The dos and don’ts of going to the vet’s office

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Batman going home from a chemo treatment. We always stop and get a cheeseburger on our way home, so Batman looks forward to this part of his treatment.

Even under the best of circumstances, going to the veterinarian can be stressful for both the owner and the animal. If you have to go repeatedly due to a serious illness, especially if the visits include invasive procedures, then going to the vet can quickly become a nightmare for all involved.

My dog, Batman, has cancer. We go for chemo treatments every other week. As I sit in the waiting room of the clinic I can’t help but notice the behaviors of both the humans and the animals. It turns out that nervous owners and owners who just don’t understand their pet often make an already stressful situation worse for their pets. So, this is my guide to making the best out of a bad situation.

Here is the “do” list:

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Batman hates the cold floor of the waiting room, so he likes it if I bring his matt. It gives him someplace to park himself as well.

Do bring your dog’s favorite blanket or rug if he has one. Waiting room floors are often cold and uninviting and they smell like all the other scared animals that have been there. Bringing a familiar sleeping matt can help the dog settle down into a comfortable spot while you wait for your appointment.

If your dog is allowed food, do bring a long lasting chew for him to provide something to do while you wait. You could fill a Kong with his favorite food and some high value treat like peanut butter and then freeze it and pull it out for the wait. Or bring along a bully stick. There are some caveats here: Do not give your dog a high value chew if other dogs are seated nearby and can get to your dog. This is also not a recommended option if your dog guards resources from people or other dogs. But, if your dog is laid back, having a chew item will help keep him stress free.

Do give your dog lots of love. Your dog is stressed, you are stressed. Rubbing your dog’s chin or behind his ears can be a great way to relieve the stress on both ends of the leash. You may find your dog appears more needy than normal. He may paw at you or try and insert his head under your hand. Now is not the time to swat at him and tell him to leave you alone. He may want reassurance that all is well.

Do remember your dog has a highly developed sense of smell. You might not smell anything as you walk into a clinic, but rest assured your dog smells everything including the fear scent of other terrified animals, strange chemicals, perhaps even death and he smells the increased perspiration of nervous owners. If your dog needs a few minutes to decide to walk through the clinic door, respect that wish and help him out by giving him some slack on the leash, enticing him with high value treats or just get down on the floor and ask him to come with him. Ask the staff if there is a different entrance. Sometimes just switching doors can help a dog overcome the fear of walking into a clinic, especially if the clinic you are walking into forces the dog to instantly confront lots of other dogs. Imagine how you would feel suddenly walking into a room and being stared at by lots of strangers who could pose a threat to you. That’s how your dog might feel going into a clinic.

Do consider using calming products such as ADAPTIL or a Thundershirt prior to going into the clinic. You can spray ADAPTIL on a bandanna or on the dog’s leash or blanket. If your dog responds well to wearing a Thundershirt, put that on him before you enter the clinic.

Do be an advocate for your dog. If you know your dog does not like slip leads, then insist that he be walked on his regular leash and collar or harness. If your dog is afraid of tight hugs, ask the staff to practice low stress handling techniques. For example, Batman does not like to be safe hugged, but if you stand in front of him and gently massage his ears while holding his head he will stand still for most procedures without issue. He also is highly food motivated so a hot dog in front of his nose will also get him to work well with staff for procedures. Do not assume the clinic staff understands low stress handling. Ask how your dog will be restrained, what the procedure will look like and offer suggestions on how to make your dog’s experience the best it can be. If your dog is better with you by his side ask if it is possible for you to handle your dog during his procedure (I have not had much luck getting anyone to let me handle Batman, but other people I’ve spoken with have been allowed to handle their dogs).

Do consider training specific behaviors if your dog has to go to the vet long term. You could teach your dog to raise his leg and allow someone to hold it, thus making blood draws easier. You could train your dog a chin rest, so he rests his chin on someone’s hand while other people handle him.

Do remember that stress causes dogs to do things they would not normally do such as growl, bite, snap or have potty accidents. If your dog pees or poops in the waiting room it is OK and won’t be the first time that happened. Just remain calm, assure your dog it is ok and ask for help with clean up. Allow at least 10 minutes prior to your appointment to give your dog plenty of potty time outside before you have to go in.

Do leave the waiting room first once it is time for your dog to go back with the vet tech. This is especially important if the vet tech has a hard time leading your dog away from you. If you walk away first, chances are much greater that your dog will willingly go along with the vet or vet tech once he can no longer see you. It is stressful for everyone if someone has to pull your dog away from you.

Do consult with a trainer or behavioral veterinarian if you want to learn more about ways to help your dog feel more relaxed during repeated vet visits.

Do visit the waiting room on days when you aren’t there for a real visit, walk in, give your dog a treat and walk out again. That way he won’t be so stressed every time you come in.

Here are some don’ts.

This is not puppy play time, social hour at the dog park or the canine training school. Don’t assume your dog wants to meet all the other dogs in the waiting room (even if he is normally a social butterfly). Don’t force your dog to do behaviors if he isn’t up to the task. Below are all examples of things I’ve seen while waiting for Batman’s appointments.

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If your dog is coming out of a procedure, it won’t be feeling its best. How is not the time to allow other animals to come up and sniff your dog.

