Sunday, August 31, 2014

Product Review: Up Country Ribbon Collars

Up Country Ribbon Collars are flat buckle collars with unique decorative ribbon trim. The nylon collars come in various base colors, and there is an amazing variety of ribbon patterns. Up Country collars come in eight sizes to fit dogs with necks 6-27" around. The company also offers matching martingale collars, step-in harnesses, and 6' leashes.
Photo by Erin Koski

Up Country makes some very pretty dog collars, and they seem to be fairly durable, too. I've had bad experienced with ribbon overlay collars, but these are holding up admirably. I actually bought them in a thrift store to see if I could clean them up, they were pretty stinky and gross at the time. A few cycles through the washing machine with dish soap and they are lovely and odor-free again.

The biggest attraction of the Up Country collars is the patterns, there are just so many. Want a patriotic USA, British, or Canadian collar? One with rabbits or squirrels? Swordfish? Zebras? Alligators? Hot air balloons? They have over 100 different designs. I am planning to get Brisbane an Under the Sea collar because it has octopuses on it. We currently have whales and ladybugs.

Pros: Durable, adjustable collars with endless variety. Made in the USA. This was one of the first companies to make quality ribbon collars, Up Country has been around fo 30 years now.

Cons: No dinosaurs.

Bottom Line: These will not be the last Up Country collars to join our collection.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Puzzle Toy Review: Kyjen Star Spinner

The Kyjen Star Spinner is a plastic puzzle toy intended for use with close supervision.
Photo by Erin Koski

The Star Spinner has two levels, each with five compartments. The top level covers the bottom level, and the lid covers the top level. There is no resistance, and all three pieces spin freely. I have seen an adjustment knob on the bottom mentioned, but mine has no trace of this and the product website doesn't mention anything like that.

This is a ridiculously easy puzzle for most dogs to solve. The internet is filled with reviews complaining that it only takes a couple of nose nudges to open all ten compartments. Other issues include difficulty removing the treats for large and flat-faced dogs.
Photo by Erin Koski

I found this toy at a thrift store, so I originally wondered if parts were missing. What kind of dog can't figure out how to open this thing in two seconds flat? Then I gave it to Ulysses. This toy is a challenge for dogs that are skittish and unfamiliar with the concept of making things happen. Uly watched me load it up with kibble, gave it a few cautious sniffs and then looked sad that he could not find it. After watching me spin the lid back and forth a few times, he ventured to touch it with his nose and then startled at it moving. Once he became more comfortable with the whole concept, he attempted to eat the kibble, and instead bumped the lid shut again.

Puzzle Toy Rating

Capacity: 2/5
I can fit maybe half a cup of kibble in here, it's definitely not a food bowl substitute unless the dog is very small or eats very little.

Loading Speed: 5/5
Spin it open, pour in the food, spin it shut.

Unloading Speed (standard dog): 3/5
It took Ru a few minutes to nibble all the kibble out of all the different compartments, and Uly took more than ten minutes to warm up to the whole concept.

Unloading Speed (superdog): 1/5
For Brisbane I'm not sure this is any slower than a food bowl. It definitely takes me longer to fill it.

Size: 2/5
This is safe and even fun for tiny dogs to use. However, there is definitely a maximum size beyond which dogs will have trouble using this toy, and Briz and Uly are just about there at 40 and 45 pounds. The compartments are shaped in a way that makes the kibble annoying to retrieve even though it is very easy to find. The wider the dog's muzzle, the harder it will be for them to eat their treats. It probably varies from dog to dog, but I wouldn't give it to a Labrador, and even a French bulldog or Boston terrier might have trouble.

Durability: 2/5
This is a toy intended for use with very close supervision, as in, the handler should be right there beside the dog the entire time. It should not be chewed or flung. It should, however, be able to withstand a whole lot of scooting across the floor along with enthusiastic pawing and nosing.

Noise: 5/5
Rubber grips on the bottom make this toy quiet enough for a top level apartment with hard floors and no rugs. I guess it could be loud if the dog decided to scoot it around instead of just spinning it open, but the vast majority of dogs aren't that dumb.

Locatability: 5/5
Rubber grips, close supervision, and a lack of incentive to pick the puzzle up and carry it around means I always know where it is. It is usually on my counter, or in the toy box, unless I am actively cheerleading a dog into opening it.

Washability: 2/5
Oh god, it is nearly impossible to clean. Seriously, I needed three different types of scrub brush to get into all the little nooks. There are plenty of places for water to pool and hide too, so drying it can be a pain in the ass. It's probably not dishwasher safe, either.

Hoardability: 1/5
As this is a supervision-only toy, Brisbane is not allowed to drag it off to his lair. Not that he would need to, it's basically a food bowl and holds no allure once emptied.

Total: 28/50
As far as puzzle toys go, this one isn't that impressive. It is absolute cake for a problem-solving dog like Brisbane. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it made a nice, simple introduction puzzle for dogs unfamiliar with the concept.

Friday, August 29, 2014

All About Collars

Is a choke collar the same thing as a slip collar? What's the difference between a martingale and a half-slip collar? There are tons of different types of dog collars, but they can all be sorted into a handful of categories. Collars can be tried on human thighs and upper arms, for anyone curious about how they feel. I find this is an excellent way to compare various training collars and get a better idea of what I am subjecting my dogs to.

Photo by Erin Koski
Flat Collars
A flat collar does not tighten. Almost every type of collar can be adjusted to fit dogs of different sizes, but every collar that is designed to stay at a given size and not tighten up when leash pressure is applied can be considered a flat collar. The most common type is the flat buckle collar. This is the quintessential dog collar, usually made from leather or nylon webbing. It can have a traditional buckle like a belt buckle, a quick-release side-squeeze buckle, or some other sort of clasp or closure. 

There are also flat collars without buckles, designed to be slipped over the dog's head and then adjusted to the correct size. Tag collars for greyhounds, intended only to hold identification tags and not for leash attachment, often lack buckles to avoid irritating sensitive skin.

