E295: Laura Donaldson - "Stop and Smell the Pee Mail"

Laura and I talk about how sniffing can help dogs heal from trauma and how it's critical for all of our dogs — because it's one of their key senses!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Laura Donaldson here with me to talk about the power of sniffing. Hi Laura, welcome to the podcast.

Laura Donaldson: Thanks, Melissa. I'm really delighted to be here.

Melissa Breau: I'm delighted for you to be here too. To start us out, you wanna just share a little bit about you, your current pets, what you're working on with them?

Laura Donaldson: Yes. I am a retired university professor who for the past 20 years has also done behavior consults for dogs. And I did some competitive sheep herding. You know, they're not pets per se, but I was warned, if I name my sheep, I would never be able to get rid of them. And that's true. I've had, you know, I have sheep that are all probably 13, 14, 15 years old. They're a geriatric flock of Navajo churro and Icelandic, I love them dearly, but don't do any sheep herding competitions anymore. So they are like family pets.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Laura Donaldson: Yeah, And I've had llamas, I, for eight years, I had barred Plymouth Rock hens in the backyard. Never left home for eight years, and I didn't lose one chicken, keeping them safe. I have three cats. They're all cats that came in from the cold. Two of them were adopted and one of my cats I've actually posted on Facebook about Rocky, who was a little traumatized kitten when we got him, a group of boys captured him and beat him against a brick wall in a stuffed, in a duffel bag. And he's, he, when we first got him, no one could touch him. He would panic if someone came in the same room; he would hide. Now he's touching me. I'm the, you know, he is touching me. I still cannot touch him. And that's fine because we're gonna talk about that in what I'm doing on trauma in my second webinar Agency and Control–really important. And then I have Jackson who literally came in from the cold. My husband was out walking the dogs one night when it was 20 below windchill, and there was a foot of snow on the ground last January. And he heard this meowing, this was like late at night. And so that was Jackson saying, feed me, give me a warm place to sleep.

And then I'm down to three dogs because I've had as many as six high drive working Border Collies living inside in our very small, 1829 farmhouse. So I have one of my working Border Collies about eight years ago I went to the dark side and I got a Golden Retriever. And he's my emotional therapy dog. His favorite place is parking himself right on my feet, which is great. And then I have a bearded Collie who has a long story, which I won't go through now, but he, you know, the alternative was I could take him or he would be euthanized. So he's resident in our household. So, and then of course there's Obie, Melissa and I were talking about Obie before we started. Obie is my African gray parrot who, you know, listeners can't see the setup, but right behind the door where I am, that's where Obie is. And he loves to chime in on all of my online conversations, consults, webinars. You'll probably hear some strange noises. And if you do, it's not me, it's Obie.

So that, that's for the, for the pets. So what, what am I working on? Well, right now I'm working on keeping my sheep alive and my 17 year old working Border Collie, who's had a stroke and is having trouble walking, keeping them mobile and having a good quality of life. I don't do competitive dog sports anymore. The only one I ever was serious about was sheep herding. And when I got rid of my 30 head flock or sold them upstate, I basically retired. And so now, you know, the best way to get my sheep in is just to rattle a bucket of grain and they come running. So, but I have big plans on the behavior front and that's what we're gonna be talking about in more detail today.

Melissa Breau: Where are you based that you had negative 20?

Laura Donaldson: Well, yeah, you would think we were in the Arctic. We're really just in upstate New York. Us we're, we're, I'm in Ithaca because I'm retired from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. We're right on Lake Cayuga and we're about 150 miles due west from Buffalo. And thank god I don't live in Buffalo, cuz we probably wouldn't be having this podcast right now. They got hit very hard by winter Storm Elliot. But it gets cold. I mean, I was born in Southern California, so anything below...

Melissa Breau: That is quite a change for you.

Laura Donaldson: Temperature is like a shock for me. Yeah. So.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Anyway, So, okay. So that's where you are now. Talk to me a little bit about how it all started. How did you originally end up in the dog world?

Laura Donaldson: Well, I've always…I was born into a dog-loving family. We, there was never a time when we did not have dogs. And I actually grew up, I had horses, I had dogs and horses. So when I graduated from college and got out on my own, the first thing I did was actually adopt a dog from a local rescue. And then I got, I actually got into behavior consulting cuz I'm a certified dog behavior consultant. I'm a Karen Pryor certified training partner. I'm a certified Control Unleashed instructor. Hey Leslie, if you're listening. But I actually got into the behavior professional part of it when I had two female dogs who started fighting with each other. My behavior consulting practice focuses on dogs struggling with aggression and dogs struggling with trauma. I've never been bitten by a client dog, but I got a bad bite from my own dog trying to break up a fight between these two.

