Wildlife and dogs: Keep your dog safe!

This is the time of year to be outside with your dog. The rain and cold ease up, the sun comes out, and babies are born in the wild. With human and dog populations expanding into more rural areas, there are more wildlife encounters than in the past, and these don’t always end well for our dogs or our wildlife.

Although this blog post focuses on avoiding injuries to our dogs, it’s also important to respect and protect our wildlife. They have every right to protect their young and their homes. Ultimately, if we prevented our dogs from threatening wildlife, our dogs’ risk would be greatly reduced. To put it in perspective, as of April 2023, the Whatcom County Wildlife Center of WHS (in Washington State) has seen 300 wildlife injuries and deaths, many attributable to dogs. This spring, as with last, Alysha Evans, manager of the Wildlife Center, is concerned about dogs running free on Whatcom County beaches and attacking and chasing baby seals who have been temporarily left alone while their mothers forage for food. It is also cottontail season, and the Wildlife çenter is seeing many rabbits who have been killed or injured or had their nests destroyed by dogs. It is just as important to keep wildlife safe from our dogs as it is to keep our dogs safe from wildlife.

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Birds of Prey: I spoke with Sharon Wolters, director of Sardis Raptor Center in Whatcom County and she shared the following information with me:

Eagles: Apparently it’s not unusual for eagles, hawks, and large owls to carry off small dogs for food. Eagles can lift their weight (eight to eleven pounds) in their talons, but even if their prey is too heavy to lift, they can still kill it. Eagles can grip with 200 pounds of pressure per square inch and have a ratchet system in their feet. This means they can squeeze tighter and tighter with their talons, but can’t release their grip until their bodies relax. Because of this, even large dogs can be badly injured by eagles if they are targeted.

Owls can attack and carry off small dogs any time of day, but they are typically nighttime predators. They can swoop in silently and snatch a small dog with unnerving speed even if the dog is leashed. If the owner is not being attentive, they might not even know what happened to their dog.

The reverse is also true. Both eagles and owls can fall prey to dogs. In her Raptor Center, Sharon has seen eagles, hawks, and owls badly injured or even killed by dogs–a huge tragedy for these magnificent birds.

How to protect your dogs from birds of prey:

  • Keep small dogs on leash–always. Allowing small dogs to roam off leash even a short distance away on a trail or in a field can put them at risk.
  • Do not leave small dogs unattended outside, ever. They are at risk of attack not only from raptors, but from raccoons, deer, and coyotes.
  • Consider a Coyote vest to protect your small dog from coyote and raptor attacks.
  • Keep small dogs close to you when walking at night.
  • Don’t allow big dogs to roam free, and even if your yard is fenced check on them regularly and bring them inside at night and when you leave home.
Photo by David Selbert on Pexels.com

Raccoons: Raccoons are a common inhabitant of our neighborhoods, both rural and urban. Although they don’t usually attack dogs if unprovoked, they will protect themselves if cornered, or if their young are threatened. Raccoon injuries can be severe, leading to eye damage, punctured lungs, abdominal punctures, and urethral damage according to Dr. Eric Barchas of Dogster Magazine. They can also carry bacteria harmful to dogs and humans, including rabies in some states, though in Washington State this is not the case.

To avoid confrontations with raccoons:

  • Don’t allow your dog outside unsupervised after dark, even in a fenced yard.
  • Check your yard before allowing your dog off leash at any time of day. Vera, our predatory German shepherd, snatched a raccoon cub at midday when I was only a few feet behind her.
  • Don’t allow your dog to sniff inside culverts. Raccoons seek shelter there.
  • Don’t leave food outside at night–human, dog, cat, or bird food are fair game and will encourage raccoons.
  • Don’t intentionally feed raccoons.
  • Be sure your dog’s vaccinations are up to date. Raccoons are a prime carrier of rabies in some states.
  • If your dog gets into a scuffle with a raccoon, get her to the vet ASAP.
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Deer: Deer are also common in both urban and rural communities, and at this time of year, the does are likely to have fawns. Since fawns have very little odor, they are left in a safe haven by themselves until they are old enough to run from predators, and the does stand guard at a distance. In areas where deer have lost their fear of humans and dogs, they have been known to attack dogs to protect their fawns. I have been followed on several occasions by does while walking my dogs in the neighborhood in the spring, and two of my clients’ dogs have been attacked by deer–one dog was trampled to death. Deer are large, their hooves are sharp, and they can do a lot of damage.

Keep in mind that many dogs are lost and/or injured each year chasing deer, and there is no good way to get an injured dog to your car without help. Even dogs under 25 pounds can be challenging to move if the dog needs to be carried more than a few hundred feet. Also, young fawns are completely helpless and easy prey, but even adult deer can be brutalized and killed by dogs.

To avoid deer attacks:

  • Keep your dog on leash in the areas deer frequent, if your dog has a prey drive (most dogs do), or if your dog wanders far from you on trails.
  • If you walk your dog off leash, train him to stay near you on the trail, and be sure he has a good recall. Hire a trainer for help if necessary.
  • If you see a deer, leash your dog, bring her close to you, and keep her on your side away from the deer.
  • Ideally, retrace your route and avoid the area. Her fawn could be close by.
  • If possible, prevent your dog from barking by using treats, blocking your dog from seeing the deer, or by walking away. Barking seems to trigger deer attacks, probably because the sound raises the level of threat.
  • Do not feed deer.
  • Become familiar with deer body language. Dropped ears and a tightly tucked tail, lowered head, and a stiff gait seem to be the most common warning signs that a deer is stressed and might aggress if you don’t back off.
  • Check your yard before letting your dogs outside even if your yard is fenced, to protect both the deer and your dogs. I had a friend who watched a deer jump her fence and trample her small dog–presumably because the deer’s fawn was nearby–so I would not recommend leaving small dogs in the yard unsupervised.
Photo by Esteban Arango on Pexels.com

Coyotes: As with deer and raccoons, coyotes share our neighborhoods in increasing numbers as we encroach on their habitat. Although they are fascinating and intelligent animals that live either as solitary creatures or in family groups, coyotes have been known to kill and injure not only small dogs, but medium and large dogs as well. They also carry diseases which can be harmful to our dogs, including rabies in some states, though in Washington State this is not the case. Rachel Bangert, DVM, has treated several small and large dogs with severe injuries from coyotes over the years. Small dogs are more likely to be killed by coyotes.

