Sunday, March 19, 2023

Want to enhance your pet's overall quality of life in the fourth life stage, as well as your own? Capitalize on their youth

Pets are living healthier lives, thanks to the advances in veterinary medicine and better understanding of their needs, both behavioral and emotional. Healthier also means longer, and that has implications that families might not have expected with their current generation of pets: challenges surrounding age-related decline. Having seen many families through what is now their third generation of pets, and walked with them through their pet’s fourth life stages, there have been so many advances in medication and complementary therapies to enhance comfort — which in turn supports mobility — along with tools in helping that go more smoothly.

All pets experience age-related decline. And I’m going to focus on talking about one area that invariably comes to the forefront: how dogs and cats are able to manage changing mobility and independence with the use of products and tools. 

With cats, we know they have certain spots in the house that they really love to hang out in, and they’re usually not floor-level: up on their human’s bed, on a favorite piece of furniture or other spot that’s elevated. The increasing weakness, especially in the rear limbs due to decreased muscle mass and painful osteoarthritis that our feline friends develop often result in not finding them in the places we expect to. Helping them make that transition from jumping up aplomb as we’ve been accustomed to seeing for so many years, to getting a little help to do so independently is as easy as pulling a chair or ottoman next to the desirable area, or investing in a set of portable stairs.

photo of dog's legs on an outdoor deck

Litter boxes can be another frustration for geriatric kitties, and so getting a vessel that is low enough for their less-able legs and sometimes bigger cabooses to maneuver into and out of, can keep everyone happier. I recommend a few ideas for my families, including a box designed for senior and geriatric cats. For cats with really troublesome mobility, some families find using a boot tray or lid from Rubbermaid-style storage container lined with a disposable pee pad to be ideal, or simply using pee pads on their own.

For dogs, though they’re typically not hopping up on the counter like their feline counterparts, things can be a bit more complex, and that’s for a few reasons. We’re so accustomed to our canine pals simply hopping into the vehicle with relative ease and accompanying us on outings for so long, that its easy to see how we might take that ability for granted as the years go by. Dogs also need to get outside to do their business, and outdoor entries involving stairs can begin to be troublesome to navigate. We start to notice, much like with our feline friends, that dogs do things like hop up on favorite pieces of furniture with less frequency. And as time goes by, some dogs, especially medium and large breeds, need a bit of help getting up and walking about due to hind limb weakness, which has various causes, and the effects of osteoarthritis.

Portable stairs, just as with cats, can be incredibly helpful for dogs in aiding them to get up on furniture, like their human’s bed. Portable ramps, with their durability and sturdiness, can be a boon for getting in and out of a vehicle and with varying designs can be an option to accommodate getting from ground level to a porch or deck and inside so much easier. Some of my families, who are very handy with carpentry, have designed their own for a custom look and grade that have fit in well with their dog's needs without being obtrusive. Ramps are made for indoor use as well. Harnesses designed for mobility-challenged dogs of all sizes (my favorite is the Help ‘Em Up Harness) are probably the most used items in my lending library of tools and products that I have on hand for families-of-record whose pets are in my Animal Hospice Palliative Care program. 

And we can't call it a day there.

These items are all helpful in making the lives of companion animals easier and more manageable, every bit as much as for all of their caregivers. But they’re only so if the pet is willing to use them, and as with anything else, we need their cooperation and consent to make that happen. 

Pets, just like us, are really good with having a sense of predictability in their day to day. It’s one of the ways they’re able to adapt to subtle changes and those that are not so. And the novelty of these newly-introduced products can often throw things off for them significantly, even though they’re designed to help. I’ve had many a family whose pet is already experiencing markedly-reduced mobility by the time we connect report that the harness, ramp or other product I’ve dropped off is met with not just reluctance, but flat out refusal by the pet – usually a dog. Sometimes we can use positive reinforcement to grease those wheels, but in a lot of cases, there’s no movement. And that’s hard to see happen, because that one tool can make all the difference in a pet being able to negotiate getting outside and back in with the help of a ramp, or a human being able to assist their dog up 3-4 stairs more safely without worry of injuring themselves in the process. And when the pet isn’t able to let it happen, sometimes there are no other options and families need to make different and hard decisions about what makes most sense for their pet’s care options going forward. 

