Wellness: Healthy Living
Annual check-ups are in order.
With few exceptions, most of us in the pet industry deal with problems and solutions. Consider these examples:
A problem-based approach is still the way almost anyone who sells a product or service focuses their marketing. In fact, a reliable marketing formula is “problem, agitate, solve.” State the prospective customer’s problem, make it sound even worse, offer your solution. However, people are becoming more proactive and health-conscious regarding both themselves and their pets. The number of premium, organic pet-food diets on the market has exploded. Training techniques have, for the most part, moved away from the historical “show ’em who’s boss” approach to ones better grounded in the science of animal behavior and learning (although there is still plenty of room for improvement!). Initiatives have been undertaken to help veterinary visits be less stressful for pets.
All of these efforts to help dogs live happier, better-quality lives are laudable, but to be most helpful to owners and professionals alike, let’s put them into a broader context: which common, daily husbandry or caretaking practices have a big effect on behavioral health, both good and bad? Before we offer some examples to answer that question, we should step back and offer a few definitions.
We’ve all heard the statement “health is more than the absence of disease.” The terms health and wellness, which are sometimes used interchangeably, are rarely defined by specific, measurable criteria. When we applied that statement to pet behavioral health in our article “Behavior Wellness Concepts for the General Veterinary Practice,” we defined behavior wellness as “the condition or state of normal and acceptable pet conduct that enhances the human-animal bond and the pet’s quality of life.” To define “pet conduct,” we created the “Characteristics of Behaviorally Healthy Dogs and Cats” (which you can find at SensibleDogTraining.com and CatBehaviorHelp.com).
To conform to a wellness approach, behavioral health should be described in terms of what pets do, not what they shouldn’t do. For that reason, we’ve long encouraged our clients to ask themselves, How can I get my pet to do what I want? instead of How can I get him to stop [fill in the blank]?—which is usually the behavior(s) we are called upon to help change.
If we want to take a wellness approach, then it’s up to us to create a life for our furry family members that promotes healthy behaviors and provides an environment that meets their behavioral needs. We know that behavioral and physical health are intertwined, so the first responsibility of any pet owner is to provide preventive and all other needed medical care.
To create a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for our dogs, one that meets their needs, we first must know what their behavioral needs are. That’s a trickier undertaking than you might think.
One of the earliest attempts at this came in the 1965 Brambell Report (Farm Animal Wellness Council 1992), which listed “Five Freedoms” in reference to the care and welfare of farm animals:
Ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
Providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
Providing conditions needed to prevent mental suffering.
We worked from these freedoms and other research on behavioral needs to create our version of the Behavioral Needs of Companion Animals (Hetts, et al. 2004):
Let’s examine one common caretaking example in light of these behavioral needs: the use of crates. Is a crate really a good thing for a dog? How a crate is used to confine a dog has an impact on almost all of the behavioral needs mentioned above. It’s not uncommon for owners to crate their dogs for a typical eight-hour workday. Some also crate their dogs at night, leaving the dog with perhaps four to six hours of unconfined time each weekday. Can a dog have his needs for exercise, play, social contact, mental stimulation and expression of species-typical behaviors met in those limited hours? Unlikely, in our opinion, especially when you consider other responsibilities and activities the owners typically have on their agendas during those same hours.
And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not And what about a crate as a comfortable place to sleep and rest? At six square feet, the crate we used to housetrain our Irish Setter, Coral, was bigger than what we often hear recommended: “just large enough for him to comfortably turn around in and not
While crating can be a short-term technique, useful for housetraining and safe traveling, in too many instances, it becomes a way of life for dogs, one that virtually ensures that their behavioral needs will not be met. One study found, in fact, that dogs who spent considerable time in their crates were at significant risk for being surrendered to a shelter (Patronek, et al. 1996).
With so many high-end pet products available these days—from food to spa days—it’s easy to overlook the basics that dogs need to lead behaviorally healthy lives. Take a look at the characteristics of behaviorally healthy dogs and the behavioral needs of companion animals and see how your dog measures up.
In our behavior consulting work, we see common practices and beliefs that interfere with a behaviorally healthy lifestyle for dogs, including:
Taking a wellness approach to your dog’s behavior also means being proactive and considering what your dog needs and how you can mitigate stress during changes in your lifestyle, such as moving, the birth of a child, or a significant change in schedule that will result in your dog being left alone for longer periods.