A woman with a yorkie in her arms walked up to a woman with a dachshund in her lap. The woman with the yorkie shoved it into the face of the dachshund saying “oh, my little girl just loves to meet friends.” Then both women squealed with delight and said “look they are kissing.” In reality, the dogs were licking each other’s chins. It was an appeasement gesture. Then both dogs turned their heads as far away from each other as possible. The dogs were really saying “our owners are clueless, I am really sorry I am rudely invading your personal space. I mean you no harm. Sorry.” If you were in the hospital awaiting a procedure, would you want a complete stranger to come up to you and hug you or invade your personal space? Probably not.

Even dogs that love meeting other dogs probably do not want to meet them in a stressful waiting room. And the dog your dog may be meeting could be super stressed and not in the mood. I saw a dog bitten in the face by another dog in the waiting room. I felt bad for the dog that bit because everyone looked at it as if it was a bad dog and the owner screamed at it. The dog was sitting in a corner, trapped when another dog was allowed to come up and greet it. The dog tried everything it could to move farther away but there was nowhere to go so he bit. Dogs are all about social distancing. They want to be able to increase the distance between themselves if at all possible to avoid stressful encounters.

A man with a corgi had the corgi on a retractable leash. The lock was not set on the leash, so the corgi had about 20 feet of leash to play with. The man was engrossed in his cell phone for 10 minutes while the corgi explored and got tangled around chair legs. When I body blocked the corgi from approaching Batman, the owner said “he’s friendly.” Awesome, so is my dog, but he doesn’t want to meet your dog right now. The owner became argumentative about the benefits of dogs having friends. I chose a new place to sit in the waiting room.

It is totally awesome if you have taught your dog behaviors such as sit and down, but don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t immediately comply in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I watched a man force his trembling dog into a sit after the man had been repeatedly telling the dog to sit for more than 5 minutes. The dog was terrified of the waiting room. He was lip licking, trembling and had ropes of saliva dangling from his mouth. He didn’t want to sit. He probably didn’t even know his owner was talking to him and he certainly had not been taught to sit when lots of distractions were happening. If your dog knows lots of behaviors and you’ve taught him to do those behaviors in lots of different situations, then asking him to work for you can be a fun way to keep him occupied. Batman and I play hand targeting and foot targeting games while we wait. But, only if Batman wants to. If I ask him to target and he doesn’t, I don’t ask again. Targeting is his favorite game and if he won’t do it, I know he is stressed. Yelling at him or forcing him won’t help either one of us.

And shouting at your dog to stop barking or whining isn’t working is it? Now all the dogs are barking and all the owners are on edge because they have just listened to you for 10 minutes shout at your dog about his barking. He is barking because he is stressed out and he is getting you to interact with him. Ask the vet staff to call you when it is your turn and take your dog outside where he has more space or wait in your vehicle (weather permitting). I saw a woman grab the snout of her barking dog and give it a firm shake and the dog wilted under a chair where it remained trembling.

And if you are bringing your pet rabbit or bird into a clinic full of dogs on leash, consider putting your small pet into a protective carrier. I watched a man bring his rabbit in wrapped in a towel. I had to move Batman clear across the room after the rabbit started twitching its ears. Batman was way too focused on that bunny.

So, relax, take a deep breath and do all you can to ensure you and your dog have the best experience possible.

Games for when it’s too cold to play outside

When it is bitterly cold out, it can be dangerous for both dogs and humans to remain outdoors for very long. This means many dogs aren’t getting enough exercise. While you might be content to sit curled up under a blanket binge watching a favorite TV series on Netflix, your dog may decide that tearing up your couch is a great option for entertainment.

Here are some ideas for keeping your dog entertained indoors.

Take away your dog’s food bowl
Instead of feeding your dog once or twice a day, take away his food bowl and invest in food dispensing toys such as Kongs® or Kibble Nibbles®. Let’s say you have four large Kongs®. Measure out your dog’s kibble for the day and put it in a bowl. Add a little water; just enough to slightly moisten the food. Consider throwing in some peanut butter or cheese whiz. Stir it up and divide it evenly between the Kongs. Next top it off with a little more peanut butter or cheese and then put the Kongs in the freezer. Once frozen, you can then give your dog one every few hours and instead of gobbling up his food, he will spend time figuring out how to get it all out.

By the way, this is also a great tip for those of you who have puppies or adolescent dogs that drive you crazy. Whenever you need to give the dog something to chew on so he isn’t chewing on you, you can bring out a frozen ball of food. You have to feed him anyway, so make the food count. Just make sure you give the dog the food dispensing toy before he chews on you so he doesn’t think that nipping at you makes a fun toy appear.

In a Kibble Nibble, you put the dog’s food inside an egg-shaped device that has small holes on each end. The dog then has to figure out how to move the egg so it wobbles and as it wobbles one or two pieces of kibble fall out. The dog then spends his time moving the egg around the floor trying to get the food out.
There are many other types of food dispensing toys. Stop by IndyHumane’s Retail Store to see these and other food dispensing toys or stroll the aisles of your nearest pet store.

Let your dog help with the recycling
Dogs love to chew stuff up. Instead of trying to make the dog stop chewing, channel his energy into something that he can chew up.

First, stock up on cardboard boxes. You want boxes that contained a food product (think cereal boxes or something similar). You don’t want a box that has staples or that contained any type of cleaning product. Start saving the cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls and toilet paper as well.

