Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pounds shed relates to less pain, more energy
Being overweight affects our dogs’ health and longevity, and a recent study has examined the effect it has on quality of life. In a study in Great Britain, where it is estimated that a third of all dogs are obese, researchers investigated the change in quality of life of dogs who have lost weight.
They found that dogs who lose weight had a corresponding increase in their quality of life. They showed greater vitality and experienced less pain. The more weight they lost, the greater the improvement was in these measures of quality of life. Interestingly, those dogs who did not lose weight over the course of the study had lower quality of life scores at the start of the study compared with those dogs who were able to shed some excess pounds.
If you have a dog who has successfully lost weight, what changes did you notice in your dog’s quality of life?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Companies respond to the canine obesity problem
Human weight loss is a billion dollar industry, covering everything from books to personal training. When I first heard about a local doggy daycare’s canine “fat camp,” I thought it might be taking advantage of our obsession with shedding pounds. Activities at the camp include hikes, walks on a treadmill, doga (canine yoga!), and swimming. The marketing is certainly creative, but the camp is actually reflecting a nationwide epidemic.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of dogs and cats are considered overweight or obese. It’s a problem that veterinarians are calling the single most preventable health crisis in America.
The pet industry is responding by introducing products like canine treadmills, specially designed toys to increase activity, and dog running leashes.
Last year the makers of Science Diet introduced a line of meals and treats in pre-measured packets. And when Banfield found that veterinarians were hesitant to tell people that their dogs were overweight, the national veterinary chain introduced software to give pets a Body Condition Score.
Obesity can lead to a number of health problems, including diabetes and kidney failure. And research has suggested that a lower calorie diet can lead to a longer lifespan. So why are so many pets overweight?
First, most of us lead a pretty sedentary life these days, which carries over to our pets. Second, it can be hard to feed the right amount of food. I know my dogs would eat all day if they could and it can be hard to resist their cute faces. At my house, we replaced frequent treats with pieces of carrots and other vegetables.
According to Dr. Denise Elliott, a veterinarian and nutritionist at Banfield, the feeding directions on pet food packages can be inflated by as much as 25 percent.
Also, many people don’t know what normal weight looks like for a dog. Purina has a helpful chart on their website, but it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian.
The pet obesity epidemic is a serious one, but it’s a problem that our pups are counting on us to figure out.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs do what people can’t
“Sometimes only the dogs can make her feel better. They do what I can’t,” a friend of mine confided in me. He was explaining that after a year of marriage, he had learned that when he wife is particularly sad, the dogs have the best hope of easing her pain. Yesterday had been one of those really bad days, and she had spent much of the evening brushing their dogs, lying down with them and crying beside them. My friend was grateful to have the German Shepherd and Malamute in the family.
It’s well known that dogs can do so much that people can’t, with the most common examples usually related to sniffing out land mines or finding lost people. We all know that therapy dogs work miracles, and most of us receive tremendous emotional benefits from our own interactions with dogs. So it should come as no surprise that dogs provide emotional support that’s not just equal to what humans give, but sometimes far better.
Yet my friend doesn’t like most people to know what he just told me—that sometimes only the dogs can make his wife feel better. He worries that people will think he’s not supportive, that their relationship is troubled, and that his wife is strange, even though none of that is true. He told me because he knew I’d understand, which of course I do.
In what situations can your dog make you feel better when nobody else can?
Wellness: Healthy Living
Three legs to stand on
A really expensive car can go from zero to 60 in less than six seconds, but that car would have nothing on Harvey, a seven-month-old Mastiff/Husky mix, who went from being an $85 dog to a $2,000 dog in less than four hours. That’s how long it took Harvey to be adopted from the Tacoma Humane Society, perform a cursory inspection of his new home on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Seattle, race out onto the outside terrace to check out the dog house and vault over the surrounding hip wall. Harvey hit an awning, landed on the sidewalk and ended up in the emergency room with a badly broken right rear leg that later had to be amputated. “The vet said they usually try to pin the leg first,” says Lindsey Votava, who had fallen in love with Harvey on Petfinder.com, “but with the extent of Harvey’s injury it would have been like trying to put together a bag of potato chips.”