The flat collar is the most basic type of collar, it is great for holding tags and good for attaching a leash to some dogs. However, many dogs can back out of a flat collar if they try hard enough. Some dogs have fat necks, some have small heads, and most just don't have their collars adjusted tightly enough. A tight collar is less likely to get caught on anything, including another dog's jaw during play. However, a tight collar can also mat fur and irritate skin, and few dogs can't slip out of a tight flat collar in a panic.

Photo by Erin Koski
Slip Collars
A slip collar had a ring at either end. The length of the collar is dropped through one ring to form a noose that is slipped around the dog's neck. When leash pressure is applied, the collar tightens. There is no limit to how tight a slip collar can get. The single point of action on a slip collar can pinch, the ring is definitely the major pain-causing area when the collar is tight.

Photo by Erin Koski
Collars that tighten have what is called a "live ring". When the leash is attached to this ring and then pressure is applied, the collar pulls tight. Since slip collars have two rings, the second one is called the "dead ring".  If the leash were attached to this ring, and then pressure were applied, the collar would not tighten. In general, it's a bad idea to attach tags to a slip collar, but they are usually attached to the dead ring to prevent the weight from pulling the collar tight. It's also a bad idea to leave a slip collar on a dog because the live ring can get caught on something and strangle the dog. I've seen collars get caught on dewclaws, back feet, tree branches, fences, bucket handles, and other dogs' mouths, and in every case the outcome could have been tragic if the dog had been wearing a slip collar.

There is right and wrong way to put on a slip collar. When the dog is standing to the left of the handler, the chain coming off the live ring should travel across the back of the dog's neck and then under it and up to the dead ring. If the collar is put on upside down, it make not loosen up immediately when leash pressure ceases.

Slip collars are useful for dogs that can back out of flat collars. They are also helpful as emergency backup devices for head halters and no-pull harnesses, though most people use a martingale for this. Chain slip collars, known as choke chains and check chains, are the most effective for training that uses collar corrections. This is an outdated method of training though, and very few informed handlers use choke chains. A slip lead is a leash with a ring at the end, the leash can be dropped through the ring to make a slip collar. Slip leads are popular for quick and easy, escape-proof leashing. Slip collars and slip leads are not particularly effective at deterring dogs from pulling on the leash.

Photo by Erin Koski
Martingale Collars
A martingale collar has two loops. The large loop goes around the dog's neck. The small loop pulls the collar tight, and normally has a ring for attaching the leash. A martingale collar can be made from chain, fabric, or other materials. A prong collar is a type of martingale. Some martingale collars have a dead ring on the main part of the collar for attaching tags or a leash without pulling the collar tight.

Photo by Erin Koski
Because the loop pulls the collar tight from two directions, a martingale puts more even pressure on the dog's neck than a slip collar. This is evident when I put one of these on my arm or leg and pull it tight. Martingales don't pinch like slip collars. For these reasons, a martingale collar is not as effective as a slip collar for training that uses collar corrections.

A properly-fitted martingale collar should be just tight enough to prevent the dog from backing out of the collar, no matter how hard they pull. These work great for escape-artist dogs, and I like them because they loosen up when the dog isn't pulling, unlike a flat collar fitted tight enough to prevent escape. Brisbane has several martingale collars because his head is smaller than his neck, those enormous ears are just for show. I also use martingales on new or unfamiliar dogs, and as backups for head collars and certain types of harnesses.

Any collar that tightens should not be left on an unsupervised dog. Most martingales do not have a quick-release buckle, so a collar that gets caught on something will have to be cut off before it strangles the dog. A lot of people use martingales instead of flat buckle collars, and keep them adjusted as tightly as a flat collar. This means the collar will get tight enough to choke the dog when leash pressure is applied. Martingale collars with huge loops bug me a lot because they hang so loose when adjusted properly. I feel like they are designed by people who don't actually know how these things are supposed to work.

Photo by Erin Koski
Limited Slip Collars
A limited slip collar is one that tightens to a certain point, but does not become infinitely tight like a full slip collar. A martingale is a type of limited slip collar, but not all limited slip collars are martingales. The one shown is a limited slip, but does not have a loop so it is not a martingale. A limited slip collar can also be called a half choke, half slip, semi-choke, or any other name that translates to "chokes, but not all the way".

Limited slip collars can be adjusted tight enough to prevent escape without strangling the dog, but they have the same issue as full slip collars where they pinch when tight. This isn't much of an issue when the collar is fitted properly.

The difference between a martingale and a non-martingale limited slip collar can be subtle, I think the best way is to look at the part that tightens and see if it forms a loop that slides freely through two rings. The Bark Buster's collar in my picture is not a martingale because there is no loop, the chain is fixed to one of the rings and slides through the other. The EzyDog Checkmate collar looks like it has a loop, but this is not a martingale because one end of the loop is fixed to the slide beside the buckle. The Bison Designs slip collars are not martingales because they only slide through one ring, the other side of the loop is fixed to the collar.

Recently I have come across a couple of different styles of leather limited slip collars. Both were tapered near the ring, and the widening strap prevented the collar from tightening too much. One was a very pretty decorative collar on a very pretty Doberman pinscher. The other was a nasty, primitive prong collar with metal spikes on the inside. It was called a prong collar, and sold for use on hunting dogs. Yeesh. I don't have pictures of either of these, but I may eventually track down the vendor who sold the pretty one and get one Brisbane. The other one can be found by Googling "leather prong collar".
Photo by Erin Koski

Electronic Collars 
Electronic collar, e-collar, or remote collar are all names for shock collars. There are automatic shock collars that trigger when the dog barks. There are electric fence collars that trigger when the dog approaches sensors. The accuracy of these types of shock collars seems to be largely related to quality, and some people have reported the cheaper ones (PetSafe) going off and punishing dogs at the wrong times. Shock collars all have a little box with two electric contact prongs sticking inward, towards the dog. These need to be in contact with the dog's skin to work properly, and so the collar needs to be snug. Bark collars need to be positioned at the front of the dog's neck. Dogs with thick coats may need to have a small area trimmed or shaved for the e-collar to be effective.

