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Is My Dog sick?

There are many veterinarian-authored articles that articulate the precise symptoms to watch for to decide whether or not your dog is ill. In this blog, however, I’m going to talk about the more subtle signs to watch for in your dog.  It’s not always easy to tell if your dog is just tired or really not feeling well–if you should jump to attention and rush to the emergency vet, or let time pass and observe him.  These are some things I’ve learned after 35 years of living with dogs. 

Tips for understanding your dog

Dogs communicate with their bodies. The tension and lines in their faces, the position of their ears and the wrinkles on their brows communicate only part of how they are feeling. The arc of their backs, the position of their tails,  and their level of energy, whether panting and pacing, leaping and barking, or curling into a lethargic ball all give us clues. Sometimes dogs who don’t feel well will cling to us, sometimes they will keep their distance and refuse to be touched. Every dog is different, and that makes it difficult to decipher their signals until you know your dog well. 

Lola would curl into a ball and sleep when she was in discomfort or didn’t feel well. Since she was a couch potato at home, this was easy to miss.
  • Get into the habit of observing your dog carefully. Your dog is constantly communicating with you, the other pets in your house and the world around him.
  • Get a good book on canine body language such as Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language” to help you interpret his normal signs of communication.  
  • Watch for changes in energy patterns…is your dog panting and pacing more than usual? Is he suddenly more energetic or frantic– more outgoing or crazy than normal? Is he sleeping more than usual? Not as interested in being near you? Is he clinging to you?  Is his back arched? These behaviors paired with a decrease in appetite, diarrhea stool or blood in the stool, vomiting, limping etc, could tip you off that he is experiencing more than just an isolated symptom, and that your dog is feeling ill or is in pain.  In other words, you should contact your vet ASAP.  
  • An arched back along with panting and pacing could be associated with abdominal pain, and a call or trip to the emergency vet is definitely advised as this could be very serious. 
  • Lola would shut down when she wasn’t feeling well, but Vera would pant and pace, or leap and spin and bark, unable to settle. Her behavior could be mistaken for a sudden surge of playfulness, where in actual fact, paired with a decreased appetite, we would finally figure out that she was in pain.
Annie did not want to be touched one minute, and the next minute would be asking for attention when she was feeling ill earlier this week. Here she is moving away from me as I try to play with her.
  • Annie, who recently had blood in her stool, let us know how dreadful she felt by avoiding physical contact one moment, then appearing by my side and asking for reassurance the next. She refused breakfast and treats, but then ate a small amount in the afternoon. Rather than settling for a nap after her snack, she became frantic to get outside and walked quickly ahead of me at the end of the leash, her head down, the sides of her mouth pulled back in stress, tail tucked, and was not at all interested in the smells that usually capture her interest.  At that point, we took her to the vet.  
  • Lip licking, yawning, and turning away from you are other signs of stress and though dogs use these signals constantly to negotiate space, they can be used more frequently in conjunction with other body language if they are not feeling well. 
  • Looking directly at your hand, and tensing or flinching or moving away when you touch certain parts of their bodies–legs, paws, back or abdomen, could alert you that the area is painful.
  • Take some time to get to know your vet before you actually need to visit him/her. Having a trusting relationship with your vet is as important as trusting your own doctor. 
  • Have emergency phone numbers in your phone. Animal Poison Control hotline has poison expert veterinarians available online 24/7, and the Pet Poison Helpline offers help 24/7 to both vets and owners at 800-213-6680.

“Finding Vera”–The perfect Christmas Gift !

“Finding Vera is the best dog-related novel I’ve ever read, and I also learned more from it than any other.” lsgraham

Finding Vera might be the perfect gift for your dog-loving friends and family! Written by a certified dog trainer and based on true events, it is filled with sadness, joy, and laughter. At its heart, Finding Vera is a love story that combines a fast-paced novel with canine behavior, body language, and the heartache and fulfillment that comes from living with a special needs German shepherd. 

Finding Vera is available at Village Books in Fairhaven, Bellingham, and on Amazon.

Experienced and inexperienced dog guardians alike will be impressed by the writer’s depth of knowledge and understanding of dogs’ relationships with other dogs and with humans. It’s a deeply felt and emotionally compelling story based on the author’s life with three very different dogs. Even though it’s obvious the author was more experienced than most dog lovers and dog trainers when she adopted Vera, she articulately conveys how much she learned from the drama-filled years she had with these three amazing beings.”

