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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dog bite prevention is successful when rooted in facts, understanding canine body language

A frequent conversation that I have with someone who contacts me for the first time to care for their pet involves a lot of dialogue about their dog's behavior, and the better part of it is on the caller's part. 
"My dog has been labeled as 'aggressive' toward members of the staff of the doggie daycare that they attend and has been asked to not come back, but they are fine at home," or, "My pet is uneasy and becomes unmanageable on walks, or around new people or groups of people," are familiar statements. 
Some of these pets have snapped at people or even worse — bitten them.
Can you relate?
Many of my clients have called on me because they need a caregiver while they are away and they've been made to feel that they have a 'problem dog' and they're running out of options. The other arrangements have not worked out well for various reasons, but in most cases it's due to lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the pet care professionals, caregivers and even the family.   
When I say to that dog's human, "I understand — and it's common — but let's talk more about that so we can unpack why it might be happening. Surely there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior..." they tend to relax a bit after a bit of open and honest discussion about what behaviors that their furry friend is exhibiting, revealing a picture about the pet that they didn't expect. 
The first thing I ask is whether or not the dog has been evaluated by a veterinarian. Undiagnosed illness or pain can affect a pet's ability to interact the way they'd like. 

I'm happy to recommend a couple of reputable and certified training professionals who can help the family, which I do often.
Most of the time it just boils down to the fact that the dog hasn't attained the skills or have been given the space they need to navigate through these type of encounters (with both other pets and humans) and some are actually quite fearful. The dog's clear communication about how uncomfortable they're feeling in a given situation has been missed or ignored, and that can happen with any dog. They all have limits on what they're willing to tolerate. The sad reality is that misunderstanding these concepts or writing a dog off as 'aggressive' and leaving it at that can lead to situations where things escalate to a point when a dog bites someone — and that's never a good thing. 
An unfortunate misconception is that all dogs like each other. Taking your canine friend to a dog park, doggy daycare (or even a walk down a sidewalk that sees lots of foot traffic) is in my opinion a lot like one of us humans attending a cocktail party: there are some of us who can hang and interact with gusto, others can do so for only so long, while a few of us... well, our personalities are such that they're not well suited for that environment. And that's okay!
But, unfavorable interactions aren't limited to these settings. Anytime there is an opportunity for two or more dogs to meet or for a pooch to be close to a human, it can happen. 
But this leads me to address an important topic: May 15-21 is Dog Bite Prevention Week, and to highlight that it only seems fitting to talk about this totally preventable issue that has grown significantly in recent years. Here are a few things to think about. 
  •  4.5 million dog bites occur each year, and out of those, 800,000 seek medical attention.

  • Roughly half of those individuals are children are often, and they sustain the injuries that are the most severe — often bites to the head and neck.

  • The vast majority of victims were bitten by a dog that they knew, not a stray dog roaming the streets, contrary to popular belief.
Those statistics speak to me clearly, and illustrate some of my previous points on why most dog bites occur. These situations are preventable, and it comes down to humans (both kids and adults) understanding what facilitates them and how to best deal with a dog who bites.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, has offered some sage insight when it comes to dogs who bite.
One point that stands out is that, quite often, a dog is conveying to the human that he is uncomfortable, but said human is not understanding the message. It's up to us to learn the cues that dogs exhibit by way of body language.
This is especially important for kids, since they are the ones who fall in the demographic of often bitten most often. So, what factors create these dog bite cases? 
Many times, children have not learned how to approach a dog correctly and they don't know how to 'read' what a dog is saying when they communicate that they are not comfortable being approached. Other scenarios include a child approaching a sleeping pet — surprising them — or not understanding how to greet dogs. (Embedded in the text are great video links that you can watch with your children.)
On the other hand, many dogs who bite are fearful.
Yin explains this concept in a blog post.
Generally fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defense because it makes the scary people go away.
Fortunately, there are ways to help dogs learn how to navigate through encounters with humans that they find challenging, by way of desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC). And with some diligence, finesse and patience on the human's part, their dog can behave more confidently when it comes to being social, regardless of the situation. 
Yin gives more detail on this and other concepts, such as how canines can be taught to carry out proper replacement behaviors that are disparate with the fearful behavior they have become so familiar with exhibiting, in her blog post, 'Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs Who Bite'. 
Excellent resources related to the topic of preventing dog bites are included as well.
All dog bite situations happen because of an oversight on the part of a human. 
Canines need to be empowered to not be pushed to the point that they bite, no matter their size, age or the company they're in. That happens when the humans in their life (and in many respects, those who are unfamiliar to them) see to it that's the case. With diligence, proper education and understanding of canine behavior and body language — as well as ensuring that dogs are not placed in a situation where they will react by biting — we can keep everyone safe. 

Click here for more resources on Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Decorum is key to avoid unwanted interactions with people while walking your dog

Wherever I am walking with one of my canine charges, there are usually a few smiles. It's hard for most people to walk past a dog without grinning and making a favorable comment, right? It goes without saying that for some, it's hard to suppress the urge to want to pet the dog I'm chaperoning or to stop and make small talk — and who can blame them? Dogs are fun! 