Shock collars work by zapping the dog with an electric shock, and most people who use them on their dogs have tested them on themselves first and can attest to the collar providing a strong zap and not just a little pop. For this reason, shock collars are a really bad idea for sensitive, reactive, and fearful dogs. Painful, negative experiences are exceptionally bad for sensitive dogs like herding breeds, and it is impossible to predict exactly what lesson the dog will take away from the experience. The dog may learn that rolling in dead stuff is bad, but they may just as easily associate the shock with a random sound, sight, or texture. Negative training is always a gamble, and shock collars can up the ante in a big way.

That said, there are some uses for e-collars. The one on Brisbane is a thrift store find, it doesn't work and we only use it for a prop. Some high-quality collars have a warning, or pager, setting that makes the collar vibrate without shocking. This is extremely useful for deaf dogs, and can also be a way to enforce off-leash commands for some dogs in some situations. There are a lot of details to correct e-collar use, ways to hopefully prevent the dog from becoming wise to the collar and knowing when it can and can't be shocked, and ways to maximize the effectiveness. In the hands of an experienced and skilled trainer, a shock collar is rarely used to shock. Many people view them as a quick and easy way to train their dogs to be reliable off leash though, without realizing the potential for harm. In most cases, the dog shouldn't be off leash anyway. Electronic collars are risky business, and I personally cannot see myself using one for anything other than a photography prop.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Product Review: Dogzilla Bone

Petmate's Dogzilla toys are durable rubber chew toys that come in various shapes and sizes. Most can be stuffed with peanut butter or treats. Dogzilla toys are available at Walmart and various other retailers.
"Here Briz, hold this."
Photo by Erin Koski

Let's be honest here, these are direct competitors to the Kong toys, and that's ok. The durable chew market has been around for a long time, and we have everything from Nylabones to Bionic toys to choose from. The Dogzilla toys aren't niche products by small companies driven to create products inspired by their own dogs, though. These are large-scale mass-produced for big box stores, and I often wonder if any of the people involved in the design and production process have ever actually used them with their own dogs. I get that these are supposed to be a low-cost option for people to grab while they're at Walmart, my local OSH sells them too.

Photo by Erin Koski

My beef with the Dogzilla toys is just that they feel like someone came up with an idea that looked good on paper, someone else signed off on it, and they went ahead and produced it. The result is our Dogzilla bone. One end has a wide triangular opening, the other end is completely closed except for an air hole. The two ends are connected by a passage just wide enough to fit very small kibbles through. This toy is impossible to clean, impossible to stuff with normal kibble, and impossible to get anything out of once it has been lost down the tube.

I kind of think the idea was to make a toy that could be stuffed with kibble and then emptied out, but the passage in our large toy is too narrow for most kibbles to fit. I can't make treats tiny enough to fit easily into the tube of the toy, and when I tried stuffing kibble down it I couldn't get it back out until I soaked it into oblivion and just rinsed it. The dogs can't get anything out of it either.

With two-thirds of the toy being unusable, that leaves the big open end for stuffing with peanut butter and other treats. I can fit a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter in there, but the opening is so wide I may as well be spreading it in a bowl. I have tried freezing it, but there's no way to turn this into a long-lasting challenge.

Pros: An affordable chew toy that is widely available. The current ones are blue, dogs are supposed to be able to see the color blue really well. Some of the shapes are better designed than this one.

Cons: Not as durable as Kong, Nylabone, or Bionic toys. Design flaws make me feel like this was designed by a committee who wasn't planning to give this toy to their own dogs. Impossible to clean, and either ridiculously easy or impossible to unstuff depending on where the food is placed.

Bottom Line: I bought this toy on a trip when I realized I needed to entertain Brisbane in a crate for several hours and had forgotten all of our puzzle toys. It sort of served its purpose, but I would have bought a different Dogzilla toy or a Kong if either of these options had been available. The Dogzilla bone has fallen out of our freezer toy rotation because it is just kind of useless.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Pinkening

Photo by Erin Koski

Ru is pink again.

Photo by Erin Koski

Photo by Erin Koski

In bright sunlight he's sort of an eye-watering, mind-bending pink. He is so pink that, when he is not moving, few people immediately recognize him as a dog.

Heck, even when he's moving, people don't recognize him as a dog. Nobody's brain is primed to see something that pink scamper past and automatically assign it a species. My husband still gets weirded out when he catches Ru out of the corner of his eye. Ru has been dyed for the last four summers, and his (my husband's) subconscious still goes "WTF?!" every now and then.

Kids like to ask "Is that a pink dog?" Usually I say yes, but I want to say "Of course not, there's no such thing as a pink dog." I enjoy making everyone's day a little more surreal.

Photo by Erin Koski

As per usual, Ru is dyed with Manic Panic's Fuschia Shock. It is a nontoxic vegetable-based dye that I use on my own hair. I've gotten it in my own eyes. My cats have licked it off themselves. I am confident that this dye is safe for babies and tiny dogs.

Photo by Erin Koski

Photo by Erin Koski

I think he likes being pink.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Product Review: Pet Flys Snuggle Bug

The Pet Flys Snuggle Bug is a multi-function carrier and bed for small dogs and cats. It is available in a variety of colors and patterns, and includes a matching pillow bed and blanket.
Photo by Erin Koski

Finally, I found a purse that Ru will ride in happily and willingly. This carrier looks like it was made for him, and therefore it is ridiculous. The inside is fleecy soft fabric, the outside is plush fake fur, so it's basically a sack made out of blankies. The bottom is solid, so he feels comfortable standing on it, and the little pillow bed fits perfectly in there for cushioning and also naps.

This bag does all sorts of things. The sides can be rolled down to make a little nest bed. I can attach the shoulder strap to the lower rings to make the carrier less deep. I can lay it on its side to make a burrow bag. Pet Flys also shows it in a car with the strap hooked around the head rest to make it a car seat, but that wouldn't provide any protection for Ru in an actual collision. The entire bag is also reversible, and the clasps for the strap are pretty awesome. Camo isn't really my style, but it's worth it if he'll actually ride quietly.