“I laughed, I cried…I felt strong emotions throughout the entire book. I’m recommending it to everyone who loves dogs, to those who would simply like to know more about them, and especially to folks who have ever struggled with a dog whose challenges changed their entire world. People with reactive dogs, in particular, will find invaluable support and insight within these pages. But regardless of your background or experience, it’s a riveting story you won’t be able to put down.”

Aged to perfection: our wonderful senior dogs!

Helping our older dogs through their senior years is one of the greatest joys we can experience in dog parenting.  It’s important to remember that dogs aren’t concerned about their age. We are.  They experience the process of aging without judgement or despair. However, because we can anticipate the complications of aging, we can monitor their health and activities and help them age in the best way possible.

Tips for senior dogs

Don teaches Vera to play the guitar.
  • Every dog ages at their own rate depending on breed and size.  But regular exercise, while ensuring that they maintain a healthy weight helps to keep them fit and happy.
  • Senior dogs should be evaluated by the vet twice a year–or any time you notice a change in behavior or new symptoms. Many conditions that dogs experience in their later years are completely treatable or manageable, but the earlier a symptom is evaluated, the more likely that treatment will be successful. It’s important to keep in mind that the passage of time is different for us than it is for dogs, and that a month in a dog’s life is a significant amount of time.
  • Holistic vets can also help to keep older dogs with chronic conditions comfortable by using herbs and supplements that Western vets are unfamiliar with.
  • Pet insurance can be priceless when caring for your older dog.  It’s best to get pet insurance when your dog is younger, because preexisting conditions are not covered by pet insurance. There are many amazing diagnostics and treatments available for dogs now, but they can cost thousands.

Exercise

Vera walking at Bayview Cemetery
  • Daily exercise is important to maintain muscle strength both to support joints, and to keep joints lubricated and flexible.  However, exercise tolerance can change quickly.  In general, shorter, more frequent walks or hikes are better for older dogs than long hikes. Long walks on pavement may may bother arthritic joints.  Watch for things such as lagging behind you, limping, and pain and stiffness after a walk.  Adjust their activity accordingly and take your long hikes alone if you have to.  Forcing dogs to exercise beyond their comfort level will cause more harm than good, but avoiding exercise altogether is just as bad.
  • Swimming in a heated pool is a great way to exercise painful, arthritic joints and stretch and strengthen muscles all year round. The benefits will stay with your dog for days after the swim. We swam Tessie and Lola every other week for two years at Lap of Luxury in Lynden, and it made a huge difference to both of them. The benefit of one 30 minute swim would last for up to ten days.
  • Massage and gentle stretches can help to increase blood supply and maintain range of motion.

Comfort

  • Older dogs have more difficulty managing their temperature, so be careful not to leave them out in the heat or cold for long. Vera always wanted to lie outside on the icy deck, even when she was 13 years old and very thin. We’d set the timer for 10 minutes, then bring her inside to warm up.  She’d always ask to go out again.
  • Be sure your dog has a thick bed that doesn’t “bottom out” so he can be comfortable at night.  If a dog’s appetite diminishes, he can, as Vera did, get very thin.  We got Vera a new, beautiful bed when she was 12 years old, but the newness of it made her so anxious that she crawled on top of us in the night and tried to climb the wall behind our bed.  I had to send it back. Oh well!
  • Get ramps that allow your dog easy access to the furniture and the car. With the help of your vet, consider equipment such as wheelchairs for your dog or rear-end supports to help him up and down the stairs.
  • If your dog has difficulty climbing the stairs to bed, consider sleeping downstairs with him.
  • Watch for signs of pain when you groom or stroke your dog.  Increased panting, licking or yawning, or looking at your hand when you touch certain areas, can be indicators of discomfort. Discuss with your vet or holistic vet.
  • If your dog’s appetite dulls, definitely have your dog assessed by the vet.  Vera had cancer toward the end of her life, and her appetite was very fickle. I offered her a different food with each meal. The fridge was crowded with treats for her.  I would feed her sometimes from one of our pottery bowls or plates, sometimes from my hand, sometimes from a spoon.  I would try several different treats offered in several different ways, eventually up to six times a day to get her to eat just a little.  Until her last couple of days, I was almost always successful.