Step number one is to make it easy. Take a paper towel tube and put some tasty treats inside (small bits of hot dog work great). Twist the ends of the tube and give it to your dog. He then has to tear up the cardboard tube to get out the treats. If he likes this game, take a paper towel tube filled with treats, twist the ends, put the paper towel tube inside a cereal box, put some more treats in the cereal box then close the flaps. Give the dog the box. He now has to tear up the cereal box to get to the paper towel tube inside. You can make this as complicated as your dog allows by adding more boxes.

Is it messy? You bet it is. But, most dogs stay in a small area and destroy the cardboard making it easy to sweep up in the end. This is a game that you want to play only when you can supervise the dog for the entire time. If you see your dog swallowing large pieces of cardboard, you would want to trade your dog some treats and take the cardboard away. Most dogs just rip up the cardboard and perhaps swallow tiny pieces of cardboard in the process, but you definitely want to avoid the dog swallowing large chunks of boxes.

Does it teach your dog to be more destructive? No. He is going to chew stuff up anyway right? Why not channel that chewing into something you don’t care about and which can be easily swept up at the end of 20 minutes or so.

The shelter dogs at IndyHumane rate this game #1 in things to do when you are bored.

Doggy play dates
If your dog is super dog social and loves playing with other dogs, consider a few days at doggy daycare each month. There are many, many doggy daycares in most large metropolitan areas. Ask your friends for recommendations. Look for reviews online. Use the same screening process to pick a doggy daycare as you would if you were finding a daycare for a child.

Visit the daycare first and observe play time. Is there enough staff to adequately monitor the dogs and to intervene if play gets too rough? How often does the staff rotate out dogs and let them rest? You don’t want to pick a daycare that just lets dogs loose for hours at a time. Dogs need to play awhile, and then take a break from each other. See if you can find a daycare that is large enough to offer different play areas based on size of dog or play style of dog. Not all dogs play the same. Some dogs love to stand up on their hind legs and box with their forepaws. Other dogs love to play run and chase.

If you aren’t sure how your dog feels about doggy daycare, find out when the place you are checking out is the least busy and take your dog then for its first day so it isn’t overwhelmed.

This is only a good option if your dog really does love playing with all kinds of dogs. Many dogs actually don’t enjoy playing with lots of other dogs. They may have one or two doggy friends, but don’t enjoy larger groups of dogs. People often force their dogs into dog parks or doggy daycares because humans think the dog must need friends of his own kind, but many dogs would prefer to stick just with their human friends.

Still if your dog is a social butterfly then a doggy daycare may be a great way to get some energy out.

Happy Holidays with Your Dog Part 1

For many of us, our pets are like family. A 2011 survey found that more than half of pet owners bought their pets a Christmas gift. Another survey said that in 2011, 68 percent of pet owners traveled with their pet.

So chances are you are thinking of taking your dog with you if you travel for the holidays or that you will want your dog to be part of your holiday plans if the family is coming to your house. For the gregarious dog who has never met a stranger, the holidays can be fun. But, for the shy dog or a dog that is easily overwhelmed by anything new, the holidays can be stressful.

Below are some things to think about as you decide whether or not to include your pet in the holiday scene.  Before anything else though, know the signs of stress in your dog and start training for some behaviors that will help ensure your dog has a great time this year. You can learn more in the second part of my Happy Holidays with Your Dog blog by clicking here.

Meeting people

Your dog will meet all kinds of people during the holidays. But, dogs may not like everyone they meet. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the age group of 5-9 is the most bitten age population in the United States. If your holiday plans include lots of children amped up on candy canes, make sure your dog really does enjoy the company of young people. It is not fair to ask your dog to not be a dog or the kids to not act like kids at Christmas time.

If you are unsure how your dog feels about meeting lots of new people, have him on leash for his first interactions and have a game plan in place to remove him from the situation if he acts as if he is getting stressed. It may be better to have your guests seated before letting the dog in to meet everyone. My dog Batman LOVES people, but he gets super excited when guests are arriving. Instead of allowing him to meet everyone at the door, I keep him in a crate until everyone has arrived. Then I let him out. He runs around nosing hands and asking to have his butt scratched rather than barking and jumping on everyone as they arrive. Tell your guests not to try and coax a dog to them. If the dog wants to interact, he will, but if he needs some space, that’s ok. Provide your guests with some tasty treats and ask them to reward the dog if he comes by to say hello (as long as all four paws are on the floor). Remember, you may enjoy being head butted  by your dog, but many of your guests may not.

Watch your dog throughout the evening and if you see him becoming stressed, act quickly to give him a break in a quiet place away from people.

Don’t allow a dog to get trapped in a corner by guests, especially children. Dogs need escape routes. If you see the dog in the corner and someone is approaching the dog, ask them to stop and let the dog come to them.

Meeting other animals

If everyone in your extended family is bringing their dogs to your holiday feast, it can be stressful. Just like all people don’t like each other, all dogs don’t like each other. If you are allowing dogs to meet, do it in a place where there is plenty of room (a fenced yard is always best). Have the dogs drag their leashes, but try and not hold them back. It is far better if the dogs can meet on their own terms and approach or retreat if needed. Some growling or lip curling may be appropriate. Don’t rush in to stop every confrontation, but do be prepared to step in if things become heated between two dogs. If the dogs are dragging leashes, it is easier to separate them. Never separate two dogs by sticking your hand near their faces or collars. Even your beloved dog could  bite you if he is stressed over the encounter with another dog. Some dogs do fine meeting another dog one on one, but get stressed when meeting multiple dogs. Take it slow, and always watch the dogs. Don’t just leave them to their own devices.