It also means ongoing monitoring of your dog’s behavior using our healthy-dog criteria and taking action when you notice small changes before they become big issues.
It’s human nature to avoid attending to things until they break or become problems. We may be better at getting regular maintenance on our cars than we are at maintaining our own physical and mental health and that of our dogs. We hope, however, that this article provides food for thought about how you can monitor and improve your dog’s behavior health.
Wellness: Healthy Living
This summer’s routine insect-prevention strategies are taking on a new urgency as public health experts warn that certain parts of the U.S. may experience outbreaks of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in Latin America.
As you protect yourself from any and all mosquitos this summer, don’t hurt your dog in the process!
The Centers for Disease Control recommends people use insect repellents that use of these ingredients:
Unfortunately, DEET can be poisonous to your dog. Ingesting it can cause your dog to have stomach problems, conjunctivitis, breathing difficulties and seizures.
So using it as a spray on your dog’s coat is a big no-no. And be careful that they don’t lick it off of you or get into any bug-spray cans that may have been left in the back yard or in your hiking backpacks.
Signs of possible DEET ingestion include drooling, wobbly gait, vomiting and loss of appetite, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, which reports getting calls every summer involving dogs hurt by DEET exposure. If you think your dog has been exposed to DEET, take her to the vet immediately.
For dog people worried that their dog may get her nose into some DEET, good alternatives for mosquito protection are oils from lemon eucalyptus and cedar, which can be used as an insect repellent for people and pets alike.
CDC researchers say there have been no signs that dogs have been affected by Zika or that they act as carriers for the virus. In fact, the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus seek out humans to bite on rather than animals.
Despite the lack of a direct link to Zika, safeguarding your dog against mosquito bites is still critical.
A bite from one mosquito bite infected with the heartworm larvae will give your dog heartworm disease, which can be fatal. With one bite, the larvae can be deposited into your dog. That larvae can grow to cause severe injury to the dog’s lungs, major arteries and heart, harming your dog’s quality of life and potentially her lifespan.
For full protection against mosquitos and heartworms, ask your veterinarian about products that can repel fleas, ticks and mosquitoes. There are also some products available that do double duty by offering heartworm prevention.
Frequently, it is difficult to tell if your dog has been bitten by a mosquito. One telltale sign is scratching. Some dogs will have an allergic reaction and the bitten areas will swell. In most cases, however, all you will see at the spot of the bite is a bump.
To treat the bite, wash the affected area with a mild soap and warm water and apply a topical antibacterial cream. If the bite gets worse or does not improve over the next few days, take your dog to the vet for an examination.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Seven ways to carpe the summer diem.
Sure, you could sit around inside with your dog, sweating and complaining about the heat. But why do that when there are so many ways to take advantage of the season’s longer days and warmer weather?
Make your dog a warm-weather flop spot. Look for a shady area in your yard, dig a shallow pit sized to fit your pup, line it with a thin layer of concrete and before the concrete dries, poke holes in it for drainage. Once the concrete has set, fill the pit with playground sand, dampen it and let the fun begin.
Plan a toxin-free and dog-friendly landscape. No snail bait, no cocoa mulch, no lethal plants (check out the ASPCA site for a list of ones to avoid), no chemical fertilizers, no fungicides, no herbicides, no pesticides. Ideal landscaping/hardscaping material doesn’t get too hot, is easy on the paws and— in a perfect world—doesn’t track into the house on fuzzy feet; pea gravel and pavers fill the bill.
Have some good, wet fun—summer’s prime time for water play. A caveat, however: keep an eye on your dog for signs of hyponatremia, aka water intoxication, which can come on fast and is life-threatening. Bone up on the symptoms and make sure your dog takes breaks.
Experiment with a new way to cruise. Rent a dog-friendly camper trailer or houseboat and see the world from a whole new perspective. Some camper rental companies will handle delivery, setup and hauling away; do an online search for a company in your preferred vacation spot. For on-the-water accommodations, check out Houseboating.org.
Take in a drive-in. Remember the al fresco movie experience of yesteryear? Some communities revive this lovely summer tradition, and some even allow you to skip the car and loll on a blanket under the stars. Search for summer + drive-in and see what comes up in your area.
