Saturday, November 16, 2019

Tone-deafness in pet loss and grief may contribute to animal homelessness, negative outcomes for pet care and veterinary businesses

A good friend sent me a message a few days ago, it’s tone abrupt and the latter three words laced with a staccato that was easily palpable, even in a text.

“I got this in the mail for the third straight month…”

The accompanying photo showed what at any other time could be seen as innocuous, even helpful, but today and during the past year, gutting.

Not the first time since the sudden death of the dog last December, the local veterinary office handling vaccinations and such for the pet has sent periodic reminders just like the one pictured to his family for preventative care.

It seems important to mention that the dog died suddenly while being boarded
at their facility while my friend and I were traveling out of state. And that the after care for said pet, including my own clear requests to have a clay paw print impression be made and a lock or two of fur be clipped and carefully set aside for my friend prior to transport for cremation were met with “the crematory will handle that” and never were honored. And then, upon my friend arriving to take custody of their pet’s ashes, there were even more missteps on the vet practice’s part.

A message from a family-of-record asking if I would consent to being a reference for them after they decided they were ready to take the plunge and be considered to adopt a new-to-them dog from a rescue organization was met with the kind of joy those of us who are in the fold as Certified Professional Pet Sitters and Pet Loss and Grief Companions are super-charged by. In the months leading up to this ask, the family had lost both of their dogs unexpectedly to cancer. But after taking a little time to navigate through their grief and eventually feeling ready, they started browsing Petfinder. It wasn’t long before they saw a dog they felt would be a great fit for them and then submitted the necessary paperwork with the rescue organization—which included information on verifying their having a history with a veterinarian—they waited. And waited. It wasn’t until a short time later when the family checked in on their application, it was discovered that they’d been denied because their current dogs hadn’t had veterinary care in awhile.

Can you imagine the awkwardness that swooped in when the rescue’s representative heard my client say, ‘That’s because they’re both dead’? (Thankfully, this family wasn’t daunted, but they did relay the exchange to me so it had made an impression.)

Simple missteps, mistakes, you might think.

But from the vantage point of a family who’s suffered the loss of a pet—especially traumatically so—or that of a pet care professional who is also an end-of-life doula, these are cases of an egregious lack of common sense and I’ll come out and say it: tone-deafness.

It goes without saying that those who are connected to animal rescues can be more easily forgiven for this seemingly easy detail to pick up on because many of them are volunteers and may not have that much exposure to the dynamics of pet loss with families. However, with veterinary practices, it seems logical that more mindfulness and tact when it comes to the deaths with their clients-of-record’s beloved pet would be par for the course.

The problem is, sometimes, it’s not. Veterinary practices don’t always have the training, skills, protocols in place, not to mention the time to have more thoughtful interactions with families when a pet dies. Protocols like each staff member being educated on how to handle phone calls about inquiries from a family worried about their pet’s quality-of-life or regarding euthanasia and ditto for questions about end-of-life care; on how to handle after care for a pet including paw print impressions and cremation, if that’s in the family’s wishes and as importantly, how and when the family will get their beloved pet’s ashes. Protocols to immediately denote the pet’s death on their file so that the family isn’t getting notifications via mail or electronically for wellness care or otherwise.

Not having these protocols, dropping the proverbial ball only highlights what is known about why 20% of families surveyed don’t return to their vet practice of origin after after a pet’s death. My friend certainly made it clear that was how they feel, and it’s hard to blame them.

Poor experiences like the ones illustrated demonstrate the apprehension and frustration that families feel about the tone-deafness by after a pet’s death and because of the depth of their emotion, and as a pet loss professional, I can confidently say that few are willing to articulate it to those on the other side of the equation. In fact, they take those hits in silence, tuck them into private, dark place and for many, they inform their choices about the way they might approach a pet’s care when it’s most needed in the future. Rather than leaning in to the experience and partnering with veterinary care professionals when those chips are down, a pet owner might decide to wing it and make less-than-ideal decisions for their pets. Because to them, those previous negative experiences with a pet’s life-limiting illness or age-related decline, end-of-life, euthanasia, death, aftercare and how they themselves were tended to after are far more scary to them than that unknown road of going it alone with a pet who needs exceed their capabilities.

