of our family, canine and human.  She is a lot of dog but I am a lot of Mom, we fit.  :)  

Finding your next canine match is worth all the research and work.  It is not easy and there is much to weed through.  My one top word of wisdom is to NOT purchase online when you choose a puppy by clicking on the pay button.  And if they are set up in the cutest little settings with flowers and stuffed animals that tempt you to buy, MOVE ON.  

Elsa and her breeder have set the bar high; but that's where it should be.  

Don't even try to get past the watcher

She's sharp, she's on the ball and she doesn't miss a thing, so don't even try.  Elsa is always watching and aware.  The other day we were walking along a strip mall area that we frequent.  It is a great place to walk for seeing folks, grocery carts, screaming kids etc etc.  We undoubtedly will run into someone who wants to touch or talk to Elsa which she ADORES.  Elsa LOVES people, I mean crazy googly loves people.  So when someone stops to talk to her; they get the full-on Elsa treatment which is good for anyone's ego.  

So we were wandering along, Elsa was sniffing everything that there was to sniff between working on some obedience, when a truck slowed beside us.  We were on the sidewalk area which is right beside where cars can drive.  It also makes a great place to work on "car chasing" issues or creating non issues. I took Elsa to the same place when she was young so she has no car chasing issues.  But, this truck had slowed and the guy inside was looking at Elsa.  

She looked and then took a double take.  "Why was he staring at her?" was her reaction.  She could not function, he was staring at her, she was staring at him.  She got a bit confused; she knows what a slowing vehicle means but didn't know the guy inside.  Elsa loves people but not when they do weird things.  She absolutely had to figure it out before she could continue.  

The guy continued staring.  I could see that he was interested in Elsa and what we were doing.  I'd been working on her "right," behavior which is like a finish in obedience but on the right side.  She was doing great until this guy showed up.  Funny how people don't "get" dog behavior.  If he did "get" it he would have seen that he was disturbing her.  

After looking at him a couple of times myself, he got the message and moved along.  It was a good distraction for her but one that she had a hard time with.  Elsa knows that when cars slow down beside us that we are usually going to talk to someone in the car.  This was confusing to her as he just slowed down enough to stare but was still driving along side us.   

Sometimes one thing can really give you a clear visual on your dog and who they are.  This one incident summed Elsa up to a T.  Elsa is the ever intense watcher.  She does not miss a thing and because of this; she can be hard to move.  Once she locks onto something that she needs to figure out; she needs to figure it out.   Of course now that she has experienced a slow driving gawker, she will be able to deal with the next one.  I guess we've never dealt with a slow driving gawker who just stared before.  :)   Most other slow driving gawkers have actually stopped to talk which Elsa is accustom to.  She did not like the non talking one.  

Elsa is a great reader of body language; perhaps she didn't like that she couldn't read his in his slow moving truck.  As much as she ADORES people; she has a clear understanding of who we give affection to.  We do not give the people who walk by not saying anything, the time of day.  If someone says "hi" to only me we keep moving.  Even if we stop to talk but the human only talks to me, then Elsa minds her own business.  But if they say hi to Elsa or reach a hand out, it's full-on Elsa time.  

Don't even try, you won't get past the watcher.  


I clearly remember this Bassett puppy, it was not enjoying any type of interaction at the park.  This would have caused quite a bit of stress.

Dealing with stress can be a day to day thing for humans; it can also be something that dogs have to deal with.  Depending on the dog and what their life looks like; they might have to deal with none, a little or a lot.  Like us, dogs are all different.  What one can handle, another may not be able to cope with.  Even with great socializing and life experience, some dogs have a difficult time dealing with certain things.  Take some dogs who are placed into the life of a show dog.  Many love it and do just fine; but there are others who just can't cope.  Lots of dogs are removed from the life of a show dog just because they hate it.  Many dogs are put through a great deal of stress; just because their of their owners desires. 

Is your dog happy?  Are they coping well with their life?  Do you think if they had the choice that they would live the life that they do?  I have always gone the way of "my dog's desire."  Meaning that what my dog shows me to be something that they love to do, we do or at least a version of.  That does not mean that our life revolves around that one activity but I try to incorporate it into our lives at least a couple of times a week.  Not having an outlet can cause stress as can forcing an unwanted behavior.

Was your dream to always have a Flyball dog?  Do you drag your dog to the event every week and just can't understand why they act off?  Do you have to go above and beyond to get through the learning curve?  Are you growing frustrated?  Well, it might all be due to stress.  Maybe your dog is stressed about having to go to Flyball and they would rather just not be there.  I've seen dogs in all sorts of performance venues who do not want to be there.  Many dogs can adjust and learn to deal but it could still be causing stress.  Stress is bad for us and bad for our dogs.  Stress is one of the worst things for our body. 

Whole Dog Journal - Easing Stress article. 