And that's when I decided, this was 20 some years ago. Okay, if all of us are gonna survive, literally, I need to find out what to do. And that is actually how I started thinking outside the behaviorist box and coming to my Slow Thinking Program because the methods that I started out using traditional methods, right? And what I discovered is, yeah, they kind of worked, but after a while they stopped and they didn't go far enough. And I, you know, I didn't plan to re-home or do anything else with my dogs. By God, we were all gonna get along. So for 10 years I lived with these dogs and I probably spent a good three or four working intensively with 'em to get, even get them to the point where they could be in the same room with me there watching them like a hawk and just ignore each other. And I consider that hugely successful. And then I, people found out about, you know, of course we all talk about our dog behavior problems, right? And so I had the good fortune of having a very knowledgeable dog community that was very supportive and they, I was then the, I think the second cohort of Karen Pryor clicker trainers. And then I discovered the IAABC and that was a whole other learning process. So I, you know, it's been a long journey.

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Laura Donaldson: But probably one that's pretty typical.

Melissa Breau: I certainly think a lot of listeners will have–will empathize with that.

You know, you start, cause your own dogs are not quite where you want them to be. And then kind of diving deeper into it from there, for sure, you mentioned kind of in there that you started, you know, with more traditional methods and they didn't get you where you wanted to be. So do you consider yourself a positive trainer today? Kind of what made you decide, well, yes, I need to do some more research into this thing and maybe go down a slightly different path?

Laura Donaldson: Well, real-life results, you know, I was desperate. I really needed something that worked. And it isn't that the others didn't work, it's just they didn't work well enough for the particular issues I was dealing with. And I've heard this now from so many people. But am I a positive trainer? Well, we all know that word positive is loaded, right? I mean, there are all kinds of arguments and yada yada, here's how I describe myself. I am a fear-free, free and force free trainer. At least I–and I actually don't use that word trainer much anymore, but I try to be. The issue is how the dog perceives, you know, I can't be force free in a vacuum. It has to be perceived as that by the dog in front of me. And so, yes, I try to be, and I will also just say, and I come from a Quaker background, society of friends background, who has a strong belief in there is a light within every living being dogs, cats, humans, sheep, the mice that love to raid our kitchen drawer. And so I'm not active anymore, but that was such an important part of my life. And that is, that is a belief that I still hold to every living being,and, and I define living expansively has a light, a kind of ascension, say, you know, their own unique will to live. And I wanna honor that. How can you cause pain to being that you believe is sacred–has a light within? And especially how can you cause pain to a dog that, or a cat or in my case sheep that you love?

You know, my model, and I say this to clients all the time, my model of the dog human relationship is a partnership. It's partnership. And that means there's, there's multiple partners. You know, it's not, I talk, you listen, which is, you know, the model of some trainers. No, the first question I ask when I'm working with any dog is what do I need to learn from you to help you navigate these social spaces you're in calmly and functionally, you know, how can I help you feel safe? And what do I need to learn to do that I don't go in with a laundry list, although many clients would like you to do that. They want the list of behaviors. So train this out of them, train that out of, no, I don't do that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yeah. So I guess it gives me a pretty good picture of where you're coming from, from a philosophy standpoint. But where did the sniffing piece of it come in? Where did you start diving into like what sniffing does for dogs and what it means and, and all of that?

Laura Donaldson: Well, I will say, and I am, you know, hopefully a lot of our listeners will identify with this piece too. Okay? I did not come into this world as the most patient person on the planet, right? And so I've had the pleasure and it is a genuine pleasure now, but years ago, many years ago, of dogs who would spend 15 minutes sniffing one blade of grass, right? And for an inpatient person, that is excruciating, right? So I mean, again, I had to, I could see that my dog was getting enormous pleasure from this, right? And, he was totally engaged in it. And so I decided, okay, I'm just, I'm gonna have to change me. I'm the one. Okay, this is a partnership. He loves to do this. I am gonna need to change the way I view it, how I enable it, how I think about it.

So I just decided to turn every sniffing opportunity on the walk into a mindfulness opportunity for me. And that led to such wonderful changes actually in my relationship with my dog. Because we were no longer struggling. I was no longer showing him my watch and saying, okay, you sniff for 30 seconds, let's get going. No. And from there I was developing my slow thinking program, which emphasizes social processing and sniffing is the preeminent basic way that dogs process social information from their environments. And that is just a basic reality of canine life.

Melissa Breau: So can you talk a little more about that and maybe some of the research that's come out, you know, kind of on what sniffing really means and does for a dog?