As a pet care professional specializing in palliative and hospice care, I assure you that’s not what anyone wants.

And as for animal rescue organizations, it’s just as important for those handling applications and interviews to use a little intuition and thoughtful communication when sorting out the details offered.

The above statistic, reported by Compassion Understood, doesn’t reflect the percentages of families whose experience may affect their willingness to welcome a new pet at all in the future. Though, I can confidently say that I’ve heard families mention that in order to avoid having to go through what they had before, they’d go as far as to resort to that. And again, this is understandable, but not something that anyone wants to see happen, either.

How can we in the pet care industry and those in the veterinary and animal rescue communities help families avoid these feelings?

Shift the focus, get the education and expand the horizons

I see many veterinary practices, animal rescue organizations and pet care professionals home in on reducing pet homelessness, and though I understand that putting so much of their attention on getting animals currently without homes into a forever, stable arrangement is important, it’s hard to ignore that can be somewhat short-sighted. As a professional who has a specialty in the fourth-life stage (palliative, hospice and end of life care), I’m all-too-aware that walking with families through this important time of life is more powerful than one might think when it comes to reducing pet homelessness.

Though not everyone’s role is or can be in hands-on care during the fourth-life stage, having the soft skills that are so desperately needed to lend a sense of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and understanding where a family is (or has been, essentially, ‘meeting them where they are’) can be a boon. All of us can join and support organizations whose missions are geared toward facilitating as whole and peaceful a transition for pets and families alike through the fourth life stage. We can gain education (some even have transferrable CEU’s for specific professionals) about communication, best practices, standards-of-care and the all-important self care strategies in this area.

Regardless of our role in these fields, the access to the best information, education and skills are accessible.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the matter of hard it is to hurdle one’s own fears, biases and viewpoints of all that encompasses the fourth-life stage and death. In having this common obstacle in front of us, it’s difficult to see, hear and acknowledge those who have death, dying and loss -- or the remnants of it -- squarely in their lap, no matter our capacity.

With a lack of soft skills, the standards-of-care, the sensitivity, the time needed to give these situations, sliding into the tone-deafness of the trauma of losing a pet is much more easy. And that tone-deafness comes at a cost to veterinary practices, the pet care industry and animal rescue organizations. And so, if we want to help make a bigger dent in keeping families from losing trust in the ways that we say that we want to be helpful to them, and yes, in ending pet overpopulation and homelessness, we need to acknowledge the broadened scope of what is contributing to it and fix it.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Safe canine enrichment for every dog—even those who routinely destroy their toys

Canine enrichment is a topic that comes up often with families and professionals in animal behavior, dog training and pet care. 

Kongs and related toys are an oft-recommended option to provide a fun and stimulating outlet for dogs in a variety of scenarios. But in some cases, there’s a valid concern: dogs who can’t be trusted with these items for fear of choking hazard or foreign body in the GI tract. The good news is, a simple idea gleaned from the Science of Animal Behavior Conference 2019 means that these dogs need not miss out on the enrichment and fun that other dogs enjoy. And a side benefit for shelters, rescues, foster situations and even boarding facilities means that sanitation isn’t a worry. 

The vlog below fleshes out the details on this idea that has already made for some very happy dogs in my care.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Strategies for helping pets navigate storm and fireworks season are not one-size fits all

Each year at this time, just as many other people here in Michigan, I delight in the arrival of the extended daylight hours; the warmer weather; not worrying about ice-covered roads; outdoor gatherings. Fireworks isn’t included on that list, and though I can appreciate other’s enthusiasm for them, they are the bane of those who share life with pets. The noise is the chief offender when it comes to frightening pets, but I've no doubt that if the light and smell resulting from them are within a detectable distance of a pet, they’re contributors, too. It’s understandable; the loud pops and bangs are confusing and occur without any sense of place. Though it need not be a precursor, for a pet that already has some level of anxiety or fearfulness, the things that make fireworks enjoyable to humans only feed the behaviors that signal to us that our pet is having even more trouble coping.

