That Stinks – Skunks



Skunks are beneficial critters.  They are omnivorous and eat a variety of garden pests including: mice, voles, beetles, various larvae, wasps, and crickets. Skunks are also scavengers. They will seek out animal carcasses which helps keep an ecosystem free from carrion. Scavengers are important to the health of the environment. However, they also have a not so pleasant side. Anyone who has had a pet get “skunked” certainly knows this!  Skunks spray as a form of defense.  Since they are slow and do not climb, skunks evolved a way to drive predators away.

Before spraying, a skunk will begin stamping his feet, doing elaborate “handstands”, raising and shaking his tail, turning in a U shape (tail and face towards the threat), and dancing about. Unless a skunk is startled and lets that spray fly, if you or a pet gets “skunked” it is most likely because warnings were ignored.  For a skunk, spraying is a last resort.  Striped skunks can spray several times, but that noxious arsenal will run out. Once depleted, it can take up to ten days before the skink is capable of spraying again. During this time, the skunk is vulnerable. Sadly, many pet dogs do not realize the warning signs preceding a blast. This can lead to, well, a stinky mess for you.  The next steps taken, post-blast, should be based in science.  Here is a quick skunk secretion chemistry lesson.

The noxious secretions that are fired from gland at the base of the critter’s tail is comprised of thiols and are basically a sulfur and hydrogen atom bonded together.  The thiols are trans-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinoline methane-thiol. (Science, August 4, 1990). The spray is not water soluble.  Once it hits something it can cling for some time – with the smell lingering possibly for weeks.  The spray is not only smelly but can cause damage to mucous membranes, irritation, and temporary blindness.  Rarely a form of anemia like that which develops when dogs eat onions and garlic.  If the symptoms are not recognized, death is possible.

A popular way to address skunked dog is with tomato juice.  According to Chemistry of Skunk Spray, by William F. Wood (Department of Chemistry, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.), the reason we assume tomato juice works to nullify the smell is olfactory fatigue. The smell is still there but we do not detect it.  Instead we detect the tomato juice. Ditch the tomato juice and go for the science!

A recommended treatment is 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda (not baking powder, they are different chemically), and 1 teaspoon liquid dish soaps (this helps break up the oils).  This mixture will help break down the oils and chemically neutralize the odor. Do not mix this up for future use as the container can explode.  Alternatively, use a commercially available product containing neutroleum alpha. There are several websites recommending an essential oil mix.  Several of the oils recommended, including Tea Tree, can be toxic to dogs and cats even in the amounts recommended.

Skunks live everywhere from the desert to the city.  They are a part of life, but it is easy to reduce the risk of an encounter. Walking dogs on shorter leashes, keeping your trash secured and pet food cleaned up, making noise and turning on exterior lights a few minutes before letting your dogs in the yard (give skunks a chance to toddle off), can go a long way in reducing the chance on an encounter.

originally published in Inside NoVA, Fall 2018

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Working to Keep a Pet in the Home

Not to long ago I covered different reasons given why pets were given up.  Now I would like to look at a few things people can do to increase the chance a pet will stay in the home.  This is a general overview.  What needs to be done will vary critter to critter.

adolescence adorable animal beautiful

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

Do not do anything on impulse. Think and research. Can you safely manage the animal you want? What will it need for environment and enrichment?  Can you meet its daily needs for the next 2 – 70+ years? Are you able and willing to appropriately meet dietary requirements? Are you going to be a good fit for the animal and vice versa? Is a new pet going to mesh well with current pets? Will you be raising the pet or expecting a home health aide, nanny, or your children to do the work? Will you bring in help to meet the critter’s needs? What will happen if you move, start a family, bring an ailing relative in to your house?

Know state and local laws, HOA covenants and lease restrictions.  For example, hedgehogs are not legal in all Virginia counties. You need a permit to own a ferret in Washington, DC.  Pit Bulls, as of last check, are banned in PG Co, MD. I consulted with a dog owner who adopted a dog 100lbs over the 50lbs weight limit for his rental.  He admittedly knew the weight restrictions before adopting yet was shocked when he was told by management to move or get rid of the dog.

Be proactive. Confusion, boredom, lack of training, lack of resources (too few litter boxes, toys, etc.), can lead to undesired behaviors. Working to reduce the chance of something starting goes a long way to keeping a pet in the house. Even with proactive owners, things will crop up.  Proactive owners address concerns fast.  Waiting can worsen things to the point where some owners decide or are forced to give up a pet (think animal control complaints, legal issues, insurance).

