Leaving your dog? Things to consider…

In bygone days, my husband and I would pay a college student or ask friends or my parents to care for our dogs when we went on vacation. This was when we had sound, healthy, well-socialized dogs with a good recall. But even when they stayed with my parents there were problems, such as when my mother allowed our smart, savvy golden retriever to carry her own leash across a heavily trafficked bridge (no dog should be trusted in that situation, no matter how responsible they are). Another time, when our girls were left with a friend, we returned home to find that our wonderful, mature, fastidious golden had pooped in the house. Sascha would never have done this except when under extreme stress, or from simply not being taken outside to do her business often enough.

Vera, with her challenges, changed everything when it came to leaving town.
Vera does some whale-watching while on vacation with us.

Then we had Vera, our reactive German Shepherd. Before we realized the extent of her issues, we had a college student stay with her. A neighbor reported that among other things, Vera had jumped out a window and roamed the neighborhood–twice–while we were gone. This was not reported to us by the young woman taking care of her. (This is described in detail in my novel, “Finding Vera”.) Another time, we had a vet-tech, dog-trainer friend stay with her. I think things went all right, but in spite of begging the dog sitter to email us daily with a short report on this very difficult and troubled dog, the woman didn’t contact us until we had another friend ask her to send us an email. Our final attempt to leave Vera was to have a college-graduate, dog-savvy woman care for her when we went to the California Redwoods. The woman reported that Vera had diarrhea, climbed up to the window behind our bathtub on the second floor, and knocked over plants and vases due to her extreme stress. It took weeks for Vera to recover from our absence. After that, we didn’t travel for years unless we took her with us.

Annie and Uki have been walking together weekly for over a year. Both are well trained and well behaved.

Now that we have Annie, our well-socialized, happy, sweet collie, we thought it would be easy to leave her. But from our past experience, we realized the seriousness of finding the right situation for her. When we head off to southern Utah in a few weeks, a good friend and dog trainer and her lovely dog, Uki, will be looking after Annie. But even though we’ve walked the dogs together at least once a week for over a year, even though we are both dog trainers and behavior-savvy, and even though these girls have stayed together twice before, these well-trained, well-socialized dog friends still have their challenges. Thankfully, I trust my friend to know exactly what to do to prevent conflicts from arising.

In short, in our thirty-plus years of dog parenting, Don and I have rarely found an ideal situation in which to leave our dogs when we are on vacation. Leaving our companions is a serious business, and one that requires thought and research well in advance of one’s trip.

TIPs to think about:

  • Plan ahead. I would go so far as to say that you should find a safe, supportive place to leave your dog before you plan a trip.
  • There are many options as to where you can leave your dog, such as with friends, family, dog sitters, doggie hotels, or kennels.
  • Think about what your dog needs when trying to narrow down options. Does he have lots of energy and need exercise to feel comfortable? Does he like to socialize with people? With other dogs? Or does he just tolerate them? Is he older and therefore requires lots of down time and a quiet environment? Does he have separation anxiety?
  • An active dog might do well staying with a friend who has a compatible dog his own age to play and hike with, while a quiet, lower-energy dog might do fine having a pet sitter or friend come by three to four times a day to snuggle, walk, and play with him.
  • If your dog is worried about children or puppies, don’t leave your dog with a friend or family member who has kids or young dogs. He could be terrorized and make a mistake such as biting a child. It happens. Dogs who are not completely comfortable with children should not be around them.
  • If your dog is worried about dogs, don’t leave him with someone who has dogs unless the dogs know each other well and are comfortable together.
  • Ask for recommendations about safe, low stress facilities or excellent pet sitters from friends and family.
  • Check references carefully. Don’t minimize the importance of this step.
  • If you choose to leave your dog in a kennel or doggie hotel, tour the facility first. Make sure the kennels are clean and well maintained. Interview the staff, ask detailed questions about socialization time for to the dogs, and if siblings can be kenneled together. Ask about staff training, how they choose play groups, and if there is snuggle time each day. Ask if the dogs will be sheltered from rain and sunlight, and if there’s heating and/or air conditioning. Is calming music played (reduces anxiety in dogs), and what is done if the dog needs a vet? Don’t assume anything.
  • If choosing a petsitter, ask for references and check them out. Interview the pet sitter regarding their past experience with dogs similar to your dog in size, age, and temperament. Ask about their knowledge of canine body language (will they know how to read your dog?), their philosophy on dog handling (do they use verbal and physical corrections?) and do they have any experience with behavior issues. Observe them interacting with your dog. Do they like your dog? Do they interact with him appropriately? Does your dog like them?
  • Leave detailed advice for a pet sitter, friend, family member, or kennel staff, outlining diet, feeding schedule, daily schedule of activities, health issues and what signs to be alert for. Be clear about the freedoms your dog can be allowed such as leash restrictions (can your dog be off leash?) and being left out in the yard. Outline any behavioral idiosyncrasies.
  • Try out whatever situation you choose before you go on your trip while there is still time to change your mind–starting with an afternoon or evening in the care of your chosen option, and if that goes well, an overnight stay. You can see how your dog fares, and also, your dog will know that you’ll be coming back.
  • Leave items with your dog that he is familiar with (your dog’s bed, his bowl, his toys etc.), and something that is steeped in your scent such as a piece of your unlaundered clothing.
  • Leaving our dogs is sometimes necessary, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If done with thought and care, you can minimize the stress your trip will cause both you and your dog.

