Archive for the 'Product Review' Category

Barnum Models His New Blue “Birthday Suit”

Cuz he shaved him naked a few weeks ago, see? And then it was his birthday….

Here’s the confluence of events: Winter arrived late. Thus deer sticks were still active. Barnum’s long, thick coat made attached ticks hard to find. Thus we shaved him down. I had a fleece coat from Gadget that I put on Barnum, but it didn’t stay on well because it was too small. I modified it unsuccessfully. With Barnum’s birthday was coming up it was the perfect time to buy him a new coat. I I gave Voyagers K9 Apparel Barnum’s measurements and requested they use “Sea Blue” polar fleece to make a “tummy warmer” for him.

Let the fashion show begin!

Barnum lying on red, rumpled quilt, front view. Blue fleece front piece is about four inches high - above his elbows and below his neck.

Lounging in bed: Front view

Barnum lies on the bed in his blue fleece, picture of his left side, his head up and turned toward camera.

Does this fleece make my head look big?

Barnum standing on the bed in blue fleece with a 4-5 inch panel across his chest and a swath that covers his whole back and then under his chest and waist.

Comfortable enough for a dog to check his Twitter stream in!

Barnum standing facing off the bed, showing the left side of the fleece outfit, looking over his shoulder.

It’s like I’m on the cat walk! (Though I’d prefer a cat chase.)

Two proofs that this coat is snuggly warm:

1. Barnum does not smoosh up against me in bed every night now. Often he does, but he will also sleep on his own bed or on another part of my bed. (And it was three degrees Fahrenheit when I went to sleep last night.)

2. When wearing the coat he went out and threw himself into the snow and rolled around, snorfled, and romped. Fortunately, the fleece is light and dries out very fast!

Happy winter, everybody!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD and Fashion Hound

Product Review: Fragrance-Free Dog Shampoo Bars

As a service dog partner with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error in finding a shampoo that I tolerate that also works well for my dogs. This is especially important because whenever I went anywhere, my service dog would go with me, and when we came home, we’d both need to bathe to get fragrance residues off our hair and skin.

The Bad Old Days

The only “all-natural” dog shampoo I found that was supposed to be safe for people with MCS (I bought it from a mail-order business that caters to people with MCS) turned out to be made up of numerous essential oils and reeked to high heaven. Even friends without MCS said it was like a perfume bomb. I can’t imagine someone with MCS using it safely.

I turned to the only other option I could think of — a gentle, fragrance-free human shampoo. This worked okay with Jersey. But when Gadget came along, I discovered that over time the shampoo dried out his coat, stimulating his body to secrete more oils to protect his skin. This led to a dog who had a dry AND oily coat, which caused him to smell very “doggy.” Eventually, I tried mixing fragrance-free human conditioner and shampoo, and that seemed to do the trick: his coat became softer and the oily secretions went away.

Even though these products were better than the toxic and/or fragranced dog shampoos on the market, I wondered how healthy it was for them to eat so much of it (because I gave out a lot of treats to make baths fun, so a lot of snorking treats out of the bath water took place). And sometimes my dogs have not liked the feel or smell of the products.

A Potential New Solution!

Then, a couple of months ago, I learned of fragrance-free dog shampoo bars made by a person with MCS! Barbara’s online store, Baltimore Soaps and More, sells four kinds of dog shampoo bars.

A line of 14 blocks of soap in a variety of colors.

Baltimore soaps and shampoo bars

Barbara was kind enough to send me samples of three of these (she’s out of stock of the fourth, see below), and I tried them out on Barnum.

They were

The first time I used one was to clean Barnum’s beard. Bouvier beards are nasty things. In fact, the Dutch nickname for Bouviers des Flandres is “Vuilbaard” which means “vile beard” or “dirty beard.” I used to use unscented baby wipes to try to clean his beard, but they didn’t work very well, and Barnum was uncooperative because he hated the smell.

The First Test: The Beard

So, to test out the new shampoo bars, I first let Barnum decide which soap he liked best. I held each one up to his nose, one at a time. The goat’s milk one was of no interest — he didn’t move away, but he didn’t move toward it. The oats and honey he moved toward a bit. But the shea butter one he sniffed it, then he moved in to sniff it again, and licked his lips. The clear winner! (Later, when I retested the soaps, he tried to gently take a bite of the shea butter soap.)

Two thick bars of a yellow soap with swirls on the top. The color of lemon meringue pie.

Sadie’s Choice Shampoo Bars

I discovered what worked best was to lather a rag or wash cloth with a bit of the soap and then massage it into his beard, and then once the nastiness had been removed, to rinse the rag free of soap to rinse his beard with. Barnum seemed comfortable and held still for all this, which he usually does not do when I go tugging at and mutchering his beard. The fact that he liked the smell seemed to make a big difference to him. Afterward, his kisses smelled much sweeter (without all that rotten food in his beard)!

The Real Test: The Bath!

I’ve cleaned his beard with Sadie’s Choice a couple of times since then, but the real test was for the total bath, which we did a few weeks ago.

Betsy helps me bathe Barnum. I wasn’t sure how the shampoo bar would go over with her since we’ve always used liquid shampoo before.

We wetted Barnum down with the shower sprayer as usual, and then she started rubbing the bar all over him. After a minute of lathering, Betsy said, “I like this soap much better than the shampoo.”

“Really?” I said. “Why?”

“With this you can hit the spots you need to hit with it,” she gestured to his hindquarters and tail, which she was soaping up. “I always felt like we were using more than we needed with the shampoo. We had to use so much. This is not as wasteful.”

I will add my own observations about the shampoo:

It had a pleasant smell, by which I means practically no smell, but what there was smelled clean and pleasant and not fragrance-y or chemical-y. Even fragrance-free shampoo has more of a smell than this did, to me.

