Bad dog! Why people abandon their dogs… and it’s not what you think

Bad dog! Why people abandon their dogs… and it’s not what you think

Before I start, I need to say that there are sometimes situations in which animals are abandoned where there are just no words to say. For the soldier, recently split up with his family who has to deploy for nine months and with nobody to look after his dog, what solutions are there? Sometimes life throws us curveballs that we just don’t expect.

That said, there are curveballs we should expect. Let’s not forget, after all, that these are dogs I’m writing about. They poop, they pee on stuff, they might hump things, they might kill your chickens, they might chase your cat and they may well eat your very favourite thing in all the world.

Sometimes, there are serious and sad reasons. Sometimes there are reasons that make shelter staff boil on the inside, reasons that make us want to go on a biting rampage. For those of you who think that refuges are full of crazy dogs who’ve never been trained, or they’re filled with abused dogs who’ve been beaten or mistreated, read on.

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#1 Because of a death. Whatever you feel about animals, it’s a sad fact that about 15% of our dogs at any one time come to the refuge as a result of a death. No matter what your family tell you about how they’ll look after your dog when you’ve gone, sometimes it’s just a bit too much. Sometimes it’s just not possible, with the best will in the world. Many animals are privately rehomed following a death, but for some families, there are no solutions. It’s not all old ladies of eighty buying puppy poodles and baby yorkies. Sadly, we often don’t think. Death will happen to all of us. If you’re single and you have animals, your family just may not be able to cope with them after you’ve gone. If you’re married, your spouse just may not be able to cope in the aftermath of your illness. That said, I do wish people would stop selling puppies to old people. There’s the inevitability of death and then there’s the very likely and imminent inevitability of death. There’s nothing like seeing a six-year-old mourning bichon frise brought to the refuge to make you want to write laws and make statutes.

#2 Because of a family break-up. Some couples fight for custody of the dog. Some couples don’t. Where you may have had a great life with a dog as a couple, splitting walks between you and taking it in turns to come home at lunch to let them out and play with them, being single means that if you take on a dog, all that responsibility falls on your shoulders. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible for a single mum with a family of three, newly on her own, to cope with a dog as well. And don’t forget, change stresses dogs too. Sometimes, you are left without the means to pay for vet treatment, and if you think of all the acrimonious divorces, imagine how low a priority an animal may be. But, a bit like having a baby, some couples should realise before they adopt a dog that their relationship won’t be saved by an animal: there are far too many dogs brought back within a month or two because a relationship has broken up.

#3 Because of a change in your circumstances. You lose your job. You have to downsize to a smaller house. Your previous landlord allowed you to have a dog and your new one won’t. Many landlords won’t allow pets, and if it’s a choice between sleeping on the streets or rehoming your dog, it’s a tough call. I know many of us say we would rather sleep rough than rehome – and many people do! – but can we really offer our dogs a stable environment or pay for their care if we’re out on the streets? Being unable to cope with animals is often a factor in giving them up.

In these situations, the dog is never to blame. Many dogs find themselves at the refuge having never put a foot wrong. They are perfect family pets who have been treasured and whose owners may have been heartbroken to admit defeat, or to pass on the beloved pet of an elderly relative who bequeathed them a dog without realising that a full-time job may make it impossible to care for the animal adequately.

Then there’s reason #4…

#4 Because people are idiots. Idiots who blame the dog for their own inadequacy or failure. Idiots who can’t put their hand on their heart and say, “I don’t have the time to walk him as he needs” or “I can’t afford to treat his skin condition and he’ll need a home that can.” There are idiots who buy dogs and discard them like a pair of shoes, who fail to train them and can’t cope with the consequences. If you’re ready for the blood-boilingly infuriating reasons… continue. I must warn you: you may end up with a very dim view of some members of the human race. Sadly, these are all real reasons that dogs have arrived at Mornac.

  • The dog digs. Holy Baloney. Dogs dig???! STOP THE PRESS!
  • The dog chased a deer. Beagles on flipping bicycles!!! Dogs chase stuff? HOLD THE PHONES!!!
  • The dog chewed a pair of slippers. Great SCOTT! Dogs chew things??! Don’t tell Kong, whatever you do!!!!
  • The dog humped you. Sam Hill in a telephone box!!!!!!! Disinfect your leg quick and send the dog to the shelter.
  • The dog ran off with your scarf. Holy Horse Feathers!! Who’d have believed a dog might do that.
  • The puppy grew. Shut the front door. You bought a Great Dane pup and it GREW??? Send it back!!!!!!!!
  • The dog destroys things. The son of a biscuit. How dare he make his own fun?!
  • The dog runs off when he’s left alone in the garden. Good grief! Those invisible fences not working again?
  • The dog barks. Hell in a handbasket! Dogs bark? Who’d have guessed it?
  • The dog poops. Whoever could have predicted that? Good lord. I hope the papers have been informed.

It’s quite simple. If you aren’t prepared for the smells, the hair, the exercise, the expectant little face that wants to be taken out for a walk in the pouring rain, the whining at first light, the days when you come home and realise you left the food cupboard open and you’ve got four dogs in food comas, you’d be better to find yourself nother kind of pet. A gerbil maybe.

Because, sadly, the majority of dogs arrive for reason #4. Human idiocy is the main reason dogs end up in shelters. Not puppy farms, who take advantage of idiots who think dogs should be cheap. Not breeders, who will most likely rehome the animal themselves. Not governments, whose laws are too flimsy and not enforced. Not those hunters who realise their prize pack are worth picking up and have them chipped AND tattooed AND with phone numbers on their collars. Idiots who don’t chip their dogs, who don’t have secure areas for their dogs where they can be outside, unsupervised, and who don’t realise that dogs may come with a few doggie behaviours.

So do we get bad dogs? We get dogs who have been failed by humans. We get some dogs who haven’t been socialised properly with other dogs or with people. We get occasional dogs who have never been taught to inhibit their bite. But we don’t get bad dogs. I wish I’d stop having to hear owners surrendering their dogs, listing a catalogue of things the dog does wrong. I wish I’d stop seeing dogs who can sit, who are well socialised, who have the exuberance of a two-year-old dog, whose owners surrendered them with statements like “runs away, digs, doesn’t know any commands.”

A girl can dream.

Trigger stacking: how we set our dogs up to fail

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When we adopt a dog, what we expect is for them to be happy. We like to think that they get what’s happening and that it’s all blooming marvellous. We tell ourselves that they know what’s going on and that they’re going to love it. 

When I adopted Amigo, what I told myself was that he was thinking:

Lady, you are the best person I ever met. I’m going to be such a good boy! We are going to have the most amazing adventures together! I’m just going to lick you and lick you and lick you. Thank you! Thank you so much. See my waggy tail? That’s how happy I am! 

What we don’t think is that really, they’re most likely thinking:

Who the hell is this woman? She seems very nice. I wish she’d stop looking at me. Please don’t touch me. Don’t touch me… Don’t touch me. I don’t even know you!!! She’s touching me. I don’t like hands. Hands hurt. Why is she touching me? Where are we going? What’s going on? What’s this tiny thing? What’s that noise? What’s she doing? Where does she want me to sit? It sure smells funny in here. What the f@*&’s that noise? Why is the seat moving? OH MY GOD this thing is moving!!!! I want to get out. Can I get out. How do I get out? Where is the door? How can I get out? Stop touching me! Stop looking at me! 

Not only did I pop him in the car, I took him to a new house. I introduced him to new animals. I set him up to be stressed and without really considering it (he was the fifth dog I’d adopted) I didn’t think about the stress he was feeling. It took five months to wrestle him back to a place of calm. Sorry Meegie. I wish I could start again. Luckily, he forgave me for this and I hope he feels safe now.

The modern world is stressful to a dog. They are living in a world that does not always make sense to them. It’s akin to moving to a different country with a different language and very different customs. Notch that discomfort up a little and you get a sense of what it must be like to live in a dog’s world. If your dog has ever barked at anything new, you may have laughed it off, because we simply don’t know what will freak our dogs out. Tilly spent a good five minutes barking at the washing basket in the garden yesterday. I don’t know why. She’s seen it before. It’s been in the garden before. Nothing was different in most ways than every other time the laundry basket has been in the garden. But yesterday it spooked her. Heston once spent a good while barking at a sieve. A stone cross also freaked him out. Amigo doesn’t like to be inside during storms. Molly used to bark at snowmen. It’s common for dogs to bark at hoovers, lawnmowers and other animals. These are fearful responses to things that don’t make sense to dogs.

But barking is not the only way that we can see an animal is stressed.

Creatures feel fear and have a stress response. This we know. When something makes us feel afraid, our bodies have surprisingly similar responses as a dog’s. Adrenaline is produced. Our heart rate increases. Our brains become less capable of making choices as our fight-or-flight response kicks in. Once the brain says, “hey I don’t like this!” the thalamus gives us a shot of hormones that set us off on a very typical “stress pathway”. Ever tried to reason with someone who’s red in the face? Ever tried to get your dog back under control when they’re barking at a stranger? You’ll know how hard it is to overcome the stress response.

What normally happens in a dog’s day is that they meet a series of stress-inducing triggers. If you’ve socialised them and introduced them to these triggers when they are young, they will most probably learn that these things are nothing to be afraid of. If you don’t, you’ve got an uphill battle to show them that a strange man in a hat is nothing to be afraid of. When we adopt an adult dog, we have no idea what they have been socialised with and what is a trigger.

For the most part, our dogs meet an unfamiliar trigger and then they move on. They may growl, show their teeth, snap or bark at it as they attempt to “fight” the trigger, or they may run away to a safe distance and hide if they are in “flight” mode. The other week, someone dropped a sack of fertiliser by the side of the field. Heston did both of these things: he stood, he stared, his hackles went up, he growled. The thing didn’t move. He went a little closer and growled more in case it hadn’t heard him. Then he barked at it. It didn’t care. He went closer, barked and then backed off. He did this progressively, getting gradually closer until he’d decided that it was nothing to be scared of, barking, retreating, barking, retreating.

When we start down the stress response pathway, adrenaline is produced to help us run or fight. Cortisol is also produced. This is important and we’ll come back to it later. Normal responses to stress include avoidance (not looking at it, backing off, seeking shelter) defense aggression (growling, snapping, barking) looking for contact with humans or other animals for reassurance (hiding between your legs, often!) seeking attention from a bonded human or animal. When dogs can’t escape or attack, you will see other behaviours too. Lip-licking, flat ears, tense faces, panting, low body posture, seeking escape, slow movements. They’ll be reluctant to take a treat (which has implications for positive training and counter conditioning to overcome the response)

Normally, the trigger goes away and the situation returns to normal. The body stops making stress hormones and within 70-110 minutes, most of those hormones have dissipated. The dog learns to tolerate these small events and episodes. Cats in the garden, postal workers, teams of cyclists going past… they’re strange and unfamiliar events and your dog will have periods between them to recover.

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But what we do with a shelter dog is take an unfamiliar dog and give it a short, sharp shock of everything we know to be stressful. We take a dog who is already stressed. Even two weeks in the shelter is enough to have long-lasting consequences on the stress hormones and body, especially if they have been kept on their own.

Shelters are good at recognising unnatural stress responses for dogs, but there aren’t often solutions to this. Displacement activities may be evident (licking, grooming and eating stuff they shouldn’t) as well as stereotypical responses such as circling, excessive grooming, tail chasing, tail biting, excessive drinking, fence-line running, anorexia or excessive eating (yes, dogs comfort-eat too) and dogs may even hallucinate, chasing imaginary flies or staring into space.