Merry-making isn't the only culprit giving pet frayed nerves this time of year: thunderstorms are just as responsible.

Over the years, I’ve had more companion animals in my care that find themselves in this situation than I care to count. My own dogs were included in that group. I’ve learned a few things in that time, and thankfully, there are more strategies and tools to help stave off the anxiety and fear associated with the nightly light and noise shows—and to assuage it if it’s already a problem. The key, as is the case with so many things, is to anticipate and plan ahead.

The approaches of using games to help dogs make a more positive association, T-Touch and Thundershirts is something that I’ve written about in the past, but there’s still more that families can do to keep the peace during these particularly taxing periods of time. Whether you've a young pet or an old friend in hospice or end-of-life—the latter posing its own set of emotional challenges—there's some flexibility in choices.

Having attended the Science of Animal Behavior Conference in June, it was not lost on me that the behavioral challenges that result from anxiety and stress in pets was at the top of the heap of topics. Out of the nine lectures that I attended, the majority of them were centered around anxiety and stress in cats and dogs, and science-backed ways to help them be more resilient in the face of it, or at the least feel more comfortable, safe and calm. A few things that veterinary behaviorists and other credentialed animal behavior professionals proposed during the event are covered below.

Pheromone analogs aim to appease

A staple in my day-to-day work, pheromone products work to promote a sense of calm and well-being in dogs and cats, and can be found at vet clinics, better pet stores or online. What are pheromones and how do they work? Pheromones are natural chemicals produced by mammals, and different types serve various functions depending on where they are secreted, but in this case, we're focusing on the ones that aim to appease, happy make, feel good. A synthetic form of the real thing, Adaptil for dogs (the collar is preferable), and Feliway for cats are available in a plug-in diffuser.

Herbal and nutraceutical approaches

Rescue Remedy - What’s in this tiny bottle does so much. Long sought after to alleviate anxiety in humans, there’s a formula for pets, too. Available at better pet and health food stores, no vet prescription needed.

ComposurePro chews – Available from veterinarians, these tasty gems are readily accepted by both dogs and cats. Bovine colostrum- and vitamin-based, this product promotes stress reduction and a sense of calm.

NutriCalm – A combination of amino acids and herbs, this product is available in capsule form for medium to large-sized dogs, and a liquid form for cats and smaller dogs. As with the aforementioned products and as the name suggests, it can be a help to promote a sense of chill.

Zylkene – This nutraceutical is something I'm really excited about. While attending a Fear Free workshop in Arizona, I spent some time learning about this product by the Vetoquinol company. What makes it unique? It's formulated with bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, and is good to implement before potentially stressful situations not limited to fireworks and storm season. Events like a move, bringing a new baby home, a visit to the groomer or vet and even preparing for the transition to an adoptive home are appropriate. Zylkene is purported to allow pets to be more receptive to behavior modification training as well.

Solloquin – Formulated with an amino acid as well as plant-based ingredients and others., this product from Nutramax Labratories boasts its ability to help dogs and cats get in their chill zone. Additionally, Solloquin is indicated to help address inappropriate elimination in cats, and would be a great addition to help make introductions between established family cats and new-kid-on-the-block kitties go more smoothly.

Though these products are not pharmaceuticals, and don't cause sedation per se, they still need to be used with care. Despite the fact that you'll likely be able to find them available for purchase online, there's no guarantee of their authenticity through that avenue. The good news is that you can get them through your veterinarian, which is where you can figure out which product or combination thereof is right for your furry friend. Your clinician can help you sort out any possible contraindications with existing herbal supplements, prescription medication and diagnosed medical conditions.

