Meet The Author

Stephanie and her family moved to Indianapolis from Texas in 2015. She and her husband John have been happily married since 2010. They have a one year old son named Jack. They share their home with two dogs, Torchy and Rusty, and two cats, Timmy and Kit Kat. Stephanie has a BS in Animal Behavior from Southwestern University and a DVM from Texas A&M University. She is an associate veterinarian at VCA Animal Hospital o f Plainfield and has a special interest in veterinary behavior. Stephanie is passionate about being a wife, a mom, and a veterinarian. She loves spending time playing with her son, cooking with her husband, training and playing with their two dogs, and snuggling with her cats on the couch. When taking time for herself, she enjoys yoga, running, reading, and the occasional massage . The views expressed in this article are Stephanie's and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.

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Play Time for Cats

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Do you play with your cat? All species of animals, including humans, play. Play behavior is crucial for normal development and for overall health and well-being for our pets. There are a lot of reasons that it is important to play with your cats, particularly if they are staying indoors. 

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Lessons From My Son

Becoming a parent has been the most life altering event I have experienced so far. When I look at my little boy I feel like my heart is literally walking outside of my body. There have been countless moments where I sit and watch him in amazement as he grows and changes at a whirlwind pace. I remember sitting on the sofa watching him play in our living room the other day. He was stacking his blocks and building a tower. He accidentally knocked his tower over with his foot and I heard him say “uh oh spaghetti-o”. I had this brief moment of clarity where I felt so proud of him for making light of what could have been very frustrating combined with the realization that as adults, we are way too hard on ourselves. In that moment, I felt that there were a lot of life lessons I am continually learning from my son has he grows up.

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Your Pet's Christmas Wish List

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As a kid, I remember every year about this time making my Christmas list and waiting so excitedly for Santa to come on Christmas Eve. Now as a parent, it is still just as exciting (if not more) to play Santa. Last year was Jack’s first Christmas, which we spent away from home in Texas, so the dogs and cats didn’t really get any Christmas love. This year, I am taking the opportunity to restock a lot of the toys. In general, here are the types of toys I like:

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Holidays With Our Furry Friends

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I start out this post thinking of the many, many things that can be a hazard to our furry family members around the holidays. I made a list of the common (turkey anyone?) and uncommon risks to our pets during the holidays (seriously why would anyone swallow an entire strand of Christmas lights!). I ended up with a rather grumpy list of things not to do that put a bit of a damper on my holiday spirit (where is fall anyway??).
So, I decided to head back to the drawing board. I love the holidays. It is a wonderful time with family and friends and of course our pets also. There are many things you can and should do with your pet that are fun and will help keep everyone safe during the holidays.

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Essential Pet Behaviors

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Ah, the dream of a well-trained dog. I am sure when we adopted Rusty and Torchy we had visions of how they would be well-mannered and perfectly trained dogs. After 7 years, one DVM degree, and one in-progress trainer certification, plus a lot of studying from the best of the best in dog training and behavior, my dogs are still a work in progress, and so am I. Here is the moment when those of you with slightly crazy dogs (I mean that in the most loving way) breathe a sigh of relief because even the vet with a passion for behavior is still learning. And those of you with easy going dogs are thinking, “Seriously what is so hard? They practically train themselves!” (and the rest of us hate you just a bit). 

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Focusing On The Good

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I lost a friend recently. He died. He was young. It should not have happened. I deal with death on a daily basis, but this was different. He had such a huge and positive impact on everyone around him. And there is just a huge gaping hole in the lives of everyone who knew him. I wish he had known the impact he had and just how irreplaceable he is.

I think for most people, losing someone you care about causes you to re-examine what you have. It is so easy to get lost in the day to day of our lives. The stress of jobs, paying bills, grumpy kids, the house that always needs cleaned, the laundry I just can’t keep up with. It’s too easy to let joy get lost in the shuffle.

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During the past month there have been moments of intense sorrow. There has been anger. There has been fear. I have also seen people come together to help each other, to be there for each other. My husband and my son have been my anchor, reminding me that I have so much to be grateful for.