And just because your dog loves your cats, that doesn’t mean he will love your brother’s cats. When meeting any other animals always keep the dog on leash until you are certain that all will be well.

Travel

Does your dog enjoy car rides? Then chances are he will be fine going over the river and through the woods to see grandma. But, don’t take a long trip with the dog if he has never been in the car before. Make sure the car is fun. Find a way to put a crate in your car if possible as that is a far safer travel option than letting the dog roam freely around the vehicle. Of course, make sure your dog loves his crate and is used to getting into it in the car before you take that trip.

Make sure your dog is microchipped and is wearing an ID tag. Do not let your dog off-leash at the rest area or your grandma’s house. Even if you have a great recall at home, your dog could be spooked by a new environment and run off. Take a 30-foot leash with you so you can adequately play ball or provide other exercise if needed. If your dog is not in a crate, make sure his leash is clipped before you open your car door. Many dogs are lost each year because they dart out the door before their owners are prepared.

Both an ID tag and microchip are important. Many dogs end up losing their collars when they are lost so the microchip will be a permanent method of identifying your dog. But, if someone finds your pet right away, a tag with a phone number may ensure a quick reunion. Make sure both your microchip information and your ID tag contain up-to-date phone numbers.

Food and water

Many people feed their dog on a strict schedule, but when you are traveling, it may not always be possible to feed or water the dog at the same time. Before you travel, be sure and vary your dog’s eating habits. Make sure he can eat and drink from different types of containers. Take enough food for your entire stay to avoid tummy upsets. If your dog doesn’t eat as much as normal, or if he refuses to eat, don’t panic. Give the dog a quiet room for his food and water and give him a chance to relax.  And don’t forget the poop bags if you travel. Be a responsible pet owner and always pick up after your dog.

Vaccination records

If you are traveling with your dog, be sure and take a copy of his current vaccination records. Some areas require dogs to always have on their rabies’ tag when they are in public. If an emergency arises, you need to be able to tell someone what shots your dog has had and when. Before you travel check with your veterinarian to ensure your pet is up to date on all shots.

Temptations     

Remember, a counter with a turkey or a stove top filled with ham will be very tempting to your dog. Don’t leave the food sitting out unattended. A dog could eat something that is poisonous or he could over-indulge. Know what plants and foods are poisonous to pets.

A few simple precautions and some fun training will have you and your pet enjoying the holidays.

 

Happy Holidays with Your Dog: Part 2

It’s the holidays.

You’ve spent the last two weeks putting up lights, baking, cleaning, setting up seating arrangements so your feuding uncles stay as far away from each other as possible and now it’s time; your guests are beginning to ring the doorbell. Your smile becomes frozen to your face as your dog barrels in from the back room and starts body slamming the door — barking in a hysterical, high-pitched noise that is sure to be heard even by your grandpa who forgot his hearing aid again. You gamely grab the dog’s collar and try to manhandle him away from the door, when the cat, freaked out by the sudden commotion runs out into the night.

No wonder people are stressed this time of year.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. While I can’t help you with the feuding uncles, there is still time to help your pets enjoy the holidays. Here are three tips for a more festive holiday season.

#1 Teach a rock-solid sit

If your dog knows sit, he cannot possibly jump up on your guests because his butt will be glued to the floor.

It’s great that your dog will sit when you are alone in the kitchen and holding his favorite treat, but what you really need for the holidays is a sit that works while the doorbell is ringing and the guests are coming through the door. Many people get frustrated with their dog because they think he is just being stubborn when he doesn’t sit when company comes pouring through the door. It would be like asking you to do simple arithmetic in a quiet library vs. asking you to do the same problem while trying to find a parking space at your favorite shopping mall at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Distractions make even simple tasks more difficult. Take your sit on the road, meaning that wherever you go and whatever is going on, ask your dog to sit. Start small with few distractions, but work up to more challenges. Make it fun for the dog; when you up the distractions up the value of the reward he is getting.

Tip: Teach your dog to sit the first time you say the word. Many people repeat cues over and over and still give the dog his reward. There is no reason for the dog to sit the first time, if he still gets the treat after you have been shouting “sit” at him for 3 minutes. It is your treat, if the dog wants it, he will learn to earn it on your terms. Instead of shouting “sit” over and over, ask one time. If he doesn’t sit, take one step or count to 30 seconds and ask again. The first time he sits after only one cue have a huge party with lots of treats. Soon your dog will learn that sitting fast is the quickest way to the reward.

Tip: Teach your dog to sit even if he doesn’t see the treat. Your dog isn’t stupid. If you only ask him to sit when you are dangling something the dog really wants above his nose, he will have no incentive to sit when he doesn’t see the reward. Hide the treats in your pocket or put some on top of the refrigerator. Ask him to sit and magically make the treat appear from someplace else. He will learn that even though he can’t see the treat, it is still possible to get it. Once he is doing great, don’t give him a food reward every time he sits. Sometimes tell him “good dog,” or scratch him under the chin. Mix it up so he can’t predict when the awesome food reward will come and when he only gets a “good dog.” But, always pay him with something when he sits, even if it is just “good boy.”