Scents and Sensability

One study indicates that essential oils -- four of them, to be specific -- may elicit a sense of calm in dogs. According to one study, The behavioral effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter, the essential oils containing coconut, ginger, ginseng and valerian seemed to promote better rest and less vocalization and barking in dogs. Knowing what I do about the power of smell and pets, I don't think essential oils are a great choice for every pet. It seems mindful to go with a trial to see how your dog responds to smelling a couple of drops applied to a bandana when they're at their best, and go from there.

Going further

One thing that was discussed frequently at SABC was the importance of how effective medication can be in addressing noise phobia. Anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed by your pet's veterinarian. Eileen Anderson summed up the topic (with Dr. Lynn Honeckman weighing in) with a post that's worth reading.

Having a discussion about Sileo, a new prescription option on the market, is a good idea if your pet is having trouble. Designed to home in on one pressing issue associated with fireworks, noise aversion, Sileo is administered transmucosally. This drug is not indicated for every dog, but that's something your veterinarian can help you decide.

Queue up the tunes

Music is an area of great interest in recent years, and while classical has been touted as the gold standard for soothing anxiety and offering an audible buffer to offending noise in dogs and cats, one study suggests that our canine friends respond favorably to reggae as well. After coming home from SABC, I ended up down a few rabbit holes of additional reading since noise phobia -- something that is of great interest to me since I see it frequently in my work -- was one of the topics covered at the event. One of the theories that experts in veterinary behavior have is that music that's heavy on bass and rhythm, like hard rock music, is effective. (Reggae certainly fits that criteria.)

Sally J. Foote, DVM, who specializes in animal behavior, noted that for her dog, playing belly dancing music has been helpful. This intrigued me because the rhythm, deep bass and instrumentation associated with this type of music seems the most sensible choice in blending out noise from thunder and fireworks. I've been experimenting with it with my charges, and it definitely seems worth pursuing. I created a playlist on Spotify that everyone can access and use.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Friday, June 7, 2019

(Pet) patient and family advocates throughout a pet's life are necessary

Seeing a family-of-record’s phone number light up my phone late at night or in the early morning hours is not at all unusual. When it happens, I take notice: I know it’s serious. It usually means that there’s been a crisis of some sort, and that may be a family situation that they need to head out of town in a hurry for but more commonly, it’s regarding their pet. A frantic, tired voice on the other end begins with an apology that’s never needed and a rundown of what has unfolded at the emergency veterinary hospital followed by:

I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by all of this information and I don’t know if I really understand what’s happening. Calling you seemed like the natural thing to do. You always know how to sort out all of this stuff. Have you heard of this diagnosis before?

It’s also not uncommon for me to get a nervous email from a family when they’ve made an appointment with their primary vet because they notice changes in their pet, for example appetite, weight, willingness to engage in their typical activities.

What should I expect going in? What will the vet suggest in the way of tests, etc?

Whether it’s an emergency or things are changing and a family is facing even the gentlest of shifts in their pet’s health status, there is no lonelier place than the opposite end of that veterinary exam table and never does it seem more cold. One thing that I’ve learned in working with families that are in the midst of either scenario with a pet, or are experiencing anticipatory or fresh loss is that yes, the ability to hear what is said is there, but the ability to comprehend it naturally avails itself in short supply. And being slammed with the worst of news, the need to make decisions and wondering if you can trust the information you’ve been given to make them is hard. (What we know is that when a pet owner is reluctant to move forward with a treatment plan, it’s usually based on lacking two primary things: facts and trust.) Plus, many people are already weary of making decisions in general. And add stress to the mix, it becomes more difficult. I’ve learned in my experience and in my never-ending training that these families need tremendous amounts of support; the direction to know what questions to ask; the wherewithal to say, ‘I’m not sure that this treatment plan is going to be manageable because of XYZ. Do you have other options?

This is what veterinary staff members need in order to do their jobs better. A bridge for the gap.

