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.

Protect your dog from the cold!

Colder temperatures are descending upon us, and even if winter hasn’t yet arrived where you live, it’s important to plan ahead. Dogs can suffer from cold just as we do. Those with double coats (an outer layer of longer water-repellent fur with a deeper layer of dense undercoat) might be more comfortable in the cold depending on the the breed, but even they should be monitored closely. Single-coated dogs, smaller dogs, and older dogs are at particularly high risk for problems associated with cold temperatures.

Tips to protect your dog

  • If your dog hasn’t had a wellness exam within the past year, now might be a good time, since certain conditions such as arthritis can be aggravated by cold temperatures.
  • Consider the age of your pet. Both very young and senior dogs will have a more difficult time regulating their temperatures, and senior dogs are also more likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, Cushings disease and arthritis that will put them at risk for cold intolerance.
  • Dogs with single layer, short coats and those with less body fat will be very susceptible to cold temperatures. Smaller dogs will also have a more difficult time staying warm, and therefore a small, thin, short-haired dog such as a chihuahua will be particularly at risk.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia: shivering, lethargy, grey or pale gums, stiff muscles, and lack of coordination such as stumbling.
  • Walk your dog during the warmest part of the day.
  • Bring your pets inside in below-freezing temperatures–even cold-tolerant northern breeds. Dogs can get frostbite and hypothermia just like people. If your dog LOVES being outside as did Vera (our special-needs German shepherd in the featured photo above), check on your dog frequently when temperatures dip below freezing. We would set the alarm and make Vera come inside every ten minutes to warm up.
  • Offer raised beds off the floor for single coated, thin, and older pets. The temperature on the floor is always a few degrees colder than at couch level. Also, offer these dogs blankets when the temperature in the house dips below 60-65 degrees.
  • Clip the fur between your dogs’ pads to prevent snow and ice buildup between their toes. Wiping your dog’s paws after walks will help to remove chemicals from his paws. Using a product such as Musher’s Secret can prevent snowballs from forming between his toes, and also protect his pads from deicers used on streets and sidewalks. Another option is to put boots on your dog when you take him for walks. Ruffwear and Chewy have several options.
    • Your dog is unlikely to enjoy his boots the first time you put them on. To get him used to them: Let him sniff one of the boots and put a treat on it. Praise him for his interest in it. Next, put one boot on one of his paws, encourage him to walk a few paces, praise and treat him, then remove it. Repeat. Over the next several days, increase the number of boots you put on him and the length of time you keep them on. Make sessions fun. Take him for short walks or play his favorite games. Always be upbeat and positive.
  • Check your dog’s pads regularly for fissuring and splitting.
  • Consider getting a warm coat for your dog, particularly short-coated, small, and older dogs. Again, Chewy and Ruffwear have some good options.
  • Keep your dog away from ice on rivers, lakes, and ponds. In Bellingham, we had a disaster a couple of years ago where one of two dogs and their owner drowned in a pond when playing fetch. The ice was thinner than the owner anticipated, and the dogs broke through. The owner drowned trying to save them.
  • Your dog might need more food in the winter to maintain a healthy weight. Weighing your dog regularly will help you monitor the amount of food he needs.
  • Remember, always keep your dog safe.

Listen to your dog!

There are so many different ways to listen to your dog: barking, vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions. Yet how good are we at understanding what they are saying? We think we can tell when our dogs are happy because they wag their tails–but this is only partially true. The position, rate, and pattern of tail wagging changes depending on what they are trying to communicate. We label them quickly when we think they are being naughty or stubborn because they don’t do what they’re told. Yet dogs always have a good reason for not doing what we ask of them and try to communicate that to us–though we might not understand or agree. When they tremble and whine, we might think they are scared. Maybe, but these signals could also indicate excitement or pain.

For example, in the Featured Image above, Vera is telling me she is not enjoying the hug I’m giving her. Her mouth is closed, her face tense, and she is looking as far away from me as as she possibly can. I’m enjoying it, but she is NOT!