Can this be hurdled? Yes.

My advice to every family, is that while their pets are younger, healthier and emotionally more resilient to novelty is to plan ahead – far sooner than they think they’ll ever need to. Do it now. Sitting down and deeply considering a pet’s habits, their size, and their abilities is a start, as well as considering what the floor plan where they are living is like. How about access points to the outdoors and hardscape – do they pose any foreseeable challenges? I encourage families do this every time they move. 

Getting some insight from a professional can help tremendously. It’s not uncommon for me to identify possible issues early on, and make recommendations since I’m someone that has the luxury of seeing how a pet does inside and outside the home for myself. Now, the same is true for housecall vets and their teams, but brick-and-mortar vets, since they don’t have the opportunity to see things firsthand, they can be caught rather flat footed if they’re asked for advice. However, they can also give as good of guidance if you snap some footage of the pet’s home living environment with your mobile phone and give them a virtual tour. 

Doing all of this early in their life, and then re-assessing as time goes on, can help you identify possible trouble spots and ease your pet into using these tools and products while they’re at their absolute best stage of accepting them. In fact, it tends to be a fun, positive experience, if not neutral. This is especially helpful with a cat’s litterbox arrangements, since they tend to be fussy about that sort of thing. 

Onboarding these strategies sooner also has a hidden side benefit: caregivers will be in a mindset where having implemented their use will be far less of an emotional beacon that a pet is declining and instead, to reframe, they’re simply changing and adapting as needed. I’ll note that families who do this experience less anxiety about navigating their companion animal’s fourth life stage, and they are able to better focus on meaningful shared experiences with their furry friends since they don’t see the ramps, harnesses and other tools as reminders of their pet’s inability, rather a transition that results in maintaining their independence and happiness.

As we know, that ability to adapt – for both the pet and the humans – is an asset as a pet ages and promotes resilience and helps maintain the human-animal bond.

With over 20 years of experience in pet care and 8 years focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a
 Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, and
 CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She is currently in the midst of an Internship with Animal Hospice Group in their Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner certification program. She can be found at

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Imagining your life after a pet’s death during their decline can seem like a betrayal. It’s actually a healthy tool.

“Are you just waiting for her to die?”

That was a question that two people—one who I’m closely tied to—asked me when I spoke about plans I was sketching together to travel to a place I’d never been. It was 2015. Puerto Rico had been on my mind. And as a late-bloomer when it had come to traveling, much less doing so alone, it had become an essential mental well-being tool. It also, ironically, helped to squash paralyzing social anxiety that had plagued me into adulthood. 

I’d not traveled in the final few months of Gretchen’s life. And as a sole human in the household, I was her main caregiver. 

Gretchen was my nearly 16 year-old St. Bernard/shepherd mix. I’m quite certain in imagining the gasp (16!) that invariably escaped from your lips that I need not go into too much detail about how heavy the caregiving was for a geriatric, large breed dog with advanced osteoarthritis, a touch of renal disease and had been recently treated for hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Gretchen was never the same after the latter and in fact that was the diagnosis that became the tipping point of a steeper decline over three months: a touchy GI tract, stress impacted her gut more easily and many of her favorite things to eat were now off limits. 

We’d been traversing ever-so-gently into this phase of our life together (I was also caring for my geriatric cat, Silver, who had his own share of issues, but I digress). And with the help of a mental health professional specializing the needs of humans immersed in a life circumstance such as this, a plan was crafted. A plan which supported me in navigating the process of being a caregiver to pets with ever-increasing needs, and the expected anticipatory grief, the frustration, the decision-making, the unknown, re-framing/re-imagining my relationships with both Gretchen and Silver—and preparing for life after both of them died. Especially Gretchen, I won’t lie. Heart dog, soul dog… whatever you want to coin it as, she was it. My ride or die being. I never saw her as my child. She was a dog, and I felt I needed to honor that. Gretchen was at that point more like my smart, sassy, independent-minded elderly aunt who never married and needed tending in her dotage. She loathed being fussed over, like someone else I know. 