Sign up for summer school and learn new skills or master old ones. Training, agility, herding and freestyle are all on the agenda. Then, there are dog camps—the summer camps of your childhood, but way better. For maximum relaxation, match the activity type and level to your and your dog’s temperaments.
Mark your calendar with “dog days” concerts and sporting events. Special offerings tend to pop up this time of the year, perfect for enjoyment with the pooch.
We know we don’t have to tell you this, but while you’re having fun with the pup, keep safety in mind. Stay out of the sun during the warmest hours, have plenty of water available, dab sunscreen on both yourself and your dog (yes, there are sunscreens for dogs), take lots of well-shaded rest breaks and never, never, never leave your dog in the car. If you’re out walking, listen to what your dog’s telling you; let him rest if he wants to and don’t coax him to go faster. Finally, do your best to avoid areas with foxtails, those sticky, diabolical grass awns (seeds) that burrow into fur and skin and, once well in, don’t come out without surgery. If these wild grasses show up in your yard—which they’re prone to do—pull them out while they’re still green.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tonight my littlest dog Nellie came in the house sneezing. Any other time of year and I would be unconcerned, but in late spring and early summer an abrupt onset of sneezing after being outdoors is a “foxtail-in-the-nose alarm bell.” I’ll be watching Nellie like a hawk for the rest of the evening. Any crinkling of her nose, ongoing sneezing or bloody nose, and she’ll be my first patient tomorrow morning.
If you are unfamiliar with foxtails, count your blessings! These pesky, bristly plant awns grow in abundance throughout California and are reported in most every state west of the Mississippi. Once the plant heads dry, they become hell-bent on finding their way into dogs’ noses, ears, eyes, mouths and just about every other orifice. They can dive deep into a dog’s nostril or ear canal (beyond sight) in the blink of an eye. And a foxtail camouflaged under a layer of hair can readily burrow through the skin (a favorite hiding place is between toes). Foxtails can wind up virtually anywhere in the body, and associated symptoms vary based on location. For example, a foxtail within the ear canal causes head shaking, under the skin a draining tract, or within the lung, labored breathing and coughing. Not only is the dog’s body incapable of degrading or decomposing foxtails, these plant awns are barbed in such a way that they can only move in a “forward” direction. Unless caught early, they, and the bacteria they carry, either become walled off to form an abscess or migrate through the body causing infection and tissue damage. Once foxtails have moved internally, they become the proverbial needle in a haystack—notoriously difficult to find and remove.
Take the example of Emma Louise, an undeniably adorable Brittany Spaniel mix whose family told me that her favorite pastime is running through fields with her nose to the ground. They described her as a “foxtail magnet,” having accumulated several in her ears and nose over the years. I was asked to help figure out the cause of Emma Louise’s hunched back and straining to urinate. With abdominal ultrasound, I discovered a gigantic abscess tucked up under Emma Louise’s spine, extending into her pelvic canal. Given this girl’s history, I just knew there had to be a foxtail in there somewhere. The question was, would we be able to find it?
As is my medical tradition before launching a foxtail search, I recited a prayer to the “god of foxtails.” I then turned Emma Louise over to one of my surgical colleagues for exploratory surgery. After two hours of nailbiting and a barrage of expletives originating in the O.R., I heard a shout of, “Got it!” The foxtail had been located and removed, and sweet little Emma Louise made a rapid and complete recovery. Not finding the foxtail would have meant a lifetime of antibiotics to treat her foxtail-induced infection.
If you suspect your dog has a foxtail-related issue, contact your veterinarian right away to find out what steps can be taken (at home or in the veterinary hospital) to rid your dog of this unwanted plant material. Whenever possible, avoidance of foxtail exposure is the best and only foolproof prevention. If your dog does have access to foxtails, carefully comb through his or her haircoat—checking ears and toes, too —a couple of times daily to remove any that are embedded and poised to wreak havoc!
Wellness: Healthy Living
Arizona genetics researchers are taking the unusual step of asking for dog lovers’ help in fighting a mysterious, potentially lethal infection that plagues both dog and man.
They are looking for dogs to be registered and potentially to have their DNA collected to help combat valley fever, a fungus-based disease once confined to the Southwest desert but is now spreading across the country.
Valley fever can be triggered by inhalation of just a handful of spores of a particular fungus. People, dogs and cats are susceptible to the illness that was once believed to occur only in Arizona and California. The disease is not contagious and is not spread from species to species.