But there are many dogs who do not exhibit such behaviours in kennel environments, and we may be unaware that they are very close to the point at which they cannot control their responses or when it all becomes too much for them. We call this point the “threshold” and it’s marked in red on the diagram below.

When we take a dog and subject it to a range of new and stressful experiences, we stack those triggers all together, and we are not allowing their bodies to deal with the triggers we are subjecting them to. In one short hour, everything changes. They go from an austere environment where the majority of dogs show some signs of stress, and we think that what we are doing is comforting and reassuring. It isn’t. We introduce them to new people. We may put them in a car, which they may never have experienced except for a brief trip to the pound or their journey to the refuge. We take everything in their world and turn it upside down.

And instead of being able to tolerate the stress, we don’t allow sufficient time between all of the changes, and we stack the triggers so that they build up, one on top of another.

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Once they pass the red line, you are going to see exaggerated stress responses. Stares and teeth displays or pinned ears and avoidance techniques can turn into defensive attacks. This might just be a good old bark or grumble. They may urinate (I showed Tilly a new dog coat once and she did this…. I call her Tilly Piddle for a reason!) They might “give in” completely, overwhelmed by fear. They may try to run away or hide. In French, we say se sauver, which literally means they try to save themselves.

There are lots of things you can do to avoid this situation.

Visiting the refuge often to meet the dog and spending at least an hour with the dog before you adopt them is one of those things. For dogs showing signs of an unnatural stress response (licking or circling, bark displays) you may want to sit in with them for a couple of hours, doing absolutely nothing until they are ready to approach you for a high-value treat. Giving them a small amount of high-quality treats will show you that their stress levels have gone down enough to think of moving on to the next stage. Heston accepting treats when he met Tobby was my cue that he was sufficiently unstressed to move in a bit. But take your time. Though the adrenaline will have dispersed, the cortisol will not.

I was also really glad to see a lady taking the time to introduce her new dog to her car, spending a good few minutes over a few days getting him used to being in it, then turning the engine on, and so on. Not all dogs will need this if they have been used to getting in cars as a puppy. I’m pretty sure Heston would hop in anybody’s car given the chance. Cars mean adventures to my dogs because what happens after being the car is 99% good (except those vet trips!) But for a fearful or anxious dog, the guidance she’d received will certainly help the dog feel more comfortable.

If you have other dogs, be careful how you introduce them and take your time. When Tilly and Saffy arrived here after their car journey, I just randomly let them meet Molly, the new house, a whole load of strange men… no wonder Tilly quickly turned to submissive urination and excessive drinking. I’d say it took a good four or five months for her behaviour to return back to “normal”. You know my story of Amigo already. That ended with five months of serious retraining. Ralf… I got smart. Tobby… even smarter. And guess what? Those dogs weren’t stressed out. I doubt whether Ralf ever got stressed, since he was a big, chilled-out mattress-back. Tobby certainly has stress responses: he is happy to run away and he has the potential to bite. But I like to think that I did everything I could to avoid walloping those triggers one on top of each other that first day home.

Avoid stacking those triggers and you’ll avoid pushing your dog to the limits of its tolerance. Time and calm is your best friend. Although everyone will want to come round and say hi to your new dog, what is best is a recovery period. Although you may want to give your new dog toys, treats and love, what they need is calm. Perhaps the very best thing you can do is sit very quietly for a couple of hours and read a book whilst they make some sense of their new environment. It’s not exactly what you envisaged, I’m sure, but it’ll help break up those triggers into manageable blocks.

For further guidance you can read:

The first days home.

Fearful dogs.

Introducing new dogs.

10 tips to dog-proof your home.

And if you want to know a little more about trigger stacking, this video from trainer Donna Hill will help

10 Myths that people believe about shelter workers

10 Myths that people believe about shelter workers

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I was in a meeting today when the phone rang; I could see it was the refuge and they only ring in an emergency. It was our secretary who wanted to know if I could arrange to pick a dog up. No problem. I took the number and called the woman. She’d adopted a puppy three months ago and now she wants to return it. I don’t have words. Still, I ring her and ask her when she wants the dog picked up.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“I’m really sorry. I’m working tomorrow and it’s just not possible. I’m free next Thursday.”

The tough part of the decision is wondering what might happen if I don’t do exactly as she says, dropping everything to meet her request. Where you’re holding a vulnerable hostage, you’ve got a pretty big bargaining chip. One that makes you a nasty piece of work if you use it, but who’s to say who’s bluffing and who’s not?

I went back into the meeting. “This is why I wanted to work with dogs.” I said. Dogs aren’t arseholes, by and large. You seriously wouldn’t believe the stuff that people say to us on a daily basis. I thought I’d take a minute to debunk the myths and give you a bit of an insight into the daily world of a shelter worker or volunteer.

Here’s ten of my favourite things people seem to believe about us.

#1 We’re stupid. We had a phone call last week from a “concerned” member of the public who didn’t think we should let our elderly dogs go to a particular home that often takes on dogs for palliative care. “Dogs die there!” they said. Bloody hell! Thanks for telling us! We had no idea that old dogs might die, even though the vet gave them a month tops at the last check-up. Ten minutes of badgering later and the person is now angry at just how stupid we are. When you’re a shelter worker, people think nothing of telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing. We’re so lucky to have an army of armchair experts to suck the time right out of us. I guess most people in the caring professions feel like this though. There’s a type of person who loves to tell the experts how they should do stuff. We’re lucky we’re not premiership footballers, I guess. Some days it does feel like there are 80000 people surrounding you who know better than you how to do your job, though.

#2 Loosely connected to #1 is the myth that we know nothing about dogs or cats. According to some people, working at a shelter means you have prioritised caring over canines. We’re all so blinkered by our big old hearts and our blinded by naive stupidity that we can’t tell our Basset Fauve de Bretagne from a Great Dane. Not only that, since we work in rescue, we must all therefore be totally against breeding, totally against breeders, totally against pedigrees and totally against doggie stuff like rules or training. Never mind the fact that without breeding, there would be no dogs, so if we were against breeders, we’d be against dogs. A guy last week lost his rag with me because I personally wouldn’t re-categorise an American Staffordshire Terrier. Not that I can. Never mind the dog has been classified by a vet who is one of five vets in the region whose job it is to do just that. We’re all idiots who have no idea what we’re doing. And never mind that just because we might love the muttleys doesn’t mean that we don’t rescue pedigrees or have special places in our hearts for the bulldogs, the huskies, the Anglos or the cockers. Another guy was happily telling me how we knew nothing about gundogs and showed me proudly his photos of his “English Pointer” who looked very much like a mutt to me. Our English pointers just aren’t English pointers, according to him. Another time suck. And never mind what breed it is: how would anyone who works in a shelter, with our big bleeding hearts, know anything about canine behaviour? Never mind that both our president and the refuge director are both canine behaviouralists and most of us bone up very quickly on animal body language. Ahhhh.

#3 Not only are we stupid, we’re also all bleeding hearts. We’re just too kind. Nobody can understand how we can do what we do without torturing any number of individuals who’ve brought us dogs or been the subject of a legal seizure. It’s probably because we’re all a little bit touched. Fact: we have the biggest bullshit detectors, and, like the dogs, we can smell it on you. We’re not just a bunch of gullible hippies who believe every story about dog bites, who doesn’t get on with whom, what little Rover did to little Rex. Last week, a woman dropped her dog off telling me quite categorically that the dog was bad with “big dogs.” We were at that moment standing next to Belle, the refuge guard dog. She’s a statuesque shepherd cross. Then Dino walked by. He’s a big bruiser of a filo de San Miguel. “Not good with big dogs, you say?” I just raised an eyebrow and walked off. Just because we clean up other people’s shit doesn’t mean we were born yesterday or that we’re all soft. And just because we refrain from chaining people up like dogs as a punishment for what they have done themselves doesn’t make us a pushover either.

#4 We don’t know the law. I can’t count the number of times I’ve explained procedures to people only for them to say, “well, I’m going to do this instead.” Good for you. I’ll wait for your call when you’ve tried that then. People get really mad at us because, believe it or not, there are systems in place for dealing with animal neglect or cruelty. Without those, we’d be an unregulated army of stupid bleeding hearts, so it’s a good job we do. I can’t tell you how many people suck the living time out of my soul with forty-minute phone calls about how some dog spends a lot of time outside and how that’s tantamount to cruelty. I re-read the guidance about animal welfare the other day and thought “I sound really hard.” But I wrote that to stop the endless phone calls about various acts of animal “cruelty” that are in fact very legal situations. So often, the real cases of animal abuse get lost in between lengthy arguments over what is or what is not animal abuse. Our time and energy is absorbed in fruitless conversations with people about why exactly you have to get the authorities involved or whether or not some animal is being abused. Not only that, but people get really angry at us because the law, in their opinion, doesn’t do enough. We know it doesn’t. This is what we live with. Still, spending an hour on the phone to you whilst you moan about it isn’t changing anything. Glad you feel better to have offloaded about how incompetent and inadequate everything is, though.

#5 Not only are we all naive, trusting souls who don’t know about animals or the law, we’ve also got bags of free time. Personally, I don’t mind phone calls at 10pm, but I’m damned if I’m going to call the boss and ask her to reserve a dog for you. We do try to have lives. For me, I have a full-time job, four dogs of my own, a full-time garden, a semi-derelict house that I’m trying to do up in full frugal style and I’m on two other committees besides the shelter’s. I know there are people who think I don’t work, that I don’t have other stuff to do or that I have times when I am not available. I know there are people who get cross because I’ve decided something is not as urgent as they think it is and I’m not bothering the staff with it tonight. No, I won’t give you their numbers or email addresses. They’re at home with their families. Our vet nurse actually volunteers in the afternoons at the refuge, since her salary doesn’t cover her for anything but mornings, but she’s still there of her own volition, and people are mad when she’s not on 24 hour call. And no, I’m not calling her when she’s on holiday. Take your animal to the vet and pay the vet for an emergency consultation. No, I won’t reserve a dog for you at midnight. No, I won’t give you my mobile number. You’re horrified that the refuge phone lines are busy or engaged? Why don’t we answer before lunch? I just don’t know. Feel free to come in at 9am, man the phones and sift through our daily bullshit though, if you want to help.

#6 We’re powerless. So we can’t march in to a property, break open the doors and check whether Flopsy-Woo is sleeping on the sofa or not, but we can and do investigate. We prosecute too. I’m sick to the back teeth of asking “Have you been to the mairie?” and being told “No, they won’t help.” Here’s some news for you buddy. Yes, there are maires who stink. We know exactly who’ll do something and who won’t. But most are helpful human beings who have a modicum of education. Not only that, they can order the police about. And us. They can order us too. But we’re good at doing things in other ways and believe it or not, it’s not always just about removal of abused or neglected animals. We’re good at putting dossiers together. We’re good at talking to neighbours, negotiating with mairies and negotiating with people who’ve neglected their animals. Just because we can’t hand out 30-year sentences or issue the death penalty doesn’t mean that we’re without power. We’re neither Judge Dredd nor are we wandering around doing nothing at all.