I'll admit that I don't allow people — especially those who are unfamiliar and ditto for children — to approach or pet my charges, and that's for several reasons. Some of the dogs are not comfortable with that. Others may be recovering from surgery or are old (and may be experiencing things like cognitive dysfunction). A handful are well, a handful when interacting with others. But let's not forget that some folks, regardless of age, aren't very good at knowing how to get up close and personal to a dog with care and finesse. 

And any of that could be a recipe for trouble, (and that's not even including approaches from other dogs.)

Aside from that, it can be a challenge to keep some dogs on task, especially when the goal is to get them out for a walk to get their business done. 

I often need to speak up and advocate for my charges — and at times, myself for that matter as yes, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to stop and talk  — and forgo any interaction with a well-meaning human. I'm all too aware that doing so, I might seem unfriendly or it might be off-putting to the other person, and that's not something I want. It's just not my way. Depending on the situation, I might be honest and say something like, 'Oh, Bo isn't comfortable interacting with people, so if you don't mind...' or 'Sadie's eyesight isn't that sharp anymore so that makes her wary of being approached, so if you'll excuse us...', and admittedly my preference is to be honest because it does promote a level of awareness. 

I do find that one no-fail response is easy to give, is as simple as dipping into my well of neutrality and keeps my charge and I on track:

'You'll have to pardon us... we're in the middle of a training exercise. Thanks for understanding!' 

I don't think there is a person alive that would assert themselves any further upon hearing that.

The next time you're out with your dog and want to avoid an interaction, you might consider cheerfully exclaiming the same thing. It's kept many a busy day moving along smoothly for me and for many of my charges, happy and in their comfort zone.


Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Area vet to discuss strategies in caring for older pets at free event in Ann Arbor

Our companion animals are living longer, more full lives, and that's due to a few things: advances in medical care, nutrition, and no doubt a better understanding of their emotional needs. 


Dr. Alexander with a senior patient
But that doesn't mean that because a pet has been lucky enough to make it to their double-digit birthdays that we can slow up our pace of diligence when it comes to their needs. In fact, we need to step it up a bit. 

"It might be easy to dismiss them as old," says Dr. Lyssa Alexander, DVM. 

"But there's much that can be done today to help senior pets live longer, more comfortable lives."

And that's something that Alexander, who, along with Dr. Holly Zechar, DVM strives for at All Creatures Animal Clinic in Ann Arbor. In fact, it's a topic that Alexander will be discussing at a talk at Pet People —  located at 3330 Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor — later this month. The pet supply store expressed interest in hosting some lectures for pet owners to attend. So, that, coupled with the clinic's enthusiasm for being involved in educating the community, was a perfect fit. This is the second talk that Alexander has facilitated at the store. The first addressed inappropriate elimination with cats. 

It can be a challenge for pet owners to understand the changes that invariably occur over time. As Alexander tells it, one of the biggest issues that she sees can be, well, complicated. 

"Pets are often suffering from multiple disease processes, and it's not unusual to see  4-5 major issues. A pet might have something like chronic ear infections, but then arthritis and kidney failure are things that might be going on as well."

The key, as the doctor details, is to pay attention to everything that is going on but view the body and spirit as a whole, keep things in perspective and most importantly understand, 'What can we do for them?'

Other common issues that a companion animal may be be living with are cognitive dysfunction, chronic organ disease (the liver and kidneys are most notable) and cancer.

Alexander fleshed out another hurdle that senior pets face. 

"I see people who don't respect the fact that a pet is old, and have expectations that exceed what the pet is capable of." 

Understanding a pet's limitations — whether they're physical, mental or emotional — is the key in their overall comfort and longevity. Nevertheless, just because a pet isn't as able to get around or their vision or hearing may be somewhat diminished, it doesn't mean that their capacity to enjoy life and be connected to their surroundings needs to be. They just need go about doing so differently. And that's where their humans can help. 

"For cats, it may as simple as finding ways to keep them being able to access a window perch," says Alexander. 

With any species, she notes that "there's really good research that, just as with people, cognitive function can be enhanced with mental stimulation and enrichment."

A big part of that can be something as simple as making an effort to seek out our pets to interact and include them in our day to day activities as much as possible. And that can mean something as simple as inviting them to sit next to us on the couch as we read or watch television. Finding novel ways to interact, like with new games or a new twist on an old favorite can be a boost, too. 

It's not unusual for a senior pets senses to be dulled, and that extends beyond sight and hearing: appetite can be affected by a diminished sense of taste, and that's another facet of aging that will be addressed at the talk. 

Chronic kidney disease is something that many senior cats experience, and Alexander plans to touch on common approaches that can enhance a cat's well-being and are easy to do at home, like subcutaneous fluids. 

Attendees will of course have an opportunity to ask questions — something that's encouraged — with a Q&A session. 

Alexander points out that it's important for pet owners to remember that "...it's very individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to pets and their senior years."

It's often a long and crooked line from a companion animal's segue into their senior years to end-of-life, and Alexander expressed how despite being mindful of all that happens in between, euthanasia is as important to discuss. 

"People feel so much of a burden when it comes to end-of-life. I talk about euthanasia long before the necessity is there. If it's done right, the process of euthanasia can be peaceful and comfortable."


The event at Pet People titled, How to Care for Older Pets is scheduled for Wednesday May 18, 2016 at 7:00PM. Admission is free, but space is limited so those interested in attending are asked to please RSVP by calling 734-677-6922.

Click here for more information.


Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.