To avoid coyote attacks:

  • Coyotes can not only scale fences up to six feet high, they can also dig underneath them, so I don’t recommend leaving small dogs outside unattended unless you have secure fencing. (And in light of the raptor risk, that includes having the area covered.)
  • Keep dogs leashed if you know there are coyotes in the area. Lola, our twelve year old golden, was lured into the woods by a coyote (a full account of her adventure is described in my novel, Finding Vera) and I was lucky to get her back unharmed.
  • Work on your dog’s recall if you plan to walk your dog off leash. Hire a trainer to help you with this if you need to.
  • Pay attention to your dog’s body language when you’re out walking (call your dog back if he alerts) and reward frequent check-ins with a high-value treat.
  • Consider a coyote vest for your small dog.
  • If you see a coyote when you are walking:
    • Leash your dog. Your dog might bark to warn the coyote away. Coyotes and dogs can apparently communicate, so this could be successful. Don’t allow your dog to interact with coyotes pups or adults.
    • Don’t run away as the coyote might see you as prey.
    • Make yourself as big as possible.
    • Make noise–use of an airhorn, shaking a can with rocks in it, shouting etc. can work well to scare off coyotes.
    • Maintain eye contact.
    • Back away slowly.
    • If your dog has a scuffle with a coyote, have her checked at the vet ASAP.
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Squirrels: Squirrels seem like odd creatures to include here, but although they are delightful, intelligent, remarkable animals, they are also bold and can deliver quite a bite to a dog’s face if the dog gets too close, especially if the squirrel is cornered. They can also be swiftly killed and eaten by your dog depending on your dog’s prey drive and intent. Vera, our shepherd, could kill a squirrel before we even saw it, whereas Annie, our collie, tiptoes after them with a quizzical look on her face. Although squirrels don’t carry rabies, their bites can be deep and become badly infected.

To avoid squirrel bites:

  • Don’t allow your dog to chase squirrels, especially if there is a chance they could be cornered.
  • Be careful if you have bird feeders as they will attract squirrels.
  • Keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date.
  • If your dog is bitten by a squirrel, wash the bite well and take your dog to the vet ASAP.

Thoughts on risk vs. lifestyle

As we all know from dealing with Covid for the last three years, maintaining a balance between common sense and safety is important, and everyone has different ideas about what that means. I’ll share with you what I do to keep Annie and wildlife safe from each other, though after doing research for this article I have become more cautious. Annie spends a good two hours a day in the yard unsupervised, and she hikes off leash with us almost daily. We handle the risk of wildlife interactions by assessing the risk of the environment, by keeping Annie close to us on trails, by watching her body language carefully during hikes, and by paying attention to reports of wildlife in the areas we frequent. She also has a good recall 90% of the time, and has been taught to stay on the trail.

I leash her or bring her indoors under the following circumstances:

  • If she’s alerting on trails–I’m concerned not only about wildlife, but also about dogs or people who might be uncomfortable being greeted by an off-leash dog.
  • If she’s showing reluctance to continue along a trail. Experience has shown that there is always a good reason for this behavior.
  • If she’s shown anxiety on our early- morning neighborhood walk, if I’ve seen new coyote scat near our house, or if I’ve seen a deer nearby in spring and early summer, I’ll bring her indoors rather than letting her stay in the yard by herself
  • We check on her frequently, never leave Annie outside if we are leaving the house, and any time she barks, we check on her, both to stop her from barking, and to be sure there’s no wildlife close by.


How dogs impact wildlife…by Kerry Mitchell, CPDT-KA (certified dog trainer).

Last month I wrote a post about how wildlife can impact our dogs. This month I’d like to focus on how our dogs can impact wildlife.

Life is always challenging for wildlife. Staying safe from predators, finding safe places to sleep and reproduce, avoiding traffic, and surviving the ever increasing challenges of climate change are always present. Add with the burgeoning number of dogs in the environment, the increasing human population, and our encroachment on the wilderness, one can see that doing our part to help wildlife survive is important.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the most difficult seasons of the year for wildlife is springtime, because not only are the young vulnerable, but adults are also more at risk due to their additional responsibilities: finding enough food to raise young, protecting territory from others, and protecting offspring from predators. During this period, they are at particular risk not just of direct attacks, but also of disruption by dogs.

Young animals are not physically as strong and agile as adults, and even once they are mobile and able to forage for themselves, they are inexperienced and more trusting. For instance, baby squirrels might allow dogs and humans to get closer than an adult would, or a baby bird might not perceive a stationary dog as a threat.

Alysha Evans, manager of Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center says that the species she sees most at the WHS Wildlife Center (Northwest Washington State) in the spring are songbirds, rabbits, and fawns. This year she also had multiple calls about baby seals being chased and attacked by dogs on the beach.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Birds: Birds cluster around and under feeders making them prime victims for dogs, cats, and other predators. In fact, The Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Rehab Center recommends against bird feeders altogether. Not only do they make birds easy targets, but feeders encourage the unnatural behavior of birds gathering together which encourages the spread of infection. Currently, with Bird Flu devastating populations of domestic fowl and now being found in some wild birds in WA state, birds that populate bird feeders are potentially at risk.*

Songbirds are those amazing creatures that fill our forests, pastures, and neighborhoods with song in the spring. They herald new growth, new hope, and without them the world would be a sadder place. They also eat insects such as mosquitoes, flies and spiders. They swarm our back yards and brighten our days. Many species such as the black headed Dark-eyed Junco, the remarkable Song sparrow, the White-crowned sparrow with its arresting cadences, the strikingly handsome Spotted Towhee, and the tiny Pacific wren which literally bursts with song, nest in low brush or even on the forest floor. This makes them easy prey for our dogs to trample, bite, or chase. Also, many fledgling birds must spend time on the ground before they take flight, and the fluttering movement of fledglings is often difficult for dogs to resist. They can be crushed by playful or stampeding paws, and can easily be bitten or killed.

Rabbits: Bunnies are also easy prey for our dogs. Even when dogs are leashed, they can grab a young, inexperienced bunny. Vera, our German shepherd, leapt into a salmonberry bush while on a six-foot leash, grabbed a baby bunny, and ate it before we even registered what had happened. Babies are less aware of their environment and more prone to attack, but adult rabbits can also be chased, caught, and brutalized by dogs. Even if they aren’t caught, a combination of extreme exertion and the stress they experience from being pursued can cause capture myopathy resulting in severe illness, inability to care for young, and death.

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Deer: As I mentioned in my last blog Wildlife and Dogs: why they don’t mix, fawns are immobile for their first two weeks of life. They have no scent, so mothers can leave them unattended in a safe place while they forage for food. Although our dogs can’t smell these creatures, the fawn is completely unable to protect itself or escape being mauled if a dog stumbles upon one inadvertently. Once fawns are mobile and able to run, they can accompany their mother which makes them less vulnerable, however, juveniles and mature deer are at high risk for capture myopathy if they are chased by dogs, and even if they don’t die, does can be rendered unable to care for their young because of the severity of the condition.

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Squirrels: Squirrels are also at risk for capture myopathy and at high risk for injury and death by dogs. They frequent feeders and decks which makes them easy prey for predatory dogs. Many dogs are unable to resist the bouncing gait of squirrels and are overwhelmed by an urge to chase them. Vera was obsessed with squirrels, and as an older dog, leapt six feet high into a cluster of bushes and grabbed a young squirrel in her jaws. And yes, she was leashed at the time. The squirrel did not survive.

Photo by Ruvim Miksanskiy on Pexels.com

Seals: Like fawns, baby seals are often left alone on beaches in the spring while their mothers search for food. Dogs running loose on the beach are attracted to their scent and the novelty of finding something unusual and alive, and it’s not uncommon for the pups to be chased, harassed, bitten, and even killed by dogs.

What can you do?