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I am a veterinarian. I solve problems on a daily basis and sometimes lives do hang in the balance. I want to fix it all, and I struggle with the reality that I can’t always do that, no one can. Most of the time I make my peace with it. There are diseases and injuries that I can’t repair. Processes that I can’t stop. Sometimes all I can offer is a peaceful end. I am honored to be in the exam room when a family says good bye to the dog or cat they love. It is the last give the give to a beloved pet. A last act of love.

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This is different. I don’t like situations where there really is no solution. There is no way to repair this loss, and I am still coming to terms with that. It’s too easy to look around and see all the negative in the world. It is everywhere. In order to get through a very difficult time I am forcing myself to look for the good. The world seems overwhelming, so I have been focusing on the joy in the day to day of my life. Looking at a typical day, I have been blessed. Here is what I hold on to.

  1. The laughter of my son. Seriously, is there anything better than the sound of a baby laughing?
  2. A big hug from my husband. He makes me laugh even when I feel like I don’t want to. And nothing is better than a great big hug from him. Watching John and Jack together makes my heart so happy.
  3. Rocking Jack to sleep. It is a brief pause in my day and the only time Jack holds still long enough to snuggle. That quiet moment where we rock in the nursery with the lights off as he finishes a bottle before going to bed. In that moment there is peace.
  4. What I do matters. Whether it is raising my son, helping a client and patient, or just being there for someone in need. The day to day of my life matters. I can’t solve all the world’s problems, but I can still make a difference in my own way.
  5. Have faith. I have had my days, especially over the last month, where life just seems really hard and makes me question everything. Deep in my heart though, I have faith. I believe in something/someone bigger than myself even if I don’t understand why things sometimes happen the way they do. I focus on what I can do and try to make a difference in my own way.

Focusing on good wherever I find it is helping my own heart heal. If you get one thing out of reading this I hope it is the absolute fact that you matter. Who you are and what you bring to the world makes a difference. The lessons I will carry forward from my friend are to laugh and to do what you love. Life is just too short for anything else. 

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Cats Meet Kid

“Jack! Let go of Kit Kat!” That is my rather exhausted and exasperated statement as I wonder why the cats don’t run away when he starts heading for them. How in the world do you teach a 1-year-old to be gentle with animals? As a first time mother I was determined when Jack was born that I was not going to let him pinch, grab, ride, step on, or do anything else that my dogs and cats wouldn’t enjoy. Turns out that is easier said than done. So now the question is how do I maintain my own sanity while preventing my cats from being tortured by a one-year-old.

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I admit that with a background in behavior, I was sure we would all live in peaceful harmony with me blissfully teaching Jack gentle touches (haha, yeah right). When Jack was a baby and immobile we were fine. I just had to keep the animals away from him. Now that he is walking, running, and grabbing, it is a whole other ball game. He is also very independent and doesn’t want help. He likes to do things his own way and in his own time. The cats are his new favorite toy and pinching and pulling is his new favorite activity.

We moved to a new house recently and even though the cats now have an upstairs and a basement, they prefer to remain on the main floor where us humans also spend most of our time. I admit I was lax in watching Jack with the cats because they are able to leave the room whereas the dogs can’t. The problem I discovered is the cats don’t leave the room. In fact, they do the exact opposite. They flop helplessly on the floor and meow for me to intervene.

Jack has also decided that pinching, squishing, and tail pulling are fun ways to spend his time. I decided quickly that I needed to change tactics when I heard my cat meowing and turned around to see that Jack had managed to get his hands on her tail and had no plans to let go. As I quickly pried Jacks fingers off of her, and pushed away visions of tail amputations that danced in my head, I decided to try something else.