Dogs are much more complex than we give them credit for. They have an entire language with which they can communicate excitement, arousal, contentment, affection, stress, fear, anger, joy, disgust, shyness, and suspicion according to Dr. Stanley Coren. (They do not feel the more complex emotions of guilt, shame, pride and contempt.) They also have opinions, preferences, and motivations. They are thinking, emotional creatures with brains similar to ours, and they communicate with us all the time. Since we have invited them into our homes, it is not only polite and respectful to learn their language, but we owe it to them to do so. After all, we expect them to know ours–whether we teach it to them or not!

I recently watched a webinar by Julie Shaw VTS-Behavior, addressing the question of stubbornness in dogs. She reflected my own experience with dogs: if dogs don’t want to do something, there’s a good reason for it. Either they don’t have a clue what you want them to do (they haven’t been adequately trained and don’t understand the words or signals being used to direct them), they know something you don’t (as with Annie when she refused to go down a path–we found coyote tracks in the snow twenty feet further down the trail), they are in pain (as in a friend’s dog who refused to get into the car), they’re scared (a shelter dog refusing to go through a doorway into the unknown), or they know they will dislike what will happen to them if they do what’s being asked (a dog who is expected walk politely over to the tap for a bath). Dogs don’t tend to do things randomly any more than we do. There is always a reason, and if we stop to think about what they’re telling us, we can often figure it out and modify our expectations. But we need to have the patience to do this.

How to listen to your dog

  • Watch your dog more closely than you have in the past. Even those of us who have studied canine body language for years can benefit from doing this. We become complacent over time and start to miss cues.
  • Purchase a good book on canine body language if you don’t have one. I recommend Brenda Aloff’s book, Canine Body Language, a photographic guide, but there are many other books out there. My novel, Finding Vera, is full of canine body language used by the dogs in the story to navigate their lives. In part, I wrote it as a way to educate readers on canine behavior and the language of dogs, while enjoying a good read.
  • Download a free poster on The Body Language of Fear by Sophia Yin.
  • Watch some canine body language videos, or look at photos of dogs’ facial expressions on the Eileen and dogs website to get a better understanding of your dog’s emotional state in different situations.
  • Watch your dog closely when you take her on walks. It’s always interesting to see where dogs sniff. Unfortunately, we tend to discredit their sniffing behavior because we don’t smell or see what they are sniffing. It is thought that they can smell in layers–a complex tapestry of input to them, like us looking at a multilayered sunset or view. By seeing how they react to certain scents, we can learn a lot from them. For instance, I’m now able to determine from Annie, our three-year-old collie, whether the dog who just passed by is new to the neighborhood (increased excitement and persistence in sniffing the air flow behind the dog), whether a neighbor just got a new dog (she’ll stop and air sniff while pointing directly at the dog’s house until I respond), or a coyote (she’ll sniff every inch of the ground and vegetation deliberately, then curtail her walk). If it’s a dog she’s familiar with, she’ll sniff, then move on.
  • Observe if there are places your dog likes to go, and places she doesn’t.
    • For instance, some surfaces might be harsh on a dog’s paws, for instance gravel paths, or sand–especially on a long walk. Your dog might hang back, ask to go on a different trail by pointing her body in that direction, or turn around and ask to go back to the car. It’s hard to know how sensitive dog’s paws are on rough surfaces. Some don’t seem to mind, others do.
    • Wild animals such as coyotes or cougars might frequent the area and your dog might make the very smart decision to return to the parking lot, even though you are oblivious to the danger.
    • Your dog might be fearful of a dog who barks at her from behind a fence and hang back, shake off, scratch, or try to turn back the way she came. Her communication shouldn’t be ignored. You could turn back and go a different way, arc around the barking dog, or put your dog on the side of you away from the scary dog, feeding her treats as you pass.
    • Your dog might be hesitant to go to the dog park because even though she’s well socialized, she doesn’t like interacting with a group of wild adolescent strangers. Don’t force her to do this. She knows better than you how well she can handle the situation.
  • See if there are places she likes to be touched and places she doesn’t.
    • Often the first indications of emotional or physical discomfort will be licking her lips, turning her head away, or yawning. If you don’t listen to these signals, she might escalate her communication to moving away from you, staring at your hand, or even mouthing your hand.
    • Her sensitivity could be due to an injury, a sore muscle, or past association, but a visit to the vet might be in order if this is a new behavior.
    • She might not enjoy being touched as much as you think. Many dogs love our companionship, but only enjoy being touched in certain ways at certain times. Even Annie, our well-socialized, happy collie only likes to be touched when she asks for it by coming over to us, weaving between our legs, or barking and stretching and acting silly on the couch. We make a point of stopping our snuggles before she moves away.
  • When you’re training your dog, watch closely to see if you’re communicating well with her. If you are, she should be paying attention and engaged in learning. If she starts to become confused or overwhelmed, you might see her licking her lips, turning her head away, scratching, yawning, or trying other behaviors. Our golden, Lola, used to lie down and refuse to move when she was confused. Tess would nip at me and bark. Annie will try different behaviors, and eventually get silly. The other day in her Treiball class, she ran around the room visiting the other dogs and their people when my expectations were too high.
  • Listen to your dog’s bark. Dogs have different barks and vocalizations for different things. Remember, barking is an excellent form of communication as is growling (an important warning that they’ve been pushed far enough.) A dog should NEVER be punished for a growl since the signs of low and moderate stress levels could escalate directly to a snap or bite if the growl has been suppressed. Turid Rugaas’s book, Barking, the Sound of a Language, is an excellent resource on barking.