  • Be aware of your dog’s temperament and prey drive. All breeds are predatory to some degree, but some breeds such as terriers, herding dogs, and sight hounds have a stronger prey drive than others. The prey drive sequence consists of six different behaviors: stalk, chase, catch, kill, dissect, and consume. Often dogs are hardwired for one or more parts of this sequence. For instance, our German shepherd had all six parts, from stalk to consume, while our collies only demonstrated stalk and chase. Our golden retrievers, on the other hand, had only the consume part of the sequence.
  • Work with a trainer to redirect your dog’s prey drive into other constructive, brain-stimulating activities such as scent games, fly ball, treiball, or tracking. Since prey drive is hardwired, it’s almost impossible to suppress.
  • Be aware of your environment. If there are bunnies, squirrels, raccoons, or birds in your yard, clear your yard by clapping your hands, then double check before releasing your dog to roam off leash.
  • Keep your dog on leash on beaches in the spring and early summer when seal pups are left by their mothers. If you see a seal pup, give it a wide berth and distract your dog from barking. In fact, there are federal laws that require that we stay 100 yards away from seal pups.
  • If your dog has a high prey drive for squirrels, birds, and bunnies, keep him on leash in areas where birds might nest and in areas of high bunny and squirrel populations. Don’t put bird feeders in any area your dog (or cat) can access.
  • In fawning season, leash your dog in all areas where deer populations are high. Leash your dog in wilderness areas when you are on trails, especially if your dog leaves the path and crashes through the bush.

*If you choose to keep bird feeders in spite of expert recommendations, follow the cleaning guidelines recommended by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Collar or Harness?

Everyone has a different opinion on which equipment is most humane and most effective to walk one’s dogs. I will give you my thoughts, based on over thirty years of training and experience.


Dog collars are tricky. Putting tags on a collar as a way to ID your dog is a good idea–as long as the collar is quick-release. Having lost a young, healthy collie in a flat buckle collar accident years ago when our two young dogs were playing, and on separate occasion seeing a dog catch his paw in another dog’s choke-chain while playing, I strongly oppose these collars. Prong collars are also dangerous, as a second dog can catch a tooth in the convoluted metal, and you can only imagine the chaos that would ensue trying to separate two panicked dogs. Dogs have also been known to catch chain and prong collars on inanimate objects (branches, fences etc.) and have been consequently injured or strangled.

  1. Quick-release flat collars: Even a quick-release flat collar will constrict a dog’s trachea, or can cause injury to the spine if the dog pulls hard or lunges, but they are a good way to ID your dog. If you have a well-behaved dog who doesn’t pull or lunge, this collar is an option.
  2. Martingale collars: Dogs, especially those with narrow heads, such as collies or greyhounds, learn very quickly how to duck out of flat, quick-release collars. When a martingale collar is fitted correctly, it will only tighten to the circumference of the dog’s neck–it won’t constrict the neck when pulled tight. If you have a well-behaved dog with a narrow head who walks well on a leash, a well-fitted martingale collar is an option, though it should always be removed during play or when your dog is unsupervised.
  3. Choke chains: These collars can damage a dog’s trachea permanently. Vera, our rescued German shepherd, had difficulty drinking water throughout the course of her life from such an injury. When pulled tight, in addition to pain and choking, choke chains will also reduce the amount of oxygen flowing to a dog’s brain, thus causing panic and anxiety. They can damage the spinal cord, crush the larynx, and cause many other injuries.
  4. Prong collars: These mimic the bite of another dog. They also induce pain or threaten to induce pain by pinching or puncturing the skin, inducing or increasing anxiety in your dog (your dog will tell you this by lip licking, yawning, pulling back his ears, tucking his tail, and suddenly decreasing his activity level or “shutting down”.)
  5. Shock collars: These collars either induce pain (or even burns), or the fear of pain (stress and anxiety) as do prong collars and choke chains.


I absolutely recommend walking your dog in a harness rather than a collar because it takes the pressure off your dog’s vulnerable neck. Harnesses must be fitted correctly, so follow any instructions that come with your harness carefully. Harnesses that allow attachment of the leash only on the back of the dog can actually encourage pulling due to the “opposition reflex” wherein the dog leans into the pressure of the harness against his chest. You also have very little control over where your dog is headed. If your dog is a puller, I would strongly recommend a harness with a ring in both front and back to which you can attach a leash with a clip on both ends–AND invest in positive-reward training classes. Here are my favorite harnesses:

  • Balance harness: This harness has a ring on the front and the back, and can be adjusted to fit the length and girth of your dog. It can be used with two points of contact where the leash attaches to both the front and the back of the harness for young, boisterous dogs (see below).
  • Ruffwear dual-attachment harness: This harness is padded, comfortable, and has attachment points both on the front of the harness and on the back. It can be used with 2 points of contact if desired (see below). This harness might be intimidating for some dogs to put on as it can be snug going over the dog’s head. Using a delicious treat to guide his head through the opening will encourage him to overcome his hesitation.
  • Freedom Harness: This harness also has a ring both on the front and the back so it, too, can be used with 2 points of contact if desired. It is lined with velvet and has a strap that goes between the dog’s front legs so that it fits securely.
  • Wonder Walker: I have used the Wonder Walker for many years. It slides easily over the dog’s head, but although it has attachment points on the front and back for two points of contact, it should never be used with just the back attachment ring as the dog could potentially duck out of it.
  • Double-ended leash: All these harnesses can be used with a leash that has a clip at both ends. You can attach one clip to the front of the harness and the other to the back, which can give you more leverage with a large, energetic dog. In tricky situations, one hand can guide the front of your dog away from the trigger, while the other hand controls the back end of your dog on a short leash at your side to prevent too much strain on your dog’s shoulder. If there are no distractions, you can unclip the leash from the back of the harness and walk your dog on the chest attachment point only if you desire. This leash is very versatile, easy on the hands, and can be used in several configurations.
  • “Two Points of contact video” coming soon…

Fearful and reactive dogs

I’ve noticed that there seem to be more reactive dogs in our neighborhood than I’ve seen before–dogs who lunge and bark at everything, or dogs who are very timid and scared of the world at large. Anxious dogs have always been around, but during the pandemic, without the ability of owners to socialize their dogs to a variety of people, dogs, cats, vehicles etc. when they were puppies, the current wave of adolescent dogs are at a disadvantage. There has also been a huge increase in the number of adoptions during the past year, and with limited access to dog classes, and since many dogs were initially relinquished for their behavior issues, this has placed this group of dogs at an even greater disadvantage.

Dogs need to be socialized to a wide variety of stimuli when they are puppies (by 12-16 weeks) if they are going to feel comfortable as adults. That means that they must be gently and safely exposed to whatever they might need to cope with as adults before the age of sixteen weeks. If they’re isolated, limited in their exposure to dogs of different ages and sizes, humans (male and female) at a variety of ages, not to mention cats, horses, goats, traffic, etc. they will react with fear when they encounter these stimuli later in life. At best, the fearful dog will do what we would expect (shake, whine, tuck his tail, hide between our legs); at worst, he will “react” (bark and lunge) in an effort to keep the scary thing away. Both these behaviors (and everything in between) tend to be worse when the dog is on leash, as they are trapped and can’t increase the distance between the scary thing and themselves. Both behaviors are fear based.

Reactivity can be a devastating problem that requires a huge amount of training and desensitization to resolve–or at least, to improve. Our reactive German Shepherd, Vera, was chained up and abused as a pup, so although she was a sweet, affectionate dog in our home, taking her for a walk was almost as scary for us as it was for her because she was so powerful, and her barks were loud, angry, and terrifying for the person or dog at whom they were directed. Having visitors to our home was an ordeal too, because in order for Vera to feel safe, everyone’s behavior had to be predictable, and safe distances had to be maintained until she was ready to venture closer to them. Our lives changed significantly for twelve years.