#7 We’ve got the patience of saints. Right now, it’s 07.28 and I’m in a message exchange with a staff member who’s blowing a gasket about someone we’d banned from having a dog who came and picked one up when neither of us were there. She’s also got to go and pick up a dog. My fingers hurt a bit from all the anger. Staff turnover is high. People burn out. Keeping a lid on all the frustration and anger takes its toll. Caregiver burnout is a constant risk. Volunteers can luckily walk away and take a break before coming back at it. The staff can’t do this. In my view, this is why we need as many volunteers as possible, to help share the burden. Fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression are standard and it’s exhausting. Given #1 to #6, you can kind of understand why the patience we have wears thin from time to time.

#8 We prioritise animals over people. I’ve lost count of the times that people say that my priorities are out of whack, or that we must really hate people. Ironically, despite everything that humans do to animals, the people who adopt our dogs and cats largely restore our faith. What mostly restores my faith is working alongside so many great people who I can rely on totally. There are still plenty of good people to believe in. And, contrary to popular belief, just because I’m an animal lover doesn’t mean that I don’t give a stuff about human welfare issues. I’m quite tired of other ‘humanitarians’ treating me as if I’ve got my priorities out of order because I didn’t suddenly drop animal welfare issues and start expending all my energies on refugees. Just because I didn’t doesn’t mean I don’t help out with that too where I can. I’m very tired of the idea that any one cause is more noble than another or people feeling that they can take a pop at those who live and breathe animal welfare just because “they’re only animals.” We should care for all things on earth, full stop.

# That we’re somehow wonderful and noble, nay saintly, for everything we do. Because scooping up dog shit is noble. “I couldn’t do what you do,” people say. Yes you could. You just don’t want to. Just say “I don’t want to do what you do.” That’s fair enough. But we aren’t harder, tougher, more in control of our fists or more in control of our stomachs than the average person. We’re just people who think, “If I don’t do it, who will?” We just keep turning up. Day after day. Month after month. That’s all. I’m pretty sure everyone can turn up to stuff.

#10 We spend our days with the healthy sheen of our halos casting a benign light over our beatific zen-like faces as we romp with animals. Yes, we’re not just better than the average person who couldn’t do what we do, whatever they think that is, but people seem to think that we’re basking in the wonder of our happy do-gooding. Mostly, we don’t romp. We get dragged along by dogs who’ve been out once or twice in the week, because so many people “can’t do what we do” and we often look like shit. We laugh about this, because either it’s cold, and we’re wrapped up so thick that nobody even noticed I’d had my hair cut for six whole weeks, or it’s wet and we’re wearing mens’ waterproofs or bin bag accessories, or it’s too hot and we’re sweating beneath our long trousers in case some over-excited dog fancies saying hello to our calves with their teeth.

Whatever you believe about shelter workers and volunteers, we’re all just people. That’s all. We’re not stupid. We’re not gullible. We’re not swanning around like Lady Bountiful, sunning ourselves in our own virtues. I’d be glad for just one day when people didn’t make assumptions about us. It sure would make my day much nicer.

And if you think like we do, if you can turn up from time to time, if you want to make a difference and you love animals (and people!) why not come and join us? Find out how to volunteer here

 

Resource Guarding: Prevention and Management

Resource Guarding: Prevention and Management

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This week, I had a little dog on a foster placement. “She’s dominant,” her owner said. I asked a little about this to get behind this rather too-often-used statement, and it seems that Little Miss likes to growl and snap when the other household dog was getting attention and she was not. It didn’t take long for this so-called “dominant” behaviour to emerge at my house; I was eating a pizza at the table and Little Miss sat under my chair like a troll beneath a bridge and snapped at anyone who tried to get near.

She’s not the only dog who has behaviour issues. Last Saturday a lady in a photography group I’m part of shared a terrifying story. Her dogs were eating in separate rooms as usual, when one rescue dog turned on another as she walked behind him towards his food bowl. The size difference meant that the ‘intruder’ had her jaw broken and the owner was devastated.

Then on Tuesday, I got a call from a guy who’d adopted a dog from us a few weeks ago. In fact, it wasn’t a query about the dog he’d adopted from us, but the dog he’d adopted a few months earlier from another refuge. He would happily steal items of clothing, run off into the sunset with them and growl or snap at anyone who tried to remove them from him. What could he do?

It might seem that these three things are not particularly related, but they have one thing in common. Resources. Whether it is food, toys, bedding, other animals or even human beings, some dogs haven’t yet learned to “Leave it!” with good grace, whatever “it” might be.

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Let me make this clear: resource guarding is NOT dominant behaviour. I don’t like the word ‘dominance’ anyway in the dog world because so often we mean other things; I just can’t get my head around the ‘dogs want to rule over humans’ idea. Dogs don’t reason particularly well, so I’m pretty sure there’s no master plan at work. Resource guarding is usually the very natural behaviour of an animal which we have been breeding selectively for many thousands of years for – guess what – their excellent guarding behaviours. Long before doorbells, CCTV and on-site security, a guard dog was the best way to have a little security for your sheep, your babies, your treasure or your lap. Now that we’ve removed ‘guarding’ from the job description of most of our canine companions, they’re to be forgiven if they still struggle a little with letting go of things they treasure. After all, we spent thousands of years capturing that behavior, cultivating it and reinforcing it.

Neither is resource-guarding a result of either deprivation or over-indulgence. We simply do not know what makes some items of higher value than others in a dog’s mind, or why they think someone might steal it. But it is still a problem for many dogs and can lead to situations in which the dog feels it must growl, bark or bite to keep hold of its “possessions”.

So how can you treat this worrisome behaviour?

The first thing is to accept that guarding, although a genetically-coded behaviour, is still something we can change. It is something that all dogs have the capacity to do and something that all dogs can be trained not to do. It often happens in changes of circumstance or where dogs become stressed.

The best point to start ‘treating’ resource guarding is before it appears, when the dog is a puppy. This isn’t always possible with adopted adult dogs, but unless the resource-guarding is very aggressive, you should still be able to apply many of the techniques here.

Puppies should be taught to “leave it!” and learn that humans (and other dogs) can take things from them. “Leave it!” is not just a good technique to use with all dogs to allow you to retrieve items safely, such as food or toys, but it’s also a great command to teach them so that they don’t pick things up off the ground or steal items. Teaching them “off” and that the approach of other dogs, cats or humans is nothing to be scared of is also vital. Grisha Stewart’s explanation of Give or Trade is excellent. Be careful, though. You don’t want your dog to make an association between stealing or guarding and getting a treat. Make sure there is sufficient interruption between “Leave it!” and the moment you reward, otherwise you could easily reinforce this behaviour. You must reward the leaving, not the growling. Good puppy training classes should tackle “Leave it!” as part of the basics. Otherwise, you should seek the advice of a dog trainer to help you.

Older dogs can be taught the techniques in the same way.

My top ten tips:

  1. Recognise what your dog guards and what it doesn’t. Get to the bottom of the guarding behaviour. Make a list of things this happens with, note times, situations, circumstances. We simply don’t know what is worth guarding to a dog, and what is not. I’ve seen Tilly guarding a mouldy bread roll she’d buried and then unearthed. The mouldy bread roll is unpredictable. A chew that lasts more than a minute is a thing that is a predictable source of growls and grumbles. If she can’t finish something in one sitting, there’s a lot of dog-dog guarding going on, and she’ll even snap at me if I try to remove it. By knowing exactly what your dog guards, you can nip the problem in the bud. Note the behaviour and its intensity: head turn, stare, growl, teeth demonstration, air-snap. Note the distance at which it happens: does the dog still do it if you are 2m away? 10m away? Where’s their ‘threat line’? This helps you not only identify the problem but gives you the ability to discuss this with a behaviouralist.
  2. Pick out a reward that is worth more in value (to your dog!!) than what they’re guarding. That might be a mouldier bread roll for Tilly. The dog that turns its nose up at a cheap dog treat may well sit pretty for a piece of stinky cheese. You’ve got to know which treats will work to get the “drop”. When dogs fail to give up the object they are guarding, owners tend to think that the swap has failed. This isn’t true. The treat has failed, not the swap. A better treat is needed!
  3. Start by rewarding small “gives” or “drops” with high value treats for items of little worth. What dog wouldn’t happily swap their bowl of dog biscuits for a bit of chicken or ham? At this point, you want the treat in your hand to be absolutely valuable – and use play outside eating hours if your dog is not motivated by food. For puppies, I start by making sure I can safely remove their food if need be whilst they are eating, or that they are not so obsessed by their food bowl that I cannot interrupt them. I do the same with their toys. The first time I do this, I start with a completely empty bowl. I get their attention, I may ask them to sit or have an interruption activity like look at me, then I reward with a really high value treat in the bowl. Then wait, and do the same. Repeated around the food bowl, this means they soon learn to be very glad when I approach as my being around their bowl means MORE food! I wouldn’t do this with an adult dog with food issues, however, although it is a great way to get puppies used to the fact that someone might stop them eating, and that is perfectly okay. I will also interrupt the puppy whilst they are eating, reward them with a high value morsel of something and then let them continue with their bowl. I never want my approach to signal the removal of food. It also means that both I and other dogs can move around my dogs without starting a war.
  4. This technique also works for toys. Start with a low-value toy and reward for letting go. Even Tobby, my toy-guarding monster, will drop his toys for a piece of meat. I’ll then give him take the toy again. I don’t ever want him to think, “I drop this item and I just get that…” otherwise he won’t drop it. In all honesty, Tobby is 14 and a Malinois without a history who has a toy guarding thing and a bitey thing. He is too old and it is too infrequent for me to need to remove his toys completely, so I save this for moments when I really need that toy back, like when a foster puppy arrives unexpectedly. He cannot tolerate other dogs trying to take his toys and so I don’t want him to feel that he has to guard his stuff from puppies. I also do this by offering him a better toy. I quickly noticed that there was a hierarchy of toys and that he would swap for some but not for others. With my younger dogs, it is vital that they give things up when I ask, including toys.
  5. With older dogs, remove all triggers until you know you have overcome any guarding behaviour. Food and toys are not things that should be lying around the house with a guarder. This is the main reason that we don’t leave out food or toys at the refuge – they can quickly become objects of value to dogs who are kept in small spaces without the same level of stimulus that they get in a home. Sadly, to make the refuge more stimulating with food, chews and toys would also make it worth guarding. With Little Miss, who was guarding me when I ate my pizza (or any bits that might drop on the floor, maybe, since she had already developed a begging habit before she got here) I removed myself. I went in the kitchen, closed the babygate and fussed and petted her when I finished. For Tilly, who guards bones or mouldy bread rolls, I do the “trade” routine when bone-time is over, and then I put them out of the way. Bone-time is over when I can’t supervise them any more; it’s the same with toy time. Living in a multi-dog household which often changes in numbers and levels of training, I don’t want a situation to arise in unsupervised time.
  6. Teach your dogs these things in isolation if you have a multi-dog household and then gradually change the environment and the presence of other animals. For instance, practise the Give and Trade behaviours in isolation, then have other dogs at a distance, before moving in closer and closer. Dogs don’t generalise well so just because you have taken their food bowl away from them doesn’t mean you will be able to get a stolen shoe back from them without a snap. Neither may they understand that because you have done Give and Trade in your living room that the same principles apply in the garden or on a walk.
  7. If your dog guards you, a valued resting spot, a toy or food, it is not a good time to try training them when they are guarding. Don’t punish them for their behaviour, just ignore them. An emotionally-charged moment is not the time to try and remove something from a dog, whether they have taken it in play or they have taken it to guard. It is not a teaching moment. Turn away and walk off. Keep them away from children or other animals at this point. Whilst Tobby’s toy-guarding is a bit of a problem, my other dogs and I will just walk off and leave him to it. When a crazy terrier foster took my boot before I was due to go out, he wanted to play. Chasing him would have been a great game. He needed a stooge to run from, so I walked away and went to the fridge. Sure enough, he dropped the boot and came running within two minutes. I was a bit late leaving, but better that than ten minutes of an angry ‘chase’ game in the garden. That of course was stealing for play and a little different, but the same principle applies: if you are not there, you are not going to take whatever they have. Plus, that fridge is an interesting place that is full of things that are way more interesting than a shoe nobody is playing with or a scarf that nobody else wants.
  8. Accept that your dogs in a multi-dog household will need to tell other dogs they are too near, and that this is not always an issue. Tilly is an invariable bowl dipper. She will happily go to everyone else’s bowl and stick her head in it if unsupervised. They’re so good-natured and the food is not so important to them that they’re bothered, so they let her. It’s not nice behaviour though. However, if she does it to Heston, or if Amigo – who finishes first – does it to Heston, he’ll give them a grumble. They’re too close. It serves its purpose and they back off. I know it horrified one prospective adoptant who came to see a puppy in my care that I let my dogs take care of telling puppies not to come near them when they are lying down. Yes, my dogs growl at each other from time to time, and yes I allow it. Stares and mild grumbles are the ways that dogs communicate. A puppy who doesn’t know this will never be well-socialised around dogs and this is a major problem for some of the older puppies who arrive with me: no dog has ever told them ‘back off!!’ and so they have never had to. For their own preservation, dogs need to understand dog language and if they rely on humans to intervene and keep them separate, then you have dogs who can never be unsupervised. These are dogs that inadvertently provoke others into biting them because they don’t understand when a dog growls, it is not playing and no human will come along to stop the escalation.
  9. Teach great bite inhibition at the same time. Then if you know you really, really need to, you can take something from them by force. I’m not ever going to be a fan of prising something out of a dog’s jaws, but I know with my dogs they’ll let me if I need to, like when one found a sheep carcass and “Leave it!” wasn’t enough.
  10. Dogs who resource guard should not be treated as “dominant” dogs. In fact, many are deeply insecure and afraid. Thus they are more likely to feel cornered and that they need to protect themselves from threat. Treating dogs such as this with negativity, punishment or hostility will only worsen conditions, not improve them. If you are worried about the level of hostility that your dog is showing around particular situations, seek help from a qualified behaviouralist who can help you get to the bottom of the problem and overcome it. E-collars, pinning and punishment may stop the behaviour as the dog “submits” but it does so at a huge emotional cost.