Dinner Etiquette and Dogs

There are as many different ways to eat dinner with dogs as there are people and dogs, and the routines we establish are not written in stone. Is there a right or wrong way for you to interact with your dog when you are eating? As a dog trainer, my answer to that question is: no, as long as your dog is being polite. That means: not stealing food or threatening to steal food; not putting pressure on you to feed him, such as swatting, whining, barking, or growling; and not climbing up on you, nudging you, or poking you. Beyond that, it is up to you as human parents to decide what is permitted at mealtimes and what is not.

Permutations of dog habits at dinner…

When my husband and I first had dogs in the mid-eighties, we completely ignored our dogs during mealtimes except to watch their playful antics while we ate (they were puppies). For their entire lives (a full twelve years), they never received food from the table and they never asked for it. However, twenty years and four dogs later, Lola, our wonderful golden, trained me to give her food bits while she lay with her head in my lap at our coffee table. She never drooled, stared at me, or whined. Over time, this morphed into not only Lola, but Tess and Vera (of “Finding Vera“) lying under the coffee table while we ate our dinner, in their designated spots, heads resting on their paws. None of them looked at me, and none of them drooled. I would occasionally hand them each a dog treat for their good behavior. Meal time had become family time and we enjoyed it as much as they did.

When Annie was a puppy, she stayed in her X-pen or crate while we ate. We draped her crate with a towel.

Fast forward to Annie, our two-year-old collie. Annie entered our lives when we still had our reactive German shepherd, Vera (Tess and Lola were no longer with us). By that time, Vera had turned the whole dinner-time ritual into a game by lying somewhere in the living room with her back to us, and waiting to see where the treats (strategically tossed between her paws) would fall. We still ate at the coffee table watching the news (or Big Bang Theory), and little Annie stayed in her towel-draped crate or X-pen and chewed on her stuffed, frozen Kong in another part of the room.

After Vera died, however, we changed our eating habits. We now eat at the dining-room table, and, reluctant to give up our routine of sharing dinnertime with our beloved girls, we now allow Annie to lie beside us at the table. She’s permitted to place her chin on our chairs which is very cute, and will occasionally get a treat which I keep with me for that purpose. She tried swatting my husband once, and was immediately placed in her crate for the duration of the meal. She never swatted either of us again.