Learning to understand and communicate with your dog is extremely rewarding. As you become familiar with her language over time, more and more subtleties will become apparent to you, and the bonding you experience over the years will be worth the effort.

Say YES! instead of NO!: thoughts on positive-reinforcement dog training.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for 34 years, and dogs have been my passion for even longer. When I started training, we followed the corrective methods forged in the military: put a chain or prong collar on a dog and jerk to get the behavior we wanted. Sometimes, if our dogs did it right, we’d give them a cookie. Though our hearts often broke for our dogs, we trusted our teachers.

Using positive training methods allows dogs to be happy, creative, and eager to learn.

Thankfully, research has since shown that harsh training methods (angry, raised voices, often shouting “NO”, jerking and popping, using a prong or chain collar, hitting your dog, or using spray bottles–to name just a few) can not only injure your dog emotionally, but damage your relationship with your dog in much the same way that abusive behavior can damage human family relationships. Dogs can also be injured physically from some of these methods. For example, throughout her life, Vera, our German shepherd, had difficulty breathing when she drank due to a damaged trachea from a choke chain which was used on her in her first home. Even expert military trainers are now using positive methods. Why? Because dog and handler must trust each other implicitly and their partnership must be absolute.

Clearly this puppy is experiencing joy! His mouth is open and relaxed, tongue showing, eyes soft, and no wrinkles of anxiety around his mouth or on his forehead.

It is thought that dogs have emotions equivalent to a two and a half-year-old child. They can experience joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not guilt. When they experience fear–and they do experience fear from punishment-style training (see Sophie Yin’s poster on “the body language of fear in dogs,” and then observe your dog’s reaction to corrections closely), they might respond in a number of ways such as: “shutting down” (emotionally withdrawing from the situation), handler-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, or aggression toward strangers. They might also develop anxiety and ongoing anxiety-based behaviors such as self-inflicted sores or hot-spots, in-home destruction, relieving themselves inside the home, separation anxiety, or learning difficulties.

The trouble with punishment-style training is that it often works in the moment. It’s therefore very reinforcing to the handler because the dog will often stop what he’s doing out of fear and to avoid further punishment. This gives the handler a sense of gratification. Unfortunately, the dog doesn’t learn how to change his behavior. He just becomes more anxious, often increasing the unwanted behavior. A dog’s ability to learn diminishes as stress increases, just as it does in humans.

The other thing that makes punishment so rewarding to us is that as primates, we are hardwired to shout and use our hands to hit when we are frustrated or angry, so the very act of punishing our dogs can feel like the right thing to do and make us feel better about training our dogs.

What to do instead…

Transitioning to positive methods can be hard. I know, because I’ve done it. Positive methods feel permissive, like they don’t have “teeth.” However, by not reinforcing “bad” behaviors, and by rewarding the behaviors you are looking for with praise and/or treats, your dog will become enthusiastic about learning and working with you. Being consistent 100% of the time, and preventing unwanted behaviors by planning what you want him to do in advance, actually works!