In any case, I’m always happy to take the time to help sort everything out, give the family talking points to consider in their conversations with the vet and staff, translate what the vet and staff have relayed (and yes, sometimes as importantly, decipher what the family is having a hard time conveying to the vet staff) and support the family as they make decisions about next steps. In many cases, having a fresh, neutral eye and mind on things helps the family feel more empowered about moving forward.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang wrote about an experience that she had during a serious health crisis with her pet, in which she detailed how even a veterinarian-as-pet-parent can use some neutral, knowledgeable support during times like that. She notes that in human medicine, designated patient advocates exist to help bridge the communication gap that can often exist between the health care provider and the patient. She posited that veterinary medicine might benefit from the same kind of thing.

This resonated with me heartily.

It’s obviously something that I’ve seen exemplified in my experience as a pet care professional. Acting as an advocate for families of record when they've needed it has come so naturally. And in my interactions with their veterinarians, it’s been noted that doing so helps get and keep their treatment plans on track.

I also began to notice something years ago: with pets living longer, they and their families need additional support navigating those senior and geriatric years, a demographic that I most enjoy working with. I realized that they of course were the ones who were requiring more tending, intervention and interaction with veterinarians, both in primary practice and in specialty. So, I decided to use my existing years of expertise -- including certifications in Pet First Aid (the certificate that I hold goes far beyond the basics) and CPR, Infectious Disease Management and the namesake of my industry -- and build on it to help families. I completed training as an End-of-Life Doula. I earned a certification as a Pet Loss and Grief Companion. I’ve applied my existing skillset and added to it with regard to animal hospice, palliative care and end-of-life, a field that I truly love more than even geriatrics.

So now, my heart is in tending to families with pets needing palliative and hospice care, no matter their age, and I’m happy to serve as an advocate for them and for other families-of-record and otherwise when the call arises. But yes, sturdy, knowledgeable, fearless advocates who understand what goes on in veterinary circles, who work in the deep trenches of pet care and possess enhanced training in all things associated with these fields such as hospice care, palliative care, end-of-life care and grief and loss is so very needed. It’s because pets are living longer, better, but that’s not by osmosis: it’s because of veterinary care that has improved not only from a medical standpoint, but from a practical one -- it’s (ideally) asked throughout the journey, ‘...what will this pet allow, not allow?’. It’s because families know better and want better. It’s all coming full-circle. We professionals understand that pets hold a profound place in the family, even after they’re gone, and we honor that. These relationships are rich, colorful and meaningful. We serve them in many capacities. Yes, there is such a thing as an animal End-of-Life Doula.

What Dr. Vogelsang noted about advocacy for families and pets is absolutely correct. But it only clips the tip of the iceberg.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Monday is the most difficult day of the week for pets who are in fragile health or hospice

For a pet who has a life-limiting diagnosis, or is in fragile health due to chronic illness or age-related decline, I find that the trend is that Mondays and Tuesdays to be the roughest days of the week.

With families hanging around the house and including their four-legged loves in their free time on Saturdays and Sundays, pet’s schedules are knocked off course. Medication doses may given off-schedule. Ever-crucial nap and rest schedules are disrupted. Increased activity and excitement affects overall ability to manage and old pastimes, like car rides, can result in a queasy pup.

In conversations with families over the years, I’ve learned a lot -- especially to pay attention to patterns that are unfolding.

One dog owner noted that by Monday mornings, their sweet, old dog was exhausted and irritable but would fully rebound by Wednesday when I saw her. “It’s pretty busy here on weekends, it’s no wonder she’s tired…”

And a more common scenario unfolds as a pet segues into a stage of more delicate health. Upon three weeks in a row of being withdrawn, drooly and unwilling to eat on Mondays and Tuesdays, I wondered with one geriatric dog in renal failure in my care middays, five days a week, ‘What happens on the weekends to make this dog feel so terrible right after?’. I chatted with the owner about their weekend schedule. She enthusiastically offered, “We go visit my parents on both days -- she loves car rides!” This, as I learned, was coupled with not getting pain and GI meds on time, and a feeding schedule that was not as regular. Stomach upset followed closely behind, not to mention the physical and mental effects of the pain that was under-managed and allowed to ramp up. By Tuesday/Wednesday, she was finally getting back on track with some doing, only to have trouble brewing again by weekend.