Stress can cause a dog to do all sorts of things that under calm and relaxed conditions, they might not.  I know that when I am highly stressed, it takes a toll on me and by the evening I'm spent.  Just imagine a dog who has to live through stress day in and day out.  Is your dog stressed?  What can you do to help stress?   If you are determined to participate in the activity that causes stress then you must help your dog out.  Small doses at a time and making it "all good."  That or figure out something to do other than the stressful trigger activity.  There are lots of things that you can do with your dog and there might be other things that are not stressful to them at all.  Stress is fairly easy to see but not easy to live with so ask yourself; are you stressing your dog out?

"Oh look, he's wagging."

                                                                               Perfect play tails. 

One of the biggest misconceptions in dogs, is wagging tails.  "Oh look, he's wagging," is taken as a sure fire sign that he's friendly.  It could mean that he is friendly but it could also mean just the opposite.  Dogs wag for all different reasons; if you watch a tail closely you will see that it has many different wags to it.  The way a tail is held, the speed in which it is being wagged, the part of the tail being wagged and of course the rest of body all play roles in understanding the what a wag means.

Of course a wagging tail is only as good as the dog or person reading it.  As I said many people misunderstand a wagging tail as friendly and approach when they see it.   Sadly many bites occur because people don't read dog tails correctly.  You need to really watch tails for a while to learn their different communications; that and see what the rest of the dog's body is doing as well. 

Tails signal change insanely quickly; and if you are not watching you might miss what the dog is saying.  Watching a pack of dogs interact is so interesting; their signaling to each other is done with lightening speed and precision.  Watching Elsa, Luke and Penny interact is a great display of tail signaling.  One second Penny has her tail held high and vibrating as she prepares to launch herself at Elsa; the next it is slung very low and speed wagging as she slowly approaches the man of the pack, Luke. 

I really hate when I cannot see tails; they give us so much information.  Some breeds have docked tails which put both the dog and us at a disadvantage as far as reading.  Others have tails that are curled up over their back which are very hard reads.  I find that many of these curled tail dogs tend to be dogs that other non curled tail dogs are wary of.  I know that both Luke and Elsa are very cautious around them and tend to just stay away.  They are a hard read; that tail stays up there on their back and barely moves. 

Elsa has a very fluid tail; obviously I love it.  I get to see things that I have never seen in any of my own dogs before.  As you approach her relaxing on the couch; she squints and slowly wags the 1/2 end of her tail.  Sometimes it's just the last two inches that barely twitch; but there is enough movement to visualize a reaction on approach.  Her tail is almost continually in motion; it is always saying something.  Often it is only her tail that gets my attention as I may be on my computer and hear the thumping of it as she gets goofy trying to draw me from my work.

You must look at the posture of a tail as well as the wag.  The higher a tail is held the more confident a dog is.  The wag or movement will tell the rest of the story.  Luke was commonly under fire in his younger years as he was an extremely confident guy.  He would enter a park with his tail held high charging around; much to the disapproval of other males or dominant females in the park.  He was not dominant, just very confident.  But entering the park so cocky got him into trouble 

Tails have a lot to say; do not let a wagging tail fool you. 

Dealing with loss

 Many lessons were learned from Tilley and Jessie; they are constantly in my thoughts and my heart.  Just thinking about them often brings a smile.  That is what it is all about.   

The loss of a canine companion can be life shattering.  For some, it will be the thing that changes their life forever.  Many opt to never do it again; having a dog means losing a dog and they just cannot live through it one more time.  Others will do it again and again; knowing full well that it means the devastating and inevitable loss.  But before loss there is life and that life makes our life a whole lot better.  I truly believe that each and every one of our dogs makes us a better human for the next dog.  I know that I am not the person that I was 30 years ago; much of the change was due to the dogs in my life. 

Each step we take with a dog by our side gives us insight.  Around every corner is something new; each day brings new lessons.  How can we not be better having lived with a dog?  Someone asked me a question that I am asked frequently, just a week ago.  How long is the normal time to wait?  Meaning how long should you wait before adding another canine to your life after a loss?  There is no answer for this question.  Grief must be dealt with first; after losing a companion. 

Grief:  a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.

When you lose a canine companion there will be grief.  No matter how young or old that dog was; a loss like that of a dog leaves a huge void in our life.  You must give yourself time to grieve.  Now that time is where it gets confusing.  I have known people to add another dog to their life the next day and I know people who wait five years.  There is no right or wrong.  There is only what we feel we need to do. 

Adding another dog to your life when you have suffered the loss of another, helps us to move on.  Yes there is life after the loss of a dog; there is always another to love and fill a different spot in our heart.  Choosing to add another dog to our life is in no way disrespecting the life that you lost.  That life and those memories are in there forever and it is those thoughts that you will look back on often.   You loved that dog so much, so honestly that their is room for another.  A companionship so great and so powerful that not living with another dog is not an option. . 