Votava and her husband, Leif Dalan, were clear that having Harvey’s leg amputated would give him the best chance of recovery. Trying to save the leg would have doubled their vet bill and meant they would have had to immobilize Harvey for up to eight weeks, which would have violated several of the laws of physics. “Harvey walked up the stairs after his surgery,” recalls Votava, and never missed a beat. He maintains a wicked Frisbee schedule at the dog park and does everything a four-legged dog does, except “he can’t scratch his ear.” They give him glucosamine for his joints and try to keep him from overexercising so that he doesn’t injure his remaining limbs. “We have to think for him,” Votava says. “That jumping off the roof was how he is. He’s a totally go, go, go kind of dog.”
It’s not unusual these days for a dog to lose a leg, generally for one of two reasons: they suffer some sort of accident or trauma, like Harvey’s, or they develop bone cancer or other bone disease. The latter is what happened to Bernie, an eight-year-old Rottweiler whose left front leg was amputated in January. Bernie was recovering nicely from surgery to her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) when her guardian, Tom Tilden, noticed she was limping and not bouncing back as quickly as he had expected. An X-ray showed bone cancer. “The first vet we consulted suggested giving her painkillers until the pain got to be too bad and then having her put down,” says Tilden. “We found another doctor.”
Bernie’s situation is completely different from Harvey’s. Harvey is lean and lost a rear leg while he was still a puppy; he was able to adjust immediately. Bernie is a stockier breed and lost a front leg relatively late in her life. “The front leg accounts for approximately 70 percent of the dog’s strength and balance,” says Sheila Wells, a hydrotherapist in Seattle who works with Bernie several times per week. “That is why front-leg amputees often have a more difficult time adjusting to their new state. The rear can follow but the front has to lead.”
Wells says that in her experience, most three-legged dogs are “very highly functioning.” Some dogs do better than others, depending on their size (smaller dogs have an easier time), age and other physical problems. “The biggest challenge a dog faces when it loses a limb,” says Wells, “is that it has to relearn proprioception, which means it needs to get a new idea of where its body is in space and how to balance; it’s like the bubble in a level.” The most important challenge for tripod-dog owners, she says, is to protect the remaining limbs; often people will let the dog overdo it, and that ends up putting undue stress on the dog’s joints, which can lead to injuries and arthritis. She recommends that owners observe the following checklist to keep the three-legged dog healthy for as long as possible:
• Protect remaining limbs
One of those animals was Wortman’s Clover, a one-and-a-half-year-old Pointer/Border Collie mix who arrived at the shelter with a badly broken right front leg that had to be amputated. “She was up and running the day after surgery,” says Wortman. “She’s a very athletic dog. She keeps up with the Greyhounds at the park. She’s inspiring to everyone who sees her.” Wortman says that she has noticed that people’s acceptance of three-legged dogs is growing. “Before, perhaps, people would have thought it was sad that she was missing a limb. But that has changed. I was recently at the dog park and met a couple whose baby had a paralyzed right arm. They said to me, ‘I wish we could get a three-legged dog so our child could grow up to think it was okay to be missing a limb.’”
“We always try to save the limb first,” says Thomas Mason, director of veterinary services at Pets Unlimited, “though sometimes this is much more expensive and requires more rehabilitation.” An amputation typically costs $1,200, while it may cost up to $3,000 to try to salvage the limb.
Before doing an amputation, a vet must decide if the dog is a good candidate. “We assess the animal’s overall physical condition. If the dog has arthritis in the other legs, for instance, he wouldn’t be such a good candidate. Amputation causes wear and tear on the other joints.” Many times, says Mason, a vet will end up taking off a dog’s entire leg, even if the trauma or the cancer is low down on the “ankle” joint. “Because of the way dogs walk, you end up with a lot of problems if you leave some of the limb. It would just get in the way. Most of the time, amputation is more cosmetically acceptable.”