Tip: Teach your dog to sit beside you. Many dogs learn to sit by being in front of their owners. Make sure you practice asking your dog to sit beside you. A dog sitting beside you looking up at your face is less likely to be jumping up on company.

Once you have these things in place, begin practicing with the doorbell. Start small with only one person on the other side of the door and work in short sessions. Break out your highest value treats. Slowly up the distraction level so that the dog is always winning. You have now made sitting at the door one of the best games in the whole world.

#2 Teach your dog to love his crate

Many people get anxious about putting a dog in a crate. Some people think it is cruel. But, as long as you make the crate an awesome place, your dog will love going into it. When I yell “crate” at my house, my two dogs scramble to find the nearest open crate because that word means something really tasty is coming their way. For many dogs, being in the crate away from the hustle and bustle of the arriving guests will be much less stressful. But, you don’t want to try stuffing your dog in the crate for the first time 15 minutes before your guests arrive.

Tip: Bring your crate into whatever room you relax in. Leave the crate door open and just sit down. Have a bowl full of high value treats. If your dog looks at the crate, give him a treat. Don’t throw the treat into the crate; just give the dog a treat for looking. If the dog is comfortable just being in the room with the crate, start tossing some treats near the crate door. If the dog is going up to the crate door without issue, begin tossing treats inside the crate, but just inside the door. As soon as your dog figures out that being near the crate door is fun, close the crate (without the dog in it) and ignore it for a few minutes. You want to end this game with the dog still wanting to interact with the crate. Open the door back up again and reward the dog for being near the crate door. Begin tossing treats into the crate. Once the dog is all the way inside the crate, call him out, close the crate door and ignore the dog. You want the dog to decide that the crate with the door open is a really excellent game. If you open up the door and the dog races into the crate you are ready to give this a name (like “crate” or “kennel”). Now you have a dog that will race into his crate on cue.

This puppy raced into a crate the very first time it saw the door open to chase a hot dog. Then it decided to stay awhile to play with its toy and finish finding the hot dogs.

This puppy raced into a crate the very first time she saw the door open. Then she decided to stay awhile to play with her toy and finish finding the hot dogs. She now has a safe place to ride out a holiday party.

Next, close the crate door for just a second with the dog inside and then have a huge treat party as long as the dog is not whining, barking, or digging at the crate door. If he is, go back to just tossing treats into the open crate. If the dog is ok in the crate with the door closed, latch the door and step back. Then go right back and let the dog out with lots of praise and treats.  The final step is to find something your dog REALLY wants to chew on. I suggest bully sticks, elk antlers or a Kong filled with peanut butter. As you close the crate door, give the dog one of these high value things to chew on. When the crate door is open, the high value item goes away. It only appears in the crate when the door is closed and the dog is inside. Soon the dog will learn that being in the crate with the door closed is a magical place.

Items such as Kongs, elk antlers and bully sticks can help keep your dog entertained while he is in a crate. IndyHumane's retail store sells these items and all proceeds go to help the animals. Customers mentioning this blog post will receive 25 percent off all elk antlers, Kongs and bully sticks through Dec. 31, 2013. IndyHumane's retail store is located at the shelter at 7929 N. Michigan Road, Indianapolis, IN

Items such as Kongs, elk antlers and bully sticks can help keep your dog entertained while he is in a crate. 

Tip: If your dog is so stressed by being in the crate that he cannot eat or if he injures himself while in the crate trying to get out, seek the help of a professional dog trainer or consult with your veterinarian. This may be an indication of a more serious issue.

Tip: Never use the crate to punish your dog. Don’t grab his collar and force him into the crate. You want the crate to remain fun, and you want the dog to run in on cue.

Now you have a dog with awesome crate behavior. Move the crate to different rooms and practice going in and out of the crate. Find the room farthest from your entertaining area and get the dog comfortable before guests arrive. Give him his favorite item to chew on. Put on some music and close the door so inquisitive guests or children don’t go in and bother the dog. For many dogs, this is the best place to be during the holiday party.

#3 Know the signs of stress in your dog

If you live with another person, you know the warning signs if your significant other is not happy. You might say, “Honey, can you get Uncle Jim another eggnog “and be met with “the look.” You know that look. Chances are good that asking for eggnog was not the issue, but that the request was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many people don’t realize their dog is stressed until he growls (or even worse nips at someone). But, your dog gave you lots of clues before that growl happened.  Get to know how your dog looks relaxed so you can begin to notice changes.

Tip: The following may be clues that your dog is getting stressed: lip licking, excessive panting, yawning, excessive scratching, excessive sniffing or pacing, shaking as if he just came out of a bath, seeing lots of white around his eyes, turning his head away from someone approaching him, tucking his tail or putting his tail up higher than normal and flattening his ears back. If you see these things it might be time for your dog to take a break from the crowd. Don’t ignore signals like this. These are clues your dog is sending out and he is trying to tell you he needs just a little more space or something is making him nervous. If you ignore your dog’s early warning signals, he could decide he has no choice but to growl or snap.