Laura Donaldson: Well, yeah. And actually… I didn't have time to do a huge deep dive into the research, but I mention a lot of it, and it's very exciting. It's more than what you often hear, okay, sniffing releases dopamine, it signals the brain to release dopamines. It's calming for a lot of reasons. It lowers the heart variability rate in a dog. But even we know that we know, right? That, that you often hear what has come out recently are all the connections between sniffing and I am, I differentiate between smelling and sniffing and I'm, you know, if you come to the first webinar, you will get, because smelling is, it's like autonomic breathing, right? When we breathe, we just breathe and we often breathe in odors unintentionally. It just comes with breathing. Deep inhalation sniffing actually has a strong cognitive component. When you alter your autonomic breathing pattern, you have to decide to do it on many different levels, and then you have to change your normal breathing pattern to do it.

So I do deep breathing and I teach deep breathing to dogs. I teach biofeedback to dogs. And when I breathe deeply, that has a strong cognitive component because I'm altering my normal breathing patterns. And a lot of people, you know, time them, they breathe in for five seconds, they breathe out for five seconds. I don't do that. I feel like I'm doing good, just breathing deeply. So I'm not a timer by any means, but inhalation, we know because of some studies that were done probably three or four years ago now, and I referenced in my webinar–inhalation, which is sniffing, not just autonomic smelling is the basic and most ancient sense for a dog, right? It's the most ancient, most basic. It was probably the first sense that developed. And through the study, they really explored whether inhalation had any impact on cognition. Now they were talking about healthy human subjects, but there is huge cognitive parody between the human brain and the canine brain. It doesn't mean they think alike, but in terms of how they process information, lots of similarity. And it turns out that inhalation primes the entire brain for taking in new information, which is a really, they call it the sniffing brain, right? Really important. And then just recently this past year, there were a group of researchers who really investigated the nose brain connection in dogs. And I mean, I have the radiographs of it in my webinar; it's quite startling. The one researcher described it as these information highways running from this, the olfactory apparatus to various parts of the brain, including vision, you know, in including areas that are definitely part of the prefrontal cortex in there. There's nothing else like it in any other species that's been documented. And if you look at the human, you know, the highways between the nose and the brain for humans and then dogs, it's like, we have nothing. And the dog is like the city of, you know, byways and major pathway. It's, and we don't even know yet all the ramifications for how it will help us redefine cognition in dogs and sniffing and the whole olfactory brain connection. But it absolutely will in the near future. Yeah, that's fascinating that they've been able to actually radiograph and kind of, you know, yeah. See exactly what that looks like.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree. So you kind of mentioned in there the webinars a little bit. So we've got one coming up on the 19th and one coming up on the 26th, kind of a two-part series. And in the description for the first part, you talk about sniffing as slow thinking and social problem solving.

Laura Donaldson: Yes.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to ask what you meant by those phrases.

Laura Donaldson: Well, it, you know, sniffing is social problem solving. I talk much more about what, you know, what is the problem, how social, how social problem solving differs from solving a, you know, a math problem, that kind of thing. But think about what dogs are doing when they sniff, they are gathering information, right? They gather information and that gives them options, right? They have to interpret the information and ask, okay, what does this mean? Who was here, who, who made this scent? What does it tell me about my environment? And then based on that, you know, that's the problem. The scent is kind of the problem. They gather information and then they generate options, which is called decision making. Okay, based on this information, what am I gonna do? Am I immediately gonna head next door to the female dog who's in heat? Am I gonna scratch and you know, over mark to signal when that other dog comes by again, okay, this is my territory, get out. Am I going to just take it in and say, okay, I don't really understand this smell, but I'm not gonna do anything about it right now. You know, it's very, it's a very complex process, although it seems so easy because it just comes so naturally to our dogs.