If I have a fearful dog, What should I do?

  • Learn as much about fear, reactivity, and aggression as you can so that you understand them. Dogwise has several good books on these topics. Also, I wrote the novel, Finding Vera, and attempted to understand what was going on in her mind from her perspective to show what it might be like to be a reactive, fearful, and potentially aggressive dog. Many people with reactive dogs have found Finding Vera helpful in increasing their understanding of their companion.
  • Have your dog checked out by a vet. Pain and illness can cause irritability and a reduction in the ability to cope with stress thus increasing anxiety and reactivity.
  • Find a positive-rewards trainer who has experience with reactivity. Your dog will need to learn attention skills, impulse control, to walk beside you on a loose leash (a tight leash adds to a dog’s anxiety), and skills that will help you and your dog to escape tricky situations safely. A good trainer will also use desensitization exercises and Behavior Adjustment Training to help your dog become more comfortable with his trigger(s).
  • Be as calm and confident as possible when out with your dog. Take deep breaths, sing a silly song, keep the leash loose, praise your dog for good behaviors.
  • Don’t take your reactive or fearful dog off leash until you have had them assessed by an experienced trainer. A fearful dog who responds to scary things with “flight” may well run off and get injured or lost, while the dog who responds with “fight” could injure another dog or person, or get injured themselves.
  • Learn to understand canine body language. You can find many in-depth books on canine body language at Dogwise.com.
  • Don’t use corrective techniques with your dog e.g. shouting, hitting, kicking, intimidation, jerking on the leash or collar, wolf-rolling, shock collars etc.
    • Using corrective techniques will aggravate the fear that drives the behavior, making it worse. Think about it. How would you feel as a child if a bear approached you, and your parents hit and yelled at you, shocked your neck, and jerked you by a multi pronged metal collar when you screamed for help? (Keep in mind that a dog’s skin is actually thinner than ours.) As primates, we are hard-wired to yell and hit when we are frustrated or angry, so it’s very gratifying for us to respond to behavior we don’t like (lunging and barking) in this way. I cringe when I hear a dog who is already very frightened scream and run in response to the shock from a shock collar. Unfortunately, this is something I have witnessed many times in the past year.
  • Choose times to walk when there will likely be fewer encounters with the thing that triggers your dog. I used to run with Vera at 5:00 a.m. year-round, rain or shine. Ugh! But she got the exercise she needed, and the additional serotonin released in her brain from the exercise helped her to cope with the world. Midnight is also a good time to walk. Please wear a headlamp when you walk in the dark so a) other people can see you coming and b) so you can see potential threats and respond to them before your dog reacts.
  • Keep a safe distance from the thing that is making your dog react–make a U-turn and go the other way before your dog tenses or starts staring hard at the trigger.
  • If you must pass the dreaded trigger, place your body between your dog and the scary thing. If you can, go up a driveway, into the bushes or woods, or make a wide arc away from the trigger, herding your dog’s shoulder away from the scary thing with your leg.
  • Carry high-value treats such as cooked chicken or steak cut into small cubes, salmon treats, or something very special that your dog LOVES. The instant you see the trigger, start feeding your dog rapidly, one treat at a time and move away from it if you are too close. The treats help to have your dog make a positive association with the scary thing, and increasing distance will help him feel safe.
  • Some dogs have a strong prey drive and will lunge and bark at anything that moves, such as squirrels, runners, cars, deer, cats, bunnies etc. This reaction is not caused by fear necessarily, but is hardwired as part of the chase-bite-kill sequence of hunting. Having your dog sit, “leave it” (you need to teach your dog what “leave it” means) and watch you, and then feed high value treats for leaving the prey alone, will help to dampen this drive for that particular object or animal. It is a very difficult compulsion to modify and finding a trainer to help with this will be worth your while.
  • Make your dog’s life as routine as possible. When his world is predictable, he will feel less fearful. If there is construction going on within earshot, if you mix up your routine, if you move your household, etc., your dog’s anxious behaviors and reactive displays will most likely worsen.
  • If you get a puppy, be sure to socialize him carefully and consistently for the first two years of his life. Although the first sixteen weeks are the most critical, maintaining his socialization is essential.
  • Be aware that fear is the most genetically transmitted emotion, so if a puppy’s parents are very anxious and fearful, the puppies stand a good chance of being fearful too.

Featured photo courtesy of Motoko Lewis and Cedric Meerkat Lewis

Dog Parks Revisited…

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality can be much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

Annie (my collie) studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights can erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights. Humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites (sometimes inflicted by their own dog) when attempting to break up a fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

Shortly after we adopted Vera (our poorly socialized German shepherd), she and Lola (our well-socialized golden retriever) were having a play session. Vera’s play style quickly escalated and became too rough for Lola, who told Vera to settle down by sniffing the ground, turning away, and refusing to further engage in play. In spite of Lola’s efforts, Vera didn’t slow down and kept pummeling her sister (jumping on her, mouthing her, body slamming her). Next, Lola tried to out-run Vera, but Vera caught up to her and took her down. Lola’s last choice was to correct Vera with a lunge and a snarl, which should have clearly communicated to Vera to back off. However, even though these dogs were very bonded, Vera felt threatened enough by Lola’s correction that she attacked Lola and a bad fight broke out. Lola sustained multiple puncture wounds and their relationship was damaged for several weeks. If both dogs had been unsocialized, a fight would have broken out much faster.

In a dog park situation, if the aggressing dog happened to be your dog, you would have to deal with the risk of breaking up the fight, the guilt that your dog harmed another dog, potentially large vet bills to pay for the injured dog, and lots of decisions to make about how to handle, train, and exercise your dog in the future. (You can read about how we managed Vera’s life in my novel, Finding Vera.)

Dogs can also have healthy “scuffles” where a dog who is feeling overwhelmed clearly states “I’ve had enough”. There will be lots of noise, saliva will fly, and the dogs might look like they’re killing each other, but at the end of the argument no harm is done. The problem is, if one of the dogs is poorly socialized and truly feels threatened, he might respond with a full-fledged attack, and if he hasn’t learned bite-inhibition as a puppy, the well-socialized dog could get badly injured. With the large number of dogs adopted during the pandemic, it will be extra important to be careful at dog parks since there will probably be a larger number of unsocialized dogs present than one has encountered in the past.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group. Her mouth is closed, she’s licking her lips, her ears are back, and she’s evaluating her options.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure (or be injured by) another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you want to socialize your under-socialized dog, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed reactivity or aggression. Once aggression has worked for him (it gets other dogs to back off), he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics. 

If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target. 

Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself. 

Leashing your dog at a dog park is not a good idea. It will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you have your well-socialized dog at the dog park, avoid any dog who is on leash.

If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give-and-take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. Owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play and squabbles.
  • I follow these guidelines when I take Annie to the dog park and so far, all has been well.

Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past year, many of us have been staying at home with our dogs, and if we’re lucky, taking our wonderful companions for walks, playing enrichment games throughout the day, training, and generally bonding in a way we didn’t think possible.