Vera wouldn’t eat from her regular bowl, but when placed on one of our dinner dishes, she cleaned the plate!

  • Watch for signs of medication side effects such as dizziness, irritability, drowsiness or fatigue, anxiety, panting and pacing, even with medications your dog might have tolerated in the past.  Tessie, our collie in Finding Vera, had a terrible time with tramadol and neurontin the last couple of months of her life, whereas she’d done very well with them for a couple of years before that.
  • Piddle Pads or water-proof beds can help with incontinence. 

Enrichment

  • Be motivated to give your dog mental enrichment and focused exercise daily. This keeps them mentally sharp and keeps their muscles limber and strong. It makes their lives worth living.  If you’ve read “Finding Vera“, you know how limited Vera’s life was because of her anxiety which manifested as aggression.  However, I was able to make up for her limitations right up until the day she died, by teaching her tricks and new skills, doing Nose Work, and allowing her choices within the scope of her limitations. Our play sessions were the highlight of her day.
  • ACTIVITIES TO MENTALLY STIMULATE YOUR DOG:
  • Buy a good book on dog tricks and learn them with your dog using lots of enthusiasm and easily digestible treats. Keep in mind that high-fat foods/ treats can predispose older dogs to pancreatitis (both Vera and Tess had pancreatitis at different times, and it’s a painful and potentially lethal illness).
  • Obstacles: stepping through a ladder laid flat, circling around cones, chairs or table legs, navigating tunnels, targeting and  triggering target buttons, placing front paws up on a low platform, etc. Use your imagination! As your dogs age, their tricks may need to be modified.


Annie and V 10_24_17
Annie and Vera shortly after 6 month old Annie was introduced to our home (Vera 13 years).

Adding a new puppy or dog to your household is always a choice that will certainly provide enrichment for your older dog, but your senior dog must be protected.  Don’t depend on your older dog to correct your puppy.  You can use ex-pens, baby gates, crates and tethering to accomplish this if you need to.  Remember, older dogs  may be grumpy and short-tempered so it’s in the best interest of the puppy or new dog in the household as well as your senior dog to keep them separated unless they are being carefully supervised–at least until they are very comfortable together and there is no friction in their relationship. We had to be extremely careful bringing Annie home to Vera.  To find out how we did it, sign up for my newsletter.

Help! My dog barks at everything!

In my last post, “My dog is driving me crazy!” I talked a little about barking, what might cause dogs to bark, and things you could do to stop them. In this post, I’m going to focus on dogs who bark inside the house.

Ceddie barks to encourage play in the house. Courtesy of Motoko Lewis

Turid Rugaas lists six different types of bark that are recognized, in her book “Barking, the Sound of a Language“: excitement, warning, fear, guarding, frustration, and learned, also known as demand barking. I would like to add that dogs and their people can share a very quiet personalized communication system of polite barking or soft “woofs” if you take the time to listen and respond to your dog’s polite requests.  If these requests are ignored, frustration may escalate into a full-blown barking frenzy. For instance, Annie will “woof” if she needs help finishing her kong, getting a cookie out from under the fridge, or needs one of us to let her inside from the deck or to take her outside to do her business.  Her “woof” always means something specific and important, so we pay attention and it has never escalated into a full-fledged bark.

Remember, first of all, that dogs communicate through body language AND barking. Therefore, if our dog is barking, we need to take the time to figure out why they are barking and what they are trying to communicate.  As with humans, dogs can get frustrated when we don’t respond, and bark louder. Gadgets such as the citronella bark collar (according to studies cited by John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense”), only work for a period of about a week.  Dogs quickly become habituated to the odor, and revert back to their old barking pattern if nothing else changes. They may also become habituated to shock bark collars and endure a higher and higher level of harmful shocks as their owners desperately try to quiet them.