Tip: Just because your dog’s tail is wagging doesn’t mean he is having a good time. Dogs wag their tails for many reasons. Some of those reasons may indeed be happiness wags, but many tail wags actually mean back away.

Now you have a dog with a perfect sit, you know the signs of stress, and if he gets stressed you can ask him to go into his crate for some relaxation chewing. Your holidays just got less stressful for you and the dog.

Just don’t forget the cats. Most cats will be happiest shut up in the back bedroom before the company begins arriving. That way they won’t dart out the door or jump onto the kitchen counter for the caviar.

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‘Don’t worry, he’s friendly’

Think about how you would feel if a stranger ran up to you while you were out walking. Even if the person had a smile on his face you would probably be nervous. You might enjoy meeting new people, but you probably want them to stop a few feet away and introduce themselves properly. However, if you didn’t enjoy meeting new people, going on walks could become torture because you would never know when some stranger would rush up and hug you.  You might get defensive and start shouting at people when they were still a block away to make sure they stayed away from you.

So, now imagine your dog. Everywhere I go I see people letting their dogs rush up to other dogs on walks. Often the person is shouting, “He’s friendly, he just LOVES to say hello.” Sometimes the dog on the receiving end is ok with having a strange dog rush into its face, but often what I see is one dog cowering or trying to back up. The greeting may still go ok, at least to our eyes, but not always. I get a lot of calls and emails from people asking why their dog is ok in the dog park, but growls, lunges, or barks at dogs on walks.

guin leash

This dog sees another dog in the distance and is straining toward the dog. The dog is getting tense and is barking and growling. It wants the other dog to go away.

One person recently told me her dog grabbed another dog by the neck when they were on a walk. The dog is great in the dog park and loves to play. The dog owner was terrified of this new behavior. Prior to the neck grab, the dogs had both rushed toward each other and done a few sniffs, then one dog got scared and the neck grab happened.  Another person told me about how her dog was bitten in a pet store, after she allowed her dog to rush up to a dog on leash. It turned out the biter had just been with its new owners for two weeks and this was its first trip into a pet store. It got stuck between a cash register desk and a wall and had no where to go when the other dog rushed up to it.

Somehow we have this romantic notion that our dogs want to meet all the dogs they see on a walk and “be friends.” Sometimes I think we love our own dogs so much, we want everyone to meet them and love them as much as we do.

I don’t allow my dogs to meet other dogs when we are on a walk. When I walk on the Monon (a local popular walking trail) my dogs know we aren’t meeting other dogs, so they just ignore them. If I see someone whose dog is dragging them toward my dog, I stop my dog, stand in front of him and stop the meeting from happening. When the other person tells me how friendly his dog is, I just smile and say that my dogs prefer not to meet other dogs. I don’t care if the stranger suddenly gets the idea my dogs are dangerous. I don’t care if I sound rude. What I care about is that both Batman and Condor have no issues taking walks in public. They don’t get nervous when they see other dogs, nor do they become frantic when they see other dogs in the distance and try to drag me to them. Both Batman and Condor can play with other dogs and both enjoy certain doggy friends, but only when the leashes are off and we are in a safe, large, fenced enclosure.

I see so many people whose dogs have learned to drag them toward any dog they see as the dog has learned that it will meet the other dog and it wants to get to that greeting as soon as possible. Or I see the opposite end of the equation: a dog that is terrified of meeting another dog and starts to cower or back away. Often that dog may lie down and become submissive; leading the owner to think the dog wants to meet the other dog. And then there is the poor dog owner whose dog gave up trying to back away. Instead the dog decided that the best offense was a good defense. That is the dog that becomes reactive and often is then labeled “aggressive.” I get many calls from people who say, “I can’t walk my dog anymore because he is aggressive toward other dogs.” When I get more information, I find the dog is lunging, barking, hackling, sounding ferocious, etc. whenever it sees another dog. In reality, this is probably a dog that just wants the other dog to stay away from him, but the dog has learned on previous walks this isn’t going to happen, so the dog has decided he has to take matters into his own hands.

Remember, when your dog is on a leash, he can’t run away. He may want to run away, but since he can’t he may feel he has to sound scary to make the other dog go away. Sadly, once that dog is lunging, barking, growling, etc. he may be so over stimulated that if the collar or leash breaks, he may go forward and fight rather than running away.

Even if you dog is a social butterfly and loves meeting and greeting all dogs, chances are good that the dog he is meeting may not be having as much fun.

So, leave the doggie interactions for the dog park or your yard where the dogs can be off leash. Just remember how you would feel if strangers started rushing up and hugging you.

dog meeting

These dogs are meeting off leash. While the little dog is a bit nervous about the meeting, he has plenty of room to run away. If he were on a leash, he might feel trapped by the other dog and decide he had to protect himself. Instead after a few seconds, these two dogs moved apart and sniffed other areas of the yard side by side for a few minutes as they both got to know each other better.

The nose knows (Fun scent games for your dog)

Imagine that you have a super power and using that super power takes anywhere from one third to almost half of your brain to keep it functioning.  The super power is fun and has kept your species alive and well for centuries. Now imagine that you no longer have to use your super power. You still have it, but there isn’t anything to do with it. You would probably be bored, after all a huge chunk of your brain no longer has anything to do. You might feel unsatisfied. You would probably try and find ways to somehow use the super power, even if they weren’t socially acceptable.