Now, as COVID-19 cases and deaths start to decline, and with COVID vaccine distribution ramping up, there are plans to slowly open up the economy. Even if you don’t think your job will restart any time soon, there are several things you can do to prepare your dog for your absence.

If you think about it, when you were working in the past, your dog probably had an adjustment period following your days off. He might have been more excited than usual when you got home from work. He might have emptied the garbage while you were gone, or shown more interest in his toys, or heaven forbid, shown more interest in your toys (the remote control, the couch, a book from the bookshelf, a pair of sunglasses you left on the coffee table). He might have even peed on the floor. These are all signs of separation anxiety, which means that your dog missed you a lot when you were gone.

After having us at home 24/7, being alone for 8-10 hrs at a time will be a shock.

His reaction to your absence could be greatly enhanced after spending 24/7 together for months. Dogs are social animals and very bonded to their families. Even dogs who have not had separation issues in the past will miss their people more than usual after spending so much time together.

For those of you who have adopted new dogs in the last year, your dog’s reaction to being home alone might be even more acute. If your dog has never been away from you and is suddenly stranded for eight to ten hours a day, think how scary, lonely, and boring it could be for him. Some dogs will adjust without any difficulty no matter what, but anxious or scared dogs will most likely have a harder time.

Things you can do to prepare your dog

  • Don’t spend every minute of every day with your dog(s). Having a second dog may not alleviate their reaction to your absence.
    • Start gradually. Close the door when you go into another room such as the bedroom or bathroom, and don’t allow him access. When your dog is quiet, walk nonchalantly back into the room and go about your business, ignoring your dog until he settles. Once he has settled, greet him calmly.
      • This way, you’ll be leaving your dog for seconds to minutes several times a day and he will learn that your comings and goings occur as a regular part of his routine.
      • He’ll learn that you always come back.
Annie waits inside while we work in the garden.
  • Don’t interact with your dog constantly during the day, but make sure he has toys that he can use to entertain himself.
    • Get used to doing things that don’t involve your dog such as reading, working on the computer, or using your phone.
    • If he demands your attention, ignore him, and if he doesn’t stop bothering you, walk into another room and close the door.
    • When he is quiet, calmly return to where you were before he interrupted you, and continue as if nothing has happened.
    • When he settles, you can give him calm, verbal praise and continue what you were doing.
    • This does not mean that you should ignore him for the entire day. Take regular breaks to take him out for walks or play with him, but gradually spread breaks further apart than what you’ve been doing.

  • Be honest with your dog. Don’t pretend you’re not going out, but rather build a positive association with your departure.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase before leaving our girls has always been: “We’re going out and you get to stay here.”
      • When Annie hears this, she lies down in front of the door and waits for the scattering of treats we toss on the floor before we leave.
      • Vera, who had separation anxiety, would not eat treats, but would lie down on the carpet, serious and concerned, and watch us go. I still prepared her a kong which she ate as soon as we returned. We used an Adaptil calming collar for Vera and that helped, but I would also talk to your vet about other options for separation anxiety.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • Another thing you can do is to hide stuffed bones and kongs around the house. Confine your dog(s) while you hide the treats, and release them when you walk out the door. Your dogs will spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. I don’t recommend this for multi-dog households unless you know and trust them not to be food aggressive.
      • Have a positive routine so your dogs know exactly what is going to happen and approximately when you’ll return home. One theory is that dogs have an internal clock, such as we do, to keep track of the time; another is that they can read how long we’ve been gone by our fading scent.
  • Start playing soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz when your dog is relaxing. (Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety.) You want your dog to associate music with a sense of calm and well-being. Once he has that association, you can leave it playing for him when you are out to help calm him.
  • Practice leaving him at home when you go grocery shopping, go outside to garden, or go for a short walk. If you have a new dog, these outings should be very short at first and gradually increase in five-minute increments.
    • Before you leave the house, be calm and quiet. You want your dog’s emotions to be settled and balanced when you leave, not over-stimulated and anxious. You also want your dog to notice little variation in household energy between when you are present and when you are gone. For example, don’t have a rousing game of fetch or chase, or an intense training session right before you walk out the door. Have at least a ten minute quiet-time of not interacting with your dog before you leave, so that the transition is smoother for him.
    • When you return home, the same principle applies. Greet your dog quietly, then go about your business of removing your mask, washing your hands, putting away your groceries, your coat etc. Once your dog settles down, give him a proper greeting. Again, you want to minimize the contrast between the hours when you were gone and the minutes after you return.
  • If you have a new dog in the house, consider separating the dogs with a baby gate or ex-pen when you are gone to make sure they are safe from each other, especially if there is any tension between them. With the increased anxiety caused by your absence, scuffles, or worse, can erupt.
  • If you have just one dog who is new to your household, I would recommend confining him to an area where he is most comfortable so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the emptiness of the house. Be sure he has water, toys, his bed, and a crate if he is crate trained.
Annie relaxing upside down in her ex-pen when we had Vera. We kept them separated when we were out.
  • Other things you can do: observe your dog’s behavior patterns after you leave by hooking up indoor security cameras. This can be reassuring since most dogs sleep most of the time you are gone.
  • Invest in interactive toys (click on link to see Whole Dog Journal’s picks) such as kongs, kibble-dispensing toys, electronic kibble-dispensing toys, and snuffle mats that will keep your dog entertained for the first few minutes you are gone (or longer) and smooth out that critical transition time. Every dog is different, however, and you need to choose toys carefully to be sure they are safe to leave with your dog(s).
  • Start to research daycares where your dog could spend one day a week if he likes the company of other dogs. Or start looking for a dog walk walker who will walk him regularly during your absences.
  • Thinking of solutions for potential problems now will save you worry, time, and money when you return to work.

Feature image courtesy of Motoko Lewis (photo of Master Cedric Meerkat and Mischa).

My dog would never bite anyone… would she?

Dogs are intelligent creatures. They vary as much as we do in personality and temperament, they have complex emotional lives, and they have limits to what they can tolerate. Both humans and dogs are hardwired for aggression and will demonstrate this potential when put in the right situation or exposed to the right triggers. However, there are some differences between species. When humans react aggressively due to anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety, we will often attempt to de-escalate the situation through talking and body language, and only when those techniques fail will we either leave the situation, or escalate our reaction to yelling and hitting–or, in some cases, shooting, if a gun is available and we are scared or angry enough.

Dogs will also try to de-escalate conflict through posturing and body language (lip licks, yawns, sniffing the ground, shaking off, head turns, turning away etc.), but if pushed hard enough, rather than hitting and yelling (which are not options for dogs–although they might bark), they will escalate to their final warnings of growl and snap, and eventually bite. If we can’t read their signals, if we push on in spite of their communications of fear, frustration or anger, or if their signals of growling and snapping have been harshly corrected and erased in the past, a bite will ensue. This is true for all dogs, as even the sweetest and mellowest of dogs will bite when they are placed in bad situations and there’s no way out.

