Monthly Archives: August 2012

Dogs sleeping on the bed — oh my

Almost every day a client gives me a sheepish smile and starts a sentence with, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but my dog sleeps on the bed.” So, I want to share my own secrets –so do mine.  Not only do some of the dogs sleep on the bed, some of them get up on the couch too. Not to mention, if they are polite, I’ll throw them some scraps of food from my dinner plate. Oh, and Batman almost always goes through the doorways first. And you know what? I’m happy with this arrangement.

Batman and Bandit sleep on the bed. So far, I have not noticed any signs that either one of them is trying to dominate me. Even after three years, shy Bandit flinches if I even look at him while he is on the bed. Sometimes Batman wants to see if he can have the spot with the pillow, but all I have to do is say, “Bat, move” and he does (although sometimes he sighs).

And yet, thanks to popular television shows and several dog training books, there are lots of people out there who think it is wrong to have their dog sleep on the bed, walk ahead of them, or get a treat from their plate.  I attended a training class a few years ago in which the instructor said on the first day that anyone who was letting his or her dog sleep on the bed or get up on the furniture was never going to have a well-trained dog.

Here is what I say: If you are happy with your dog’s behavior, then be happy and don’t worry what someone else says is right or wrong.

OK, I’m going to throw out some caveats. If your dog sleeps on the bed and he growls when you try to get into bed, or if he snaps at you if you ask him to get off the bed, that’s a problem.  If your dog tries to put his face in your plate while you are eating or doing something else to bother you during meal times, that’s a problem (unless of course you don’t mind). But, if your dog is polite and you like the situation, then don’t stress it.

My rules are simple. If the dog isn’t bothering me and if he responds to the cues I give him, then I’m happy and he’s happy. Batman knows if he sits a foot away from me while I eat, the chances are good he will get something. If he bothers me while I’m eating, he is asked to get off the couch and he gets nothing. He also can’t growl at any other dogs or cats that might be near while I’m eating as that causes the food to go away completely. If I need more leg room in the bed, he can move or get on the floor.

When we go for a walk, if I ask Batman to “sit,” he will. If I need him to stop pulling me, I can ask him to “heel.” Otherwise, he can do whatever he wants at his end of the leash. I’m pretty sure instead of planning on how he will dominate the world; he is really just sniffing for squirrels.

So, have fun with your dog and don’t lose any more sleep. Believe me; your dog isn’t going to take over the world, at least not until he gets opposable thumbs.

Don’t ignore your dog’s early warning signals

When the “check engine” light comes on in our vehicle, most of us take notice and take the appropriate steps to have the vehicle serviced. We do this because the vehicle manual tells us that ignoring this light could mean serious damage to our vehicle down the road.

Unfortunately, with dogs we often ignore the many “check engine” signals the dog gives us until everything falls apart. Then we are left trying to decide what happened and can we fix it. If we can’t fix it, then it generally means euthanasia for the dog.

This week I got two phone calls that illustrate this point.

Call #1: A 2 year old cocker spaniel bit a neighbor’s child. The bite did not break skin, but left a bruise. The dog has been growling at non family members for most of the year that the family has owned the dog. But, the dog is great with the family. The bite happened on the family’s front porch as the neighbor child was being invited into the home. The dog charged out the door and when the little girl raised her arm up, the dog leaped up and grabbed it.

Call #2: A six month old mixed-breed puppy is growling and snapping at a 4 year old in the home. The family has had the puppy for four months. They called when the puppy grazed the 4-year-old’s cheek with a tooth and left a scratch. The puppy was fine with the 4 year old for the first month the family said, and then it just started growling “out of nowhere.” The family is afraid of the puppy and it is now living outside.

The woman who called with the cocker spaniel was crying the entire time she spoke with me. She LOVES this dog; however, her husband says the dog has to go. The woman in call number two wants the dog gone because the family thinks the puppy is dangerous.

Once a dog has a bite history, it is difficult to do anything. As a general rule, rescues won’t take dogs that have a bite history. Rehoming the dog could be difficult due to liability issues. And there just aren’t sanctuaries out there waiting to take in the beloved pet that now bites people.

In talking with both people, it was clear to me the dogs in both cases gave lots of early warnings that they were scared and needed some help. Unfortunately, the owners didn’t have the resources they needed to understand the dogs needed help.

The time to reach out to a trainer or behaviorist is when the early warning light comes on. By the time the break down happens it can be much more difficult, if not impossible to help the dog.

Dogs communicate to us constantly. Unfortunately, they aren’t speaking English. They understand us much better than we understand them. Yet it really is fairly easy to begin to understand your dog. It just takes some observational skills. Yes, that means you have to actually LOOK at your dog and see what it is doing. If you learn nothing else, at least learn what your dog looks like when it is relaxed and happy. Where are its ears, its tail, how is it standing on his feet or how is it laying down, what does its face look like? Once you know what your dog looks like relaxed, it will be much easier to know what your dog looks like when he is not relaxed.

Left: This dog is happy. The photographer has been giving him treats. His face is relaxed, his tongue is out.

Let’s picture this. Say you know that when your dog is relaxed his tongue is hanging out, his face is relaxed and when he wags his tail his entire butt moves.  He will look something like the dog above. But when the 4 year old approaches the dog, it closes its mouth, turns its head or wags its tail without the entire butt involved. This is a change in behavior. The dog is no longer as relaxed as he was. The dog is saying “you make me nervous, please don’t come any closer.” If the 4 year old keeps coming, the dog may suddenly turn and sniff its butt, or point its ears back and have its weight distributed so it can flee away from the child. Again the dog is asking the child in the only language it has to stop approaching.