But a social problem, here's how I define social problem-solving. It is a self-directed process. And that is a loaded word, right? Self-directed. We're not telling the dog what to do. We are not. And that, and that is one of the underlying principles of my slow thinking social processing programs. I want this to be something that the dog uses independently, gathers their own information, makes good decisions about this information. In other words, they do really effective problem solving. And that prevents them from rehearsing or regressing to, for example, really deeply habitual responses like barking, lunging, growling, that kind of thing. You really want a dog to learn to think before they act. And that's what social problem solving does. And it's, you know, a problem is really a relationship. A problem is a relationship between a subject and an environment or some situation or some context where there are obstacles, there's an imbalance, there's a discrepancy between the demands of the situation and the subject's coping ability, right? And a lot of dogs, and I see this all the time because I work with dogs struggling with aggression. They have a default autonomic response, threat detection, overdrive. They just launch into barking, lunging, growling, biting, or I'm heading to the basement and you won't see me again. You know, for the rest of the day. Neither one of those are really functional adaptive responses. And I want a dog who can say, okay, I see the situation in front of me, and you know what? I don't quite understand it, but I am, I'm going, I'm gonna take in the information, you know, I have options on how to respond, including just looking the other way, ignoring it. And I don't necessarily need to launch into my autonomic, you know, barking, lunging, growling fight mode or, the flight mode. And so sometimes if the problem is too severe and the, and the dogs or humans for that matter, coping mechanisms are completely ineffective because there's such a disparity, such a discrepancy, dogs and humans can go into immobilization and that's just shut down. I can't, I can't fight, I can't run, I can't do anything. I'm just gonna shut down. And in the second webinar, the sniff this lifesaving for dogs, I'm gonna talk about a dog, a real life case study of a dog whose chronic response to many years of trauma was immobilization. And how sniffing actually helped him emerge from that.

Melissa Breau: So, let's talk about that. So you mentioned that kind of part two is more about trauma. What types of trauma can sniffing help with? What is it that we're doing there and what is that trauma kind of does to the brain then sniffing? I dunno if alleviates is the right word, but you know what I mean?

Laura Donaldson: Yeah. Like how does it… Yeah. Well, I don't use the word recover when I talk about trauma. And I, I've had a lot of experience with human trauma studies, human trauma survivors, including, you know, my own. I think almost all of us have struggled with trauma at one point or another in our lives. I'd say if you've met a human or a dog–if you've never met a human or a dog who hasn't struggled with trauma, you've been very lucky. But, but I don't, I think sniffing, as you'll discover, if you take the second webinar, it's, wonderful for dogs in all kinds of ways. The particular dog I'm focusing on used tonic immobilization as a chronic response to his traumatic stress. He would shut down and tuck himself into a corner of a door and that's it. So, but I think sniffing because of its, because of its characteristic seeking qualities. Jaak Panksepp who wrote a book called Affective Neuroscience called sniffing part of the seeking system. That means its primary character is to help us be more investigative, exploratory, engaged with our world. And that is exactly what immobilized dogs are not, they are not engaged with the world–far from it. So I think, you know, trauma generally, and I have a graphic in the second webinar I usually try to warn people before they see it. It's like a wrecking ball, taking a rec..it takes a wrecking ball to the prefrontal cortex. And there's some pretty dramatic images of how left brain prefrontal cortex is really deactivated by PTSD, by complex trauma over a long period of time. Whereas the amygdala, the hippocampal system is lit up like a neon sign in Las Vegas, right? And so you want, you've gotta–one thing you have to do in trauma is rebalance that.

But I am very hesitant and I, this is another thing I will explore during the we webinar. I don't immediately go in and start training a traumatized dog. No. There are certain fundamentals you need to establish before you can even think about that. One is deep safety, both for humans and dogs. And I think also sniffing is. The second is agency and control. It's like my little kitten, Rocky, I can't touch him, but, but he now feels totally fine rubbing against me when I'm feeding him, you know, dishing out the kibble for his dinner. Why is that? Because when he's rubbing against me, he has the agency, he has the agency, he's in control, he knows I'm not gonna do anything stupid like reach down to pat him or stroke him. And so he's fine with that and that is a huge step forward. And sniffing is kind of the same, right? I can't sniff on behalf of them. That is something a dog has to do for themselves on their own. And in the particular case I'm gonna be talking about as far as we know, he did not really do a lot of sniffing because of the severe neglect that he lived in. So, this discovery of sniffing is seeking exploratory investigation. And guess what? I control it and it makes me feel better. And it also primes my brain for taking in new information critical for trauma survivors. Cuz that's one thing we do not do well. So I think actually sniffing is a brilliant case study and just some every day, you know, cuz that's what I'm talking about. Not nosework, not scent work, not performance sniffing. I'm talking about what our dogs do in the backyard when we just let them be dogs. And, it provides them with a uniquely canine sense of agency and definitely a uniquely canine way of doing social processing.

Melissa Breau: We've got a lot of information there, right. About kind of what's in the vari–the various pieces of the webinar. Is there a way to kind of frame them a little bit for people, just give 'em a little bit of an idea of what piece is gonna be in which webinar and kind of what the webinars are gonna cover.

Laura Donaldson: Sure.

Melissa Breau: Does that make sense?

Laura Donaldson: Yeah. Okay. So what webinar number one, I mean the title of the series is Stop and Smell the Pee-Mail. Right? Maybe one way of talking about this is, and I'll just be open about my agenda for the webinar.