Tips for changing habits

  • Remember that food is a valued resource, so if your dog bullies or pressures you for food (swatting, whining, barking, growling, climbing up on you or poking you etc), he should be calmly removed from the immediate area and placed in a comfortable crate or room, given something to entertain him (such as a stuffed Kong) and ignored–or verbally reinforced for good behavior–until you’ve finished eating. Once your dog has matured, or no longer associates human mealtimes with automatic handouts, he can be invited back, and teaching him acceptable behaviors can begin.
Ceddie demands food from his Dad–climbing up on him, and making direct eye contact. Very cute, but very pushy. Photo Courtesy of Motoko Lewis.
  • Acknowledge that your food is of value to your dog. He will most likely be interested in it and will want to watch you indulge. Many of us spend a lot of time and effort training our dogs to watch us, so it will take time and patience to teach a dog to be neutral around food.
  • Decide what you are going to expect of your dog. Do you just want him present, but invisible in the room? Do you want to include him as part of your family’s culture by having him participate in some way? Do you want him to be on his bed beside you enjoying a parallel treat? Do you want to give him occasional healthy treats while you eat? Do you want him to be across the room, lying at your feet, or curled up on a chair beside you?
  • If you don’t want your dog staring at you while you eat, reward him verbally or with a treat ONLY when his head is on his paws or when he’s looking elsewhere in the room–don’t make eye contact or feed him when he is staring at you (the opposite of how we train our dogs to make eye contact). Remember, negative attention such as “no” or “uh-uh” is still attention and can therefore be reinforcing to your dog.
  • If you want him lying at your feet, tell him what you want him to do, then reinforce that behavior with calm verbal praise, a pat, and/or a small dog treat–or valued chew toy–when he is in position. You will need to reinforce him consistently at first, then randomly, then gradually fade out the treats altogether once he is staying by you. By placing a towel or dog bed beside you for him to lie on, it will be easier to teach him where you want him to stay.
  • If you want him to lie on his dog bed across the room while you eat, the same principles apply. You would toss him treats to reinforce his behavior only when his head is down or he is looking away from you.
  • You need to be absolutely consistent. A dog who occasionally gets a treat or attention (eye contact included) from the table will be much more difficult to train NOT to beg than a dog who gets treats consistently from the table. It’s just the way the brain works.

If your dog is driving you crazy:

  • Stop any behavior you don’t want by making it impossible for your dog to practice that behavior. For example, if you don’t want your dog to be a part of mealtimes, place him in a covered crate with a special long-lasting treat such as a chew toy, a snuffle mat, or a stuffed Kong, either in another room, or gated in a different part of the room from where you are eating. Praise him for quiet behavior. When you are finished eating, clear the table and invite him out nonchalantly.
  • Ignore all behavior that could be construed as begging (drooling, staring at you). This will end any begging behavior though it will most likely get worse before it improves. Ignoring him means not looking at your dog, not talking to him, and NEVER giving him treats when you are at the table eating. If the behavior escalates into pushy behavior such at barking, pawing etc., remove him from the area as described above.
  • Dogs learn that being persistent will get them what they want. They can be much more patient and much better trainers than we are.
  • Here are some training video links of Vera demonstrating how to learn three helpful skills:
  • Take it/Leave it
  • Impulse control exercise
  • Go to your mat or “place”.

Summer heat and hot dogs: tips to keep them safe…

Summer is here–in some places with a vengeance! And as much as we love to enjoy outdoor activities with our pets now that we have been delivered from the icy clutches of winter, with the increase in global temperatures and the ensuing unpredictable weather, we should anticipate the possibility of higher temperatures and humidity.

Exercise older dogs with caution in hot weather.

Compared to humans, our dogs are at increased risk of overheating. They don’t sweat except on the pads of their feet and noses, and must cool themselves mainly by panting. Because of their poor cooling systems, they are at risk of dehydration and succumbing to heat stroke, particularly dogs with short muzzles (pugs, boxers, and shih tzus for example), overweight, older, and poorly conditioned dogs. Our dogs must depend on us for their safety, so it is up to us to keep them cool through these risky months.