Examples and training tips of how to handle routine barking inside the house:

  •  If your dog hears a dog barking down the road and responds in kind, you can acknowledge his barking with a “thank you!” (for alerting you) and “done” (for “you’re finished now”). 
  •  Distract him from the sound with a toy or a treat, but have him do a trick or two before you give it to him, otherwise he may think you are rewarding his barking.
  •  If he listens to the sound quietly, however, reward him with several treats one at a time while he listens, praising him for being quiet.  If he goes right back to barking, calmly put him in his crate, close the windows, turn on music, or move him to a different room where the sound is softer for ten minutes maximum to help him to calm down and allow his adrenalin levels to return to normal.   This is not a punishment.
  •  If your dog sees a deer, cat, dog or human through the window and barks:
  •  You could look at the individual with him, thank him for telling you about it, then lead him away with a treat placed in front of his nose.
  •  Ask him for a sit, down, or trick then reward him. If he wants to watch the individual, try to catch him BEFORE he barks, and treat him again and again while he is QUIET.
  •  Keep the blinds closed unless you are working with him.
  •  Shouting at our dogs to be quiet only adds fuel to their frenzy and proves to them that there is something worth barking at, since their person is joining in too.
  •  Ignoring them for doing their job of alerting us to a potential threat is disrespectful.
  •  Remain calm, firm, and unfrazzled.
Annie watches a deer with interest after Don reinforces her with several treats and praises her for being quiet.

Fear barking

There are also dogs who bark at sounds because they are afraid. Dogs’ ears are remarkably sensitive, and they can hear high frequencies that even those of us with the most acute hearing aren’t aware of. For an anxious dog, the world of technology inside the house and the ambient sound of traffic, construction, air traffic etc. from outside can be overwhelming. The more your dog is triggered by these noises, the more likely he’ll be to bark at things that scare him. Dogs who alert fearfully to all these sounds can drive us to distraction.

Training Tips for fear barking

Ceddie and Motoko work on their dance routine. This gives Ceddie mental stimulation, exercise, increases strength, balance, and coordination and increases his bond with Motoko. Photo courtesy of Eric Lewis.
  • Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Analyze your environment for sounds that may bother him: the sound of the radio or television, the alert sounds of your smart phone, the beeps or noise of the dishwasher, dryer, or washing machine. Think about your heat pump and furnace fan, your computers, your iPad etc.  Think about how you can modify these sounds for him.
  • Have a safe place for him to retreat to–a cozy crate or quiet room where he can feel safe.
  • Monitor the sound of human voices in your home.  Keep children quiet while inside, and watch how your dog responds when you get into animated conversations with your partner. You may have to moderate your tone of voice while your dog builds confidence.
  • Play calming, classical music, or “Through a Dog’s Ear” to help to mask upsetting sounds and relax your dog.
  • Consider use of a ThunderShirt. Studies and surveys have shown it to be effective in decreasing anxiety in dogs when applied correctly.
  • Find a trainer who can help you to work with your dog, and to identify the triggers. A trainer can help to formulate a plan to desensitize him to the things that scare him.
  • Visit a veterinarian or holistic vet who can evaluate your dog for medication, or point you in the direction of calming supplements. Vera, our reactive German shepherd, was scared to death of garbage trucks on Friday mornings, and when her fear generalized to every morning of the week, only a combination of Prozac and Adaptil (a pheromone collar) helped to relieve her anxiety. 
  • If your dog is afraid of fireworks check out Victoria Stilwell’s post on fireworks.

Special thanks to Ceddie, Annie, Motoko and Don for being such wonderful models.  Ceddie is a true clown and actor. I considered him “almost unadoptable” as “Banjo” when working with him at WHS, but my friends, Motoko and Eric, have turned him into a delightful, clever, happy, dapper almost-gentleman.

“My dog is driving me crazy!”