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  1. Give the cats an escape route. Since the cats actually refuse to move when Jack is headed toward them, we set up the cat tree on the main floor so at least they could escape upward. I reward them with treats when they are up on the cat tree periodically.
  2. Polite behavior applies to everyone. I am more likely than anyone else to tolerate Jack jumping on me, pinching, and playing rough with me because I know he is a toddler and is simply behaving like one. I have had to adjust my response to him. If he bites, pinches, or hits, I immediately walk away. So far that has been working, he doesn’t do those things as often any more.
  3. Practice “gentle”. We started this when he was an infant and he started grabbing my favorite neckless and yanking on it. I would hold his hand and let him touch it with one finger. Somewhere in his little baby brain this seems to have stuck because he will approach the cats with one finger Then, if he lets me help, he gets to pet the kitty (or puppy). Often though that one finger quickly becomes a hand grab so I have to watch carefully. We also practice this with touch and feel books on the rare occasion he sits down with me to look at a book.
  4. Give Jack another outlet. Stuffed animals are great for him to squish and drag around the house, so I keep a lot of those scattered around to redirect him when he starts acting like he might grab a kitty.
  5. Give yourself a break. This is the most important rule. If I need a break from being referee, then I take one. The cats can hang out in another room for a while, or Jack and I can head out for a walk. I am pretty sure I put this in every post involving pets that I write because it is that important!

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I use the same guidelines with my dogs, but I admit I was much less watchful with the cats due to their ability to leave the room. My cats are really very tolerant and good with Jack, and I want to keep it that way. As a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior, helping families build positive relationships with their pets is an important part of what I do. I am reminded with Jack, that there’s not a one size fits all approach to this and I need to adjust my plan as Jack grows. 

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Dogs and Kids: What You Need to Know

May 15th through May 21st is national dog bite prevention week. As a veterinarian I will tell you that all dogs bite given the right (or wrong) circumstances, and children are at the biggest risk of being bitten. The most common behaviors that lead to dog bites towards kids are ones that, to us, are extremely normal. For babies and toddlers, the biggest risk factors include dogs guarding food/toys, toddlers falling or stepping on the dog, or pulling on the dog’s fur, ears, or tail. For older children bites tend to be triggered by hugging and kissing the dog, or petting the dog in a way or at a time the dog doesn’t like. As a mom, I want everyone in my household to be safe, healthy, and happy (this last one is not always a reasonable goal, I realize).

The biggest thing to remember is that most bites come from dogs that kids know. Please check out the website www.stopthe77.com for a really great video on how to look at kids’ behavior from the dog’s perspective and for some great resources on dogs and kids. I also recommend my favorite books, “Living with Kids and Dogs… Without Losing Your Mind” by Colleen Pelar and “Raising Puppies and Kids Together” by Pia Silvani and Lynn Eckhardt.

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Rusty and Torchy showing off their sit stay.

 

Now that all the important facts and figures are out of the way, I really do believe that having dogs and kids under the same roof should be fun. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t effort involved in keeping the relationship happy, there is. I don’t always feel like training my dogs so that they learn to be calm around Jack or helping Jack pet the dogs in a way that is nice and not painful/terrifying. So, when I need to take a break, I do. Seeing them enjoy their time together is well worth the effort I put in though.

Having a toddler and two high energy dogs is very different from what our household was like when Jack was a baby. Jack now occupies the same space as the dogs, and his interest in them can be painful. As a mom who has been pinched and bitten (rarely) and had her glasses forcefully removed from her face on many occasions, I am well aware that his love can be painful. He is also a very enthusiastic hugger, which I love, but would pretty much terrify my dogs. I understand that he is a toddler, and he doesn’t know any better. If he did that to my dogs, however, they would just think the small strange dog-like tiny person was hurting them, so this behavior is actively prevented. I want the dogs to see Jack as a tiny treat dispenser and for them to know that good things happen when Jack is around.

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Kit Kat is the best with Jack and helps us teach him to be gentle.. No squishing or pinching the kitty either!