Here’s a couple of videos to help you with “Leave it!” and “Drop it!” and ignore the advertising! A guy’s got to make a living after all…

And the fabulous Emily from Kikopup. You can do the same with food bowls too.

 

 

What you need to know about dog bites that can save your dog’s life: Part Three

What you need to know about dog bites that can save your dog’s life: Part Three

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Following on from previous articles about dogs attacking other dogs and dogs biting adults this post focuses on advice to help you avoid the most catastrophic situation of all: when a dog bites a child.

In such cases, when a shelter dog, or a dog you have owned from a puppy, bites a child, there are few alternatives we consider other than euthanasia. Once a dog bites a human, a line has been crossed. As adults, we can reasonably ensure we can avoid such situations again in many circumstances. But when a dog has bitten a child, we may feel we have no other option than to destroy the dog. This is not to say that dogs who end up at the refuge having bitten a child are dogs that we euthanise: we take reasonable precautions in alerting new owners and insisting on homes where the dog will have the most limited of contact with children. We have had many successes in rehoming dogs who have been bitten because their new families understand exactly what has happened and have worked to retrain the dog.

Hopus is one such example.

hopus

A young spaniel, he had been taken to the vet to be euthanised. The vet thought the dog would not bite in other circumstances and performed a series of bite tests. Once the vet was happy that Hopus had some bite inhibition, we were able to offer him for adoption. He had a few moments of aggressive behaviour with other dogs in his new home, but his new owner, in a home without any children, was happy to re-train him. Over a year later and he is very settled. It took considerable faith and commitment from his new family to overcome a very serious problem and he is lucky to be alive.

But how does a dog like Hopus go for two years without biting and then suddenly snap?

Once we heard the story, it was easy to say with hindsight why this happened. A breed bought as a family dog that is still very much a field dog in need of exercise, young children, lack of respect for dogs, a dog who was two years old and had not had enough exercise or training, had never really been taught to inhibit his bites, mums who are busy being mums and not having enough time to focus on being dog owners… It’s a ticklist of circumstances that describes almost exactly every dog brought to the refuge because it’s bitten a child.

Fritzou was another dog adopted from the refuge who was brought back for biting a child. A nine year old terrier, he had been brought back to the refuge after a short time because he had bitten a child who had disturbed him in his bed. Now he is very happy with a lovely couple who understand that when Fritzou is asleep, he doesn’t like to be disturbed.

You can see the pattern… a dog bred for working with its mouth, young children, busy mums… add grumbly old age to the mix and you can understand why we say you should let sleeping dogs lie. All very well in retrospect!

So what can you do to make your home as safe as possible? How can dogs and children live harmoniously?

First is in your choice of dog. Some dogs are recorded as high-frequency biters because there are a lot of them. Forget about what you believe about labradors being great family dogs- they’re on the bite list. They are also many countries’ most popular breed, though, which accounts for the numbers. Little dogs are not exempt: spitz, minpins and chihuahuas can have a real temper. Collies and heelers are prone to herding and nipping: I saw an Australian Shepherd nipping at a child’s feet last summer – the child was laughing and I was horrified. Cockers are known for their furious tempers – a fault of in-breeding. Malinois and GSDs are also on the list. Molosser breeds, rottweilers and dobies are on the list too. And although a little dog may seem like a great idea, many have not been sufficiently bite-proofed simply because they are small and their owners find it less important than you would if you owned a rottie.

The second thing to consider is the dog’s nature and age. Young dogs can be hugely tolerant of grabby hands, but as they age, they may snap when they never have before. A fearful dog is more likely to bite as well. Believe it or not, many dogs are scared of children if they have never been socialised with children. Only last week a griffon froze under a tree and couldn’t be moved. The problem? He was being walked by a lady with children and he’d got spooked. He came out as soon as the children had gone. And they were great children – gentle and sensible. Being small can be freaky to a dog.

Once you have picked a dog that is right for your children, it’s time to ensure your children have great manners around dogs. 77% of bites come from a dog that is known to the person it bites: it’s not strange dogs that you have to be worried about around your children.

Before getting a new dog, even if your children are familiar with dogs, please go through the ground-rules with them.

  1. We don’t disturb sleeping dogs. We don’t go in dogs’ beds and we don’t invade their space.
  2. We don’t corner dogs and we always make sure they have plenty of space.
  3. We don’t disturb dogs when they are eating. We never interrupt them if they have a treat.
  4. We don’t hug dogs, even if they let us.
  5. We don’t encourage them to jump up by waving our hands about.
  6. We don’t kiss dogs.
  7. We don’t pick dogs up.
  8. We don’t take the dog’s things off them.
  9. We don’t discipline dogs, smack them, shout at them or tell them off.
  10. We don’t yell at dogs or frighten them with loud voices.

This video is a great starting point for young children

 

If children follow these basic rules, you will find that the situations which drive dogs to bite are minimised.

There are lots of great resources to be found at

Stopthe77.com

The Family Dog

Jimmy’s Dog House videos

Preventing dog bites is the one thing all parents should put at the top of their agenda, and making sure dogs and kids feel happy around one another is the best way to ensure that. If only everybody spent a little time at the beginning of their doggie relationship giving space rather than cuddles, giving boundaries and foundations rather than kisses and giving dogs time to adjust, far fewer dogs would be returned to the refuge under the black cloud of being a biter.

The sad fact is that most people choose to euthanise a healthy dog that may never bite ever again simply because they did not take adequate advice from the shelter about which dogs would make good family pets and because they did not dog-proof their children.

There are seven million dogs in France, and every single one of them is capable of biting under the ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances. As the American Veterinary Medical Association say: “the majority of bites, if not all, are preventable.” Most dog bites involve children. Most dog bites involve a familiar dog. Most dog bites involve everyday interaction between children and dogs. It is up to us as owners to make sure that children understand the boundaries that dogs have. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to someone recounting events when returning a dog knowing that the bite was entirely preventable. There is also nothing more frustrating than seeing parents take risks with their children’s lives and health.

By being proactive, parents can ensure their children are safe around dogs and that their dogs are safe around children. It is better never to cross that line than constantly test it – as it is a line that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed.

What you need to know about dog bites that can save a dog’s life: Part Two

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Following on from the last article about dog aggression and dog bites involving another dog, this article explores some vital information about dog bites that involve humans. Although dog bites are very rare, for the most part when a newly adopted dog bites a human it is either returned to the refuge or begins the veterinary protocol in France for dogs who have bitten a human. Many times, this leads to the dog being euthanised.

Dogs bite humans for many reasons. Sometimes owners decide to keep the dog, but on other occasions the dog is returned as owners feel they can no longer trust the animal. Just this afternoon, a dog was brought back to the refuge because she had bitten the owner. As I walked up the lane with one of the members of staff, we were puzzled. She had been at the refuge for fourteen months and had never shown any propensity to bite. As we said then, there are few circumstances as stressful as the refuge, though we do our best to make it as stress-free as possible. If dogs don’t bite here, it’s a shock that they do in their lives beyond the refuge. For many dogs, if they bite a human, they do it here. We are in no doubt at all that dogs that have been darlings at the refuge may bite their owners – owners come with wounds and dressings, but it is a shock all the same to see a dog returned who had never, ever shown the slightest inclination to bite a human at the refuge. Still, those are the owners who return dogs. We can do nothing if they decide to have the dog euthanised. It is their right.

There are many reasons why dogs bite humans, and because we understand about those reasons, we can do a little to avoid those circumstances.

Some of the circumstances in which a dog may bite:

  1. Fear. This is the main reason a dog will bite. It is afraid. It may be cornered and feel that a bite is the only way out; it may be afraid that you are going to take its treat away. It may not have been well socialised from an early age.
  2. Pain. When dogs bite very severely, they are often in a high degree of pain. Dogs who have never bitten their entire lives may lose their tolerance as they grow older. Manipulation can be painful and where there are stiff joints, there are dogs who can’t tell you that they are hurting.
  3. Play. They have never learned that teeth hurt. They have never learned to have a soft mouth when dealing with other animals or with people. They think that it is fun. I watched three puppies play this afternoon. When the male bit the female too hard, she really shrieked and told him off. Puppies who have not been well-socialised may never have learned to moderate their bites around other animals or around humans.
  4. Surprise. Something out of the ordinary has given the dog a scare and it has put up its dental dukes.
  5. Communication. Forget Lassie. A quick way to get a human’s attention is to bite them. They have something to tell you, and usually not a positive. They are telling you that a line has been crossed and they don’t feel comfortable any more, or that they want to play, or that they really, really want to eat the treat in your hand and they’re not very patient.
  6. Background and breed. Some breeds have been bred for ‘nipping’. Heelers and herders use these techniques. Unscrupulous cocker spaniel breeders have blighted the breed with the proliferation of “cocker rage”. Dogs such as Malinois are well-known to be “mouthy”. Dogs may also have been raised to bite: attack dogs and guard dogs are only valuable if they will bite when required. At the refuge, we have no way of knowing if a dog has been raised to bite on purpose. On the flip side, sometimes it is just that they have not been taught NOT to bite.