Anyway, I knew it’d be hard. I’d have a very new life. I knew I’d be a different person. I’d have a different identity: I’d not be a dog guardian anymore. And I wasn’t sure what any of that would look like or feel like, because I’d spent over a third of my life living in that identity that would be unwillingly stripped from me. Yes, it scared me a little. But I was more afraid of how things would unfold if I didn’t give a lot of thought to what life would be like after. Because going from a life where your pets are naturally the first thing you think of in the morning and the last before your feet lift off the floor and into bed, to having their needs increase so much to the point that being away from home for four hours is a big deal, that’s a lot. And then when you’re aware, even though it feels unfathomable, that all of that will, in a blink of an eye—vanish. And you’ll not need to think about heavy caregiving, or medication refills or ‘what will they be willing to eat today?’, or anything else. And your instinct is that your life will develop a natural sense of emptiness when all that comes with loving and caring for a pet edging toward their end-of-life comes to a physical end. 

And then it does. And for how long, that depends. And it’s not unusual for that to ebb and flow. 

Back to the question I was asked. 

Are you just waiting for her to die?’

I bristled at it. And then I softened. Because if nothing else, I had no mental bandwidth to get curious about what they meant. Nor to help either person feel comfortable with how I was navigating through a brutal time. 

Because most of the time, that’s what those who are expressing things like that need. Or because it’s weird for them to hold two ideas in their hands at a time—that one can be fully engaged in the heavy caregiving and anticipatory grief while realistically looking to a future where their pet will be gone and not coming back—because they seem completely incompatible. Or because they feel like acknowledging the fact that life will go on is a kind of a betrayal of the love one has for their pet.  

I could also see how easy it is for others to mistake a healthy coping tool for rushing through a period of life that’s full of unpleasantness and gut wrenching changes while full of love all at once. Or stuffing it down so it doesn’t need to be felt because it’s too hard. 

So, was I just waiting for Gretchen to die? No. Of course not.

I couldn’t stop her dying from happening, I could not save her despite the advances in vet medicine. Nor was her dying going to be a failure on my part or anyone else’s, or of vet medicine. But what I could do, was control how I reacted and coped with the process, and the outcome. And I knew I’d not be moving on, but moving forward. I was envisioning what life would look life after she died and planning for it. I was taking care of myself, and my mental health. 

I was accepting the inevitable. And that I would never not grieve Gretchen. 

So, I responded with that. And then, I guess, they understood. 

That looking ahead and giving the reality of what life would be like some much-needed space to stretch its legs came naturally to me. That, along with my having good instincts about how I might respond to things along the way given my history, how I used my existing coping tools, and how to adjust and gain additional healthy strategies as needed. Planning the trips I was going to take after experiencing two deaths in what would be a short 10-month span was an integral part of that. As I later discovered in my professional training in Grief Companioning and animal hospice, that looking ahead is a tool that is used in working with guardian caregivers when we are supporting them in navigating through a tender-but-brutal time. 

It’s perfectly normal and natural if your thoughts move into a direction of thinking ahead to a time when you’ll have far less to think about, to manage, with a pet who is in decline. You don’t love them any less, you’re not betraying them, and you are still the very best guardian caregiver you’re able to be because you’re taking care of yourself. 

And yes, Puerto Rico was amazing.

With over 20 years of experience in pet care, Lorrie Shaw is a
 Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, and
 CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She is currently in the midst of an Internship with Animal Hospice Group in their Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner certification program. She can be found at

Saturday, February 11, 2023

A pet’s dental health makes an impact on their final months of life

 February is Pet Dental Health month. I’ll skip the usual ‘you should get your pet’s teeth and oral health tended to’ without adding context. 