Say, for example, you want your dog to stay off the couch. Rather than yelling at him to get off, you could block his access to it with baby gates, or put something such as books on the cushions to dissuade him from getting up in the first place. By NEVER allowing him to get on the couch, and by planning short training sessions where he’s rewarded for NOT getting onto the couch (you could toss treats on the floor next to the couch, or give him a special chew toy on his bed in the same room), he will learn to stay off the furniture without fear of being punished for making a mistake. Before long, he’ll stay on the floor and won’t attempt to get onto the couch.

This is a clicker from the Karen Pryor website.

Using a clicker or a marker word such as “YES” followed immediately by a treat, is a fun, positive, and very effective way to teach your dog skills without fear or intimidation. Due to the release of chemical mediators in the brain, anticipation of the treat is just as powerful a reward as the treat itself. The click or word “yes” actually marks the precise behavior you want to reinforce in your dog, and the treat follows within two seconds. Watch this short video of Vera (from Finding Vera) introducing clicker training.

A “reward” can be anything your dog likes. It can be food, praise, a toy, doing a favorite trick, or getting a chest scratch. The reward is given to your dog as payment AFTER he completes the behavior you request, or when he makes a good behavioral choice. Guiding one’s dog to make the correct choice is part of our job as trainers and dog parents, and it’s your dog’s right to be paid for a job done well.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement training methods, contact a professional trainer through CPDT or KPA to help you make the transition. If you haven’t already tried positive reinforcement training, I’d recommend that you do so. Using positive methods is not only immensely rewarding to both you and your dog, but will strengthen your relationship in ways you might not have thought possible.

Puppies during the Pandemic

In the last few months there has been an explosion of puppy adoptions–not only on my block, but nationwide. Since a significant part of the workforce is working from home, people are using the opportunity to add a new companion to their family. There are lots of advantages to this: the whole family is at home so the puppy won’t be left alone for long periods of time, house training should be easier if everyone is able to pitch in and take the puppy out frequently, and training your puppy basic skills might be more fun and more consistent if everyone does it together.

But, there are also some disadvantages. The most critical disadvantage of having a puppy during this pandemic is the lack of ability to socialize your puppy. Socializing puppies in the first 12-16 weeks of life is essential for a well-balanced temperament. It’s very difficult for dogs to catch up later on in life, and serious behavior issues can evolve if puppies don’t get the right kind of socialization during this window period. My husband and I spent twelve years trying to rehabilitate Vera, our rescued reactive German shepherd. She was plagued by a fear of strangers and dogs which manifested in aggression throughout her life, in large part due to lack of socialization as a puppy and young dog–not an easy fix. You can read the details of this difficult undertaking in my novel, “Finding Vera”.

Vera, although a wonderful companion who strove to do everything “right”, was always fearful of and aggressive to other dogs and strangers, largely due to her lack of socialization in puppyhood.

Another disadvantage to having a puppy during the pandemic is that classes for puppies may not be up and running in your area due to COVID-19, especially with the current surge in cases. So having your puppy exposed to and interacting with small groups of puppies will be more difficult than usual, and getting expert advice on how to manage and train puppies in a class setting might be risky or impossible. If you’ve never had a puppy before, you might feel overwhelmed.

