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Friday, February 3, 2017

Why is my dog suddenly afraid of this?

I hear it all the time from owners:  "My dog has never been afraid of this, but yesterday he went crazy when he heard it [or saw] it!"  What is going on in the dog's head?  How can he be a perfectly normal dog one day, and afraid of the most insignificant things the next day?

Puppies generally go through two "fear periods."  The first one typically occurs between 8-10 weeks old, and the second one happens in late adolescence, anywhere from 6-14 months of age.  During these few weeks, puppies are acutely aware of their vulnerabilities.  They may become permanently intimidated by something minor that frightened them, such as a truck backfiring, or another dog barking at them.  Even when the puppy is not in a fear period, they can still develop fears.

Here's a crazy, but true example: when my miniature schnauzer was 9 weeks old, I took him with me to a pet store and put him in the shopping cart. He stepped on a squeaky carrot toy in the cart, and it frightened him. Unfortunately, this was before I learned about fear periods and how to desensitize puppies to scary objects. For the rest of his 16 years, he was terrified of squeaky toys. 

As long as it is safe, allow your dog to
explore items that make him nervous.
In my experience walking dogs, many dogs go through periods when they are fearful of: garbage trucks; other loud trucks; trash cans placed at the curb; home "for sale" signs swinging in the breeze; unexpected machinery/equipment at a driveway; workers banging on things in a nearby house; holiday lawn decorations; and people standing and waiting at the bus stop.   

Dogs can develop fears to just about anything, but it usually involves either an unexpected noise (like the vacuum cleaner or a garbage truck) or something appearing "out of place" in the dog's eyes.  

THE GOOD NEWS is that with understanding and a little planning, you can help your dog overcome most fears, regardless of how or when they start.

The first step is to make sure you are prepared with some super-tasty treats.  For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to always make sure you always have treats available when walking your puppy or dog.  Even today, with my 9-year old Giant schnauzer, I use this technique whenever she gets nervous about something that looks out of place on our walks.

You will recognize a fearful reaction by the way he braces himself and puts all his weight in his back legs, as if he needs to flee.  Sometimes he may stand stock-still for a moment. When he sees something that startles him, pull out a handful of treats and give him one.  If the fearful item can be safely approached, try to approach it with him, giving treats frequently for brave behavior.  Encourage him with friendly chatter.  "You aren't afraid of this sign, are you?  Look, it's just a sign."  A dog will pick up on your behavior, so if you act brave and nonchalant, it will help him develop confidence.  I try to touch the item, and encourage my dog to take a treat that I will put right on or near the item.  If the dog is extremely fearful and backs up, I will still try to give him a treat a little further away before trying to move closer.  I will spend up to 4 or 5 minutes letting a dog explore a scary item, and then we move on. 
Providing treats can distract a dog from a scary noise

If the dog spooks at a loud noise, immediately provide a treat.  You want the dog's default behavior to be looking at you when he hears something worrisome, so you can help him.  When I see a garbage truck nearby while walking a dog, I know there will be a series of strange noises, so I frequently stop, stand, and treat until the truck goes by.  If your dog reacts to another dog barking madly from a fenced yard, reward your dog with treats and encourage his attention on you as you move him away from the barking dog. 

Have you noticed an unexpected fear in your dog?  How did you handle it?


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Cookie Trap

If you have spent much time around dogs, you’ve probably seen a dog that responds only when the owner holds a treat in their hand. It usually happens when someone has taken an obedience class or two, but doesn’t continue practicing at home. The dog is eager and willing to work for the owner—if treats are visible. Otherwise? Phhht… the dog has more interesting things to do! 
Dogs prefer to work
for something of value

As a result, some people throw the baby out with the bath and refuse to use any treats at all in training. However, just like people, dogs prefer to work for something of value.  How many people would return to a job, day after day, without ever receiving payment? Our currency is money, but dogs intrinsically understand the value of food, which can be dispensed in small amounts and immediately after the desired “work” is done. If you have a dog, you feed him anyway; why not make him work for it? Rewards can be special treats mixed in with regular dog food. 

Keep reading to learn a trainer’s secrets to have an obedient dog without always having a cookie in hand.

Start with the Basics

Often, the first step in teaching a dog a new skill is to lure him: for example, by placing a cookie over his nose, and gradually pushing it back towards his ears, you can encourage him to ‘sit’ and reward him with the cookie.  The next step is to repeat this action so the dog anticipates the behavior. 