Pros: Made of layers of blankies for tiny, cold, naked dogs. Also irresistible to cats. Solid bottom is comfortable for dogs that don't like riding in soft-bottomed bags. Also functions as a snuggly bed. Ridiculously warm and soft.

Cons: Looks ridiculous, very large and ostentatious in entirely the wrong way for those of us who aren't into fashion. Hot as hell for dogs that actually have fur. Cats and dogs fight over it.

Bottom Line: Only for very, very spoiled little dogs. Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be seen with him.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The August Allergy-Friendly BarkBox

Last month I almost canceled our BarkBox subscription when I received yet another box of mostly chicken-based treats and unappealing toys. I was informed that there was a new allergy-friendly BarkBox we could try, with no chicken, turkey, beef, corn, soy, gluten, or wheat. While we could still be showered with duck and egg-filled goodies, I figured it would significantly increase our chances of getting Brisbane-safe treats. BarkBox delivered!

We got a big bag of heart-shaped Superior Farms Venison Biscuits! Grain-free, egg-free, and poultry-free, these are easily my favorite thing we've ever gotten in a BarkBox. They're also a bit nostalgic, we got a bag of lamb-flavored biscuits in one of our first BarkBoxes, and they were Josie's favorite treat. She went out crunching a bowl of them at the vet. These are stinky, dense cookies that are the perfect size for cramming into Kongs and other stuffable toys.

The other bag of cookies is Feel Good Treat Co Seafood Chowder, and it outdoes the venison treats for stink. These things are fishy as hell, in the worst way. We got some Baker's Best Maple-Glazed Salmon with Blueberries treats from the same company in our March BarkBox, but those weren't anywhere near this level of funk. The dogs love them.

We got a Jax and Bones Nautical Wheel Rope Toy that Ulysses helpfully chomped. Knotted rope toys aren't very popular around here, but on visiting the site I discovered that they have both a sauropod and an octopus rope toy. Yes, I'm complaining again that I didn't get the right toy in my box. I know we're signed up for the allergy-friendly BarkBox, can they also make a dinosaurs-and-cephalopods BarkBox?

The last item is one that I'm very excited about, it's a Waboba Fetch ball. Waboba, the ball that bounces on water. We have got to get to the pool with this one ASAP. A ball that bounces on water might be enough to get Brisbane to actually jump off the side of the pool instead of insisting on taking the stairs every time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Puzzle Toy Review: Starmark Treat Dispensing Jack

The Starmark Treat Dispensing Jack is a flexible rubber toy with four hollow arms and a rope running through the middle. There is an opening in the end of each arm to dispense small treats and kibble. It comes in Small, Medium and Large sizes, our Treat Dispensing Jack is a medium.
Photo by Erin Koski

This is a recent addition to the Starmark product line, and I am very pleased with it so far. We have quite a few Starmark toys, and not all of them are quite so appealing. For some reason, Brisbane is unwilling to fully empty the large Treat Dispensing Chew Ball or the Everlasting Treat Ball. He gets almost everything out immediately, and then sort of loses interest. The Treat Dispensing Jack, on the other hand, dispenses treats slowly enough to keep him busy for a good long time, but fast enough to hold his interest.

Puzzle Toy Rating

Capacity: 3/5
I can fit Brisbane's entire 1/4 cup ration of kibble in there, but that's all. This is a toy for keeping dogs busy, but won't fit a normal dog's dinner.

Loading Speed: 4/5
Using a soda bottle funnel helps a little, but the holes on the Jack are a little too small for truly easy loading. It doesn't really hold that much kibble, though.

Unloading Speed (standard dog): 5/5
Ulysses has to take breaks while emptying this thing.

Unloading Speed (superdog): 5/5
Easily half an hour or more for Brisbane to get 1/4 cup of kibble out of it, and he's willing to keep working at it the entire time with great gusto.

Size: 5/5
Comes in three sizes to fit any dog. Ru would be able to use the small without being squashed or intimidated. The Medium is perfect for Briz and Uly, and the large would work even for giant dogs.

Durability: 5/5
No complaints here, and Brisbane demolished Starmark's Everlasting Fire Plug so I have limited faith in their toys. I wouldn't give this to a power chewer, but it holds up fine with normal dogs.

Photo by Erin Koski
Noise: 5/5
Soft rubber and cotton rope make for quiet play, even when Brisbane is bashing it against the side of a wire crate.

Locatability: 5/5
It doesn't roll or fit under the furniture, so we've never lost it. Meanwhile, our blue Kong is currently at large somewhere in the house.

Washability: 2/5
Not quite as annoying as the Kong Quest toys, but still pretty annoying to wash. The rope makes drying take forever, too. It's pretty tempting not to just give up and not wash it at all, but then it just ends up covered in hair and dried slobber.

Hoardability: 5/5
Brisbane prefers to empty this one out from the comfort of his crate.

Total: 44/50
This is currently what Brisbane eats most of his meals out of. With increased time spent crated, it's helping all of us keep our sanity.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Tale of the Buster Cube

Gather 'round while I tell a tale of mystery and the unexplained...

The Buster Cube, by Our Pets, was the first food-dispensing toy I ever bought for Brisbane. It was nearly ten years ago, maybe longer. It's possible that I bought the first one for Oakley, my first dog. Back then, the Buster Cube was a lot more cube-like, the current model has very rounded edges. Those things are pretty big, and made from hard plastic. It was a loud toy, but back then I still lived with my parents, and their house has wall-to-wall carpet in almost every room. The Buster Cube served its purpose, it held more than a cup of kibble and kept Brisbane entertained as he bashed it into walls. The rotating center column never functioned in either of my Cubes, it always jammed on the first turn and could never be rotated or adjusted. At any rate, it was a neat toy. Our first one was red.

