Flights of Fancy

I recently had the pleasure of seeing master falconer Brian Bradley give a demonstration of raptors (birds of prey) at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland.  This was the second time I’ve seen his presentation and I was just as fascinated this time around as I was the first.   
Since I spend my life working to create happy households in which both humans andpets harmoniously coexist, I am always drawing parallels between what I observe in other disciplines and what I see in my own little world of companion animal behavior medicine.  The raptor demonstration provided many such parallels but I will limit myself to the three that really resonated with me.

Some animals don’t have the raw material to do the job they are asked to do.  Brian hunts with falcons and hawks, and prefers to catch his birds from the wild.  He explained that for his hawks, he is permitted to only catch birds in their first year of life.  He trains them and hunts with them for 2 years or so, and then releases them.  It is important to understand that when he does hunt the birds, they are free flying and could decide to end the relationship by simply not coming back.  There are no “shock collars” or tethers on these birds.  But, because Brian gives them food necessary for survival, and a full 70% of Red Tailed Hawks don’t survive their first year of life in the wild, the promise of consistent food source is a big payoff for the partnership from the bird's perspective. 
Brian also describes something we pet people know with certainty about our animal companions—they all have different personalities, even if they are the same breed or even siblings.  And Brian does report that sometimes he encounters a bird that he describes as “too scared or too stubborn” to do well in the partnership.  Instead of making both himself and the bird miserable by having unrealistic expectations and setting the bird up for failure, Brian will release the bird. 

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Daniel, the duck:  I just read a very interesting article about Daniel, the emotional support duck.  Daniel, resplendent in his red shoes and diaper, accompanied Carla Fitzgerald on a recent commercial flight, much to the delight and amusement of the flight crew and passengers.  Daniel even received a certificate for his "first flight," since Indian Runner ducks are actually flightless.  This article is worth checking out, if only to see a picture of Daniel the Duck's graceful silhouette as he gazes out of the airplane window mid-flight.  If you'd like to see Indian Runner ducks in action, here is a short video of 800 Indian Runner Dogs reporting for duty at a vineyard. 

Helping Carla cope:  Carla Fitzgerald was a horse-and-carriage driver in Milwaukee back in 2012 when she adopted Daniel just 2 days after he hatched.  Her career ended abruptly less than a year later, when a motorist on a cell phone smashed into the back of her carriage.  She was injured so badly that she was immobilized for months and had to re-learn how to walk.  While struggling with physical pain or PTSD, Daniel seemed to “know” when Carla was becoming upset and would lie on top of her, giving her duck kisses.  Quite a feat for a lipless creature!  Carla also reported that if a panic attack seemed to be brewing, Daniel would try to climb up on her, which would force her to lie down.

Communication:  Much of the article focuses on how Daniel clearly communicates with Carla in their daily life together.  When his diaper needs changing, he walks to the changing table.  When he wants food, he goes over to the fridge or his food bowl.  He loves playing with electronic toys that make noises when he pushes a button and becomes very upset when a battery dies and the toy doesn’t work.  According to the article, “He stomps his feet, raises his hackles, and huffs and he gives you stink-eye.  And if you don’t change those batteries right now, he gets snippy.”

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If I Were a Dog, I Just Might Bite You

Behavior is fascinating: I have spent most of my life, especially the last 16 years, trying to understand animals.  Particularly, what motivates them to do those things they do.  Much of this fascination is simply due to intellectual curiosity, because animal behavior is really super incredibly interesting.  Of course, that may be an individual bias, as I found out when my family made a special trip years ago to the Bronx Zoo to see the Silverback Gorilla exhibit.  I stood mesmerized by the animals while my family already had gone through the zoo, visited the souvenir shop, and were having a snack.  I think it may have been the feces-smearing juvenile gorillas that drove them away, but I’m not entirely sure.  I have also been mesmerized watching animals in much more mundane situations, like a doe and her fawns in my back woods or my little flock of 8 parakeets out on their bird “play shelf.”  I am told that, as a pre-schooler, I would lie down on the sidewalk to watch the ants. 

Why bother? Although other people may not find animal behavior as riveting as I do, there is a practical reason to strive to understand why animals do what they do.  Mainly, there are things our animals do that we like and things they do that we don’t like.  One of the BIG things they do that is perfectly natural and appropriate for them but objectionable to us is a display of aggression.  But, if we can understand what motivates the behavior that we are not particularly happy about, we can come up with strategies to anticipate, manage, and minimize the potentially unpleasant or even dangerous situations that may occur as a consequence.

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The Myth of the "Aggressive" Dog

 Labels.  We use them all of the time to help us understand our world in shorthand.  I always cringe when I hear people say, “That is an aggressive dog!”  It makes it sound like “aggression” is an unchanging part of who he is—like a “brown dog,” or a “big dog,” or a “good-looking dog.”  I go into to full-blown clenched teeth/throbbing jugular vein when I hear people then go on to talk about “taking the aggression out of that dog” or “teaching that dog not to bite.”

NEWS FLASH!  Aggression is a normal part of canine behavior.  All dogs have the capacity to be aggressive.  All dogs will show aggressive behavior if sufficiently threatened.  All dogs can and will bite if they are pushed beyond their ability to cope.  It is a necessary part of survival. 

So what is difference between the dogs we label as "aggressive" and those who don’t carry this distinction?  It ends up being pretty simple.  The dogs that are showing aggressive behavior feel threatened in a given situation while the other dogs are not threatened, and thus are not showing the behavior.  Happy, relaxed dogs don’t growl, snarl, snap, or bite.  And, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it doesn't matter if WE think the dog should feel threatened in a given circumstance.  It only matters how the dog perceives the situation.

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My Dog is an Artist

My dog is an artist.  He works in poop the way fellow artists work in oils or clay.   He has pursued his craft over a lifetime and, while his approach is similar, there is always an exciting element of the unknown each time he creates a new piece.

As with all great artists, his choice of canvas is critical to the artistic process.  He expends great effort in investigating and evaluating where he will create his art.  The process is painstaking and requires great concentration.  

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Top 5 Mistakes People Make with their Puppies


While it is easy to believe that all you need to do is“add love” when you bring your puppy home, nothing could be farther from the truth!  There are many ways in which people can unwittingly damage their puppies, which often lead to significant behavioral problems later in life.  In a comprehensive study, 46.4% of dogs were relinquished to shelters because of behavior problems.  And, 47.4% of relinquished dogs were between the ages of 5 months and 3 years.  In my mind, it is no coincidence that this time frame overlaps with canine social maturation. People take naïve little pups, fail to properly raise them, and then make them someone else’s problem.  It is so much better, in the long run, to prevent these problems rather than trying to “fix” them once they have developed.    

Mistake 1:  Failure to educate oneself about puppy care and training before getting a puppy

Long before you get your puppy, you need to make sure you understand what that impossibly cute but highly challenging creature will need from you to grow up into a the most emotionally well-balanced and mannerly dog possible.  This adds up to about 12 months of work! 

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