Martin Kaufmann would like to see a change to this type of practice. Kaufmann, of OrthoPets.com, makes prosthetics and orthotics for both “two-legged and four-legged animals and any variation in the middle.” His goal is “to get the animal world up to speed with what we’re doing with humans.” He began his practice with animals four years ago, after a cousin’s Schnauzer suffered a stroke and lost the function in its right front leg. Kaufmann began studying animal anatomy books and learned that the muscle and bone terminology in dogs is almost exactly what it is in humans. Now, 30 percent of his practice is making artificial limbs and braces for animals, mostly dogs. “When three-legged dogs are brought to me, when they are amputated way up at the joint, there aren’t many options,” he says. Too often he sees animals who had cancer in the “wrist” joint.
“The vets tend to think of it as a useless limb and amputate way up at the top. That makes it almost impossible to build a prosthesis. We need at least one joint in order for the animal to be able to operate” with a prosthetic limb. Kaufmann explains that since this is a new field and he is one of only a few people doing this type of prosthetic work, not many vets know of this option. But he is trying to spread the word. “For limb preservation, it’s important to salvage as much of the limb as possible, or as many joints as possible.” If the limb has already been amputated at the top, he recommends having the dog use a cart to maintain the weight distribution on the leg that’s left. “Compounding forces on the remaining leg can cause arthritis from overuse. If the animal loses the remaining leg, what does it have left?”
Whether a dog loses a leg due to trauma or disease, most often he or she will bounce back and learn to adjust. As Sheila Wells points out, dogs don’t have the same stigma that we would have about losing a limb. “Some don’t ever notice their leg is missing,” she says. “Usually a leg that has been taken off has been painful for a long time and the dog is already used to not using that leg. When they get it removed, their whole demeanor changes because they can run around without being in pain. There’s no reason a three-legged dog has to be disabled.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
Changing our own habits can help our dogs live longer
Obesity in dogs could be considered a perception problem—a human perception problem. While a whopping 34 percent of dogs are overweight, only around 30 to 40 percent of the folks who put the food in the bowl for them know it. Canine obesity can cause or worsen musculoskeletal problems, exercise intolerance, cardiovascular problems and glucose tolerance imbalances. It also weakens the immune system and increases the risks of anesthesia; during certain surgical procedures, it can increase heat sensitivity.
Need more? The worst thing about dogs is that they don’t live long enough. Canine lifespan has been extended by as much as two years when the dogs are kept lean, and that’s the kind of life insurance we can all buy.
Why Are Dogs Fat?
What makes dogs fat? There’s the obvious answer—too many calories, not enough exercise—but that’s an oversimplification. Canine and human lifestyle issues, as well as human psychology, carry most of the blame, although hormone imbalances (see Balancing Act below), reproductive status and genetics play minor roles.
For most overweight dogs, the real culprit is a combination of free-feeding, boredom and not enough playtime. And then there’s the psychological component. No, don’t call the doggie shrink, because it’s not the dog’s psyche; it’s the psyche of the person who’s responsible for leaving a big bowl of dog food available all day and cutting the half-hour walk down to a five-minute backyard potty break.
Furthermore, although dogs of any breed (or mix) can be overweight, research shows that dogs of certain breeds are more prone to being overweight than others, which suggests a genetic component. These breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Basset Hounds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Dachshunds.
Does spaying and neutering make your dog fat? Of course not. But there is a connection between how many calories a dog requires and reproductive status. This doesn’t mean that being altered “makes” your dog fat; it means that spayed and neutered dogs, as well as older dogs, generally require fewer calories and/or more exercise to maintain a healthy weight. As your dog ages, and after altering, you need to be especially aware of weight gain, and act immediately to reduce caloric intake and increase activity levels if necessary.
Healthy Weight Loss
While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.
Before getting started, head to the vet and make sure your dog doesn’t have medical issues that might be affected by a weight-loss and exercise program. Than ask your vet to help you calculate a reasonable caloric intake for your dog. Aim for a loss of no more than 1 to 2 percent of body weight per week.