Everyone needs time to grieve.  There can be fallout issues if you don't give yourself that time; and that time will vary vastly from person to person.  The life that you had with one dog will be like no other.  There is no replacing of a canine companion; each is very individual.  What our dogs give us is the desire to share our life with a dog.  When one leaves our heart and our life; another can help to fill the heartache.  Our dogs have so many lessons to give us in the time that we share.  I truly believe these lessons are meant for the next life that we will share with a canine. 

When you are no longer willing to be dogless, you will know that it is time. 

More on Dealing With A Loss(coming soon) and other topics on my website article store

A tiny moment

Saturday morning I hopped in the xterra and head out to pick up my little foster.  I melted as soon as I saw her little face.  She wiggled on her side, squinting and wagging; she was tiny, so very tiny.  Pulling the blanket she lay on closer to me I was able to pick her up and hold her in my arms.  It had been a very long time since I'd held something so small.  We got her things together and we made the trip back to my house.

It is strange when you know nothing about a dog; no background, nothing about the life before she found her way into the rescue group.  I wondered where she was born, if there were more than her in the litter, where her Mother was now.  But when you don't know all that you deal with what is before you; and that was a very tiny and adorable little puppy.  She had what I call a Disney face; the kind that no one can look at without saying awwwww.   A little face filled with tufts of wiry expression.  With the scruffy little face that she had her body was so tiny.  Her two front feet looked like they had been dipped in white paint.  She was a doll for sure.

She took quite a while to warm up to Elsa.  Of course there was a 42lb size difference.  Luke was pretty much as non issue as he was only momentarily interested in her.  At 13 he is so mellow that he pretty much just goes with the flow.  After a while she seemed very comfortable to just lay beside his warm and furry body.  Her day with us was an exhausting one.  From one home to another, to meet new dogs and new routines but she was a trooper.  She stuck to me like glue from the moment we met. 

Watching her tiny 4lb body run around the yard was so different.  She could go where my dogs would have never even considered going.  Tiny crooks and corners she investigated; there in the the tiny world that was hers.  Watching her and Elsa together; I considered how large a person would have to be to me to match their ratio.  A person the height of my house would be about right; can you even imagine?  But Elsa was not going to let size interfere with her fun; no she had plans of her own and they were filled with fun.  Elsa was amazing with this tiny puppy.  She tried her very best to show her how to have fun and do things that only dogs can do.  She was patient and forgiving; relentless in her quest to play with our new house guest. 

By the second day the puppy was starting to quite enjoy Elsa and followed her around the yard.  She was still understandably apprehensive as she should have been.  She was becoming a pack member albeit a four pound one.  Her time with us was short; a mere moment and she was gone.  She found her new forever home with a wonderful family who truly need her in their life.  It doesn't take long to mesh a tiny life into your own.  But she was not meant to stay with us long; no she was here for a tiny moment.  Tiny in every sense of the word but leaving a huge impression in her wake. 

What are you teaching?

It's going to be another scorcher today.  Thankfully I spent much of yesterday in San Diego where it was at least 8-10 degrees cooler.  Still hot but not scorching hot.  When it is as hot as it's going to be today we spend much of our time indoors.  We will head out nice and early before the searing heat hits for a bit of exercise but then we'll be in the AC.  Because today will be another "inside" day I've decided to teach Elsa to go through my legs.  She already knows how to go through; but it is sort of willy nilly style.  She runs through getting all excited but now I want to fine tune the act. 

The other day as I was putting both Luke and Elsa's harnesses on when I thought about the lesson.  Hmmmmmm, I'd like Elsa to come through my legs from the back and slip into her harness.  She already does the very cute and adorable 'latch on' exercise before we leave; which is much like a seeing eye dog does for their owner.  I go to the place where the open button for the garage door is;  she pushes under my hand until I grab her harness.  Then the button is pushed and we can leave, but not until then.  I love it, she is so cute pushing under my hand trying to get me to grab a hold of her harness. 

So now I'm going to teach her to go through my legs and into her harness.  Luke and Elsa both where the Easy Walk Harness by Premier.  This harness is perfect for the exercise because the action required to get it on is exactly what is needed.  She will have to come from behind me; go through my legs, putting her head into the harness.  From that point she will be asked to continue moving forward while I do it up under her chest. 

Elsa gets very silly and overly excited when we are learning new behaviors.  She wants to cut to the chase and get the treat.  Being treat motivated is wonderful for learning new stuff.  Dealing with her over zealous behavior takes calm and cool behavior on my part.  I need to create a black and white scenario, no gray tones for this girl.  If she is on the wrong path I will mark that with a vocal error marker and stop.  Then we start again.  (More detailed instructions on working with over enthusiasm on my website soon).

So while the sun is at it's fullest and the heat is on; we'll be working hard on learning a new behavior.  It doesn't matter what you teach your dog; any new behavior or exercise is a good one.  Many dogs who have never been given the chance to learn have a difficult time with the concept.  Once a dog understands the premise behind learning; they are typically on board for more.  What are you teaching today?