The risk for valley fever increases as climates get drier, say California State University, Bakersfield researchers. Warmer temperatures and less rain basically kill off the fungus’ competitors for nutrients and thereby creating an ideal growing environment for the infection-causing fungus.
Valley fever is now being reported in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota, which never used to see the condition. And the states that typically see the condition are reporting more and more cases: The number of Valley Fever reports is increasing in more than a third of California’s counties, putting more dogs at risk for a disease that can lead to lameness, extreme weight loss and coma.
When Charlie, a 75-pound Chocolate Lab, started coughing, it didn’t set off any alarms. But then he developed a fever and was diagnosed as having kennel cough, which can be easily treated by antibiotics and steroids. Then the symptoms returned and again it was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. More than two months passed before Charlie was given the correct medication; the delay in a correct diagnosis lessens his chances for a full recovery.
Charlie now spends most of his time sleeping off the effects of valley fever, instead of being his normal playful self.
There is no cure for valley fever. Currently treatments focus on helping dogs beat the symptoms. Vet bills can mount up since a dog may have to get medication for up to eighteen months; in some severe cases, a dog may be on medicine for the rest of his life. It is estimated that Arizona dog lovers spend $60 million per year in caring for dogs with valley fever.
Seeing the increase in valley fever cases across the U.S., Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) researchers are now asking for dog people to take a brief online survey about their pet’s breed, health history and lifestyle. After the survey, the dog may be selected to give a saliva sample.
Then after the swabbing is done, researchers will look for differences in the genes of dogs who are sick compared to dogs who show signs of exposure to valley fever but who aren’t sick.
“In certain dogs, a minor infection can progress to severe disease, and the reasons for this are unknown,” said Dr. Bridget Barker, assistant professor and head of TGen’s Northern Arizona Center for Valley Fever Research in Flagstaff, Ariz.
This information would be used to help develop new therapies for both dogs and people, she said.
For more information about TGen’s Valley Fever PAWS (Prevention, Awareness, Working for Solutions), visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vfpaws, and on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPAWS.
Wellness: Health Care
Though in many ways, our dogs communicate with us all the time, when it comes to their pain, we have to figure it out on our own. Here to help with that daunting task is Michael Petty, DVM, author of the newly released Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs in a Q&A with Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska.
What are the most common ways dog guardians can recognize that their dogs are in pain, beyond obvious signs like limping or decreased appetite?
The answer to this is complicated and I probably can’t do it justice here. However, if people start to see their dog as lazy, not socially interacting, reluctant to do the things they liked in the past—really, any behavioral change—then pain should be on the list of possible problems. Dogs rarely quit doing the things they like to do because they’re old, they quit doing them because there’s something wrong. And that usually means disease, commonly something painful like degenerative joint disease.
You note in your book that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain treatment.” You also mention something called a “pain examination.” What does that entail, and is it something that’s perhaps best handled by a specialist?
A pain exam can take many forms. My approach depends in part on the history given to me by the dog’s caregiver, the breed, prior medical conditions and watching the dog walk into the exam room, just to name a few.
Every pain exam should consist of a complete physical exam; an observation of the dog’s gait when possible; a basic neurological exam (many neurological issues can mimic pain); and a hands-on palpation of the dog’s joints, muscles and bones. Based on the fi ndings, X-rays are often indicated, as well as blood work and urinalysis in anticipation of possible pharmaceutical interventions and procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia.
No one specialty “owns” pain. Anesthesiologists are well trained to handle acute pain, but not chronic. Neurologists are trained in matters like intervertebral disc disease, but not osteoarthritis. The list goes on. My fi rst choice would be to seek out someone with a pain certifi cation—a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner—from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (ivapm.org). This certification takes several years to earn, and program graduates are experts in the fi eld of pain management.
Do most vets understand the importance of neuropathic pain (essentially, a misfire between the sensory/nervous system and a region of the body)? And how is it best diagnosed?
Most of the veterinarians I talk to, outside of those belonging to pain-aware organizations such as the IVAPM, do not have a firm understanding of neuropathic pain. In human medicine, diagnosing neuropathic pain is difficult; it requires both a verbal description of what the pain feels like and verbal responses to certain tests. Without these tools, most of the time, our diagnosis is, at best, an educated guess. However, patient response to therapy for neuropathic pain is one indication that a veterinarian is on the right track.
