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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play. No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started.
However, the reality is often much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.
“Yes,” you may say, “so what?” The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting. If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.
Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights often erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights—humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites—sometimes by their own dog—when attempting to break up the fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.
You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:
1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”
2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”
The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble.
Here are some things to think about:
If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure or be injured by another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
If you take your dog to the dog park because you’ve been told he “needs more socialization”, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner rather than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed aggression. Once aggression has worked for him, he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics.
If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.
Do not even consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target.
Muzzles have no place in a dog park. Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself.
Leashing your dog at a dog park will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more.
If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.
If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider:
Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give and take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. The owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s.
Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play.
Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate.
Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play.