I have certainly had this thought more than once, be it based on our well-trained, well-socialized golden retrievers or collies, or our wild-child German shepherd rescue, Vera.  The thing is, dogs are a different species from us. They perceive the world based on senses far more acute than ours, and respond to genetic impulses that are ingrained in their DNA and their beings–to chase, to sniff, to guard, to herd are a few we are all familiar with. They have different ways of coping with the stressors of daily life–loneliness, boredom, overstimulation, fear, frustration. They find pleasure in behaviors we label destructive. When we  are unhappy or stressed, we might chew our fingernails or call a friend to vent. Our dogs, however, may lick  their wrists until they bleed, relieve themselves on the living-room carpet, jump on us and tear our clothes with their teeth or claws in desperation–or execute any one of a multitude of other behaviors we don’t understand.  Dogs can also garner great satisfaction from barking, digging, dissecting toys and beds, jumping up to greet us, scratching holes in the carpet, playing “keep away” with our favorite shoes, or eating excrement–things that make us tear out our hair.
Ceddie with slipper
My godson, Ceddie, plays keep-away with slipper. Photo by Motoko Lewis
When we make the commitment to live with a dog, we need to understand on a very deep level that dogs are not TRYING to drive us crazy.  They don’t scheme to make us angry.  There is always a reason that they act the way they do. Dogs are much more than furry balls of behavior. They are thoughtful, aware, emotional beings who go through life trying to cope in the best way possible with a very complex environment. And they are dependent on humans,  a species far different from themselves–a species that might stare at them, reach out to them, scream or shout, or approach them directly–all things that are simple human behaviors but at odds with polite canine social interaction. It can sometimes get to be a bit much for even the best of dogs! That said, even though I understand all this, even though I’m quite fluent in canine body language and have a good grasp on canine behavior, my dogs can still, at times, drive me crazy! They may be acting out just because it feels good and is therefore self-rewarding. Or they may want to play with me as I’ve ignored them for the past hour or have been gone all day–and still don’t want to interact with them, not just yet. They may be frustrated, or need to go out. They may be responding to the dog barking down the street or the chronic, irritating, or scary sounds of construction next door. Or they may just be anxious because my behavior is unusual as I pack to go on a trip. They are always trying, just as we are, to get the things they need and want, to understand and have some control in their environment, and to communicate with us in the best way possible. It is up to us as their closest companions to figure out what is going on.

How do I make him stop?

The premise that drives all the behavior training I do is this: I analyze the situation carefully to figure out what is causing the dog to behave the way he does, and then manipulate the environment or change the dog’s focus or position in a way that will make the behavior, even the earliest evidence of the behavior, stop–before it happens. This can take a lot of mental energy and creativity on the part of the trainer, but if a plan is well thought out and applied consistently, this will solve, or at least significantly improve the problem. The complexity and effectiveness of the plan and the time it takes to actually change the behavior depends on the behavior in question, the genetics and background of the dog, and the consistency of training. This is where hiring a talented, skilled, experienced trainer comes in–someone who can help you to figure out what is causing the problem and work out effective steps to modify it.
Ceddie pulls Dob-dob's tail
Ceddie harasses his older sister, Dob-dob. Photo by Eric Lewis. Rarely, it will be a quick fix as it was with Annie tearing up her sister’s bed (see below), but it may take months or longer to change as with reactivity. In all cases, though, it is a compromise between the dog and the human, paying close attention to the needs and limitations of what’s fair to the dog and acceptable to the human. Remember, the dog is an individual too, and he comes with some very strong, hard-wired instincts.

Training Tips and examples of how to apply this concept:

Annie looking down meadow
We chose to buy a cover for our new couch for Annie after Vera died. She is much easier on the furniture.
Example: getting on the couch: Vera, our German shepherd, loved to jump on the couch to look out at the meadow behind our house. She eventually shredded the back of the couch with her long nails, and we replaced it with a new, more expensive couch. But how could we change this highly rewarding behavior and keep her off it? Although it was emotionally hard to to deprive her of her beloved perch, we blocked her access to it with ex-pens and baby gates for six months so that she NEVER had the opportunity to jump up. When the six months were up, we removed the barriers, only when we were there to watch her. She  tried to get up on the couch once the first day. We firmly ordered her to stop just as she approached it, then enthusiastically rewarded her with treats and praise when she backed off. After that she never tried it again, even when there were deer in the meadow. Training Tip: Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be much harder to break than those that are consistently reinforced. So by ALWAYS allowing Vera up on the couch for the first few years we had her, then NEVER letting her up on the new couch, the outcome was much more successful than if we had let her up on the couch sometimes and not at other times throughout the process–both before and after we made the change.
Example of a more complicated problem–dog barking non-stop in car:  The barking started the moment one of my clients picked up the car keys, and it continued until they arrived at their destination, sometimes hours later. I had the
dog car rabies
Dog unhappy about being in car.
couple start by randomly picking up the car keys.  As soon as the man touched the keys, his wife would feed the dog a number of high-value treats and vice versa until the dog relaxed and looked at his person with expectation when the keys were touched, then picked up, then held.  I had them continue this desensitization procedure, step-by-step, until the dog could jump quietly into the car for a few seconds, eat one treat after another, and then jump out again without uttering a sound.Next, I had them sit in the car with him, and feed and stroke and praise him. When he was relaxed with that, I had them drive the length of the driveway and back. Eventually, they were able to drive with a quiet, happy dog.  Done slowly and correctly, the dog never barks throughout this type of training.  It took about eight weeks for this particular dog to become comfortable with short car rides. The dog could not go out in the car (unless he was being trained) for the entire program of desensitization, or the process would not have worked. You would not want to compromise your hard work by taking your dog to a distasteful destination such as the vet or groomers until he felt rock-solid in the car and had had many, many positive experiences. As you can see, the process was complicated and had many steps.  This is where the support and expertise of a good trainer can help tremendously.
  • Training Tip: When desensitizing a dog to something they find scary, they must not be exposed to the trigger without careful planning, or their progress will be set back. This can take a lot of mental effort on the trainer’s part.  It takes a long time to change a dog’s emotional response to things that scare him. Obedience training can help to give him skills that can be used during desensitization, but they don’t work on the dog’s emotional response to the things that scare him. If you have a reactive dog, hire a trainer to help you.Annie in V's crate
  • Example–destroying a dog bed: When Annie went into her sister’s crate and tore up Vera’s foam bed, we decided to close the crate door and prevent Annie from accessing the bed–except that then Vera didn’t have access to her sacred space. We also kept leaving the kennel door open accidentally, thereby intermittently reinforcing Annie by sometimes allowing her to tear up the foam, and sometimes not. It was an easy fix in the end. By wrapping the foam in a sheet, the texture of the bed was changed enough that Annie left it alone and lost interest in V’s crate. It would not have been this easy for all puppies. We never gave Annie this type of bed. Vera was very particular in what beds she’d accept, and foam with a mat on top was what she wanted. Period.
  • Training tip: Dogs barking outside: Dogs can bark outside in response to many things.  Read Turid Ruggas’s book “Barking, the Sound of a Language” to help you decide the type of bark your dog is using.
    • Your dog might want to come inside.  Honor this request.  If you’d rather he didn’t bark to ask to come in, teach him to sit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH4NcodzEAo), and reward him by opening the door for him. If you choose to have him sit, you need to understand that unless there’s a window in the door and you’re actually in the room, you won’t know when he’s asking to come in unless he makes a noise. Be fair.  It’s all about communication.
    • He may be bored. Ask yourself if he’s been exercised that day–and how much. Has he had any quality time with you? Is there anything for him to do out there by himself.
      animal dog pet dangerous
      Over aroused dog, barking.
    • Dogs shouldn’t be left outside unattended any time–especially while you’re at work. They can feel vulnerable, exposed, over-stimulated by traffic, pedestrians, or dogs in the neighborhood, or bored. They may find it hard to relax and sleep. Being inside in a safe place with lots of chew toys to enjoy after a good morning walk will help them to have a quiet day.
    • Are his physical needs being met? He may need water or shade or he may be cold. Listen to what he’s telling you.
    • He may be talking to the other dogs in the neighborhood. If you want him to stop barking, bring him inside.
    • Remember, barking dogs are hard on the neighbors, especially at night and can cause major conflicts.  Barking for prolonged periods may be against the law in your area.
    • Bark shock collars are not a fair option for dogs. They shut down normal, healthy communication and leave your dog feeling helpless. Your dog’s barking may be replaced by a worse behavior that’s more difficult to change and more destructive than what you’re already dealing with.
  • There are hundreds of behaviors that dogs can exhibit triggered by different situations and emotions. If you have any that you’d like me to discuss, please contact me and I’ll try to address it on my blog.
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Kids and small dogs at dog parks

child and puppy wiht flowers
The ideal time to socialize a dog to children is under the age of 16 weeks. These two look happy and relaxed together.

We have a fantasy from “Lassie” and other movies that kids and dogs go together. Small kids, babies, big kids…they are all depicted as being special companions to dogs.

Kids and dogs can get along well:

  • IF the dog has been raised with kids through the first 16 weeks of life or has at least been socialized intensively with kids during that period. If not, dogs are often scared of kids, or at least wary of them. There are hundreds of “funny” or “adorable” photos and videos on the internet of kids interacting with dogs that make my stomach roil–the dog’s body language is filled with distress–the next second could erupt with a bite to the child and consequent punishment, isolation, or euthanasia for the dog. Dogs usually communicate when they are being pushed too far, but unless the parent can direct the child to respect their signals, we can predict that the dog will be forced to react physically i.e. a growl, snap, or bite.
boy and dog
The boy is having a great time, but the dog isn’t–his mouth is closed, face tense, eyes wide,  and brow furrowed.