These examples of how seemingly minor changes in the routine have made the following recommendations to my families standard, no matter the day of the week:

  • Keep your pet’s feeding and medication regimens as close to what they are on weekdays as possible.
  • Consider how well your pet really handles car rides. Then think about forgoing them altogether, at least those that are too lengthy. And talk to your veterinarian to see if anti-nausea meds might be helpful if your pet’s FOMO gets to be too much for them.

It’s those little things that matter in this time of life. They increase the likelihood that a pet in fragile health is able to manage themselves optimally and thus, feel their best more consistently. They also decrease the time and effort that is spent trying to get the pet back on track, as well as the need for palliative/hospice/comfort care regimen tweaks made by the veterinarian. So, as you head into this weekend -- or whenever your time off from work is -- do so with care.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Pets often act as a tether to deceased loved ones

Many years ago, when I was far-less experienced with pets and my current area of specialty, I was sitting in the waiting area of my vet at the time with my girl, Gretchen, who was in to be seen for something seemingly minor -- allergies, as I recall. And despite my anxiety that it might not be so easy to address (it wasn’t, but I digress), it became clear to me that other families in the room just might be dealing with something far more difficult.

A woman, who in my youth seemed old to me -- maybe in her seventies -- was nervously comforting a black Lab, whose muzzle appeared to be unable to get any more grey. Arthritic, clearly blind and very hard of hearing, the dog seemed to comprehend the words or at least the sentiment that her now main human spoke to her in a voice and cadence that I’ve heard a thousand times since with my families and would sputter out in my own, just thirteen or so years later.

It’s going to okay, sweetie, I’m here. No need to be scared. The doctor will take good care of you. Your dad always made sure that you got an ice cream cone on your way home from the vet. Remember how he let you ride in the front seat -- shotgun? You always loved that…

The woman glanced at me at she spoke, wearing an expression as if she’d been caught in a lie. It became clear that she was just doing what she could to get through that very difficult day that reminded her of a previous one, after an even more difficult decision. As she looked at me once again, more words whispering out, almost asking for understanding, support, no judgement.

She was my husband’s dog. He loved her so much, and she him. He died two years ago and I promised him I’d take good care of her. And I have… I think. Her bones are so old, and she just can’t manage anymore. I feel like if I talk about the ice cream and the car ride home, she’ll understand that he’ll be waiting for her, and that this is the last thing I can do for her -- for him -- yes, for him.

I’ve never forgotten that moment. Or countless others that have illustrated examples of how pets often connect their caregivers to deceased loved ones -- family, friends -- even times of their life that have been meaningful to them.

Like the brief, almost arm-grabbing words from a caring spouse as they nervously usher me into the house to meet the family dog who was experiencing life-limiting age-related decline -- and their husband, who is trying to maintain a tether to his deceased parent.

I don’t know if he told you… his mother died from cancer three years ago; he inherited her dog.

And the mother of a young professional who learned he'd die far too young from a terminal diagnosis, and loved his dog so.

Mama, you have to take care of her. Who else will do as good a job of being a caregiver as you've taught me?

(And she has, above and beyond, even after the dog developed paralysis just 2 years after taking custody of them.)

And years ago, the retiree who relocated to Michigan and needed a pet sitter now and then.

I inherited Hattie from my best friend after she went under the care of hospice, in Arizona. After she died, I realized Hattie was all I had left of her, besides memories. Now, Hattie participates in all of the girl talk, the fun outings... she's the Thelma in our Thelma and Louise. And she hates the snow, by the way, just like my friend.

I learned early on in my chosen profession that people are motivated to tend to other living things for reasons far more profound than we can ever imagine. I’ve discovered that the stories of people that I’ll never meet are more resonant and alive in their pets, and that bridges a gap between this existence and one that we can’t fathom. I understand more than ever that a pet isn't just a pet: they are much more.