There are a number of ways to determine a starting caloric level for healthy weight loss. Your veterinarian can use formulas known as Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) or Resting Energy Requirement (RER) to give you a basic caloric level for your dog’s diet. Other practitioners simply restrict food below current levels by a specific percentage. While different methods may result in different figures, these differences aren’t important. Trial and error is required to determine your actual dog’s metabolic requirements, but any of these methods give you a place to start. If your dog doesn’t lose weight, or loses weight too rapidly, that particular caloric level is not right for that dog and should be adjusted up or down as necessary.
Knowing how many calories a given commercial food contains in a serving can be confusing. Sometimes the calories are given per cup, and other times per gram, and sometimes both. A cup of one food might weigh more or less than a cup of another food, so buy a food scale and measure the food by weight, not by volume. Don’t just follow the feeding guidelines on a bag of food, as they are almost always too generous to support weight loss. If feeding a home-prepared diet, simply calculate the calories in the ingredients as you would for your own diet.
In addition, restricting calories too severely—especially for very obese dogs—can backfire, and can also result in nutritional deficiencies that can impair wound-healing and immune function. When it comes to healthy weight loss, patience is a virtue. Loss of more than 2 percent of body weight in a week can lead to the loss of lean muscle instead of fat. Don’t rush things; if your dog has a lot of weight to lose, decrease his or her caloric intake in stages, and realize that most dogs will lose ounces, not pounds, at a time. As long as the scale keeps moving downward, slow is better than fast.
One of the biggest culprits in canine obesity is lack of exercise, and not just because exercise cranks up the metabolism and burns calories. It’s also because our sedentary pets are bored, and eating is one of the things they do to alleviate boredom. If we leave food available to them throughout the day, as is extremely common, they will eat more than if we feed them on a schedule and then pick up any uneaten food after a fixed amount of time. So let go of the convenience of free-feeding, feed your dog two or more small meals a day at regular intervals and make your dog’s life more active and interesting with longer walks and increased playtime.
It’s Up to Us
A study at Ohio State University found that weight-loss programs for dogs were extremely successful as long as the people involved stuck with them. Being lean can add years to your dog’s life, and being obese can cause a myriad of health problems and significant joint pain. Our dogs can’t join a gym or eat better on their own; it’s up to us to make healthy choices on their behalf.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New study confirms long held belief
According to a new study “Preliminary investigation of employee's dog presence on stress and organizational perceptions,” having your dog at work lowers stress levels. This may not seem like news to most of us, but this is actually the first study to quantify the effects of bringing a dog to work on stress levels.
The study took place at Replacements, Ltd. over the course of a week, and involved having 20 to 30 dogs at work each day. Throughout the study, people had dogs with them on some days, but not on others.
Researchers found no difference in stress levels at the beginning of the day between people who had their dogs with them, people who left their dogs at home, and people who do not have a dog at all. Later on in the day, however, the stress levels for those people whose dogs were with them went down, while the stress levels of the dogless went up. People’s stress went up on the days that they left their dogs at home, but did decreased on the days their dogs accompanied them to work.
If you are able to bring your dog to work, do these findings mirror your experience?
Inhaling Vitamin N
Dogs have been our boon companions for at least 32,000 years—pretty close to forever. They were our first nonhuman pals (domesticated cats came along 23,000 years, and horses 28,000 years, after dogs), hunting partners and all-around nature guides. Joining forces with such a remarkably capable species gave us a leg up on our rivals, sped up the pace of our evolution and today, provides us with a vital connection to the natural world.
As it turns out, we sorely need such a connection. In 2010, the average American spent 28 percent of his or her waking hours involved in some form of electronics-related activity: 26 hours per week online or watching TV, and another 5.8 hours on mobile devices! These digital-age habits contribute to a new malady: nature-deficit disorder.