IF the socialized dog and child are carefully monitored while together and the guardians know what stress signs to watch for in the dog. A dog that is just tolerant of children is not the same as a dog who loves children, and should not be forced to spend with them. How do you tell if your dog is happy with kids or not? Eileen Anderson has a fabulous website with excellent photos of canine body language you can view.

Children at dog parks

So, if you consider the above information, think about kids at a dog park:

  • You don’t know the dogs at the park.
  • You don’t know how much socialization they’ve had with children.
  • One dog may be anxious about the way your child runs, jumps, waves his arms, shouts, or plays with his toy.  Children’s movements are erratic and unpredictable. Kids smell different, they are small, their voices are high.
  • Another dog may be outright afraid of children and express this fear through aggression to which a child might scream and run, further terrifying the dog and triggering prey drive in other dogs.
  • Small children can get injured easily if dogs in full play bump into them.
  • If a child were to get in the middle of a squabble between dogs, he could be bitten inadvertently.

Even if your child has successfully gone to dog parks many times, it is always a big risk. Children do get bitten by dogs.

Small dogs at dog parks

Below you see two dogs–Annie~50 lbs and Lucy~25 lbs.  They have different play styles and although they are figuring things out, there are behaviors present that bear watching.

lucy annie still4
Lucy (small dog) is pestering Annie (collie). You can see Annie licking, her mouth is closed, and in the video she turns away again and again. She isn’t happy with this style of play.
lucy annie still3
Annie wants to chase Lucy, and finally sees her chance. Lucy runs away at full speed. Annie chases with an intensity I haven’t seen with larger dogs–no bouncing, just a low, fast, charge, hackles up. Lucy is intimidated. Her tail comes down and she tries to hide, then takes off again.
lucy annie still2
Lucy wheels around and stops Annie in her tracks and control is back with Lucy. They pause, sniff the ground.
lucy annie still1
Then they play bow to each other in a shared communication of “it’s all in play”.  For part of the play, however, they were very aroused and intense. There were behaviors present I hadn’t seen with Annie when she played with larger dogs. Think about how things could evolve with dogs who didn’t know each other and where their size differential was much greater.

Small dogs love to play, just like big dogs. However, small dogs risk injury at dog parks with big dogs:

  • They can be seen as prey to the larger dog (a 25 pound differential between dogs is seen as the vague cut off point wherein a dog may view a smaller, running dog as prey).
  • Have you seen dogs playing with a stuffed toy or rope toy?  How they shake their heads and growl, toss their toy, grab it and shake, and toss again?  Our wonderful Vera LOVED to do this with toys, but when she charged and grabbed a juvenile raccoon and treated it the same way, I realized she was just practicing her prey sequence with her toys. It gave me a chill. Small dogs can be treated in the same way by larger dogs, who are not being aggressive in the general sense of the word, they are just following a survival sequence in their genetic makeup.
  • The high, anxious sounds that a small dog makes when stressed or frightened can trigger prey-drive in larger dogs which, depending on the pursuing dog, could end with the smaller dog being run over, or badly mauled.
  • The small dog could be run over, or stepped on inadvertently.

Tips

  • Leave children at home if you decide to take the risk of going to the dog park. See my blog on “Dog Parks? Why not?”
  • Learn canine body language.  It will help immensely with your understanding of your dog and how he’s feeling.
  • Find a “small dog” dog park for your little dog.  Some dog parks have fenced areas marked specifically for small dogs.
  • Find other people with small dogs who would like to play together in a safe place.  Check with your vet, pet stores, and local trainers for ways to get involved in small-dog play groups.  Talk to people on trails.  I’ve met many people on trails who were overjoyed to share contact information to get Annie together with their dogs to play.
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Dog parks vs off-leash trails

Since before we lost Vera (of Finding Vera), I have tormented myself with the safety of our “next dog”.  Annie is our “next dog”. I know too much now to be complacent and trusting of dogs, or the decisions of their people.  On the other hand, I’ve asked myself if one should limit the experience of a child or dog because of parental fears–I’m sure parents struggle with this question worldwide.