Barnum seemed to like the smell and feel of it better, so he was very happy and cooperative (although the hot dog slices were a major factor, too).

It rinsed off much faster and easier than any other soap/shampoo/conditioner I’ve used on a dog before. It rinsed very clean and easy. I had not expected that.

In the time since that bath, Barnum’s coat has stayed in good condition. It didn’t get oily or smelly like used to happen when I used people shampoo, and it also is not dried out. It is crisp and soft, without a doggy smell, the way a bouv coat should be.

We give Baltimore Soaps and More doggy shampoo bars four paws up!

Barnum inside his crate, lying in "dead bug position," asleep with his head thrown back, all his legs in the air, just letting it all hang out! He is lying on a tan puffy dog bed inside the crate, and there is a red Kong against his butt.

Four Paws UP!

The Interview: Barbara, the Soap Maker

To round off this review, I thought it would be fun to interview Barbara about her soap-making business, her dog shampoo bars, what it’s like to run a small business when you live with MCS, and her life with dogs. Here it is!

Sharon: What gave you the idea to start a soap business? And how do you actually make these soaps and shampoo bars?

Barbara: I have always been a fan of wonderful bath soaps and looked forward to the thrill of opening a new bar. After being chemically injured in 2005 and developing multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I quickly realized that my soap options were very limited and it made me a little depressed. I decided to start making my own soaps so that I wouldn’t be stuck with the same boring bars all of the time and figured that there must be other people out there who felt the same way I did!

Sharon: Why do you make soaps and shampoos without fragrances, essential oils, or chemicals?

Barbara: Fragrance oils are bad news for all involved since they are known endocrine disruptors, and the manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients. Tell everyone you know to avoid them! Although some people with MCS tolerate essential oils, if I used them in some of my soap batches, other batches would be cross contaminated due to residue left behind in the molds plus contamination from my hands and contamination during curing and storage. I’ve had soap-making supplies shipped to me where the entire package was fragrance contaminated and unusable so I recommend that people who have sensitivities only purchase soap from a seller who doesn’t use fragrances of any kind in their business or in their home.

Soap is a chemical reaction between fats/oils and lye (sodium hydroxide) that has been dissolved in water. Once the reaction takes place you are left with true soap (as opposed synthetic detergent bars like Dove or Irish Spring) and the lye is used up. Other than lye, no other chemicals are needed for soap making. I tell people that if you are purchasing soap and notice ingredients that aren’t something you would find in your kitchen then don’t buy it because it isn’t a truly natural product. On the same note, avoid buying soap from anyone who doesn’t fully disclose the ingredients on the label.

Sharon: Who is Sadie (of Sadie’s Choice) and why did you name a shampoo after her?

Barbara: I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites amongst our furry friends but Sadie was THE BEST DOG EVER! Our family rescued her from a shelter four hours away from our home when she was already probably 12 years old, never spayed, infested with fleas, arthritic and had a lump growing on her leg that the shelter staff feared was cancer. I talk about Sadie on my website.

Sharon: Why do you choose the ingredients you do (honey, shea butter, goat’s milk) for dog shampoo?

Barbara: It seems like so many dogs are plagued with skin irritations and so my first goal was to make dog shampoo that didn’t contribute to the problem due to added fragrances. I have made four varieties of dog shampoo bars so far and three of them each have an ingredient known for being soothing for the skin – honey/oats, shea butter, and goat’s milk. I also make a coffee shampoo for dogs because coffee in soap is a natural deodorizer and our current dog had such a funk from her time as a stray that the other bars weren’t enough to remove the odor. The Doggie Deodorizer bar has been very popular which is why I’m currently out of stock! I’m also considering making a dog shampoo with tomato juice for… you guessed it…skunk encounters!

Sharon: I had never heard of dog shampoo bars before I came across your site. Why bars instead of liquids?

Barbara: The eco reasons for shampoo bars include that you aren’t paying for a product that is mostly water and you don’t have any plastic bottle waste. Also, I have found that shampoo bars do a better job of breaking through the oils on the dog’s coat in order to get that first lather going. Simply wet your dog and rub the bar across his/her coat and you will quickly develop a rich, shampoo like lather.

Sharon: What’s it like to run a business when you have MCS?

Barbara: Being a business owner with MCS means that, like with the rest of my life, I spend a lot of time making special requests of people such as not to handle my soap-making supply orders with fragrance on their hands and not to place my vendor spot near anyone selling scented products or running generators or cooking food on grills or gas-powered appliances. I also make all of my business decisions based on my own needs and that of my MCS customers which includes using brown kraft paper with black ink for labels and using mostly brown craft paper and shreds for packaging when shipping orders.

Sharon: Since you make dog shampoo, I’m assuming you have dogs! Can you tell me about them?

Barbara: Our family likes to rescue senior dogs and so we have a fairly high turnover rate. Our current companion is a Jack Russell who lost her way three years ago during a blizzard and had four failed adoptions plus a night in doggie jail before we made her part of our family. We are used to lab mixes and so having a Jack Russell has been quite a change for us. Lucy is a better mouser than our cats!

Sharon: Do your dogs have a favorite shampoo bar? Or do you find that certain bars work better on certain types of coats or breeds?

Barbara: Lucy sleeps on our bed and so I like to bathe her once a month. I find that having a removable shower head on a long hose is a must. She doesn’t seem to have a preference – all of my soaps leave her coat clean, soft and smelling sweet and neutral.

Sharon: I read a mention of rescue dogs on your site. Are you involved in rescue?