Here are three different examples:

  1. Our golden retriever, Lola, was a very sweet girl. She was eight years old, smart, compassionate, gentle, and had never shown an ounce of aggression to anyone. She did, however, love to eat rotting clumps of grass in the summer. She recognized these clumps from a distance, and for her, “leave it” meant “eat faster!” All eighty pounds of her would launch toward the clumps, and she would drag me over, grab a mouthful, and try to swallow it before I could take it away (which, in retrospect, is a sign of resource guarding). When she was about five years old, she had become very ill from eating cut grass, and since then, I had removed the clumps from her mouth whenever possible. And then one day, instead of passively letting me remove it, she repositioned her teeth while my fingers were inside her mouth, and her molars clamped down on my thumb. She slowly tightened her grip, and she had very powerful jaws. I tried to stay calm and asked her to “give” and to “drop it.” I tried to exchange my thumb for the handful of cookies I had in my pocket. By this time, I was in severe pain, and I was sure she was going to crush my thumb beyond repair. Finally, she released it before she crushed the bone. My nail was punctured and the end of my thumb was bruised and painful for a couple of weeks, but she let go before it was too late. I’m sure she knew what she was doing. She’d simply a had enough of me removing her valuable resource and told me, firmly, to stop. I never removed anything from her mouth again.
  2. I had a friend who had raised her dog, Sandy, from puppyhood. Sandy was a sweet, friendly dog, who had helped to raise two children without any sign of aggression. One Thanksgiving, in an outpouring of affection, my friend straddled Sandy while he was eating dinner, wrapped her arms around his chest, and lifted him off the ground. When my friend tried to plant a kiss on his head, Sandy whipped his head around and bit my friend on the face. She required several stitches. If my friend had tried to get her dog to bite her, she couldn’t have done a better job. What did she do wrong?
    • She interfered with Sandy while he was eating.
    • She straddled and stood over him (an intimidating position for her dog).
    • She wrapped her arms around Sandy–dogs often don’t like to be hugged. Hugging is a primate behavior, and feels confining to the dog.
    • She lifted him off the ground making Sandy feel vulnerable and trapped.
    • Dogs are natural resource guarders, some much more so than others. Sandy was reacting to all of the factors mentioned above, but having his dinner interfered with was most likely the defining trigger.
  3. Another friend, Jane, related a different Thanksgiving story to me. She and her husband had invited friends over for dinner and the friends brought along their toddler. Jane had a very lovely, gentle black lab called Ginger, and the toddler went to play with her–without supervision. The child’s idea of playing was to poke at Ginger’s eyes, and the dog, unable to escape, and in a final effort to protect herself, bit the child on the head, requiring several stitches. The child ended up in the ER and Ginger had to go into quarantine for two weeks at the local shelter. What went wrong?
    • Dogs who are not socialized with children as puppies should be carefully protected from children.
    • Dogs who have not been socialized with children are often scared of kids because of their voices, their movement, their smell, and their unpredictability.
    • Even if dogs have been well socialized with children as I believe Ginger had, children can mistreat dogs without meaning to, and dogs have no reason to trust children they don’t know.
    • Children under the age of five should never be left unsupervised with dogs whether the dogs have been socialized to children in puppyhood or not. Young children have no concept of canine body language nor compassion for the dog, and can inadvertently frighten or provoke the dog.

Tips to keep your dog from biting

  • Never assume that your dog will “never” bite. In the right situation, it is possible.
  • If you have a fearful or easily aroused/reactive dog, the chances are higher that your dog won’t require as much of a trigger to bite. Remember, biting is a normal reaction (though a last resort) to frustration, anger, or a perceived threat. We always considered Vera, our reactive German shepherd, to be a bite risk, so we never gave her an opportunity and carefully planned every interaction she had with people. She was never allowed near children.
  • If you have a puppy, socialize him well with people of all ages, dogs of all types, cats, horses, and anything else you think he might be exposed to in his life. See my blog on “Puppies during the Pandemic
  • Learn to understand canine body language so that you’ll be able to pick up on the subtle signs of stress in your dog. Here is a link to a downloadable poster on basic body language in dogs.
  • Always treat your dog with respect.
  • Don’t do things to intentionally provoke your dog, such as encouraging him to get so excited that he nips, growls excessively, bites at clothes, or body slams.
  • Protect him from children.
    • If you have children, have strict rules for their behavior around your dog–no poking, hitting, yelling, pulling fur, ears or tail, getting near him when he’s eating, surprising him when he’s sleeping, teasing him with food or toys, or taking toys away from him. If your child plays ball with your dog, have him use two balls–throw one, and when your dog brings the first ball back, toss the second ball and pick up the first ball ready to throw again so the child never needs to take the ball away from the dog.
    • Children sometimes get a thrill out of bossing the dog around, which is unfair to the dog, and dangerous for the child.
    • Always have a safe, quiet place for your dog to escape to, and have that area off-limits to the kids.
  • Do not mess with your dog’s food bowl.
    • If your dog freezes, flattens his ears on his head, growls, or eats faster when anyone is near his food bowl, hire a trainer to help you with this problem.
    • If you have a dog who has no problem with people being near his food, add a delicious treat to his bowl from time to time to maintain his trust–that your presence near his bowl means good things will happen.
    • Don’t stick your hands in his food or take his food away. Wait until he is finished eating to remove his bowl. It’s only being fair–and polite.
    • Raising a puppy to eat in a social part of the household such as the kitchen is a good thing. It normalizes activity around food, and will desensitize the dog to having people in close proximity to people.
  • Don’t take things away from your dog without trading a high value treat for his toy.
    • You can practice this with a toy of low value. Give him a high-value treat in exchange for his toy. When he finishes his treat, give him back his toy. Repeat a few times and leave him with the toy. This will build his trust of you taking things away from him in case of an emergency.
    • If your dog isn’t willing to give up a toy for a treat–if he stops chewing when you approach, shows the whites of his eyes (whale eye), growls, flattens his ears on his head, eats faster, or moves away from you, hire a professional trainer to work on resource guarding.
  • Don’t break up a dog fight by grabbing your dog’s collar–you run a good chance of being severely bitten by your dog or the other dog. Here are some things you can try:
    • If your dog has a leash on, you can try to pull your dog away by the leash.
    • Make a loud noise such as clashing two pans together (though who has two pans on a walk?) or blasting an air horn (we always carried one of these when we had Vera, our reactive dog, to keep loose dogs away–one quick blast will stop a dog 50-100 ft away. You do need to make sure it’s pointed away from your dog, and desensitize your dog to the sound before using it in an emergency),
    • Grab both dogs by the hips and pull them a good distance away from each other–though you need two people to do this. Be careful the dogs don’t break away and attack each other again.

Do I want a dog? Or a robot?

It occurred to me after watching Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, perform several complex and independent tasks, that many people want a robot, not a sensitive, independent-minded, opinionated, sometimes naughty and obnoxious canine companion. I must admit, when I’m trying to train Annie a new, multi-step trick, there is something very seductive about the thought of clicking a button or moving a joystick, or even better–to preprogram her to do what I want, when I want. Also, a robot does not need to go out in the rain and wind to do its business, need daily training and mental stimulation (though it might need programming), or go for daily hikes (though as long as the hikes were less than the four-hour battery limit, Spot might be able to go for hikes, too). I could also turn off a robot when I wanted to read or write or watch the tube.