Well, your dog does have that super power and it is his nose. Trying to put the power of a dog’s nose into terms a human can understand isn’t easy. Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose compared to only 6 million in humans. Their nostrils can work independently to figure out what direction an odor came from and they have a special feature in their nose that sieves through the odors and breaks them down sending information to the brain about what each odor is. Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, likened it to a human noticing that their coffee had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, whereas the dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water.

The important thing to know is that your dog has a really powerful sense of smell and he isn’t using it much anymore. He doesn’t have to hunt. We don’t like lots of the things a dog does with his nose. We don’t enjoy it when the dog constantly stops during a walk to sniff and we hate it more if the dog tries dragging us to something interesting it discovered in the ditch. We don’t want the dog digging up ground squirrels or moles in our yard. We certainly don’t want him sniffing out rabbits or other furry creatures and doing them harm. And heaven help the dog who likes to go up to humans and sniff in inappropriate places (at least inappropriate in our minds). I have even had clients ask if I could please teach their dog not to go up and sniff another dog’s butt because it was embarrassing (to the human, the dog wasn’t embarrassed).

So, it is no wonder we have issues with our dogs. They often have to be bored out of their mind with nothing to do with their nose. Instead of being unhappy that your dog has this incredible super power, put it to work. Play games with your dog that let him use this nose of his.

Here are some ideas, but first a caveat. These games are to be played with only ONE dog. If you have more than one dog, don’t let them play these games together as dogs may not want to share what they find.

The Easter Egg Hunt Game: Take a hand full of small, but highly stinky treats and put them right in front of your dog’s nose. When you have his attention, toss the treats on the ground. I like to play this game in grass so it is more difficult for the dog to find the treats. Don’t point the treats out to the dog. He has a nose. I often see dogs give up on a task after a few minutes and just look hopefully at their owners. The dogs are smart. They learned that it is faster to just get the human to tell them the answer. I want my dogs to use their brains and figure it out on their own. If they don’t find all the treats, that’s ok. Once the dog figures out that interesting things to eat are in the grass, start to throw the treats farther apart. But, start small. Don’t make the game harder until your dog gets the hang of it.

If your dog loves this game, give it a name (like find). As you release your dog to find the treats say your cue word. Once the dog associates the cue word with the game of hunting for treats, you can seed your yard with treats while the dog is inside and then give him the cue and he will know that a fun game of find the treats is about to begin in the yard. Depending on the type of dog you have, this game could keep him busy for minutes or hours. If you don’t have a fenced yard, get a 20 or 30 foot long leash and let your dog hunt in a circle around you.

You can play this game inside as well.

The Food Bowl Game: Measure out the kibble you feed your dog and divide it into several small bowls. Start with just three or four bowls at first.  Put the bowls fairly close together in the beginning. You want the dog to know his food is now in more than one bowl. Start to move the bowls farther apart, but let the dog see the bowls as you put them down. Watch to see if your dog starts to use his nose to find the next bowl of kibble. If he likes this game, you can start to hide the various bowls farther and farther apart so that he has to search out his dinner. This game works best if your dog is all about eating his dinner. If your dog loves this game, you can just keep adding more bowls and putting less food in each one.

The Shell Game:  Get three bowls and let your dog see that you are putting a tasty treat in each one. Let him eat the treat as soon as you put it in the bowl. Repeat this several times until your dog is eagerly looking into each bowl. Then, take one treat and show it to your dog, toss the treat away from the bowls and when your dog runs to get that treat, drop a treat into only one of your three bowls. When the dog runs back, just stare at the bowls and wait to see if your dog will figure out to use his nose or to look into the bowl to find the right one with the treat. Praise him wildly for being so smart when he finds it. As the dog gets better at this game, move the bowls farther apart, put a paper towel over them, etc. to make finding the treat more difficult.

Where Is Your Toy Game: If your dog is obsessed with his toys, teach him to find them. Start with a favorite toy, and let the dog see you hide it. If your dog knows “stay” ask him to stay then show him the toy and put it just around a corner. Or have someone hold the dog if he doesn’t know “stay.” If he immediately runs to get the toy, praise him and play with the toy. Very slowly start moving the toy farther away from the dog and then slowly make it more difficult to find. Start to give it a cue such as “ball” or “toy” and say that word as the dog goes to find the object. If he likes this game, you can put him in a room, hide his toy, bring him out and give him the cue to find it and he should happily race through your house looking for it. Just go slow and build the game up so that it is easy for the dog to win.

This video shows Condor looking for his Frisbee, which is hidden in the black tub.

The Sand Trap Game: If your dog loves to dig, get some sand (such as what is used in children’s sand boxes). Designate an area in your yard that is just for the dog and build him a sand pit (the deeper you can make it the better). At first just put some treats on top of the sand, then let him see you take a favorite treat or toy and lightly cover it with sand. If he immediately goes in and uncovers this object, you can begin burying it deeper and deeper. If you give this a name, then you can put your dog in the house, seed his sandbox with tasty treats and toys and tell him to go out and dig them up.

If your dog loves to use his nose, these games will help him use some valuable brain power. Instead of having a dog that is bored and destructive you could just have a dog that is happy and content because he has the opportunity to use his nose.