Fading the Lure

Once the dog is anticipating the behavior (usually within 5-10 repetitions), only pretend like you have a cookie in hand and quickly lure him into the sit.  If he sits, congratulations!  Immediately reward him with a cookie from the other hand or a nearby treat bag.  He will learn he doesn’t need to see the treat in order to be rewarded.   He should be just as willing to perform for an imaginary cookie, because he knows he will still get rewarded.

* If he doesn’t sit and just looks confused, lure him again for a few repetitions before trying again with an imaginary cookie.  

* If he loses interest, it’s best to put the cookies away and try again when he is hungrier.  Do not bribe him with a cookie at this point!  This is one of the situations where dogs learn to control their owners: “Hmmm, if I don’t sit, she will get out a treat!”  If you are having difficulty at this step, I encourage you to find a dog trainer who can help you recognize a dog that is truly confused vs. a dog that is not interested or trying to get his own way.  

Fading rewards

When the dog is consistently performing the cue using an imaginary cookie, it is time to start fading out the rewards.  One way is by having the dog perform several actions in a row for a single treat.  You can perhaps have the dog do a ‘sit’ for a cookie, then a ‘down’ with a cookie, then another ‘sit’ and a ‘down’ before offering a cookie.  Notice you don’t take away the treats all at once.  Your dog should understand he will still be getting treats, but you decide how often they appear.  

It is equally important when fading rewards that you aren’t consistent in delivery: if you decide to reward after every other command, and then every third command, the dog will quickly figure out the tactic and will lack motivation to work.  But if you reward the dog randomly, say, on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 10th tries, he will work harder because he doesn’t know if this will be the one that earns his cookie.

The jackpot is another method to fade rewards, especially useful when performing multiple commands.  A jackpot is a series of small treats delivered one after the other, just like a jackpot of coins coming out of a winning slot machine.  It is more meaningful to a dog to have several small treats offered one at a time, than to have one large treat or multiple small treats delivered at one time.    So if you have your dog sit, then down, then sit again, you can reward him with verbal praise and petting while also delivering a jackpot of cookies, one at a time.

Hoss was a dog that would happily work
just for love and attention.
Once your dog understands the commands, your dog’s favorite activities can be substituted in place of cookies. I encourage owners to switch around rewards with their dogs.  What are your dog’s favorite activities?  Does he like being petted on his neck, having his tummy rubbed, chasing a tennis ball or tugging with a tug toy?  When your dog approaches for petting, have him ‘sit’ or ‘down’ before rewarding him with scratches.  When it is dinnertime, have him ‘sit-stay’ until you are ready to put his dish on the floor and let him eat.  There’s no need to offer a cookie: his reward is his supper.  When he wants to go for a walk, have him sit and stay while you put on his leash, then have him sit at the door threshold before giving him an enthusiastic “Free!” to let him go through the door.  He certainly doesn’t need a cookie for going on a walk with you. The walk itself is the reward.

My own dogs are watching intently to see
if they will get a treat this time!
The final method of fading rewards is a process that involves pairing praise with cookies.  It is crucial that the praise starts before you offer the cookies.  The dog’s mind will start to link cookies with praise, and over time, the dog will recognize praise as a reward by itself.   This is the nirvana that everyone seeks: the dog that worships you, does what you ask gladly, and seeks only for your approval.  Most people don’t realize that it can take years to cultivate this, and is a result of careful training where the owner consistently praises the dog before providing cookies.  Note that this process can take a long time to develop, and the mental link will disintegrate if praise is never again followed by a reward.  As a result, good trainers continue to occasionally use cookies, always paired with praise, to help strengthen that mental link.

As you can see, training with cookies does not mean you will need to rely on them for every command for the rest of the dog’s life.  Once your dog understands the basics of a behavior, you should stop using the cookie as a lure.  It is helpful to continue to reward the dog randomly throughout his life, but rewards can vary from praise, jackpots, and real-life rewards.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Command That Could Save Your Dog's Life

Use the same phrase every time
you call your dog. 
As a dog trainer, I like to start by teaching my clients' dogs the most important and potentially life-saving command, “Come.” Sit, Down, and Stay are terrific, useful commands, but the recall ranks at the top for importance. I start by explaining the three essential aspects of training, which are true regardless of the command you are teaching. They are the keys to dog training success.

