My dog would never bite anyone… would she?

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

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

Here are three different examples:

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

Tips to keep your dog from biting

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

Do I want a dog? Or a robot?

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

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

enjoy your dog being a dog:

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

Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

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

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

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

Annie and her presents.

a few things to think about:

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

Getting a new canine companion? Things to consider.

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

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

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

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

Things to Consider

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

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.

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.