Melissa Breau: Go for it.

Laura Donaldson: And, and that is I wanna change, I wanna do nothing less than change the way ordinary dog companions and a lot of trainers actually think of sniffing and enable sniffing, facilitated with the dogs, you know, their own dogs or client dogs or dogs in their classes. I mean, I've heard more than once a trainer say, I don't let my dog sniff out on a walk. His job is to pay attention to me. Right? So, you know, part of the agenda is actually changing the way we walk our dogs. If by that you mean conventional leash on a six foot leash down your conventional sidewalk or road. That's what a lot of people do or somewhere. And I have a little segment about how I think that's extremely dysfunctional for our dogs. And not only that, but I really take sniffing beyond enrichment. It's beyond enrichment. Why? Because, you know, I'm all for enrichment, but my issue with the word, not the reality, but the word is that it kind of implies this is an extracurricular activity. And when I'm not rich, when times are lean, I lost my job. I don't have, you know, I've got a 24/7 work schedule, the sniffing can go. And my argument is: sniffing is critical to canine welfare beyond enrichment. It is critical to canine welfare. And I'm hoping in these two webinars to demonstrate that beyond a shadow of a doubt in different ways, right?

Webinar one, we're gonna define what is sniffing, how does it work, what is some of the research coming out about it? I'm gonna talk some about social processing and sniffing as social processing. I'm gonna talk about sniffing on walks and how we need to change how we do that. So that stands alone. But that information is extremely useful to carry into webinar two, which is that sniffing is lifesaving for dogs. And I literally mean that it's not just a metaphor be because, you know, the essence of a partnership is we really want to honor and maximize our partners unique talents, abilities, potentialities. And I don't do that if I always am using a human standard to, you know, to kind of interact with my dog. So you, here's my laundry list, you do what I say, you sit, you lie down. A lot of times it sounds a lot like you're better seen and not heard, just like we used to say about children and maybe some people do better seen and not heard.

No, I want my dogs to talk to me, quote unquote. Yes, that means barking. It doesn't mean all the time. But what I wanna find out is why they're, what are they saying and why are they saying it? What are they doing and why are they doing it? Why is my dog spending 15 minutes sniffing one, five centimeter patch of grass?

Melissa Breau: Right?

Laura Donaldson: I'll probably never know that cuz we're–as humans–we're just stunted in the sniffing department. And I have often wondered what it would really be like to have the olfactory apparatus of a dog. I just, I would, it would probably just be incredibly overwhelming to us humans.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I couldn't imagine having a whole extra sense, basically. No.

Laura Donaldson: You know what I mean? It's like I can't deal with the ones I have right now, but so the second webinar is the trauma-focused one. So people will get yes, more, much more deep dive information about sniffing, but also just some basic information about trauma and dogs. And I think that, you know, that is also one of my agendas because I think trauma is significantly under-recognized in behavior issues like aggression, anxiety disorders, you know, you name it. And so I really want to bring trauma much more and make it much more a part of our everyday conversation and practice and interactions with dogs.

Melissa Breau: Is there kind of anything else you feel like folks should know about the webinars? Maybe to help 'em decide if like this is a thing that's a good fit for them and for what, where they're kind of at with their dogs?

Laura Donaldson: It's for everyone. No prior knowledge presumed, none whatsoever. And I put, so I put down, because you asked me to think about this beforehand, so here's what I put down, game-changing and life-changing. That's why you should watch these two webinars. They're potentially game changing and life changing for our dogs, but also for us. I mean, I have to say I'm a different person because of my dog who loved to sniff, you know, and that and to the good, my, I think I'm a much better person because of my work with dogs.

They've taught me so much. And so I think, you know, you couldn't ask for a more reasonable price these days with the Fenzi webinars, we're gonna have a chance to have a live question and answer series after both of them. So I just think come, come along for the ride and I think you'll find that they are gonna be game-changing and life-changing.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right. So kind of to round out our conversation today, if we were to kind of drill everything down to one key piece of information you want people to really understand or really kind of walk away from this with, you know, what would that be?

Laura Donaldson: Let them sniff. That says it all. Gonna take that, cut it out. And that's the name of the podcast, right? Let them sniff. Yeah. And I will, you, you well for the video, although you won't be able to see it cuz I'll be talking on every slide, but just my head, I am gonna be wearing my "Let them sniff" t-shirt and then I have "let them sniff" sweatshirts. So yes, let them sniff. That's the mantra.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right, well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Laura, this has been excellent.

Laura Donaldson: Thank you. I've had a great time.

Melissa Breau: Me too. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Body Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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