TIPS and resources for Parenting and socializing Puppies

Milo at 6 months socializing with Annie (18 months) before COVID-19.
  • Since there is a small risk that COVID-19 could be spread to pets from sick humans, the CDC currently recommends keeping dogs six feet away from strangers. There is, however, “no evidence that the virus can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of pets,” according to the CDC.
    • Based on this information and depending on your risk factors for COVID-19 (such as age and underlying health conditions), while wearing a mask you might choose to socialize your dog with other puppies, friendly dogs, and people at the end of a six-foot (or slightly longer) leash. (You would need to ask permission first.)
    • Always allow your puppy to approach the person, child, or dog, (not vice versa), especially if he is shy . It’s important to strive for your puppy to have only positive interactions with strangers and the environment.
    • Don’t force your puppy to approach anyone or anything he’s afraid of. Give him time and encouragement to investigate on his own, then if he’s still reticent, allow him a break before going back to try again. Trying to force him to interact with something he’s afraid of will only undermine his confidence. This includes swimming.
    • Think about scheduling outdoor play sessions with friends’ puppies and well-socialized dogs in a safe setting while still socially distancing from other pet owners, wearing masks, and having hand sanitizer available.
  • There is also a middle ground depending on where your comfort level and risk factors for COVID-19 lie.
    • If you are uncomfortable being six to ten feet away from other humans, by praising and treating your dog whenever he looks at a dog, child, adult, cat, horse etc, you can build your puppy’s confidence. By giving him a strong positive association with other people and creatures at a distance, he will stay positive and interested in them, even though he won’t be interacting directly.
Certified professional dog trainer and puppy specialist, Siw Lea, takes a moment with Annie at 16 weeks.
  • Consider hiring a certified dog trainer for private lessons outside the house rather than inside. The investment of time and money will be well worth it, and with a mask and social distancing, you should be safe from COVID-19. Working with a trainer, you’ll learn more about how to train your puppy, socialize him, what his behavior means, and how to manage him than you can possibly imagine.
  • I recommend the following two books by Ian Dunbar “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy“. Both are downloadable from these links. They will give you excellent advice on errorless house training, socialization (which will need to be modified as I described above), how to set up your house to manage your puppy more effectively, and much, much more.
Annie resting in her long-term confinement area as recommended by Ian Dunbar in “After you get your puppy”.
  • Be cautious which type of training you choose for your puppy. Over the last twenty years, science has shown that positive-rewards training (reinforcing the behaviors you want your puppy to do with treats and praise (rather than correcting him for what he does wrong), is much more effective. Training by rewarding your puppy for doing the right thing and redirecting or preventing unwanted behaviors is not permissive, but strengthens the life-long bond you will have with your puppy. Watch for my next blog explaining this type of training in more detail.
  • Safe and effective ways to keep puppies from biting” is an excellent article on teaching bite inhibition (how puppies learn to control their bite).
  • Other puppy resources you will find helpful:
  • Remember that puppyhood, while challenging, lasts a relatively short period of time. Puppies need lots of attention, guidance, and training for the first two years of their lives, but if you put in the time and effort, you’ll have a wonderful, well-behaved companion. While dogs often need gentle reminders of our expectations throughout their lives, they will do very well after the first two years.
  • Enjoy your puppy!
  • I’ll republish two short stories I wrote a couple of years ago about our first experience with puppies, long before I was a dog trainer. These crazy puppies are long gone now, but they taught me a lot and spurred me on to become a dog trainer. They were well-loved until they died of old age many years ago.

Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past several weeks, 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 in some areas, there are plans to open up parts of 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, 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 when you were gone–a lot.

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 been spending 24/7 together. 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 two months, 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, 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 exit.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase 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.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • When Tessie and Lola were older puppies (past the age of consuming paper), I would hide stuffed bones and kongs and small paper bags with a few treats in them all over the house. They would be confined while I hid the treats and released when I walked out the door. They would spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. There was no resource guarding or jealousy between them. (I don’t recommend this for dogs you don’t know extremely well and trust implicitly, and who aren’t 100% compatible, especially around food.)
      • In every case, our dogs had a routine and knew exactly what was going to happen. They knew we were going to return home.
  • When your dog is relaxing, play soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz. Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety. You want him to associate the music with a sense of calm and well-being, so you can leave it playing for him when you are out.
  • 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 for any period of time 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).

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

COVID-19 and working from home–with a dog

COVID-19 has filled our lives with challenges that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. But one of the silver linings of being quarantined at home, as most of us are at this particular time in history, is that for better or for worse, we get to stay home with our dogs. This could be a good thing–or it could be overwhelming. Every dog is different. For my husband and myself, staying home with Annie, Tess, or Lola–three well-socialized, well trained dogs we were lucky enough to share our lives with–would be far different than dealing with our rescue, Vera–the wild, untrained, anxious, reactive German Shepherd described in my novel, “Finding Vera“–twenty-four hours a day.

When I first decided to write a blog post about COVID-19, I decided to write about how the virus interacts with dogs. But since new information is coming out daily about the virus, I will instead include this link to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Social Tools resource on that subject.