Barbara: Since I’m raising two sons my rescue work has been limited to adopting carefully selected dogs who needed homes. Someday I picture myself fostering dogs that need rehabilitation before they can be placed for adoption.

Sharon: I read on your site that you lost two dogs to cancer. Has that experience affected your business or other parts of your life?

Barbara: Our family has lost three dogs to cancer in the past 12 years. When we adopted Sadie, some of our friends and even the workers at the shelter asked us why we would put our older son (our second son hadn’t been born yet) through possibly losing a dog soon after adoption? In our minds, we felt that showing him that a dog deserves a good home no matter how few days she may have left was an important lesson in compassion. Sadie ended up living for two years and four months after her placement with us. She was a joy for each day we had her as part of our family.

Sharon: Can people use your dog shampoo bars? I’m kind of tempted to try out that honey and oats one on myself, just for fun! Is there any reason I shouldn’t?

Barbara: Sure you can, and I won’t tell anyone! My dog shampoo bars are made of the same type of ingredients as my human bars. I would recommend trying it out BEFORE it gets covered in dog hair though.

Sharon: Do people ever ask you for dog shampoos that contain flea or tick chemicals? If so, what do you tell them?

Barbara: No one has so far. At vendor events I have a banner above my booth that reads, “Perfume Free Natural Soap” and I tell everyone who approaches that I don’t use any perfumes, dyes, or essential oils in my bars. I have, however, had numerous people ask, “But then what do you SCENT them with?”

Two bars of soap that look like slices of chocolate orange cake: a half-orange slice on top of a white frosting-looking layer on top of an orange layer between two dark chocolate-colored layers.

Chocolate Orange Soap

Sharon: Do you have some sort of culinary background? Many soaps look good enough to eat. (It makes me hungry to look at them. I have to keep reminding myself that these are not food, they are soap. Which makes me similar to my second service dog, Gadget, who was fond of eating bars of olive oil soap.)

Barbara: Thanks for the compliment. I am an experienced cook and find a lot of inspiration for my soaps from the food world.

Sharon: Anything else you’d like to add?

Barbara: Make sure you store your natural soaps in a well draining soap dish and not in the path of the shower spray in order to prolong their life. Also, one thing folks may not know is that due to curing time it takes at least a month to make each bar of soap.

Sharon: Thank you for your time!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who liked to eat soap, even if it didn’t look like food!), and Barnum, relatively clean SD/SDiT

Product Review: Tick Removal Forceps (Updated)

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and it’s been a terrible* year for ticks here, so I want to tell you now about absolutely the best tick removal tool I have found, which are these forceps:

Close-up of thin metal forceps that are rounded at the tip grasping a dog tick on a yellow-coated animal

Forceps removing a smallish dog tick.

I have posted about other tick-removal tools, including the Tick Key and the Tick Tool. Both of these tools work well for removing medium-to-large size ticks, such as dog ticks, or even some adult deer ticks. They are better than fingers or tweezers because

  • You don’t have to touch the tick with your fingers when you remove it
  • You won’t squish the tick (and squeeze its gut contents, which contains virulent pathogens, back into the dog, cat, or human you’re removing it from)
  • They are easy to hold and can be used by feel if you are blind or low-vision

Where these two tools fail in a major way is when dealing with tiny ticks, especially soft ticks, such as deer tick nymphs, which are both tiny and squishy. This is a big deal because most cases of Lyme disease in humans are caused by deer tick nymphs. I would be surprised if the statistics were not similar for dogs. Make no mistake, however — all ticks can cause serious disease in people and humans. Some of the the illness-causing bacteria and parasites that ticks carry include babesia, bartonella, anaplasma, ehrlichia, STARI, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and tularemia, among others. The longer a tick is attached, the more likely it will pass on disease.

I found the Tick Key to be totally useless for very small ticks and the Tick Tool to be hit-and-miss with deer tick nymphs. Often, they would slide through the slit that is intended to catch them because the slit is too large, even at its smallest point, for these tiny, squishy ticks.

The result is that I usually would have to remove such ticks with my fingers, and about half the time, I’d squish the tick and leave the mouth parts behind, still embedded. This is not ideal.

Then, in the comments of my Tick Key review, my reader Courtenay — who is a veterinary technician, as well as a dog trainer and rescuer — told me about the Tick Removal Forceps she uses. The forceps are designed and sold by Jon Vilhauer, a (recently retired) veterinarian. His site, remove-ticks.com, explains how and why he designed them, and why they are preferable to other tick-removal methods:

We have . . . what is probably the only surgical-quality instrument made specifically for tick removal.

The  new  tick forceps are:

o        Fine-tipped, so you can grasp the tick’s head without squashing its body and squeezing tick juice out all over the place

o        Curved, so you can see what you are doing and avoid stabbing your not-always-cooperative patient

o        Sturdy enough to put serious traction on deeply embedded ticks

For tick removal from dogs, cats, or humans, nothing else works as well.

The forceps are terrific! With them I have been able to remove even deer tick nymphs, without squishing them or leaving the mouth parts behind. And the price is right, too: $12.75, including shipping.

The only drawbacks I can see to the forceps are that they require more hand-eye coordination than something like the Tick Tool or Tick Key, which might be an issue for people with certain disabilities. The ends are quite pointy, so you have to be careful not to stab yourself or your animal with them. But if you have a moderately steady hand and/or a reasonably willing patient, these cannot be beat.

Jon’s website answers questions about how to remove ticks, why ticks are so hard to remove, how quickly ticks should be removed, and what happens if the head is left in. He also shows a whole bunch of other tick-removal tools and their pros and cons, so you can compare. Some of the others I was not even familiar with. I think this part of the website — about tick removal tools — is useful. I do not, however, agree with all of what he writes about tick-borne diseases, Lyme disease, and transmission of disease by ticks. For more information on these topics, I suggest reading my compendium of tick- and Lyme-related posts.