Since I specialize in caring for pets in their final years, months, days and hours, I’ve had the honor of observing a lot of pets in these stages of life. I see the health challenges and complications they are faced with and need tending.

But more on that in a minute. 

Though it’s uncommon for a pet in their final months of life to undergo dental exams and cleanings, they certainly benefit from having them regularly throughout their lives. We know that maintaining overall oral health—including regular exams, X-rays and cleanings addressing any periodontal disease, and any extractions or root canals that need doing—boosts a pet’s health at younger stages. And that sets the stage for helping a pet manage at a time when they’re less resilient, experience more pain-related issues, and need to be handled and interacted with more often: their final months of life. (Think assistance with mobility and administering medication.)

When the inside of a pet’s mouth is in good shape at a time when so many other things can be more difficult to manage because of age-related decline or a life-limiting illness, that’s a nearly-invisible asset.


Senior and geriatric pets most often experience multiple diagnoses and changes that need managing. 

  • Cognitive changes impact how a companion animal experiences the world, and this includes behavioral changes like irritability, being withdrawn, and an unwillingness to be interacted with or touched. 
  • Pets can develop anxiety at this stage of life, or if it’s present, can be exacerbated by all of the things previously mentioned, including increased pain and discomfort. 
  • Pain is a ball of wax that needs to be addressed on its own merit, and it’s often nuanced and complex at this stage. Osteoarthritis, diagnoses like chronic gastrointestinal issues and two grossly underrated and under-diagnosed sources of pain—eye pain and mouth pain—can impact a pet significantly. 

Discomfort and pain in the mouth contribute negatively to all of the above, and then some. In my experience, if a pet is experiencing either, they’re more likely to have a waning appetite, and far less likely to accept much-needed medication. Not eating well and not having pain and other symptoms managed with medication invite at the least a viscous cycle of pain that increases and often becomes more complicated, which can trigger inappetence, as well as nausea, and then back around.

The complicated mouth bacteria that develops with a pet’s poor dental health goes further. In dogs, chafed skin from wearing a harness designed to help with mobility issues, and callouses/pressure sores that often develop on bony protrusions are more easily infected due in part to a pet transferring the bacteria in their saliva to those areas by licking (or in some cases, if they drool a lot). I’ve seen cases where the wounds were hard to heal, needed culturing and long courses of oral antibiotics and topical treatments to try and get them under control were necessary. Need I say much about how dangerous accidental cat bites are can be when a pet is aged and they have sharp, brittle teeth? These interactions happen, and the bite need not be that deep. 

I could go on, really. I see time and time again that being proactive with a companion animal’s health early makes the biggest difference in how well their palliative, hospice and end-of-life journey unfolds. And consistent, preventative dental care is just one tool. In fact, I feel like a big piece of the pie. It’s easy to overlook it, I know. It seems expensive to pursue, and many families worry about anesthesia (yes, it’s necessary though quite safe, hence the pre-procedure bloodwork and exam) and a lot to go though in preparing before and a little aftercare. And yet, the returns on that up front investment are far greater, especially when it comes to a lower-stress, less-expensive and more manageable final months with a beloved pet where the human-animal bond is kept intact. 

With over 20 years of experience in pet care, Lorrie Shaw is an Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner,
 Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter and owner of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She can be found at

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

One oft-overlooked strategy to tend to pets in fourth life stage is made easier with a common household object

Tending to a pet’s basic hygiene and grooming is a part of the work I do with pets in fourth life stage (the stage of life where a pet of any age is in a state of decline due to a life-limiting diagnosis or age-related causes). 

Some pets need help with hygiene, like when they have urinary or fecal incontinence. This is necessary to keep their skin and fur clean and dry, and otherwise in good integrity in those areas. And while we need to be keeping an eye on that as well as keeping their bedding dry and free from waste, more commonly pets need help with basic grooming of their fur. 

It just gets harder for them to manage as they age, especially with cats, who I’ll be focusing on here. 