When you stay home with your dog:

Realize, right from the start, that there are two beings (at least) involved in the changes that occur when you stay home from work:

  • First and foremost, your dog(s), who has had an entire apartment or house to himself five days a week for as long as he can remember, where he can snooze undisturbed for up to ten hours a day, chew on toys, and look out the window or play with his sibling(s).
  • Secondly, you (and everyone else who is staying home), who are most likely in a state of stress. Your dog can not only read the level of stress that you’re under by observing your body language and the pitch of your voice, but by using his exquisite sense of smell. Your house will also be louder with kids running amok, conversations, telephone calls, laughter, computers, television, and games etc.

Things to think about:

  • Start to integrate structure into your routine right away. This is will tell your dog right from the start what your intentions are so he can go about his day accordingly. By knowing what you will be doing in advance, he won’t be plagued by the anxiety of wondering what his new role is. Dogs love routine and structure in their lives, and setting things up in a way that will work for you both right from the start will benefit everyone. Expect an adjustment period at the beginning while you both adapt to your new lifestyle.
  • The old adage “A tired dog is a good dog” rings true. Plan to spend time walking your dog before you start your day. When my husband and I had three dogs, that meant getting up early–at 4:30 AM–to be sure the dogs were tired and exercised before work. Working from home without a commute will give you more time, so get up early and take your dog for a socially-distanced walk before you buckle down in front of your computer. Adjust this walk to the age, energy level, and interests of your dog, being sure it is quality time for each of you. You’ll be more clear-headed and productive after some time outside, and your dog will be more relaxed and ready for a nap.
  • Decide where you want your dog to be while you work, and what you want him to be doing. Even if you aren’t actually moving your job home, you might have projects you’re focused on, or creative endeavors that require concentration such as playing an instrument, writing, painting etc. If your dog is mature, he might just need some loving and a chew toy to settle down. However, if you have a puppy or a demanding adolescent, or if your work or project is making him anxious, you might need to set up a quiet, comfortable enclosed area with water, his favorite bed, chew toys, and a stuffed Kong or two.
  • Decide how often you will take breaks with your dog. It isn’t fair to expect your dog to be a perfect dog for 8 hours in a row with his favorite companion at home. Nor is it reasonable for you to work for 8 hours without a break. You might decide that you will take a break every two hours. Set your alarm.
  • Think about how you’d like to spend break times with your dog. Would another short walk together help to relax you and your dog? Would a wild game of fetch distract you, and help you and your dog laugh together? Would snuggling on the couch or playing “find it” with a few low-fat treats give you the contact you both need to mellow things out after a bathroom/ potty break?
  • Dogs who are exercised a lot tend to become more and more fit, requiring more and more exercise to tire them out. However, exercising their brains tires them out in an entirely different way. Ten minutes of training your dog (I call it playing with my dogs), by teaching them a new skill or trick, having them find an object with their noses, or teaching them to be creative, can leave them content and ready to pass more time on their own, plus it relieves you of the guilt you might otherwise feel if you were to ignore your dog.
  • Be consistent with your dog. This means that if your dog is being demanding of your attention by nudging your hand or elbow, barking at you, asking to go outside, then asking to come in again repeatedly etc, respond in the same way each time. You know your dog, and can most likely predict what his attention-seeking behaviors will be. Decide how you will respond to them ahead of time and respond exactly the same way the first time every time. Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be strengthened and be harder to break. The best way to deal with unwanted behavior is to ignore it. Shouting at or hitting your dog not only gives him attention, but will damage the bond you have build together. For instance, if your dog bumps your elbow for attention don’t ignore it the first four times, then absent-mindedly start petting him the fifth time he does it. You have to stay the course since unwanted behaviors will often get worse before they improve. If you do respond to him, he will be much more likely to continue trying to get you to respond to his nudge one more time.
  • Be patient with yourself and your dog. He/she knows it is a difficult time for you and so her behavior could well be more clingy, barky, or unpredictable than usual. Spend short periods of quality time with her through the day, and it will pay off by building an even stronger bond between you.