At the refuge, we meet many dogs who are afraid. Many have been caught and brought in terrified. The first dog I knew who went to attack a human was a terrified hunt dog. She had never, ever been socialised with people and the arrival of a human being bearing a big shiny plate of biscuits didn’t make any sense to her. She was utterly terrified. Some dogs are afraid of all the noises and smells. Some are terrified of the other dogs. For whatever the reason, the dog thinks that it is in a corner and it has no way out. A bite is its last escape route.

We also meet dogs who are in pain. Very occasionally, a decision will be made to have a dog euthanised at the refuge. Usually medical issues have made the dog so uncomfortable that they have become terrified of touch. When dogs bite staff members, pain is usually one of the contributing factors.

Misdirected energy is often seen in a resulting bite. Whether the dogs are excited to be fed, excited to go out for a walk, wanting to give the other dogs in the runs a good show-and-tell of their teeth situations, if they can’t disperse that energy and your leg is near, then it’s a viable target. These kind of bites very quickly cease in “the real world” as they are no longer facing the high levels of hormones they are flooded with at the refuge.

The final type of bite that we see in the refuge are finger-nipping bites. The dog may not have good food manners; it may be starving. Either way, a dog like this has probably never learned to take food gently from a human hand. The other kind of nipped fingers we see are with people who have put their fingers through the bars.

Once adopted, other factors come into play. Although the refuge is stressful for many dogs, it is relatively safe in terms of Things As What Can Make A Dog Scared… I once watched my dog bark for ten minutes at a sieve so there’s often no rhyme or reason behind it. I think he had caught his reflection in the metal and it had given him a shock. Either way, dogs don’t see sieves at the refuge.

So what are the circumstances behind dog bites in the real world?

I was bitten by my Malinois Tobby. He had been with me eight months. He has severe arthritis and is not castrated. He is nippy around other dogs and will air-snap. I’d brought a young uncastrated male home and Tobby became obsessed with him. He wouldn’t eat or sleep. For 48 hours, he followed the dog everywhere. When you’re thirteen and following a young pointer pup about, be sure that your bones might get achey. There was, I think, an element of guarding at play too. I came between Tobby and the other dog and Tobby bit me. I don’t think I surprised him – I think he was telling me that I couldn’t get between him and the other dog. It was a warning. Needless to say, once the foster pup left my home, Tobby has had another two months of bite-free behaviour. Resource guarding is often the source of a snap. Luckily, there are lots of ways to overcome resource guarding. There are not lots of ways to overcome the passions of a thirteen year old arthritic pensioner for an eight month old pointer.

Dogs bite around food as well. Few people at the refuge walk around with food dangling in front of dogs’ noses (although a little girl and her waffle were almost parted this afternoon) but where food is involved, the stakes go up. A dropped crumb can cause warfare. Again, another situation in which resources were an important factor. A few months ago, a man was having a problem with another dog he’d adopted. The dog had issues about being inside – whether it felt confused or confined, who can say? But he’d taken to stealing items and running off and hiding with them. When the owner went to retrieve the items, the dog growled and bit him. With a bit of conditioning, the dog soon learnt that giving things up brought rewards, and the biting stopped. Consult a dog behaviouralist if your dog is exhibiting resource-guarding behaviours, and you’ll soon find that what was an emotionally-charged situation becomes a great learning curve that enhances the bond you have with your dog.

A final, very sad, reason that dogs bite once adopted is because of the popularity of methods such as those used by trainers who talk about dominance in dog/human relationships and how you must “be the boss”. I was horrified to receive a call a year ago from a new owner who had sought out “professional” assistance from a dog trainer who had flooded a young dog, overwhelming it with contact, and the dog bit and bit and bit the trainer. The trainer recommended the dog be euthanised. Not only are methods such as flooding and pinning barbaric, they are also ineffective. They encourage the dog to live in a high state of arousal and fear which leads to more bites, not fewer. A dog trainer is not a dog behaviouralist. Obedience training is very different from diagnosing what is triggering changes in emotional states for your dog, and this is where qualifications matter. In France, there are few recognised qualifications for dog trainers: anyone can set themselves up in business and train animals. That is not so for animal behaviouralists. I’m hugely saddened by the fact that many of our local dog trainers offer “behavioural” services which involve pinning dogs, rolling dogs, or flooding dogs with overwhelming sensations. Anybody who tells you that your dog is trying to dominate you or control the home environment for humans is not a dog behavioralist. Their methods are more likely to lead to bites and fear aggression. Even Mr Pin himself Cesar Millan has a webpage about dog bites that now offers advice that is largely rational and reasonable, something that many of his followers don’t appreciate.

There are many great resources about dog bites that can help you if you have taken on a known biter, or if you have a dog that has developed biting habits but you are determined to work with.

  1. Dr Sophia Yin has a very detailed article about working with dogs who have bitten to desensitise them to fearful stimuli.
  2. Following from the article from Dr Ian Dunbar about assessing dog bites, there is also an article from Sophia Yin about assessment.
  3. Another great article about how to greet dogs safely from Sophia Yin and how to prevent dog bites.
  4. An article from the ASPCA about mouthing and nipping in adult dogs, and how to decrease it.
  5. A superb website from The Family Dog called ‘Stop the 77’ with some superb resources for children.

The final article in this series on dog bites will focus on dog bites and children. Sadly, the statistics show that dogs are more likely to bite children and that this is one factor most dog owners would consider to be a line that cannot be crossed. For that reason, training your children how to act around dogs is absolutely vital to the confidence of your dog in the home and to prevent the one act that is almost certainly a doggie death sentence: biting a child.

 

Finally, I am never likely to finish with a quote from Cesar Millan’s website, but I fully endorse this statement:

“Dog bite prevention begins at home with your own dog by being a responsible dog owner.”

If only everybody understood that!

What you need to know about dog bites that can save a dog’s life

What you need to know about dog bites that can save a dog’s life

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Yesterday, I had a very typical phone call with another dog rehoming association.

“We’ve got to pick up a dog in the next twenty-four hours. What the hell are we going to do? We don’t have any foster homes free and there’s no space at the shelter.”

The story goes like this: new owner unintentionally sets up a situation where the dog is likely to fail, then wants the dog removed when it attacks one of her other dogs. Sadly, the refuge get many calls like this. The dog has bitten another dog… or worse… the dog has bitten a human.

In this post, I’m going to focus on when dogs attack other dogs and look at dog attacks on humans in a follow-up post. In the vast majority of cases, where a dog bites another animal, the animal is either destroyed or returned to the shelter. This is why it is absolutely vital that you read this article very carefully before taking on another dog. Very few new owners know what to do in the case of a dog bite or even feel safe any more around a dog that has bitten their other animals and so they often start procedures to have the dog euthanised, or return the dog to an uncertain future at the refuge. I want to start by taking all blame out of this discussion. It is an emotional enough discussion without laying the blame on the new owners or on the dog.

In fact, it is one thing that all dog owners should consider, not just new adoptants. You have an animal in your house that has the capacity to severely injure or even kill another animal. It is definitely something that need to be discussed frankly and rationally. Bite inhibition is the one thing that we need to teach our dogs from puppyhood so that we don’t end up with a dog who is an unknown quantity. We shouldn’t just focus on dog-human contact, but also dog-dog contact and socialisation. This is especially important because we can never guarantee a dog will be with us for life, that they won’t end up with new owners or that our circumstances won’t change in ways that will bring out the potential to bite in our dogs. Bite inhibition is the number one thing I wish all owners would teach their puppies.

For adult dogs, there are four steps an owner can take to deal with aggressive or fearful behaviour that has ended in a bite or attack on another dog.

The first step is accurate assessment. Sadly, we may never know that our new adopted dog has not got adequate bite inhibition until it is too late. We only know that our dogs, whether we have owned them from puppyhood or whether we have adopted them as adults, are bomb-proof emotionally when we have taken them to the edge of their tolerances. That is something that no dog owner ever wants to do, not least for the emotional well-being of their pet.

So how do you know just how serious a dog bite is especially when it is such an emotionally charged event?

On Dog Talk, there is a very useful document about assessing a dog bite. You will also find a great poster on Dr Sophia Yin’s site. This is used for assessing bites on humans, but can be used to assess bites on other animals as well.

Level 1 is “obnoxious or aggressive behaviour but no skin contact by teeth”

This can look pretty scary nonetheless. There may be a lot of growling, barking, air-snapping and pinning, but no skin-teeth contact. It still isn’t nice and it can an emotional residue for days after. No blood is drawn, no marks are left and teeth have never touched the other dog, even if they have been shown.

Level 2 bites involve “skin contact by teeth but no puncture.”

As the document says, these incidents comprise 99% of dog attacks and are more likely evidence of a “fearful, rambuctious or out of control” dog. That is not to say they are incidents you should tolerate and you should seek further behavioural support from a dog behaviouralist in order to ensure that the dogs don’t move up the scale, but this level of aggression is relatively easy to train out of a dog.

When Amigo arrived at my home, he had never attacked another dog at the refuge, nor grumbled at another dog. Heston, my own dog, was definitely “rambunctious” but I didn’t follow my own golden rules on introductions and what happened next was a level 1 situation. No teeth were involved and no blood was drawn. That’s not to play down the situation. It was highly emotionally charged and definitely out of control. But level 1 and level 2 aggression and bite behaviours have great prognosis if dealt with effectively through positive reinforcement, conditioning, desensitisation and a basic “sit-reward” environment where I gradually got the boys used to the fact that being around the other without looking at them, without reacting, with posturing, meant lots and lots of treats. Level 1 and level 2 aggression and bites may seem like the end of the world but are fairly easy to rectify with a dog behaviouralist and a bit of patience.

dogfights

Isn’t that right boys?

More than 99% of dog-dog bites fall into level 1 and level 2, and despite the heightened emotions, the dogs have enough restraint not to have to resort to hurting the other dog. Usually, pinning, teeth displays and growling/barking are enough. Horrifying as it is, the dogs have been thrown into a situation where they have had to test each other, and they have been able to stop themselves killing the other dog. You may not think so right now, but this is a very good thing. These situations have a very good prognosis with the right interventions.

Level three bites are single bites (possibly with a number of puncture sites however) with puncture wounds less than half the depth of the dog’s canine teeth.

The aggressor may hold on or bear down. Wounds may be worsened by the other dog retreating or retracting and pulling away, so there may be some laceration. This bite will need antiseptic treatment and possibly a couple of sutures. Vet treatment will usually be sought. If this happens to one of your dogs, seek immediate vet treatment. Antibiotics and antiseptics will be needed to ensure that the nasty bacteria on dogs’ teeth don’t cause infections.

Level three bites are the kind that happen very rarely: they happen a small number of times in a year at the refuge given the fact that a thousand animals move through our gates in the most stressful circumstances of all and have to be paired up with other dogs.  In fact it is a huge credit to the species (and the staff and volunteers!) that there are not more bites. No situation can be as stressful as the ones by which dogs end up at the refuge, often handled for the first time in their lives, or in years or months, by the pound staff, and then kept in an environment which must be a hormonal hell: hundreds of hormones, hundreds of dogs, small spaces, limited resources and enforced confinement for much of the day. If dogs don’t bite here, where they are more afraid by the numbers, smells and sounds of other dogs, then they may never face such similar circumstances ever again in their lives.