So why have a real dog? I think each of us has to answer that for ourselves. There is no doubt that dogs are a lot of work and a big responsibility when we invite them into our lives. But what we get is the opportunity to share our lives with another species we have, as humans, shared a bond with for thousands of years. One who is willing to learn our language, live in our culture, and spend years with us as individuals being our partners and companions. They read our emotions, learn our language, laugh with us, dream with us, and do our bidding because they choose to. They give us insights into their world of scent, expressing intense emotional responses to things we might not have noticed. They also love us, and scientists believe they are genetically bonded to us through thousands of years of evolution. And not only that, Dr. Stanley Coren, in an article in Psychology today, discusses a study that shows that dogs are not only able to empathize with us, but also to sympathize.

enjoy your dog being a dog:

  • Take time to watch your dog being a dog–playing, sleeping, problem solving, and learning.
  • Consider how remarkable it is that our dogs will do even one of the inane things we ask of them. We can’t explain to them why we ask them to “sit” or “down” or “come” like we can with a child. Dogs do our bidding either because we reward them or threaten them. They certainly don’t do things for us because there’s any logic to our demands. If the tables were turned, what would we think if they took us for a walk, thrust our heads to the ground and demanded “sniff”? I know I would be confused and irate. Our dogs are very tolerant!
  • Realize that the intelligence of dogs cannot be compared to ours or to a robot’s. Dogs have many abilities that we do not, all of which are classified as a type of intelligence: their sense of smell, their sense of hearing, their ability to herd, to track, to run and balance their bodies in activities such as playing Frisbee (kinesthetic intelligence), to hunt, to communicate, and to socialize.
  • Unlike us and the robots we have created, dogs are born with a complex body language which they use to communicate with the world around them in an ongoing flow of phrases.
  • Many dogs have remarkable speed and endurance compared to their size.
  • They can navigate their complex and intricate social structures and have fascinating social interactions with their own species as well as with others (humans, cats, and sheep for a start). In my novel, Finding Vera, I describe many subtle social interactions I observed between Vera and her golden retriever and collie sisters. Take time to observe similar interactions between your own dogs, their friends, and acquaintances.
  • Dogs perceive much of their environment through their sense of smell and can glean detailed information as they pass through their world. By observing your dog carefully, you can sometimes determine whether the odor she’s studying stems from a new dog in the neighborhood, a cat, deer, raccoon, coyote or cougar based on her reaction to the scent. Your dog can also determine which direction an animal is moving by assessing the intensity of its scent. To me, the dogs’ interpretation of this invisible world is nothing short of miraculous.
  • Consider the remarkable ability of your dog to anticipate your return home. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist from Barnard College in New York City, believes that dogs cannot only tell the time of day based on their circadian rhythms, but can tell how long their people have been gone and when they are due back through interpreting the strength of human scent in the house. This is discussed by Dr. Stanley Coren in an article in Psychology Today.
  • Instead of being frustrated by your dog barking at every little thing, try to imagine the world through the sensitive ears of your dog, and how your complex, computerized home resonates with sound. Find a trainer to help you desensitize your dog to the multitude of sounds he might hear if noise makes your dog anxious. Also consider using simple, calm, music to help her to relax.
  • Although dogs can see better in the dark than we can, they can sometimes be alarmed by objects they don’t recognize and will bark in response. Dogs’ vision is not as acute as ours in daylight, and therefore things might appear unexpectedly scary, even to the well-socialized, savvy dog. Reassurance and a treat can go a long way to easing their minds when this happens.
  • Dogs are emotional creatures just like us, and thrive on social interactions and relationships with humans and often (though not always) with other dogs. They can experience the basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not the more complex emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride. Watch for these emotions in your dog as you share your days with her, and don’t expect more of her than she is able to give. Don’t misinterpret fear and submission in anticipation of anger, as guilt.
  • Dogs love to share time with us, delight in our touch, our voices, and our attention. We revel in their warmth, their beautiful, expressive eyes, and their luscious fur. Both humans and dogs find joy and purpose in play and in working as a team.
  • If you find yourself getting frustrated with your dog, try to remember what a remarkable thing it is to share your life with another species. Take a deep breath, and revel in the wonderful individuality of your companion, so unlike the predictability of a robot.

Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

Even during a pandemic, Christmas might be a time of small get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, and to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in our celebrations.

Close family members you haven’t seen for some time might descend on you over the holidays and think they are God’s gift to dogdom. Others might be terrified of dogs. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making once he arrives.

Canine Christmas costumes are available in stores and online and are encouraged by friends and family, even trainers. An endless array of treats and all manner of toys are advertised for dogs. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and forbidden children’s toys for your dog to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for everyone.

Annie and her presents.

a few things to think about:

  • Take a deep breath and realize that Christmas is for us, not for our dogs. In fact, holiday time can be very stressful for dogs, particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has had an uptick in her anxiety level with the rare visitor we’ve had since COVID started. If visitor dogs are added to the scenario, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
  • Plan what your dog will do and where he’ll spend time during get-togethers. When we had Vera, our human and dog-reactive German Shepherd, we chose not to have more than one or two visitors to the house at a time, and we always introduced her to them in a consistent manner. We also monitored her closely for the duration of the visit. In many ways, COVID has been kind to our reactive dogs.
  • Even if your dog loves people, he may enjoy socializing for 15 minutes, then will need some time away from the noise and bustle to decompress. He may love to be around adults, but be somewhat uncomfortable around children. (Being “OK” with children is not the same as loving kids.)
  • Think carefully about whether to invite canine visitors into your home. Even if he does enjoy doggie friends, in a high-stimulus environment, it’s not unusual for dogs to get over-aroused and erupt into squabbles.
  • Even well-behaved dogs can get over-stimulated and eat, spill, or break things they usually wouldn’t.
A quiet, peaceful room for Tessie away from the chaos.
  • Set up a safe, quiet, comfortable area for your dog to spend time away from the chaos. Supply his space with some of his favorite, indestructible toys, his bed, and a bowl of fresh water. Visit him several times during the day or evening, take him outside and play with him frequently, and allow him to visit with company only as much as you think he enjoys.
  • Try to keep this season as routine as possible for your dog, and maintain his daily exercise and playtime routines. Feed him his regular diet, and keep new treats and chews to a minimum.
  • Be careful to choose gifts for your dog that are safe. A toy that is safe for one dog might not be safe for another depending on the strength of his jaws and his behavior. Some dogs like to destroy or dissect toys, some just like to spend time with them.
  • When dispensing gifts in multi-dog households, put your dogs in different parts of the room–or even separate rooms–to avoid resource guarding of the treasured items. Even if your dogs don’t fight, one dog will often be forced to give up a valuable toy by the dog who has greater access to coveted resources in the canine relationship.
  • Know where to call and who to contact if your dog ingests something unauthorized.
  • Review a list of potential poisons for your dog at Christmas.
Annie works hard to resist the forbidden cookies…but if I wasn’t there, who knows?
  • Be careful not to leave human food lying around–desserts, candies, turkey bones (potentially fatal), bread, cheese, chips, etc. Even well-behaved dogs can lose their manners when things are left at nose level, and a poor decision could put him in the hospital. Placing your dog in his safe place might be a good idea during times when humans are eating. Also, inform guests not to feed your dog since they could inadvertently give your pet something toxic.
  • Marijuana baked goods and artificial sweeteners can be very toxic to your dog and result in hospitalization. Some dogs like alcohol, which is also extremely toxic to dogs–they can lap it directly from a glass or from the floor if a drink spills. Even alcohol-infused desserts can be dangerous.
  • Before you purchase or dig out your dog costumes for Christmas, think for a minute. As Suzanne Clothier points out in her book “Bones Would Rain From the Sky“, it is wise to ask your dog, “how is this for you?” If your dog shows signs of stress such as shaking off, licking his lips, yawning, putting back his ears, tucking his tail, or if he tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely reindeer costume, put it back in the box. On the whole, dogs don’t like to be dressed up, and even new harnesses and head collars need a desensitization period.
Annie refused to let this Santa hat near her unless she was allowed to play tug with it, so I asked
Bruno, our faux dog, to help out.
  • Because the Christmas season is a stressful time for our dogs, it is important to understand that your dog is more likely to be reactive, anxious, and prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house or snapping at/biting humans–like the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging Fido while he’s eating dinner.
  • It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors due to high stress and arousal levels.
  • If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost or miss loved ones at this time of year and the season might trigger a grief reaction) take time to play with and walk your dog. It will not only be reassuring for your dog, but will make you feel better too.
  • Be vigilant and careful. By looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for everyone.

