THE BRAIN OF A PET PARENT

As pet parents, we know with absolute certainty that we have a special bond with our dogs; they are a part of our family, we think about them when we have to go away, we factor in their schedule when we are setting plans or get that last minute email from our boss about an evening meeting. In fact, about this time last year we did a fun piece that outlined when you KNOW you’re a pet parent. Some of the highlights that you all will recognize: silence never sounds the same after welcoming a dog to your family (because silence sounds like T-R-O-U-B-L-E), it may be a battle of strategy (and will!) to secure real estate for sitting and sleeping, and perhaps most importantly you open up a place in heart for your new furry best friend that perhaps you didn’t even know was there. On that same note, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital have confirmed what we already know: that the brain of a pet parent changes in ways parallel to that of a maternal brain (sorry guys this study was done on women – we know you take your role as a pet papa seriously!).

THE SIMILARITIES

For the study, women were shown images of their children and their dogs while their brains were being scanned by researchers, and it was shown that areas such as the amygdala, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and the dorsal putamen were activated in a similar way when viewing both types of images. According to Science Daily, the amygdala plays a key role in the processing of emotion, the medial orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for social and emotional processes (including anxiety), and the dorsal putamen is involved in learning and reward systems. In contrast, these areas were not activated when the mothers viewed images of unfamiliar children and/or dogs. Realistically, this just proves what we all already know – there is a definite resemblance to be seen when considering the relationship we have with our offspring and our dogs. We view them as part of the family, warmly anticipate them greeting us when we get home, and experience acute grief when we lose them.

THE DIFFERENCES

All that being said, there are differences in the nature of our interactions with our dogs and thus it makes sense that there may be differences in the areas of the brain activated by our relationships with our pets. For example, the area involved with facial recognition was activated more when moms looked at images of their dogs, perhaps because so much of our relationship with our pets is based on reading expressions rather than language like that of our children. Additionally, two areas of the brain that are heavily involved with the production of dopamine and oxytocin were activated by images of children and not by those of pets; dopamine is associated with reward and oxytocin is commonly referred to as the love hormone, so why would these be more present with regard to the parent-child relationship and not the parent-pet relationship? Virginia Hughes, a freelance journalist that writes for National Geographic and other publications, posits that perhaps these hormones aren’t as important for relationship building with our pets. Whatever the case, even if we are producing less oxytocin during our interactions, any pet parent an testify that there is such a thing as love at first sight and a continuing, resilient bond when it comes to our pups. How else would we be accepting in the face of the trouble our pups get into? And what else explains the way we melt when they give us that adorable sideways look?

Images courtesy of the author and Nan Palmero

DOG HALLOWEEN COSTUMES – A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Last year at about this time, we did an overview on funny Halloween costumes. And let’s face it: no matter how we dress up our dogs, as long as they are happy and comfortable it’s always at least a little funny! This year we are going to take a little different approach. Rather than simply suggesting funny Halloween costumes, how about costumes that play off of our dog’s natural stance and disposition? That is, let’s choose costumes that are fun because they embrace our pup’s four-legged and energetic ways!

THE SPIDEY DOG

You may have seen this one circulating on the internet, but we are in love with the dog-as-a-spider Halloween costume. It is creative AND sets up our friends and family for some absolutely priceless pranking. We all know someone afraid of spiders, and how fun would it be for your pup to run up dressed as a fuzzy, friendly, and maybe even barking one? Most of the costumes we found on the web were highly unrealistic looking, so don’t worry too much about your friends and family taking it seriously. You could always throw a little extra craftiness into the outfit and tie on some bells so your pup doesn’t sneak up on anyone that may be too rattled by his sudden doubling in legs.

COSTUMES MADE FOR RUNNING

Further capitalizing on our dog’s natural tendency to be full of life and zest, why not think about other creatures that would be likely to zoom around with lots of energy? For example, you could dress your pup as a T-Rex, a centipede, or even as a cat! All of these will be quite enjoyable once your dog is provided with a sidewalk or a living room to enjoy. And given the man’s-best-friend nature of our dogs, they will have even more fun once they realize we are having a blast, too!