That said, level three bites do happen.  It’s again a massively emotional situation, the wound is relatively severe and the dog involved will be in need of serious rehabilitation. For dogs like this who have no restrictions on biting, the ideal is that they are rehomed without other dogs. Level three dogs who have attacked another dog should not be left unsupervised with the other dog without prolonged intervention and training, if ever.

Level four bites are single bites with puncture wounds less than half the depth of the dog’s canine teeth.

The dog will hold on or bear down. This bite will need antiseptic treatment and possibly sutures. These bites are also extremely rare, despite horror stories. Flesh may be torn. The dog may have held on and there may be evidence of shaking. Veterinary attention will have to have been sought and there will be most likely a need for at least a couple of sutures. This will be a single bite with force and a resistance to letting go. The fight may have had to have been broken up by humans.

Level five bites are multiple level four bites. 

The wounds are repeated and deeper than half the length of the aggressor’s canine teeth. The multiples may happen in the same fight (i.e. two or more deep bites in one fight) or over a period of time (i.e. one level four bite in one fight and then another in a later fight, be it days or weeks later) These are very infrequent and cause much damage. Dogs who have been repeatedly bitten will need sutures and vet care. The prognosis for dogs who have bitten other dogs repeatedly is not good. They have limited, if any, bite inhibition. This dog is not safe around other dogs and should not be left with them under any circumstance.

Level six dog bites involve the death of the other animal.

These incidents are extremely rare but they do happen. In such cases, the dog should not be housed at any point with another animal and rehabilitation is very unlikely.

Once you have assessed the dog bite, you can then think about predictability: how likely is this bite to happen again? How predictable was it? How easy is it to identify the cause of the bite and avoid the situation in future? This is where objectivity is crucial. What led up to the event? What was involved in the event? Can these things be reasonably avoided?

You can also assess other factors that led to the bite. Which emotions were in play? Was the dog afraid? Playing? Was the dog threatened?

For Heston and Amigo, it was easy to say with hindsight that it was a very predictable situation. A highly charged emotional greeting on established territory was bound to end badly with unfamiliar intact males. When they had a second scuffle in the garden, it became entirely predictable. The garden had become a battlefield.

Following this, you can then think about prevention. How can you avoid this situation? What can you do to prevent the situation arising again? For my own warring pair, the garden was a definite flashpoint, and doorways and corridors were also charged with high energy. We went out through different doors, we didn’t go in the garden together until behaviour improved and I didn’t load them up together into my car for walks for five months. We had no toys and no flashpoints, no triggers. Food, resources (including affection/contact) and space can all be trigger points. What you can assess and predict, you can prevent. By eliminating various flashpoints, you can avoid the possibility of problems occurring.

The fourth step involves training. To be specific, it involves classical conditioning, operant conditioning and desensitisation. That means that you want them to associate seeing another dog with getting rewards and treats. Instead of being a negative and overwhelming experience in those trigger zones or times, they associate seeing another dog at those moments with treats. Think of it this way… When Tilly sees a cat, she is excited. Cats = leftover cat food. It’s an involuntary response to wag her tail and be pleased to see a cat because cats are omens of extra food. The aim of a dog behaviouralist can be to encourage positive involuntary responses to trigger points by using positive rewards. A good dog behaviouralist will also encourage positive responses with an “if… then” situation. “If you look at this other dog without aggressing, then you get a treat”. Desensitisation means gradually getting your dog used to trigger points until they are no longer trigger points. At all points, a professional will make quick work of assessing the risk your dog poses to other dogs, helping you predict what situations are causing this behaviour, helping you prevent unnecessary triggers and conditioning positive responses from your dog. They will also be able to show you safe ways to encourage bite inhibition towards humans.

Some of these principles will also be true of dog attacks on humans. In follow-up posts, I’ll explore common reasons dogs bite, ways to predict when a dog is going to bite and how Dr Dunbar’s dog bite framework relates to bites on humans.

As for the new arrival who is aggressive with another dog, it’s vital that you follow the steps to ensure dogs are properly introduced and that you avoid as many triggers as you can. Please read these two posts BEFORE you introduce new dogs and you will find that doggie squabbles are much reduced. Careful introductions and constant supervision avoiding doggie flashpoints (feeding time, beds, toys, walks, confined or small spaces) will enormously reduce the stresses you are putting your new dog through and will help ensure that you don’t face doggie fall-outs.

Should the worst happen and your dogs attack each other, please bear in mind that anything at a level three bite and below is standard fare for a dog behaviouralist to sort out between warring house-mates and that your dogs can learn to love and trust each other even after a fall-out.

The future is uncertain for dogs who have bitten: who wants to take a risk on a dog that has been returned multiple times to the refuge because of bites? If the paperwork has been completed, the new owners are perfectly within their rights to have the dog euthanised. If the dog is returned, the refuge have a responsibility to assess and report bites, as well as signalling this to future owners, who may well be put off by having a dog who has bitten another. Many shelters in France do not have the space to keep dogs who cannot be rehomed, and 80000 dogs a year are euthanised here.

Understanding severity, contacting a dog behaviouralist, working with your dogs to ensure bites don’t escalate and being proactive in removing trigger points and ensuring smooth introductions can largely avoid the situations where dogs feel the need to bite. If everyone were to follow simple instructions about introductions and the removal of trigger points, fewer dogs would feel the need to rely on their teeth to protect themselves. By following these simple steps, we can decrease the number of returns and the number of dogs put to sleep because they have bitten another.

 

 

 

 

 

5 common dog behaviour problems

5 common dog behaviour problems

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When you take on a new dog, be they young or old, there are many problems you might encounter. It may seem that you spend your first weeks lying awake as they howl through the night, or that you come home to a scene of carnage. For many dogs and owners, it’s simply a case of biding your time until you know each other well enough to find ways to avoid problems, but in some cases, the dog’s behaviour is so inconsistent with your lifestyle and you may feel so unable to deal with the difficulties that may present, that you feel you have no other option than to surrender them to a shelter.

Right now, I’ve got a little visitor Jack Russell staying with me who is more like Milo in The Mask than a dog I’d want to live with, and there are things that are tolerable and easily rectified (like him having a pee during the night) things that I need to adjust both of our behaviours over (like him running off with my shoe five minutes before I need to go out when I’m already running late) and things that are borderline ‘surrender’ behaviours, (like the way he barks through my lessons on Skype and can’t be left outside on his own) Very quickly, the borderline behaviours can be the ones that become very difficult to manage and can become very costly.

There are many behaviours that are fairly common and easy to resolve. Many are most easily resolved through appropriate exercise. Visitor Jack Russell is recovering from a broken pelvis and broken leg, so he’s on enforced short-exercise bursts. More toys and more exercise would make all his behaviours into tolerable and easily rectified ones, I know. Exercise and entertainment make all the difference to him.

Many modern breeds of dog were not bred to be in a home on their own for eight hours a day. Working dogs, for example, are expected to be active for the kind of time periods that we ourselves work. Many destructive or unwanted behaviours will disappear with a half-hour of obedience routines and a couple of hours of walks every day. Yes, really, that much!

If you’ve got a high energy dog, don’t assume either that getting another one is the solution to your situation, that they will be able to run off their energy. No. All you might be doing is giving your dog another dog to show cool stuff to, like how much fun it is to dig, or play tug with your best towels, or to tear a duvet apart. Many dogs who have a doggie friend with the same energy levels as they have will simply bond with their new friend and become more distant from you, and unless you have the hands to keep up the training, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Of course, it can work fantastically and your dogs may keep each other occupied in those moments when you cannot.

What follows is a list of five common behavioural problems that new dogs often experience, and ways to deal with these. Many of the links come from Dr Ian Dunbar and his website Dog Star Daily, as he talks insightfully and helpfully about aggression, anxiety and youthful doggie behaviours. Gwen Bailey’s website Dog Problems Solved is also a great starting point

Anxiety 

Separation anxiety or hyperattachment disorder can turn you into a virtual recluse if you aren’t careful. If your dog shows signs of distress when you are out, that’s fairly normal: up to 70% of single dogs show signs of distress on their own, and around 40% of dogs who have other doggie companions. Barking, destruction, urination, defecation or even self-mutilation are fairly typical ways that this anxiety manifests itself. You may find other stress responses such as a loss of appetite, panting, pacing or howling. It can happen even before you plan on leaving and stops when you are home. That said, you may notice that they follow you everywhere or feel unhappy when they can’t see you. This is fairly typical among shelter dogs as their anxiety may have been the reason for their abandonment, or it may be a consequence of how they were left.

For those ‘in the house’ moments, just ignore your little shadow. Give them something to occupy themselves, like a Kong or a good-quality chew. Teach them self-calming by rewarding them when they choose to settle. This clip from Kikopup shows ways you can teach calmness. The sound isn’t brilliant but the message is very clear.

There are other things you can do to avoid anxiety in dogs such as minimising all cues that you are going out, crate-training your dog (if they will tolerate it and it does not add to their fear), keeping them in a secure and safe environment and building up their exposure to being alone, from thirty seconds with you in another room with the door open, to three or four hours alone at home over a period of years. Separation anxiety should never be treated by forced separation as there are studies that show that separation anxiety isn’t necessarily related to a hyperattachment disorder i.e. it may not be you that they are missing, but company in general. Instead, work on getting the dog feeling comfortable on their own when people are out of sight rather than ignoring the dog. A happy, reassured dog is less likely to feel anxious. There are many other techniques you can try, such as thundervests and even medication. In all circumstances, seek advice from a dog behaviouralist who understands and has had success with separation anxiety. This article is very helpful in giving a range of straightforward tips to help you with mild anxiety. For my dog with separation anxiety (he’s capable of moving furniture with his teeth and destroying sofa cushions as well as opening doors and gates) the difference was another animal. He is never on his own and the anxiety subsided to a level that was manageable for both of us. I do need to walk my dogs in shifts, but that small adjustment made all the difference. You will also find further information about separation anxiety in this series of articles from Dog Star Daily.

Urinating in the house

Many dogs – and yes, females too – will urinate in the house. For dogs from our refuge, mainly a rural refuge with many hunt dogs and dogs who have lived permanently outside, there can be issues in the first days and weeks. There can be issues for any dog – male or female – if they decide to use their scent as a way to say hello to your curtains. Sterilised, castrated or not, this is something many animals are capable of doing in the first days in your home. This article on house-training should eradicate most issues. It’s important to rule out health issues just as it is important to rule out psychological issues. Some dogs may urinate when over-excited or when feeling stressed. Some dogs may not like to go outside in the dark or in the wet. Toilet training, unless for medical reasons, is usually one of the easiest issues to rectify with a watchful eye and by following guidance. This series of articles from Dr Ian Dunbar may also help you reduce and eliminate this issue.