I emailed Jon before I posted this review. He said he had about 60 pairs left. I’m planning on buying at least one as a backup pair. If I can manage to get organized I’d like to do some Lyme myths posts and then do a quiz on Lyme knowledge. Whoever wins will get a pair of tick forceps. But since I never know when I will be functional enough to do this kind of thing, better buy your forceps now and don’t count on me!

UPDATE: Since so many people have ordered forceps due to this review, Jon has now ordered a new shipment, although it will take a few months to arrive. He’s concerned that he won’t be able to respond fast enough to eBay sales, especially since the number of orders has gone up so much, so he’s asked me to post the remove-ticks.com website instead. I’m very glad these tools will still be available for anyone who wants them in the future.

Four paws up for these forceps!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

Notes:

1. I have received no compensation or any other benefits or inducements to do this post. I’m posting this glowing review simply because I believe in this product and am trying to make the world a safer place for us and our animals to deal with disease-ridden ticks.

2. To read other posts at After Gadget about ticks, Lyme and other tick-borne disease in both humans and canines, visit this page.

*Terrible is kind of an understatement: Last night we found 18 ticks on Barnum. The night before we found 28. Never before have we found anything approaching those numbers. None were at all engorged, which means we had not missed them in the previous night’s search — they were new ticks, in other words.

Crowdsourcing: Which Vest Would Keep You Away? UPDATED

In a recent post, I commented on the problem that all assistance dog handlers face: distraction from the public. In my case, there’s a slightly different twist.

While Barnum’s work at home is zipping along beautifully, we have a long way to go with his public access skills. This is because I so rarely go anywhere. However, now that it’s summer, and I’m a little more functional, I’m more often able to take Barnum to public venues to train.

One issue we face which many other service-dog-in-training (SDiT) teams don’t face is that since I am so obviously disabled (I am in a wheelchair and use oxygen) and in a public space, people generally assume Barnum is my working service dog (SD) no matter how he’s behaving. (In fact, people generally assume he’s working even when he’s running around, off-leash in the woods, in his orange safety vest!)

When we’re training in public, I always put the “In Training” patches on his vest under the “Service Dog” patches, but I don’t think anyone sees them. I think even if they were ten times larger, the sight of a woman in a wheelchair with a dog with gear on would automatically translate to “service dog” in most people’s minds, and people would still not really “see” the “In Training” badges. The poor visibility of the “In Training” patches raises two concerns.

One of my concerns is that if we’re in a store, and Barnum’s comportment is far-from-perfect, I’m not comfortable with people believing he’s a SD because I worry that we will give other SDs a bad name, or that we will support the myth that partner-trained SDs are not as well-trained as program dogs. Even worse, because I know that some individuals try to pass off pets as SDs (which is illegal as well as unethical), I worry that people will become used to seeing a badly behaved dog as a “service dog,” and that will support the efforts of those who commit fraud.

The second problem is people wanting to talk with me. When I am working Barnum in public, I am unable to communicate with other people. I can’t split my focus. When I try to tell them that I can’t talk, I think I usually end up coming across as very rude because it’s just impossible for me to answer questions, chat, or anything else when I am trying to use my limited energy and focus on extremely demanding training. People who want to talk to me or who want to interact with Barnum are equally big problems in this stage of our training.

I recently came across two products that are designed to tell strangers not to interact with your dog. They are in the DINOS (dogs in need of space) resource section of Notes from a Dog Walker. They are both primarily intended for dogs who are reactive to people or other dogs. DINOS can include fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, or overexuberant dogs (which Barnum was sometimes in the past with other dogs). Barnum is not reactive to people or dogs, however I think this gear could be really useful to Barnum and me as an SDiT team in public.

I’m not sure which to get. I’d like your opinion.

Option A: The TACT Training Vest from Clean Run

Side view of a red corduria vest covering the dog's chest and shoulders. A rectangular black patch with white capital letters says Training Do Not Distract with a red Stop sign. On the back is a smaller round patch which says Training Stop Do Not Pet.

These colors are very eye-catching.

You can read a description of the materials and see additional views of this vest at Clean Run.

Pros

What I like about this vest is that it has the message very forcibly on both sides, and to a lesser degree, from the top. It also looks like it will last well, and it looks professional, so I could keep using it as we improve our public manners. Red and black help get across the “Keep Away” message, I think.

I’m also wondering if I’d be able to remove those patches and put them on his working gear when he’s no longer training. A very large “Do Not DISTRACT” patch is definitely preferable to the smaller “Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working,” patch that we have now.

Cons

I’d like something that I can fit over Barnum’s pack, if possible, because I’m using the pack as a cue to teach him that a certain standard of behavior is required. I’m not sure if that would be possible with this. But the tradeoff might be worth it. I also wish it covered more of the dog, because between my big self and my big chair and Barnum’s big self, I would want to make sure the message didn’t get lost.

The biggest drawback, in addition to the minimal size of the vest, is definitely the price: $100+. I could also pay extra for a badge for me to wear that says “In training, do not distract,” but I doubt that would be useful. Most people seem to have trouble seeing me inside all the assistive equipment anyway. Plus, being in a chair means I couldn’t put this badge anywhere close to eye level for a standing adult. For those who know me and want to be friendly and chat, my presence as a familiar face would probably override a little badge. Most people look at the dog, anyway.

Option B: Dog In Training Vest from The Pawsitive Dog

A tan vest that covers from shoulder to waist with very large purple capital letters that says Dog In Training and below that in smaller letters Give Me Space.

This covers more of the dog.