Signs of heat stroke: According to The Humane Society of the US, the signs of heat stroke are: “heavy panting, glazed eyes, a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, excessive thirst, lethargy, fever, dizziness, lack of coordination, profuse salivation, vomiting, a deep red or purple tongue, seizure and unconsciousness.” Heat stroke can result in organ failure and death.

What to do if your dog gets over-heated: The Humane Society of the US suggests: “Move your pet into the shade or an air-conditioned area. Apply ice packs or cold towels to their head, neck and chest or run cool (not cold) water over them. Let them drink small amounts of cool water or lick ice cubes. Take them directly to a veterinarian.” Even if your dog seems to recover, organ failure can be a complication of heat stroke.

How Do I keep my dog safe?

Never leave dogs alone in parked cars…

Parked cars:

  • Never leave your dog alone in a parked car–even for a minute. A minute can easily turn into fifteen or third minutes, shade can shift, and car temperatures can soar, even with the windows open. I know this is asking a lot, but even in shade, with the windows open, temperatures can warm quickly. Leaving the windows partially open does not substantially reduce the heat in parked cars.
  • Crates will block air circulation even more and trap heat around your dog, and if windows are open wide enough to allow substantial air movement, you risk your dog being stolen–apparently not an uncommon event in some areas.
  • Shade blankets: Some people leave their dogs unattended for hours in direct sunlight with a shade blanket over their car. Although the best shade blankets will reduce the temperature inside the car, there is absolutely no guarantee that the interior of the car will remain cool enough for your dog to be safe, leave alone comfortable. So much is dependent on how much shade will pass over the car, the cloud cover, the presence of a breeze, the amount of heat radiating off the surface on which the car is parked, the humidity, and the heat tolerance of your dog.
  • Fans are not nearly as effective for dogs as they are for humans.
  • Don’t risk it! Remember–dogs age, gain weight, and acquire health problems, all of which will affect their ability to tolerate heat.
Shade blankets can reduce the car temperature, but several factors play into how safe it will be for your dog. Don’t depend on them.

What to do if you see a pet in a parked car in the heat?: Check out the HSUS PDF.

Exercise:

  • Exercise in the coolest part of the day.
  • Consider the humidity as well as the temperature. The more humid it is, the less able your dog is to reduce his temperature through panting.
  • Short-muzzled dogs, elderly dogs, overweight dogs and those with medical conditions should be exercised with extreme care in hot temperatures.
  • Carry water and a bowl for your dog when going for walks or hikes.
  • Avoid hot asphalt–your dog can burn his paws.
  • Walks that give your dog access to water for play and swimming are ideal, but remember that creeks dry up in early summer, and not all water is safe for dogs to drink. Giardia is increasingly common.
  • Consider boots for your dog when hiking on hot surfaces.
  • Consider how low your dog is to the ground. Dogs with short legs will be more at risk for overheating from heat radiating from the earth.
  • A warm-weather safety chart put together by Proplan is helpful to gauge how hot is too hot for the activity of small, medium, and large dogs.

Muzzles:

  • Never use muzzles in the heat unless your dog can pant and drink in the muzzle he is wearing.
  • Baskerville muzzles are a comfortable, airy muzzle that will allow your dog to pant, drink and eat treats. We used this type of muzzle with Vera for years.
Some dogs obviously love to sunbathe, but monitor them closely. Uki, Ellie, and Annie enjoy the deck.

Long-haired and double-coated dogs:

  • Double-coated dogs have protection from the direct sun and intense direct heat because of the structure of their coats. Annie, our rough collie, will sometimes sunbathe on our hot, hot deck. Often we need to chase her inside after a few minutes so she doesn’t overheat.
  • It unwise to shave these fluffy dogs. That said, dogs also produce their own heat, and double-coated dogs will retain heat more efficiently than their short-coated cousins. Don’t shave your long-haired or double-coated dogs, but clipping their tummies should allow them to cool down faster once in a cooler environment.
  • Regular brushing will not only remove dead hair and undercoat, but will also keep your dog’s coat light and air-filled–therefore a better insulator against the direct environmental heat as well as allowing body heat to escape more easily.