The life choices of these humans are often governed by the pets that they've taken as their own after their loved one dies. They'll often go to the ends of the earth to see that the pet is tended to. That tether to that person can often easily act as a guide, or a double-edged sword when it comes to seeking the kind of care that a pet needs when they are seriously ill, or when things change due to life-limiting age-related decline or diagnosis. Some folks run toward the prospect, no matter how scary, even hurdling their own fearful relationship about death and dying in the process. Others, well, I've seen giant blinders come up like force fields of denial -- the ones that only those of us who work intimately with families of pets experiencing a certain level of fragile health would recognize a mile away, as invisible as those mental barriers may seem.

No, this can't be happening. Not right now. He's always okay. Always. He's all I've got left of [insert person's name here]. He'll pull out of this with no problem. The vet is smart, right? I don't understand -- why can't they see that it's just a little bug that he's got? Can't they just prescribe something? You know what this dog means to me, right???

And no matter the situation, good or not so, without judgement, shaming, guilting, second-guessing, I walk alongside with these humans and their pet -- or pets, in some cases -- as they navigate familiar or novel territory with the knowledge that there is an unseen but very-there presence accompanying us. I honor what the pet represents in the person's or family's life. And I tread mindfully, as always.

Lorrie Shaw holds a certificate in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning and is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Off-leash interactions can turn dangerous for dogs and their handlers

One weekend evening earlier this month, I was on a typical outing with one of my charges -- a shepherd mix -- in her neighborhood. Dinner was a few hours before on that gorgeous spring afternoon, then a walk, and now, she was getting tucked in for the night. The weather was still hard to pass up at that hour, and the sun would be dipping low soon, so off we went for a walk before bed.

Walking my charges in neighborhoods, as I’m sure my colleagues will exclaim, can be a challenge: too many humans thoughtlessly staring into the blue screens of their handheld devices, one [is] too many dogs hitched up to a retractable leash, and far fewer humans on the other end of any leash who understand canine body language and behavior. That imbalance of mindfulness has led to more unwelcome and tense, off-leash approaches between the dogs in my care than I care to think about. Thankfully, most instances can be quelled quickly with the training I’ve sought, and the fact that most handlers get jarred from their laissez-faire cloud in a hurry once the cacophony of snarling dogs begins. Yes, they snap to attention when that happens.

But that’s not always the case.

I was cautious, as I always am in neighborhoods on weekends like that: warm, sunny temperatures on a spring evening after a long winter that didn’t want to let go. The bustle of busy families could easily be heard through garage doors left open, and entry doors to their inner walls that could have been unintentionally-but-carelessly unlatched, the possibility of dogs inside those homes that don’t have the tools to regulate their reactions when they see the increased foot traffic outside, which invariably includes other dogs.  

As a Certified Professional Pet Sitter who has additional education in understanding animal behavior, I can tell you it’s one thing to hear the familiar sounds that indicate there’s a dog in the area who’s probably not-so-good about managing themselves around other dogs that raises your alertness. But it’s another to hear tense, uneasy voices directed at a dog who has escaped their home through an entry door and to see them running straight towards you and the dog you’re charged with taking care of. You toss a handful of high-value dog treats directly at her in an effort to buy a few seconds of distraction, but it’s met with indifference. You then take inventory of the tense facial expression and clear body language of the dog, and the body language of the dog who’s connected to the other end of your leash. And then you look up and see two older people who despite understanding your clear, calm, authoritative cues to get control of the dog, who are physically nor emotionally equipped to intervene, and you note a minor child running into the house. Your full attention then goes back to the two dogs at your feet, because you realize that you’re pretty much on your own with finding a way to diffuse the situation, which is escalating. Repeated attempts to calmly and slowly gain distance from the dog prove useless -- they keep approaching aggressively despite your charge following your calm lead -- and you realize when reaching toward your waistband that the citronella spray that’s usually on your person for situations like this is on the kitchen counter. The dog who’s approached you and your charge has clearly been pushed over their behavioral threshold; vocalizing, snapping, biting, rearing up. And with repeated calm-but-audible cues for assistance unheard and seeing the helpless and terrified expressions from the elderly adults who are coming into and out of your view, you know that your next step is to let go of the leash you’re holding and hopefully find a trash can lid or a wooden board or a blanket to put between the two dogs to diffuse what has now become a dogfight complete with a bite to one of them -- and then, the face of the (pre)teen who disappeared just minutes before comes into view holding a dog harness. Somehow, he gets the dog’s attention.