There are more pictures of this vest on different sizes and breeds of dog at The Pawsitive Dog, including the option for a harness hole in the back. It has the same text on both sides of the vest.

Pros

It covers more of the dog. There is just one message, and it’s pretty straightforward. The size of the lettering is huge; there’s not much to distract from the message. At $38, it’s also less than half the price of the other one. This seems most likely to fit over Barnum’s working pack.

Cons

It doesn’t look as professional. My biggest concern is that I’m not sure if medium purple on tan is bright enough and has enough contrast to get the message across.

UPDATE: Cricket Mara, the maker of this vest, replied to my questions with this very helpful information:

The Dog In Training vest is made of a poly/cotton blend fabric with cotton straps and “Soft Touch” Velcro.  It is durable and washable, but still not heavy or noisy.  To use it over his pack, I would measure his chest with his pack in place.  I do suggest air drying to preserve the screen printed lettering.

UPDATE: Option C: Design Your Own Vest

Therapy-dog-style vest in dark blue with large yellow embroidery that says YOUR TEXT GOES HERE on both sides.

This might be the winner, if I can contact them….

Notes From a Dog Walker — the creator of the term, DINOS — commented below and suggested this online store.

Pros

Much more reasonably priced than either of the other options. I can choose the color of the material. (Not sure if I can choose the color of the text.) This means I can choose colors AND a message that I think will be the clearest and the most obvious!

Cons

I think this is least likely to fit it over his pack. I’m emailing them with questions about sizing, colors, etc.

What do YOU think?

I’d particularly like to hear from members of the general public who do not have assistance dogs: Which vest do you think would more likely keep you from approaching a person and dog and trying to engage either the person or the dog? If you knew the person or dog? If they were strangers?

I’d also like to hear from other assistance dog handlers. Which do you think would be more effective, based on your own experiences? If you were going to buy one, which one would you get?

I look forward to everyone’s responses! Please feel free to cast your vote (and offer your reasoning, if you’re so inclined) in the comments to this post. You can also tweet me on Twitter at @aftergadget.

Thank you!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t like strangers), and Barnum (Strangers are fascinating!) SD/SDiT

Product Review & Tip for Tired Trainers: The MannersMinder

I’ve heard about the MannersMinder for years, but I put off buying one until now for two reasons.

The first reason is money. While I am usually quite willing to try out promising, positive-reinforcement training gear, this product used to sell for over $100, and that seemed like a lot of money for something that would be an experiment for me. (It’s still pricey, but not that much.) I also wasn’t convinced it could really be that much more useful than clicker training the way I’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half.

The second reason is that it can only be used with kibble or other mass-produced, uniformly sized treats. Barnum generally will not work for kibble, and I also don’t believe kibble is the healthiest way to feed my dog.

However, another partner-trainer I met online (Hi Robin!) encouraged me repeatedly to get the MannersMinder. She was convinced it would help solve some of my training conundrums, so I did a bit of research and discovered it was created and tested by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and behaviorist whom I greatly admire. Feeling a bit desperate for an easier way to train when I’m unable to toss treats repeatedly, and reassured that it was not the result of a silly fad, I set out to find a kibble that might work.

One of my main issues with kibble is that it is made using an extrusion process that requires extremely high heat. This not only strips the food of much of its nutrient value and flavor, but this super-high-heat processing also makes kibble carcinogenic. Because Gadget died of mast cell cancer after finishing treatment for a first cancer, lymphosarcoma, I am very wary of exposing Barnum to any carcinogens, especially a daily dose of them.

Fortunately, someone from the Lymphoma HeartDogs Angels list I’m on told me about Flint River Ranch, which makes kibble that is baked, not extruded. I bought some samples of their different kibbles and taste-tested them on Barnum. Only some of their kibble is in “nugget” form — uniformly sized and shaped — the rest is “freeform,” like what you’d get if you baked actual food without a mold. So, I was only interested in the nugget varieties. Fortunately, Barnum loved it all! Definitely a step up from regular kibble, in his opinion.

I took the plunge and ordered the MannersMinder. When it arrived, I tested the remaining sample kibble to see if it fit in the machine. It did, and I invested in a couple of bags of very pricey Flint River Ranch dog food.

So what is the MannersMinder? It’s a remote treat delivery system. It’s basically a combination clicker/food dispenser. You have a remote control, and when you press it, the machine beeps, signaling to the dog that it is about to deliver a treat, which it does. (Here is a FAQ.)

One use I had in mind for the MM is to work through some separation anxiety. Barnum did not used to have SA. I put in effort, when he was a pup, to prevent it, and that was successful — until I stopped working to maintain the behavior. Now, if I leave him behind at home, or if I’m out with him and leave him with another person, he barks and howls and whines. Because you can use the MM to deliver reinforcements from a distance (of 100 yards, I think? Maybe 100 feet? I don’t have the booklet in front of me to look it up), I’ll be able to give him something to focus on when I move away and out of sight, and reward him for being calm and quiet.

There is actually a setting on the machine which allows you to select for reinforcement intervals (uniform or variable), so that it will pay off without you needing to press the remote. This is great if you want to focus on something else while your dog practices their “go to mat” or “down stay” or “remain quietly at home without mom.”

I have primarily been using the MM to train Barnum to go into his crate or to lie on a towel against the wall when I am about to eat a meal. I eat in bed, and we spend almost all our time in my bedroom, so there isn’t a clear environmental cue meaning “clear out” of a dining table or kitchen table like there is for most dogs. We spend a lot of time together on my bed, but I want him to understand that when I’m eating a meal, he has to be somewhere else. “Somewhere else” is a pretty vague concept. It’s one that Gadget understood, but I haven’t been able to convey it to Barnum.

