The Life-Changing Power of “Decompression Walks.”

 

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We need this. We need moments to pause, to stand in awe of beauty, to take in a deep breath and whisper “wow” on the exhale. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to get out, let go, and decompress.

I’d heard about the simple but profound power of walking with a dog in nature. Dr. Lore Haug routinely prescribes what she calls Long-Line-Walks in green spaces away from other dogs and people. Sarah Stremming coined the term “Decompression Walk” in her podcast, Cog-Dog Radio. It’s a walk on a long leash or off-leash in nature, allowing the dog to move freely, pause, sniff, be. I knew the concept. I even embraced it and recommended it. But, I hadn’t experienced it. Not really. Not until now.

Michael and Tim with Stella and Stewie

My husband, Tim, and I both work from home these days. And, it turns out home can be wherever we want it to be, so long as there’s a strong internet connection. So, we packed up Stella and Stewie and drove to Sedona, Arizona for the month. It turns out the internet connection isn’t so strong here after all. And, I won’t bedazzle you with stories of the mythic vortices, or the new age vibe. In fact, the rhythm and roll of the town is decidedly human, with all of our decidedly human aspirations and faults. So be it.

But none of that detracts from the place itself, nestled in the Arizona Desert but higher up where the air can cool at night, with sweeping views of bold red and green against blinding blue sky, and mile after mile of  trails – packed mud and sand and red stone trails.

I don’t know of any studies. The data is all anecdotal, stories from trainers and dog enthusiasts. Walks in the green spaces just out of town, or on the beaches further off, or on the red rocks and dust outside our door here, are life-changing for our dogs. Aggressive dogs learn to self-regulate more easily. Fearful dogs gain confidence. The unruly and misfitted find their way. The slow and the aged reclaim some youth. Is it the exercise? Certainly. Is it that freedom to move willfully without our constant tug and correction? Yes, absolutely. Is it the chance to pause and sniff – to sniff for as long as needed and longer – to sniff at every chance, every rock, every shrub, every delightful blade of tall brown grass? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I pulled a cactus needle from the tip of Stellas nose and I still have no doubt the sharp point of it was well worth the delicious scent. The power of these walks, I am convinced, is from all of this and so much more we still don’t fully understand.

Stewie and Tim on Bell Rock

Stewie is 13, maybe 14. He’s lean and muscular, a Chihuahua Cocker Spaniel design according to the DNA. He loves his walks. But his strut seems even more pronounced with the desert under his paws, scaling rocks two and three times his height, climbing mountain trails to overlooks 30-stories up.

Stella is 11. She has hip dysplasia and arthritis. We keep her on the flat and easy trails and steady her up the rocks and gentle inclines along the way. We stop when she stops. And, we take in the moment with her – the stunning views, the fresh and new scents, the feel of the warm dry air all around us.

In the evening we watch the sun set the day aside and blow in the cooler air. We all eat our fill and rest our bodies on soft furniture (or cool tile floor).  I wonder, almost every evening now, how such a simple thing can be so profound, how pausing can be so powerful, how the natural world – so essential to our being, to every living being’s existence – has slipped away. We built over it, built around it, built up our lives to forget it.

Stella

And these are the very things we need to remember, the things we need the most. A moment to decompress. A deep inhale and a quiet exhale, standing high on a rocky path still warm from the midday sun. Life, our own and others, all around us – and our dog a few feet away. She is staring at the dirt, or maybe it’s a bug, or a lizard flitting under a rock, or a scent still fresh from who knows what. She’s seen more than 4-thousand days, but none as important as this. She’s traveled a thousand miles, but not a step has been more important than the last that brought her to this place. She is, in this moment, fully dog, unfettered, un-fussed-with, allowed to be and become more of who she is.

I quietly take out my phone and snap the photo. And, I think to myself. “Wow.”

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston TX and Sedona AZ. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

The Puppy Boom – What’s at Stake?

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We are working from home. We have some extra time. We have some extra free attention. Regardless, we are here. And, we’ve been talking about getting a puppy anyway. Why not now?

If this sounds like what you’ve been thinking, you are definitely not alone. Dog trainers and veterinary professionals around the country have been reporting an increase in puppies. Could it be a typical seasonal trend? Veterinary practice managers say no. They think folks are using this time of social isolation to get a puppy. If it is, in fact, happening on a large enough scale we could reasonably call it a Puppy Boom. And, I totally get it. What could be more comforting in a time of uncertainty and angst that an adorable puppy?

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming), having a new puppy isn’t just about cuteness and cuddles. We are responsible for this dog’s long-term behavioral health. It’s up to us to prevent serious behavior problems down the line. And, that work needs to happen right now. The term you’ve probably heard bantered about is “Puppy Socialization.” Now, puppy socialization isn’t just about putting your puppy in a play group, though meeting other dogs is part of the process. Socialization is about thoughtfully teaching your puppy resilience and behavioral flexibility. In other words, it’s showing our puppy that they are safe in a variety of settings while we teach them how to make good behavior choices. It’s work. And, it’s work that has to be done in the first few weeks our puppy is with us. The clock, as they say, is ticking.