The tell-tale unkempt look that encroaches on a normally fastidious groomer—usually from the mid-section of the body backward—tells us that a cat is finding it too arduous or painful to reach their hind end. Osteoarthritis is a major contributor, though with less activity in advanced age or because of pain from other sources, obesity can make it difficult for a cat to reach around to different areas of their body to keep things as tidy as they’d like. 

I’m a big believer in senior pets getting into the vet for an exam, bloodwork and an evaluation for pain, using a pain scale every 12 months and for geriatrics every six months. In doing so, families and their vets can partner more effectively to identify any changes that present, and address them appropriately: maladaptive pain being just one. Staying ahead of it sooner than later is a far better strategy. And along from anything meaningful and effective that a vet feels is appropriate to prescribe or recommend to ease the discomfort and pain (prescription medication, herbs, weight management guidance, environmental management), we humans can step up our game at home to help cats stay looking and feeling spiffy with the simplest of interactions: regular brushing. 

Of course, so long as a cat can tolerate being touched from a behavioral or decreased physical comfort standpoint. Not all are able to. And so if not, just don’t. It’s not worth the risk of stressing them out or acquiring an injury from a scratch or a bite.

That said, most cats liked to be brushed—albeit on their terms!—and so as always, I let the ones in my care lead what that looks like. If they can tolerate my using their usual brush, great. But if not, I find that an unconventional-but-ordinary object is an effective and comforting alternative. It’s also safer.

By using a new, clean soft toothbrush to gently stroke and groom the fur, caregivers can remove some of that loose fur, offer a comforting touch and provide other benefits, listed below. If your cat can tolerate being petted, giving them a wipe down with a baby wipe (I like Water Wipes) beforehand can boost the effectiveness of the session. 

Benefits 👇

 contributes to the physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of a pet

 when a pet’s appearance is optimal, that positively impacts their human’s mental state 

 the gentle handling facilitates the release of endorphins 

 is easy to do


 strengthens the human-animal bond  

 can in some cases trigger a desire to eat 

More on this below 👇

With over 20 years of experience in pet care, Lorrie Shaw is an Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner, Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter and CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She can be found at

Friday, April 1, 2022

A affordable option to incorporate Fear Free into your pet’s routine also keeps vets happy

Here’s a follow up to an idea that I posted to Facebook in March. 

We all know how vital the notion of having the most helpful and awesome tools are to interacting effectively, efficiently and safely with the pets in our life. The same is true for thinking about the economy of it all. Stuff is expensive. 

Jack Russell terrier, looking hopeful

I frequently keep commercially available baby food pouches on hand and use (upon family’s consent) as a tool with pets to provide a distraction from unpleasant things during vet visits. They’re also useful when traditional treats (reinforcers) aren’t enough I need to employ a high value reinforcer to get the behaviors I want and need from a dog or a cat, and my hands need to stay clean. 

Reusable baby food pouches are a great option that is consistent with a set of strategies that encompass the Fear Free philosophy, and they meet the requirement of being affordable while being able to deliver whatever tasty, puréed/slurried food reinforcer a pet deems to be one that is super-high value. 

Another really important aspect of these pouches is they address a hurdle that many families face: staying adherent to a pet’s dietary restrictions. Many pets have health issues, for example IBD/IBS or kidney disease, that necessitate special diets—even prescription food. Most prescription diets are available in canned varieties and can be used to fill the pouches, though in a pinch, surely kibble could be crushed up and soaked in warm water to soften and create a mush that can be loaded into them. 

In any case, it’s not a tough sell to see why you need to get your hands on these inexpensive tools, regardless of the Fear Free interaction you want to nail, yes, even during training. They’re customizable, easy to clean and disinfect, and reduce the load on landfills.

Click here to obtain yours. 

Lorrie Shaw

With over 20 years of experience, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, 
and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. A specialist 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, November 13, 2021

Old strategy, new tool dissuades dogs from scavenging on walks

Seeing the world through the lenses I’ve developed in working with dogs is interesting, especially when walking them. I’ve grown accustomed to assessing things by rote before I hitch a dog up to their harness and as we step out the door, with necessary tools aboard to enhance the experience and keep the adventure a safe one. 