 

Here are some ideas for building a happy relationship between your dogs and your kids:

  1. Training should always be fun! Get your kids involved in training. How much your kids will be able to be involved will depend on their age. My essential life skills for dogs are to be able to sit, stay, come, and walk politely on a leash in a wide variety of circumstances. Plus, there are all kinds of exciting dog sports and activities available. As soon as Jack is able to drop treats on the floor he will start helping me train the dogs. I think we will use cheerios in case Jack decides to eat some of the treats.
  2. Practice gentle touches. We are working with Jack on gentle touches (flat open hand, ideally with only two fingers) using board books and stuffed animals, and of course John and myself. If Jack is petting the dogs, he has to let me help him or we go do something else. There is no grabbing, pinching, squishing, hugging, or laying on my dogs.
  3. Promote togetherness. Walks and fetch are great for this because they are together but not touching. For fetch I hold Jack because I don’t want him knocked over by my rambunctious dogs. Eventually we will work on teaching him to play fetch with the dogs.
  4. Set the ground rules. Both kids and dogs should have a set of rules they have to follow that encourage polite calm behavior towards each other. These rules will be different depending on your kids and your household, but they should involve doing things both kids and dogs enjoy. What types of play/behavior is appropriate will change as your kids get older but will always depend on what your dog enjoys.
  5. Take a break. Your dogs and your kids should have things to do that don’t involve each other. Rusty and Torchy have a great new game where I sprinkle cheerios in the back yard and they wander around eating them for hours. I am wondering how we haven’t been doing that their whole life! And when the dogs are busy with their puzzle toys and Jack is asleep, John and I can even sit and have a glass of wine with no interruptions!
  6. Ask questions and get help when you need it. Look for certified trainers in your area or ask your veterinarian. I am always happy to answer questions and point you in the direction of someone who can help you.

 

 

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A Picture Perfect Diet

My weight has been a struggle for me for most of my adult life. In high school, I was lucky. I was tall and thin no matter what I ate. My diet consisted mostly of cheese and ice cream. That ability changed somewhere in my 20s. Stress eating and a general lack of activity took over, and I became overweight. When I started dating my husband I was at my heaviest weight ever. Fortunately, my husband is a generally active guy, and he likes to cook healthy food. He does a great job of making things that are healthy and taste good (I didn’t believe that was a thing before him really – did you know you could add flavor with spices instead of fat?). Increased activity combined with various diet plans (I think I have tried them all) eventually got me to a place where I could be active and maintain a weight I was happy with. Until I got pregnant of course. Having struggled so much to finally reach a good weight, I was terrified to put the weight back on. I didn’t weigh myself once during my pregnancy, but when I did finally weigh a couple of weeks after Jack’s birth, I had about 50 pounds to lose.

That leads us to today. I have lost the baby weight. I did follow the Weight Watchers nursing mom program, which helped me to make sure I ate enough to keep nursing. Before I got pregnant and now that Jack is weaned I use the free Lose It application on my phone and like it. However, all of that takes time, and I was really feeling like I need something very simple and fast to make sure I am continuing to make healthy food choices. 

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With my work schedule and taking care of a toddler (oh my God! I have a toddler!) calorie counting was just too much of a task. A few weeks ago, I was reading something online--and I am not sure where I saw it--but I came across the idea to take pictures of my food before I eat it.

So, I tried it. When I looked at my food through the lens of my camera it was a rather eye opening experience. First I noticed that even though my daily calories were fine (I was still counting them) there was a serious lack of color (i.e. fruits and veggies) in my diet. The first day I had a very boring looking bowl of cereal and a Lean Cuisine for lunch. I think we had a frozen pizza or something for dinner. I may have had a piece of fruit in there somewhere, but not a single vegetable. I wasn’t over-eating, but I wasn’t eating a very healthy diet.

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 The next morning my cereal and milk was replaced by cereal and nonfat Greek yogurt and blueberries. I still had a lean cuisine for lunch, but I added fruits and/or vegetables to every meal and snack. I’ve stopped counting calories; my energy has increased; and I’ve actually lost a few more pounds. And as you can see, I still eat desert on occasion.