Proper early puppy socialization can prevent any number of serious behavior issues, inducing (but not limited to):

  • Aggression toward people
  • Aggression toward other dogs
  • Debilitating fear
  • Separation and isolation distress

In normal times we would get our puppies into a puppy class. They would learn to interact with other healthy vaccinated dogs. We would visit family and friends with our new puppy (every new person giving him a few small treats). We would have a puppy party in our home. Family and friends would visit so the puppy could learn the normal comings and goings of our household. We would accompany our puppy to the vet clinic or groomer for more feel-good meetings with praise and treats. We would explore lots of new places together, take car rides, visit playgrounds and ball fields for light-hearted investigation (and yes, smiles, praise, and treats). We would go to work and leave our puppy alone. A dog walker or pet sitter would come over midday. We would teach our puppy what normal is, no matter how crazy our normal life may be. In other words, we would totally rock puppy socialization. And, we would end up with a behaviorally healthy adult dog as a result. That’s what it looks like in normal times.

These are not normal times.

What’s at stake is significant. It is likely that we trainers will see an increase in aggression cases in the next 12-18 months. We will also see an increase in  fear related behavior problems, and isolation and separation distress. Think of it as an echo boom effect from all of the puppies happily quarantined with us now. Am I generally an alarmist? Those of you who know me know I am not. Am I sounding the alarm on this, though? Yes, absolutely.

What can we do to make sure your puppy is not part of my dire prediction? How can these “boomer” puppies get the proper behavior intervention they need now in their early puppy socialization period, even while we are in a time of social distancing? Here are a few ideas:

  • Socialize as best you can. We put together a free webinar on Puppy Socialization in a Time of Social Distancing. We explored ways to:
    • Introduce your new puppy to various types of people creatively and safely.
    • Introduce your puppy to hand-picked well-mannered healthy dogs.
    • Introduce your puppy to a wide variety of experiences (activities that we typically see as problematic in our aggression cases).
  • Seek out and schedule an online consultation with a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant. Yes, we offer this service. But, so do many excellent dog trainers around the world. In fact, you might be reading this blog now because a trainer shared it on social media. Contact him or her for help.
  • If you have not gotten a puppy yet, please wait. I’ll put my professional reputation on this. It will be best to wait until the pandemic is behind us.

There’s the warning. That’s what’s at stake. Now, let’s all take a breath (myself included). If you already have your puppy, cool. Seriously, cool. Puppies are fun and we love them. You can still pull this off and end up with a balanced healthy life-long companion. You will have to work a little bit harder at it, though. That’s the truth. But, you can do it. And, there are plenty of people who can help. We may be separate in some ways but you are not alone in this. Your vet knows what’s going on. Your local trainers see the trend, too. I see it. Together we can help you rock puppy socialization even in this very unusual time.

And one more thing. Congratulations. You’re a puppy parent. Take lots of pictures and post them everywhere. Puppies grow up so fast.

Michael Baugh is a dog and puppy trainer in Houston, TX. He is currently hunkered down with his family including his two dogs, Stella and Stewie.

Why I Ask Clients to Journal with Me

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I ask clients to share an online journal with me between our in-person appointments. We use Google Drive because it’s easily accessible technology. I also encourage clients to email if that is more convenient and to send videos of their progress when they can. In a perfect world, I would hear from my clients every day. Every-other-day is okay, but longer than that can be too long. Why?

  1. This is detail oriented work. Most of my clients are working on long-term plans to change unwanted behavior. That’s a euphemism. Their dogs lunge, growl, bark and bite. Some are dangerous. I try to roll out the plans incrementally so I don’t overwhelm the human family members or the dog. Still, it’s a lot of information. Sometimes between visits folks forget key details from the training plan (truth is, some haven’t read the training plan at all). A week between visits can be a long time. Absent those journal or email check-ins, people tend to forget the plan (that’s normal) and as a result they go off-plan. They skip details and cut corners. The training looks like it’s failing. Frequent contact, though, helps us stay on track. Details stay clear and unwanted incidents become less frequent.
  2. It’s economical. The detail oriented nature of this work requires that my clients and I communicate regularly. However, most can’t reasonably afford to have me out in-person every day or even every second or third day. And, quite frankly, I usually can’t budget the time required for this frequency of in-person visits. Journaling (or emailing) daily is much more economical. The time I commit to this process is woven into the cost of our in-person visits, so it’s not exactly free. But there is no additional cost. And, failing to journal is actually wasting money already spent.
  3. Lives are at stake. Money aside, behavior-change cases can sometimes be a matter of life or death. Dogs who bite or threaten to bite are at higher risk of being euthanized. Some are surrendered to shelters (and then euthanized there). No one wants that. Frequent communication between trainer and client helps us stay on track, attend to the details of the work we are doing, and gives us a better shot at saving the dog’s life. We are also talking about quality of life, not just for the dog but for the humans involved. I want my clients to be able to enjoy their dogs – to be able to exhale some – even as they remain committed to their long term training and behavior management plans.

My most successful clients (and thankfully they greatly outnumber the ones who are not) communicate with me every day. When they falter, they apologize as if the journaling process were somehow for my benefit. I thank them, of course. Then I remind them that all this is for them and for their dog. I’m here on their journals and in my email box for them. My goal, when all is said and done, is their happiness – a better life and a longer life with their dogs.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in behavior change for families with dogs who bite.