Here’s a very short video of us putting the MannersMinder to work. It’s a quite unusual example of how we use it because normally Barnum is staring very hard at the MannersMinder, willing it to deliver a treat. In the beginning, after he understood what it did, he’d actually rest his chin right in the machine’s bowl! I think he was probably not that hungry when we made this video clip for you, so he wasn’t concentrating his Stare Beam at the machine.

(If you’re reading this post in an email, you can see the video by clicking on this link.)

Here is a transcript of the video.

And here is the captioned version.

If your dog is already clicker-savvy, if he is “operant,” he will probably do what Barnum did when I first placed it on the floor — run over, check it out, and start trying out behaviors! It was very funny. He pawed at it. He walked around it. He hovered over it. He tried pawing it from different sides. He nudged it with his nose. He nudged it from different sides and angles and with differing intensity. (Yes, he was playing, “101 Things to Do with a MannersMinder.”) He nudged it with such increasing vigor and frequency (an extinction burst), that he actually shoved it across the floor and into my wall. I was very impressed with the design of the machine — obviously made to withstand exactly this treatment — that it did not tip over and spill out a ginormous jackpot of treats!

Barnum has occasionally whined and groused at it, though he’s not a barker, so he didn’t go into a barking fit. Because I didn’t press the remote when he tried out these undesirable behaviors, he gave them up. He has learned, over time, that the machine only pays up when he is lying down in front of it.

This is obviously a great tool for training static behaviors, but I can also see how it can be extremely useful for someone with a disability or a fatiguing condition to make training a number of behaviors easier, whether static or dynamic. Here are some examples.

  • Exercising your dog when you aren’t able to take long, vigorous, or regular walks or throw a ball around can be difficult. You can play a variant of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels’ “Come Game using the MM as your second person. You’re on the couch. The MM is at the opposite end of the house. You call your dog and give him a treat. Then you ask for a sit, and when he sits, you press the remote. The beep is his “click” for giving you the sit. He runs to the MM to snork up his kibble, and you call him. He runs back. Click/treat, ask for sit (or down or whatever). Beep him, he runs to get the treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. You combine training, exercise, and dinner.
  • Training when you’re at a distance or need to move the dog around but are unable (due to pain, exhaustion, or mobility issues) to toss treats over and over. For example, if I want Barnum to work on sit, down, crate, or other behaviors while I’m lying in bed, I can put the MM on the floor or in his crate. I can “beep” behaviors when I want him to move to or stay where the MM is, and/or I can click and hand him treats when I want him moving toward me. This would also keep up the excitement level for him, because he wouldn’t know what type of treat was coming next, and where it was coming from. But I wouldn’t have to throw a variety of treats repeatedly to achieve this effect.
  • You can even get a “treat tossing effect” using the MM if you put it at the edge of a high surface (like a counter, table, or appliance) and remove the bowl/rim. Then, when you beep, the treat will slide down and bounce of the floor. It won’t land in exactly the same place every time, so the dog will have to run after it, which most dogs find exciting.
  • Giving your dog some mental exercise when you are too tired to train. Once she knows what she has to do in order for the MM to pay off, you can have her doing a long down-stay to earn her dinner, or repeated sits. If the behavior is established enough, and she understands the MM well enough, you can set it to dispense without having to use the remote.
  • It can act as a second pair of hands. If you want your dog occupied and happy and standing up while you groom her, put the MM so it is dispensing treats at snout level and set it to dispense without the remote. She will have something to focus on, and a reason to maintain her stand, while you focus your energy on brushing or buzzing her coat or clipping her nails or whatnot.
  • You could even use it as a “zen enforcer” by teaching your dog that something that is usually extremely reinforcing and an encouraged behavior sometimes must still be resisted anyway (that sometimes what seems like an available reinforcement is not available), and she should listen for your cue first. You could do this by telling your dog to leave it (or giving whatever your zen cue is) and then calling her over for a treat from you. Switching back and forth between your cue to take an available treat (I use “go ahead”) from the MM, and then cueing zen and clicking and treating for backing off the MM and coming to you for the treat. (For example: MM is on the floor five feet away from you. You are sitting in a chair. Dog naturally goes to MM to see if it will pay off. You say, “go ahead,” then press the remote. The MM beeps, and the dog takes her treat. She stares at the MM, waiting to see what happens next. You cue zen — “Leave it.” The dog is not expecting this. “Huh?” She says, turning to look at you, and you click and hold out a treat. She looks at the MM to make sure it’s not also offering a treat. It’s not. She trots over and takes the treat you are offering.)

Anyway, there are a lot of different uses you can put the MM to if you already are an experienced clicker trainer. You may very well already know several I haven’t mentioned that would be good as energy-savers for trainers with fatigue. (Please comment! I’d love to hear how other service-dog trainers use it!)

If you are not an experienced clicker trainer, I recommend carefully watching Dr. Yin’s DVD that accompanies the machine, and following the plan she has created, outlined also in a booklet. Then, when you are solid on all that, you can start getting creative.

Even if you are an experienced clicker trainer, watching the DVD is necessary. We only went partway through Dr. Yin’s MM protocol (very quickly, because Barnum already knew the behaviors) before I started freestyling a little to work on “leave Sharon alone while she is eating,” but I do plan to go back and finish up the protocol because I think it will help me get the most out of the machine.

The remote control is very easy to use. It has a hole that you can put a string or loop through, much like a clicker, but it fits very ergonomically in the hand, and requires very little pressure to use. It requires much less pressure than a box clicker, and even less than an iClick or similar button clicker. Also, because it lies flat on a surface, you can put it on a table or tray and just press it much more easily than you can with a clicker. (I have accidentally beeped a couple of times, but not as many as you’d expect.)