Kids and Dogs: A failure to communicate

Last night I went to a wiener roast that included a lot of my extended family. There were eight children under the age of 10 and four dogs; two of which had never been there before or met the other dogs. Because it was a wiener roast there was food everywhere. I got out of the vehicle and my stomach lurched. To the dog trainer in me, this looked like a dog/kid disaster waiting to happen or possibly a dog/dog disaster, but I felt it was more likely the dogs would figure out how to coexist rather than the dogs and kids.

kids and dogsStatistically I know kids are far more likely to be bitten than adults. The Centers for Disease Control says kids between 5-9 years old are especially at risk and that boys are twice as likely to be bitten than girls. Many of those bites are to the face and the vast majority of those bites are from dogs the kids know or at least dogs everyone assumes are ok to be around kids.

The following is an excerpt from an ASPCA article entitled Teaching your Dog how to Behave Around Kids: “Although dog bite fatalities are extremely rare and most bites don’t result in injury or medical treatment, children are the victims of half of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites in the United States every year. One study estimates that about a third of these bites are delivered by the family dog. Dogs often bite children on the face or neck, and these bites sometimes result in permanent scarring or disfigurement. Irrevocable emotional damage is often done as well. Many parents consider any tooth-to-skin contact with a child a major breach of trust—perhaps even grounds for euthanasia—and some people develop lifelong phobias of dogs after being bitten during childhood.”

The ASPCA has a pet recommendation guide based on a child’s age, and dogs don’t even make the list of recommended pets until children are 10 years old. But, kids and dogs are part of our way of life. Everyone wants “a puppy for the kids to grow up with.” We want a dog to protect us and our children from harm. We expect the dog to understand that our children are just being kids and shouldn’t be harmed for their transgressions.

So, why do dogs bite kids? First, this is by no means some scholarly scientific paper. These are just my own observations. But, what I tell clients and what feels right to me is that dogs bite kids because dogs are dogs and kids are kids and sometimes they have a “failure to communicate.” As a matter of fact when I see dogs and kids interacting I often hear the voice of Strother Martin in my head as he says to Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

For example, last night my four-year old nephew had a Woody doll. And this is a toy he loves – a lot. He was sliding down a slide and Woody was being flung all about and in one arc Woody came close to the face of a boxer. The boxer looked at Woody, not as the beloved toy of a 4-year-old, but as a super awesome amazing tug toy that just flew near his face. Obviously, the boxer thought someone must surely want him to play with this toy. The boxer grabbed the toy, the 4 year old let out a howl and pulled back. I’m sure the boxer imagined that a game of tug was now in order, but the four-year old only saw a dog trying to take Woody. The four-year old charged at the boxer screaming and kicking. Luckily, enough adults were present to stop the four-year-old from hurting the dog and to stop the dog from hurting the four-year old. Nothing bad happened except some hurt feelings on the adult side as everyone tried to decide who was at fault – dog or child.

Whenever I talk to a client who is upset because their dog has either bitten a child or growled at a child I always get the same picture as what I saw last night between my nephew and the boxer.

  • A dog sound asleep on a couch with nowhere to go when a 5 year old approaches and smacks the dog on the nose because the 5 year old wants to be on the couch.
  • A dog hunkering under a kitchen table while eight nine-year-old girls crowd in the kitchen for a birthday party and someone decides the dog should be in the festivities and reaches under the table and grabs the dog to drag it out from under the table.
  • A dog on a leash on the Monon when a 6 year old waving an ice cream rushes forward to give the doggie a hug.

In these three examples the dog did bite the child involved. Luckily, my nephew was not bitten, but what would have happened had he pursued the boxer hitting the dog in an effort to save Woody?

You could say in the above examples that the parents should have been watching the child. Or that the dog should have inhibited its bite. (depending on which side of the issue you feel most strongly about). But, what I think is that it is hard to be a parent and watch your child 24/7. When I was watching all of those little kids running around last night, there was absolutely no way someone could be on top of the situation every single second. And is it fair to ask a dog to do something that it isn’t asked to do with any other species?

If a horse bites a person, very few people freak out. If a chicken runs at a child to scare it off or if a goat butts a child to get it out of the way, people accept the fact that farm animals are just acting as animals. If a cat bites someone, most people seem to just say, “well, it is a grumpy cat, the person shouldn’t have been petting it.”

When a dog bites, especially if it bites a child or other family member, it is “man’s best friend” biting. It is Lassie biting Timmy. It is unthinkable.

Which is why I try to tell everyone who attends my Learn to Speak Dog class that they have to be their dog’s advocate and try to make sure situations such as the above just don’t happen because the dog always loses. In the three examples above where the dog did bite the child, the dogs were all euthanized. It was just too traumatic for those parents or dog owners to think they owned a dog that could possibly injure a child.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide an answer because I don’t think there is an answer, short of making sure dogs and kids never interact, which isn’t fair to the thousands of dogs and kids that have no issues together. But, hopefully it helps you think and remember that your dog has teeth and no matter how wonderful you think he is, the correct answer in his mind may be to sometimes use those teeth.  And if you are a parent, to realize that a dog should not have to put up with a child hitting it, shoving it, hugging it or dragging it. While some dogs may put up with this behavior, it doesn’t mean the dog is enjoying it or that every dog will behave the same way.

And remember, it didn’t end well for Luke in the movie — a failure to communicate can be devestating.