Word choice

First, you need to have consistency. In a dog's mind, "Fido, come!" is not the same as "Here, Fido!" What word or phrase do you want to use? Write it down on an index card on the refrigerator so everyone in the family can practice using the same cue.

Treats and Praise

The second key to success in recalls is making it fun for your dog to come to you. For most dogs, this can be easily achieved using tasty treats. You can also make yourself silly, play with your dog, and get excited, happy, and playful when he comes running to you.

Treats are best given in very small morsels like a jackpot machine, one after the other. I typically will give from 3 to 6 morsels for each reward when the dog comes running, while praising excitedly the whole time. Dogs actually enjoy this experience more than a single, large reward.

Note that some dogs want to play chase after coming to their owners. They will come almost in arm's reach, and then dart off for more "chase-me!" fun. This is incredibly dangerous behavior if your dog gets loose. I once saw a Boxer on the run; he came to the owner, danced away excitedly and ran right into oncoming traffic. To prevent this tragedy, offer a tasty treat in one hand, but only give it to the dog when you have successfully taken hold of his collar with the other hand. Once the dog has the treat, you can let go of the collar and let him play again. If you have a "chase-me" dog, you will want to practice the collar-grab/treat routine until the dog is totally comfortable with it, and regularly thereafter. It is also helpful to ask the dog to 'sit' before providing the treat, and then reward him with the treat(s) and a burst of raucous play.


Repetition is the third key to success. Practice while walking your dog on leash, letting him get ahead of you, then suddenly backing up and calling him to you. Try calling him from the front door of your house, using a long leash to make sure he can’t run for the hills. If needed, you can reel him in after calling him. Practice anywhere your dog could potentially get loose or wherever you need to call him, for example, from the back door. Put the long leash on him so you can guarantee that he will return, but make it worth his while with tasty treats and praise.

Common Mistakes

There are also three important, common pitfalls to avoid while teaching your dog the recall. These fundamental mistakes sometimes defy common sense, but I will explain why it is absolutely crucial that you avoid the following:

Never punish your dog for coming to you. To a dog, he associates what happened in the past 2-3 seconds with your actions. For instance, imagine if your dog digs through the trash and goes romping around the neighborhood, and you are desperately calling him and he isn't coming to you. Your naughty pup has made you scared and angry, and your instinct is to punish him when he finally comes to you. If you do, the dog will associate your anger and punishment with the act of him coming to you. If he runs off again, he will be afraid to return for fear of punishment. In this situation I tell my clients they are allowed to swear at the dog, as long as they do it in a very sweet voice that sounds like praise. Sometimes it can be difficult and embarrassing to praise and reward a dog when all your neighbors know you've been chasing him around the neighborhood for a half-hour. It is still far better to praise your "naughty" dog, than to end up with a dog that refuses to come back at all.

The second rule: Except in life-threatening emergencies, don't call your dog if you know he won't come. If your dog is having a fantastic time at the dog park, and you call hi to come without prior training in that environment, you are setting him up to fail. In this case, you can encourage your dog but avoid using your trained recall command. If your recall command is, "Eddie, come!" it would be better to say something like, "OK Eddie, time to go!" Only use your trained command either when you know your dog will come, or you can get him to comply by reeling him in from a long line. Even if you have to reel him in, you should reward him for coming so next time will be easier.

The third rule: never chase a dog you want to catch. Tempting as it is, dogs will always be faster than humans, and their fight-or-flight response will kick in while you are chasing. The best way to catch a loose dog is to let him chase you: call him and start running backwards or perpendicular to him. An alternative is to drop to the ground and make puppy noises or pretend like you are eating something. You might or might not get the dog curious enough to explore, but I can tell you from experience that you don't stand a chance chasing a healthy, young dog.

Just like with all health-related advice, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, teach your dog to come and accept having his collar grabbed, make it fun, and practice it regularly!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Crazy Reasons To Hire a Professional Pet Sitter

In my business, I've heard countless pet-sitting disasters that could have been avoided if someone had simply hired a professional.  A few of these stories are repeated on a regular basis, while others are simply...unique.