Short haired dogs:

  • Black dogs will absorb the heat faster, but white dogs are more susceptible to sunburn.
  • There are sunscreens specifically formulated for dogs–their noses and ears are particularly susceptible to sunburn.
  • Zinc oxide is toxic for dogs, and can cause severe health problems, so use sunscreens specifically formulated for dogs. Keep exposure to the direct sun to a minimum.

Inside vs Outside:

  • Make sure your dog has access to deep shade and fresh water when outside.
  • Tarps can provide deep shade.
  • Dog houses will heat up, and if in the direct sun, will become hotter than the outside environment. Also, your dog’s body heat will contribute to the heat in the enclosed space.
  • Providing a cooling mat, sprinkler or paddle pool can help to keep your dog cool when outside. If it is over 85 degrees, keep him inside with his cooling mat, fans, ice cubes to lick, and water sprinkled on his coat.
  • If you have air conditioning, your dog is in luck! Keep him inside with the air conditioning turned on. Provide fans, a cooling mat, fresh, cool water, and have cool tile, hardwood, or linoleum floors available to him.
  • If your dog needs to be crated, be sure the crate has plenty of ventilation (wire crates are perfect). If you have open windows, be sure to use screens as some dogs will jump out (Vera did this once when we were out of town).

Gardening with Dogs

Annie learns to cross our stream on the little bridge we made for her. She kept knocking down the cobble on the edges of the stream bed and crushing the plants. Now she uses her path and bridge.

THE DOG’S POINT OF VIEW:  Some dogs love to dig. It’s in their genes (some more than others) and in their hearts. Imagine, for a moment, the feel of the earth between your pads as it yields to the strength of your shoulders and the scrape of your nails…the feel of the dirt flying and thumping behind you, the all-consuming smell of the fresh soil, the clay, the roots as you dig deeper. Perhaps you even feel a sense of gratification as the hole widens or disappears into the depths. In the summer, the hole is cool and possibly damp. It wraps your body in comfort, protects you from the heat. In cooler days, it may just be a place to play and pass the time.

Most dogs don’t have a sense of where the garden begins and ends. They don’t know that the lawn is all theirs, and the flower or vegetable beds are out of bounds, or that the decorative water feature you.’ve spent hours rejuvenating after winter is absolutely verboten. They just play or wander happily within the boundaries of their space.

THE HUMAN’S POINT OF VIEW: We love to gaze upon the green sweep of lawn yielding to masses of flowers and shrubs. We have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on our gardens, countless hours, weeks, years accomplishing this remarkable feat. We are sometimes passionate about the outcome, but sometimes, like our dogs, we just love the feel of the soil on our skin and beneath our fingernails. Whatever our motivation in creating our personal landscaping and gardening fantasy, most of us don’t like dogs digging in our sacred place, or even wandering through our flowerbeds. 

Tips:

  • Realize that your dog has no intention of ruining your garden. He is simply out there following his genetic impulses (terriers, for example, dig to reach their prey) or because he finds great pleasure in the work of it. If you can look at this objectively, it will help you to solve the problem.
  • Be sure your garden is fully fenced before you let your dog run free.  Being outside with your dog does not prevent him from chasing a deer, cat, raccoon, or squirrel across the road in front of a car. I’ve had several clients over the years who have had dogs injured or killed due to the misconception that they could control their off-leash dog in an unfenced yard while they were distracted by gardening. 
  • Dogs mimic our behaviors. As much as you love to have your dog’s company while you dig and plant, having him with you will encourage him to dig too. Leave him inside the house or on the deck while you work.
A low fence can help to guide your dog to use the pathways you create.