The Long and Short of Retractable Leashes

Annie hikes on a deserted trail on her Flexi

There has been a lot written about retractable leashes. However, after a neighbor’s small dog rushed across the road, barking and growling and snapping at my ankles, I decided to write about them too. You see, the dog wasn’t loose, but was on a flexi leash with the owner firmly attached to the other end.

I used to use Flexi leashes almost exclusively when I first had dogs, but over the years I’ve learned the hard way. Retractible leashes are seductive because we all want the best lives possible for our dogs, and allowing them more freedom feels like the best possible answer. The first time I realized they were potentially dangerous was when Tessie, my drama queen of a collie, lunged at a car. For some reason, the lock on the handle of the Flexi didn’t work, and if her lunge hadn’t been so fast and hard that it jammed the mechanism, she would have been lost under the wheels of the car.

Why not use Extendable leashes?

There are many reasons not to use extendable leashes. I will list some of them here:

  • Dogs can’t learn how to walk on a loose leash when walking on a retractible leash for the following reasons:
    • the length of the leash is always variable, so they have no idea what distance they should be from their handler.
    • there is constant pressure on the leash due to the nature of the spring mechanism, so your dog gets accustomed to the sensation of pulling.
    • if your dog pulls harder, the leash extends which encourages your dog to pull.
  • Retractible leashes can cause friction burns and amputations to both dogs and humans. I still have a burn scar on my hand from the time a Flexi cord wrapped around my little finger. I was trying to walk our head-strong, powerful golden retriever down a trail when she decided to go after a deer. Somehow, the cord got wrapped around my little finger, and I was lucky not to sustain an amputation. If the leash gets wrapped around a paw and your dog panics and bolts, it can cut off the circulation and cause, if not an amputation, then permanent damage. Even the tape-type extendable leashes can cause injuries.
  • It is impossible to control your dog on a retractable leash. One doesn’t have the dexterity, strength, and manoeuverability to effectively work with a dog on an extendable leash. Consider this when walking in situations where your dog is around traffic, other dogs or animals, people–particularly children. A friend of mine got into a difficult situation when his dog-reactive dog sprinted out from his side before he could engage the lock and wrapped another walker with his retractable leash. The man was hobbled by the leash, fell to the ground, and was bitten by one of the dogs in the ensuing chaos.
  • Keeping your dog safe is impossible if your dog is 26 feet from you. Reeling in a dog on a retractable leash from a distance away from you is cumbersome and takes time. Dogs have been hit by cars on retractable leashes when they arced into the road. If your dog is walking 20 feet ahead of you, and the road is 5 feet to your right, it only takes seconds for your dog to dash in front of a car in pursuit of a squirrel. I had another friend whose dog was attacked by a deer when walking on a retractable leash. Luckily, the little dog was not badly injured.
It’s easy for dogs to wander into trouble using extendable leashes if you aren’t aware of your environment.
  • Allowing your 15-26 foot leash to extend based on your dog’s whim can end badly. Not all dogs enjoy meeting other dogs, and many people are either neutral to dogs or afraid of them. This was a recurrent problem when we had Vera, our reactive German shepherd. She was always under strict control, and as vigilant handlers, we kept her at least forty feet from other dogs at all times. Imagine our horror when a strange dog, walking on leash at his handler’s side, ran toward Vera, unfurling his Flexi behind him. This situation happened many times and never ended well. Vera was always fearful and angry when a dog entered her bubble. She would lunge and bark like a maniac as we dragged her further away, while the the owner on the other end of the leash looked on, baffled. I have heard many owners of reactive and fearful dogs comment over the years on how much they detest retractable leashes because of this type of scenario. We finally learned to avoid any dog on a retractable because their handlers were often distracted and oblivious.
Annie and Chi chi greeting on Flexi leashes. It is easy for dogs to get tangled in this scenario so it’s best to avoid meet and greets with retractable leashes.
  • Dogs who greet other dogs on Flexi’s are potentially at risk. If your dog is friendly and you allow him to greet other dogs while on leash, think about the number of times you need to thread and weave apart the leashes, sometimes dropping them so the dogs don’t get tangled. You can’t do this nearly as easily with extendable leashes, and if the dogs do get tangled, things can escalate very quickly, leading to panic and fights, and serious injuries to both dogs and humans.
  • Large, powerful dogs can actually break the leash or snap the cord, especially when they build up speed before they hit the end of the leash. Unless the dog has a good recall and is being walked in a safe place, he could get into all kinds of trouble. In addition, the broken cord can whip backward injuring the handler.
  • Shoulders and fingers have been dislocated and broken when a charging dog hits the end of the leash. If the handler hangs on and is jerked off his/her feet, falls can cause sprains, fractures, and/or abrasions. Dogs can be injured by the force exerted on the neck, trachea, or shoulders, depending on what the leash is clipped to–collar or harness. Retractable leashes should NEVER be attached to a head collar as they can easily cause severe neck injuries.
  • If the leash is jerked from the handler’s hand, the dog can panic and run from the noisy, bouncing plastic handle gaining speed behind him, forcing him into traffic or other dangerous places. This traumatic experience of being chased by the handle could also impact the dog emotionally and leave him with a permanent fear of the leash–or something else in his immediate environment that he associates with the event.