What is nature-deficit disorder? Richard Louv coined the term and described its characteristics in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods, in which he proposed that modern childhood ailments and health problems, including attention and behavioral disorders, anxiety, depression, and even obesity, can be attributed to the lack of nature in children’s lives. In his newest book, The Nature Principle, he extends this analysis to adults, and prescribes a number of remedies (in addition to spending less time with our digital tools). One is to increase our dose of Vitamin N — “N” for nature, or the mind/body/nature connection.
From Bark’s point of view, the best way to get a daily dose of Vitamin N is to walk with our dogs in natural settings, where there are trees aplenty. Parks and forests are not only wonderfully calming places, they also have a restorative effect on our immune function. Scientists have discovered that phytoncides, airborne chemicals emitted by plants to protect themselves from bacteria, fungi and insects, contribute to stress reduction in others. These same researchers suggest that time spent in plant-filled environments lowers our pulse rate, blood pressure and concentration of cortisol (which is released in response to stress), among other things. Add that information to studies that have found similarly beneficial effects from the company of dogs, and dogs’ joyful inspiration to be more regular in our nature-walking habits, and we have an easy way to obtain a true V-N high.
Even better, getting out and exploring the natural world gives our co-pilots a chance to exercise their ancestral senses — a reminder of the time when we first started out on our amazing shared journey.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Fungus-derived pesticide promises to safely ward off ticks
Ticks drive me crazy. I love hiking with my dogs, but I hate the ticks that come with our fun outings. Fortunately, I don't have a problem in my backyard, but I have many friends who are forced to use chemicals to keep the pesky bugs away from their pets and kids.
So I was excited to learn that scientists in Connecticut have been developing a pesticide that uses a strain of fungus deadly to ticks. Best of all, this natural treatment promises to be safe for pets and beneficial critters, like bees and earthworms.
Synthetic pesticides, which have an 85 to 100 percent success rate, are still more effective than the fungus-based pesticide, which is about 74 percent effective. However, it's great to have an organic option that works well. The product will be commercially available in 2014 under the name Tick-Ex.
Apparently tick research is severely underfunded, so it's great to see safer prevention options developed and brought to market. I really hope that one day we'll have an effective organic alternative to topical tick prevention treatments.
What strategies to you use to keep the ticks from taking over your backyard?
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Canine Cure for the Winter Blues
In my dogless years, I suffered from depression during the winter months. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) they call it, but for me, it was more ISMICGOOB (I’m So Miserable I Can’t Get Out of Bed). I won’t go into details about my emotional state or describe the dire thoughts and feelings that whirlpooled around my sun-deprived mind. Let’s just say that during the winter of 2003, I was a mess. My beloved dog Wallace had died, I had divorced my husband and all I loved most about life — including the sun — had receded. Winter nights in the Northeast can be 14to 16 hours long. But it seemed like 24
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
More than fun and games
You have an all-day work event, your dog walker comes down with something and your back-up help is out of town. Then you see the ad for a local dog-daycare facility: “We can help! We offer 12 hours of fun and socialization for your dog.” The message is accompanied by cute photos of pooches at play. Should you be sold?
Across the U.S., dog-daycare businesses — franchises and single-owner operations alike — are flourishing. They offer your dog what you sometimes cannot: playmates, companionship and supervision when other commitments take you away from home. Most keep hours similar to those of daycare centers for children: drop your dog off before work, pick her up afterward.
Do dog daycares provide a necessary service for both dogs and owners? Are all daycares created equal? Is dog daycare an option you should consider? The answer is a resounding “It depends.”
Marc Bekoff, PhD, a University of Colorado ethologist who has studied dogs and their wild relatives for more than four decades, gives the concept of dog daycare a thumbs-up: “I love the idea. I think they provide a great function. At the same time, daycare should not replace people spending a good deal of time with their dogs.” E’Lise Christensen, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees “For healthy, active, social dogs, daycare can be a great outlet for getting exercise and social enrichment.”
In fact, this belief is exactly what originally spurred the development of the dog daycare industry. “In the early 1990s, training professionals found there was a need for dogs to get out of the house, socialize and engage in mental stimulation and physical exercise,” explains Melinda Miller, hospital director at Smith Ridge Veterinary Center in South Salem, N.Y.