  • Provide pathways and unobtrusive fences to keep your dog out of areas you want to protect. Introduce him to the fence when he is leashed, and reward him with praise and small treats for staying on the correct side of the fence. Don’t allow him in the yard unattended until he is fully trained. Otherwise, he will practice the behavior you want him to avoid..
  • Provide chew toys and play toys to entertain your dog when you are outside with him. Show him what he’s ALLOWED to do.
  • Provide shade and water.
Annie in her digger-dog hole
  • Give your dog a place to dig. He may have indicated where he wants to excavate, and if you can integrate this into your garden, do it!  We were lucky in that three generations of our dogs have been digging under a rhododendron in our back garden. Each generation has taught the next where to dig.  We have a 27 year old digger-dog hole there now. Vera especially loved her digger-dog hole.
  • Encourage your dog to dig in the spot you have chosen: bury treats, bones, toys–things your dog loves–in the spot. Make a game of it. Cheer him on, praise him, get excited for him as he spreads his claws, sets his shoulders, and gets into it. 
  • Don’t leave your dog outside unattended–even if you’re home. Dogs have to be taught what is sanctioned by their people and what isn’t. They need to be praised for behaviors we want and directed away from behaviors we don’t like.

Safe and Humane ways to teach your puppy how to stop biting by Kristen Seymour

Please read and enjoy this very educational article on how to work with your puppy to teach bite inhibition–written by Kristen Seymour, linked from Pupbox.com.

Bite inhibition is an extremely important skill for puppies to learn, and they must learn it before their jaws reach adult strength. They learn this skill through biting–other puppies and dogs, and us. Puppies and dogs will teach the puppy through yelps, avoidance, and maternal correction until the puppy learns to temper his bite pressure. We can teach them by following the steps outlined below:

Puppy Biting

How to keep your only dog happy…

So you’ve decided to live with a single dog. As I said in my blog, “Should I get a second dog?” there are lots of reasons to have just one dog. But having made that decision, how do you keep him socially stimulated and content?

Vera was very content as an only dog. Adding a puppy, Annie, to our family when Vera was 13 years old was successful, but it did require a significant amount of planning.

First of all, it’s important to accept that not all dogs crave social interaction or even want it. There are dogs who would prefer to be the only dog in a household, and helping them feel comfortable around other dogs can take some work. These dogs may benefit from parallel leash walks (at a distance they can handle) with other calm dogs who don’t want to crowd or interact with them. There can be a quiet camaraderie in these relationships, where they eventually choose to sniff the ground together, mirror each other’s movements, and generally feel companionable. For these dogs, taking them to a dog park would be way too much, day care would be overwhelming, and getting a second dog might be challenging, though if handled correctly could work well for both dogs.

Tips for single dogs, including non-social dogs.

  • Daily walks are essential (to areas where there are few dogs if your dog is not well socialized, and where those who are present are leashed so that a comfortable distance can be maintained).
  • Ideally, play, games, and training should be part of each day, along with interactive toys such as stuffed, frozen Kongs and puzzles. Any training or mental stimulation will help to tire your dog and help him to feel more content.
Vera dancing
  • Treiball (your dog learns to herd large, colorful balls back to you) is a fabulous sport for herding dogs, but can be fun and challenging for any dog. You can purchase books and videos on how to get involved in this sport, and work on it at home if there are no classes nearby.
  • Kibble-dispensing toys can offer mental stimulation to your dog.
  • Snuffle Mats can be mentally stimulating, calming, and entertaining all at the same time!
  • To gauge how well your dog is tolerating your absence, you can observe your dog on your phone or computer by using reasonably priced remote cameras.
Annie and her snuffle mat
  • Chew toys can occupy your dog’s time and help to decrease stress. However, talk to your vet first. Finding a safe chew toy for your pet can be very challenging depending on the bite strength of your dog.
  • Calm music can help your dog to relax, and some dogs love to watch animals on television .
  • If your dog is not doing well with your absence, you could hire a neighbor or dog walker to walk your dog at midday.
  • Many dogs do well once they understand your routine– as long as they are exercised before you leave home and when you return, and have things to occupy them. Most dogs will sleep during the day while you’re at work.
  • I used to hide treats in hollow toys throughout the house before I’d go to work. My dog couldn’t wait for me to leave! Searching for the treats helped with her transition from companionship to being alone.