Biting

Sadly, some dogs have never been taught not to bite. For young puppies, this is a behaviour that is easily eradicated. You may find that some breeds are more “mouthy” than others if they have been bred selectively for their behaviours. That said, those breeds that are more “mouthy” will have not been included in the gene pool if they attacked their human handlers. A terrier that can’t be removed safely from its quarry is not a dog worth breeding from, and cockers that exhibit “cocker rage” will face the same scenario. This being the case, there are still unscrupulous breeders who have thought nothing of breeding from such animals anyway just to make a quick buck. With shelter dogs, the main problem can be that nobody has ever taught them not to bite. In some cases, former owners may have taught them not to growl, which means they go from relatively normal behaviour to a bite without warning. Play-biting is another thing altogether. Sadly, many of the posts on the Internet, when you search for “stop adult dogs biting” encourage you to involve yourself in situations that are more likely to end up in a bite than to end up with calm behaviour!

The hardest thing to do is assess the severity of the bite and the reason for it. The sad fact is that you will only realise your dog has had little bite training until they bite, or that you only realise their bite inhibition is not foolproof under all circumstances. You may realise this  quickly or it may take months. Tilly is a biter. She’s a resource-guarder and will bite if something is taken away from her. Tobby is also a biter. He often “air-snaps” at one of my other dogs and he has bitten me. He has no growl and little warning. He will show his teeth for a second or two and unless whatever provoked the teeth display goes away or backs off, Tobby will then bite. I suspect he was taught not to growl or grumble. I am also under no doubt at all that he would bite the vet if he had the chance.

The first question to ask yourself is what caused the bite. Was it a play-bite or not? In neither of my dogs’ cases has the bite been for play. The second question to ask yourself is ‘Can I reasonably avoid the thing that caused the bite and keep others safe (as well as the dog)?’ For instance, I can reasonably avoid Tilly following toddlers round and snatching the food out of their hands. If I have toddlers here, I can put her in another room or keep the children from eating food around her. I can also reasonably avoid Tobby biting the vet by muzzling him and having assistance when restraining him. When he bit me, he’d become obsessed by a young uncastrated male I had here on foster. It was a form of resource guarding and a form of elevated ritualised harassment, as I came between Tobby and the object of his affections. I’ve had other young uncastrated males here on foster, but it was a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that was easily resolved by keeping the dogs separate.

For those situations which will occur regularly, such as Tilly and her resource guarding, it’s important to teach good habits at these times. I need to be able to take things from her without risking a bite. Grooming, nail-clipping and medical treatment can also be flashpoints for your dog. For this, you are best to seek the help of an animal behaviouralist and explore desensitisation treatments. Please do not think that someone who trains animals understands why bites happen or how to prevent them. Sadly, where many dogs have been put to sleep as the result of a bite, it was as the result of a misguided ‘expert’. A dog trainer is not necessarily a dog behaviouralist. Neither should you underestimate the role of pain or fear in a reactive bite. This is another reason it is a good idea to seek the advice of a trained animal behaviouralist and a vet.

For play-biting, you have an easier job. This article from the ASPCA gives great advice on reducing and eliminating play-biting. You may also find this article about dog aggression to be very useful.

Aggression towards other dogs or over-exuberant behaviour

Dogs who have not been well-socialised with other dogs may find it hard to adjust to living with others, and this is a common problem experienced. Dogs who have different energy levels can quickly fall out, as can those who are very differently sized or aged. One of the main issues I have with Milo the Mask, Shouty Jack Russell dog, is that he has no idea that other dogs are saying “no, I’ve had enough of playing” or “no, I am an old grump with arthritis and I don’t want to play thanks”. He can’t do “sit” because of the broken pelvis, so we’ve been working on “stay” and “settle” alongside lots of outdoor play, Kongs and chewing. He’s a puppy; it’s normal that he’s got more energy than my old giffers and that’s to me to manage that over-exuberance. Socialising antisocial dogs can be hard but it is not impossible. This guide from Dog Star Daily will help you unpick some aspects of dog fights and spats and be objective about what is happening.

Destructive behaviours and chewing

These behaviours in post-adolescent dogs are often either a result of anxiety, pain or distress, or three other factors: boredom, lack of supervision and not knowing the rules about what’s okay to chew or destroy, and what is not. Most people take that statement personally, as if they are not looking after their dog properly. This isn’t a statement about neglect, though. How many toddlers end up in the emergency room because they’ve put something up their nose, or they’ve fallen over something? We can’t watch them all the time.

This is where toddler stuff comes in really handy. Baby gates, toddler pens and doggie safety reins (an indoor dog lead) are vital when you’re with your dog who is exhibiting these behaviours whilst you’re in the house. Shouty Jack Russell Dog tried to stick his head in the fire yesterday and burning his nose doesn’t seem to be teaching him to stay away from the stove. Our predecessors did a good job in inventing stuff to stop children touching things, getting in to things or ingesting substances they shouldn’t, so dig out your fireguards, your baby playpens and lock up your kitchen cupboards.

The key behaviour that you want to teach when you are supervising is what to do instead of the naughty thing. Replace wires with a Kong and soon they’ll learn that a Kong has nice stuff in it and wires, well, not so much. Teach them that the kitchen is out-of-bounds by rewarding them for settling in their baskets when unsupervised. If you have a puppy, it is easy to crate-train them or keep them in a destruction-proof zone when you can’t supervise them. Exercise, play, obedience training and engaging with you will also mean that when you need to go out and leave them for a little while, they won’t get up to mischief because they are bored and frustrated. Many people go out and leave their dogs at liberty in the home, and then wonder why Fifi has rooted through the dustbin or broken into the biscuit cupboard. A safe place with plenty to occupy them and nothing to destroy when you are out is absolutely perfect. Don’t assume that destruction and chewing are only signs that your dog is unoccupied when alone: it could also be a sign of separation anxiety. The chances are if your dog is new, young or full of energy, that it’s more likely to be just their way of passing time whilst you’re not there. Safe zones, occupation and good teaching about what to chew will erradicate most problems.

Although these five problems may seem relatively minor, they can be deal-breakers for many dogs, ending up with them being passed on to a new family (who may be completely unaware of the dog’s behavioural issues) or with the dog ending up at a shelter. In some scenarios, they can end with the dog being put to sleep, which is why it is vital that if there are persistent problems, you seek the advice of a qualified dog behaviouralist. Don’t feel that you have to tolerate these behaviours and if you have adopted a dog from the Refuge de l’Angoumois, please feel free to contact the staff to ask for support.

5 common canine illnesses and diseases in France

5 common canine illnesses and diseases in France

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At the refuge, with so many dogs living in one space and over a thousand animals through our gates every year, we see more than our fair share of illnesses and diseases. Many of these can be fatal if undetected. Worse are those which can be fatal even if detected. Saddest are those which are completely preventable with a common vaccine.

Some of the diseases and ailments we see at the refuge are not common in the UK and knowing their symptoms can save your dog’s life.

Dogs in France are routinely vaccinated against canine distemper (maladie de Carré) infectious canine hepatitis (hépatite) parvovirus  and leptospirosis. Many dogs are also vaccinated against rabies, and this is a compulsory condition for all Category 1 and 2 dogs.  If your dog is often in kennels or social doggie surroundings you can also vaccinate them against kennel cough. Vaccines are also being seen for piroplasmosis (babesia canis) and Lyme disease which are often contracted through tick bites. Although at the refuge we do not see many cases of distempter or hepatitis, we see parvovirus frequently, as well as kennel cough.

Parvovirus

Parvovirus is a highly contagious viral illness seen in two main forms. The first form is the one we see most commonly at the refuge. It is characterised by vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, fever or low temperature, a rapid heartbeat, engorged lips and eyes, a painful abdomen and a loss of appetite. Symptoms can appear rapidly and are often extreme. Dogs may not present with all symptoms. Lack of fluid and nutrients is a major issue for dogs with parvo, and your vet may recommend keeping them in at the surgery and putting them on a drip to keep them hydrated and give them the nutrients they need. Parvovirus can be transmitted by direct contact with an infected dog, or by fecal-oral transmission (Rover sniffing another dog’s business). It is resistant to many cleaning products, can live for up to a year in infected soil and is very difficult to get rid of, which is why there are outbreaks in shelters that can be hard to get rid of. Sadly, this means that weaker, older or young dogs who have not been vaccinated arrive at the pound and do not have the antibodies to fight off the virus. The survival rate for dogs is good if they are given intravenous nutrients and antibiotics, but there is no medication that can treat a virus: your vet can only support your pet in fighting off the infection themselves. This is why it is particularly important that vulnerable dogs are vaccinated.

The second strain of parvovirus is seen more in puppies and young dogs. This attacks the heart and is often fatal for young puppies.

At the refuge, we see both types. With so many dogs in weak conditions, it can be fatal. All dogs are routinely vaccinated, but if they have caught the virus before they are vaccinated, the vaccine is ineffective.

What to look for: vomiting, diarrhea, blood in vomit or feces, fever, lethargy, reddened eyes and gums

Kennel Cough

Quacking-like coughs are often the first sign of kennel cough. Many dogs will get kennel cough at least once in their lives. Vulnerable dogs are more at risk. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria, and if your vet tests for bacteria, they may prescribe an antibiotic, although for many dogs, rest and hydration are sufficient to help them overcome the disease. Many vets will diagnose based on symptoms, such as coughing, retching, nasal discharge, pneumonia, lethargy or loss of appetite rather than prescribing antibiotics however. It is very rarely life-threatening and mostly clears up without medical treatment or intervention. As the name implies, it is often contracted by dogs in kennels, because like the common cold or the flu virus, it passes quickly in crowded surroundings. Kennel cough is not the only disease to have coughing as a symptom, so if you are worried or the coughing lasts more than a couple of days, see your vet immediately. As with vomiting and diarrhea, severity, frequency and duration are the key things to monitor.

What to look for: a quack-like cough or repeated, nagging cough, shortness of breath

Demodetic and Sarcoptic Mange

Mange is a common condition of a small number of animals brought to the refuge, evidenced by scaly patches, hair loss and sometimes skin lesions. It is caused by overpopulation of the mites which live in the hair follicles of a dog. It can be localised or found all over a dog’s body. Another form of mange is sarcoptic mange which kind of the doggie equivalent of scabies. Both kinds can be passed from mothers to their offspring, so it is often seen in puppies. Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and it is advisable for you to keep your dog in quarantine if your dog has it. If you notice excessive scratching, hair loss and scabbiness, mange could very well be the reason. It is usually treated with regular medicinal shampooing or creams. Other infections can manifest themselves as ringworm (a fungus) which is most commonly identified through reddened skin, circular lesions, hair loss, itchiness and dandruff, or earmites, identified through ear scratching, stinky ears, a dark waxy substance and head shaking. Many forms of mange are highly contagious and although it is distressing for the dog, leading to complications with breathing, it is not usually fatal unless there are complications resulting from lesions. Most are treated with creams or medications.

What to look for: hair loss, itching, lesions, dandruff

Bloat and stomach torsions

A number of dogs die at the refuge every year as the result of bloat, leading to a stomach torsion. Bloating is always an emergency and one that is sadly very difficult to treat. Once bloat has started, it is very difficult to rectify without surgery. Prevention is more efficient than treatment. Bloat can affect dogs at any age and in any physical condition. It more commonly affects deep-chested dogs like Great Danes, Leonbergers and even large setters or pointers.