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Taking a picture gives me a moment to pause and evaluate what I am putting in my body. In that short pause my brain decides if it is colorful enough and if I feel good about eating it. And although I will obviously not be considering a career in food photography, it has become a pretty quick and easy way to evaluate if I am eating healthy or not. All I have to do is skim through the pictures in my phone, and it gives me a quick visual inventory of how many fruits and vegetables I have eaten. Hopefully, eating a balanced healthy diet, will be a habit that I will be able to pass on to my son.

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A Full House: Surviving with Babies of the Human and Fur Variety

Bringing together dogs and kids has its own special rewards and challenges. My dogs weren’t raised around kids, so I was a little nervous when we brought home Jack. Fortunately, the dogs have adapted fairly well to having a baby in the house. Now that Jack is crawling, and almost walking, it is a whole different ball game. My dogs have two different reactions to anything fast moving and noisy (aka Jack). Rusty gets scared, and Torchy’s herding instincts kick in. The first time Jack crawled toward Rusty, I swear Rusty’s life flashed before his eyes. So, we have been working with both dogs on calm behavior when Jack is crawling around the house. We have also been working with Jack on being gentle with the dogs. It is definitely a work in progress.

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Rusty and Torchy in a down stay while Jack removes gets out all of his toys.

 

Here are my rules of thumb when the dogs and Jack are in the room together:

  1. Watch the dogs’ body language
  2. Keep it positive
  3. Set clear boundaries
  4. Give the dogs an exit
  5. Give myself a break 

 

Signs of stress in dogs can be as subtle as lip licking or a slight freeze, or it can be obvious like a growl or a snap. Subtle signs precede the more obvious signs in behaviorally healthy dogs. When Jack first started crawling, he was headed for a toy, and Rusty was in his path. As Jack crawled, Rusty’s eyes dilated, and he froze momentarily. I saw the behavior and picked up Jack, which allowed Rusty make a safe exit. I want the dogs to learn to leave any situation where they are uncomfortable. When the dogs are out with Jack, I have to keep an eye on what their body language is telling me. If it looks like the dogs are stressed or overly excited than I have to stop and switch tactics. That might mean moving the dogs to a different area, switching to an activity Jack can participate in, or breaking out some higher value treats. (If your dog growls at anyone, especially your child, seek help from a certified trainer or talk to your veterinarian).

dog2rotated.jpg Jack being Jack. Seriously, he is like a mini tornado.

 

From the day we brought him home from the hospital, Jack’s presence has been paired with the dogs’ favorite things. Treats are always nearby, and whenever I can, I include Jack for Frisbee games and walks. I also actively prevent Jack from accidentally hurting or scaring the dogs. Yes, that involves me pretty much following him all over the house if the dogs are nearby. Recently Jack has started wanting to pet the dogs. He is only allowed to touch the dogs if I am helping him so that we practice gentle touches (open flat hand, preferably with only two fingers) and only if the dogs come to him. There is no chasing of the dogs.

 

Setting boundaries is a little trickier, but by having them in place now, I am hoping we are laying the foundation for happy boy/dog relationships. Of course Jack is too young to understand any kind of actual rules, but they are still there. Right now we are focusing on using gentle touches to pet the dogs (and the cats).

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Kit Kat is much more tolerant of Jack's attention then the dogs. She is rewarded well with treats for her patience.

 

Rusty and Torchy have their own rules to follow, they both have to be calm and have all four feet on the floor if Jack is nearby. They also have to respond to me when I give them commands. I always make sure the dogs have an exit so they can move away from Jack if he gets to be too much for them. That may be leaving the room, or it may be getting up on the couch while I redirect Jack’s interest to a toy or other activity.

dog4.jpg Rusty and Torchy waiting for Jack and I to come out and P-L-A-Y (the dogs know the word so we have to spell it or they get too excited).

 

I love my dogs and I want to have them out in the house. Right now though, if they are out with Jack I am right there the whole time. It can be exhausting. We all have to be having fun or we stop and take a break. The dogs can go outside for a while or hang out in another room with a peanut butter stuffed Kong. When Jack naps, the dogs can relax a bit with me. Some days are easier than others but we are slowly learning to navigate the world with two active dogs and an almost toddler.

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