One day I went looking for the Cube in order to fill it up, and couldn't find it anywhere. Brisbane often shoved it under the furniture, and Oakley occasionally rolled it into her lair beneath the bed. After several weeks of searching intermittently, I broke down and replaced with a large Blue Buster Cube. This one also disappeared eventually, but by then I had acquired the TreatStik and a few other puzzle toys, so finding the Cube became less urgent. I always assumed it was under the bed or something, and that I would find it when I eventually moved out and emptied my room.

I have since gotten married, moved out, and emptied my old room. My parents have remodeled and redecorated, they have removed, rearranged, or replaced every single piece of furniture in the house over the last ten years. The Buster Cubes have never been found.

Where did they go? They were too large for Brisbane to pick up and carry, and much too big and obvious to have gotten mixed up in a pile of laundry or anything else we had around the house. They both vanished during the middle of the day when everyone in the house was at school or at work. While it's possible that one of my parents or siblings got fed up with the rattling noise and tossed the Cubes, it's much more likely that they would have complained about it first. None of Brisbane's noisier or more obnoxious toys vanished while I lived there. Just the Cubes.

Briz has much better puzzle toys now, but I haven't replaced the Buster Cube because it just feels too weird. What if it disappears again?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Product Review: Kong Dental

The Kong Dental is a durable rubber toy with ridges for cleaning teeth. It is hollow and stuffable, and comes in Large and Extra Large sizes.
Photo by Erin Koski

This is currently our oldest Kong, I bought it way back when Brisbane was only a couple of years old and eating premade ground raw food. I used to stuff his meals in sterilized marrow bones, but those were too difficult to clean so I switched to durable rubber toys. This one is amazing because it has an enormous capacity inside, and ours is the smaller of the two sizes. I can stuff it with half a pound of raw meat, or enough peanut butter to make Brisbane puke peanut butter all over the house. That's a feature.

Photo by Erin Koski 

We have large and extra large Classic Kongs, and those are big enough that Briz and Uly can't empty them all the way out. I always end up having to scrub that last bit of peanut butter or sweet potato out of the ends. This Kong doesn't have that problem because both sides are open. The dogs do most of the work so I don't have to scrub it every time I find it under the couch. This Kong went through the dishwasher regularly back when we lived in a house with a dishwasher.

Photo by Erin Koski

Pros: Large capacity with easy access for dogs who can't quite lick all the way to the bottom of a Kong-shaped Kong. Easy-to-carry dumbell shape for throwing and fetching fun. Hella durable, this one has survived at least seven years of relentless dishwashing, freezing, and gnawing.

Cons: Doesn't actually clean teeth. Maybe it would work that way if my dogs were both big enough and inclined to gnaw it like a bone? Doesn't come in ultra-tough black or x-ray opaque blue, only red.

Bottom Line: Definitely a valued part of our Kong collection.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cheapass Dog Fun: A Quieter Crate Tray Replacement

Our local thrift shops provide me with a perpetual treasure hunt, and several of them even have specific sections for pet stuff. I recently purchased a 36" wire crate minus its tray for $10. I have three different 36" crates, and at least two of them are usually set up in the house. When I wanted to use the third crate, I just slid the tray out of one of the others and brought it along with me.

When I began crating and rotating Brisbane and Ulysses, I found I needed all three crates. With
only two dogs to crate, I could still pull the tray out and stick it in whichever I needed at the moment, but this was highly inefficient and just plain obnoxious. Replacement crate pans were $30 or more, and new crates around $45 at Ross. While hunting on the internet for a less expensive DIY option, I found people suggesting plywood, cardboard, and finally horse stall mats. 

At my local hardware store, I found 24" foam floor squares. These link together, are thin enough to cut, and provide cushioning and shock absorption. They are, however, fairly thin. When I put a single square in the pan-less crate and then leaned my bony forearms on it, I could easily feel the wire crate bottom. It took three layers of foam before I could rest comfortably without feeling the bars under the foam. Yes, this did involve crawling halfway into the crate and planking on my forearms. It was worth it.

The nice thing about these interlocking foam tiles is that they are easy to cut. The width was perfect for my 36" crates, but the 24" tiles were obviously too short. A second tile, cut in half, fit perfectly. The tiles interlock nicely so I don't have to worry about them gapping, and since I have multiple layers of tile in there the seams don't have to line up. 

The tiles fit ok with just a little bending of the wavy puzzle edges, but they fit my crates much better without the wiggly bits. Note: When cutting off the wiggly bits, be sure to leave one edge intact if connecting multiple tiles! My tiles each came with a couple of thin edge pieces for making the tile a square with no wiggly bits. I put a couple of these under the plastic trays in my other two crates to keep the pans from rattling against the bottom. Brisbane doesn't like rattly crate trays, and I don't like hearing every time a dog moves during the night.
I could see this being a viable solution for any size crate, though my dogs are all under 50 pounds. The seams connecting the mats might be more prone to gapping with a heavier dog. I bought a pack of six tiles for $20 and used 4.5 of them to make a new crate floor. It wasn't a whole lot less than the $30 plastic replacement trays, but I like it a lot better. It's silent when the dogs move, and I imagine it's a lot more comfortable for them too.

The obvious downside is that these aren't quite as easy to clean as a plastic tray. When Ulysses tipped over a bucket of water in the crate, I had to pull out all three layers and lay them out to dry separately. On the the other hand, these aren't prone to warping like a big ol' sheet of plastic. They're lighter than plywood, too.

Another obvious drawback is that these would be way more fun to chew than plastic. None of my dogs is destructive, they don't demolish toys or gnaw the furniture. 
If my dogs liked to chew things for fun, I would be replacing my crate tray with a store-bought plastic or metal crate pan, or looking for an appropriately-sized metal oil pan. Fortunately, my guys are content lounging in their crates instead of eating them.