GET PUNNY

Everyone loves a good pun! Whether a food pun, a sports pun, or a pun-based dog costume designed to elicit a chuckle from trick-or-treaters, puns are fun! Putting a little thought into your pup’s Halloween costume can lead to a solid good time come Halloween. For example, you can keep it simple and go with the tried-and-true Hot Dog costume, or think a little further outside the box and dress your pup up as a bell (get it? Pavlov?), a large speaker (a subWOOFer!), or even go for a play on a famous character’s name, such as Arf-too D2 or Arft Vader. Whichever route you go, have fun, be safe, and remember to truly enjoy the holiday with your best friend!

Images courtesy istolethetv and Hello Chaos

FEEDING OUR DOGS, IS PEOPLE FOOD OKAY, TOO?

Many higher end dog foods now tout their “whole food” ingredients, in part because of backlash against the subpar components that have historically been included in many popular dog food recipes. Pet parents want quality nutrition not only for themselves and their families but for their dogs as well, and companies have heeded that call by improving the ingredients in their recipes as well as offering more specific varieties, such as grain or gluten free offerings. On many dog food labels now, wet or dry, one can find meats, veggies, and grains listed, as simply as that. Rather than a list of chemicals and hard to pronounce words, pet parents can now pick up a can of dog food listing chicken, sweet potatoes, and rice as primary ingredients. But does that mean it is okay to feed our dogs “people food”? That is, if we are feeding our dogs the leftovers from our own meals, what effect will that have on their nutrition?

MAKE SURE TO MEET THEIR NEEDS

If a small business owner needs their books done, common advice is to find a subject matter expert. Hire an accountant or a bookkeeper, someone with the training and expertise to do it right the first time and ideally at a lower time investment. Similarly, when one needs to overhaul a website or tighten up marketing for their company, it is often advisable to outsource those activities to someone who does them on a regular basis. In theory, our dog’s nutrition is no different. We can do the research and feed our dogs from our own kitchens, but care must be taken to include all the elements of a balanced diet. High quality dog foods contain the right balance of fats, proteins, carbs, and other elements (vitamins, amino acids, etc.) that our dogs need, and even with careful research we may miss an important component of their diet. However, if pet parents are willing and able to dedicate the time to research and prep to feed their dogs via whole foods, it can be done! It is advisable to work with your vet and follow his or her recommendations to make sure all the important nutritional components are included. Also, keep in mind that buying, prepping, and portioning out whole meats, grains, and veggies is going to take a LOT of time!

CLARIFYING "PEOPLE FOOD"

When referring to “people food” or “table foods”, we are including whole foods. Processed foods such as pastas, crackers, and casseroles are not designed for our dogs! In fact, your dog may even be allergic to common table foods that include elements such as chocolate and raisins. Even though they may present you with the sweetest eyes ever under the dining room table, the reality is that supplementing their regular diet with leftovers and table scraps may introduce foods that are not beneficial to your dog’s health and may also up his intake beyond what it needs to be, leading to obesity and other health issues. That being said, with planning and structure you can treat your dog with what may be considered people food. For example, make sure to verify just how much of his dry food he needs, and you can offer special, high value treats as part of your training program, such as small chunks of chicken breast or slices of banana. Make sure your dog understands the difference between the “people food” you set aside for him as a reward and the food on your own plate, though, because many pet parents will tell you that once a dog learns he can beg successfully, that is a very hard habit to break! You want your dog to be healthy AND happy, and that means making sure he understands his limits and boundaries.

Images courtesy Rob and Sonny Abesamis

Positive Training Methods for Your Dog

A recent study by the University of Lincoln in Britain indicated that the use of shock collars may not provide training benefits that outweigh the potential negatives (including more observed tension, more yawning, and less interaction with their fellow dogs). Although shock collars are rather common and their positive versus negative benefits can still be debated, there are other training options available to work with our dogs that do not necessarily involve negative consequences.