No matter how much we prepare for things, life can throw us a curve ball. When my husband was in a serious accident, we had two young kids and he needed a lot of home care.  I sucked it up and did two things: I hired a poop scoop service and did grocery delivery for a few weeks.  Just having two tasks taken care of for a few weeks helped. When I was dealing with cancer not that long ago my husband and kids took over a lot of the critter care.  It is OK to ask for help or hire it.

Other life changes include moves. In 1997 we moved from Massachusetts to Virginia with two dogs, four cat, some rabbits and a couple guinea pigs.  It took two cars and planning, but we did it.  We had a great real estate agent who hooked us up with a vet for boarding. The moment you know a move is a possibility you need to begin planning for your pets. Rarely do people have to move at the drop of a hat.  Even evictions take time.  As pet owners we need to do all we can to ensure our pets can move with us.

Being prepared and proactive can go a long way towards keeping a pet in the home. However, even with all the work we do, sometimes keeping the pet is not in the best interest of the pet or humans.

This was originally published in a shorter version in Inside NoVA.

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Etiquette Around Service Dogs

When my son was a toddler, I volunteered with a service dog organization. During that time, I was able to attend a lecture weekend at their main facility. One talk focused specifically on how the general public’s behaviors can affect service dogs. Though service dogs are supposed to have a high level of training and solid behaviors, they are still animals and influences by what happens to them.


tozzi 2

Tozzi – went on to guide a blind park ranger. (c) West Wind Dog Training – 1999


Service dogs are a major investment. Depending on what is needed it can take up to two years and $10,000 – $50,000 to raise and train a service dog. Handlers know eventually a dog will hit retirement age and this is an emotional time. The age of the dog and tasks performed factor into how long a dog can work. When a dog’s ability to work is compromised and forces an earlier retirement, the handler cannot simply go tappity-tappity-click and have Amazon ship another.  Sadly, the way many people behave or allow children and pets to behave towards service dogs can compromise the service dogs’ ability to work. Here are two such cases:

A visually impaired man did a lot of public speaking at catered events. His guide dog began distracting and trying to get to things he used to ignore like food carts in the city. The man worked with the organization to try and fix the dogs training but could not. It was learned that at speaking events, people would offer the dog food as he and his handler were walking around.  This behavior from humans slowly undid the dog’s training.  He was now unable to reliably perform his duties.  

A young woman was out with her service dog in training.  The handler often uses a wheelchair or cane. She is also epileptic. A man ignored not only signs on the dog’s vest not to touch but also verbal requests from the handler. The distracted dog missed a signal the girl was going to have a seizure.  This resulted in injury as the girl was not able to prepare or get someone to assist.

Recently a video of a mother throwing a tantrum because her children were not allowed to pat service dogs in training went viral. Not only was she stressing the dogs and handlers but what lesson what she teaching her kidlets? Instead, teach children that these are working dogs to be left alone.

Another risk service dog groups report is out of control pet dogs. Mercifully her dog bounced back and was able to continue working.  According to Guide Dog Users Group, 89% of handlers in a survey reported interference by other dogs.  42% of those reported outright attacks. If the attacks are severe enough or happen enough times it can negatively affect a service dog’s ability to work. Harassment by other dogs (and humans) can lead to behaviors developing that are not allowed in service dogs such as fear or aggressions.  A friend of mine had her service dog attacked by a dog an owner claimed was a service dog.  Service dogs are not supposed to show aggression towards other animals or humans.  When you are out with your dog, be mindful. Do not allow your dog to engage in any way with service dogs. If you see someone with a service dog and you are walking your dog, give the working dog a wide berth.

Never assume a dog is not working if he does not look like it to you. A dog at his handlers feet may be waiting for a cue to do something or a signal a medical episode is pending. Whether or not a dog is working when he appears not to be is not your call to make.

Trying to call service dogs, pat them, get them to distract, teasing. demanding a demonstration of what the dog does, letting your child or dog behave poorly around them are all things that affect a service dog’s work.  If you see someone out with a service dog, let the dog work in peace. 