The machine also comes with a telescoping, standing target stick. I already had one of these, but you can never have too many good target sticks! (I have six now, plus two that I made when the Alley-Oop was off the market and the MM hadn’t yet been invented.) This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. For some service skills, such as bringing groceries in from the car, where the dog has to do different behaviors at different distances, it’s useful to have “stations” marked by target sticks so the dog can run between them. I would imagine that the same is true for some dog sports, like agility.

One note of warning to those with disabilities or conditions causing fatigue or weakness — the MannersMinder is pretty heavy, bulky, and awkward to lift and carry. The same properties that make it wonderfully “dog proof” in terms of preventing a dog from breaking into it or dumping it over also may make it challenging for some trainers. Eventually you could probably leave it in the same location for most training, and then carrying it won’t be an issue, but when you first start using it, it’s a consideration. It’s not horrible (for me), but depending on your needs and abilities, it’s something to consider. It’s a bit under three-and-a-half pounds, and it’s about the size (and shape) of an extra-large motorcycle helmet. I can lift it okay now some of the time, but a couple of years ago, I couldn’t lift anything ever, over two pounds. Often I couldn’t lift one pound.

If you’re noise-sensitive, or if your dog is, fair warning on that, too. This machine is loud and pretty unpleasant sounding. Barnum is not at all bothered by strange or loud sounds, so I didn’t even have to acclimate him to it. And I am able to tolerate the sounds fine, myself, most of the time now. However, again, from much of 2007 through 2010, I probably could not have used this machine because of the beeping, grinding, and other sounds it makes.

I hope this was useful. If you have a disability or fatiguing condition, do you use the MannersMinder? For what skills? What makes it better or worse than standard click/treat?

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get to use these cool toys!), and Barnum, SDiT and Dog Who Stares at Goats Machines

Product Review: Tick Key

Because I have Lyme disease, and Gadget had Lyme disease, and almost every dog in my region will be exposed to Lyme disease, I pay a lot of attention to ticks. It is tick season again in New England. In the past week, I had a deer tick female attached to my upper arm (not engorged, thank goodness), Betsy had a deer tick male crawling on her, and I had a deer tick male crawl off Barnum and onto me. We have found no dog ticks, only deer ticks. Ugh.

They are each smaller than a sesame seed. Very small. It’s always frightening to find them, but it’s less frightening to not find them, of course.

This is why I have written several posts on tick checking, including how to tick-check your dog, how to tick-check humans, and a special note about tick-checking for wheelchair-using humans. In these posts I have discussed the pros and cons of removing ticks with fingers, tweezers, and special tick-removal tools. For a while, the only one I knew of was the Tick Tool Pro, a tick spoon.

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have, the Tick Tool Pro. I find the magnifying lens just gets in the way, so I remove it to use the spoon.

Overall, I have been satisfied with this implement. It is much easier and more effective to use than tweezers when it comes to removing an adult-sized deer tick or a dog tick. This is what I used to pull the tick out of my upper arm a week ago. Any deer tick is still damn small, so I was nervous; however, unlike Barnum, I am not covered with thick fur, and I definitely hold still!

When dealing with deer tick nymphs or slightly engorged deer ticks, however, the slot is too large, and with Gadget and Barnum I sometimes end up mangling the tick or leaving the head in, etc. However, even fine-tipped tweezers are worse in terms of squishing and difficulty with handling a very small (especially somewhat engorged) tick.

Thus, I was hopeful that the Tick Key, which my dear friend Karyn sent me, would work better. It does not have an opening for the tick to slide through, so I thought it might work better on nymphs. However, it’s quite big, and I was worried it would be awkward.

Flat, metallic green object that has the shape and look of a key, except where the part that would stick in a lock would go is a key-hole shaped opening, round at the base closest to where you hold the key, with a very narrow neck at the tip.

The Tick Key. Mine looks just like this, but purple. It’s actually larger than a typical key.

Last night, I got to test it out, and I’m sorry to say it was a failure. Barnum had a slightly engorged deer tick nymph on his snout — on the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. Not a fun place to try to remove a tiny tick, likely full of pathogenic microbes, with a big, purple piece of metal. Of course, Barnum’s snout is also the hairiest part of him, because even though he’s had a recent haircut, we don’t trim his face quite so dramatically as the rest of him, or he’d look ridiculous. It would also be difficult to do. So, we were working around a fair amount of hair. Also, Betsy wasn’t here, so I had someone else helping me, and Betsy normally has a very soothing effect on Barnum. Removing ticks isn’t normally a big deal for him, but pulling one off right in front of his eyes while mutchering his snout and trying to maneuver a big, new piece of equipment — he was not as compliant as I’d have liked.

But, the real problem was this: We put the key’s hole over the tick, and we sliiiiid the opening to the narrow end, and it just slid right over the tick. It failed to catch the tick in the narrow gap intended for this purpose. We tried two or three times — with Barnum increasingly losing his patience — before I gave up and pulled the tick off with my fingers. The good news was that I got the whole thing out intact. The bad news was that it looked flatter after removal, which probably means I squeezed its parasitic gut contents right into Barnum’s open skin. Not really your best-case scenario.

So, between the two implements, I prefer the tick spoon. If you are dealing with a decent-sized tick (a dog tick, for example), either one is preferable to tweezers or fingers. Also, perhaps if we’d been working on an area of his body that wasn’t so difficult — where we were mucking about right in front of his eyes — it would have gone better. I don’t know. But for a squishy deer-tick nymph, so far, I have yet to find a solution that is reliable. If you discover a tick-removal device other than these two items, or you have a great pair of tick-removing tweezers or forceps to recommend, please drop me a line, and I will test it out!