The foam crate floor has only been in service for a couple of weeks, but I already like it better than the plastic pans because it is quiet. I'm willing to bet it is more comfortable, too. While it's not a solution for every dog, shock-absorbing or anti-fatigue mats have got to be more comfortable than plastic for bony elbows and elderly joints. Have I mentioned that it's quiet? The foam crate floor is currently in one of our bedroom crates, and I no longer wake to the sounds of dogs getting more comfortable at 2am. I even used my last tile and a half to pad the existing tray in the other crate.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Product Review: Gooby Freedom Harness

The Gooby Freedom Harness is a Roman-style mesh harness with synthetic lambskin straps. It comes in nine colors and five sizes to fit dogs with chests 10" to 24" around.
Photo by Erin Koski

I believe Gooby was the first company to make mesh dog harnesses, I started seeing ones by Puppia and other companies in the big box stores years after the first Gooby harnesses hit the market. This isn't the most adjustable harness in the world, the neck doesn't change size and the belly straps can get an inch or two bigger.

Most harnesses of this type don't fit Ru, normally the head hole is a tight squeeze while the belly strap is too loose. This is a size Medium Freedom harness, the Small barely fit over his head and seemed to be strangling him. The straps on the Medium are too big.

I don't like the way the synthetic lambskin on this harness ages, either. The straps are nice and soft, but they start looking dirty really quickly. Ru's harness has spent the last four years in a dark cupboard and the suede has somehow faded to a completely different color than the mesh portion of the harness.

Pros: The first mesh harness on the market, distributes force evenly, provides shock absorption. Breathable fabric.

Cons: Minimal size adjustment, it either fits or a it doesn't. The suede straps are difficult to clean and the color fades over time.

Bottom Line: If it fit Ru, he would probably wear it in the summer. Gooby has made some minor improvements to the Freedom harness over the last few years, and also have the Freedom II harness now. The new ones all have plastic buckles instead of metal, and the straps on the Freedom II are microseude. No idea if they clean up any better though.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Product Review: Dog Tag Art

Dog Tag Art allows customers to design their own dog tags, or choose from zillions of user-submitted designs for a unique identification tag. The tags come in size Large (1.25") and Small (7/8"), and fit up to four lines of text.
Photo by Erin Koski

When I first saw these tags, I assumed they were just painted aluminum like the cheap tags in the insta-tag machines at the pet store. I see a lot of those on dogs around here, and around half of them are scratched or worn to the point of being totally illegible. Rubbing against other tags all day, everyday takes its toll on ID tags.

Dog Tag Art tags are something totally different, though. They are made with a steel core coated in a durable polymer that looks and feels like porcelain. The edges are smooth and round. The entire tag feels solid.

Brisbane's Dog Tag Art tag still looks brand new, partly because it came with a free tag protector that keeps the edges from getting dinged while preventing the center from rubbing against the other tags. The company guarantees that their tags will be readable for life, but I still expected mine to get scratched up and look terrible before long. My expectations have been exceeded in every way.

Pros: A nearly infinite number of designs to choose from, and if none of those will do, I can always design my own. Guaranteed to remain readable for life or it will be replaced, this company stands behind their products. 

Cons: I wish there was room for more lines of text, I like putting down their microchip numbers, street address in case they escape from home, and city/state in case they get lost while traveling.

Bottom Line:  I think Ru might need a brontosaurus or Flying Spaghetti Monster tag. I am also considering making them some travel tags with the extra info that didn't fit on the allowed four lines.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Choke Chains: Not Actually for Strangling Your Dog

The choke chain, or check chain, is one of the most commonly used training collars, and one of the most abused. It is my least favorite training device because it is the only one I know of that causes harm when used both properly and improperly.
Photo by Erin Koski

How to Use a Choke Chain
A properly used choke chain is almost always loose. Unlike a prong collar, which should be adjusted to fit snugly, a choke chain should be several inches larger than the dog's neck.

The correct way to use a choke chain is to give a correction when the dog is not performing the desired action. A correction is given by giving the leash a sharp jerk, pulling the chain tight to hurt the dog's neck. Dr. Sophia Yin describes the proper technique here in more detail, it requires quite a bit of leverage and actually twisting the body to apply enough force. During a proper choke chain correction, some of the dog's feet may actually leave the ground. Once the dog has experienced this sort of pain, a light collar pop is often enough of a reminder.

Using a choke chain on a dog that pulls on the leash should look like this: dog walks to end of leash, handler gives almighty yank of doom, dog walks to end of leash, handler gives almighty yank of doom, dog becomes wary of hitting the end of the leash and learns to walk nicely OR ELSE. Next time dog becomes excited and hits the end of the leash, the handler can give them a light snap to see if they remember how to walk nicely, before resorting to the almighty yank of doom. Overall, the dog should experience a small number of hard yanks, and a lot of small pops while learning how to walk on leash.

Photo by Erin Koski
A thinner choke chain is more severe than one with big fat links, in general the thinner-is-more-severe rule holds true for everything but prong collars. A wider collar distributes pressure across a larger area, while a thinner collar concentrates and magnifies any force exerted. Thin choke chains are popular in the conformation show ring because they are subtle and don't draw attention away from the dog, and at the same time look a bit like elegant jewelry. Big fat chains are easier on the dog's neck, less severe when popped, and scream "THIS IS A CHAIN!" for those who like to accessorize.

The most effective way to use a choke chain is to keep it high on the dog's neck when tightened. This is where there is the least muscle, and the most sensitive nerves along with important things like arteries. It guarantees that the chain will hurt the most when yanked, and most effectively cuts off the dog's air supply when lifted up. I never use choke chains, I bought these at a thrift store specifically for this blog post.

How Not to Use a Choke Chain
One of the reasons people use choke chains is because this type of collar tightens up when pressure is applied, and prevents the dog from backing out. More importantly, the collar remains loose when no pressure is applied. A flat collar must be very tight indeed to prevent the dog from backing out, and some dogs can back out of anything that doesn't tighten. Martingale collars and harnesses also prevent dogs from escaping, but without causing the same type of damage to the neck as an ever-tightening noose.
Photo by Erin Koski

The average pet owner isn't using a choke chain to prevent escape, though. Most seem to be using it as a bandaid for pulling on leash. The choke chain is simultaneously the least effective and most damaging way to try to stop dogs from pulling on walks. No-pull harnesses and head collars are both fairly effective bandaid solutions for pulling. The Easy Walk front-clip harness is currently my favorite no-effort solution for dogs that pull. It causes little to no discomfort, minimal harm so long as it isn't being used for running or by canine athletes, and can be effectively used just by clipping it on and walking without training. It can be a great training aid too, but it makes a decent bandaid for people who just want to take a damned walk without getting dragged down the street.