It’s rare that there isn’t an adjustment that’s needed at some point on a dog walk—pivoting direction when there’s another dog and handler approaching who aren’t handling themselves well, steering clear of a yard where kids are playing—you get the idea. It can be a minefield at times. 

I’m all about dogs getting the most out of their adventures, with an emphasis on having a chance to sniff the heck out of everything along the way, regardless of their age or ability. It’s probably more important than the physical movement that is the aim of most people when dog walking. A dog’s nose is their most powerful sense, providing the most enrichment and it’s the one they can most rely on when all the others fade in their dotage. And most of the time, I can be a step ahead of their nose, which helps tremendously when there’s a gob of human food casted off in the grass, bunny poop (or that of any other animal) or anything else gross or not a dog might find appealing enough to scarf up with lightning speed. I can usually pivot them away from the offending stuff before they even realize it’s there. 

But alas. 

There are times my spidey senses fail, and with some dogs, miserably far too often.  They are masters of finding anything they shouldn’t gobble up, edible or not. And then my usually-reliable tactic of a ‘leave it!’ cue or the even more effective cue ‘take it!’, (as I learned from a conference lecture by Harmony Dog Training’s Angela Schmarrow this fall) doesn’t offer cooperation in the dog relinquishing the find for a trade of a high value, safe treat. 

And down the hatch it goes. 

Typically, no harm is done, and I chalk it up as my having lost that one and move on. 

Though if you’ve a dog in your care who has a very touchy GI tract, engages in this unwanted behavior habitually despite your best efforts, it can make for outings that are especially frustrating. And if a dog has complex resource guarding issues, it goes without saying how slippery a scenario that can unfold into.

During a recent animal behavior conference, I was excited to learn about a strategy that can help mitigate a dog’s wayward enthusiasm for scarfing down items on walks they shouldn’t. The Crazy Felix is a tool—yes, a muzzle—that prevents the behavior while allowing a dog to breathe efficiently, pant, sniff… all the things we want dogs to be able to do on walks. They can also take treats while wearing it. 

It’s a great option, and one that’s more appealing to many guardians than a basket muzzle, the only other safe tool that’s recommended for this purpose by certified trainers, vet behaviorists and credentialed pet care professionals, like me. It’s ease of use and appearance makes it so. Training a dog to accept wearing the Crazy Felix using positive reinforcement (R+) is still necessary of course, just like other types of muzzles, and the payoff is huge. 

To learn more about muzzle training and why its recommended that every dog be trained to wear a muzzle, head over to The Muzzle Up Project. 

With over 20 years of experience, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Fear Free 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, 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, May 12, 2021

The right equipment & strategies can enhance your dog walking experience & even save your life

This time of year teems with a lot of good stuff: the sun rising earlier and setting later, slowly unfolding warmer weather, and activities that come with all that. With witnessing what feels like an unfurling from a cocoon as the confines of the pandemic begin to loosen, it’s clear that people are even more ready to get out and about. With more families beginning to feel comfortable enough to actually plan to indulge their wanderlust, visit family—even return to their physical workplaces—that means that I’ll be regaining a sense of normal as well. 

And I realize that in some ways, things will look different than before. Just as there are changes with my feline and canine charges, there’s most definitely bound to be a shift in the dynamic of their respective neighborhoods, not to mention trails, dog parks and other areas that our canine friends frequent. That can be a good thing, though when it comes to looking at things through the lens of a seasoned dog handler, we know there are likely to be some added challenges, and serious ones at that. 