Here are some crazy reasons you might want to hire a professional pet sitter:

Roomba wants us to starve!
😾  You left out enough food for the cats for several days, but you didn't count on the Roomba getting stuck on top of the cat food dish, thereby preventing your kitties from getting any food.

😞  Your neighbor's kid loves dogs and does a great job walking your dog, but she wasn't expecting an unleashed dog to come blazing out of someone's backyard and attack your dog.   She doesn't even have a car to take your dog to the vet.

😡  You asked a friend to watch your bunny while you were out-of-state for a week, but she said the front key didn't work.  You frantically called a locksmith for help, but your friend stopped answering or returning your phone calls.

😿  You left for a three-day weekend with a 2-gallon self-serving water container for your cat, but Muscles the Cat knocked over the whole thing and emptied it within a matter of hours.

💩  Your friend agreed to take care of your dogs over the holiday, but a last-minute all-day event came up and she just had to go.  Your dogs also had to go, and the pee and poop caused permanent damage to your hardwood floor.

🙀  Your friend didn't bother cleaning cat litter boxes, and didn't notice that one of your two cats was missing.  Waldo the cat was stuck in a closet for a very long weekend.

😒  Your friend happily agreed "We can watch Rover in our house!" while you were on vacation, but the dog was stressed and howled constantly for the 5 days you were on gone. Your friend will never speak to you again.  Or worse, Rover chewed up their brand-new, $1500 leather couch.

😰  Your water heater broke while you were on vacation and completely flooded the basement.  A pro pet-sitter wouldn't be able to prevent this, but he or she could prevent a lot of the damage by discovering the problem early and working immediately to fix it.

❄  An unexpected blizzard hit while you were gone for New Year's, and your friend was unable to feed your guinea pigs for several days. One of the guinea pigs died shortly after you returned home. Professional pet sitters always have a backup plan: either calling a neighbor, leaving out extra food and water, or staying at the client's house.  A blizzard is never an excuse to abandon a pet.

In my own history, a client's furnace broke down when the temperatures hit 21 below zero this past January. I was able to keep the kitty warm with heating pads, call for emergency furnace repair, and let the furnace guy in so he could fix it.

Some of the things that my pet-sitter friends have experienced:

•  A cat tangled up in the cords of the blinds.  Luckily the cat was only stuck for (at most) a few hours.

•  Two sibling dogs that had never before had any altercations, suddenly got into a bloody, serious dog fight.  This is a distressing situation for any pet sitter, but the professional knew how to break up the fight safely, without getting bitten, and prevent the dogs from going at it again.

•  A cat that got stuck (yes, stuck) in the bricks in a chimney flue.

•  A dog that caught and almost killed a squirrel. Yes, the pet sitter had to make sure the squirrel was dead and not suffering.

•  A pet sitter that walked in while a client's house was being robbed.  This retired military woman had a concealed carry gun and shot the robber, then waited for police to arrive.

•  A dog that started suffering from bloat and would have died if the pet sitter had not recognized the symptoms immediately and taken the dog to the emergency vet.

The moral of the story?  Crazy things sometimes happen, even to the best of us... but professional pet sitters prepare for the "what-ifs" and worst-case scenarios, and they can use their experience and knowledge to prevent accidents and lessen the impact of any unavoidable disasters.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Cats Who Can't: "I'm not using that litter box!"

Is your cat avoiding the litter box? When my mom's cat, "Puma," started peeing outside the litter box, she thought he was just being ornery.  When she finally took him to the vet, they found a urinary blockage that would have been fatal if untreated. 
In a newsletter published by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, he discusses other causes that might keep a cat from using the litter box.  First and foremost, rule out any medical issues  by taking kitty to your vet.  Other possible causes:
Stress. This includes changes in routines, other pets in the house, or even new cats in the neighborhood.
Dirty litter box. Cats try their hardest to keep themselves clean, and they have very sensitive noses that detect the smallest odor. If you think the litter box smells terrible, imagine how it must smell to the cat, up close and personal. Make sure to keep it as clean as you can.
Difficult access. If the litter box sides are too high, your kitten or elderly cat may have trouble crossing the threshold. Arthritis is very common in older cats, so maybe try a box with a lower threshold.
Location. Many people keep litter boxes in the laundry room or basement, but imagine how frightening the sudden noise of a washer spinning, or an igniting furnace can be! Also, if the litter box is too far away from where the cat normally eats, drinks, or relaxes, it might be difficult for kitty to make it to the box.
Here are some helpful guidelines:
--Clean the litter box twice a day. 
--Once a week, empty the litter and wash out the box with soap and water. 
--Because some smells stick to plastic, Dr. Becker recommends throwing out the litter box and buying a new one every six months. 
--He suggests a minimum of one litter box on each floor of your home. 
--You should have one more litter box than the number of cats. 
--Studies show cats prefer non-scented, clumping litter about 2 and a half inches deep.
You can sign up for Dr. Becker's informative newsletters, highlighting a variety of pet issues, here:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bright Star Pet Services: Customer Service Award for 2015/16