tips for Single dogs who are social butterflies

  • Be friendly with other dog-people on trails, and share contact information when your dog meets a friend he really enjoys.
  • Take your dog to class–agility, obedience, free-style, tricks etc.–to get your dog working around other well-socialized dogs. Again, share contact information and make playdates with compatible dogs.
Annie (left) walks with her good friend, Uki (right), and a new acquaintance, Bella. All are being trained while off leash.
  • Offer to petsit for friends who have dogs your dog likes.
  • Make regular playdates for your dog at your home, at off-leash parks, or on trails. There are lots of single, well-socialized dogs around who need playmates.
  • Take your dog to daycare, but be sure it’s a place with a structured schedule, clear expectations, and constant supervision by staff who are savvy with canine body language. Dogs should be screened carefully before attending and should not be resource guarders.
  • Walk on off-leash friendly trails so your dog can meet and play with new dogs. For safety, leash your dog if approaching dogs who are leashed, even in off-leash areas.
  • Before considering dog parks, read my blog “Dog Parks–Why not?”

Dog attacks part 2: Ways to protect your dog.

In my last blog, “Dog Attacks”, I promised to share some ideas that might help you protect your dog from potential dog attacks. First, however, I want to give you some information about why any dog might want to attack a perfectly happy, well-socialized dog.

Fear drives aggression in dogs 95% of the time. Genetics, lack of socialization before the age of 12-16 weeks, or an attack or scare from another dog (particularly if the injured dog was between 7 and 9, or 18 and 24 months when the attack occurred) could be at the core of the problem. However, it is important to realize that any dog will bite if put in the right situation.

If a dog is already fearful, the approach of a happy, well-socialized dog can be terrifying. These fearful dogs have the choice of freezing, attacking, or running away, and dogs who are on leash don’t have the option of escape–they can only freeze, attack, or hide behind their owners. Even if they are off leash, fearful dogs might feel that offense is more effective than defense, offense being a strategy that dogs learn quickly. It makes the scary thing back off, and they are rewarded by this.

Here, you can see that even though Vera knows Annie well, she is worried about Annie’s nose being just centimeters from her shoulder. The minimum safe distance Vera could be from a strange dog was 30 feet.

Another thing that owners of happy, healthy, well socialized dogs should realize is that no one (with the exception of the rare trainer out looking for a challenge), purposefully adopts a dog who is aggressive. They fall in love, then the behaviors unfold or develop, often between the ages of two and three years as the dog matures socially. This certainly happened with our girl, Vera.

The owners of the dog with dog-aggressive behaviors are then saddled with a choice: to work with the dog continuously for years, re-home the dog (and who would willingly adopt a dog with a bite history) or take the dog to a shelter where he would risk euthanasia. If the owners lie about the dog’s history when they relinquish the dog (which certainly happens), the dog will end up injuring another dog (or human if the bite is redirected).

Having an aggressive dog is like living with a loaded gun. At first, owners are in full-blown denial and make extensive excuses for the dog. Then it slowly dawns on them that they need help and they start the slow process of discovering the dog’s triggers and how to keep him safe.

We kept Vera safe by choosing her outings carefully–the right place in the right season at the right time of day–and, of course, always on leash. Always a 6 ft leash unless there was no risk of a dog approaching.

The process is long and arduous as the dog’s freedoms are slowly relinquished to a point where the dog feels safe enough to live a relaxed life, and the owners feel safe enough to comfortably live with the dog. These owners are often stressed for years as they struggle through this quagmire–they want to give their dog a quality of life that makes life worth living, but are challenged to keep their dog feeling protected from friendly dogs, (remember, the aggression is fear-driven), and keeping other dogs safe as well.

My novel, “Finding Vera” tells the story of our experience with our wonderful reactive German shepherd, Vera (with a few embellishments to make it a better novel).