You note that aspirin is dangerous for dogs. Are there any over-the-counter medications that can be given to a dog who has sustained an injury, to ease pain and infl ammation before taking the dog to a vet?
No. No OTC medications are licensed for use in dogs. Ice and stabilizing injured limbs are about the best you can do.
You support the importance of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a dog’s diet because they work to help decrease the production of pain-causing prostaglandins. Why is a fi sh-based source of omega-3 fatty acids preferred, and do foods such as canned salmon and water-packed sardines and tuna contain enough of it? How do we determine the correct amount?
Fish-based sources are best because of bioavailability. Sources like flax seed are okay for people but useless for dogs, as they cannot convert flax to omega- 3s. If you are feeding a food that has salmon or sardines as an ingredient, then you don’t have to worry about the amount, as it takes very little of these foods to provide enough omega-3s.
You call out a few botanicals, like ashwagandha, boswellia serrata and turmeric, for their benefits in pain relief and/or in reducing infl ammation. Do you prescribe these in your practice?
Yes. The problem is finding a reliable source of herbs, as they are not monitored by the FDA like pharmaceuticals are. One good option is a product called Dasuquin Advanced, from Nutramax; it has many important pain-modifying ingredients, including several herbs.
The veterinary attitude toward acupuncture seems to have changed a lot. In your experience, which conditions respond best to acupuncture? And how do you know which dogs are good candidates for this treatment? (I had a dog who would shake out the needles!)
Talking about acupuncture is one of my favorite things to do. I cannot imagine practicing without it, especially in my geriatric population, which is more sensitive to the effects of many drugs. I think attitudes have improved—in both veterinarians and dog owners—as more and more research is being published on the benefi ts of acupuncture; also, people hear about someone’s dog being helped by it. In addition, it has the support of the National Institute of Health for the treatment of pain.
For many dogs, the proof of being a good candidate is obvious in their response to treatment. Within one to three treatments, we can usually see an improvement in pain scores and observations. If we don’t, then sometimes the decision is made to stop treatment. I have had a few clients return and say they didn’t realize how much it was helping until it was stopped.
Many people experience what you did with your own dog. Some dogs are needle-phobic and resent even one needle going in. Some dogs are just afraid of being at the veterinary clinic and won’t sit still. I sometimes give these patients a mild sedative to get over this hump. A reduction in anxiety for several treatments often means that they eventually accept acupuncture without continued use of the sedative.
Finally, dewclaws. You make the point that a dog’s dewclaw, the equivalent of a human thumb, plays important functions in both the mechanics of the front foot and in joint stability, and that ligaments and tendons connect it to surrounding tissues. Yet you also observe that some breeders routinely remove it. How can this horrible practice be changed? Do any vet groups take a position on this?
Both the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association discourage any surgery done for cosmetic reasons, but they only name ear-cropping and tail-docking. Unfortunately, I don’t think this has had much of an impact, as very few breeders belong to either organization. I cannot speak for every state’s practice act, but most (if not all) specify that surgery must be performed by a veterinarian. Every instance where a breeder chooses to perform surgery crosses that line, and they are breaking the law. I feel that the best way to address this issue is through kennel clubs, such as the AKC. If the AKC were to say, “No dog born after such-and-such date who has had cosmetic surgery, including dewclaw removal, ear-cropping or tail-docking, can be shown in AKC sanctioned shows,” the practice would grind to a halt.
Wellness: Healthy Living
A Seasonal Heads-Up
Spring officially, well, springs forth in late March, but depending on where you live, it might show up earlier, or later. Either way, if you live with companion animals, it comes with a few cautions. Take note …
In the house. Thinking about dealing with a winter’s worth of dust and debris? Think smart about your cleaning products; many are irritating or even toxic for dogs. Invest in eco-friendly products, or make them yourself. (For a passel of cleaning tips as well as other ways to green up your paw print.)
In the driveway. Most often associated with winter, antifreeze poisonings happen in the spring as well. Whether from shade-tree mechanics, unidentified vehicle leaks or even the bases of portable basketball hoops, ethylene glycol–based antifreeze winds up in driveways and streets, where its sweet taste attracts dogs and cats. Even in tiny amounts, it’s been known to cause sudden kidney failure.