Finally, just because a dog is small does not mean he is not a service dog.  There are reasons some people have or need a smaller service dog

This is an expanded version of a piece published in Inside NoVA, Jan 2019 – Karen Peak

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He’s Not Like My Old Dog

“I really do not like this new dog, he is not like my old one.”  After many happy years, this couple recently lost their beloved dog. The wife thought if she got a dog of the same breed and color, he would be exactly like their old dog.  I was called in because the wife was devastated that the new dog was behaving differently from their old dog.  I was charged with making this dog just like her old one. First, let’s look at dogs and what I can expect to varying degrees.

labrador retrieve near body of water

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on

When I work with an Australian Cattle Dog I can predict some level of certain traits based on breed. The same with Golden Retrievers, Shetland Sheepdogs, Dachshunds, any purebred dog has certain traits I can expect based on their breed.  This is why a Bassett Hound will behaviorally never be a Border Collie. Therefore, when someone who is a couch potato asks if I think a German Shorthaired Pointer would be a good choice of a companion I can try to steer them to a better suited dog.  However, this predictability does not mean two dogs of the same breed or type will behave identically.

Genetics lays the base for everything including inherited predispositions with temperament.  Even a litter of purebred puppies can have a range of temperament traits.  Sometimes the genetics fairy has a sense of humor or a bad cup of coffee when she decides what will be inherited and how.  I owned a Sheltie who was extremely laid back.  His temperament was much different from what Shelties generally are. His littermate was an outstanding performance dog competing in various sports. My guy went on to be the dog I founded The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project with.  There can be a wider range in temperaments in crossbred puppies even from the same litter based on how things are inherited. The genetics behind behavior is a fascinating topic.

So, I knew in general what to expect from the type of dog this couple had.  He was also a  purebred of a breed I have lived with for decades.  However, the dog the couple lost was from an excellent breeder who bred for correct temperament and type.  The dog they had now was a cute guy from a breed rescue but he was from a questionable background.  We knew he was purebred but nothing of his lineage.  Genetics lays the ground work.  The better the ground you build upon, the better chance of a solid building. Upon that ground we build a foundation.

The first 8 weeks or more the puppy is with whomever has the litter is crucial. Just like building a house or office building, or gee the Metro expansion here in the Washington, DC area, if the groundwork and foundation are not there, it will affect construction. If early and careful socializing is not done then it can negatively affect what the owner is capable of building from there. 

The first give or take 16 weeks for a puppy is crucial regarding social development. But will we do everything identically with each puppy we raise?  Nope, because we are human.  Now let’s take a little sci-fi side trip to see how far people would go to make a pet just like…

I was asked by a couple who had an elderly dog they loved beyond belief (and they had the money to do this) could they clone her and get exactly what they had now.  No.  Cloning will not give you an exact replica.  Cloning creates an embryo, not an individual. I have had dogs in my life I wish I could clone but I know I would never get exactly what I had.  Why?

My knowledge of socializing, training and behavior is far different from what it was in the 1980s. I am not the same person I was 5, 15, 25, 35 years ago.  How I socialize and train is much different.  My knowledge about the science behind dog work is light years from what it was in the late 1970’s when I got the first dog I ever formally worked with.  I know the importance of genetics and not isolating a puppy until four months old as many older school trainer and veterinarians still recommend.  I know the science behind learning and how to positively develop behaviors needed instead of punishing a dog into compliance.  No matter what genetics gave me in a clone, the dog would never be identical in looks or behavior to my old dog.

Back to the woman who was upset their new dog was not identical in behavior to the one they lost though he was the same breed and color.  This dog was an individual shaped by his own genetics and the experiences before coming to this home.  Even if they obtained him as a younger pup as they did their old dog, this boy would still be himself.  The wife was not ready to accept this.  She was still mourning the dog they lost.  It was very hard for her to move on. She had not given herself enough time.  Her husband was set to love this new dog.  He was ready.  She demanded the dog be like her old dog.

After time, she began to come around.  I can only hope years later she is happy with the dog.  He really was a fun guy once he began to adjust to the new house.

What do I want you to take from this?  Each dog, each pet, is an individual. We will never have another pet “just like…” but we can open our hearts to new adventures and another chapter in our lives.

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That Amazing Pumpkin

This is another piece expanded from Northern Virginia Today that published easrly Oct 2018.


Did you know there are over 40 kinds of pumpkins?  They range in size from the tiny Jack Be Little to the huge Atlantic Giant.  Pumpkins come in a variety of colors including the orange, blueish, white, and multicolored. Botanically speaking, pumpkins are members of the squash family. Considered vegetables for culinary purposes, pumpkins are fruits because they are the seed-bearing fruits of flowering plants.

Uhura adjust 2

Uhura – (c) West Wind Dog Training

Some of you may be thinking “Karen, why are you talking about pumpkins in a pet column?” Simple, pumpkins are a great thing for many of our pets! Why not cover the Great Pumpkin (see what I did there) at this time of year?