The average dog owner seems to think choke chains work by causing discomfort when the dog pulls. The vast majority of the ones I see on dogs are either much too long or much too short. The chain is always resting around the base of the neck, and the wearer is pulling like a sled dog. Choke chains are terrible bandaids for pulling because they just aren't that aversive when used like this. Most dogs don't really mind, or even notice that they are being strangled. The sensation is of a slow, gradual squeeze rather than the sudden pinch from a prong collar, and many dogs are perfectly willing to pull through that feeling. There's nothing to help them connect between leash pressure and not being able to breathe because these don't happen at the same time.

Photo by Erin Koski
Why Not to Use a Choke Chain
When used correctly, a choke chain is used to inflict pain as a method of training. When used incorrectly, a choke chain is used as an ineffective deterrent to pulling on leash. Unlike most training tools out there, a choke chain also causes harm no matter how it is used. Those sharp collar corrections high on the neck damage tracheas and glands and other delicate structures. The chronic strangulation of the choke chain sitting low on the neck of a dog allowed to pull causes eye damage. Using a choke chain to deliberately strangle, drag or hang a dog like a certain TV dog trainer can cause brain damage severe enough that the only kind solution is euthanasia.

There just isn't any reason at all to be using a choke chain in 2014 when we have all sorts of other options for communicating with our dogs and solving behavior problems. Just about every other training tool on the market is safer, more effective, less aversive, and easier to use.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Product Review: Ruffwear Knot-a-Collar

The Ruffwear Knot-a-Collar is a flat collar made from reflective climbing rope. The current model features a tag silencer, a leash ring that remains oriented on top of the neck, and a buckle-free design. It comes in four colors and two sizes to fit dogs with necks 14-26" around.
Photo by Erin Koski

Ruffwear's Knot-a-Collar has gone through several redesigns since I first became a fan of the company. The first one I ever saw was a breakaway design intended to hold tags and come off if the collar got caught on anything. This was eventually discontinued, and the Knot-a-Collar I own was introduced. Mine is an adjustable flat buckle collar with a leash ring, and is made from significantly thicker rope than the original or current models.

The current Knot-a-Collar is made from thinner rope than mine, and has no buckle. Instead, the size adjusts via a pair of sliding knots. It is truly a minimalist collar. Mine is a little more ordinary, but is still a collar made out of climbing rope. The round rope slides into Brisbane's coat nicely, and makes it look as though he isn't even wearing a collar. It does its job of carrying his identification tags and providing a leash attachment point without screaming "COLLAR!" or distracting from anything else on the dog.

Pros: Strong, sturdy, and guaranteed for life. Rounded rope slides into fur without breaking or matting. Keeps leash ring on top. Lightweight design is gentle on sensitive skin. Reflective trim gives night visibility.

Cons: Sliding knot design of current model may loosen up if adjusted poorly, making the collar easier to escape. The current Knot-a-Collar is 7mm rope and thinner than many people expect. Lacks a quick-release buckle in case of entanglement.

Bottom Line: This makes a great tag-holding collar for long-hair fluffy dogs, and also for dogs with thin coats and delicate skin, like sighthounds. It is a wonderful minimalist collar that is almost a necklace.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Crate and Rotate

I am currently managing the issues between Brisbane and Ulysses, but for the first couple of weeks after I got bit, I had them on a crate and rotate routine.

What is "Crate and Rotate"?
Crate and Rotate is a management technique for keeping two dogs in the same house separated. It is most useful for preventing fights between dogs. 

How does it work?
The idea is that the two dogs are never unrestrained in the same space at the same time. When one dog is a liberty in the house, the other is contained in a crate or xpen, behind a door or baby gate in another room, or outside. The dogs take turns being loose in the house and being contained. At my house I generally had either Brisbane or Ulysses in the crate in my living room. I also have two crates in the bedroom, a baby gate across the doorway of my office, a bathroom, and a fenced front yard in which to stash dogs.

What are the benefits?
Crate and rotate allowed me to keep both Brisbane and Ulysses in my house without giving them the opportunity to fight. After Ulysses bit me, I initially felt that I could not keep him in my house because I could not prevent him from fighting with Brisbane. Our options were to find him another foster home (always in short supply) or euthanize him. While I discussed the issue with my rescue peeps, I decided to crate and rotate the dogs. Briz and Uly both like hanging out in crates, so the urgency to make a decision quickly faded. After a couple of weeks with incredibly tight management, I started to feel more comfortable working with him.

I now feel comfortable having them loose at the same time with close supervision, so I can let one out of the crate and put the other one in without worrying that they'll suddenly erupt into violence. I'm still doing a lot of crating though, as it allows me to use various food puzzle toys and long-lasting chews that could start a fight if both dogs were loose. To keep the boys happy about being crated, I always send them in with a chew, stuffed Kong, or at least a cookie. Sometimes I even toss something super exciting in there and then close the crate without letting them in, they stand there staring at that knuckle bone for a while and are extremely satisfied when I finally let them in to have a good chew.

What are the drawbacks?
When we're all just chilling in the living room, nobody minds being in a crate. It's a much harder system to maintain when I've just gotten home from work and want to greet everyone and let them out to pee. It's tough when someone has to wait their turn. Playing musical dogs was also sometimes irritating, since I was doing total separation I couldn't just let Ulysses out of the crate and send Brisbane in. Instead I would have to shut Brisbane in the bedroom, let Ulysses out of the crate and put him outside or in the office, then put Brisbane in the crate before letting Uly back into the house.

