on dog puzzles and the greatest dog trainer that ever was.

Mr. Gonzo Bunny-Ears has really taken to eating his kibble and snacks out of dog puzzles. We have been feeding our own Chick in this manner for years so to us it’s second nature, but often we get questions from bloggers about the types of puzzles we use, how we use them, when, etc.

Shortly after we adopted Chick as a young chap of two or three, he developed pretty severe separation all kinds of anxiety. He would pace nervously when we were getting ready to leave. Decorate the house with the garbage while we were gone. Refuse to eat for days during car trips. Never let us out of his sight when we were home. So, we went to a trainer. A first class, badass trainer.

Lee Mannix had a way with dogs. He was one of those people who can just communicate with them, and they with him. His craft was not teaching dogs “sit” or “shake” but rather teaching owners how to understand and interact with their dogs to prevent, treat, and manage problem behaviors. And his creativity seemed limitless. Some of the tips and tricks he came up with to help us deal with silly problems – like Chick pulling dish rags off their hooks – not only worked flawlessly, but boggled the mind. The human mind, that is. Lee left this world about a year ago, but his personality, his methods, and his lessons live on. For a longer account of the magic of Lee, read here.

But I digress. The first thing Lee asked of us was to stop feeding Chick food in a bowl. Ever. From that day forward, he was to eat only through training (kibble as reward), or in various mentally challenging games (kibble as problem solving goal). The idea was, that if meals are no longer predictable and punctual and effort-free, the dog will become more “willing to please” the owner, knowing that he’d better watch carefully lest the puzzle come soon. It also helped keep the dog busy for a while, so that we could hand him a snack, leave, and he would be so busy working on it that he wouldn’t remember to get worked up and anxious.  So we went from two meals a day, in a bowl, to five or six meals a day, in all different ways.

The simplest, and perhaps our favorite method to date for its sheer convenience and free-ness, is the Gatorade bottle. Take the plastic ring and the label off, wash and dry, shake a little kibble in, and hand it to the dog. A beginner dog may take 30 minutes to get the kibble out, trying to get at it with his tongue or his claws. A veteran only needs a few minutes. As a bonus, the dog eats more slowly than from a bowl, aiding in digestion and reducing gas.

Our second favorite is the grandfather of all dog puzzles, the kong. The easiest way to kong a dog is simply to scoop some kibble in, and seal the opening with something sticky – some peanut butter or cheese whiz works well. But this is too easy for our little geniuses.

To make a kong more difficult, we started to put a little peanut butter, yogurt, or cheese at the bottom of the kong, add the kibble, then seal the top. This way, dog has to extract the very end of the goodies with his tongue. For our geniuses? Still too easy. The next phase was mixing the kibble with yogurt or runny peanut butter in a bowl, and then stuffing the kong. The whole mixture is sticky and wet, so it takes a lot more tongue action to finish the work. This is challenging enough for Gonzo; it takes him about 20 minutes to finish one of these. For Chick, though, we have to take it to the next level: the freezer. Once frozen solid, it takes even an advanced chewer a while to get all the goodies out.  Our normal filler for these kongs is a combination of kibble, peanut butter, raw veggies, cheese, and leftovers – whatever we have that is dog-friendly and not likely to be otherwise eaten.

We usee many other food-dispensing devices and toys also, as Gonzo is modeling here. But the two originals, the ones shown to us by Lee, will always remain our favorites.

For more info about adopting Gonzo Bunny-Ears, contact us at DCpetographer [at] gmail [dot] com or through Partnership for Animal Welfare.

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gonzo’s girlfriend

Gonzo has a girlfriend! She is a labradoodle, and she’s very fancy.