Getting a new canine companion? Things to consider.

There is nothing more exciting than planning to adopt a new dog or puppy. Every time my husband and I have anticipated bringing a new dog into our lives, we’ve planned, dreamed, shopped, and dreamed some more. This excitement is largely due to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brains that makes us desire things. The book The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman M.D. and Michael Long points out that desiring something and actually having it are two entirely different things. In terms of dogs, this means that the urge to get a puppy or a dog might be very different from the way we feel once the puppy is home unleashing his needle-sharp baby teeth on our skin when all we we want to do is play or snuggle. Or the distress we feel when he messes in the house or shreds our favorite shoes. It is also hard to deal with a newly acquired adult dog who barks incessantly at every new noise he hears, cowers at the sound of a garbage truck, or acts like every person or dog he passes is his arch enemy. We might want to love our new dogs, but the very act of caring for them before we’ve developed a strong relationship can be crushing. This was the case with Vera, our beloved German shepherd in the featured photo above. My novel, Finding Vera, is a fictionalized account of our life with her.

It turns out that unwanted behaviors are not uncommon in puppies or newly adopted dogs, and while time and patience and help from a good trainer will get you through this initial period and allow you to develop a deep, lasting love for your well-behaved, adoring dog, the first months or even the first year of living with them can be challenging. So, whether you’re getting a puppy or dog for yourself or someone else, there are many things you can do to prepare for the initial phase with your new companion.

Puppies, although absolutely adorable, require exponentially more time, attention, and training than you could imagine. It’s well worth the effort, but before you bring a puppy into your life, you need to be prepared for an immediate change in your lifestyle. I would also recommend downloading the two books Before You Get Your Puppy, and After You Get Your Puppy by Dr. Ian Dunbar for some good advice on how to get off on the right foot with your puppy.

That said, the deep emotional bond we build with our dogs is worth every minute of work we put into them. We need to understand that just like us, they are intelligent, emotional creatures who crave companionship, communication, love, and stability in their lives.

Things to Consider

  • Before you start to plan, consider if you really, truly want a dog. Dogs are expensive (they have allergies, illnesses, and injuries that require vet visits; both you and your dog require education and training; many breeds require regular grooming. Dogs can be very annoying and demanding of your time, they can be destructive, they can bark much more than we feel they need to, and they can have behavior issues that could change your life. You can’t take them to National Parks (other than to drive through and explore a few brief designated walks). They get wet in the rain and require their paws and coats dried whenever they come inside (and dogs do need to live inside with us). Many breeds require regular grooming–at the very least, all dogs need their nails trimmed and teeth brushed on a regular basis to avoid problems in the future.
  • If you still want to get a dog, think about what kind of dog will suit your lifestyle. Are you someone who hikes a lot? Runs? Mountain bikes? Do you want a companion to accompany you? If so, you would want to look at dogs who are athletic rather than dogs who have less endurance. For instance, large breeds such as German shepherds (who can be plagued with joint problems) and giant breeds might not be the best choice for you if you are a runner or mountain biker, whereas medium-sized hunting or herding breeds, or mixes might do better. For example, our golden retrievers have always had much more endurance than our collies. Pushing dogs to do more than what they are capable of can cause injuries and exhaustion.
    • If you have a calmer lifestyle and don’t get out as much, choose a breed that doesn’t require as much exercise, realizing that the stimulation and exercise of a thirty minute daily walk is important for all dogs. Terriers are often high-energy dogs who require training, mental stimulation, and daily exercise, so though they are smaller, they might not be a good choice for someone with a more sedentary lifestyle.
    • Consider the age of the main caretaker. If you are getting a dog for a child, realize that if you adopt a puppy, he’ll be with you for 12-14 years, and will most likely be your responsibility (not your child’s) for most of his life. If you are an older adult (or getting the dog for an older adult), realize that you won’t be able to handle a large, strong dog like you once did. I met an older woman once who had adopted a Great Dane puppy because she’d always had Danes. Within the first year she had fractured her shoulder and had many other injuries from being pulled down by her dog.
  • If you are adopting a dog from a shelter, realize that once you get him home, your new companion will likely be very different from the dog you met at the shelter or foster home. Although I knew and worked with Vera at the shelter for six months before we adopted her (we didn’t want another dog, but I couldn’t bear to lose her to euthanasia), her behavior changed significantly a short time after we got her home.
    • If you can, meet your dog at least a few times before taking him home so you get to know each other.
    • If you have other animals, plan how and when you will make introductions.
    • Get your supplies ready, and prepare an area where he will feel safe when he’s alone. Sometimes the entire house is just too much space, and a small room such as a mudroom with his bed, toys, crate, and water (with all non-dog articles, such as shoes, removed) in a location separate from your other animals, will help to keep your house safe and keep your new dog feeling secure. Sturdy baby gates can help with this and are versatile enough to allow you to separate your new dog from your other animals until they are comfortable together. Barriers will come in handy throughout your dog’s life. Assume your new dog will not be house trained when you first bring him home, and his safe area can be used to help house train him.
    • Decide who in your family will walk your dog, train him, and feed him before you bring him home. Consistency in handling and routine will help him to adapt more easily. Decide what things you’ll allow your dog to do in your home such as: will he be allowed to get on the furniture, or sleep in bed with you etc. It’s always best to start off with stricter rules until you get to know your dog well. Some dogs are pushy, others are not.
  • Find a positive rewards trainer in your area. Even if you’ve trained a dog in the past, your new dog could have challenges you might never have known existed. A trainer can help you work through these issues. We’ve lived with several dogs during our lives, and they’ve all had different problems. We’ve loved them all deeply, but all have had some at least one challenging behavior we’ve had to learn to work through.
  • Dogs are most often relinquished (1.5 million dogs per year) or euthanized (670,000 dogs per year per ASPCA statistics) because of behavior issues, so by getting help with training and behavior issues early on, you greatly increase the chance that you and your dog will have a successful, life-long relationship. Preventing unwanted behaviors is the best way to help your dog, and whether you are adopting a puppy or an adult dog, a new start with clear boundaries is a great way to help him be a responsible member of society.