Right: The photographer got too close to the dog. Suddenly he became more nervous, closed his mouth and turned to look away from the photographer. He is saying, “too close, please back up.”

Luckily, most dogs tolerate rude behavior for a long time, but all dogs have a point in which they are just tired of the 4 year old in their face, or the neighbor kids constantly wanting to pet it or strangers coming in and saying “oh, you are so cute I just have to pet you.” To the dog, he has been communicating for a long time to please stop. So, when those early signals are ignored he brings out the growl, the lip curls or the bite.

I love dogs that growl. The growl is all of your car’s warning signal lights coming on at once. If that happened you would sit up and take notice. You wouldn’t just take out the fuses and hope the car keeps running fine. Yet, when a dog growls, most owners get really upset. They yell at the dog for growling. Growling is often the dog’s way of saying, “listen, you are obviously not the brightest dog in the pack, and you have ignored every other signal I’ve given you, so I am going to growl, so sit up and take notice.” If we punish the dog for growling and he needs to say something really important, all we’ve left him with is a bite. And then I get the call from the upset owner wondering why suddenly their loving family dog has bitten someone.

If you notice your dog seems unhappy around new people or nervous around the kids, call a trainer. Don’t wait. Get help before all the warning lights come on.


The problem with just “one more cookie”

Often when people see my German Shepherd, Condor, they ask me if he is ill. At first I was perplexed by this question, until I found out people thought he was ill because they thought he was too skinny. You can actually see Condor’s “waist” (called a “tuck” in dogs). You can also see the outline of his last rib. He isn’t sick; he is just the right weight.

So many of our companion dogs are overweight, that people often stop and take notice of a dog that is the correct weight and immediately think it is sick or someone is neglecting it.

In February the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) released a survey from veterinarians that said 53 percent of dogs and 55 percent of cats were overweight. WOW! That’s more than half of our pets.  The study also found that many people do not realize their pet is overweight and when asked said they thought their pet was at an ideal weight.

When I talk to people about their pet’s weight, most people smile sheepishly and say something like, “but he looks at me with sad eyes.” Believe me, I know that look. Batman gives me that look and I have to constantly battle his weight. Because he does so many demos with me and he is out in public so often, he gets more treats than he should.

According to APOP treats are a major problem in combatting pet obesity. “Treats continue to be a major contributor to weight gain in pets.  An online poll conducted in October 2011 by APOP of 210 pet owners found 93 percent of all dog and cat owners gave treats. 95 percent gave a commercial treat with 26 percent reporting they gave their pet treats three or more times a day. “Treats are the silent saboteur of slimming down.” Remarks APOP founder Dr. Ernie Ward. “Those tiny treats are often hiding a significant amount of calories.” Ward suggests offering single-ingredient rewards or fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, string beans, broccoli or other crunchy vegetables.”

Consider these examples from the APOP article:

■A premium pig ear (231 kcals) fed to a 40-pound dog is the equivalent of an adult human drinking six 12-ounce Coke Classics™ (840 kcals).

■A typical dog biscuit (25 to 27 kcals) fed to a 20-pound dog is the equivalent of an average adult human eating two Keebler EL Fudge Double Stuffed Sandwich Cookies (180 kcals).

YIKES! Batman ate two pig ears the other day during a demo. No wonder I’m having trouble with his weight.

Now the big question: why should you care if your pet is overweight? You love him all rounded and happy right? Well, if you love him, you should care. Overweight pets face the same health problems as overweight people. And if you own a breed that is prone to hip and knee problems, then you should especially pay attention to weight. I try and keep Condor at or slightly even below an ideal weight because he is a German shepherd and they are prone to hip issues. Plus, Condor is a working dog. When he is out on a search, he has to do a lot of running, jumping, etc. He is an athlete and I have to keep his body in condition for an athlete.

Obesity also adds up at the veterinarian’s office. The August issue of Angie’s List newsletter is devoted to pet issues, including obesity. This is from the article on obesity, “Obesity-related conditions drive up vet costs, says Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for Petplan, a highly rated pet insurance company that provides policies nationwide. Treatment for arthritis –a condition exacerbated by aging and extra weight pounding joins – increases vet bills by an average of $2,000 a year. Benson says surgery such as hip replacement that runs $3,000 to $6,000 per joint, drives costs higher still.”

Overweight pets also become diabetic; have high blood pressure, etc.

Another issue is that many pet owners feed their pets exactly what it says to feed on the side of the dog food bag. Dogs are individuals. A coach potato dog doesn’t need as much as a dog that plays catch all day.  I change how much my dogs eat daily. If Batman is looking chunky, he gets less. If too much of Condor’s back rib starts to show, he gets more. On days when I do a lot of demos with Batman, and he gets a lot of treats, he just doesn’t get a meal at all.

I will leave you with two more examples from the APOP website:

■According to Dr. Ernie Ward, a 95-pound male Golden retriever is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 184 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 214 pounds.

■A 10-pound Chihuahua is comparable to a 5’4” human female weighing 242 pounds or a 5’9” male that weighs 282 pounds.

So, if you love your pet, watch his weight and don’t let his sad eyes sway you.  Chances are he will live longer if he is at a healthy weight and you will enjoy those sad eyes for a few more years.