As it turns out, Gonzo loves stuffed animals. Come to think of it, he loves all toys. He likes to toss them in the air and then pounce on them, and to prance around proudly with them in his mouth. His favorite game of all time is “chase” — in which he is the chasee and you are the chaser. When he is feeling rompy, he will scamper about until he finds the nearest toy, pick it up, and approach you with a very cute and very devious look in his mouth — almost as if he is daring you to follow. The second you make a motion or take a step toward him, he whirls in place, and goes bounding away, stopping just before he’s out of sight to make sure you’re coming. He loves this game. But he also loves his girlfriend, Claudette.

a breakthrough and a new friend

Over the past few days, we’ve had a big breakthrough with Lollie. While it only took her a day or two to master the concept of a leash (we suspect she had never been walked on one before), she has always had trouble staying focused on the task at hand in the presence of her greatest all-time nemesis, the squirrel. Last weekend though, we noticed that the anti-squirrel training I had been doing with Lollie was finally starting to pay off.

For a long time, the mere shadow of a squirrel (or the sound of a squirrel, or the shadow or sound of a leaf that looks or sounds like a squirrel) would be enough to send Lollie — literally — into backflips on the end of her leash. It was a state of excitement that wouldn’t diminish for the duration for the walk. It was enough to make her forget to pee entirely.

But suddenly, something clicked. Maybe it was my consistency at not letting her pull toward a squirrel, or my attempts (usually in vain) to redirect her attention toward me, but all of a sudden, Lollie gets only a little excited when her nemesis presents itself. Tonight we were even accosted by two squirrels playing a noisy and flamboyant game of chase around a tree trunk mere feet away from where we were walking, and while Lolita let out a little squeak and a miniature hop, she quickly moved on. I have scarcely been prouder.

Also on this evening’s walk, Lollie made a friend. Her new friend was a stick. To be specific, her new friend was this stick:

Lollie has never showed a strong interest in sticks, even during play. So you can imagine my amusement when we were walking quietly along, and upon crossing the path of a two-foot branch of an oak tree, Lollie stopped, dug in her heels, and let me know that she was not interested in continuing any further.

We stood there in the lamplight for a minute or two, each holding our ground. In the end, we reached a compromise. Lollie would continue walking with me, but only if she could bring her new friend with her. So we walked the remaining few minutes home with her proudly toting her new friend the two-foot oak branch.

I thought that her fascination with the stick was so bizarre that I let her bring it inside and play with it for a while. At first, she whispered sweet nothings in its ear and lovingly caressed it with her tongue:

She even gave it a little play bow: 

Unfortunately, the stick did not reciprocate her invitation to play, and so she did what any normal dog would do to a stick that doesn’t want to play. She ate it.

I guess it was a short-lived friendship, but it was full of passion.

queen kong

Lollie is an incredibly fast learner. Because her energy level is high and she has a hard time figuring out how to settle down, we decided to introduce puzzles to her routine to help her exhaust her mental energy. First up was the Kong (a tough, rubber, pear-shaped toy that is hollow in the middle so you can put treats, food, etc in it). The first day, she merely poked at it with her nose, licked it once or twice, and walked away. She just didn’t understand. The second day, I put some more delicious treats inside and rubbed some peanut butter on the outside to keep her interest. She rolled it around a little until a couple of treats fell out, but again, lost interest. Later that day I tried again, and she went to town on it. She played with it for 20 minutes and got every last bit of treats and carrot bits out. What a little genius-dog.

toys: a strange novelty

Date: last night. Location: my suite. Feeling: confused . . . i’m in love with a worm!

We have reason to believe that Lolita has never played with toys before. Balls are of no interest unless they’re moving, but the raised arm that has to throw them is scary. Same goes for sticks– even scarier. Stuffed animals are just downright confusing.

After what seemed like eons of encouragement, we finally got her to play with the blue worm/hotdog toy we bought her the day we brought her home. She nibbled on it tenderly, and initially recoiled in fear when it produced a surprising little squeak. Progress was made, but she seems to prefer just holding it lovingly than actually playing with it– as though she’s afraid she might hurt it.

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