Gordon Larsen Business Achievement Awards

The Business Achievement Awards are presented annually by the Lake in the Hills village board.  Each year, the board recognize businesses that have made a positive impact in our community. People from Lake in the Hills and surrounding areas are encouraged to nominate a local business that stands above the rest in one of three different categories: customer service, community service, or employer of choice.

Judy playing with Lucca and Brisby.
Anita snuggles with the puppy Gee-O

We were thrilled to be nominated by several clients for the award in the field of customer service. It was even more exciting yesterday when the village President, Paul Mulcahy, presented the 2015/16 award to us. We are proud of our business and will always work hard to be responsive to our customers' needs.

Nick shares some love
with Gannon and Blarney.

We now have a web page with testimonials and pictures of happy client pets on our website,

We want to say thanks to the Lake in the Hills village board for presenting us with this award, and to our many wonderful customers who nominated us. Most of all, we offer our heartfelt gratitude to our outstanding employees who work hard, every day of the year, and provide exceptional care and love to so many pets.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Tidal Wave of New Additions

Summer is over, and Fall is going to be busier than ever.  Kids are going back to school. Parents have added new puppies to their families.  We'd like to give a warm welcome to the newest four-legged additions to the Bright Star Pet Services family.  

Our "big dogs," pictured above, include Tara, Roscoe, Daisy, Diesel and Toby.
Pictured below we have Lady and Gizmo, Stanley and Jillian (both will qualify as a big dog when they are full grown), Vinny, Zsa Zsa and Dudley, and little Scooter.

Of course we can't forget the littlest puppies:  two Golden Retrievers, from different litters, but they almost look like twins!  These are Bleu (on the left) and Gee-O (on the right).

With so many wonderful additions, it should be no surprise that we also needed to hire a couple of dedicated animal-lovers to help with pet sits and dog walks.  We found the perfect combination of experience, integrity, and enthusiasm with our newest employees, Nick Russo and Judy Stettner.

Nick has been a lifetime animal lover, but went a more practical route early in life, earning  a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from DePaul University.  For several years he worked in the service field, utilizing his attention to detail and his compassionate nature to help resolve customer issues.  He was born and raised in the Chicago area (Northwest side), but has lived in Lake in the Hills for the past 17 years.  Now he is finally getting the chance to do what he loves: working with pets and helping their owners! He has a natural connection with both dogs and cats, having lived with them his whole life.  He enjoys watching silly puppy and kitten antics, and is deeply dedicated to the needs of our senior pets.  One of his dogs, Millie, died last year, but he still has Lucy—who he adopted from Animal House Shelter in Huntley—and two cats named Jackson and Miles.  In the picture above, Scooter is snuggling up to him.

Judy Stettner comes to Bright Star with 8 years experience as a veterinary assistant and technician and a lifetime of experience with dogs, cats and small animals. Her family includes her husband and two wonderful teenagers. Completing the family are Betsy, the cat, Billy and Bubbles, the goldfish. The newest family member, Ellie, was recently adopted from Animal House shelter in Huntley and is a lab/border collie puppy. Judy gets to fill two roles: she will be assisting with scheduling and office administration, as well as taking on some of our newer clients in north Crystal Lake.

As a reminder, all our employees pass a rigorous background check, must be insured and bonded through Pet Sitters Associates, and are required to become certified in pet first aid and CPR.  In addition, they go through extensive training with Jessica before they can complete any visits on their own.  They are professionals in every sense of the word.

If there are any questions or concerns-- please contact us, and we will be happy to help in any way we can.  We hope you are enjoying this lovely, cool fall weather with your furry friends!