The dog fight breaks.

This is a cautionary tale, and in it I detailed not only what I experienced, but what everyone involved did, as best as I could.

This entire interaction probably lasted three minutes (though as you might expect when you’re at the helm it seems much longer), and it was one that could have been avoided. The dog could have been safely confined behind a baby gate or closed in a room until the guests made their way out of the house. Able-bodied and familiar adults could have been at home to supervise the dog and after the escape, and on hand to safely keep an unfavorable interaction from escalating.

I didn’t use my body or limbs to intervene. I didn’t yell at the dogs. I stayed calm.

In fact, I followed that training and everything else that I was trained to do to maintain control and extinguish the
situation with the exception of one thing: I was remiss in not having my usual citronella spray, in this case, PetSafe Spray Shield with me on this outing. This likely would have easily and humanely disrupted this interaction altogether. (It’s not recommended that pepper spray or other products are used. The accidental contact with my own eyes could have rendered me completely useless in this situation and put me at significantly higher risk of a dog bite.)

Thankfully, the dog in my care is well-centered and followed my lead to the best of her ability. That was a huge help.

Situations that are allowed to escalate to this degree -- as I indicated, these kinds of interactions are rare -- are dangerous for many reasons. They put the dogs and humans around them at risk of bites and other injuries. In this case, one of the dogs required medical attention. And in my ongoing dialogue with the owner after the incident, it was discovered that the other dog had a lapsed rabies vaccination. Thankfully, understanding the inherent risks but following up on those with the Michigan Department of Community Health, I knew any risk to me and my charge, who was vaccinated, was extremely low. I felt confident with that.

Because of the speed at which the dog’s behavioral threshold was breached when she had escaped and approached us, not to mention factors that I indicated and others that I’ve decided not to go into, I ultimately decided to file a report with Washtenaw County Animal Control. Though the team there was amazing and professional, I hope to not have to do so again though I wouldn’t hesitate if I needed to. Honestly, I’d rather have more dogs in our midst who can behaviorally manage themselves better, and in following up with the family, I made that my focus. In being a good steward in the professional pet care industry, I noted:

I know from experience this is a busy neighborhood in terms of foot traffic with humans and dogs. That can be really hard for some dogs (actually, many and the majority of those are easily triggered by seeing other dogs) as it’s too much to handle and it’s easy for them to go from calm to hyper-aroused in no time. It really puts them in some risky situations and puts their own safety in jeopardy, and sometimes that in itself can exacerbate any existing behavioral challenges. I see it in my work frequently. If that describes [your dog] and you feel like having some solid support to help her gain skills to navigate situations like that would be welcome, I’m happy to recommend a couple of certified canine behavior consultants, if you’re not already working with one. In any case, I’m glad that [your dog] is okay!

In reading this post, it might give you pause as you make your way out on your next outing on your own or with your own dog, and maybe even seek training on how to manage a dog fight. If you’ve a dog who has trouble managing themselves, I hope this inspires you to find the right help and taking the right precautions so that situations like this can be avoided. I’m grateful that I hadn’t been chaperoning one of my geriatric charges, one that’s in hospice or recovering from an injury or surgery -- the ones who would be easily be (re)injured or killed in an interaction like this. And if you’re fond of using a retractable leash or letting your pet go off leash altogether, I hope this cautionary tale changes your thinking.    

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.