In the yard. Slug and snail baits combine an attractant, usually apple meal or some other sweet-smelling base, with an active chemical compound such as metaldehyde to poison whatever swallows the bait. Increased rodent activity also means increased use of rat poison, which is one of the deadliest things your dog can ingest. Keep all of them out of dogs’ reach.
If you’re planting (or replanting), check out the ASPCA’s list of toxic and non-toxic plants. A safe choice trumps a dangerous one, particularly if your dog likes to graze in your garden. Go to aspca.org and enter toxic plants in the search box.
Then there are fertilizers; even organic or natural varieties can be harmful. Blood and bone meal can cause vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatic inflammation. Grass and flower fertilizers can also contain toxic chemicals that may be deadly if ingested.
Out and about. If your dog spent a good chunk of the winter crashed on the couch or eating a few too many sweet potato chews, it’s a good idea to bound gradually into a spring exercise regime. Monitor your pet and start slow. (This is also applies to the human member of the team.)
If your outings take you to your local dog park or over hill and dale, keep an eye out for foxtails—wild grass awns that begin to sprout in abundance in the spring. They’re more obvious later on in the year when they dry out, but they’re also a problem at the green stage. Get Dr. Shea Cox’s take on the problem.
Spring Tips and Green Ideas
Spring and spring cleaning days are upon us, plus March 20th also marks the start of National Poison Prevention Week. An informative notice from Dr. Denise Petryk, on-staff veterinarian at Trupanion (pet insurance), provides insights into the most common pet poisons and other tips to help protect dogs and keep them out of harm’s way:
· Household cleaning products: Soaps, bleach, detergents, specialized cleaners and even sponges can harm a pet by irritating the skin or eyes, as well as damaging and blocking the gastrointestinal system. See better alternatives to these cleaning products.
· Plants: Tulips, Daffodils, Foxglove and Azaleas are all plants that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, drooling and even kidney damage when ingested by pets. Lilies are especially toxic to cats—and popular around Easter time—and can cause kidney problems, while the Sago Palm plant causes health problems such as vomiting, diarrhea and liver failure in dogs.
· Fertilizers: The nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc and herbicides that supplement plant growth can cause severe symptoms in pets, such as difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal blockage. Be very careful about fertilizing lawn areas where many dogs like to spend time.
· Yard tools: Rakes, shrub sheers and even shovels can be deadly for curious pets if they’re not stored properly.
· Pest control substances: Rodenticides and other poisons such as slug bait are toxic to all animals, so owners should take special care to keep their pet away.
For more green ideas and safety tips see our dog-friendly prepping for spring checklist.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Winter Paw Tips
Trim Fur between dog toe pads that can get packed with snow and ice walking painful.
Boot Up Consider dog booties, make sure the fit is correct and start with short walks, with plenty of treats.
Avoid Frozen ponds or streams, dogs may fall through ice less than 2 inches thick.
Lube Up Lubricate paws to prevent skin cracks caused by cold, dry air. A thin coating of products as Bag Balm, Musher’s Secret or petroleum jelly will also do.
Quick Wipe Wash paws off after walks. Dogs can lick salt, antifreeze or other chemicals, plus paw pads may bleed from snow or encrusted ice.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eight ways you and your anxious dog can catch a break
It sometimes feels like the dog world is polarized between people who “get” anxious and reactive dogs and people who don’t. Worse, the people who don’t can be dismissive and unkind, not to mention make it difficult for you to navigate the world with your dog by not respecting personal space.
Lately, however, people are coming to realize that completely calm, bombproof dogs are closer to the exception than the rule. Many dogs have something they’re not good with, whether it’s alone time, storms, cats or children. This increased awareness has translated into more and easier tactics to help anxious dogs than walking them at 5 in the morning. Here are eight ways to make life with your anxious or reactive dog better for both of you.
1. Seek out a PR trainer. In recent years, modern trainers have learned that an overwhelming majority of dogs who lunge at, bark at and fight with other dogs and humans aren’t doing so because they’re “dominant” or because they want to be “pack leader.” They’re doing it because they’re scared. A frightened dog, especially one who feels like she can’t escape, will turn to aggression to “get him before he gets me.” Once we know that aggression is rooted in fear, we know to avoid trainers who “rehabilitate” aggressive dogs by dominating them. Hurting a dog doesn’t stop her from being scared, it just makes her shut down. Change the emotion, on the other hand, and you’ll change the behavior. A dog who isn’t scared of other dogs has no need to bark or fight. Find a good trainer, ideally one who follows positive reinforcement principles and is certified by CCPDT, and you can work wonders together.