OK, so when do you use them?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have used retractable leashes in the past. To me there is no greater joy than watching my dogs have a good time, and retractable leashes make this more likely than a restrictive 6-foot leash. There are a few situations where the risk of using a retractable leash are minimized.

  • We would sometimes attach a Flexi to the back of Vera’s harness and allow her to wade on deserted beaches, always careful to keep the leash free of the water so it wouldn’t get tangled in her legs, logs, or seaweed. This, of course, wouldn’t have worked for her when she was young and wild.
Vera enjoys watching an Orca on a deserted beach using her Flexi
  • Training for recall: When you are teaching your dog to come to you. This can be done more effectively on a longline (a long, light nylon leash) where the slack can be gathered up so your dog isn’t feeling the type of pressure on the harness that I mentioned earlier. Your dog should be well trained and relatively calm if you use a retractable leash for this–not jumping, wild, and pulling constantly.
  • Walking a well-trained dog in an area where there are few people and you can see who’s coming at a distance such as fields or parks. Since our girl, Vera, was never able to walk off leash, we used a Flexi when we walked her as a well-trained middle-aged and older dog at the local cemetery and at a few selected parks where there were strictly enforced leash laws. We always carried a 6-foot leash with us in case we saw a loose dog in the distance. This way she was able to wander and sniff and enjoy some independence in relative safety.
  • Playing ball with your dog on a retractable leash is another option if you don’t have a fenced yard, or if you are in a wide- open area and don’t want your dog to run free. Again, you’d need to be aware of your environment to keep your dog safe.

Which Retractable leashes should you use?

  • Avoid inexpensive retractable leashes. You want to be sure that the mechanism inside is of good quality, because if it fails, you have no way to effectively get your dog back to you without grabbing the cord or tape, and this can lead to significant injuries.
  • Avoid cord-type or wire extendable leashes. They can cause very severe injuries and cords can snap if a powerful dog hits the end of the leash at high speed.

Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

Christmas is a time of family get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in whatever we might choose to do at any given moment.

Extended families and long-lost friends might descend on you over the holidays, some of whom may think they are god’s gift to dogdom, while others might be terrified of dogs, even small ones. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making.

And then there are the dog costumes at stores and online, encouraged and modeled by friends and family, even trainers. There are a gazillion choices for treats and all manner of toys. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and new children’s toys to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for both you and your dogs.

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 times can be very stressful for your dog(s), particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has an uptick in her anxiety level with multiple visitors. And if visitor dogs are added to the puzzle, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
  • Plan what your dog will do and where he’s going to spend time during get-togethers and parties. 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.
  • Even if your dog does love people, he may enjoy them for 15 minutes, then 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. Does your dog enjoy having other dogs in his house? 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 normally 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 the valuable toy by a more dominant dog.
  • 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 (can be 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.
  • Marijuana baked goods 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 shakes off, licks his lips, yawns, puts back his ears, tucks his tail, or tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely annual 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 even a Christmas hat near her unless she was allowed to play tug, 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 more prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house, or snapping at or biting humans (think about the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging your dog while Fido’s eating dinner).
  • It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors to the house due to high stress and arousal levels.
  • If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost 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.
  • By being vigilant and careful and by looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for all of your family.

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.