Preventing bloat relies very much on care with feeding and exercise. Dogs at risk should not be fed and exercised at the same time: exercising a dog with a full stomach can be one way that the gases build up in the stomach and cannot dissipate. You can notice bloat as the stomach is usually distended and hard. Excessive drooling, frothy spittle, light-coloured gums, a strong desire to regurgitate without the ability to do so and a weak heartbeat are also symptoms. Getting your dog to vomit can be effective – and the easiest way to do this can be through motion. A ride in the car to the vet’s can be effective – not only to see the vet but to induce vomiting. Excessive drinking can also cause bloat. This is why it is not a good idea to exercise dogs too hard during warm weather as they may drink too much and suffer from bloat as a consequence. Small meals fed several times a day rather than one meal can also help. Avoiding foods likely to swell in the stomach such as certain dog kibble or bread may prevent bloat, as will methods that force your dog to slow down when eating, such as specialist dog bowls. Bloat is known to affect not only certain breeds, but males over the age of seven, dogs that are only fed once a day rather than twice a day, dogs that eat rapidly, dogs who exercise immediately after eating and dogs who are anxious or fearful. If you think that your dog has stomach bloat, do not wait. Take them to the vet immediately. Even twenty minutes can be too long. In French, mention “torsion d’estomac” or “dilation de l’estomac” to your vet on the phone and they will no doubt meet you straight away at the surgery.

What to look for: frothing at the mouth, unsuccessful attempts to vomit, a swollen/hard abdomen (just below ribcage) light-coloured gums, lethargy

Parasites and worms

At the refuge, there are are many staff and volunteers who have become experts at poo inspections. Consistency, frequency and colour are often tell-tale signs of other infections. Although giardia may not be a word many are familiar with, it can also spread quickly among animal populations. This gastrointestinal parasite is responsible for explosive diarrhea, often very light in colour and with a very strong smell. The feces may also be greasy-looking or frothy. They contract the parasites through contact with other dogs and through oral-fecal contamination. As you can imagine, trying to keep dogs who live in kennels away from any contaminated spots can be very difficult. Treatment is usually effective but since many dogs lose weight rapidly with giardia, it may also cause further complications through weight loss. Dehydration and lack of nutrients need to be watched for, as they do with any prolonged period of diarrhea. If your dog has explosive diarrhea that has a very strong odor, but does not seem to be in ill health otherwise (perhaps weight loss, of course) then giardia may be the cause. Isolation and clearing up of fecal matter is vital, as is keeping coats clean. Many dogs will involuntarily reinfect themselves through cleaning their fur or licking themselves.

Worms are also another parasite that you may not take too seriously, treating easily and quickly with a wormer. For vulnerable animals, worms can be fatal. Many puppies (and kittens) who arrive at the refuge have already picked up worms through their mother’s milk and if their mother has not been wormed or has worms herself, these worms can quickly be fatal. They are uncomfortable for the animals, causing intestinal cramps and pain, as well as bloating, diarrhea and respiratory problems. They can also cause blockages, which are often fatal. Many times they are easy to identify in young animals as they have a distinct ‘pot-bellied’ appearance. Roundworms are particularly persistent little beggars and their eggs can live for years meaning that you don’t just need to administer a wormer but keep the environment clean too. Eggs are dropped in poo which even if cleaned up properly can easily be trodden in by another dog. All it takes is a lick of the paws and the worms have found their new host. For this reason, it is vital that young pups are kept in a sterile environment and wormed regularly. Worms don’t just live in the intestines: they can pass into the liver and lungs. One wormer might not do the trick for those that have been living outside the intestines: a repeated dose after a short interval should pick up those that drop into the intestine the second time. Tapeworms are the recognisable worms we see in feces, looking like a small grain of rice. Heartworms are a rarer parasite but can be fatal to animals. It is passed by mosquito bites, like leishmaniasis is spread by sandflies.

What to look for: diarrhea, respiratory problems, bloating, “pot-belly”, pain on pressing the abdomen

Conclusion

A good worming and vaccination programme, regular treatment with a flea, fly and mosquito repellent and an eye on what your dog has their nose in will usually keep most of these illnesses and diseases at bay. With a little care and attention, none of these common ailments need be an issue for most dog owners.

It is not easy to keep your dog’s nose out of whatever may take their interest, or to ensure they are not walking through environments rife with all kinds of health threats, so there will undoutedly be times when your dog has diarrhea or vomiting. There are many times when dog owners worry about diarrhea and vomiting, which can be frequent occurrences in a dog’s life. You know best when either is a sign of something more serious. If blood is present in either, seek immediate medical attention. It may only be that your dog has burst a blood vessel in their stomach through repeated vomiting, or that they have a lower intestinal bleed as a result of more frequent or painful bowel movements, but blood in vomit or feces is the first reason to visit the vet. If in doubt, pay the vet a visit. The internet is neither veterinarian nor pharmacist, and hearing of someone “curing” a newly-adopted dog’s diarrhea with a dose of gaviscon because they’d read about it on the internet not only could have caused many complications but also led to the dog being removed from the home. As most pet owners understand, you cannot take risks with medication and treatment and your vet should always be your first port of call.

10 tips to help you dog-proof your home

Whether you pick up a puppy or a full-grown dog from the shelter, many tragedies can occur if you aren’t careful in the home. Chewed wires can result in accidental electrocutions, stolen chocolates can result in a quick trip to the vets. And yes, we’ve had dogs returned because they’ve chewed a pair of slippers. While we can joke about some of the things pets have chewed, for some dogs this can result in an emergency operation or even their death. Dog-proofing your home is essential until you know your pet well enough and your pet knows your home.

The change in environment can lead to some distress and dogs may take a little while to learn what to chew and what not to chew. Boredom, lack of supervision and not knowing the rules are the main reasons that an adult dog will chew, and the majority of accidents occur when dogs aren’t supervised. Like it or not, it can be very hard to supervise a dog twenty-four hours a day. Crate training can – and should – take time to introduce, so what can you do to minimise the risks around your home?

  1. Baby-proof your home. Cupboards, wires, cables and things in reach all need attention. Put safety locks on any cupboards containing food or chemicals to make sure your dog doesn’t decide to help himself. Ralf once broke into the dog food cupboard and I found him asleep with his head in a bag of dog food. While no harm was done, he could have suffocated easily. With teeth like his, he could easily open tinned food, so all tinned food had to be locked away too. A bit of metal catching in his mouth could have caused problems – and heaven only knows what would have happened if he had swallowed it! Fitting locks, bolts or catches to doors in order to dog-proof them may seem a little extreme, but it’s a good way to stop midnight feasts. Smaller dogs and puppies may be easily trained using baby gates or baby pens. Make sure all medications are put away and locked away.
  2. Put an end to bin-dipping. Tilly loves nothing more than a rummage in the garbage. She once ate a bag of 3-week-old putrid lambs’ kidneys. How she didn’t give herself e-coli or something worse, I don’t know. I don’t keep bins in the house and the bins outside are behind a 2m-high metal fence. No more bin-dipping picnics for Tilly! A bin in a locked room or in a secure cupboard is one way to do this. Be vigilant in the bathroom too. Used tampons, toilet paper and even nappies are delightful treats to some dogs.
  3. Make sure your new dog is kept away from other animals’ excrement. If you have a cat litter tray, make sure it is in a place your cat can go but your dog cannot. Not only do some dogs think of cat turds as a help-yourself buffet, but it can also put your cat off toiletting in its usual spots if there is an impatient dog waiting to get to its poo before its even left the body. Disgusting, I know. There are also dogs that will do this to other dogs, so pick up any dog poo around your garden and make sure your new dog is supervised until you are sure they aren’t as tempted by doggie doing as I am by Belgian chocolates.
  4. Close doors and keep dogs out of unsupervised rooms. You might wonder what Fido is up to with five minutes to spare, but he may have taken a little trip to your bedroom to leave a puddle on your floor. When house-training dogs, they learn very quickly not to go where there is food or where they sleep. Familiar spaces become the first spaces they don’t toilet in out of choice. But an unfamiliar dining room might just as well be a space outside if the dog is not used to going in that space. Whenever Tilly has an ‘accident’ (she hates going outside in the rain) it’s always in the room I use least.
  5. Pick up and put away. Heston as a young pup loved to eat books. He sampled the back cover of every single one of a set of 12 classics lent to me by a friend. Text books, borrowed books and books with hard covers were his favourites. It took me a surprisingly long time to put them all out of his reach. Just like toddlers, it’ll be the two minutes that you take your eyes off them that they will use as an opportunity to help themselves to your designer sunglasses or your shoes. Dogs love chewing leather, so shoes and boots are often a target.
  6. Keep the toilet lid closed. Dogs like drinking. They’ll drink dirty water, puddles and from stagnant ponds. A toilet will no doubt have chemical treatments in it which could harm your dog, and if not, it will have germs that your dog can easily ingest.
  7. Check out your garden and green things. Many plants can be toxic to dogs or cats, but that doesn’t stop them eating them. Come grape time, Tilly will happily take grapes off the vines just as happily as she’ll scoff all my strawberries. You can find a great list here of plants that are toxic to dogs (and cats)
  8. Make sure that your dog is not suffering from separation anxiety. This can be very common for shelter dogs, who may fear that they are being abandoned all over again. It is not unknown for dogs who seem otherwise fine to get very distressed when left alone. Even if you have a crate, this can become an item of great distress for a dog who has separation anxiety. A friend’s dog chewed its way through washing machine pipework on Bonfire Night, leaving them with not only a very distressed dog but also an expensive clean-up and repair bill. Even if the room has nothing else in it at all, it does not mean that your dog won’t damage himself or herself on the walls or doors. If this is the case, please contact a professional to help you. There are many, many successful treatments for separation anxiety. Tobby, my Malinois, was so distressed when left alone that he moved the couch with his teeth and pulled all the cushions from the chairs. Leaving him with another dog is the only solution. Tobby always has a friend and now he’s calm when left alone.
  9. Make sure that your dog can travel safely in your car either with a harness attachment or a crate. Animals moving about in the back of a car can cause drivers to have accidents. Not only this, if you have a crash, your dog may escape if not attached or may suffer fatal injuries during the collision, simply because they were not secure.
  10. Open doors and windows. You may think that a dog left downstairs with a window open in your bedroom on the next floor will not be tempted to jump out of it. Do not be too sure! Though some dogs will be put off by a five metre drop, this is not true for all. When on a photoshoot recently with five little lovelies, the owner put three of her dogs inside so that we had fewer distractions. One of the three would happily have jumped out of a window five metres up to get to us. Only luck stopped her from doing so. Her other two sat and stared at her doing it as if she were completely nuts!

The good news is that most of these situations don’t last very long. Even puppies grow out of chewing inappropriate things eventually (and with good training). It’s been a long time since Heston ate a book. Tilly still pees on the floor when it’s raining, but I am better at forcing her outside. She will happily eat the contents of a child’s nappy though if I don’t supervise her, and she thinks a cat litter tray is a hot buffet lunch. Tobby still gets distressed if he’s home alone – and he hasn’t been home alone since the second day he arrived. Ralf never gave up scoffing any food that he could reach and once ate a year’s supply of doggie vitamins, as well as a kilo of sugar. Though it may be cute to take ‘dog-shaming’ photos and your great dane sitting on an ‘exploded’ sofa may go viral, there simply is no good reason not to take precautions as the consequences can be upsetting (if they eat a treasured memento) inconvenient (if they eat your passport and credit cards) costly (if they need surgery) or even fatal. You definitely live and learn where your dog is concerned, but these ten tips should help you eliminate the most common issues over dog safety in the home.

If you are interested in crate training your dog, this video will help.