One of the things I routinely do prior to a consultation with a new family or I’ve a reservation coming up with a household with canines that I’ve not seen in awhile, is to go to their neighborhood and do an assessment. Yes, I drive through. Then I park, get out and walk around the neighborhood and any surrounding trails. I pay close attention to how any handlers are navigating their outings with the dog or dogs on the other end of the leash, and any interactions with others. What kind of equipment are they using? Are they negotiating space with others thoughtfully? I also watch the body language and actions of the dogs when they see other dogs, humans or the random bunny or squirrel. I take notice of which homes have obvious occupancy with dogs. Any signs of electric fences? Who has a physical fence? Do I notice any off-leash pairings or solo dogs running about?

You get the idea.  This kind of thing pays off: I know areas or streets to avoid, and I recognize which dog/handler teams have a hard time. 

One thing that’s impossible to ignore lately are the number of electric fence systems that have been installed in recent weeks. Most dog handlers understand their usefulness, though we all-too-often see how they negatively impact dogs and the safety of others. Dogs can breach them, and we professionals see that they often do. Let me say that the close calls I’ve had personally because of electric fences have been more numerous than in times past. Having a dog come running from out of nowhere in their yard to the very edge of a sidewalk or street, barking and carrying on or worse is never a good feeling. 

Wireless fencing systems are only the tip of the iceberg though; one situation that I found myself in a couple of years ago made me grateful for my skills, despite my one error. Thankfully, the dog that I was chaperoning wasn’t geriatric, though many are. Those dogs tend to have visual and hearing deficits, not to mention limited mobility and sometimes cognition changes and anxiety. In many cases, they’re terminal, and yes, some of those terminal dogs don’t look like it: they’re young—too young to be meeting their end—and despite their appearance, they’re physically compromised. Others are recovering from TPLO, spinal or other surgery/injury even though they often don’t show it. Some of the dogs in my care are living with behavioral challenges or anxiety, treated by a professional or not. Just as I carefully review every aspect of a dog’s history to ensure they’re not only healthy enough to be in my care from a health and behavior standpoint (ask any family-of-record—it is complete!) to ensure they have the best experience possible, it’s also my responsibility to ensure that I’m doing my due diligence to protect them (and myself) no matter if we’re in their yard or out on an adventure, short or long, and their right to have that.  And that requires preparation.

Earlier this week, I caught the latest episode of The Bitey End of the Dog, hosted by Michael Shikashio, the brains behind He and his guest, fellow credentialed dog behavior professional Laura Monaco Torelli, talk about an important topic and one not unfamiliar to dog handlers of all backgrounds: dog attacks. In the segment, Torelli chronicles a brutal attack (and its aftermath) that injured both her and her dog, Vito while they were out on an ordinary walk in their own neighborhood. 

The poignant conversation brought memories of my own dog attack experiences and the many times I’ve used my skills to steer out of near misses. That said, Shikashio and Torelli include helpful tips on products and strategies to keep you and your dog safe, so the episode is worth a listen. The tips are ones I employ and then some, and so as we all re-orient ourselves into more frequent outings with or without dogs, I wanted to include my own strategies like:

carry citronella spray, and use it properly: aim at or near the nose of the attacking dog, avoiding the animal’s eyes. The aim is to distract and dissuade the dog from continuing the approach, not to hurt them. And please, pepper spray isn’t necessary and any resulting mist could blow back into your face and disable you—not the goal. 

having a whistle attached to the zipper pull on my winter and summer outerwear, which when sounded can elicit an audible distraction for the other dog in hopes to either maintain distance or arrest an interaction in progress. It can also draw attention from other humans quickly and act as a distress call of sorts

abiding by a policy of situational awareness, which means constantly paying attention to what’s going on with the dog on the other end of the leash, and what’s going on around us, and adjusting as necessary. This includes not talking on my cell phone and never wearing earbuds. Though my device (which I always maintain a full charge) can be a lifeline in so many ways, it should never be a distraction. 

keep a handful of high-value dog treats in my pocket/pouch to help navigate out of unwanted approaches by other dogs

swiftly and thoughtfully decline on requests by other humans to pet your dog

my case (and policy) for walking only one dog at a time 

•and in the video below, another quirky tip and my top equipment choices and why.

With over 20 years of experience, 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.