Pumpkins are high in fiber, low in fat and cholesterol, and loaded with various vitamins and minerals.  The seeds contain Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Pumpkin can help prevent hairballs in cats.  Pumpkin is often recommended to help with diarrhea and constipation in pets. However, this does not mean you should go self-treating issues. You need to know what is causing the problem and if pumpkin will help. Being high in fiber and lower in fat and cholesterol, pumpkin can be used as part of a weight loss program. When working on weight loss with my dogs, I often replace part of one meal with a blend of rice and vegetables with a good canned dog food. Even my dogs not watching weight love getting a scoop of this in their food.  If you do not want to go through the hassle of cleaning and cooking pumpkin, buy canned puree.  Do not buy the premade pie filling as it is sweetened.

Foster adj

Foster – (c) West Wind Dog Training

Pumpkins and their seeds make great treats for various rodents.  My daughter’s rat and chinchilla love them. Many of our small pets have loved chewing on pumpkin chunks. However, since dietary needs vary species to species, make certain this is an appropriate treat for your specific pet.

Pumpkins are great for enrichment.  At the end of the Halloween season, many zoos ask for pumpkins to be donated for enrichment activities.  Holes are great for climbing through.  Other foods can be hidden inside the fruit. You can make bird feeders out of them. Pumpkins can be hung for more challenging activities.  Many things good zoos do for habitat enrichment can be adapted for our pets.  You can hang pumpkins from tree branches and fill them with seeds and dried mealworms and make a temporary bird feeder. However, I would not use pumpkins that have been used with fog machines, painted, or left out and beginning to mold. Be careful however, these may also attract bear and other wild life you may not want hanging around.

Mix together pureed pumpkin, plain yogurt and peanut butter (make sure there is no xylitol in the yogurt or peanut butter) and fill a Kong or similar toy meant to hold things to be licked out.  Freeze for a longer lasting treat.

Finally, you can use pumpkin in a variety of dog cookie recipes (rats, mice and other small pets may like these too).

1 can pureed pumpkin

½ cup peanut butter

½ cup rolled oats,

enough rice flour to make a stiff dough you can roll. 

Preheat oven to 350F.  Roll dough to ¼” thick.  Cut with cookie cutter and bake 8 – 10 minutes on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or lightly oiled. Variations on this include omitting peanut butter and using a baked, mashed apple or a large, shredded carrot.  If making treats for small pets, use a bottle cap as a cookie cutter.

Next time you go shopping, get some pumpkin. It is a great food for many pets and can add a healthier form of enrichment to their lives.

– Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Traning

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He Refuses to Come Inside!

This is an expanded version of a piece that ran in Northern Virginia Today, Fall 2018


Every morning when the Smiths needed to get out of the house, something was making them late. His name was Sparky.

medium coated tan dog running on dirt road between green grass near trees

Photo by Country4k on

Sparky was a young dog the Smith had not owned long.  Each morning as the Smiths tried to get kids to school/daycare and then the adults off to work, Sparky refused to come inside so the humans could leave. Obviously, the Smiths needed this fixed, so they sought training advice. Even with “training,” Sparky became increasingly difficult to get inside. Finally after working with other trainers and things getting worse, I was contacted.  During my initial consult, this is what I discovered.

(1) Each morning Sparky was put outside as the chaos of getting people ready for work, school and daycare began.  Just before humans dashed out, Sparky was rushed inside and immediately crated. Coming inside meant boring things. This was why Sparky initially began refusing to come inside during the morning routine.

(2) Sparky did not really understand his name.  The Smiths assumed when Sparky did not respond that he was being defiant. This assumption led to them becoming frustrated and wanting to stop this defiance.  If Sparky did not know he was supposed to respond to his name, how could he learn to come when called? Not only that, the Smiths called him in a frantic and not pleasant manner.  Dogs try to avoid things like that are scary and not fun.  Sparky was not defiant, he was avoiding a negative and he was confused.

(3) The early training advice they were given was outdated and not science-based. It included leash corrections when Sparky did not respond to “come.“ Various levels of pain and dragging Sparky through the door were recommended.  This would continue until Sparky figured out when he came inside when called, the yanking would stop. When Sparky was not on leash there was nothing to force him inside, so he ran to the back corner of the yard and cowered.  Why?  The word “come” for Sparky meant bad things would happen.  When not leashed, Sparky could avoid the bad things by running.

My game plan was: enrich the inside of the house so Sparky would find it as fun as outside; rebuild the relationship between dog and humans; teach Sparky coming when called was a good thing; address the hectic morning routine that was overwhelming Sparky.