Social play and mental stimulation are the main reasons many people choose to enroll their dogs in daycare. Mat Zucker of New York City has been taking his co-pilot Ezra to Paws in Chelsea three times a week for the last nine years. “When Ezra was a puppy, it was a great place for him to burn off energy, be social and run around. We were worried he would be bored home alone.”
Zucker makes a good point. The complex process of domestication did not shape dogs for solitary living (raise your hand if one is napping at your feet as you read this). On the other hand, dogs did not evolve to engage in all-day play sessions either.
The Social Scene
In the daycare setting, dyadic play (play between two dogs) is probably the most prevalent type. A recent study* investigating social play in adult, group-housed dogs at a boarding kennel found that of 343 social-play bouts, all but one were dyadic in nature. “This is not surprising,” notes Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, and term assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, who has studied dog play behavior extensively.** “Dyadic play is an easier dynamic for most dogs than triadic or larger-group play. In a bigger group of players, it would be hard to have play signals in all those different directions, and a dog could certainly miss something. Because of the complexity of play, this high-paced, rambunctious activity needs a lot of coordination.”
The idea of giving dogs space to play might seem straightforward enough, but there’s more to it than simply providing square feet. Numerous factors can influence the presence, or absence, of happy frolicking. While a dog’s physical size warrants consideration when forming daycare playgroups, play style is paramount. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., knows this well. “A good daycare surveys play styles and groups dogs accordingly. At the same time, [it] also allows flexibility between groups throughout the day to manage personalities and excitement levels.”
When it comes to play, turning up the dial is not always better. As Miller explains, “Hyper dogs allowed to get into a frenzy and maintain that level of excitement all day can be worse in the home than they were before they went to daycare. Staff members who help dogs learn about relaxed play and recognize when dogs need time out or a change of pace and rest are helping both dog and owner.” Trisko agrees. “Owners often assume that an exhausted dog is a happy dog. But an exhausted dog could also be an irritated dog.”
In a well-run daycare, these issues are addressed by handlers who ensure that dogs engage in the congenial play their owners envision. While no formal research has been done to validate these numbers, the consensus is that an ideal handler-to-dog ratio is 1:10, or 1:15 at the outside (Christensen recommends a ratio of 1:5). If groups grow in size, so too should the level of human attention. But even with multiple human hands on deck, large dog groups can be challenging to manage. Kate Senisi, a former daycare employee, knows this firsthand. “Daycares that create multiple, smaller groups within a space, as opposed to one large group, allow for more direct supervision of the dogs. But that also means that the daycare has to provide additional staff to cover the new groups,” she says.
Done right, supervision gives dogs the variety they need within a complex environment. Though many daycares tend to highlight “all-day play,” a quick review of online daycare videos reveals dogs engaged in any number of activities. Some dogs play, some watch; others investigate something on the floor, jump on a handler, sit in a handler’s lap or lie on the floor. In other words, individual dogs have a range of interests that shift moment by moment, and good supervision can facilitate this variety.
According to Horowitz, it’s important that dogs have options and control. “Not to say that the dog is dictating the day, but that the dog has options to be social, to be with a person or by themselves. That would be the highest-quality day: a lot of things to do and being able to make choices about when and with whom to do it.”
Handlers perform a critical role in promoting fun and safety. Much like playground monitors, they pick up on individual behavioral cues — for example, noticing when a dog becomes anxious or has simply been playing for three hours straight and could use a change of pace. Fun can quickly disappear when a dog finds himself in an environment that conf licts with his own emotional state.
The often-overlooked aspect of dog daycare is, of course, learning. “An important factor to consider,” says Laura Monaco Torelli, director of training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, “is that dogs are always learning, even in the daycare environment.” Since most daycares do not explicitly advertise training, owners might not readily notice this aspect. But watch any dog, and you’ll find that various behaviors and emotional states are being reinforced, or not reinforced, over the course of the day by humans, other dogs or even the environment. Just as a toddler might return from preschool with his first painting of a flower and a bit of an attitude, so too might a dog return from daycare played out, but a bit jumpier and mouthier than when he went in.