Tips and suggestions to protect your dog from potential attacks:

  • Consider dog parks with caution. I would recommend reading my comprehensive blog post on Dog Parks. Other blog posts that enhance the Dog Parks article are: Kids and small dogs at dog parks, and Dog parks vs off-leash trails.
  • When walking your dog on leash, don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs. As I mentioned above, dogs are limited in their responses when on leash and tend to be more likely to aggress or act out. Check out the video on how to pass another dog on leash safely. I have been lax about this with Annie, but since Milo’s attack have decided to adhere to this advice unless Annie has already established a friendship with the other dog.
I block Annie from Bruno with my body in this technique of arcing around dogs.
I feed her constantly as I pass Bruno.
  • Follow leash laws. People walk their dogs in on-leash areas for a reason. There is nothing more upsetting than to have your on-leash, anxious, reactive, rambunctious, or injured dog approached by an energetic, friendly dog (or to be accosted by a loose dog if you don’t like dogs or are unable or unwilling to deal with their exuberance). At the very least, the leashed dog will feel threatened, out of control, or overstimulated because he is handcuffed in his response to the loose dog. If the leashed dog is under-socialized, he may feel the need to attack because he is confined. Also, even a well-behaved off-leash dog will often take advantage of his freedom to harass the tethered dog.
Annie practices recall on an off-leash trail.
  • If you walk your dog off leash in on-leash areas when no one is around, realize that you could could be ticketed. Be sure your dog has a strong recall (will return to you at least 80% when you call him), and leash him up as soon as you see a person or dog in the distance.
  • Keep your dog on leash and under control in your neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve had clients whose dogs were killed by cars because they were loose in an unfenced yard, even while under supervision. Also, many of my reactive dog clients have been accosted by loose dogs in their neighborhoods. A fight between your loose, friendly dog and a leashed aggressive dog can end badly, both for the dogs and the handler. Redirected bites onto the handler are not uncommon when trying to separate dogs in a fight.
  • Teach your dog a “sit behind.
I’m training Annie to sit behind me. This way I can block her from any approaching off-leash dogs I don’t trust.
  • Watch people and dogs carefully in off-leash areas and read their body language. If the dog looks tense and is not giving out calming signals as he approaches (such as looking away, sniffing the ground, licking his lips, yawning, or doing a play bow), or if the human looks tense and worried, take your dog off the trail, stand in front of him, and block him. You can feed your dog treats, talk to him, or hook a finger through his collar or harness to maintain control while the dog passes.
  • Don’t walk your dog on leash in an off-leash area. As I said above, off-leash dogs might take advantage of his vulnerability. Likewise, if you see a leashed dog approaching in an off leash area, leash your dog and steer clear–there is probably a reason the dog is leashed. It isn’t a good time to get into an argument with the owner.
Annie checks backwash me on an off-leash trail.
  • Practice “check backs” with your dog so that he doesn’t run off when on the trail. Mark any eye contact with a word such as “yes” (or click) and treat him when he returns to you. You will find that your dog starts to check back often and will be more responsive when you call him back.
  • Carry a small air horn to keep loose dogs at bay. One small blast will often stop loose dogs in their tracks. A second short blast has always worked for us. The air horn works at a great distance to keep both well-socialized dogs and reactive dogs safe without sensitizing them to shouting (yelling at the dog, or shouting at the owner to call their dog rarely works anyway). Don and I wouldn’t go out of the house without one when we had Vera. The dog the horn was aimed at would stop, eye us with curiosity, then choose to change direction. They never looked scared.
  • To desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn:
This is a 1.5 oz horn that fits into my treat pouch so I can have it handy in case of an emergency.
  1. Have a second person beep the horn at a distance of 50-100 feet, pointing the horn away from your dog, then feed him several high-value treats.
  2. Always be careful to point the horn AWAY from your dog.
  3. Repeat no more than 3 times in a day, decreasing the distance the horn is from your dog by no more than 5 feet at a time.
  4. Only decrease the distance between the horn and your dog if the dog is relaxed and anticipating the treats.
  5. If your dog is scared, stop using the horn that day, and follow the session with treats and a favorite game.
  6. The next day, double the distance between the horn and your dog and try again.