The biggest drawback to crate and rotate is that it is a management system that relies entirely on not messing up. One person who is always alert and vigilant might be able to pull it off flawlessly, but the reality is that there are two people living in my house, and sometimes we are tired or distracted, which increases the likelihood that someone is going to forget and let the wrong dog out at the wrong time. The risk for our situation was relatively low, since neither dog had hurt the other, their fights were not occurring on a daily basis, and they could at least tolerate each other almost all of the time.

If I was dealing with a much more serious aggression problem, the risk of messing up would be significantly higher. I would not be comfortable using crate and rotate to manage two dogs who were at serious risk of hurting each other, or two dogs who disliked each other enough to have a conflict every time they interacted. I would not use crate and rotate if I didn't trust my husband to maintain this system or just leave the dogs where I put them when I'm not home. I wouldn't use this system if I had children or other irresponsible/unpredictable people in my house.

Does Crate and Rotate Really Work?
This management system allowed me to keep Brisbane and Ulysses in the same house with a barrier between them at all times. It allowed both dogs to participate in family life without the stress of trying to deal with someone they don't like. It gave me time to analyze Ulysses and the bite he inflicted, and make a well-thought out decision instead of euthanizing him in despair. Crating and rotating also provided Brisbane and Ulysses with some much-needed structure and routine, and some practice at waiting their turn. It is currently allowing them to enjoy both the company of our family and high-value chew items at the same time, without fear that another dog might take their prize. Crating and rotating allows me to have training sessions with one dog at a time, and allows both dogs to have rambunctious play time without the other policing their activity.

While it's not the solution for every household dog aggression issue, crating and rotating is an excellent way to manage dogs that don't get along.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Product Review: PetSafe Clik-R

The PetSafe Premier Clik-R is a training clicker with a finger loop on the back. It has a soft, low volume click. This product only comes in one size and color.
Photo by Erin Koski
This is a nice little clicker, it makes a sound a little quieter than the iClick, much softer than the big box clickers that can spook sensitive animals. It is much larger than the iClick, and has nice rounded edges that make it more comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

The best part about this clicker is that is has a little elastic band on the back that allows me to slip it on a finger. This keeps it in a convenient position when I'm juggling treats, targeting objects, leashes, and other training paraphernalia. Fair warning: a lot of reviews for this clicker state that the elastic loop is much too small and squeezes their normal-size fingers. Others complain that it is too loose and slips off their thumb easily. I wear rings in sizes 7-9 and the loop on my Clik-R works exactly as intended.

Pros: Super-convenient finger loop keeps clicker in my hand way better than a wrist strap. Raised button allows it to be clicked with a foot/elbow/chin/buttcheek. Loop at bottom allows for attachment of neck lanyard or wrist strap. This is a super-quiet clicker, great for skittish pets and group classes where not everyone wants to hear me click.

Cons: This product seems to have some quality control issues, some people have issue with the button sticking and the size of the finger loop seems to vary wildly. Not all dogs respond well to the soft click, and can miss the marker in noisy areas.

Bottom Line: I don't like it as much as the iClick, but I still use my Clik-R all the time because that finger loop is just so cool.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Twilight Zone

Last week Ulysses and I met someone from a local rescue who hoped she could help with his behavior issues. Unfortunately, I knew we wouldn't be able to work together the moment she said that my chihuahua was exhibiting dominance by begging for treats. Veterinary behaviorists, accomplished trainers in many fields, and pretty much the entirety of the dog training community would agree that Ru begs before treats because he has been rewarded for doing so in the past. Only TV dog trainers and those who want to set dog training back thirty years would insist that my chihuahua begs for treats because he believes himself to be above me in our pack structure, and would automatically cease this behavior if he learned his proper subordinate place relative to myself.

Suffice to say I won't be reverting to any outdated beliefs in the mythical pack structure of wolves in order to work with Ulysses. I'll be sticking with the principles of behaviorism, which work on everything and not just dogs.

Working with Ulysses is fascinating because he is so very different from Brisbane. I am fortunate to have a dog who broadcasts his emotional state so effectively, it's easy to tell when Brisbane is too excited or stressed to learn because he is hysterically screambarking. I made a graph to illustrate this:

It is worth pointing out that Brisbane will still take treats even when he is having hysterics. Ulysses is much more subtle, and he acts deceptively calm almost all of the time.

At a certain point Uly will lunge and bark at exciting things, but well before that he gets stressed enough to stop taking treats. He is probably giving other signs of his stress level as well, but for now the only way I can tell when he crosses over into the Twilight Zone is when he stops taking treats.

On Sunday Uly and I went for a nice walk on the trails at a very low traffic time of day. When we were walking together on the empty trail, he stayed in the operant zone. Passing other people on the trail puts him into the Twilight Zone. Passing another heeler/Australian shepherd mix running alongside a bicycle put him all the way up to biting stuff, and kept him excited enough to pull on the leash instead of walking nicely.

Ulysses seems to be naturally good at loose leash walking, but I would like him to check in rather than just exist at the end of a slack leash. Fortunately, Uly's default behavior seems to be checking in, so when he does hit the end of the leash I just wait patiently for him to come back and look at me. I give him a treat, and we keep walking.

The exception to this pattern was when we saw the other dog run past. Uly ran to the end of the leash and stayed there, staring down the trail in the direction she had gone. When he finally came back to check in, he took the treat I offered and then dropped it. As soon as we resumed walking, he hit the end of the leash and leaned against it again, so I waited for him to finish watching down the trail and come back to check in. The fourth time we did this, Uly finally ate his treat, and when we resume walking he was again relaxed and walking nicely on a loose leash.

I like training with food rewards for a variety of reasons, Brisbane is incredibly food motivated and it's a great way to get his attention off an incoming dog or passing UPS truck. Ulysses is less motivated by tasty treats, but food rewards are just as important for him because they are a useful barometer for his stress level. Uly's response to food is currently the only way to tell whether he is truly relaxed and happy, or whether he has crossed over into The Twilight Zone.