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most common of the “positive” training methods. This involves offering a treat or praise when your dog performs the desired behavior and teaches him that he receives the desired outcome (i.e. a scratch on the ear or a favorite treat) by meeting the standards you’ve set. Positive reinforcement has been shown to increase performance in working dogs such as farm dogs and the principles of positive reinforcement also carry over well into the home for the non-working dog. For example, the most successful trainers make their expectations clear by using concise commands, make sure to reward desired behaviors immediately, and are consistent in providing rewards for those behaviors. This method can be used for working dogs such as companion animals when teaching a dog how to help his master cross the street or can even be helpful in the home setting for rewarding desired behaviors such as stay or NOT jumping on guests when they enter.

SHAPE THE ENVIRONMENT

In addition to the cue/reward/consistency formula of positive reinforcement, positive training for your dog also involves his overall quality of life. A well exercised dog that has adequate shelter and nutrition, as well as a conscientious handler that strives to be in tune with his needs and behaviors, will generally respond best to reinforcement cues. Training a working dog or a family dog involves communication, patience, and love, and the best environment for a dog working on learning new skills or eliminating undesirable behaviors is one in which he feels comfortable and safe! If you are moving toward positive training cues with your dog, try to look at the big picture – is he not responding to a cue because the cue, timing, or reward are off? Or is he struggling because he has excess energy or is distracted by something in his environment? With the right adjustments and a healthy dose of patience, you can avoid using methods based on punishment or suffering and work together with your dog to encourage the behaviors that work best for you, for him, and for your overall environment, whether that be a working environment or that of your home.

Images courtesy of Joselito Tagorao and Taro the Shiba Inu  

CREATING DOG-FRIENDLY OUTDOOR SPACES

With summer winding down, our focus has likely shifted to the new school year and the tasks of fall: prepping for fall holidays, starting to appreciate the changing seasons, and even possibly anticipating the transition into the winter holidays. However, in most regions the great outdoors are temperate and our outdoor spaces still provide opportunities for grilling, relaxing, and enjoying time with family and friends. But what if we’ve made it through the summer without optimizing our outdoor spaces, whether we have a large, fenced yard, a small, concrete patio, or anything in between? What small changes can be made to make our shared areas as dog-friendly as possible for our canine best friends?

BIG OR SMALL – FOCUS ON SAFETY                                

First and foremost, a common area is more enjoyable for everyone if it is safe for all users! A Great Dane from Portland, Oregon recently made headlines with his gastrointestinal exploits: he was found with 43 ½ socks in his digestive system! The poor pup was understandably experiencing distress. Other commonly ingested items include corn cobs, strings and ropes, and even coins. Review your outdoor space with a critical eye to ensure that small items, garbage, and even shoes are out of reach and safe from consumption. And if your pup tends to get into certain types of items, such as paper products or leather items, exercise extra caution to make sure they’re not in your yard or on your patio! Certain plants can also prove poisonous to our dogs, so it is also important to do a quick check and make sure your plants, both blooming and non-blooming, are dog-safe and non-toxic. Another consideration for making your yard dog-friendly is containment; is your fence dig-proof? Or are your patio railings narrow enough to keep him contained, safe and sound? You and your dog will both be able to get much more enjoyment out of your outdoor space if you’re not constantly monitoring for safety hazards!

INTRODUCING APPEALING ELEMENTS

Perhaps the simplest way to keep your dog happy in the great outdoors is to give him the creature comforts he desires most: shade, shelter, and appealing textures. Shade can be introduced via canopies or shade trees, and your dog will appreciate having safe places that are set up just for him. For example, if your backyard has a covered patio area or a large expanse of grass, you might consider building a dog house for him to enjoy. Many pups also appreciate having their own soft space to lie down and relax, such as a dog bed. Remember our dogs love to be RIGHT with us, so putting a dog bed in a covered area where there is not human companionship may go unappreciated. If you do your best to set up a spot near where the action is (or even near the nice warm firepit as the weather cools!), she will likely greatly appreciate the gesture. Overall, when we are designing comfortable outdoor spaces for our pups, remember their primary concerns are typically limited to having a great place to nap, with maybe some room to run as well. And even if you don’t have the space to provide that room to run, they really just want to be close to their family, so and try keep their nesting places near where you will be relaxing as well!

Images courtesy Bruce Fingerhood and I Am Theo

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