I used food and different food releasing toys, indoor appropriate activities and such to make inside as fun as outside.  We worked on name games and bonding exercises.  The more Sparky wanted to be inside and with his humans, the easier it would be to change the situation the Smiths were in.  You see, outside Sparky could chase fuzzy tree rats, hunt bugs, dig, the kids played with him there and left their toys outside which were great fun.  Inside it was all “Quiet dog!  Go lie down!” or Sparky was shoved in his crate and humans raced out the door. Why SHOULD Sparky want to be inside?

The Smiths were gaining a better understanding of what Sparky needed as a dog and how their tone and actions were what led to how Sparky behaved. Next I taught them how to make coming in the door an awesomely good thing. Since the word “come” meant bad things would follow, it was easier to train a totally new word than risk the chance Sparky would remember the pain and corrections with “Come” and suddenly refuse to respond.

Finally, I tweaked the morning routine, so Sparky was not being brought inside and immediately crated.  This, combined with the other work, would help change Sparky’s emotions towards coming inside. Once inside there were fun things to do and some relaxing.  Then into his crate with some food releasing toys.

What is the takeaway from this?  Dogs are not defiant.  They respond to their environment.  What we do with them increases or decreases the chance of what we need for various behaviors.  Sparky was simply a dog who responded to what was going on around him.  He was not defiant Sparky was confused and afraid.

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Doctor Google – issues with internet medical advice

It is common for pet owners to seek internet medical help long before calling a vet.  There are two things we must realize about internet advice.  First, no one can accurately diagnose issues without seeing the animal in person.  Second, there is a reason why many people recommend seeking medical care.  Why?  See the first reason.  Here are a few things I have seen online to help show the importance of seeking medical advice to get a correct diagnosis:

gray and black stethoscope

Photo by on

A dog owner asked a grooming group about his dog’s skin condition. The dog was not scratching but was developing flakes and an odor. Now he was digging at his ears and acting off.  People instantly “diagnosed” the issue and recommend various treatments including: feed a different kibble, feed raw, injectable ivermectin from the feed store, bathe the dog in cider vinegar, add coconut oil to the food , homemade ear flushes, etc.  Other people suggested seeking medical advice instead of only treating symptoms.  These people explained there were various things that could cause the symptoms and the dog may have several things going on.  If one or more were the cause and not addressed, the dog would not improve. There was no way anyone could tell what was causing the issue without seeing the dog and possibly running tests.

Another owner was concerned her dog was refusing food.  The suggestions get the dog to eat were many: he will eat when he is hungry, feed raw, add broth, add cooked meat, feed a better food stop feeding kibble, feed canned only, try baby food, etc.  Some people suggested a vet visit and listed a bunch of things that could cause a refusal to eat. The owner chose the non-vet route. Over the next weeks the dog began losing weight and condition.  Finally, the owner went to the vet.  The dog had abscesses in his mouth. He was not eating because it hurt.

A cat owner was worried about litter box refusals. The first thing to do is rule out medical causes while addressing environment.  She chose the “cheaper” route of addressing environment only.  The situation worsened. Finally, the cat stopped urinating all together.  He started with urinary crystals, which would have been easier to address, and now had a full-blown urethral blockage.  Her medical bills were significantly higher now that the cat needed surgery to remove the blockage.  

The sooner you seek medical advice the better for your pet.  Also, it could be better for your wallet.  I spoke to a vet who was having a rough week.  He had euthanized several animals.  What upset him the most was most animals had been exhibiting symptoms for some time.  The owners went online to seek advice before calling him. They were told to give recommended treatments several days to weeks as some can take time to show any effect. Instead the conditions worsened, the vet bills were going to be much higher because treatment would be more involved.  Some of the pets were too far gone to save while for others the choice to euthanize was financial.

Another concern is internet advice is designed to treat symptoms only.  If someone says they have a dog who has developed an infrequent cough some would say early kennel cough, others would say allergies (depending on season). Well in the case of one of my senior dogs her cough was a symptom of developing heart issues.  Discovered how?  By a vet.  Why?  People cannot diagnose things without seeing the pet. I knew that cough could be a host of things from simple to the beginning of something life threatening.  

As a trainer I am often asked to diagnose a medical condition or say what I think may be going on.  First, I am not a vet. No one but a trained vet can legally diagnose a medical problem.  What can I do? I can encourage you to seek medical advice.  I can explain why to see medical advice. After that, depending on the diagnosis, I can adapt my work to the needs of your pet.

-Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training

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