2. Make her visible. This might sound like the last thing you want to do with an anxious dog—I’ve certainly spent my share of time hiding around corners and not opening my door until I’ve checked that the coast is clear—but drawing attention to your dog’s anxiety is a good way to tell other people not to approach. Put a yellow ribbon on your dog’s leash, or buy a bandanna or harness that says “nervous” or “no dogs” and you’re giving people a heads-up without having to yell at them.
3. Muzzle up. If your dog is reactive and big enough that you could lose control if she lunges, consider a good quality muzzle. A muzzled dog is still seen by most people as a dangerous dog, which can lead to some unpleasantness for the owner, but thankfully, the Muzzle Up! Project is trying to get rid of that prejudice and spread the word that a muzzle is a sign of a responsible owner and a safe dog. By making those with aggressive dogs feel safer, muzzles allow both people and dogs to get more enjoyment from being outside.
4. Consider changing your vet if he/she isn’t tuned in to your dog’s needs. While some vets are great with nervous and aggressive dogs, others are still very old school; they don’t listen to owners and use invasive and rough handling. There are, however, new techniques out there for vets dealing with anxious dogs. Dr. Sophia Yin has developed a program for vets that focuses on low-stress handling, which can make a huge difference in your dog’s anxiety levels. And Dogs in Need of Space has a list of vets who go the extra mile for anxious dogs; if you do want to change your vet, it’s a good place to start.
5. Learn your dog’s body language. Your dog constantly communicates how she’s feeling, and the better you understand what she’s saying, the easier it can be to avoid stressful situations. Something that was fine for her last week might be too much for her to cope with today due to a phenomenon called trigger stacking (an increase in anxiety-related behaviors caused by the dog experiencing repeated stressful events without enough time in between for the associated stress hormones to leave her system). Avoid this by keeping an eye out for signs that tell you how your dog is feeling.
There are lots of resources for learning the basics; Lili Chin has made some lovely posters, and there’s even an iPhone app, so you needn’t run out and buy a textbook. Just remember that every dog is an individual, so you might not see all the signs of stress all the time. My dog only pants when she’s hot, for example.
6. Try medication. When I tell people, “My dog’s on Prozac,” most of them laugh; they think it’s a funny way of talking about her anxiety. It’s not: she really is on Prozac. Many of the same antidepressant medications that millions of humans use have been proven to help dogs with anxiety have the confidence to try new behaviors. A conversation with your vet is the first step on this route. Your vet can refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, a DVM who is knowledgeable about both training and medication; a vet behaviorist can give you a complete prescription tailored to your dog’s needs and, ideally, liaise with your trainer or applied animal behaviorist (a professional who specializes in dogs with behavioral problems but is not a vet).
Making the decision to try medical intervention can seem like a big step, but there is a lot of specialist information designed to make it easier. A good place to start is Debbie Jacob’s website, fearfuldogs.com. There are also numerous over-the-counter pills and products marketed to help anxious dogs, but be careful if you choose to experiment with them. Most “calming supplements” haven’t been tested, and evidence for the ones that have been is sketchy at best. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice, but do remember that treatment has its own kind of placebo effect.
7. Find a shared interest. It’s okay to be disappointed that your dog doesn’t want to go to the dog park, agility trials or pavement cafés. Try focusing on what you guys can do together instead. Set up indoor obstacle courses, go on quiet wilderness hikes, take nose-work classes or just chill at home. Don’t try to force the dog you have to be the dog you wanted. In the end, you’re likely to make her problems worse, not to mention strain your relationship.
8. Know your limits. If you’re really out of your depth, or your dog represents a serious danger to you or your children, it’s okay to consider rehoming. Training and medications are expensive, and anxious dogs often require a lifetime commitment. In some cases, it’s safer for you and better for the dog to find a new home where she can get what she needs if you don’t have the resources or the situation to provide it. You’re not a bad person or a failure—you’re making the wisest, kindest choice in the circumstances.
With these options, life with an anxious dog doesn’t have to be lonely!
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