Some daycares highlight their facilities’ bells and whistles: climate control, dog cams, unique flooring or even a particular type of background music. Unfortunately, many daycare websites are silent on the less flashy ethological and organizational considerations that are most relevant to those concerned about their dogs’ welfare. For example, daycares rarely describe daily play and rest schedules, handling techniques, procedures for introducing new dogs to the group, criteria that determine how dogs are grouped, handler-to-dog ratios, access to outdoor space and staff first-aid training.
There are many ways to handle the daily influx of bouncing dogs, and at their best, daycares do this by viewing every dog as an individual. Some daycares rely on message boards to keep track of the different canine personalities gracing their establishments. Descriptors might read: “Don’t let anyone jump on Tiger’s back. Keep Sam from being overstimulated. Keep Janet from eating rocks or poop.” But how do daycares uncover these nuances?
A behavior assessment is the first step toward getting to know each dog’s unique ethological needs. Even if a dog has been comfortable in comparable settings, there’s no foolproof way to predict how he or she will feel in a novel environment. Each daycare provides a unique stew of sights, smells, sounds, movements and management styles, and any dog could be less than thrilled with the surroundings. Even dogs described by their owners as “social butterflies” or “happy players” do not necessarily thrive in every setting. (I am reminded of a therapy-dog certification class I once observed. The behavior of two of the dogs screamed out, “Umm, may I please be excused from this experience?” Their owners were surprised by their reactions.)
Assessments can also identify dogs who are not likely to be thrilled about daycare from the get-go. For some, discomfort with other dogs could spark aggression; others might be unable to de-stress in a group setting. With this information, daycares can evaluate whether they have the staff knowhow and facility design to admit such dogs. Dog owners not only expect their dogs to be having positive experiences at daycare, they also expect them to be exposed to suitable playmates. “I like that Huey had a behavior test, because that means the other dogs also had a test,” says Beth Windler, a Minnesota dog owner and once-aweek daycare patron. For Windler, this was particularly relevant after Huey, a happy-go-lucky Basset Hound, was injured at a dog park.
The behavior assessment is just the beginning of the story. John Squires, owner and manager of Wag Club in Brooklyn, N.Y., stresses that the daycare facility has an ongoing role in habituating each dog to its setting and rewarding good behavior. He has found that, unfortunately, not all daycares prioritize such methods. Some accept dogs who are completely unsuited for a daycare environment without taking steps to help them acclimate, which could lead to a dog spending most of his time in a kennel rather than interacting with others.
It’s easy to get caught up in procedures and forget about the people. Just as a love of children does not necessarily make someone a competent firstgrade teacher, a love of dogs doesn’t automatically equip a person to manage the behaviors and personalities of a group of them. “Is a daycare just looking for warm bodies who like dogs and can stay there for eight hours a day?” asks Miller. Christensen adds, “Is the staff trained [in] the basics of dog behavior as based on science, not popular wisdom?” Staffers’ ability to recognize stress and discomfort is just as important as their understanding of the complex set of movements that make up play. Play and aggressive displays share many elements, and even to a watchful, astute eye, meanings can change quickly. According to Monaco Torelli, “Observation of canine communication is a critical variable of proactive management in daycares.”
So, is doggie daycare a necessary part of life for every dog? The answer lies largely with the individual dog. Some daycares are better than others at maximizing fun and safety and decreasing fear and stress. At the same time, dog daycare is not the only game in town. Your dog might prefer a long walk, a training class, a trip to the dog park, an open window where he can take in the passing sights and sounds, or a small playgroup. Consider what’s important to and appropriate for your dog. Also consider how you might be able to build time for these extras into your schedule.
When thinking about our dogs’ quality of life, most of us inevitably ask the question, “What should my dog be doing all day while I’m gone?” If you think the answer for your dog involves daycare, then the next question is, “Which one?” A little due diligence on your part will result in a solution that’s right for your pup.
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