Update: Much better than either the tick key or the tick spoon, are the tick removal forceps, which can remove any size or type of tick without squeezing out the gut contents. Tick forceps review is here.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, hopefully tick-free SDiT

Of Bristles, Beans, and Bouviers

Barnum has decided to follow in the bouv family tradition in my home — the tradition of eating toothbrushes.

Recently Kali at Brilliant Mind Broken Body wrote about how much daily care goes into the upkeep of a service dog. I must admit, while I try to do all the things she listed, I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I’m just too exhausted. Sometimes my dog is not cooperative. Sometimes they’ve eaten the grooming tools.

It started with Jersey. Back then, for dental care I used a finger brush — one of those little white, flexible-plastic finger cots with nubs on one side. You apply the toothpaste to those little bristle bumps and rub the teeth and gums with it. This was very easy to do because Jersey was very placid and because she loved the taste of the toothpaste. (Back then, it was liver flavor. For some reason, they don’t make that flavor anymore, which is a shame, because it was the only flavor Gadget liked. But I’ll get to him in a minute.)

Jersey had impeccable manners. She was calm, quiet, reserved. She never jumped up or barked or stole food. She was a real little lady.

One day I went to get the finger brush and it was not on the coffee table, where I normally kept it. I thought I must have put it on the dog crate instead. Nope, not there. I looked and looked. I figured I’d eventually find it (which turned out to be true), but I also wondered — because it had disappeared so completely — if Jersey had eaten it.

I mentioned this idea to a friend and they thought it was ridiculous. This was a friend who does not have any pets, I should add.

I ended up ordering a new one, on the theory that it’s always good to have a backup, and that if I replaced it, I’d  probably find the old one. That’s what happened. The new one arrived, and shortly thereafter — about a week since the first one went missing — Jersey vomited in the kitchen. As I cleaned it up, I noticed a weird thing among the slime.

It was hard and yellow and fused together, but after taking a good look, I now knew for certain where that finger brush had gotten to. After that, I kept the dog dental care items on a higher surface.

Then, along came Gadget. I started out with the finger brush, and then I discovered the three-headed brush by Triple Pet. It has three sets of bristles so that you can get all three sides of a dog’s tooth at once. It’s brilliant. Gadget was not wild about it, but he learned to be very patient and put up with it. After the liver flavor toothpaste was discontinued I tried a few, some of which he hated. Others he tolerated. Poultry was the most palatable, so I stuck with that, and he eventually became very relaxed about tooth-brushing.

However, in the early days, when he was first getting used to the brush, he would chomp on it while I was brushing. After all, there was something in his mouth, it tasted somewhat like food, and it was between his teeth. Because the articulating heads are three pieces instead of one, they are not as strong as a regular toothbrush head, and one day, chomp chomp chomp, he bit the brush heads off.

So, I replaced that one, and I taught him to receive tooth brushing without chomping. We were able to use the same toothbrush for the rest of his life. So, technically, he didn’t actually eat the toothbrush. He did routinely eat bars of soap and once ate and then later barfed up some latex gloves that had been in the trash, though.

Barnum is not very fond of having his teeth brushed, and he is only moderately cooperative. However, he really likes the taste of the poultry toothpaste.

Having learned my lesson not to leave dog tooth brushes and tooth paste at nose level, I keep Barnum’s brush and paste on top of his crate. One night, he was in his crate while I was eating dinner. I heard him chewing on something. At first, I assumed it was his antler or some other chew toy. Then I thought, “He doesn’t have a chewy in there, does he?” I pondered this for a few moments while I gulped down my mouthful of food.

I decided to just check what Barnum was doing. That’s when I discovered his toothbrush had fallen into his crate. And he was chewing it — what was left of it.

Blue-handled toothbrush on the right has three piece head neat and clean. A dark blue pastic back with bristles pointing up, tucked behind and articulating neatly between a bristle head on either side, one yellow, one white. The bristles are all neat, clean, the same size and shape. Next to it is a yellow-handled toothbrush. Of the three heads to this brush, the center back piece is gone completely, snapped off at the base. The right and left sides (one orange, one gree) are severely bent, curling up at odd angles, with the plastic chewed almost flat in places. There are only three ravaged clumps of bristles left on the green head (as opposed to 12). The orange had has more bristles left but is also flattened and missing pastic as well as several bristles. Those that remain are mashed, bitten off and going every which way.

Guess which one used to be Barnum's brush?

I found an old one (the blue one), and will use that from now on.

On the left, yellow tooth brush with only two heads, both badly mangled and missing many bristles. On the right, clean, whole toothbrush with three articulating heads.

As you can see, there is a chunk of plastic, as well as a significant amount of bristles, missing.

Oh, just one more picture. . . .

view of the underside of the toothbrushes

You can see the blue piece on the brush on the right that is totally missing from the mangled one on the left.

Of course, I tried to examine Barnum’s poop for the following week to see if I saw bristles or a small piece of blue plastic. I never did, but there were a couple of times he poop when on walks with my helpers, and I didn’t see “the contents.”

However, Barnum also started having seriously rank flatulence every day. Bouviers are often champion farters, but Barnum is not usually an offender. I had recently added pinto beans to his diet, though. The question was, “Are Barnum’s emissions due to the beans, or is this a sign that the toothbrush pieces are lodged somewhere, irritating his gastrointestinal tract and causing digestive distress?”

I really did not want to have to take him to the vet for x-rays. Instead, I switch Barnum to a bland diet, without beans, and within 24 hours, the farting went away. So, I think we have escaped a brush with disaster.

-Sharon, the muses of Jersey (delicious!) and Gadget (crunchy!), and Barnum, SDiT (Where’s the rest of my poultry chewy? Why did you take it away?)


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