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Finally allowed to run off leash!

I’ve also asked myself how dog parks are different from off-leash trails. After all, in both situations the dogs are free to do more or less what they please.  And in both situations, dogs need to be well-socialized to be comfortable and successful.

I am cagey of dog parks for the reasons cited in my last blog, “Dog Parks? Why not?” However, for the past seven years I’ve literally itched to have a dog who could run like the wind on the expansive field of the Sudden Valley dog park, cavorting with her friends, laughing, dancing, doing all the things that dogs do. So we took Annie there– twice–and Don took videos. Annie had a blast!

Annie having the time of her life at the dog park.
Annie having the time of her life with her friends.

However, I’ve spoken to two separate neighbors whose dogs have had bad dog-park experiences within the past week. I’ve read my “Dog Parks” post over a time or two, and now I ponder the wisdom of taking Annie there again. I don’t want her to get physically hurt…or become fearful of dogs.  After our experience with Vera, that would be devastating.

Annie on trail
Annie practicing recall.

There are good and bad things about off-leash trails.  Unlike the dog park, you can’t always see who’s approaching, and there’s no guarantee that the approaching dogs will be friendly. The direct face-to-face greeting is a potential problem for dogs if the trail is narrow. However, the good thing about trails is that the dogs are not crowded together for an extensive period of time.  They can choose to interact–or not. Our goldens, Lola and Sascha, would choose to just arc around the dogs they’d approach on a trail and continue on. But even if the dogs choose to play, it is often only a group of two to three dogs playing for a very short period and they move on before they tire of the social interaction, or become physically exhausted from the intense activity of play.  Watching Annie play at the dog park, I noticed that she started to tire toward the end of the session, and began to get irritable.  This doesn’t seem to happen on trails.

So which scenario is best?

It depends on the culture of the dog park or the culture of the trail, your dog’s temperament and level of socialization, your mood that day, your dog’s mood that day, and who is at the dog park at any given moment. In other words, there is no “right” answer.

Training tips to help keep your dog safe:

  • Read “Dog Parks? Why not?”  There are several tips at the bottom of the blog on how to navigate dog parks more safely with a well-socialized dog, and there are tips throughout the article on how to tell if your dog is appropriate for the dog park–or not.
  • Learn canine body language so you can evaluate the approaching dog. Are the dogs exchanging calming signals? Are they relaxed? Are they approaching each other at an angle? Being polite? Rapid, direct approaches with direct eye contact is considered by dogs to be rude and confrontational.
  • Only walk dogs off leash on trails that are designated “off leash”.
  • On-leash trails are fair game to dogs who may not care for other dogs and, being hampered by a leash, these dogs will often be reactive, or at least very intimidated by your dog. There is nothing more terrifying for the handler of a leashed, fearful dog than to be approached by a loose, friendly dog. A fight could ensue where your dog gets hurt.  Also, many people don’t like being jumped upon or even sniffed by strange dogs. I’m a “dog person” through and through, and even I dislike being jumped on by exuberant dogs.
  • Approach each walk as a training walk. If your dog is clicker trained, use the clicker. Treat your dog every time your dog looks back at you, waits for you, or returns to you. Use high value treats (chicken, steak, apple etc–whatever your dog LOVES), but put treats away when you encounter another dog.
Annie check back
Annie checks back with me on the trail.  I would praise (or click) and treat her.

Praise both dogs for appropriate dog encounters calmly, tell them what good dogs they are. Have an excellent recall (“come”)–even when a dog is approaching or there are deer or wildlife near by.  Practice every walk, rewarding with HIGH value treats when they come to you. NEVER correct your dog for “eventually” coming to you, no matter how frustrated you are.  It just means your dog isn’t ready to be off leash yet and your recall needs more work in distracting environments. For the best recall ever, check out “Recallers” by Susan Garrett. Teach your dog to sit behind you on cue, so you can protect your dog from any strange dog you don’t trust. Practice it at home with few distractions, then on the street, then on trails and in more stimulating settings. Reward your dog for doing this correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with a trail, be cautious. Keep your dog close (the further away your dog is, the less likely he is to respond to you), or leashed. Always do your very best to keep your dog safe.